On the northern edge of Whistler, in the heart of the coastal rainforest known as Cougar Mountain, there's a hub of activity going on in between the towering cedars and firs. It's hard to see it ... if you're not looking for it. Dozens of people are tucked in the forest, hard at work. Clandestine audio speakers hang up high; lights are strung in rows above; new staircases and a trail carve through the forest floor; green electrical boxes sit strategically throughout, delivering high voltage power for a show designed to dazzle the senses in an evocative night-time display of lights and sounds.
The stage is almost set, the curtain just about ready to be pulled back ... but let's not give away the enchanting secrets of Vallea Lumina.
Instead, imagine a world that harnesses the fairy-tale magic of Whistler's forests with state-of-the-art multi media technology—showcasing nature in high-def.
Ancient rushing waters, swaying cedars and hemlocks, and fresh west-coast air meshed with massive screens, interconnected lights and sounds to create an innovative and evocative nighttime world of wonder—a world of talking trees, larger-than-life animals, luminescent fish, shooting stars, showering stardust, and an adventure quest in the rainforest.
Vallea Lumina, opening in July, is unlike anything Whistler has ever seen before. Joey Houssian, who had the vision to bring Vallea Lumina to Whistler under his company, The Adventure Group (TAG), is counting down the days until he can unveil the show—it's bigger than anything TAG has done before, and a significant departure from its now-conventional zipline tours, snowmobile tours and whitewater-rafting adventures.
"I hope the experience evokes in people the interconnectedness of us all; that humans are not separate from nature, we are a part of nature," explains Houssian as he talks of what drove him to take TAG in this new direction.
"It's right here in front of you ... if you just look. And by helping you see it with the use of lights and sound and a little bit of magic, and also an insane amount of technology, we think we can land that message."
It's a roughly one-hour self-guided tour through the forest, with appeal across the ages from kids to adults.
This multi-million-dollar investment is just one of several new investments in Whistler's tourism offerings this summer, making it clear that the resort is no longer just a playground for hard-core bikers, skiers and climbers. This is a place for everyone, and the heart of its tourism product remains Mother Nature.
It's also clear that from small businesses to Vail Resorts, Whistler is not resting on its laurels content to soak in the success of year over year record-breaking tourism numbers.
"It's an exciting time for Whistler, as we welcome many new product offerings to the resort—from accommodation to activities and attractions, we are fortunate that our members are always looking to further enhance the visitor experience," said Karen Goodwin, Tourism Whistler's vice president of destination and market development. "Diversifying our product offerings really helps support long-term strategies toward sustainable tourism.
" ... The new Vallea Lumina is like nothing we've seen at Whistler and gives our visitors, especially families, an exciting after dinner activity. In addition, Whistler Blackcomb will open the new Peak suspension bridge and West Ridge viewpoint atop Whistler Mountain, making the high alpine experience even more exhilarating."
This is a time of continued bold moves, big investments, and an underlying faith that Whistler still has places to go.
FROM HIGH-END TECH TO BOLD FEATS OF ENGINEERING
If state-of-the-art technology is making Whistler's rainforests come alive in new ways, then bold engineering is taking its mountaintop views to new heights.
The final pieces of the new suspension bridge at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) are almost in place, spanning 130 metres from the top of the Peak Chair across Whistler Bowl to the cantilevered West Ridge lookout.
Slowly, in fact, metre by metre, the deck has stretched along the peak in painstaking pieces, like a "mechano set" coming to life, only this one gives you mountaintop views for kilometres in every direction, not to mention the thrill of the walk.
WB has taken its cues from other popular suspension bridges in the region, namely at Capilano and Squamish.
"For us, when we think about summer in particular, every visitor has always been really important for us," says Rob McSkimming, vice president of business development, of the rationale for the investment, part of a larger $66 million work on the mountains, committed by new owners Vail Resorts. It is the largest single-year capital investment in the company's history.
"(The suspension bridge) is really just part of a longer-term plan to continue adding those 'wow' attractions," adds McSkimming, with a nod to the popular Peak 2 Peak Gondola, too.
That, combined with continually upgrading standards and products like the new Umbrella Bar at the Roundhouse for example, is all part of the mantra—every tourist is important, everyone can experience the mountains from the top.
