It’s 7:30am, and my iPhone has gently been buzzing intermittently for the past half an hour. Still half asleep, I eventually pick it up and and lazily look for the Whistler Blackcomb app – a ritual shared by many people that choose to call this small mountain resort home. And suddenly, there it was – the reason for my early wake up on my weekend – a glorious 32cm had fallen overnight. Time to get up, and get going.
Ten minutes later, I am up, I am in my ski gear, and I’ve already scolded my mouth from trying to gulp down my coffee too hot. Kind of strange how I never seem to learn to avoid that. As I step out the front door, the other thing that I constantly seem to fail to learn quickly dawns on me: thirty-two centimeters actually is quite a lot of snow. Like, a real lot. And even my trusty all-wheel-drive Subaru isn’t going to jump this snowbank. Ten minutes, a mild sweat and one broken shovel later, and I’m back on track.
Whistler has an amazing feel to it anytime the snow falls. There’s this indecipherable buzz in the air – a mixture of tourists sharing their awe, and seasonnaires desperate to catch some fresh lines. For me, though, it’s neither. Whilst I still love to see the snow and am excited by fresh powder, days like this take me straight back to my first year in Whistler. I was only 21, everything was so surreal and new. To this day, I can say with complete honestly that my first year here was one of the best of my life. With the enthusiasm of a newbie, and the knowledge of a veteran, I make my way to all the secret spots I’ve found over the years – the perfect lines that remain untouched throughout the day in hidden corners of the mountains.
The first few runs of the day are phenomenal, albeit somewhat exhausting. I made a judgement call, based on the weather, and took a gamble as I headed to 7th Heaven, on the southern slope of Blackcomb Mountain. The gamble paid off, and it presented me with some great untouched tree runs as it had only just opened. Following this, a ride on Glacier Chair takes me to where I really wanted to be, Spanky’s Ladder – aptly named for the small climb required to access the bowl. It can be a little tough to climb in deep snow with skis on your shoulder, but it’s definitely worth it. Right now though, I’m not in much luck. Whistler Blackcomb hasn’t opened it yet. I decide to wait it out, however, and stand alongside the other keen skiers and boarders hoping it will open soon. My luck turns around, and my wait soon pays off. Navigating round the cliff, fresh tracks in Diamond Bowl are both steep and deep. It’s fast, but the adrenaline is intoxicating. Another journey to the top of Glacier Chair, but this time into an area called Grey Zone, which leads me right to Crystal Hut for a beer and their famous waffles. I find it difficult to go a day without a stop here. Loaded with berries, chocolate, banana, even bacon and a shot of Bailey’s, they truly are the best addition to my ski day.
After a quick refuel, the rest of the day is spent playing around Crystal zone. Knowing I’ve already had the best snow I’m going to get for the day, I hit up some hidden areas that I know are fun but without too much traffic still. Since the installation of the new Crystal Ridge Express chairlift a couple of years ago, this area of the mountain has become a lot busier – but that’s not to say that there aren’t still some fantastic hidden areas that remain virtually untouched. Picking the right line through here, I avoid both the cliffs and other peoples tracks. Pick the wrong line….. well, I’ll save that for another story.
As my legs begin to give up, I slowly make my way down the mountain back to Whistler Village. Tired yet content, I kick off my skis right in front of The Longhorn Saloon, where Whistler’s biggest daytime party is just kicking off. There’s patio DJ’s playing to a lively crowd of excitable skiers and snowboarders, all of whom are enthusiastically sharing stories from their day, reviewing their GoPro footage, or calculating how far they have skied during the day. As I step onto the vast patio, I’m greeted cheerfully by several members of staff, and see a large table of staff sitting by the bar tucking into beers and nachos. I know all this, because I am the General Manager, and these are all my staff. They’re a handful, but also a lot of fun.
