OCTOBER 6, 2009, 11:00 PM
Near Whistler, a Place to Play for Less
By MATT GROSS
Matt Gross for the New York Times Hikers reach the top of Stawamus Chief, a 2,303-foot tall mountain overlooking Howe Sound in the Squamish Valley.
In the last 5,000 years, the Squamish Valley of British Columbia has seen all kinds of people come and go. Long ago there were native bands who lived on salmon and shellfish and gave the region their name, followed in the 19th century by European traders, trappers, farmers, loggers and prospectors, who brought Chinese and Sikh laborers to build dikes and to work sawmills.
Matt Gross for The New York Times Outdoors enthusiasts come to Squamish for the epic rock climbing.
More recently, the town of Squamish, a bit more than an hour north of Vancouver, has seen an influx of outdoors enthusiasts who’ve come not just for the epic rock climbing on the 2,303-foot- Stawamus Chief (the Chief, as it’s more casually known) but also for the town’s proximity to Whistler, the luxurious winter-sports wonderland 36 miles north, where many of the Winter Games events are to be held.
The distance may be small, but the difference is huge. Squamish’s hotels and bed-and-breakfasts tend to be half the price of Whistler’s, and the town’s lack of pretense mean little things, like cafe breakfasts that aren’t rip-offs. Plus, since many of Squamish’s new residents commute an hour or so to Vancouver — on the newly widened Sea-to-Sky Highway — they want businesses and services befitting locals, not well-heeled tourists.
To be sure, Squamish is still a work in progress. At its entrance, just off the highway, there are fast-food restaurants, a supermarket and a flurry of vehicles and shoppers. But a quarter-mile in, it’s suddenly quiet.
There are the Lucky Loonies Dollar Store and the aging August Jack Motor Inn, and a brief stretch of color: the jaunty yellow facades of the Zephyr Cafe, Billie’s Bouquet and Gelato Carina. A cute little design shop, the Hive Home & Gift (38016 Cleveland Avenue; 604-815-4483; www.thehivehome.com), sells Umbra products, intricately patterned vinyl wall tattoos and my notebooks of choice, Ecojot.
Wherever you go in downtown Squamish, you always see the high gray granite cliffs of the Chief in the background. What you don’t see much of is people. The few who were around, drinking good coffee outside the Zephyr Cafe (38084 Cleveland Avenue; 604-567-4568; www.zephyrcafe.ca), looked fit and active — intimidatingly healthy, almost.
Farther down, past a well-tended public park, near where the Squamish River flows into the ice-blue waters of Howe Sound, shiny new condo buildings rise next to empty, overgrown lots with billboards heralding the arrival — someday, depending on the economy — of shiny new condo buildings.
This part of town is where I was staying, at the Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Company (37801 Cleveland Avenue; 800-919-2537, www.howesound.com). Built in 1996, the wood-sided inn is tastefully big, with a pub and a restaurant on the ground floor and the brewery at one end of the building.
On the second floor were a mere 20 guest rooms, ranging in price from 99 to 119 Canadian dollars ($90 to $108 at 1.10 Canadian dollars to the U.S. dollar ) a night — not rock-bottom, but about half what you’d pay for a similar spot in Whistler. My room was spacious and bright, with slightly woodsy decorations and cushions tucked into the windowsill— a perfect spot for catching up on e-mail with the free Wi-Fi.
Downstairs, the barnlike pub — all beer-colored wood — served great brews, like the Bailout Bitter, introduced last fall to commemorate the recession, and my favorite, the Garibaldi Honey Pale Ale. “Honey” doesn’t mean sweet, however. Rather, the ale picked up all the complicated flavors that exist within honey, but with no cloying sugars. Yum.
The food I ate there — a burger, seared wild salmon — didn’t quite live up to the beer, which was fine. Anything fancier would’ve felt, well, like Whistler.
Which is how it goes in Squamish — simpler fare at a lower price. Both the Inn on the Water (38220 Highway 99; 604-892-9240; www.innonthewater.com), right on the highway but with a view of the Mamquam Blind Channel and the mountains, and the Chieftain Hotel (38005 Cleveland Avenue; 604-892-9119; www.chieftainhotel.com), in town with a bit of an Old West frontier theme, start at 69 dollars during the winter and top out not much higher (the Inn at 140, the Chieftain at 119). Compare that with Whistler, where room rates, although hit by the recession, still averaged 173 dollars a night in the first half of the year, according to a recent article in The Vancouver Sun.
