Highway 99, The Sea to Sky Highway:

Vancouver to Whistler

In Vancouver, I awake at dawn, as the sky starts to light, ready to make my getaway to the mountains, to Whistler. It is early Sunday morning and Chinatown is quiet. It’s rained, leaving a fine mist on the sidewalk. Tents from the street fair the day before still line the streets, and two police chat at the bottom of the blockaded road, keeping an eye on things. Other than an occasional pedestrian walking , it is still.

I dread the bill at the parking garage. There is a Parking Meister who stalks the over night parkers, even though overnight parking is allowed. I suspect he is an older Chinese man, fit from walking the parking garage,  who methodically goes from floor to floor, exerting his authority. He leaves pink slips with notes on the windshield, even though the parking ticket is visible on the dash. I don’t understand why he does this. Nor does the ticket taker at the gateway out.

No matter. The smoke from the British Columbia fires that has blanketed the Pacific Northwest is breaking and I’m desperately in need of some sleep which I hope will be inspired by the mountain air in Whistler, as the winds shift.  I walk down to the garage, take the elevator up two floors to may car. I throw the bags in the back seat, depress the clutch, turn the key and the car starts. Even at her age, the sound of her engine inspires.

I wind my way down to the ticket taker. But it’s early and she isn’t at the station yet. So I try the autopay machine, which failed to take my ticket upstairs. But it accepts it here at the exit to the  garage, and now I discover why the Parking Meister has been stalking me. Without the pink slip which he leaves on the windshield and which I obediently give to the ticket taker, the machine only charges me for a few hours!

The heat and the smoke are dissipating.

I’ve unwittingly outwitted the Parking Meister!

Life is looking good.

Onto Whistler.

The Sea to Sky Highway is aptly named. Highway 99, it’s numerical moniker, does not do it justice.

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Highway 99, Sea to Sky, from Vancouver to Whistler

It’s a highway sandwiched between the sea and the mountains. It broadens into a highway, then narrows in places to a winding two way road. Vast metal netting hangs over the cliffs to trap the falling boulders as nature works her way with the earth. It’s a road worthy of attention, both for the scenery and for the winding, fun drive. My trusty BMW, a 2002 all wheel drive station wagon, has a five speed stick, and she loves these roads. As do I.

It’s a moody day with low hanging clouds and spritzes of drizzle. Clouds linger over mountainous islands that seem to grow from a turquoise sea. The land is clearly living, almost as if it’s breathing as it arises from the sea. The views from the drive are beyond stunning.

Whistler, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, is an easy hour drive north of Vancouver. Four wheel drive in the winter, but on a summer’s day, you simply get to enjoy. The road morphs from highway to two lanes and back again as it navigates a narrow path between the sea and the mountains. On this rainy day, clouds settle atop the mountains, so sightseeing along the way may be limited.

Which suits me just fine. I have my eye on some hiking and an afternoon at the spa when I get to Whistler. I want to enjoy the peace of the mountains after a hot, smoky week in the city.


I arrive early, too early to check in, so I park in one of the common lots. Ten dollars for the day. A bargain compared to Vancouver where parking one day cost $60.

Except that the machine charges me $50.

Is this some sort of parking karma for eluding the Parking Meister in Vancouver? I try to shrug it off, but I’m tired from a week of no sleep. I come to the wise conclusion that it’s Sunday, so nothing can be done anyway.

Given the weather, a visit to the Audain Museum seems like a good idea. The 56,000 square foot modern building is sleek and it settles into the land as if part of it. Inside glass corridors look out onto forest. It’s peaceful and stunning. Michael Audain, philanthropist and collector, built this $30 million dollar building to house his collection of almost 200 works of  British Columbia art from the 18th to the 21st century. The building was designed by the award winning Patkau Architects of Vancouver. Lead architect John Patkau explains some of the challenges involved:

“To respond to primeval forces like floods and snow in the context of a west coast forest’, explains John Patkau, ‘we had to make a strong and simple design that fit into the site and drifted into apertures in existing trees.”

I enter and share my petty parking woes with the young woman at the desk. She tells me to contact the municipality. “I’m sure they’ll take care of it,” she reassures me. Like so much of my Canada experience, she seems fresh and polite, positive and kind.

I realize that my lack of sleep is seriously interfering with my perspective just now. I take a deep breath and let it go. Little did I know I should be prepared to take an even deeper breath when I entered the gallery, because the Dancing Screen in the first room will take your breath away.


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The Dancing Screen, Audain Art Museum, Whistler, BC

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Close up of the Dancing Screen

This screen fills the room. Intricate carvings, creatures and aqua gilded fish are immediately captivating. I am told that part of the screen opens to reveal a doorway through.

