Whether or not Canadians leave their doors unlocked, they definitely open their hearts and home to lesbian (and gay) visitors from the United States for the annual gay ski week event known as Altitude.
"Are you with Altitude?"
This was code for Altitude Eleven, Whistler's annual gay and lesbian ski week, now in its 11th year. It was early on my first morning, and my face was plastered to the window of the gondola of Whistler Mountain, sleep still in my eyes. Brad, an optometrist from South Carolina, was asking. It was his third year at Whistler, and it was by far, in his opinion, the best of the gay ski weeks.
Now, I admit I'm a happy Los Angeleno who had never had the urge to go to Canada, especially for snowboarding. But Bowling for Columbine had definitely piqued my interest in our northern neighbors, especially the part about not locking one's doors.
Snow bunnies and buddies
I had also never considered doing a "gay" ski week. Even though I learned to ski at 3 and snowboard at 21, a gay ski week seemed like an oxymoron, based on my 27 years on the seemingly heterosexual slopes. But this year I jumped at the chance to erase my so-called cognitive dissonance with two incredibly important parts of my life and give it a go. If that wasn't enough, let's talk about the exchange rate. Being in Canada is like being at one huge 30% off sale. Clothes, food, lift tickets, you name it. The price was right, so off I went.
The first thing I noticed was the attitude. Meaning, there was none. Of all the countries I've visited, Canada has by far the most helpful and polite citizens. Combine this with the estimate that more than 25% of Whistler's winter residents/employees are Australian and you have one friendly, courteous, and fun-loving place. The people of Whistler really seem to enjoy life and are always willing to share that love with locals and tourists alike.
And what is there not to love about Whistler? The village, located a mere 72 miles north of Vancouver, is in the shadow of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Its pristine red pavestone pedestrian walks are filled with restaurants, bars, shops, art galleries, and hotels that end (literally) where the snow begins. No need for a car here; everything is a few steps away. The two mountains receive an average annual snowfall of 30 feet, while their proximity to the coast keeps the temperatures quite moderate. Not to mention that 7,000 acres of skiable terrain, 200 marked trails, and 12 enormous Alpine bowls are at your command.
My girlfriend and I arrived just after dark on a Wednesday night, fresh off the express bus from the Vancouver airport, ready to stretch our legs and explore. After checking into the Blackcomb Lodge, we set out, starving and excited. We ended up at the Brewhouse, a large, open two-floor space with vaulted ceilings with raw wood beams, an exposed kitchen, and a cozy bar perfect for a game of pool or unwinding with one of the many handcrafted ales. The salads were fresh, the chicken juicy, and the firecracker asparagus is by far the best side dish and was the perfect introduction to what was in store for us over the next four days.
After dinner we headed across the walk to the Millennium Place for an evening with Kim Kuzma. A resident of San Francisco, Kuzma is a fabulous jazz and soul singer whose spirit and powerful voice had the lesbians dancing in the aisles. Her renditions of "Night in Tunisia" by Chaka Khan, "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth, Wind, and Fire, and "To Be Real" by Cheryl Lynn--all while taking off her (oh-so-painful) heels, breaking nails, then throwing them to the crowd--kept the audience laughing, singing, and clapping until the very last beat.
Thursday morning we were up early. A five-minute stroll through the village brought us to the base of Whistler Mountain for our first ride up the gondola.
Enter Brad, the optometrist.
The laid-back attitude of Whistler wins you over immediately
The one thing I noticed is that the laid-back attitude of Whistler wins you over immediately. It's impossible not to be gracious and friendly when everyone around you is simply so nice. Whistler is one of the few gay ski weeks, if not the only one, that organizes a daily meeting place for skiers and boarders to introduce themselves, break off by ability level, and hit the slopes together. For those traveling alone or with people of different skills, it's the perfect way to spend your day learning about the mountain and each other.
Wednesday was "hat and wig" day, with everyone from 3-year-olds in ski school to lift operators adding flamboyant construction-paper mohawks or bright pink and platinum wigs to their ski outfits. We stopped by the Benefit Ski Race, which turned into hat and wig central. Gay or straight, staff and tourists alike were vying for the contest's top prizes.
