This world-class ski resort offers families unique adventures both on and off the slopes.
Repeatedly recognized as the top ski resort in North America and site of the ski and sliding events of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Whistler Blackcomb draws families from around the world. On a recent trip here, my family and I shared gondola rides with families from Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and England, making it a truly international experience.
So what’s all the fuss about? Well first, there’s the unparalleled beauty of the Fitzsimmons Range in British Columbia. Then, there’s the vast number of skiing and snowboarding runs for both beginners and experts, making it an ideal choice for families of varied abilities. There’s the convenience of several ski-in/ski-out lodging options in three separate ski villages. And finally, there are plenty of unique, off-slope adventures either for non-skiing families or for skiing families looking to take a break from the lifts. Granted, a Whistler vacation isn’t cheap, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another resort that can boast a better, all-around experience.
KidTripster Tip: Exclusive to residents of Canada, Oregon, and Washington State, a Whistler Blackcomb EDGE Card is the most economical way to ski and ride. The card comes pre-loaded with deeply discounted lift tickets that you can use any day of the winter, plus exclusive perks and discounts on lessons, rentals, tube park, and lodging.
Note: All prices here are listed in American dollars but will vary given the exchange rate with the Canadian dollar.
Photo courtesy: Toshi Kawano
Where to stay?
First, it’s important to understand the lay of the land at Whistler Blackcomb. The ski resort is anchored by two mountains: Whistler and Blackcomb. Each mountain has its own village with lodging, restaurants, and attractions. Five minutes south of Whistler Village, you’ll find the quieter Creekside area that also has lodging, restaurants, and lifts. But if you’re a first-time visitor to Whistler, I’d recommend staying in the more lively, centrally-located Whistler Village.
There’s a wide range of lodging options, including five-star hotels, more moderate lodges, and spacious condos and rental homes. I confess: I hate schlepping. Carrying my ski gear - and when my kids were younger, their ski gear - from condo to car or shuttle bus to parking area to ski lift is not my idea of a vacation. That’s why I’m willing to pay more for ski-in/ski-out convenience.
Welcome to Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa. From the moment that you arrive, you’re greeted by the ski valet, who checks in your skis and boards and transports them directly to Summit Sport (rentals available here, too) on the backside of the hotel, just 50 feet from Whistler Gondola and opposite Whistler Kids Ski School. If you didn’t buy your lift tickets online in advance, stop at the concierge’s desk to order discounted passes for the following day. The concierge also can help make last-minute reservations for dinner or other activities, though during peak holiday periods, you’ll want to make these reservations months in advance.
With all of our ski gear plus the family dog, we opted for a Whistler Junior Suite with a king-sized bed and a large coach that folded out into a queen-sized bed for the kids. The room features a kitchenette with refrigerator, microwave, cooktop, dishwasher, and coffee maker. The suite also has an extra sink area outside the full bathroom which makes getting a family ready in the morning a lot easier. But my favorite feature was the wood-burning fireplace that added to the cozy, lodge-like ambience.
The hotel has two restaurants: Cinnamon Bear Grille and Cinnamon Bear Bar. The Grille has a more upscale feel, offering daily breakfast and dinner. Our family actually preferred the Bar, where children are welcome until 10 p.m. The atmosphere is casual with a fireplace, multiple televisions, and two pool tables. While there isn’t a kids’ menu, there’s plenty of kid-friendly choices. The loaded nachos are nearly the size of a small tabletop!
The hotel has a full-service spa, but your kids will be more interested in the year-round, outdoor, heated pool and hot tub. Every night, my boys had a poolside snowball fight before taking a swim. Me? Straight to the hot tub!
KidTripster Tip: During the holiday season, the Hilton Whistler offers extras for families: gingerbread cookies at the front desk, complimentary afternoon hot chocolate, s’mores station, gingerbread house and cookie decorating, crafts, plus keepsake ornaments, Santa photos, and a T’was the Night Before Christmas reading on Christmas Eve. We spent evenings in the Youth Lounge (holiday season, only), engaged in spirited ping pong and air hockey competitions.
Finally, like many Whistler hotels, the Hilton Whistler welcomes your dog (up to 75 pounds) for an extra fee of around $18. Our black Labrador puppy embraced hotel life. And with the fresh mountain air and a new blanket of snow, I really enjoyed walking him around Whistler Village and in some of the quieter areas just off the village center.
