How to hit the slopes at the annual Whistler Pride & Ski Festival – and hit the après-ski even harder…
By Doug Wallace
Ever since Benito the mountaineer literally swept me off my feet at Gay Ski Week in Arosa, Switzerland, I have vowed to take in Canada’s premier LGBTQ ski event, too. And from the second I step off the YVR Skylynx and into the magic of the Whistler Pride & Ski Festival, I am hooked – to the vibe, the snow, the conviviality, and the hundreds of very fit men.
I had visited Whistler the previous summer, a week busy with canoeing, kayaking, andcycling along the 35-kilometre Valley Trail that connects all of Whistler’s neighbourhoods, lakes, parks and all. There is ATV and zipline adventure for those looking for exhilaration, but I was content with just a stroll along the Cloudraker Skybridge high above the treeline, followed up with a nice burrito.
Winter at Whistler-Blackcomb, on the north edge of Garibaldi Provincial Park, presents a totally different face, of course. It’s the last week of January and we check into the Aava Whistler Hotel (the festival headquarters), stash our gear in the basement, then hit the outdoor pool. There’s a buzz in the steamy air, guests looking forward to a week of camaraderie, much of it happening a few steps away in the Whistler Conference Centre and surrounding pubs.
We quickly realize that the après-ski schedule is so breakneck, we’ll have to trim it down to fit everything in, like my nap. There are cocktail mixers every afternoon, a full weekend of tea dances, an indoor pool party and a full evening takeover of Scandinave Spa Whistler, a cousin to our Collingwood outpost, with a rejuvenating maze of outdoor hot and cold pools, steam rooms and wood-fired saunas. Normally extremely quiet with no talking allowed – attendants are shushing full-time – the spa is chatty and a bit bratty. The hot pools are so hot, everyone has to lounge waist-deep to avoid passing out, which makes for premium ogling. Me, I’m just glad it’s dark.
Daytimes, we remind ourselves that we’re here for the hills, not just the gaying, and manage four full days of skiing, which has to be a record for me. The side-by-side mountains of Whistler-Blackcomb have more than 8,000 acres of terrain, with enough variety across 200 trails for every level of skier. There are so many lifts, we get lost not once but twice. We even take the wrong trail down one afternoon, ending up at the Creekside base, and have to take a transit bus back to the hotel – not embarrassing at all.
Laying out the welcome mat
“Pride & Ski is hands-down my favourite week,” says Sarah Morden, senior specialist of international communications of Vail Resorts. “The whole vibe of the town is elevated, effervescent. There’s a party spirit everywhere you go and the events are amazing – the dancing, the outfits!
“Pride tends to be very emotional as well,” she adds. “People come from all over bringing an international flavour. There’s a weight lifted, a freedom of expression and love. I find it moving every year, and people are overwhelmed by how welcoming the town is.”
While the parties will have to skip a year due to COVID-related dampening, Whistler is taking all the necessary precautions to ensure the most safe and successful upcoming season possible given the circumstances, with a new reservations system to access the mountain. There’s also the new Whistler Blackcomb Day Pass, on sale until early December, which yields flexible lift access for one to 10 days at prices way lower than the ticket window. The resort is also continually upgrading both the skiing and the amenities, fixing bottlenecks, replacing lifts, getting more people up the mountain faster. “There’s enough space at the top for everybody. It’s huge,” says Morden.
As for the Pride festival itself this coming January, it will be scaled down but recognized. “We still have the week of January 24 to 31 dedicated to us,” says Sunil Sinha, executive festival director. “The resort will continue to support the week with branding throughout the Village and we’re planning special Whistler Pride rates for hotels, lift passes and equipment rentals,” he explains. “We’ll be updating our site continually with current information so that anybody considering attending in 2021 will know exactly what’s happening and what isn’t.”
Whistler is also completely delicious
When we aren’t gaying or skiing, we’re eating – but I actually lose weight despite the three squares a day. Skiing really works up an appetite, which we satisfy in many ways, both high end and low.
Beside the stone fireplace at the Fairmont Château Whistler Grill Room, we polish off a few of Chef Isabel Chung’s regional dishes, many of which are meat-forward. In fact, someone from the kitchen wheels a demo cart of raw cuts of meat right to the tables to explain each one – a fun touch. We melt into succulent sablefish, carrot “marrow” and a pan-roasted duck duo.
At Sidecut in the Four Seasons, more surf and turf ensues in the form of Pacific oysters, cedar-planked salmon and Alberta beef tenderloin. Chef Eren Curyel also has an eye for showmanship, evident in the Long Bone Ribeye, a Flintstones-like Washington state steak for two. The whole dining room watches with astonishment as a father and son devour it in next to no time, with barely enough left over for a doggie bag. The restaurant is also famous for the Tipsy Snowman, a spiked hot chocolate confection.
At both Cure Lounge and Aura Restaurant in Nita Lake Lodge, Chef James Olberg keeps menus modern, simple and local, the Canadiana fare pulling in hotel guests and locals alike from cocktail hour onward. We pop into the adjacent Champagne Nail Bar for a bubbly buff and polish, and leave feeling particularly manly.
Village dining doesn’t disappoint either, the regular hotspots serving superb comfort food to line up for. Ditto the cocktail lists, particularly at Pangea Pod Hotel, one of the town’s more affordable yet highly styled digs. Burgers at Stonesedge Kitchen come with an onion ring spiked to the bun. The fish and chips at Beacon Pub have me at “pine-nut panko.” Even a bowl of goulash on the very top of Blackcomb Mountain at Horstman Hut, served in a Styrofoam cup with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, renders me weak at the knees. And you can’t throw a stone in this town and not hit a plate of Parmesan french fries. I experience total garlic-fry withdrawal for weeks afterwards.
When we’re not eating or posing or dancing, we are connecting with the neighbourhood in cultural ways. The beautifully designed Audain Art Museum always has something interesting going on in a variety of mediums, showcasing primarily B.C. artists, with exhibits curated in-house or breezing in from elsewhere.
A full banquet and Indigenous dance performance at Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre follows a tour guided by cultural ambassadors from the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations. We also manage to hop on a bus one night for a trip a few minutes out of town to Vallea Lumina, a year-round outdoor light show and multimedia storytelling experience set in the old-growth forest of Cougar Mountain.
Meanwhile, back at the party
On our final day, I’m in the Aava hot tub soothing my sore legs and planning my outfit for Lady Bunny. The iconic New York entertainer spent the afternoon holding court at the bottom of the ski hill sprawled on a giant Pride flag that she then escorted through town, the rest of us following behind. How does her hair hold up in this weather? I wonder out loud. A man in front of me turns and replies, “I don’t think it’s real.”
Lady Bunny’s Pig in a Wig show is beyond hysterical and quite filthy, those giant eyelashes not wavering for a second as she sails through old gags and new. We move to the dance floor down the street at Snowball for a few hours before repairing to the Aava to break out the liniment. Just before passing out, it becomes obvious to me that my first Whistler Pride & Ski will not be my last.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource and podcast TravelRight.Today.