Scrapping college tours for mountain adventures

Siena is approaching the end of her junior year. So when Keith came back from a conference all lit up about Chicago, we thought, “Why don’t we go there for Spring Break? Explore a new city, get some college visits in?”


We agreed.

Until we changed our minds.

Because Keith has been taking the kids to our local mountain to ski frequently this season. Aside from the one (pretty awful) tumble down the mountain for Gabe, they’ve had some marvelous times. Only they keep wishing for MORE mountain, MORE variety, better conditions (especially after Gabe’s stint in the ER, thanks to a slope turning from slush to ice between his fourth and fifth run on it that day).

Suddenly we realized that a trip to Chicago no longer sparked any joy. So we tidied up that plan, by tossing it aside in favor of a new one. We had to shrug off the knowledge that we were squandering what were supposed to be productive college visits and instead decide that what we really need was family bonding. After all, how many family bonding experiences will we really have after Siena leaves for college??? We conveniently neglected to factor in the ENTIRE YEAR WE’LL BE SPENDING TOGETHER TRAVELING.

That’s beside the point.

Our gaze turned to skiing vacations. Which is a funny thing considering I don’t ski. In fact, those of you who have read Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center, already know that skiing in the Italian alps led to, well, not exactly a crisis in my marriage, but definitely a dramatic hiccup.

I am not a skier.

But as it turns out, I enjoy the rest of my family skiing. I love to watch them tromp off, all bundled, and return home hours later, apple cheeked and grinning, full of harrowing tales of tree-lined glades and breathless narrations of spectacular rock-lined bowls. It must be said, I also enjoy the quiet when they are gone. I have been known to finish an ENTIRE BOOK in the span of one day’s hard skiing. I especially like it when I can galavant a little, take in a museum, a crepe, a stroll along a picturesque street.

So our sights turned to places we could get to fairly cheaply (we do have this around-the-world gig coming up) and where the snow could be counted on. That pretty much narrowed us down to Lake Tahoe and Whistler, British Colombia. Since Tahoe would leave me relatively housebound while others skied, we opted for Whistler, with its pedestrian village and non-ski offerings. Plus, I’ve always been curious about British Columbia.

We realized that Whistler is actually Whistler-Blackcomb (two mountains), and that staying in Blackcomb is far less expensive. We were able to rent a condo right on the slopes (for easy skiing in and out) in Blackcomb, in our budget (that is, for less than we made renting our house on Airbnb during that time). Blackcomb has its own, more modest, village, which was a three minute walk down the hill from our condo. Whistler was about a ten minute walk, over a covered bridge, through a tree-lined avenue. So we had dining options.

We found out later that the advantage of staying in Whistler is those slopes are ideal for morning skiing, but it was easy enough for even me to scoot across the mountain to the base of Whistler on my day of skiing, so this was no hardship.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because one of the real key high moments of this trip was the drive from the airport. I don’t even know how to explain it. First of all, right as we exited the airport to get our rental car (conveniently located at the airport, no shuttle needed), we stumbled up on a Japadog stand. We’d long heard about the wonders of these Japanese inspired hotdogs, so leapt at the opportunity to try dogs with seaweed, bonito flakes, Japanese barbeque sauce, and Japanese mayonnaise. The flavorings were indeed a wonder, but the dogs themselves were extraordinary. Lots of snap.

Okay, I didn’t take this one, but I wanted you to see it, and the photos through our car window were not illustrative.

Bellies full, we jumped into our rental car with more than the usual perkiness. We were happy, the weather was warm, and we were surrounded by blossoms I had been regretting leaving behind at our house in Virginia—forsythia, magnolia, cherry, pear, plum. I had no idea those grew on the west coast!

The bay sparkled, we took an accidental detour through what seemed an enchanted park with stately evergreens and winsome blossoms, and then we began our drive out of Vancouver to Whistler.

This drive.