For most people, a ski vacation to Whistler is but a pipe dream. But for me, this is my life, and this giant adventure playground is my backyard. All it takes is to watch the staff, smiling and cheering, to remind myself of when I was in their shoes, just beginning my journey in Whistler. Days like today remind me of how good life can be, and why I choose to call Whistler my home.
I can’t help but feel for the millions of residents of Florida who were displaced or evacuated during last week’s arrival of Hurricane Irma. I find it tough to imagine how life can be turned upside down so quickly and abruptly. And yet, as with every natural disaster, the true resilience of human beings comes into full force in many unexpected ways.
As I write this, I just received an e-mail that I had already been expecting. It is from the hotel I had booked in the Florida Keys for next weekend, telling me that they will unfortunately be closed for the foreseeable future. With my trip to Florida booked so closely after the trail of destruction has been left by Irma, I am taken back to my own hurricane experience of 2005.
Hurricane Emily was the earliest Category 5 hurricane to ever form in the Atlantic, and we became acquainted while I was relaxing at the Gran Bahia Principe Akumal, a large resort which graces the white sand beaches of Riviera Maya, Mexico. My vacation started like any other – a sunny arrival into Cancun airport, with postcard perfect views of turquoise blue water and endless palm trees.
I distinctly recall the intense humidity. The sun was hot and the air heavy, but the clear blue skies gave no indication of any approaching danger. Two days into our trip, while lazing by the pool with a cocktail in hand, I overheard a conversation about a hurricane which had formed south of Jamaica and was starting to churn its way through the Caribbean. Word began to spread shortly after – of course, this was before the days of iPhones and mass Wi-Fi, so news spread the traditional way – person to person. Without giving it much further thought, we continued resort living until we received a letter from hotel management the following day. It detailed that the NHA had issued a Hurricane Watch, and that the resort was preparing for a potential landfall at or near the resort. Uh-oh…
The next morning, things became real. We were instructed to eat a big breakfast, and could enjoy the day until 3pm. At this time, the resort began its preparations – hurricane shutters were being locked across all rooms, pools were being semi-drained and filled with sunbeds, and windows being taped up. Coconuts were being cut down from trees, as they could become lethal, and anything loose was tied down. My last view of the ocean was mid-afternoon as the winds were picking up and starting to rustle the palm trees, and large storm clouds were brewing on the horizon.
Back in our rooms by 6pm, our instructions were to fill the bathtub with water as there would be no running water after the storm. Our minibar had been stripped of alcohol, and instead filled with sandwiches and soft drinks. I remember the next few hours as if they were yesterday. The sound of the wind, and the noise of loose objects being bashed around outside relentlessly was something I would not forget in a hurry. The eye of the hurricane passed directly over us – a strange silent calm amidst absolute chaos. The second half of the storm hit stronger than the first, and the winds continued to increase with the noise becoming ever more deafening.
I distinctly recall the very moment I noticed a marginal reduction in the noise of the wind. A feeling of relief swept across my body, knowing that the worst was now over. Exhausted from the overnight storm, I fell almost instantly asleep, waking up a few hours to nothing but the final few gusts sporadically making themselves known. Unbolting the door, and the scene that greeted us was one of devastation and destruction. Exploring the resort was both mind blowing and scary, and one which left a lasting impression on me. Twenty-four hours later, and we were back at a broken Cancun International Airport awaiting our evacuation flight to return us to the United Kingdom.
In light of Irma, my trip to the Florida Keys is no longer going to happen this year. There is the much more important task at hand to rebuild and restore the keys, ahead of taking care of tourists. However, when the option came for me to abandon my trip completely, and with everyone around me wondering why I would still want to go, I made the decision to continue the trip in any case. At a time when tourism is undoubtedly going to take a downturn, there seems no better time to explore!
And so, Miami Beach, here I come! I will see you on Thursday, and I cannot wait. Bring it on Florida!
This post is for all those friends who live for two wheels on the asphalt. Living in the Whistler, I am lucky to live on what is often voted one of the best biking roads in the country – The Sea to Sky Highway. She is a winding thing of beauty which attracts and woos bikers from all over, and I get to ride this stretch of road every single day.
