The British Columbian resort of Whistler lacks the glamour of Aspen, but the Gay Ski Week is a blast.
Everyone knows that Vancouver and its ski satellite town Whistler were cool long before The L Word swanned in and started filming there. But if you've been dying to open your wallet and haul your butt to Canada's west coast for years, then the fact that those LA lipstick lezzers have now officially endorsed it may just be the excuse you've been fumbling for.
The dual-mountain resort of Whistler-Blackcomb has some of the highest runs in North America and millions of acres of world-class skiing. And Whistler's annual Gay Ski Week is one of the most famous and long-established on the planet. A trip to this gay corner of already-gay-friendly Canada will give you a double bonus of laid-back urban style in Vancouver, where you fly in, and spectacular mountain sport, both on and off the piste, in cosy Whistler.
Both places abound with gay-owned or gay-friendly hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and spas. Visiting any time is a lovely queer experience while Gay Ski Week itself simply intensifies that into a bigger gay presence on the streets of Vancouver and a full-blown takeover of Whistler resort, two and a half hours north of the city up the scenic Sea to Sky Highway.
On the very first morning of Gay Ski Week last winter, the organisers told everyone they could meet by the carved wooden bears at the top of the gondola for a free, guided gay people “avalanche” down the mountain. After a spectacular ride up, overlooking the valley with its low-alpine-style lakes and villages, skiers spilled out into mountain top fresh air so clean and brisk it was quite the wake-up call. Not everyone, or indeed anyone, was in lavender salapettes, but it wasn’t hard to spot a couple of hundred clean-cut fags and sporty-looking sisters raring to go.
Whistler mountain's runs cut every which way, from heart-stopping double black diamond killer chutes to long, winding blues and greens – including the top-to-bottom “Peak to Creek” mega-cruising blue. Did I say cruising? Please, at least wait until après-ski…
Odd that so many people took the professionals' advice not to do too much on the first morning, so as to save themselves for...whatever. At a very early lunch hour of noon, the Roundhouse restaurant at the top of the Gondola was packed out in one entire vast corner with all the guys and gals attending Gay Ski Week, mingling like mad. The boys were being friendly with the girls, the Yanks were talking to the Brits, and the Canadians were smiling in quiet pride at how cool their country is – it really was like one big happy family.
"I'm really pleased to see so many women here and everyone skiing together.
I went to a gay ski week in Aspen and it was great for skiing, but in terms of the gay events – well, piss-up and brewery come to mind," 43-year-old Liz Wall, a pharmacist from Harpenden in Hertfordshire, told me. She had made the pilgrimage to Whistler with her girlfriend. They were sitting munching hearty lunch time soup and sandwiches with some women from Seattle and a few local guys.
Sean Kearns, founder of Whistler's Gay Ski Week said they expected up to
3,000 gay men and lesbians to be in town. There were some organisational problems last winter and the week was almost cancelled. But those have now been resolved and gay ski week, or WinterPRIDE, in February 2007, is set to be an extravaganza of off, as well as on-slope activities. Kearns said there had been a drift in recent years away from the fundamentals of skiing, so people were coming to Whistler just for the parties and the 4am discos. But last winter, after its brush with organisational near-death, the event was made simpler and refocused on the skiing. The après-ski parties used to be held in the restaurant at the top of the mountain, but they are now held in different bars dotted around the village. "Some bars go gay for the week, some for the night, but it's all about the village. We are getting it back to skiing and about the people," said Kearns.
Whistler is more or less a purpose-built resort town that is a hiking,
mountain-biking and rafting mecca in the summer and ski city in winter.
Being so close to the Pacific, sushi restaurants abound with the freshest raw fish east of Japan. But there is a cosmopolitan selection, such as the Italian La Bocca, upmarket pacific north-west style restaurant and oyster bar Araxi, Crab Shack, Tandoori Grill, Whistler Brewhouse or Caramba Mediterranean style.
It's key that après-ski is now centred around the village, giving skiers a chance to go back to their hotels to change before enjoying an evening bar or restaurant hopping – everything within walking distance – and dropping into that night's chosen venue for the queer party, or not, as they choose.
One of the less obvious but most gay-friendly businesses in town is the lesbian-owned spa company Solarice, which has two branches of what it titles its Wellness Centre and Spa in Whistler. It's the only lesbian-owned business in town and creators Drs Lisa Skerrit and Amy Rein run a team that offers everything from beauty treatments to yoga classes, massage and psychotherapy.
They live in Whistler with their two children and had a prominent presence at the 2006 Gay Ski Week, handing out leaflets and special offers at the introduction party and joining us on the slopes on a rare afternoon free for some awesome skiing.
Lisa is a snowboarder and Amy a skier and they explained the tricks of which runs to use to get maximum sunshine and how to avoid the strong winds that can come up – just as they coaxed me into a mogul field in a gale off the top of the mountain. After a few falls I was grateful for a herbal steam room treatment and mega-sports massage from one of Solarice's experts.