Small businesses are getting in the game too. Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures has just opened its Whistler Sky Walk tour, high above Pika's Traverse on Whistler Mountain. Unlike its Via Ferrata (or iron road) course climbing to the peak, this is meant as a "shorter, gentler adventure," says marketing manager Joelle Tiessen.
She's knows all about this idea of broadening Whistler's appeal.
"That's precisely why we did this," she says. "Quite a few people are intimidated by the Via Ferrata."
Whistler Sky Walk will take guests on a two-hour guided tour over suspended bridges and walkways. It's also using new technology, sourced from Europe.
Unlike the clip/unclip harness for the Via Ferrata, Sky Walk features a system where guests are clipped in the whole way and simply slide their clips through the entire course.
"There's no chance you could ever be unclipped," she says.
In short, millions of dollars have been pumped back into the community in the last year in an effort to showcase Whistler.
"As demographics change, as the DNA in the type of visitor that comes to Whistler changes, there are some question marks," says Houssian. "But I generally view it as positive and I'm optimistic that continuing to invest in my company and the experiences that we provide our collective visitors to Whistler is sound logic. Hence, this investment."
ON BRAND, OR NOT?
But does this move to embrace the world, and every tourist, dilute the Whistler brand; that intangible sense that this is a place of hard-core, double-black, larger-than-life living that encapsulates the mountain town?
As Houssian sees it, Lumina fills a void in Whistler.
"It was an after-dark opportunity and it was family-friendly—two things we felt would play well in Whistler," he says.
It's right on brand too with this idea of making nature accessible, showing the world Whistler's natural beauty.
Adds McSkimming of the direction to woo the everyday tourist: "I don't think it takes away from our core lifestyle."
As he speaks he describes the view from his office window, looking out at the Adventure Zone at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, a scene full of multi-generational tourists, diverse ethnicities.
Conversely, the view from the GLC looking around the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, world mecca of mountain biking, is totally different, he observes—pro bikers doing gravity-defying tricks with wide-eyed groms looking on in awe.
What is the common denominator, muses McSkimming?
Arguably, it's the mountains, the forests, the lakes that have a massive, wide-reaching appeal—an appeal everyone wants to tap into.
NATURE IN HIGH-DEF
Take it from Jonathan St-Onge, general manager of the Lumina division of Moment Factory, the Canadian company that now has eight "Lumina" shows (among many other things) to its name around the world with Whistler, Japan and Singapore all coming online this year.
"We were amazed by the immensity of the nature (in Whistler)," he says on arriving at the Cougar Mountain site to map out Whistler's Lumina.
The site was, he adds, everything you imagine Whistler to be—big, bold, inspiring.
That natural beauty is intertwined in the unique Vallea Lumina show. The local culture and lore is also tied into the narrative in creating the one-of-a-kind experience.
"It becomes an inspiration and with that inspiration we create our own story," says St-Onge from Moment Factory's Montreal headquarters.
Whistler, he adds, is the ideal playground.
Creating a night-time show only adds to the excitement—your sense of smell become sharper, your ears too, allowing your imagination to take flight.
"All your other senses get more important in terms of the human experience," says St-Onge.
For Houssian, who moved quickly on the project (roughly nine months from concept to completion) once he realized he wanted to bring it to Whistler, this was also a chance to communicate a message. It's not overt. It's a subtle story behind the show, a message of oneness and finding soulfulness in the forest.
"I think to connect people in this way and really bring the magic of outdoors, and particularly the forest, to life could and should have some impact on people. If they get the message, great; if the message impacts or even modifies behaviour, even better," shares Houssian.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS FOR CANADA DAY AND BEYOND
Whistler Sky Walk: Regularly priced $109/adult, the new interpretive guided tour will be 50 per cent off over the Canada Day long weekend from June 30 to July 2. Mountainskillsacadmey.com
Whistler Blackcomb: The suspension bridge will be open for the Canada Day long weekend although the cantilevered West Ridge viewing platform will be added in a few weeks' time. The Mountain Top Summer Feast will have extended hours over the Canada Day weekend. The fireworks display kicks off at 10 p.m. on July 1 at the Roundhouse. Whistlerblackcomb.com
Vallea Lumina: The tour will cost $29/person. It begins in July 18. Tagwhistler.com