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Vancouver and Whistler team up for an Olympic effort

From the slopes to the streets, Vancouver and Whistler have a lot to offer Winter Olympic visitors by day and by night.

December 13, 2009|By Hugo Martín | Reporting from Vancouver and Whistler, Canada

After skiing down Whistler Mountain's 5,280 feet of vertical fun, I glanced at the summit and wondered why this massive, snow-topped peak had been rejected as a Winter Olympics host at least three times since the 1960s.

Always a bridesmaid . . . but wait.

Once Whistler teamed up with the city of Vancouver, 85 miles away, the International Olympic Committee gave the mountain and its neighboring city the nod to host the 21st Winter Olympics and Paralympics from Feb. 12 to 28.

The quality of the skiing and snowboarding on Whistler, a resort that nearly every ski and snowboarding magazine in North America ranked among the world's best, is not an issue, and my schussing experience tells me those accolades are well deserved.

But you don't have to be a powder hound to delight in Whistler and Vancouver. Whether you watch the Games from your couch or visit British Columbia before, during or after the Olympics, this Canadian tag team can delight foodies, joggers, tree-huggers, shopaholics, animal lovers and clean freaks, who will find the streets of Vancouver, a city of 2 million, so spotless they'll think Mr. Clean is the mayor.

One big drawback for Americans who visit Whistler and Vancouver: You sense you're in Canada because of the authentic Cuban cigars and the glut of televised hockey highlights, but otherwise, it's not always clear, thanks to Starbucks outlets, McDonald's franchises, Eddie Bauer stores, overpriced souvenir shops and "Seinfeld" reruns. You don't even need an outlet converter.

But you will need a guide because the Great White North has much to offer. Here are some of the gems I gleaned on two visits this year (one winter, one fall) to Vancouver and Whistler.

Mass transit options

You have to love that new-transit smell, which permeated the rail line I rode from Vancouver International Airport to downtown Vancouver.

The new Canada Line that opened in August was representative of the public transit system in Vancouver and Whistler: efficient, economical and easy to use.

No need for a rental car in Whistler or Vancouver. At Whistler, pedestrians can easily navigate the faux European village at the base of the mountain along a red brick walkway.

Downtown Vancouver, meanwhile, is about 68 square miles and rich in transportation options.

The transit choices were on display on my first day of sightseeing. From the rail line's waterfront station, I jumped on a "hop on, hop off" trolley ($35 for a day pass) to the southern tip of Stanley Park, where I rented a bicycle (about $20 for half a day). I followed the smooth, flat sea wall bike path for several miles to the Hornby Street pier and caught a cute, multicolored aquabus ($3) across False Creek to Granville Island.

By taking public transit, you can pick up local insight from your driver. Bob Hunt, a gregarious trolley bus driver, told me where to get a great brewery tour (Granville Island Brewing) and where to spot the Olympic rings (on a barge in the middle of Coal Harbour) and see traditional First Nation totem poles (Brockton Point on the east end of Stanley Park).

To get to Whistler from Vancouver, you take the Sea to Sky Highway, a twisting, scenic, 85-mile stretch of road that was once known as the "death highway" before it was repaved and widened to accommodate Olympic traffic. It is still a harrowing drive.

I recommend jumping on one of several charter buses so you can enjoy the views of Howe Sound, Anvil Island and the Stawamus Chief, the massive granite dome with the profile of an Indian chief, bordering the highway. During the Olympics, the road will be closed to everyone except fans with tickets and residents.

For the family

The display cases at the Granville Island public market pop with color, like a verdant rose garden. The copper of the freshly baked breads. The greens of the vegetables and fruits. The reds and silvers of the seafood. And of course, the dark browns of the coffee beans. (Caffeine addicts need not look far in Vancouver to find a coffee shop.)

Getting on to Granville Island is half the fun. SUV-size aquabuses take visitors from the mainland to Granville Island, across False Creek.

If you are visiting with children, the market needs to be stop No. 1 on your visit. Stock up on picnic food at the market, and take a bus to Stanley Park, the well-manicured 1,000-acre playground that's home to several flower gardens and a grove of totem poles, each with a different story to tell.

While in Stanley Park, stop by the Vancouver Aquarium, where you'll see two young ghostly white beluga whales that seem to float like spirits across the dark blue waters.

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