27 March 2011

Sea to Sky

It was a breathtaking ascent, at least in the figurative sense. After a 5.5h domestic flight, I woke up in an airport hotel in Richmond, BC - a town filled with Chinese supermarkets, patchinko parlours, Korean BBQs and cherry trees in bloom. Hard to believe I had not left Canada, seeing how different this was. But what followed next was even more striking: I started drving up BC Route 99, affectionately known as the Sea to Sky Highway. It must be one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken. In the early morning sun, I cruised through Vancouver with its its glistering harbour and inlets, past the joggers and bikers in Stanley Park, across the Lion's Gate bridge and then along the Howe Sound. The road, nicely improved for last year's Olympic Games, winds itself along the steep cliffs of the sound, with the deep blue Pacific water below and tall mountains rising from it. The wild beauty of the landscape made me think of Norway's fjords, especially as the first snow covered summits started coming into sight. With hardly any traffic in my way, I soon reached Squamish, where the road leaves the sea behind and starts its climb into the Coastal Mountain range. Within just a few kilometers, the weather changed from sun to fog, rain and shine again, and I suddenly found myself driving up an alpine valley, with a wild river that could have just as well been the Landwasser or the Lütschine in Switzerland. With less than 150km on the odometer, I'd crossed three distinct environments to reach my destination: Whistler, 670m above sea level and gateway to North America's largest ski area.

Masterplanned by the same company that designed Mont-Tremblant north of Montréal, the pedestrian village bears a striking resemblance to what I've called Disney on Ice. Behind it, though, rise much more substantial mountains, which provided for two fabulous days of skiing on nicely groomed runs as well as unrestrained access to fun off-piste areas that would make any European environmentalist pale with horror. Most crucially, they also offer a peak-studded alpine views, especially from the impressive Peak 2 Peak gondola, which was such an engineering challenge that the "Airbus & Boeing" of cable cars, Austria's Doppelmayr and Switzerland's Garaventa, had to collaborate to build it. There were even Asian tourists in sneakers, riding it with us skiers just for the thrill.

I, for one, was thrilled by the beauty, diversity and sheer wilderness of this part of Canada, and hope to return for more exploring soon. For now, though, the thrill will be to get back to Montréal: Two flights cancelled and counting...

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