By the time we hit the apres-ski at Monk's Restaurant at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, we knew enough people to make it feel like home--well, home but with better views. After that it was on to the Mongolie Grill for its famous create-your-own stir-fry. (Get there early; the lines are out the door by 7 p.m.)
Later on that evening was the silent auction and comedy night at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Located in the quieter upper village, the Chateau is one of the nicest hotels in Whistler. It has its own plethora of shops, lounges, and even a full-service spa. We slipped into the Mallard Lounge, off the main lobby, for a quick cocktail before the show. Straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad, the lounge is cozy, with big couches, a dark wood bar, and a roaring fire at any hour. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the fire and the apple tart we impulsively ordered, but the comedy show with Pam Ann and the hilarious Tracey Bell was starting.
Snow: 8 a.m. and it was coming down. Finally, some fresh powder to make the week even better! I decided to head out for Little Whistler Peak and the Harmony Express chair to see what Whistler's bowls had to offer. I was not disappointed. After an amazing day on the mountain we hit Citta's for an early dinner before the renowned tea dance with DJ Kimberly S. This year it was being held at the Roundhouse Lodge on top of Whistler Mountain. The moonlit gondola ride was something I'll never forget: peaceful, quiet, and breathtakingly beautiful.
Lipstick lesbians, sporty dykes...you name it, they were there
As tranquil as the ride up was, the happenings on top of the mountain were quite the opposite. Throbbing music and a gay Paris theme welcomed us to possibly the largest and most diverse gay club the Pacific Northwest has seen in a while. Leather boys, gym boys, grungy boys, preppy boys, bears, lipstick lesbians, sporty dykes...you name it, they were there, dancing together, lucky enough to hear Kimberly spin for hours on end. As we were leaving I ran into Advocate cover boy Chad Allen, with whom I had spent a day at our photo shoot a year and a half earlier. He was charming as always, introducing me to his group of friends, each one of whom was better-looking and friendlier than the last. As I said, the Canadian spirit wins you over...
A steamy floor show melts the icy cold
On Saturday, after another amazing day on Blackcomb Mountain, we dined at La Brasserie des Artistes for some French comfort food. Then it was on to Glo, the women's party at the Westin Hotel. The Westin is one of the newest and most luxurious hotels in the Whistler Village, rivaling the Chateau for high-end clientele. There were many familiar faces from the tea dance and several more we had seen around the village earlier in the week, everyone packing the dance floor, introducing themselves over the music.
Altitude has been diligent in wooing women up to Whistler, adding more women-only events each year. This year there were special women's dinner recommendations, a rendezvous in the Crystal Lounge, and an afternoon wine and cheese party as well as the final bash Saturday night. The response has been more than positive, with this year garnering more lesbian travelers than ever before.
Sadly, it was now Sunday, the last day of Whistler's gay ski week. For a change of pace, we decided to look into nonmountain activities and were amazed to see all that was available: Snowshoeing, dogsledding, snowmobiling, sleigh riding, ice skating, indoor rock climbing, bungee jumping, the Out of Bounds Gay Film Festival, and at least 12 different spas to chose from.
We opted for a one-hour massage at Whistler Therapeutic Center. After 60 minutes of sheer bliss, we wandered the streets of the village, stopping in at the various local ski shops and gift shops. We took in Helly Hansen, the Levi's store, Lush Fresh Handmade Bath Products and Cosmetics, the cyber cafe, and even the local movie theater, for an early evening showing of About Schmidt.
Over one last cocktail at Earl's (its martini menu is color-coded!), we toasted to a truly relaxing vacation. The amazing scenery, two world-class mountains, friendly people, and a plethora of activities made it hard not to enjoy everything Whistler had to offer. We realized that whether we did several gay events or none at all, it was nice to know the opportunity was there, just in case you have the itch.
The one thing I simply forgot to do? To check whether people locked their doors. Oh well, that means I'll have to return for Out on the Slopes' new Adventure Summer Camp in July!