The first time I snapped on skis in Whistler Blackcomb ("Whistler") was in the 1980s, when the magic carpet had yet been introduced at the ski school and beginners relied on an archaic rope tow system to get to the top of the bunny slope. My first experience on skis was at Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park and my second was on Grouse Mountain. By the time we got to Whistler, my parents were hooked and were ready to return with us kids in tow over and over again.
I've long lost count of the number of times I've visited Whistler. Suffice to say I've watched it transform over the years into the mammoth that it is today. The only thing unchanged is my pathetic skiing skills!
In recent years, skiing has become such a popular sport with Singaporeans that it's hard to turn a corner in Niseko United ("Niseko") without running into another Singaporean. It's easy to understand why Niseko is the preferred choice for Singaporean powderhounds. After all, it takes half the time needed to get to Whistler to get to Niseko, travel costs are consequentially lower, and there's minimal time difference with Singapore. In addition, Niseko is famed for its abundance of extraordinarily powdery snow, sought after by ski enthusiasts all round the world.
Is Niseko better than Whistler though? Having experienced both, my personal view is an emphatic NO, and I can think of at least 12 reasons why.
No. 1: Whistler has More Ski Runs and Greater Variety of Terrain than Niseko.
Being the largest ski resort in North America, Whistler is more than 3.7 times larger than Niseko. Niseko has a total of 2,191 acres of skiable terrain and 61 ski runs, whilst Whistler has 8,171 acres of skiable terrain and 200 ski runs.
Bigger is definitely better when it comes to ski resorts. I mean, would an adrenaline junkie pick a theme park with 200 rollercoasters or one with a third of that?
No. 2: Presence of a Well-Connected Ski Village in Whistler
The absence of a proper ski village in Niseko was quite a disappointment to me when we got there. The 4 main areas of Niseko are Hirafu, Niseko Village, Hanazono and Annupuri. As these 4 areas are all separately owned, there is no impetus to develop a centralised area for hanging out, shopping and eating. After skiing, people generally just stayed within their own hotels or self-catering properties and had their meals there. At most, they would head to an eatery close by for meals. There were very few retail outlets, so shopping was not even a real option.
In comparison, Whistler Village at the base of Whistler Mountain has hundreds of shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs, dance club and even a cinema. It is a vibrant village where one can look forward to an exciting dose of retail therapy and copious amounts of good food. You can easily spend hours at the pretty pedestrian-only village. Whilst skiers hit the slopes, non-skiers in the family will be well-entertained in the village.
Free shuttle buses ply the whole of Whistler, so getting to the village is a breeze. Niseko has a shuttle bus too, but it is not technically free. It is free for those with a ski pass only, though we haven't seen the drivers ask to see people's passes.
No. 3: Lots of Sightseeing Options in Whistler, even for Non-Skiers.
Sightseeing options in Whistler outnumber those in Niseko many times over. Some of these include exploring various parks in Whistler on foot, taking the gondola for a bird's eye view of the resort, going snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding and floating down the Cheakamus and Squamish rivers to view eagles in the wild.
No. 4: More Accommodation Choices in Whistler
Being a much larger resort, Whistler has a wider range of accommodation options available from ultra-luxurious serviced suites in renowned hotels to backpackers' hostels. Ski-in ski-out accommodation to those in the heart of the village. Full-service to self-catering. There's something for every budget.
No. 5: Whistler has Well-Stocked Supermarkets within Easy Reach
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a ski holiday is to prepare your own meals in a self-catering property with a fully-equipped kitchen. Having access to a good supermarket is key to stocking up on groceries.
The only proper supermarket in the Niseko area is MaxValue in the neighbouring town of Kutchan. Not exactly within easy reach. We stayed in Hirafu and there were 2 convenience stores within walking distance from our apartment, but they didn't have the full range of ingredients for cooking. Fortunately, the property manager for our apartment was kind enough to arrange one complimentary trip to MaxValue for us to pick up our groceries. We were driven to MaxValue and given 30 minutes to grab what we needed.
Whistler, on the other hand, has several well-stocked supermarkets in the village. IGA at Marketplace is our regular go to place for groceries. Having fun cookouts and even hosting potluck parties are definitely possible in Whistler. One of our relatives even set off the fire alarm in her apartment by having a BBQ on the balcony!