The bikes are prepared – a full tank of gas, tire pressures assessed, and toolkits packed just in case something were to come loose. The jackets are taken off the hangers, helmets on, and we’re ready to depart.
Nothing beats the first part of the ride. I cannot count the number of times I have ridden this road, but it never ceases to excite me. The Duffy Lake Road winds through the mountains between Pemberton and Lillooet. There is plenty to see, and plenty of explore: Joffre Lakes, Duffey Lake, campgrounds, and trails for other types of bikers all over. Since we are on two wheels, however, we are concentrating solely on the highway. The road is a snaking pathway through the valley, with plenty of exciting corners rounding beautiful vistas. Passing Lillooet, we continue north and the road opens up to much larger but equally as impressive valleys. It’s swelteringly hot up here, but it doesn’t detract from the fun of the ride. Marble Canyon is always a favourite stopping point, with some shady trees to kick back and relax for a while. The further north we travel, the more and the canyons and valleys open up to green farm lands. By now, we are not far from Cache Creek. Turning onto Highway 1 – the Trans Canada Highway – we are rewarded with huge valleys, rivers, and lakes en route to Kamloops. Finally, as the sun starts to set, we find ourselves on the final stretch through the rustic hills towards Vernon.
Directly, this trip due south would only take a few hours. But instead of going direct, we’re taking a trip towards the Kootenay region. We head East along Highway 6, and find ourselves some exciting curves along the route to Fauqier. Crossing Upper Arrow Lake requires a short ferry ride – again, a perfect opportunity to dismount and enjoy the spectacular views. Half an hour later, we hit dry land once again and the journey towards Nakusp continues.
It’s absolutely stunning around here. We fuel up in Nakusp, and have a conversation with the enthusiastic shopkeeper about which roads we should take next. We are still on Highway 6, but now heading due south towards New Denver – a sleepy little lakeside community, but one which comes with smooth roads, incredible views, and perfect riding. We stop briefly in the town, and find a tasty little sandwich bar for some late lunch. Eager to keep exploring, however, we don’t stop for long, and soon enough we are back on the roads heading south. Slocan Lake is just as beautiul as Upper Arrow Lake, and I make a mental note that I must return sometime to explore for longer. Upon reaching Castlegar, our journey takes us West again, along the very southern border of British Columbia, back to Osoyoos. The highway takes us along some high mountain passes, as well as along some large green fields. As the sun is starting to fade away, we find ourselves descending the final mountain down to our destination. 700km crouched over a sports bike has definitely taken its toll on my muscles and my energy levels, but my spirits are high and that’s enough to make it worthwhile.
We awake on the last day of our journey , for an ever so familiar route back home. Leaving Osoyoos along Highway 3 takes us first through the Similkameen valley, The Okanagan’s little sister in the wine producing industry. Once in Princeton, we veer north towards Merritt. The roads are great, passing small communities and lakes, and eventually we find ourselves back at Spences Bridge. A quick jaunt along the Trans Canada again takes us along the banks of the ever-so-impressive Fraser Canyon back to Lytton. We fill up one last time, and head back towards Lillooet. As we complete the loop, we find ourselves once again back on the Duffey Lake Road, with nothing but smiles as, for the second time, we travel along the best road of the trip.
The Okanagan is Canada’s answer to Napa Valley. When you think Canada, you don’t necessarily think of wine. Well – they’ve got a wine industrry, and it’s really, really, good. I make a point of visiting the region at least once each year, and whilst I do try and visit new wineries each time, there’s a few staple wineries which I can’t help to go to year after year.
