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My wife and I just returned from two straight weekends in British Columbia, the beautiful westernmost province in Canada. The trips were kind of a fluke. The first one to Whistler - among the biggest year-round resort areas in North America - is an annual excursion with several couples. The second four-night jaunt - an invite from another set of friends to stay in their condo at Sun Peaks Resort north of Kamloops - was the first time we'd ever ventured this far afield into Canada.
The differences between these two ski and golf meccas are striking. While Whistler, with its bustling villages, restaurants, mountain biking and hiking trails, is expensive, Sun Peaks is decidedly at the other end of the economic spectrum. At least, so far anyway.
Located about two hours north of Vancouver (one of my favorite cities in the world) and about four-and-a-half hours from Seattle - depending on the whims of the customs officials at the border, Whistler (various websites) is a compendium of outdoorsy activities.
Golf is about a six-month recreational outlet here, with five courses on the slate. These include Whistler Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design; Chateau Whistler by Robert Trent Jones II; and Nicklaus North, host site of the Telus Skins Game. Farther north up the road in Pemberton is Big Sky Golf Club, a fine Robert Cupp track, and Pemberton Golf & Country Club, the valley's original course.
Besides golf, there are a mountain of summertime activities at Whistler. Alpine bike tours, ecology tours, "Ziptrek Eco-Tours" through the treetops, helicopter and glider tours, horseback rides, yoga classes, spa treatments, and other things to make you sore or feel good, depending on the mood. On the west side of the main village, gawkers can watch as kamikaze bikers roar down the mountain along dusty escarpments toward the bottom. One sees a lot of blood and guts here; many of these young Type A Gen-Xers are not very skilled in mastering gravity.
The two largest villages - Whistler itself and Blackcomb, are rife with eateries of all kinds. If you want Greek, Japanese, Italian, Irish, or a simple American hamburger, you can find it here.
During the cold months the golf courses are shut down and the area switches to winter sports. Thousands of acres are devoted to snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, heli-skiing, dog-sledding, Sno-Cat tours, horse-drawn sleighs, and of course, downhill skiing and snowboarding, the bread and butter of this alpine destination which will host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Although civilization in the area dates back to the 1800s, Whistler's resort properties originated in the late 1970s. A decade later, the president of the resort development company, Intrawest Corporation, Joe Houssian, joined forces with Hugh Smythe, then president of Blackcomb. The two began an aggressive building campaign that continues today.
The ensuing resort and its myriad recreational amenities have led to a staggering appreciation in real estate prices. Our friends' condo near the village has more than quintupled in value over the past eight years. Homes around Nicklaus North, even though they seem to be packed together, start at around $2 million Canadian (now, not that far below the value of the U.S. dollar), and go up from there.
Its success with Whistler has led Intrawest to become one of the world's most successful resort development companies. It owns or is involved in 14 mountain resorts in North America and Europe. It now boasts 36 golf courses in its portfolio, has 24,800 employees, and owns land on which to build 19,811 more housing units. The rich do get richer.
When we first started coming up here to play golf eight years ago, a round at Whistler Golf Club (often called "the Palmer course" by locals) cost about $60 Canadian. Today, that same 18-hole outing costs $193 in the summer, with off-peak rates of $161 (May 27 - June 30) and $129 (May 1 - 26; September 26 - October 10).
Nicklaus North runs $210, $165 and $115, respectively, while Chateau has play rates of $225, $175 and $125. Big Sky - once affordable before being "discovered" by golfers - has caught the price bug, with prime summer rates of $190 and off-season fees of $158 and $126. Good old Pemberton G&CC has managed, so far anyway, to set itself apart from the local price gouging by keeping all of its rates (summer weekends and holidays are $65) within the budgets of most everyone.
The upshot of all this is that every time we head up here we look for deals. During this last visit we played Whistler GC twice - one time with a dinner special thrown in, and once at Pemberton G&CC, which may be the most entertaining of them all.
I've traveled and played golf quite a lot over the years, and have come to the conclusion that the most expensive places to play the game on our vast continent are Cabo, Mexico, Las Vegas, and Whistler. Even though the dollar is Canadian, the bang-for-the-buck quotient at Whistler just doesn't exist anymore. The views are nice, the courses are generally well-conditioned, and the service is acceptable (though cloying, with workers wearing those headphones that link them, apparently, to some important golf god).