No. 6: Whistler has More Dining Options than Niseko
Whistler has hundreds of restaurants, cafes and other eateries. In fact, the Japanese food at Whistler is even better than that at Niseko!
Our favourite restaurant in Whistler is Sushi Village. They use the freshest ingredients in their rolls. Those colourful morsels pack a burst of exquisite flavours in every bite.
A close second would be Nagomi Sushi. They're located in Upper Village, close to where we usually stay. They only open for dinner and are always packed. In fact, many prefer them to Sushi Village.
I mustn't forget the juggling chefs at Teppan Village, who never cease to amaze and amuse. Book ahead to avoid disappointment and it'll be an unforgettable meal.
For western comfort food, you can't go wrong with The Old Spaghetti Factory. Their all-inclusive meals are reasonably priced. Starting from CAD11.95 a meal, you get an entree plus Italian sourdough bread with whipped garlic butter, soup or salad, scoop of ice-cream and tea or coffee.
Then, there's great Mediterranean fare at Caramba! Restaurant, especially loved for their calamari and other seafood dishes.
Opposite Caramba! is El Furniture Warehouse, the best value joint in the whole of Whistler. Contrary to what its name suggests, they are not a warehouse nor do they sell any furniture. They serve great tasting food and alcoholic beverages from an amazing price of CAD5.95. We used to stop by Splitz Grill for our burger fixes, but since El Furniture Warehouse rolled into town, those visits to Splitz Grill have dried up. El Furniture Warehouse has a comprehensive menu, with something for everyone in the family.
A Canadian specialty is poutine, a dish comprising of french fries and cheese curds with a generous drenching of brown gravy. Not really my thing, but the kids love it. You can load up on that at KFC.
When you're not up for cooking (or washing up) or eating out, you can always grab buckets of fried chicken from KFC to go, or get pizza delivered by Fat Tony's. There're endless options for takeout or delivery in Whistler.
No. 7: Apres-ski in Whistler beats that in Niseko.
After a cold, hard day on the slopes, winding down with a pint or soaking in a hot-tub is something many skiers look forward to. Whilst apres-ski is very limited in Niseko, there's no shortage of bars in Whistler for socialising. Some even have outdoor hot tubs on their decks so people can enjoy their cocktails whilst soaking. Late night, the dance club in the village comes alive with boisterous party-goers.
If pubbing is not your cup of tea, surely taking a dip in a heated outdoor pool is. These steaming outdoor pools are very popular, and many of the hotels and self-catering apartments in Whistler have them. For vacation homes in townhouses and chalets in Whistler, outdoor hot tubs are a common feature. Not so in Niseko. Niseko does have several onsen for relaxation though. That's one of the few apres-ski activities which exists in Niseko.
Between 22 December to 29 March, Whistler hosts a Fire & Ice Show every Sunday night. It's a free performance which can be viewed from the base of Whistler Mountain. Extremely talented ski instructors from Whistler Ski School perform dare-devil stunts by skiing down a slope, then twisting and turning through a ring of fire.
No. 8: Whistler is More Child-Friendly.
Both Whistler and Niseko organize childcare and ski camps for kids, so the kids are well looked after when the parents are out having fun.
However, Whistler does have a edge here as other activities are available to kids too. You can take your children tubing at Coca Cola Tube Park, or you can pick up a toboggan from the hardware store in the village and take them tobogganing at the base of Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains. You can also load the kids onto the toboggan and drag them about for a fun ride along snowy trails in the various parks and even right through the village.
There's also a 150-capacity outdoor ice skating rink at the Whistler Olympic Plaza. Skating is free and you only need to pay CAD7.00 for skate rental. Near the ice rink is the outdoor playground which the kids will find equally entertaining.
No. 9: Bus from Vancouver to Whistler is Faster & Cheaper than Bus from Sapporo / New Chitose Airport to Niseko.
The distance from Sapporo / New Chitose Airport to Niseko is roughly 105 km and the bus journey takes about 2.5 hours, with a rest stop. The cheapest one way ticket costs JPY2,650 (about S$35.00) per adult one way. A good site with info on getting to Niseko can be found here.
