In Pursuit of Tranquility

Pure Magazine – January 2008

I was in an ancient, temperate rainforest standing on a ledge perched 150 feet over Fitzsimmons Creek, a pristine, boulder-strewn stream that divides Whistler and Blackhomb Mountains in BC. Fog clinged to the ancient cedar and fir trees on the slopes of Whistler Mountain, and it felt like I’d found the most vibrant and fertile place on earth. Hundreds of birds sang, trees swayed, and the water rumbled, then the clouds parted revealing nearby Rainbow Mountain. Patches of snow tumbled down the slopes like one of God’s seasonal Rorschach Tests. This, I told myself, is tranquility, and I was absolutely overwhelmed by Whistler’s profound natural beauty.

I breathed deeply; relishing the moment then stepped off the ledge and began to fly, harnessed to a 2200-foot zip line. I soared over treetops, as the wind flapped against my cheeks, plastering my face with a goofy perma-grin. Endorphins flooded my body, and washed all stress away. This is what Zen monks would consider being consumed by the energy of the moment.

I felt nearly the same sensation a few days earlier in the Four Seasons Spa, when Courtney, a Vancouver Island native, applied an abrasive yet nourishing seaweed-sea salt concoction all over my body before wiping me down with a warm, fresh seaweed chamois (read: an actual fresh kelp leaf). She followed it with a meditation massage during which she led me through deep breathing exercises, as she deftly merged acupressure and deep tissue techniques into a style all her own. At times I lost connection with my breath and tension mounted. Then Courtney tapped a pressure point and held it, to pulverize a stubborn knot, and I had no choice but to exhale deeply and let it all go. At the end of the two-hour treatment, I was blissfully limp. Somehow, I mustered the will to get vertical, donned my white robe and drifted out, through the eucalyptus infused reception area, into the brisk, misty evening. I inhaled deeply and took in the surrounding mountains dusted with snow, and Whistler’s pure fresh air. Once again: tranquility.

Normally, one might consider a Zip Line trek and a high-end spa treatment, completely divergent experiences. Not in Whistler. Where a unique blend of adventure, nature and exquisite, indulgent mind-body therapies, have helped this sublime ski town gain a reputation as an up and coming summer wellness destination.

Nobody understands this balance better than Christian Kessner, and he believes he’s found the perfect combination. He hired the town’s best-loved yoga teacher, Colleen Felgate, partnered with Four Seasons, Whistler’s top luxury spa resort – the only Canadian resort to win AAA’s prestigious Five Diamond Award in 2007, and the Alpine Guides Bureau to launch Higher Ground’s Yoga and Hiking retreat. An avid hiker and yogi, I was an easy sell.

The retreat began as soon as I checked into the Four Seasons. After five-plus hours of travel from LA, the high ceilings, dark wood furnishings, and stone fireplace in the lobby, which gave off the inviting impression of a mountain lodge, were a comforting sight. Within an hour I was in the movement studio with the athletic and engaging Felgate, who studied intensively with yoga masters in India. She took one look at my misaligned frame, and said, “You’ve been cramped all day. It’s time to unwind.”

For the next hour she led me through a Yin Yoga practice; a passive form in which practitioners contort into a series of folds and twists while seated or laying down. The idea is to hold postures for a minimum of three minutes, and the goal is to not only stretch the muscle, but also the connective tissue, or fascia, that links muscles with the bone. My fascia introduced itself in Pigeon pose. I folded one leg beneath my pelvis, and stretched out flat. Like most men, my hips are generally too tight. But little by little the connective tissue released (I swear I thought I could hear it creek), my femur shifted, blood rushed toward the ball joint, my hip opened, and tension was supplanted by euphoria.

The following day I met Kessner in the Four Seasons lobby, and he led me through Whistler Village. Modeled after a European Alpine village, it’s a maze of walking streets with earthy cafe’s, joyfully debaucherous beer gardens, chic tapas bars, swank restaurants, and an array of outdoor outfitters and adventure concessionaires. We arrived at the Gondola station and boarded a pod for a 20-minute ride up the pristine mountainside to Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain. “My goal is to give people a mind-blowing experience,” said Kessner, as we kept an eye out for Black Bear on the empty slopes. “When my guests leave, I want them to leave inspired to continue to seek wellness in their daily lives.”

At Roundhouse Lodge we met up with Felgate for a pre-hike asana session. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate with our schedule. Normally, Higher Ground yoga classes are held outside on the lodge’s deck with panoramic mountain views. But rain poured, so we practiced indoors, surrounded by windows through which I could spot dark clouds crawling among the glacial peaks.

For the next 45 minutes we flowed from standing posture to standing posture. Somewhere around minute 20, I lunged into Warrior II and sweat trickled down my brow. “We are getting the prana moving through the body, so it warms up for the hike,” said Felgate. I smiled and stared over my outstretched fingers toward a beckoning and pristine mountain range. I was ready to explore.

Our hike was led by longtime Whistler mountaineering guide and self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, Darcy McClesh, 32, who also guides skiers, works with the local ski patrol, writes about women’s shoes, sells leather goods (I was afraid to ask), lobbies the federal government in Ottawa for the Sierra Club, waits tables and even writes CVs for a small fee. For Darcy, and a majority of Whistler residents, adventure trumps traditional career goals, and he has found work that suits his lifestyle rather than supplants it.

