On Location: The Bear-Friendly Fairmont Chateau Whistler

fairmont whistler bears golf course
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler golf course

The annual Trailblazers Conference is a mini-buyer/supplier tradeshow organized by Canada, Switzerland, Monaco, Ireland and Britain. They meet at revolving destinations within the participating countries, and last year, everyone gathered in Whistler for the conference and post program in Vancouver. The host hotel was The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, located within walking distance from the base of Blackcomb Mountain.

During a conference break, a few of us were sitting outside enjoying our coffee when a small black bear walked toward us about 50 feet away in the parking lot. Everyone stood up in shock but then the bear turned away from us to walk up a little trail. However, a couple of hikers were walking along another trail above that intersects the top of the trail the bear was navigating. Judging the speed of the bear and hikers, they would reach the exact same point at the exact same time.

Sensing the humans, the bear stood up on its hind legs to sniff the air. Suddenly, it turned around and started jogging toward us. Now, this was just a small black bear, maybe six feet standing. Still, you never saw a marketing director from Switzerland and a hotelier from Dublin run so fast. All of us bolted for the doorway into the conference center but we stopped short when the bear decided it was a little too populated in the area before heading behind the hotel.

Having grown up in the area, I’ve visited Whistler/Blackcomb dozens of times, and it’s rare not to see a family of bears in the spring alongside the road during the 90-minute drive up from Vancouver. The coastal section with views of Bowen Island is considered one of the most magnificent stretches of highway in North America, and you’ll no doubt stop the van or bus a few times to snap pictures of the bears, waterfalls and mountain landscapes.

The 550-room Fairmont Chateau Whistler is exceptionally well situated for conferences and business meetings, located at the edge of the ski village on a mountainside surrounded by native forest. It’s secluded enough to keep control of the group, with unlimited amount of team building activities minutes away in the geographical splendor. During events on the roof of the 32,000-sf conference center, it feels remote, wild and untouched with unspoiled views of the tree canopy, and the thick scent of pine ripe is in the crisp air.

The rooms all share this view from their balconies so the entire time you’re here you feel completely attached to nature. Well, except during the late afternoon when everyone comes down the hill for happy hour in the big indoor/outdoor lobby bar facing the ski slopes.

The interior design is rich with darkwoods, leather couches and plentiful natural stone in the public areas, while a large wall of windows provides expansive sightlines showcasing the stunning scenery.

hotel fairmont chateau whistler

During one afternoon, part of our group hooked up with Whistler Eco-Tours for their Peddle/Paddle Combo Tour. We rode bicycles for about 90 minutes through twisting trails inside the forest to a small clearing along the side of Atla Lake. Multimillion dollar modern homes sit next to small old cabins, and the stillness in the fresh air is heavenly.

We paired up in twos and sat in the front and middle of large canoes while a guide paddled in the stern. The trip across the lake was serene and calming, and this is exactly why you come to place like Whistler. You’re 100% disconnected, you’re breathing a little deeper, and most importantly, you’re present in the moment together simply in awe of the natural surroundings.

It becomes evident why we need a guide in the stern. The lake drains into a very shallow and narrow river with strong rapids and sharp tree branches overhead. It’s easy to tip over if someone in the back doesn’t know what they’re doing, and you really don’t want that because this is glacier-fed water and it’s really, really cold.

During the route we heard a scream behind us. Someone fell in, we all thought, as we pulled over and waited. But it was only a few seconds when the last canoe come around the corner. The lead person in the canoe was all in a tizzy, waving her arms, with wide eyes and a lot of heavy breathing.

“Ohmigod, that was so amazing,” she exhaled. “A @#%$ bear jumped in front of us!” The bear had leaped off of the shore and swam in front of her canoe to get to the other side.

According to our guides with Whistler Eco-Tours, no visitor has ever been harmed by a bear in and around the town. And hikers for decades have wandered off into the wild to explore the endless miles of marked trails here. Still, when you see a bear up close, it gets the blood going.

The tour ends at a little cabin where planners can create a fun BBQ by the water’s edge. As we gathered into the van, another bear wandered along the tree line about 100 feet away.

Whistler Eco Tour Canoe