True, Whistler may not be the winter catwalk that Aspen is, but the residents like to keep you healthy and beautiful even if they prefer to loaf down main street in puffa and jeans, rather than cashmere. That is not to say there is no style, however. Last winter, the brand new gay-friendly boutique hotel Adara opened in Whistler, bringing modern chic and wild nature together with a rugged stone fireplace with sheepskin rug and semi-circular, burnt-orange sofas in the foyer. It is the sister hotel of the super-chic and rather camp Opus Hotel in Vancouver, where The L Word ‘s executive producer Ilene Chaiken likes to stay – as do Cher and Christine Aguilera.
If you are not skiing, Vancouver is of course best visited in summer. But as a great city to hang around in for a few days either side of the Ski Week, it's the bomb. Okay, some of the architecture right on the bay is a crying shame. But, God, the people are so cool! When they say there is a coffee shop on every corner, that means all four corners of a crossroads, with another one two doors down. All cosy, funky, arty, or all of the above. And brunch? Well, queer you can have. Whether you want it with attitude or with charm is the only remaining question.
The Elbow Room, close to the heart of all things Gay Vancouver, is on Davie Street just along from the Opus and will fill you up and cheer you up, as long as you don't mind a spot of teasing. A lovely bald man with muscles and earrings introduced himself loudly as Patrice, "the lady of the house". There's a bit of a queue outside but Patrice beckoned us in. "Two of you? Get your asses in here now! Food and service is our name, abuse is our game."
The menu continues the theme: “Big Ass Pancakes, what are you able to handle? 6" or 12"?; Omelettes! These don't come with hash browns, so no whining; Come, I Wanna Lay You poached eggs”. And on it goes. I had an omelette called the Hilary Swank that came with cream cheese, avocado, sautéed spinach, mushrooms and tomato and was as big as Hilary's smile and very juicy.
For brunch with less shiny steel furniture and a more quirky, hip-meets-gothic feel, take a long stroll over one of the giant bridges across the water, south to the Mount Pleasant area where it is worth the trek to eat at a place called Slickety Jim's Chat 'n' Chew. There is a great view back to the city and the mountains and tons of vintage shops to browse in afterwards. Slickety Jim's has dishes called things like Je Suis Un Petit Canard and To Mock a Killing Bird.
God, I could live here. Except, wait, it's so far from everywhere and has been known to rain for two weeks straight. On this day the rain eliminated the sightseeing and wildlife boat tour of the local coastline, which sounded fun if bracing. It was even too wet to go to the gigantic and beautiful Stanley Park. But that did leave time for more coffee and then a downtown spa visit.
The delightfully laid-back Skoah Spa is popular with gay men and lesbians and has a very youthful attitude. One of their signature facials is called facialicious, which is cute, and halfway through, while you wait for your face pack to suck out your blackheads and 10 years of lines, they give you a little massage.
Then it was a pilgrimage up to the lesbian-rich neighbourhood of Commercial
Drive which, of course, is less rich and more down-home, with a colourful ethnic mix and great shops called things like My Sister's Closet(Thrift fashion and activism) and Womyn's Ware. You hope the rain will stop by nightfall, however, so you can pub and club your way down Davie Street by starting with a spot of culture at the world famous Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium, then hitting the queer sports bar Sugar Daddy's. Then work your way down the plethora of gay spots, ending up in the newly-reopened Celebrities Night Club, which has a fun mix of gay men, lesbians, fag hags and some straight folk moving to please-all dance music. Need male strippers? It's Oasis for you.
And did I mention I could live here? Well, actually, I think an annual pilgrimage for Gay Ski Week and a Vancouver jaunt will probably do the trick just fine.
British Airways and Air Canada both fly to Vancouver from Heathrow and Gatwick. British Airways, Tel: 0870 850 9850, www.ba.com. Air Canada, Tel: 0871 220 1111, www.aircanda.com
A bus link from the airport and downtown Vancouver to Whistler is available from www.perimeterbus.com or Tel: 00 1 604 266 5386.
Opus Hotel: 322 Davie Street, Vancouver. Tel: 00 1 604-642-6787. www.opushotel.com
Adara Hotel: 4122 Village Green, Whistler. Tel: 00 1 604-905-4009. www.adarahotel.com
Whistler's 15th annual Gay Ski Week, WinterPRIDE takes place from February 4th-11th 2007 with parties on and off slopes. Tel: 00 1 604 288 7210 or Tourism Whistler free-phone from UK, 0808 180 0606.
For packages featuring transfer, accommodation, lift-pass and WinterPRIDE tickets, heli-skiing, snowmobiling and other snow sports log on to www.gaywhistler.com and www.whistler.com.
WinterPRIDE tickets, including a seven-day VIP Pass for all parties, balls and daily guided ski cost £177. Whistler/Blackcomb lift pass costs from £98 (four-day) while boots/board/ski rental costs from £17.50 per day.
For package deals (including flights) try Crystal. Crystal has a seven-night package to Whistler from £621 pp. www.crystalholidays.co.uk.
For more information on Vancouver log on to www.gayvan.com