KidTripster Tip: Worried about leaving your dog for an entire day while you’re on the mountain? No problem. For a reasonable hourly rate (two hour minimum), hire Whistler Dog Sitting. A professional pet sitter will come to your hotel room, condo or house to play with your pooch, let him out for potty breaks, and go for a walk. It’s best to schedule in advance, especially during peak periods.
Rates for a Whistler Junior Suite start at around $352/night during the winter months but go up substantially during the holiday season. If you’re a Hilton Honors member, it’s not a bad place to cash in your points.
Photo courtesy: Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa
What to do on the slopes?
As the largest ski resort on the continent with 8,171 skiable acres, the choices here can be a little daunting. It’s worth exploring all the family-friendly options here on KidTripster and on the interactive, online trail map in advance to devise a plan.
Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains are connected by the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, the longest and highest lift in the world. It’s a 2.7-mile, 11-minute journey that - on a clear day - reveals snow-covered peaks to wide-eyed skiers, snowboarders, and sightseers alike. The gondola is included in your lift ticket. Sightseers can purchase a ticket separately. Cost: Youth (7-12) $21; Youth (13-18) $37; Adult $42; save 10-percent by purchasing online at least three days in advance.
KidTripster Tip: If you want the ultimate view, wait for one of the silver, glass-bottomed cars.
Even though you can ski and ride both mountains, it doesn’t mean that you should. About 15 to 20-percent of the resort is beginner terrain; of the two mountains, Whistler is by far the better mountain for beginners and children. Take the Whistler Village Gondola or Fitzsimmons Express to Olympic Station, where you’ll find the Children’s Learning Area. Here you can hop on Lower Olympic, the easiest run on the mountain. But unlike other ski resorts, not all the easy runs are on the lower half of the mountain at Whistler. You can progress higher up on the mountain to Roundhouse Lodge and access the Green Acres Family Zone off the Emerald Express. Or go all the way to the top via the Harmony 6 Express lift and ride the Burnt-Stew Trail plus several others.
KidTripster Tip: Whistler Blackcomb can get crowded. Your best strategy? Ski early when the snow is fresh, and the lines are shorter. That means being in line when the lifts and gondolas open at 8:30 a.m. Spend your day on the upper half of the mountain, where there are still plenty of green and blue trails but fewer people. Catch an early lunch at 11 a.m. before the crowds. Then work your way to the base. If you’re a novice skier, you don’t want to be on the lower mountain after 3 p.m. You’ll get caught in the mass exodus of people coming off the mountain. Either ski down earlier or take a gondola down from mid-mountain.
KidTripster Tip: I found Whistler trails to be longer than average, so you’ll spend a lot more time skiing and less time riding lifts. Make sure to take plenty of breaks. Tired, "noodle" legs lead to accidents.
Unique to Whistler Blackcomb, don’t miss the hidden family play areas, nestled in groves of ancient, gnarled trees with witch’s hair draping off the branches. Kids and grown-ups can slip off their skis and boards and explore these enchanting, wooded lairs. On Whistler, your kids will love the Tree Fort, located just off Bear Cub Trail near Big Red Express chairlift. On Blackcomb, the Magic Castle is located in the Children’s Adventure Park, accessible via Easy Out.
KidTripster Tip: Avoid paying full price on site by pre-purchasing your lift tickets online at least three days in advance. Online 2-day lift cost: Youth (6 and under) Free; Youth (7-12) starts at $73; Youth (13-18) starts at $124; Adult starts at $147; during peak season, lift ticket prices increase. If you book your lodging online, you may be able to take advantage of the family package where kids (12 and under) ski, stay, and rent for free.
Whistler Backcomb offers the widest selection of private ski lessons, group lessons, and camps for skiers, boarders, and freestylers that I’ve seen at any resort. You can sign up as a family or sign up for an age-specific session (ages 3-6, 7-12 or 13-18). Cost: Varies. I watched the lessons for the smallest skiers. Instructors move the tiny tots from one skill station to another via a cart pulled by snowmobile; each seat in the cart has a little steering wheel, so that the kids can help “drive.” It was pretty adorable. For wee ones, Whistler Blackcomb offers four licensed, childcare programs for ages 18 to 48 months and 3 to 5 years.
Photo courtesy: Justa Jeskova
What to do besides skiing?