It’s called the sea to sky highway, and it was two hours of lush sighing and much hyperbole about how it was the most gorgeous drive ever. It may not have been hyperbole. Then again, I still have that drive in Abruzzo in my mind, so it’s hard to say.

This much is true—it is a wonder. The ground and the trees are stippled with moss, but behind them is the blue-green coolness of the evergreens, and then to the left, the view opens to wide expanses of flat and sparkling water, dotted with tree-filled islands. Gorgeous.

Once in Whistler, we quickly unloaded and then went out for ice cream. As one does, apparently in British Columbia in April. We found Cow’s creamery and loaded ourselves up with flavors of Prince Edward Island blueberry, maple, malt, and chocolate with marshmallow swirl and peanut butter cups.

The eating in Whistler was, in general, surprisingly good. I figured the captive audience would translate to poor food at high prices. But first of all, the exchange rate worked in our favor, and secondly, everything was very, very tasty. I’ll put specific recommendations in the Travel section, but I’ll add here that one of the boons of eating in Whistler was the accents. People come to Whistler from all over the world, and it shows. We loved trying to place accents, and imagining what people’s lives were like. Especially, what they eat for breakfast. Though from what I could see, breakfasts include a lot of bananas. So many skiers walking around with bananas. Did they not know about Pure Bread, the revelatory bakery just steps away??? Then there was the snowboarder slipping past us once with a cup of coffee. What a sight!

As for the skiing, Keith says he’s rarely skied in such fabulous conditions. So many runs (Whistler is the biggest resort in North America, with 240 runs), gorgeous views, and the happiest bunch of people you’ll ever hope to meet. Everyone from fellow skiers to lift operators (not usually known for their good humor) to waitstaff all have this vibe like they just can’t believe their great, good luck. Makes for a happy environment.

I skied one day. Okay, one morning. But by the end of that morning, I felt like my legs weren’t going to hold up and I wanted to end well. Where Whistler excels, to my mind, is for novice skiers.

Rather than a little boring bunny hill at the bottom of the mountain, there were runs all over the place. We took a ski lift to the midway point of Whistler mountain, where there is a learning area. Keith and I skied there while Gabe and Siena continued to the top of the mountain and skied down to us. Then we were able to take a lift higher, and ski all the way down the mountain together.

And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I had a good time! I’ll never be like the rest of the crew, doing anything to hit the slopes. If I have to get in a car or I hit a problem with a zipper, I’d rather shrug and instead read by the fire with some All-Dressed potato chips (if you haven’t had this Canadian flavor, it’s worth seeking out, kind of like a cross between BBQ and salt and vinegar). Whereas my crew would happily safety pin their gear before an hour drive to the slopes. All day. In rain, snow, it doesn’t even matter.

With my alone days, I spent one just detoxing. Both metaphorically and literally. I’d just launched The Silent Madonna the week before, so I had been running on fumes. As for literally, the cleaning person we’d hired with our Airbnb money bailed at the last minute, so my skin was embedded with cleanser. Seriously, I had a spot on my cheek that burned and one eye that watered for 24 hours. So I took one day just to hike to Lost Lake, breathing deeply, stopping by rivers, and breathing again, imagining the fresh, cedar-scented oxygen filling my capillaries. Oh, and getting pastries. Lest you worry that I over-detoxed.

The second alone day I had I went to the Scandinave Spa, which was, well… otherworldly.

Even if I don’t tell you about how beautiful the spa is, with its terracing down the mountain, and lovely landscaping, surrounded by swaying cedar tries and birdsong. Even if don’t mention the eucalyptus steam room and the icy nordic waterfalls and the heated hammocks that allow you to drowse surrounded by breezes heady with the lilt of snow. The spa rules alone make the experience extraordinary: No devices. No talking.