Oddly enough, it only takes 1.5 hours to get from Vancouver to Whistler by bus, even though the distance is slightly further at 120 km. We've used Epic Rides several times before and can vouch for their service. What they charge on a round-trip basis is essentially the cost of the cheapest one-way ticket from Sapporo / New Chitose Airport to Niseko.
There's an even cheaper option than Epic Rides, and that would be Whistler Rides. We used them on our last trip, but I wouldn't recommend them. They were very disorganized and getting on the bus was chaotic, with passengers rushing for seats and some of us getting booted off even though we had tickets. The luggage hold was insufficient for the number of people the bus carried and suitcases were just left along the aisle, blocking off any emergency passage. We had to cling onto the suitcases with wheels the entire trip, to prevent them from rolling to the front of the bus. Terrible experience.
Another bus company I recommend is Snowbus. They charge a little more, but their coaches are large and comfortable.
No. 10: Cheaper & More Flexible Ski Rental in Whistler than Niseko
After researching for a reputable ski rental company in Niseko, we went with Rhythm. They were conveniently located opposite the Ace Family Run in Hirafu, and customers could store their equipment with them at the end of each day. Their standard skis, boots and poles package cost JPY24,500.00 (about S$323.00) for 7 days.
In Whistler, we like Spicy Sports Blackcomb. They're located at the base of Blackcomb Mountain and they offer an attractive 20% discount when you book online. Their standard skis, boots and poles package costs CAD206.08 (about S$212.00) for 7 days after the 20% discount. The dudes who run the place are really cool. You can book their skis for 3 weeks for instance, and on days when you're taking the day off skiing, you can keep the skis, drop by and let them know you'd not be skiing and you won't be charged for those days. Payment will only be paid at the end of the rental period.
Not only are the ski rental rates much cheaper in Whistler for similar equipment as Niseko, the rental terms are much more flexible too. The only downside with Spicy Sports is that they do not allow overnight storage at their premises. We've to lug our heavy equipment back to our accommodation's ski locker each day.
No. 11: A Certain Lift Pass Makes Whistler the Cheapest Place to Ski in the World
Skiing during off-peak season is invariably cheaper than going at the peak. In Niseko, early season is from 21 November to 10 December, and a 7-day all mountain lift pass costs JPY33,800.00 (about S$445.00). On the other hand, Whistler's early season runs from 29 November to 25 December, and a 7-day lift pass will set you back by a painful CAD682.08 (about S$702.00).
Whichever way you twist it, there's no escaping that Whistler's lift pass generally costs much more than Niseko's. This is especially so when you don't purchase the all mountain pass at Niseko, but the watered down version which allows you to ski at Hirafu and Hanazono only. Such passes cover 60% of the skiable terrain in Niseko and range from as low as JPY3,600.00 (about S$47.00) for a 5-hour pass to JPY4,300.00 (S$57.00) for a 1-day pass during off-peak season.
There is one exceptionally cheap way of skiing Whistler though, and that would be the Magic Chair hack. The Magic Chair is the lift which takes you up from the base of Blackcomb Mountain to the start of the beginner run called the Yellow Brick Road. The Yellow Brick Road leads you down Village Run straight to Whistler Gondola in Whistler Village. This ticket is not publicized in Whistler's website, but it is possible to buy it from the ticket window for CAD25.00 plus tax (about S$29.00). The amazing thing about this ticket is that it entitles you to ride the Whistler Gondola up Whistler Mountain so you can utilize the Olympic Chair as well. I'll be deliberately vague here so you can look at a trail map of Whistler Mountain, put two-and-two together, and unlock Whistler's best kept secret.
At the end of your ski day at Whistler Mountain, hitch a free ride on Excalibur Gondola back to Blackcomb Mountain. The Magic Chair is the last chair to stop operations every day, so you can enjoy zooming down Yellow Brick Road or Lower Merlins till the sky turns dark. This is one of the reasons Upper Village is the ideal place to stay in Whistler.
No. 12: Whistler Trumps Niseko in Celeb Spotting
Whistler is a popular winter playground for the world's rich and famous, royalties, Hollywood A-listers, Asian stars and other celebrities. Many of them even own vacation homes in the area. Behind oversized, reflective ski googles, beanie and ski or snowboard attire, celebrities can move about anonymously with absolute ease. You never know who could be standing next to you at the urinal in the public toilet on the mountain!