In addition to this magnificent piece of Pacific Northwest art, the museum displays 39 different First Nation masks created by the Coast Salish, Haida, Nisga’a, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuxalx, Gitk’san, Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Nuxalk nations.

It also houses works of renown Canadian artist Emily Carr and contemporary photographer Edward Byrtynski’s series The Scarred Earth.

This collection of First Nation art is just as stunning as the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coastal Art. It is truly a world class collection. Between runs on the ski hill, or trips to the spa, be sure to put this amazing collection on your Whistler itinerary.


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First Nation Mask


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Whistler Village

Whistler Village is thoughtfully designed. Like most ski towns, it’s a combination of shops and restaurants strategically placed around plazas, with lodging above. But Whistler did an exceptionally good job in designing this outdoor “mall”. The architecture isn’t too heavy. It’s on the eclectic side, with contemporary tones which, to me, feel much better than the heavy mountain designs of some ski villages that, in time, I think will feel dated. There is plenty of open space and vistas of the surrounding mountains. And the unexpected addition of outstanding art offers interest beyond the outdoors.

But the outdoors is what Whistler is about. This weekend there is mountain bike race and the crowds gather around the finish line at the base of one of the hills.

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Bikes for rent in Whistler Village


From the 2010 Winter Olympics, a look at this phenomenal ski town in its winter element:



Whistler is beyond beautiful, but for me it evokes mixed feelings. I look at daring ski runs that I won’t ski and it brings back many ski memories from other mountains. I was a very good skier. I once had someone stop me and comment on how graceful I looked skiing a mogul field. And I loved moguls. Not the nearly vertical Volkswagen sized bumps, but the more moderate fields where you could choose a line and follow it through the terrain. There is a certain grace and elegance of being in the flow as you navigate the slope. I’m lucky to have experienced it, but I also feel the loss.

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Whistler/Backcomb ski runs

There is something about the mountains that I just love. The towering rock descending to water. The wild abandon of a river coursing through the woods. I think its the primitive experience of the elements and the outdoors that touch me so. I fell in love with the Sierras my first night at the Truckee airfield so many years ago, and that mountain love is part of my heart and soul.

Normally hiking is high on the agenda, but this trip is short, and I need to adjust to the weather, welcome rain, that is clearing the skies of soot and smoke. I scale back my ambitions and head to Green Lake.

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My urban walking poles go almost everywhere with me.

My Urban Poling walking sticks come along. I have really fallen for these things. They keep me upright; provide a bit of balance and support. and help create a brisk tempo for my expedition. I like to walk under any circumstances, but I love walking with these.

The area is full of easy walking paths and campgrounds that line the river. Signs warn of bear-safe camping. And not far away is Green Lake. The area sports a golf course, restaurant and (best of all!) a seaplane base. I have a thing for seaplanes.  Part romance (think Pan Am Clipper or the Dornier WW II amphibian , a DO-24ATT, in which I did splash and goes in Tahoe!), part adventure, if it has floats (or is amphibian), count me in! :


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Seaplane taking off on Green Lake


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The seaplane base for rides of the valley and the glacier


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A view of Green Lake from the walking path

From here, it’s a short walk to the entry of Scandinavie Spa:


Normally I’m not a spa person, but this afternoon I need the relaxation of moving from hot to cold and back again; from pool to sauna; from a chair around the fire, to a deep massage. Sitting in the warm sunshine, in the cool mountain air. I leave feeling wonderfully relaxed and rested.

As an aside, my parking overcharge was gracefully and swiftly handled by the municipality. (So kindly Canadian!) Apparently this happens often. So I can rest assured it’s not a personal parking karma thing!

Karma once brought me to the Sierras where I spent eighteen wonderful years. I first moved into a rented condo in Incline Village, and then down to southwest Reno, where my house looked up at the Sierras. I’d watch the sun rise and her light spread from the top of the hills down to their base. I’d watch the wave clouds form, presaging a frontal weather passage. Snow hugged the peaks during winter and created a raging Truckee River for tubing during the rest of the season. Mountain areas are wonderful.

While I love mountain towns, I have to wonder if this phase of my life has passed me by. The excitement of the Whistler Village after a long day on the slopes is no longer mine. The crowd is the age I was, not so long ago. Our elders always talk about how time passes, but it’s not until we experience it ourselves do we realize the brevity of this experience. Part of my heart will always live in this terrain, and part of my soul will always ski bumps and will always fly airplanes. I consider myself lucky to have these pieces of my soul in my heart, now and always.


“There comes a time when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart. So you’d better learn the sound of it. Otherwise you’ll never understand what it’s saying.”  -Sarah Dessen, Just Listen


More Reading On Canada

The Art of Myth: From Haida to Impressionism
Vancouver Redefined
Back to the Future in Vancouver
Travel Lessons: Oysters and Whatnot

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