At this advanced stage of my life, I've come to the conclusion that no course is worth burning up a ten-spot-plus for each hole played.
Sun Peaks Resort (www.sunpeaksresort.com) is a bit farther away from Seattle than Whistler, but the route is considerably less dangerous and more scenic. Head across the border crossings at Peace Portal, Aldergrove, or Sumas, go north a couple of miles to Highway 1, take a right, and put the metal to the pedal. (Be judicious here, as I got a speeding ticket from the RCMP on this last trip - I must've had difficulty converting miles per hour to kilometers per hour.)
Trans-Canadian Highway 1 is the north-of-the-border equivalent to Interstate 90 in the U.S., linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as it spans this vast country. Once in the felicitously-named town of Hope, follow the signs directing you to another nice four-lane route, Highway 5, to Merritt (the "Country Music Capital of Canada"), Kamloops and points beyond.
Just north of Kamloops, a beautiful city in a broad valley bordered by the Thompson River, is the exit to Sun Peaks. Up you go, ascending a narrow two-lane rural road past homesteads in pastoral valleys. About 20 miles later, you arrive at a burgeoning year-round resort.
The 3,600-acre property was developed by a wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary of Nippon Cable Co. of Japan. Nippon Cable owns and operates several ski areas in Japan and is the largest manufacturer of ski lifts in Asia. They distribute ski slope-grooming equipment in Asia for both Camtec and Pisten Bully.
The central section of Sun Peaks resembles Whistler 20 years ago. Ringed on its north and south sides by ski lifts, the village is relatively small, with a few restaurants, shops, an upscale Delta Hotel, dozens of privately owned condos, and equipment rental outfits. Everything seems new. With 117 ski runs, Sun Peaks ranks behind - you guessed it - Whistler in the most ski-able terrain in British Columbia. Ski runs and chair lifts are observed in all directions from the village, from the open glades of Mt. Morrisey to the steep face of Tod Mountain.
There's only one golf course at Sun Peaks, an eponymously named track that almost rivals Chateau Whistler for treacherous terrain and forget-about-it rough. The layout originated with nine frighteningly claustrophobic holes. Vancouver-based architect, Graham Cooke, added a second nine this year which is much more open and fun to play. I'm hoping the original set of holes will be fixed to match the new side, though some major bulldozing will be required for that to happen. The green fee at Sun Peaks? How about less than $60 Canadian.
Down in the valley are some excellent choices, including another Cooke design, The Dunes at Kamloops (www.golfthedunes.com), one of the finest new courses I've played in recent years. A core layout surrounded by a modern housing development, The Dunes is a wonderful track featuring a rolling landscape not unlike what you encounter in Ireland or Scotland.
Less enjoyable is the Rivershore Estates and Golf Links, a track designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. The course is mostly house-free, but some holes on the front nine - including a dogleg-right around a ranch-style three-bedroom unit, are pretty bogus. The layout is also a bit odd. All of us walked and packed our bags; it was not uncommon for each of us to exit a green, then look around and try to figure out where to go next. But we had a good time, and for another $60 Canadian, what the heck.
Other Kamloops options include Sun Rivers Golf Resort (http://www.golfkamloops.com/pages/SunRivers.htm) and Thomas McBroom's new Kamloops on the Lake (http://www.golfkamloops.com/pages/KamOnLake.htm). Those will have to wait for another visit.
The upshot of all this is that Canada, like America, has developed a dichotomous relationship with golf. On the one hand, it is viewed as a money-maker at the upscale Whistler. Here, the audience is captive. Not many choices exist on the golfing menu and price-gouging is de rigeur. Like the Mexicans in Cabo, the golf folks at Whistler seem to be saying, "Eat the cake while you can." In other words, if people are foolish to pay such exorbitant fees to play here, let 'em.
On the other hand, with tourists intermingling with local golf fanatics who need to regularly vent their golfing joneses, places like Kamloops - and Sun Peaks - are a much better option.