Let’s start in the south, with the quirkiest name. Pronounced “Ink-a-meep,” it is a native winery in beautiful settings just outside the southern border town of Osoyoos. If you’re looking for a great place to stay, this is a sure thing – it hosts one of the largest resorts in the Okanagan region. Reasonably priced and well appointed, it’s a great base, and a great way of not having to worry about who is the designated driver. The wines are fantastic, in particular the Pinot Blanc, which is an easy one to drink too much of. When I visited, we sat at a long table overlooking the lake, enjoyed a phenomenal wine makers dinner, and kept the wine flowing late into the night.
By far my favourite stop off in the Okanagan, and for good reason. Not only are all of the wines outstanding, the restaurant is delicious and the views fantastic. I make a point to frequently stop here for lunch or dinner if I can. There are suites available on site, and it’s definitely on my bucket list to stay here sometime. It’s impossible to pick a favourite varietal, they are all that good – but I am sure to keep a bottle of Meritage in my wine collection, and the Pinot Grigio goes down like a charm.
A gem in the Okanagan with a big personality. The winery itself is very homely, but the new restaurant up on the hillside is an ideal spot to stop for a bite. The wine’s are all fairly dry, but that’s what I like about them. The Gewurtztraminer is what they’re best known for. I was fortunate enough to stay on site at the winery for a few days a couple of years ago, and the hospitality was next level. Definitely not a winery to miss. In the summer, look out for the concert series which takes place in the ampitheatre at the winery.
See Ya Later is a great little stop off with a unique story. Personally, the wines themselves aren’t my favourite from the region – however, the story is what keeps me coming back time and time again. First, we have a steep winding road to take us up to the winery, which is perched atop a hillside overlooking Okanagan Falls. I’ll leave it to the winery employees to explain the story behind the name, but if you’re a dog lover then you have to make this a stop, as a number of the wines are named after the wine maker’s dogs. We had a wine makers lunch here, and both the setting and the food were home grown and authentic. It was definitely a highlight of the trip.
If you’re after bubbles, this is a great stop. There is something very unique about Summerhill, and the story surrounding it. The winery itself is moderately industrial, however touring the vineyards with the owner (Ezra) was quite a unique experience. I felt a real connection with the wine, as we sampled grapes from the vines and meandered around compost heaps. There was nothing manicured about the vineyards – it was totally real and homely, and that completed the whole experience.
Yes, it’s big, and yes, it’s corporate – but Mission Hill remains a great place to stop off. A tour of their wine cellar alone is reason enough to visit, but there’s so much more than that. Be sure to have a bite at the restaurant, and sample some of the extensive line up in the tasting room.
One of the greatest things about living in the mountains, is that adventure is very easy to come across. One of my favourites is to explore on two wheels. Living only a stone’s throw from the Lillooet River provides a great opportunity to easily explore this wide expanse as it takes volumes of water from the mountains down through the Harrison Watershed and out to the ocean.
The dirt biking gear goes on, bikes are fired up, and we set off to follow the riverbank upstream. It’s doable on a dirt bike, but sometimes I prefer to take pedals. We begin on a Forest Service Road, crossing the train tracks a couple of times, and finally turn off into the woods. There’s fallen trees to hop over, streams to wade through, and low hanging branches to avoid. From the forest, we slowly make our way towards the river, and come out in blazing sunshine on a sandy path close to the waters edge. We stop for a moment to take in the views, but almost instantly the mosquitoes have surrounded us so we keep moving.
Continuing along the path, we come across more obstacles that require successful navigation, but soon enough we are starting to climb and the trail becomes easier as we leave the forest floor. The sandy path becomes rocky, with it presenting new challenges to us riders. Our progress slows a little bit, and technical riding is definitely not my forte, but the more I do it the better I become. Soon enough, we find ourselves atop a rocky outcrop with great views along the river in both directions.
The shadows on the mountains start to get longer, and the inevitable sign that the sun is starting to set becomes more apparent. Having stopped for a little while to take in the views, we mount our bikes and continue riding. The trail we are on connects with the Mackenzie Forest Service Road, which leads us straight up the hill for around thirteen kilometers. It’s a smooth and fairly fast ride, mainly thanks to the completely regraded surface this year. Closer to the top, the road steepens and we find ourselves an increasing number of switch backs. Even though it’s slowly getting darker, we continue on.