Let’s be honest, I don’t have the stamina to ski all day, every day. At Whistler Blackcomb, there are plenty of winter activities for fatigued or non-skiers to enjoy!
Bobsleigh, skeleton & luge
If you're looking for death-defying, heart-pumping excitement, head to the Whistler Sliding Centre. I’m not joking about the intensity! Riders (14 and up) hop into a four-person bobsleigh (or bobsled) piloted by an expert (thank goodness!) and hurl down the world’s fastest track. It’s the same track used in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. You’ll feel the force of 3Gs as you slide through ten turns at speeds of up to 77 mph! Needless to say, this experience isn’t for the faint of heart. My entire family, including my teenaged sons, did it and lived to tell the tale! Cost: $132/person/ride.
Watch the video here, courtesy of Coast Mountain Photography.
Want more? The Whistler Sliding Centre is the only place in Canada where the public (age 16 and up) can experience the rush of skeleton - you know, lying on a sled head-first and then exploding through six corners at speeds up to 62 mph with your chin just inches from the ice. Believe it or not, no prior experience is necessary, and it’s actually supposed to be safer than bobsleigh. I can’t say that I had the guts to try, but my 14-year old is already asking to do it when he’s old enough. Cost: $132/person/two slides; reserve in advance.
The Sliding Centre offers Discover Luge introductory clinics for kids (8-17) periodically. Check online for schedule. 2-hour class cost: $37. Bobsleigh and skeleton clinics are also offered.
Coca-Cola Tube Park
Located at the Base 2 Zone on Blackcomb Mountain (adjacent to Lot 8), the Coca-Cola Tube Park offers fun for the whole family. Kids must be at least 3 years old and 36-inches tall to tube. If you have little ones between 36 and 41-inches tall, they can use the mini kids lane from the halfway point; only one person can ride in a tube at a time, but parents can hang on to their kids’ tubes in this lane. Group tubing, where sliders join up and go down a lane together, is allowed, as long as conditions permit. Cost: Mini Kids (3 and under) $14/hour; Youth (4-12) $18/hour; Youth (13-18) $21/hour; Adult $23/hour; discounts for second hour; tubes are provided.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re looking for an evening activity, tubing isn’t it! The tube park is only open until 6 p.m. daily.
Canadian Wilderness Adventures offers a chance to take part in a favorite Canadian pastime: snowmobiling. You’re picked up in Whistler Village and driven about 30-minutes away to a site in the Callaghan Valley. I think that this activity is best done with family members who are 19 years old and up, because that’s how old you need to be to actually drive. From my experience, kids don’t make good passengers; the ride is usually around two hours long and without the heated, front hand grips, kids can get very cold. Callaghan Cruiser cost: Single driver $117; Sharing rider $88; Youth (under 12) Free with a paying adult.
KidTripster Tip: Opt for a daytime tour when temperatures are likely to be warmer and dress for the conditions.
KidTripster Tip: If you have a child-free night, consider Canadian Wilderness Adventures’ trip to Crystal Hut perched atop Blackcomb Mountain for an intimate fondue dinner. While you can ride snowmobiles, I’d recommend the snowcat option. Again, it’s cold! Snowcat option including dinner: $139/person.
A better option for young families, The Adventure Group (TAG) offers family snowmobiling tours, where kids (ages 6-12, at least 4-feet tall) can drive their own mini snowmobiles. Cost: Youth (12 and under) Free; Adult Driver $117; Adult Passenger $66.
You also can experience the Callaghan Valley via dog sled with Canadian Wilderness Adventures. Join your professional musher in harnessing and staging the dogs, learn dog sledding commands, and learn how to handle a dog sled. It's possible for older teens to mush the dogs for part of the journey. Along the way, you’ll stop at an abandoned trapper’s camp on Totem Lake and learn about the history of Canadian fur trappers. The ride itself is pretty mellow and best suited to younger families. Cost: 2 Adults (or teen and adult) $294; 2 Adults with Youth (under 12) $367.
