Pristine forests, breathtaking scenery and grand luxury hotels combine to make Whistler, Victoria and Vancouver stunning year-round destinations
Fir trees and cedars soar to a lofty canopy above the hiking trail. It’s damp and green on the forest floor where giant leaves of skunk cabbage grow between mossy fallen branches. Our guide silently points to fresh scats on the path. Black bears have recently passed this way.
Crossing a plank bridge, we discover a tumble of railway carriages that have slithered down an incline towards the river. Every surface of the wrecked train is covered in wild graffiti. Bears, birds, words and shapes in brilliant colours incongruously light up the forest.
When seven boxcars mysteriously ran off the rails in the 1950s, local authorities decided the wreckage was too difficult to remove from this remote location so, with inspired lateral thinking, they encouraged artists to create this extraordinary outdoor gallery.
This is my first day in Canada’s British Columbia and I’m taking part in a Whistler Experience, one of the complimentary guided excursions offered to guests of the luxury Fairmont Château Whistler.
This popular mountain and ski resort is usually associated with perfect powder snow and glamorous winter sports. I soon discover that Whistler is a year-round playground with fascinating things to do in every season.
It’s early spring now and the gardens around the hotel are full of daffodils and tulips. There’s fresh green grass on the slopes and the last dusting of winter snow sparkles on the mountain peaks.
Fairmont Château Whistler sits like a magnificent European château at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, surrounded by its own little village of upmarket shops, art galleries and the informal Wildflower Restaurant. There’s a spa and large heated indoor/outdoor pool next to a sunny terrace and several tennis courts.
The 539 spacious guest rooms and 11 suites all have mountain views and the newly created Alpine Suites on the top levels of the building have fireplaces and a luxe rustic decor.
Intrepid skiers can take a helicopter to remote slopes, but the warmer seasons are perfect for other adventure activities such as zip-lining, hiking, mountain climbing and that very Canadian sport of axe-throwing, where you can unleash your inner lumberjack.
Fairmont Château Whistler has its own scenic golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, open from May to October. It’s the best place to see black bears, several locals tell us.
There’s even glacier golf where truly high-flying golfers can helicopter to the top of a glacier and hit biodegradable balls into the wide blue yonder.
Don’t miss the Scandinave Spa nearby where outdoor hot and cold hydrotherapy pools and saunas provide the perfect antidote for jet lag or aching muscles.
Voted Best Ski Resort in Luxury Travel Magazine’s Gold List 2018, Whistler is a sophisticated holiday resort, so there’s plenty to do in the evenings year-round. Bars and restaurants in Whistler Village have a relaxed vibe as crowds wander the Central Square. The popular Sushi Village is famous for its innovative Japanese dishes and the house cocktail, a delicious saké margarita.
Bar Oso is the place to be seen and to sip Canadian pink gin with pink grapefruit juice and juniper berries. Glamorous young customers prop up the bar wearing ultra-warm fur-lined jackets and teeny tiny shorts teamed with bare legs and hiking boots.
The Grill Room at Fairmont Château Whistler is more formal with signature dishes cooked at the table by charismatic maître d’ Adam. His preparation of pink gin and tomato soup is a delicious piece of theatre. The menu featuring local produce includes truffle and parmesan fries and bison steaks with grilled new-season asparagus.
Even leaving Whistler is another pleasant adventure. Our little Single Otter seaplane takes off from Green Lake and flies between spectacular snow-covered mountains to touch down on Victoria Harbour, just below our hotel, the regal Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia set at the southern end of Victoria Island. Several grand buildings from its British Colonial past have been preserved including the Empress Hotel, which opened in 1908 and was named after Britain’s Queen Victoria.
The hotel has recently completed a $60 million renovation. The 464 rooms and suites are all different and all are luxurious. The new gold offering is “a hotel within a hotel” with 65 new suites and exclusive use of a terrace bar and lounge.
Grand public spaces have been restored to their original elegance with modern luxury twists. Lofty ceilings are hung with dozens of dazzling original light fixtures.
Q at the Empress, the hotel’s main restaurant and bar, emphasises the royal connection with metres-high artworks by Julie Coyle featuring monochrome photographs of the young Victoria printed on silver and overlaid with coloured flowers. They are gorgeous, but I doubt Her Majesty would have been amused.
Dinner beneath the royal gaze is a marvellous introduction to local ingredients. Both the delicious halibut (a large flatfish with firm white flesh) and spot prawns have a short spring season with the delicate tips of fiddlehead ferns, the perfect vegetable accompaniment.
High Tea at The Empress, served with great ceremony in the Lobby Lounge, is a well-loved institution with more royal connections. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to stay in 1939 and took tea from the same pretty tea service used to this day. It’s now made exclusively for Fairmont Empress and is available in the hotel shop.
Victoria is called the “Garden City” with its low-rise buildings set behind grassy banks and myriad flowerbeds.
Rhododendrons bloom all over town including a lovely pink specimen in the hotel gardens. It’s the favourite retreat of Roger, the hotel’s resident marmot who comes out for photographs if you whistle.
The famous Butchart Gardens that spread over 22 hectares were planted 100 years ago and are designated a National Historic Site of Canada. Sparkling Victoria Harbour is constantly busy with jaunty water taxis that look like mini vintage ferries.
Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours takes us into much deeper waters on a luxurious catamaran. We see humpback whales and various types of seals, but are disappointed that killer whales are not around today. Sydney, our young marine biologist guide, almost makes up for this with her enthusiastic and informative commentary.
The V2V ferry is a delightful way to travel from Victoria Island to our next destination. Breakfast is served as we pass hundreds of small, mostly uninhabited islands to arrive in Vancouver in time for lunch at waterside Japanese restaurant Miku.
Vancouver is nestled between the majestic coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, but still retains a gracious charm with heritage buildings and open garden squares sitting comfortably alongside some elegant modern developments on the harbourfront.
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is a city landmark designed in French Renaissance style with an imposing façade that includes a menagerie of gargoyles and a steep copper roof turned a lovely blue-green by its verdigris patina.
One of Canada’s original grand railway hotels, it was opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. There are 557 guest rooms with recent renovations adding magnificent heritage suites on the 14th floor fit for royalty.
Notch8 (named after the highest speed a skilled train driver could reach) is the hotel’s signature restaurant open for all meals. Recently refurbished with warm browns and teal blues, it makes for an inviting place to discover imaginatively named specialty dishes such as Elk in the Woods and Garden Under the Sea.
One of Vancouver’s greatest assets is the glorious Stanley Park close to the city. Walking and riding trails meander through natural forest areas of ancient trees with lakes, gardens, restaurants and even several beaches included in its sprawling 400 hectares.
We take a Talking Trees Tour with First Nation Ambassadors, Alfonso and Candice, who tell us about their heritage and point out native food plants and describe the way cedar bark was painstakingly cured to make artefacts. Alfonso serves us mugs of hot “swamp tea” made from berries and herbs.
I discover the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses and trolleys are an excellent way to cover the main attractions of Vancouver. Two different routes cover Stanley Park, the foodie precinct of Granville Island, boutique shopping areas and the edgy precinct of Gastown.
After a week in British Columbia staying at three glorious Fairmont hotels, I feel a little like an indulged tourist from an earlier century who travelled in luxurious style from one fantasy château to another.