Shiny, happy people
Skiing in France can be a grim business. The French are horrible to you because there are too many English, and then there are all the bloody English talking English and complaining about the French. Things came to a head last year in a ski shop in La Plagne. An assistant was helping one of my group with his boots. `Tete a clac,' the guy kept on saying to his mate. 'Tete a clac.' It was impossible not to notice. On the way out my friend asked his half-French girlfriend what it meant. 'He was calling you a git,' she said calmly.
The chalet was a viewless orange shack with no baths, the food chicken breasts cooked badly by a New Zealand girl. When she told us, in high excitement, that Robert de Niro was going to be shooting a scene on the mountain and that he would be staying there during filming, we were dubious. Small as he may be, it was hard to picture him on one of the narrow beds, sweating and sliding about because the mattress was upholstered with thick shiny plastic. And when on our last day we had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch a bus, someone said, 'I don't think de Niro will like the early start.'
Unable to take another year of this punishment, in January we headed for Canada, land of the beaver and the greatest service industry on earth. We had stuck our pin on Whistler, the biggest ski resort in North America, apparently, a couple of hours' upcountry from Vancouver, and near the coast so that it stays warmer than inland mountain resorts. 'Rarely dips below minus 15,' it said on the website.
We arrived during a cold snap. Temperatures were about minus 30, the snow was pelting down, and the moonlit drive up from Vancouver showed vast white wildernesses. The chalet was in a smart, forested tendril of Whistler village, on a road overlooking one of the lakes. There was a hot tub beneath the pines, and if you were brave you could get out, fall in the snow and climb back in, inducing a painful burning feeling. Here and there, fabulous wood and glass condos were going up. But the trees were dense, the snow muffled all sound, and a sign on the balcony said, 'Do not feed the bears.' One was spotted roaming around the back of the house.
There are two lakes in the town — one below Whistler mountain and the other below its twin, Blackcomb — and beautiful cross-country skiing routes alongside them. This being North America, there are also some ridiculous activities on offer: rides on husky-drawn sleighs through the woods to log cabins, where singing cowboys greet you and serve you fondue. But it's not all artifice. The weekend before we arrived had been the annual bald eagle count. Thousands of them come to the Cheakamus river nearby to feed on the salmon that spawn and die there. There is also a company called Ziptrek Ecotours which invites you to cross over valleys on slow pulleys, admiring the scenery.
Now this is all very nice, but a distraction from the main point of Whistler. This is not the skiing or the snowboarding, but the service. The service! You are bombarded with attention. In the ski-hire shops there are more assistants than customers, and they treat you with incredible solicitude, inquiring lovingly after your toes. It reached its apogee near the summit of Whistler on a ferociously cold day. Inside the mountain restaurant was a young guy with the most ridiculous job. He was standing with a box of tissues, offering them to people who whirled with the blizzard through the doors. When I went to take one he drew the box away, so that the hankie I had been about to pluck wafted just clear of my fingers. Then he did the same thing again, and once more, all the time smiling mystically, until I made a grab. It was the spirit of HaightAshbury — I felt like I'd been handed a flower and offered some free love. Still, the main town of Whistler owes more to Disneyland than to hippieville. Nowadays all the shops sell Whistlerbranded sweatshirts and Babygros, and there are mottos everywhere. On the piste map: 'Nature makes us different — Service makes us great.' On the mountain: 'Whistler Blackcomb: creating wonderful memories for our guests, again and again.' And there's an optimistic spin on everything. 'Welcome to our non-smoking environment' is written on every bar and restaurant in town. So there's always a freezing huddle outside the door, generally including some hard types in T-shirts. Get past them and the doorman asking for ID from anyone under 40, and you're home and dry.
For the first few days things were wonderful. The snow lay thick on the slopes. Boarders floated through it. Down by the lifts a band was singing 'Sweet Home Alabama' at 9 a.m. Everyone was absurdly red-checked and chipper. A happy Canadian engaged one of my companions in booming conversation in the lift, asking him to repeat everything he said. 'You wanna know why I'm having trouble hearin' ya?' he asked eventually, and revealed that all the way up he had been listening to Led Zeppelin on his headphones. Someone's ski instructor came to dinner at the house, a woolly hat perched high on his head, and offered to say grace. He raised his glass and paused dramatically: 'Here's to the snow here's to my knees here's to my bitches and here's to my skis.'
Another of my companions was having a struggle. Everyone was too cheerful, and it was putting him in bad humour. 'They tax everything here,' he observed at one point. 'They should tax happiness — that would sort them out.' He reminisced fondly about a skiing holiday in a small town in Spain, which was run by a family or company called Crap. There was the Crap restaurant, the Crap bar, the Crap ski-hire. Oh for something Crap!
Then, reprieve. Midweek, an unexpected warm front came in, which started to melt the snow and brought soft drizzle and black ice. Mist swaddled the valley. High up on the mountains there was snow, but if you went down a bit you were skiing in the rain. Of course, this only brought out the locals' Dunkirk spirit. 'How ya doin'?' someone asked me in town, as the rain lashed down outside. 'OK, thanks,' I said, and realised when she pressed her lips together that that was not good enough. The right answer was 'Awesome'. In the end, it turned out we were not worthy of Whistler, lovely as it is. We and the French, we deserve each other.