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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Olympics: Beneath Whistler’s majestic peaks, the party is on

AP National Writer

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The valley hosting Alpine events for the Winter Games is a spectacle of nature, with mountains covered in spruce and pine and mist visible between bouts of fog.

Beneath the peaks stirs a world of glittering artifice, a long stretch of chalet-style buildings that has the look and feel of an upscale theme park — and erupts into raucous partying well before the sun goes down.
“Whistler,” says Brian Sullivan, director of the Black Tusk Gallery, which shows native art from the Pacific Northwest, “is kind of like the Vegas of skiing.”
Strict building regulations preserve a uniform — some might say antiseptic — look throughout the village. But Whistler has an unabashed flair in the way it casts its winter-wonderland spell, and offers something for everyone.
For shopaholics, there’s no shortage of places to spend. The promenades are lined with brand names like Occitane, Eddie Bauer and Lush handmade soaps. For foodies, there’s Mongolian barbecue, Greek souvlaki and the tony restaurant Araxi, featuring a winner of the reality show “Hell’s Kitchen.”
But the party scene is where Whistler comes into its own.
From late afternoon on, bars heave with music and spill snowboarders onto the pavement. Amid the drone of soft Canadian vowels, Australian twangs are everywhere. Whistler is renowned for attracting hard-drinking powder-worshippers from Down Under.
There’s a style for every party mood. At the rowdy Amsterdam pub in Village Square, Whistler’s pulsating heart, a blown-up photo of a drunken woman flipping her middle finger sneers down at carousers downing pitchers of beer to hard-rock guitar riffs.
Hip-hop booms from the Savage Beagle, the bar adopted by the Jamaican bobsledding team — which didn’t make the cut to compete but is determined to be in Whistler for the games nonetheless.
Nearby, it’s salsa evening at a Whistler institution, the Garibaldi Lift Company, known universally as GLC — a cozy ski-bum lounge with a roaring stone fireplace and a sunken area with low, cushy sofas.
Ignoring the Latin theme, a lanky guy in dredlocks belts out a reggae version of the early ’80s hit “Abracadabra,” by the Steve Miller Band.
Later, Emile Sanchez, a dance instructor from the Dominican Republic, leads couples in steamy — and, after the hours of boozing, somewhat stumbling — dance moves to throbbing club remixes of J-Lo’s “Let’s Get Loud” and Pitbull’s “Calle Ocho.”
Besides Alpine events, Whistler will be home to a plaza with medal ceremonies and nightly concerts. Some locals grouse that in the effort to become a world-class resort, Whistler has sold out to corporate interests, with soaring commercial rents chasing out local entrepreneurs and robbing the resort of its homespun character.
“I think people got greedy for a while,” said Dorothy Harwood, general manager at McCoo’s, a skiware shop that’s one of the few remaining locally owned enterprises on the main strip. “Landlords got greedy.”
Rusty Long, owner of Katmandu, a shop on the northern edge of town that sells an eclectic mix of snowboards, mountain bikes, reggae T-shirts, Indian jewelry, and pot-smoking accessories, said there are “a lot of small guys like me that want out.”
While the symbol of these Olympics is the Inukshuk, the traditional stone sculpture of the area’s native people, there’s little trace of indigenous culture within Whistler village itself.
On the outskirts of town, however, there is an impressive cultural center devoted to the arts and traditions of the native Sqwamish and Lil’Wat nations.
Many visitors don’t mind Whistler’s beguiling, if somewhat artificial, charm.
“It’s great. They’ve invented the ultimate resort experience,” said 36-year-old Australian Calum Clark, vice president for events for the U.S. ski team. “It’s served as a template for many different resorts.”