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Getting Whistler

International resort doesn't have to mean international prices. Vivian Moreau joins thousands of visitors this summer to re-discover Whistler's original and inexpensive charm.

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"You live in Whistler – isn’t that expensive?"

It’s a question I’ve been asked a hundred times since moving to Whistler a year ago. People from away don’t "get" Whistler. To them the town of 9,000 that bulges to 50,000-plus in the winter is a neurotic cross between a Swiss mountain village and Las Vegas, minus the casinos.

When I arrived here last fall I would have agreed. Landing with my daughter on a bone-chilling, rainy day was disheartening. There wasn’t much to be excited by in a town where the average house price is $1.2 million, a jar of spaghetti sauce costs $5, and rent for our tiny two-bedroom suite ate up $1,600 a month.

But over winter I figured things out – Sunlight on fresh snow cheers things up. I discovered which grocery story has the best meat prices, which has the best produce selection and which bakery the best day-olds. I learned to gas up here because it’s cheaper than in the city. My daughter and I both discovered the joy of garage sale priced designer clothing at the Re-Use-It Centre.

Then with spring I discovered another Whistler. One that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, but requires you to use both arms and legs. Getting outside. It’s free, it’s here. What a concept.

"Whistler has re-discovered itself," Mayor Ken Melamed says as we push through throngs of visitors in Village Stroll during Crankworx. Tourism Whistler says visitor numbers are up 30 per cent this summer over 2005, apparent as Melamed, in red shirt and ball cap, volunteers for his first day as a village host. After years of working on-mountain with the ski patrol he says it feels natural to help those who look lost or confused. He stops and asks a family how they’re enjoying the village. Condo owners who come up from Vancouver regularly, they remark they’ve never seen it so busy. When he tells them he’s the mayor of Whistler their faces light up like he’s a rock star, an encounter that requires a group photo.

"Our family used to live for winter," Melamed says afterward. "But now we live for both seasons."

Melamed is one of 50 village host volunteers who help visitors find their way around the village. In its first full year, the program coordinated by Cathie Coyle and backed by the municipality is always looking for more volunteers. After an eight-hour training stint volunteers who agree to take on two, three-hour shifts per month will field such questions as what can I do here with kids, where should we eat, where is the gondola?

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