By Grant Fraser, Travel Contributor / @gfrasergolf
I arrived in Whistler in an unconventional way. Not by car, bus, boat or train, but via a 60-year old refurbished six-seater De Havilland sea plane that departed from Victoria harbour on a cool and cloudy mid-June day. For 90 minutes, my Harbour Air pilot hovered between 1,000 and 5,000 feet gracefully weaving through the snow-capped Coast Mountain Range and above the hundreds of mostly uninhabited islands below. For a brief portion of the flight, my escort was a pod of Orcas, synchronously migrating northward along the Georgia Strait.
I don’t think I’ve ever wished a flight aboard an airplane to continue longer than scheduled, but this was an exception. As we began our gentle decent, the rugged shoreline of a pristine glacial lake came into view. Unfortunately, it was time to land.
The plane touched down effortlessly on the still waters of Green Lake adjacent to the Nicklaus North Golf Course. I had arrived in ceremonious fashion to a place in the world I have always wanted to visit.
Widely considered to be one of the world’s best alpine venues, Whistler is a year-round leisure and outdoor adventure destination located in the heart of the Coast Mountains, two hours, or 120 kilometres north of Vancouver, British Columbia. There is something here for everyone including skiing and snowboarding, mountain biking, golf, hiking, rock climbing, zip lining, and water sports. Whistler was the proud host and site of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and is home to a diverse community of more than 10,000 permanent residents.
My reason for coming was simple. To play all four of Whistler’s great golf courses and to immerse myself in all its natural splendour.
My inaugural round was appropriately played at the Whistler Golf Club. This is where golf began in Whistler dating back to 1983 when the legendary Arnold Palmer was entrusted with the task of designing the area’s first championship, 18-hole golf course. Almost 40 years later, the Whistler Golf Club has stood the test of time and is still regarded as one of Canada’s best courses. Nestled at the base of the Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, two winding creeks traverse the property feeding nine lakes that enhance the challenge of your Whistler experience. What I appreciated most about Whistler was that carts are not mandatory and the 6,722-yard meandering walk among the many stands of ancient cedars and untouched forests is acceptable and encouraged.
Nicklaus North is another exceptional Whistler golf experience five minutes from town and situated in the Whistler-Blackcomb mountain valley. As the namesake suggests, the course was designed by Jack Nicklaus, a name synonymous with greatness, as both a player and golf course architect. Opened in 1996, Nicklaus North measures 6,961 yards and is one Mr. Nicklaus’ Signature Designs. Golf Digest was quick to recognize how special the property was by naming Nicklaus North “Best New Course in Canada” shortly after its opening. Like any good resort course, the fairways are generous and greens receptive, characteristics of a fair yet challenging golf course. Walkers are welcome making Nicklaus North a fun and enjoyable golf course you will want to play again. After your round, be sure to have lunch or dinner overlooking Green Lake at Table Nineteen, Nicklaus North’s award-winning restaurant, lounge and patio bar.
After two wonderful days on the golf course, I decided to take a day off and experience one of Whistler’s more vigorous outdoor activities. My first inclination was to “shift gears” and rent a mountain bike, imagining I was competing in Crankworx, the largest free-ride mountain bike event in the world. Held every August since 2004, this is the Super Bowl of mountain bike racing where the best cyclists descend Whistler Mountain at breakneck speed for bragging rights and big prize money.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed so I opted to engage in something more appropriate for someone of my age and athletic skill level. I was told that one of the best ways to see the town of Whistler and its surrounding mountain valleys was to embark on a Ziptrek Ecotours, a 4,500-foot ziplining expedition over Fitzsimmons Creek between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. Given this was my first ziplining experience, I will confess to being more than a little nervous when my named was called to make the first of my five 80-100km/hour high-wire descents. The tour is approximately three hours long, leading guests over four treetop bridges and viewing platforms alongside 700-year old Douglas Fir trees and other indigenous species unique to British Columbia’s temperate rain forest. The entire experience was exhilarating, in and out of my zipline harness, leaving me more appreciative of Mother Nature and all things Whistler!
My “Fabulous Four” Whistler golf tour resumed the next day at the Big Sky Golf Club in the neighboring town of Pemberton. Located 30 minutes north of Whistler, Big Sky opened in 1994 and is widely regarded as one of Canada’s best golf courses. In 2018, Score Magazine ranked Big Sky No. 42 on its “Top 100 Best Courses in Canada” list. Designed by Bob Cupp, the course sits at the base of Mount Currie (elevation 9,000 ft.), extending 7,001 yards alongside the glacier-fed Green River. As I walked along the fairways of the golf course, I found myself constantly looking skyward hypnotized by the ever-changing hues of Mount Currie’s facade. Course conditions were impeccable when I visited Big Sky as was the attention to detail paid to all aspects of the operation.
While Big Sky may be known for its fabulous golf course, it is it’s 19th hole that sets it apart. With Mount Currie looming in the background, where else would you construct a 19th hole? Atop the rocky surface of the mountain and accessible only via helicopter, lies Big Sky’s famous 19th hole. Pemberton’s fertile river valley expands in the distance as you prepare to hit a golf ball 9,000 feet above ground level. The cost to hit the shot of your lifetime is $200/person providing you with a 45-minute golf experience you’ll never forget.
My final round of golf in Whistler was played at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club. I don’t think it’s fair to say I saved the best to last, but the Chateau Whistler Golf Club ranks as one of my favourite golf courses in Canada. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is a rugged 6,635-yard ascent up the side of Blackcomb Mountain. It is distinctly different from Whistler’s other golf courses, featuring elevation change of over 400 feet and panoramic vistas of the entire Whistler Valley. Of the four Whistler courses I played, Chateau Whistler was the most challenging, requiring accurate drives and positional shot making from tee to green. Great care was taken to preserve the landscape’s exposed rock faces, ravines and waterfalls while simultaneously creating a truly memorable mountain golf experience.
In between your rounds of golf and other outdoor adventures, I recommend spending some time learning about the Whistler area and its First Nations history. Located in the centre of town is the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC), a 30,000 sq. ft. complex created by the Squamish and Lil’wat people who proudly conduct daily tours showcasing their lives and culture with all Whistler visitors.
I also recommend including a two-hour relaxing reprieve at the Scandinave Spa Whistler into your itinerary. After a round of mountain golf, this is the perfect way to unwind and rejuvenate, especially if you have walked 18 holes. Be sure to bring your swimsuit and sandals as neither are provided. The entire property is an outdoor, Nordic-inspired oasis set within a spruce and cedar forest overlooking Whistler’s white mountain vistas. Silence is mandatory on the spa grounds, but it is the utter and complete quiet that makes this place so unique.
My Whistler experience is one I will not soon forget, easily surpassing all my expectations. It is wild and exciting, tranquil and calm. It is our Canadian four-season treasure that can be anything you want it to be. It’s meant to be shared and cherished as this is a special place in the world unlike any other I have seen. I enjoyed every golf and non-golf moment I had and have no doubt you that will share my feelings that this is a wonderful place. It is Wondrous Whistler!
How to Get There
By car or bus, Whistler is approximately two hours, or 120 kilometres north of Vancouver via Highway 99, “the Sea to Sky Highway”. For the more adventurous, daily flights are available on board Harbour Air Seaplanes I Whistler Air I Saltspring Air. For more information visit www.harbourairgroup.com
Whistler Golf Club
Nicklaus North Golf Course
Big Sky Golf Club
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club
Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC)
Scandinave Spa Whistler
Ziptrek Ecotours Inc.
Fairmont Chateau Whistler