By Tim Nolan
The advice was caddie-esque, with a bit of a twist: Ten feet, slightly uphill. Greens as fast as glass. Choose your weapon. There were three. After a bit of hefting, I decided on a rather bulky, ominous-looking affair. Then, as instructed, I ran it up the fat of the Champagne bottle to the neck, where it blew away the cork, the cage and the first inch or so of glass. Thus my initiation into the black art of sabreing, a specialty of Andre St. Jacques, owner of a restaurant called the Bearfoot Bistro.
And a fine introduction as well to Whistler, an offbeat, Christmas village-pretty hamlet tucked into British Columbias Coast Range, 80 miles north of Vancouver. Its all quite well organized: four golf courses (thats the new news) within minutes of the village, lifts to the top of cheek-by-jowl Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, your skiing destination (if you wish) following the morning round, as well as the town itself.
Its an interesting village, built largely en toto in the 70s and architecturally knit around a log cabin look. Its also automobile-free, I suppose to slow you down and more effectively prey on your wallet as you stroll along the unending array of stores youve heard of, and shops you havent.
The Bearfoot Bistro, with 15,000 bottles of wine in its cellar (well, one fewer now) is at the top of the eatery list, along with Araxi and the Rimrock Caf. Whistler cuisines include Japanese, Chinese, Mediterranean, French, Italian, Pacific Rim, German, Indian, Greek and yes, Mongolian. Pub fare, built around burgers, wide
selections of beer and television sets aflicker with sports from around the world, is easily found.
Whistlers charms, as well as its cold, snowy winters and Alpine possibilities, combined nicely with Vancouvers cosmopolitan feel to convince the International Olympic Committee into awarding the pair the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
The infrastructure goodies that come along with winning Olympic bids are beginning to crop up. The athletes quarters will be converted into affordable housing, and improvements along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, the main artery connecting Vancouver to Whistler, are under way. Distance between the two is only 80 miles, but at two lanes with plenty of grades, its a ponderous trip nonetheless. Ultimately, the highway upgrade will include new passing lanes and more four-lane stretches. The improvements will cut driving time between Whistler and Vancouver by about 10 to 15 minutes (from just under two hours), and it will be a safer, easier trip come the Olympics.
Whereas public transportation ranging from straightforward jitneys to lavish coaches is available, the best alternative is a hop up and back along the Coast Range via seaplane, which offers stunning views and no traffic.
Once at Whistler, the choices of lodging are far-ranging, from full-service resorts like the Four Seasons and Fairmont, to any number of boutique hotels, to less formal accommodations around town. Whistler is an easygoing, hey-dude kind of place, where ski bums coexist with visitors looking for a more lavish vacation.
Whistler may be first and foremost a ski mecca, but the summer brings its share of visitors, especially for the golf. There are three courses, all relatively new, within minutes of the village and most of its lodgings. A fourth course, in Pemberton, an easy 20 minutes north of Whistler completes the consortium called Golf Whistler.
Whistlers three courses'Nicklaus North, Whistler Golf Club, Fairmont Chateau Whistler'are kind designs. At 6,908 yards from the tips, Nicklaus North is a comfortable loop. As with many Nicklaus designs, the axis of greens often runs at a sharp angle to the fairway, creating a better half of fairway for approaches. Much of Nicklaus Norths interest comes from its par 3s, which provide hazard-free landing areas just off the greens for up-and-down shots at par, as well as birdie opportunities by challenging hazards like fronting bunkers or water. Flout them at your pleasure; its absorbing and fun.
Whistler, designed by Arnold Palmer, is beautiful to look at, thanks to an abundance of streams and lakes. Like its neighbor Nicklaus North, Palmers course asks players to frankly assess their own capabilities, perhaps look to make bogeys and up-and-down pars, and walk off the 18th thirsty and content. While not long at 6,722 yards, Whistler has water hazards that define margins of fairways, and flirting with them often results in shorter, easier approach shots.
Robert Trent Jones Jr.s Fairmont Chateau Whistler has a different feel, primarily because it is set not in the valley, but along the flank of the mountains. Elevation ups and downs sometimes render scorecard distances irrelevant. The 3rd, for example, a par-4 dogleg protected in front by a stream hustling glacier melt down into the valley, is listed at 399 yards, but it drops 160 feet along the way.
The 8th hole captures the essence of the course. Its a par 3 listed at 212 yards, falling downhill all the way. Greenside left a pond pushes in. A miss to the right and a chip back toward the water is the play. Rock blown away in construction has been left exposed, pinching the safe landing area. The front left bunker amounts to the only real bailout. All of which mingles with the rather baffling job of club selection. Its the toughest of threes.
At 6,635 yards, Fairmont Chateau seems rather short for a mountain course. Thats because at 2,200 feet, Whistler isnt all that elevated. And the areas fourth course, Big Sky Golf and Country Club in nearby Pemberton, is even lower, with an elevation of 670 feet.
Set against Mount Currie, 8,300 feet of nearly vertical rock, ribbed with ice, waterfalls and clutches of Douglas fir, Big Sky is impossible to forget. It is a backdrop that would overwhelm any golf course bold enough to challenge its primacy.
Bob Cupps solution was to succumb to Mt. Curries loft with a course that makes you think not up, but down: at your feet. He used easy swells and dips to create that most subtle of challenges: the awkward stance. Fluky puffs of breeze bouncing off the mountain further confuse matters.
Around many of the greens, shots near the edges will slide off and down into tightly cut swales, from where pitches, chips, putts, hybrid or fairway wood chips'whatever works'require perfect execution. Pretty good is not good enough.
My favorite is the 4th, a par 5 of 520 yards that offers many tactical choices. Organized around a stream that weaves its way across the fairway three times, it asks for a well-executed plan that makes the crossings comfortable. All in all, Big Skys subtly demanding design and spectacular scenery make the trip from the village worthwhile'and demands a return visit, a sentiment that easily could apply to Whistler itself.
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