We reach the Paraglide Launch, around two thirds of the way up the mountain, just as the sun is starting to illuminate the clouds. It’s a fantastic vista, overlooking the entirety of Pemberton Meadows. It’s time to crack a beer, and gaze out to the view. Far in the distance, now looking like just a small stream, is the river we were riding along just a short while ago. Considering we are so close to home, we feel a thousand miles away from every day life as we sit watching the sun dip below the mountains.
It’s 11:30am, and I’m sitting in a little streetside cafe in the town of Panajachel in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan has been a bucket list item for a while, and I’m mesmerized by the majestic volcanoes. Atitlan has 3. As I write this, I’m staring at two of them, Volcan Toliman and Volcan Atitlan. Surrounded by market stalls and Guatemalans going about their everyday lives, it feels great to sit and just observe everything going on.
I’m at a little cafe called El Patio, and I’ll give you one guess as to where the name came from. I’ve neglected my Spanish for years, but when the waiter came to take my order, I managed to order the Desayunos Tipicos – a typical breakfast for this region. First came the coffee. I’ll admit, typically I’m a Latte or Cappuccino drinker, but this stuff is amazing – just plain black. The Guatemalans grow it in the forests on the sides of the volcanoes where the soil is rich with nutrients. Then comes the orange juice – freshly pressed right before it was handed to me. When I think back to what we serve back home, a bar gun fuelled with concentrated bags of orange flavoured syrup, it is quite a world away.
The service is painfully slow by North American standards, but by Guatemalan time they’ve got it just perfect. The longer it takes them to cook my food, the longer I get to sit and watch the world go by. Every now and again, an old lady will come up to me, stacks of home made articles on her head, and try to sell me something. Her weathered lines must tell an interesting story, and at this point I wish I hadn’t neglected my Spanish for so long. All I can really muster at this point is a simple “no, gracias.” As she walks away, my attention turns to the market stalls across the street from me. The owners are setting them up so precisely and accurately, all selling home made items, each with their owners sitting out front weaving away making more. I decide that I must at least buy something before I leave, although I’m not entirely sure what yet.
Breakfast comes, and it’s delicious. The eggs are very recognizable, and are accompanied by fried plantain (like banana), refried beans, tortillas, and what looks like some sort of goats cheese. Some warm, freshly baked bread comes on the side, and it’s amazing. Why can’t bread taste this good at home? As I’m finishing up, there’s a flash of lightning and some giant thunder claps. Rain begins to pour, and everyone on the streets begins to scurry to shelter. For me, it looks like I’m just going to sit and enjoy drinking my coffee for a while.
As I sit and look out over the lake at the volcanoes, I wonder why I brought myself here. There’s not a lot to do, and I chose the wrong season to come – it’s the rainy season. In a funny sense, though, doing nothing is exactly what I wanted and needed to do. It feels great. And on that note, back to my coffee…
I am here in Xi’an, China, struggling a little bit with the language barrier, unsure what exactly I’m eating, but enjoying a handful of beers and still in awe at the experience I had today.
My journey took me to Huashan, in Shanxxi province. Having craftily navigated my way here from Xi’an by Bullet Train, I managed to use my sixth sense and the multitude of screenshots on my phone to what I thought was a bus stop, and waited for what I hoped would be a bus. Somehow I managed to get the bus, and better still, I managed to get off at the right place. Here I bought a national park ticket, followed by a ticket for a second bus which then drove me to another ticket booth which sold me a ticket for a cable car which then took me up the mountain. Phew!