“The mountains are divided into a series of bowls, such as Glacier Bowl and Harmony Bowl,” said Darcy who pointed them out as we trudged toward Whistler Peak on a rocky trail that is part of a system linking the entire Spearhead Range – a vast wilderness home to black and grizzly bear, wolverines, and cougars. On a clear day, the peaks look exactly like a series of icy arrowheads. “The Spearheads are the flagship range of the Sea to Sky valley,” said Darcy.

The rain continued to shower us, but for a few seconds, sun streamed in and the clouds clustered around Blackhomb Mountain lifted. Like Whistler peak, Blackhomb offers skiers and mountain bikers 5,000 feet of unchecked vertical action. We stopped to marvel in silence. A saw tooth of granite dug into the sky and thick glaciers clung to the edge, staving off summer for as long as possible.

Guests with Higher Ground enjoy a two-hour spa treatment, and breakfast and dinner at Four Seasons’ 5280, Zagat’s highest rated dining room in town. But haute cuisine doesn’t mean high in fat. Glenn Illes, a corporate refugee from Vancouver who has lived in Whistler for a dozen years, founded Whistler Wellness, an on-line clearinghouse of wellness oriented information such as yoga, acupuncture, spas, and much more. He also launched Whistler Wellness Week, which for the past two years has attracted healers, yogis, nutritionists, athletes, and tourists to a series of classes and seminars in Whistler Village. Last year, local chefs got into the act, creating special edition wellness menus that satisfy your inner gourmand as well as your inner cardiologist. 5280 has made the wellness menu a year-round option.

Before dinner I met Scott Dolby, 5280′s new Executive Chef, in the packed lounge – replete with leather sofas and a glass wall that integrates the outdoors with the sleek interior. “I was a spa chef,” he said, “so I’m used to dietary restrictions, but our wellness menu is not as extreme. We focus on the best fresh ingredients, and use vinaigrettes made from the best vinegars, rather than heavy sauces.”

For instance, their Path To Wellness breakfast menu includes a take on egg’s benedict. Think: poached eggs, smoked wild salmon and grilled asparagus. The Wellness Tasting Menu, available for dinner, is even more enticing. The meal begins with local oysters augmented with the slimmest sliver of wild salmon sashimi, and a refreshing romaine and hearts of palm salad with avocado and a tangerine vinaigrette followed by savory grilled scallops served over a toasted onion and eggplant ‘lasagna’ dressed in an aromatic tomato coriander vinaigrette. A main course of wild Coho salmon served over apple and fennel dressed in sherry vinaigrette is the headliner. The entire meal is innovative and flavorful, satisfying but not too filling, and most of it is local.

Araxi, another Whistler Wellness participant and Whistler’s restaurant of the year 8 years running, is another fine dining vortex that relies on locally produced food. The way Executive Chef, James Walt, sees it, sourcing local ingredients makes his job easier. More than 70% of Araxi’s ingredients come from within 100 kilometers of Whistler Village.

“Because our ingredients are so fresh and flavorful we don’t have to do a lot to it,” he told me as he led me on a tour of Pemberton, Whistler’s breadbasket; a tapestry of fertile farms strung along a valley floor, cradled by soaring, granite peaks. “I mean, when you eat three items on a plate, and they’re all fresh and local… ” He searches for the words to complete his thought, scans the land then looks back at me and smiles. “Food just doesn’t get any better than that.”

He’s not wrong. A few hours later, in Araxi’s chic dining room, crowded with buzzing diners and patrolled by an impeccable and crisply dressed, wait-staff, I enjoy an inspired meal with Whistler Wellness’ Glenn Illes. The dishes are presented by Steve Edwards, Araxi’s sommelier/manager who is dressed like he stepped off the cover of GQ (he didn’t), rather than a mountain trail (he did). Edwards brings a touch of New York sophistication to this earthy mountain town.

The menu was a dissertation on Pacific Northwest cuisine created from ingredients Walt and I collected earlier. It included flash-fried cheese-stuffed Squash blossoms, a sublime truffle, ricotta gnocchi. And the grilled, sliced lamb, served with slow-cooked Swiss chard and sun-choke puree with olive tapenade was equally masterful. Through it all, Edwards poured wines crafted and bottled in nearby Okanogan, BC that complimented each dish perfectly.

After the fourth glass Illes said, “Okay, this isn’t part of Araxi’s wellness menu,” then he raised his glass, which Edwards refilled for a fifth time, and took another sip. I joined him, and we both laughed. But, utilizing fresh, local ingredients, kept the meal light and full of life. Plus, the long, wine-fueled walk I enjoyed afterwards, in the cool, beautiful evening made me feel very well indeed.

In Whistler, such Zen moments are almost always at your fingertips. The moment may consume you as you stroll the village, sipping coffee enjoying ever-present views of craggy, glacial peaks. You’ll feel it as you watch Kamikaze mountain bikers decked out in mud splattered body armor barrel downhill, banking high on the hairpin turns, hitting jumps and landing with a searing look of crazed enlightenment in their eye. And you’ll definitely feel it on the Squamish River.

On my last day, I enjoyed some churning white water. For an hour, a dozen tourists, aged 19-62, and I crashed through enormous swells, dodged floating logs, and screamed like maniacs. Our guides kept us safe, and once the white water gauntlet was complete, we coasted downriver on smooth water and took in gushing waterfalls that streaked down granite rock faces. Nobody in our raft said a word. Whistler’s spectacular brand of big nature had left us all speechless, humble, and yet so very alive.

I hadn’t felt this relaxed in years. The river finished a job that was started by a yogi, a massage therapist, farmers, chefs, a sommelier, a zip line, and the mountains that define Whistler. Every last ounce of stress had been rung from my mind, muscles and bones.