Getting to Squamish is fairly easy. PerimeterBus.com runs regular shuttles there from Vancouver International Airport (my round trip cost 73.50 dollars), and Greyhound serves the town from Vancouver proper. The drive itself is magnificent: pick a seat on the left-hand side, and you’ll have a constant view of the upper reaches of the Georgia Strait, the sun reflecting off its frigid waters and dozens of solid mountains rising directly from the shore. It’s not called the Sea-to-Sky Highway for nothing. The only bad part of the trip is that it’s so short.
During the Olympics, the trip between Squamish and Whistler should also be a breeze: a fleet of free shuttle buses will ferry ticket holders back and forth, almost around the clock. In the non-Olympic season, however, it’s a little trickier. There’s no public transport other the rush-hour commuter buses, and hitchhiking on Highway 99 is a dangerous prospect.
Perimeter doesn’t offer rides between the two, and while you can catch the Greyhound, it runs essentially only every two hours, so you have to plan that journey well (or at least better than me). If you want to stay in Squamish to reach Whistler, renting a car is the way to go.
Matt Gross for the New York Times Hikers, runners and mountain bikers share forested paths in the Smoke Bluffs.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons simply to stay in Squamish. Birders come to spot breeds like the Caspian tern and the northern shoveler in the estuary, and windsurfers and kiteboarders make use of the breezes that blow down from the mountains across Howe Sound. Hikers head into the forested hills, fortified by the abundant fruit of the ubiquitous blackberry bushes, and mountain bikers pound up and down steep, soft slopes and across log bridges in the Smoke Bluffs, a series of cliffs right off the highway.
Ground zero for these activities is the Squamish Adventure Center (38551 Loggers Lane; 604-815-4994), an elegant wood-and-glass structure where you can buy guidebooks and trail maps and pick up hundreds of pamphlets on everything from regional investment opportunities to, say, a checklist of birds in the Squamish estuary. The day I arrived in Squamish, the center was also the organizational hub of the Squamish Mountain Festival, five days of climbing clinics, photo exhibits, panel discussions and sporting events. A canted wall had been set up outside, with plastic notches to simulate the handholds on a boulder, and various lanky, unshaven men were trying to launch themselves from one to another — a diagonal distance of over eight feet.
A fake “boulder” is fun for an afternoon, but its really just a prelude to the Chief, one of the world’s largest granite monoliths and in many ways a more accessible alternative to El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, said Christopher Burwell, a 23-year-old American climber I met in the 10-dollar-a-night provincial park campground (www.stawamuschiefpark.ca) at the Chief’s base.
“It’s up there among people in the know,” he told me later by phone from Chicago, where he’d begun a master’s degree program in philosophy. “It’s not as obvious a destination, especially for American climbers,” who see Yosemite as mecca.
Unlike Yosemite, however, Squamish is a relaxed spot. Fewer visitors means you don’t have to compete with other climbers for space, and you can find a tough pitch that no one else has tackled in weeks. Relations among climbers, rangers and other tourists are less strained than at Yosemite, Mr. Burwell added, and the campground is an easy bike ride away from town, whereas at Yosemite you need a car.
Plus, he went on, while Yosemite is primarily for pure climbing, Squamish has excellent “bouldering” as well — huge round stones litter the Chief’s base.
As a nonclimber, I can’t really speak to the quality of the Chief’s rocks, but I can confirm another of Mr. Burwell’s judgments — this place is beautiful. Mr. Burwell compared the humid, verdant environment to the forest moon of Endor in “Return of the Jedi.” “You almost think you’re going to see Ewoks jumping out of the forest,” he said.
Well, I didn’t see any Ewoks as I hiked up the Chief that morning; I had too much sweat in my eyes, as this was no walk in the park. Even the entrance to the trail was daunting, a straight scramble up a slanted rock that hinted at the challenges to come. The path itself was unrelentingly steep — not dangerous, but a workout from the very first steps.
Much of the 90-minute hike led up a rock gully where a stream had once flowed, and throughout were conifers of impressive height: 50, 80, 100 feet high and more. And when at last I reached the top, there was a reward: a 360-degree view of too many mountains, carpeted in green, capped in white, surrounded by blue. The peaks were of all sorts — sharp, rounded, craggy — and felt like a summons to run into the wilds of British Columbia and live off the bounty of the land.
At times, I imagined I could even see Whistler and Blackcomb. But up on the Chief, I felt no envy, no desire to head north. I had all I needed: clean air, a hearty workout and, back down at the edge of Howe Sound, a last pint of well-brewed beer before my bus trip home.