There’s four peaks on Mt Huashan, aptly named after the compass. I chose to head up to the West Peak, and I tell you, this is definitely the best option. Read my other blogs – I can be pretty lazy sometimes, and the West Peak is the tallest. The view up there was incredible. It still seems amazing that one minute you’re on the flat plains of China, and the next minute you’re up in the mountains. I decided I’d hike the peaks anti clockwise, starting with the West and finishing with the north – as I said, the West was higher than the North so my net elevation change would be down rather than up. If the West was good, the South was next level amazing, as it faced into the mountain range rather than away from it towards the plains like the North did. The peak capped out at around the same height as Whistler, and so the temperature was spot on for hiking.
Natural beauty aside, there was a specific reason I’d decided that Mt Huashan was a bucket list visit. On the south face, not too far from the south peak, you’ll find The Plank in the Sky. It’s a precarious wooden pathway to one of the mountaintop temples and shrines on Mt Huashan. There were a few different pathways to different temples, but this one looked like the most bizarre, and definitely one to attempt. So I bee lined it there.
To put it in perspective, I arrived at a small outcrop with an exceptionally narrow pathway leading along off to the right. It’s perhaps two feet wide, if that. Just enough to fit a person along it. On my right, a sheer cliff heading vertically up. On my left, a sheer cliff heading vertically down, almost the entire 2000 meters to the valley floor. And standing between me and certain death, a small railing that barely comes up to my waist. Walking along in one direction would be bad enough, but ironically this is a two way path. So there is some fairly intimate maneuvering taking place any time someone wants to pass… which, as it happens, is fairly often. For people who want a selfie but without the danger, this is where they stop. For adrenaline seekers like myself with a craving for out-of-the-ordinary, we continue. The path itself is not bad, as it’s carved into the rock so I do at least feel moderately safe standing on it. But, all that’s about to change.
Looming ahead, an umbrella is sheepishly tied to the railing, where a handful of people are assisting tourists with climbing harnesses. I harnessed up, and attached my dual clips to the guide wires which run along the cliff face. The railing continues to give a little comfort, although the emphasis is really on ‘little.’ We reach a sudden dead end, which is accompanied by a vertical ladder sandwiched into a crevasse in the rock. Descending the ladder, I end up hanging one footed over the edge, both hands clasped onto the guide wire, as a string of people try to get past me in the other direction. It’s definitely one of those moments I won’t forget: hanging off the side of a ladder, 2000m up a vertical rock face.
I reach the end of the ladder, and I’m back to rock carved out of the mountainside, but albeit only just the width of my foot. So walking requires one foot in front of the other. Let’s not forget, that this is still two way. A little further along is where things become really interesting. On the one hand, the path becomes a little wider – I can put both feet next to each other quite comfortably. But, as the cliff is now so sheer, there is no actual path at all. It is simply some wooden planks stapled together and resting on steel pegs which have been driven into the mountainside. I stepped foot onto the plank fairly cautiously at first, but as soon as it took my full weight (and of course it would, seeing all the others on the planks) it is fairly easy to put a little trust into it. And so the precarious shuffle continues. This is prime selfie territory, provided you don’t mind the prospect of dropping your phone into the abyss. Personally, I’d have little problem with that.
Continuing along the plank walk for a while, eventually we hit firm land again as the pitch of the mountain recedes enough to allow a thin path. This time, however, it is simply steps etched into the mountainside. This really makes the prospect of two way travel very difficult, but I’m fortunate not to meet anyone on this section. It then brings us out to a small little mountainside temple – nothing particularly impressive, given the method of travel to get to it, but good to be there all the same. Suddenly, however, the reason for the two way travel phenomenon becomes clear. The age old saying of ‘what goes up must come down’ rings true in this instance, and I need to make my way back along the path to safety.
All in all, adrenaline quickly took over any miniscule feeling of fear which may have been lurking. Ironically, in fact, the fact that I had been harnessed in made the precarious part of the journey feel safer than the bit before the harness. Being up there, dangling off a cliff like lemmings effectively, a strange sense of harmony and community developed amongst everyone crazy enough to attempt the ascent. We developed a sort of dance to efficiently pass one another, and despite the language barrier, the universal language of humans helping one another emerged. It was a surreal experience.