So as you move from your 10 minutes of heated water (hot pools and saunas and steam rooms) to 10 seconds of cold (plunge pools with and without falls, surrounded by a variety of mosses and daffodils, shooting greenly) to 15 minutes of relaxation (in solariums and Adirondack chairs set around fires, and yes, those heated hammocks), it’s blissfully quiet. No one will ask where you are from. No one will make small talk at all. Nothing will bing or bong or buzz. Everyone has crossword puzzles or a book or closed eyes and a small smile.

Restorative doesn’t begin to describe it.

And it was so warm that lounging about in my swimsuit and robe felt refreshingly wonderful, despite the snowy patches.

My other non-skiing day I had was with the children as Keith wanted a day to ski without chasing after our two speed demons (Siena found some caution after Gabe’s fall, but both of them are still on the zippy side). We went out for crepes and then to the Squamish Lil’ Wat Cultural Center, which was a big hit. I realized that even though Virginia obviously also has a history with indigenous peoples, my children have been exposed to very little of the cultures outside of history books. But in Vancouver, many of the road signs are written Squamish and there is a clear embracing of the culture. Siena appreciated that the cultural center was created by and for the native peoples, as a celebration.

Besides skiing and eating ice cream and our little adventures, Gabe spent all his down time in the pool and the hot tub. In fact, he spent so much time underwater that when security randomly selected Gabe for extra screening, he triggered alarm bells for what turned out to be chlorine seeped into his skin.

Sometimes we’d join Gabe in the pool or jacuzzi, most often he went alone and, in his way, met people from everywhere. I hesitate to tell you this story, on the grounds that you’ll lose all your esteem for my youngest, but at one point, he even pretended to be Italian, and so convinced a New Zealand family, that they complimented him on his English. He enjoyed what he called the “sociological exercise”, but did feel badly about it later. He really liked the whole family.

Siena and I commiserated that this little anecdote sums up the valley of difference that lies between us and Gabe. Not only would pretending to be someone else be abhorrently complicated for our introverted selves, but if we were hanging in the jacuzzi and a family arrived, not only would we NOT find games to play together, we’d very likely just leave.

I suppose this is why Gabe was our Spello mascot, and how we can learn from him for our upcoming trip. Not to deceive lovely strangers, but rather to break out of our collective shells a little bit to connect with people. After all, Gabe did meet some interesting folks. Even if some of them don’t actually know who he is.

I wish I could tell you more about the skiing. I’m sure you want to know. But with my beginner level and my modest interest, I’m not a good reporter here. Skiing is high up on Keith and the kids’ global bucket list, they are making itinerary preferences based on skiing, so I told Keith he should start a blog where he writes about family skiing destinations (I read about a resort in the Spanish Pyrenees that sounds divine). He could connect it to a blog about global liquors! He nodded and said those would be fun indeed, but since he’ll be working during our around the world jaunt, he likely won’t have the bandwidth.

Nonetheless, this trip did give me some ideas about our around-the-world schooling curriculum. Gabe was so fascinated by our trip to the cultural centre for the two local Indian nations that it prompted me to think about incorporating indigenous peoples into our global learning. We can think about similarities and differences across indigenous cultures, how those cultures impact later people, how they maintain a sense of identity, what are the economics and political factors that influence their nationhood.

In summary, we can give Whistler a hearty recommend for both skiers and non-skiers alike. And, ultimately, I’m glad we shelved the college tours. Siena and I plan to do a mother-daughter road trip this summer instead. Where we’ll likely figure out which colleges to see based on which are in places we want to visit, but I’m sure we’ll work in some productive time, too.

You see, this trip just cemented for me how valuable these opportunities are. With Nicolas in college, and unable to join us, it highlights how fleeting, how precious, this time is. I missed Nicolas so much, as we played games or made up silly songs or delighted in how our pizza tasted like it came from Italy. Even though yes, we’ll have this extra year with Siena, that doesn’t mean our time is endless. I want our vacations together to be impactful, resonant.

College can wait. At least a little longer.

What are your memorable family vacations? Tell us about it in the comments and don’t forget to share this post!