If you’re looking for a different way to experience the mountain, consider a snowshoeing tour with The Adventure Group (TAG). If you can walk, you can snowshoe. You’ll take a gondola up the mountain and then detour off the slopes to a trail through an old growth area of Douglas firs, cedars, and hemlocks. While it’s picturesque, know that you won’t experience any wide vistas, as it’s too wooded. Kids need to be at least 6 years old. This tour is a great option if you’re traveling with grandparents. If you’re going with teens, bump up to an immediate tour, even if you have no experience; the beginner tour is pretty slow-moving. Cost: Youth (6-12) $36 ; Adult $66.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re willing to drive 40 minutes from Whistler Village, you can go snowshoeing on your own at Whistler Olympic Park. Here you’ll find 25 miles of marked trails (9 miles are dog-friendly). Day pass cost: Youth (6 and under) Free; Youth (7-18) $6; Adult $11; snowshoes, poles, and boots available for rental. On Wednesday from 3 to 9 p.m., the pass is less than $4 per person.
Ice skating likely will be the least expensive thing you do in Whistler! Located in Whistler Village’s Olympic Plaza right next to the Olympic Rings (family photo op), you’ll find the small outdoor rink. Since there’s no night skiing or tubing at Whistler, save this activity for the evening. Cost: Free; skate rental $6; helmets available at no cost.
KidTripster Tip: If you have the room, bring a sled or saucer on your vacation. There’s a small sledding area overlooking the ice rink for little ones. You’ll also find families sledding near Whistler Village Gondola in the evening, though it’s pretty dark.
Click here for our picks for the top 9 activities at Whistler for teens.
Photo courtesy: The Adventure Group
Where to eat?
There’s no shortage of dining options at Whistler Blackcomb, though you should be prepared for resort prices.
For breakfast, most of the hotels have some sort of breakfast buffet. However, if you venture into the village, you’ll find restaurants and cafes offering less expensive breakfast options, as well. Or if you’re really ambitious, you can buy a premium Fresh Tracks lift ticket. Limited to 650 skiers and boarders per day, this ticket gives you early access to the Whistler Village Gondola from 7:15 to 8:15 a.m. Once at the Roundhouse Lodge, you’re treated to an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet before you head out to carve the day’s first tracks in the fresh powder or perfectly-groomed corduroy. Purchase tickets online in advance.
There are several on-mountain lunch options, but try to avoid the hours between 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. New to Whistler, Ollie’s Grilled Cheese at Olympic Station is sure to please your kids with gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, fries, and soups. The Chic Pea atop Garbanzo Express is another popular choice. If you're skiing Blackcomb, don’t miss lunch at Crystal Hut with its famous, fully-loaded Belgian buttermilk waffles. You’ll end up waiting if you go during peak periods; be prepared to eat outdoors as inside seating is extremely limited. Better yet, get there by 10 a.m. for a late breakfast or early lunch.
If you’re in Whistler Village for lunch, your nose will led you to Zog’s hot dogs and fries near the Whistler Village Gondola. Here, you also can sample Canadian poutine - French fries smothered in beef gravy and cheese curd. I’ll admit, poutine is not my family’s favorite. We’ll stick with ketchup.
For dinner, I like Stonesedge Kitchen, a comfortable, family-friendly restaurant just a few minute’s walk from the Hilton Whistler. It specializes in comfort food with a twist. And I think that it has the best selection of warm, alcoholic drinks in Whistler. I ended my meal with a Mexican hot chocolate with tequila and wished that I would have started my meal with one, too! And make sure to leave room for dessert! If you don’t make it here for dinner, Stonesedge also serves a delicious, hearty breakfast.
Photo courtesy: Toshi Kawano
From Vancouver, British Columbia, it’s less than a two-hour drive to Whistler along the famed Sea to Sky Highway. Alternatively, you can board the Rocky Mountaineer Train for the four-hour Sea to Sky Climb with its awe-inspiring sights.
KidTripster Tip: If booking accommodations on Whistler Blackcomb’s website, you should price out airfares, as well; the resort sometimes offers special rates.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re driving, carry snow chains. If you’re renting, ask for them. Make sure you know how to put them on before leaving.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re driving from the USA to Canada, don’t forget your passport and your Global Entry cards, if you have them. Global Entry will allow you to go through the much shorter Nexus line when crossing back to the USA, if you’re an American citizen. And if your bringing your dog, you’ll need a rabies certificate traveling into Canada and a health certificate to return to the USA. Health certificates need to be issued by your vet within 10 days of your departure. Also know that whatever dog food that you're bringing into Canada must be commercially-packaged and unopened.
Heading to Whistler Blackcomb for the holidays? Click here.
For KidTripster's summer recommendations at Whistler Blackcomb, click here.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah is relieved that her skiing skills (or lack of) did not pass on to her more adventurous sons.