By George Medovoy

Wine, food, tourism are just "upstairs" in a Whistler ski holiday in British Columbia. Imagine flying off to a foreign destination on a romantic ski holiday accented by fine wines and superb cuisine -- and finding yourself just 'upstairs' from the United States. There is such a place -- it's Whistler, British Columbia. And it is, to borrow a phrase from the writer Horace Sutton, "just upstairs," figuratively speaking, of course, from the United States. Sutton, in "Footloose in Canada," said of our neighbor to the north: "Canada is clean, healthy, young, polite, unspoiled, and, as I say, just upstairs."

Those are all wonderful reasons for coming up to Whistler, a lovely slice of Canada, indeed, to ski and taste the wine, the food, and the traditional warmth of Canadian hospitality this winter...

Our recent visit to Whistler started out early in the day, with a leisurely two-hour drive from the sparkling waterfront city of Vancouver, along the scenic Sea to Sky Highway through BC's alpine interior. After crossing Lion's Gate Bridge, the Vancouver landmark that links the city to the attractive northern and western suburbs near Burrard Inlet, we joined Highway 99, skirting Cypress Provincial Park and Lions Bay. Our drive paralleled the forested rail route to Whistler resort. First impressions are usually the most accurate, and in the case of Whistler, I'd say that mine has only lingered: a veritable "fairy tale village" of restaurants, outdoor cafes, and shopping and lodging, all connected by charming cobblestone pedestrian walkways. And remember that this British Columbia gem has an important extra going for it: the value of the U.S. dollar is definitely in your favor. On that latter point, a friend who lives in Whistler drew this sweet analogy: if you buy a chocolate bar in the U.S., you get one chocolate bar -- but for the same U.S. dollar in Canada, they'll give you one-and-a-half chocolate bars. What a sweet deal!

We circled the village to find our immediate destination, the Pan Pacific Lodge, a comfy place with 121 suites and awesome views of Whistler's two mountains -- Whistler and Blackcomb.
The lodge also offers studio rooms, a health club, a contemporary restaurant with slope-side dining, and an outdoor heated pool and spa facing both mountains. Because the lodge is two minutes from both the Whistler and Blackcomb Excalibur gondola base stations, it's a very convenient place to stay.

Whistler and Blackcomb combine 7,000 acres of ski slopes that stretch over eight miles, including North America's steepest vertical drop. From spring through fall, the village is decked out with flowers. But a hint of winter on the horizon could be seen on this sign outside a small cafe: "PLEASE LEAVE YOUR SKIS AND SNOWBOARDS OUTSIDE."

Whistler is a year-round playground with skiing, snowboarding (including summer skiing and snowboarding on Blackcomb Mountain from June to August).

At Whistler Mountain, the top elevation is 7,160 feet, with a base elevation of 2,140 feet. The vertical rise is 5,020 feet. The mountain has 16 lifts, with the following terrain types: 25% expert, 55% intermediate and 20% beginner. There are 100-plus marked runs.

At Blackcomb, the top elevation is 7,494 feet, with a base elevation of 2,214 feet. The vertical rise is 5,280 feet. Blackcomb has 17 lifts with the following terrain types: 30% expert, 55% intermediate, and 15% beginner. There are 100-plus marked trails. The Whistler area has an average of 30 feet of snowfall per year on the summit. Temperatures in December-February range from 11 degrees to 23 degrees and from March-May from 19 degrees to 42 degrees.

With an endless array of activities like alpine hiking, biking, children's camps, family entertainment, flightseeing, paragliding, horseback riding, fishing, tennis, water sports on five lakes and countless rivers, and, of course lots of golf in the summer.

When evening comes, Whistler offers many fine dining options, but the ultimate in fine dining here is definitely the Bearfoot Bistro, hands down one of British Columbia's -- and Canada's -- best restaurants. The bistro's owner is a consummate restaurateur from Montreal named Andre St. Jacques, who has spared nothing to bring an incredibly creative food experience to the table. If you've ever dined in Montreal, you'll know that eating in a restaurant run by someone from Quebec Province can be a sure tip-off to great food. And in the case of St. Jacques and his Bearfoot Bistro, everything is true to form.

Located in the center of Whistler Village, the bistro is modestly decorated with a large, open kitchen, ceiling fans, and high-backed chairs. The superb menu is complemented by a formidable collection of wines, including varietals from British Columbia's emerging vineyards of the
Okanagan Valley, a 100-mile wine region where 51 wineries produce 95 percent of BC wines.
Between its wine cellar and the upstairs dining room, the restaurant stocks about 16,000 bottles, including a complete vertical of Mouton Rothschild, with one bottle emblazoned with a V for victory to mark the end of World War II.

Champagne's include Dom Perignon and Veuve Cliquot by the glass. At dinner, my appetizer was a Lightly Smoked Sockeye Salmon, served warm atop a Magenta Potato Haricot Vert Salad, with Fine Herb Creme Fraiche, and Quebec Sturgeon Caviar. The main course was Pan Roasted Silver Gray Rock Fish, very delicately seared, with an Herbal Chanterelle Risotto, Truffle Chive Salad and New Zealand Spinach. Dessert was a consummate Organic White Peach and Lemon Verbena Pastry Cream Tartellete with Ginger Caramel and Cherry Basil Sorbet -- so delicate and freshly made that I still dream about it.

Heading up all that inventiveness in the kitchen are executive chef Brock Windsor, recently of Vancouver Island's Sooke Harbor House, and executive sous chef Chris Jones, who worked at the island's Aerie inn. Both inns are among the best in BC. Windsor and Jones emphasize local BC products, which are indeed phenomenal -- fresh fish, like sable, black cod and salmon, and fresh herbs and vegetables from local farmers.

Besides cooking with products second to none in quality, with many coming from local organic farms, Windsor told me in between cooking that he likes to "cook a little bit on the seat of your pants -- to be constantly pushing yourself."And it certainly shows in the results! Other entrees on the menu included: Loin of Wild Northwest Territories Caribou, Breast of Quebec Muscovy Duck, Filet of Alberta Beef, and Gulf Island Lamb. And of course, St. Jacques will delight your taste buds with his appetizer of Quebec Fois Gras! St. Jacques understands that wine's role is to complement food, and he spends a great deal of time at auctions, replenishing his proud selection with the likes of Chateau Petrus (vertical back to '45), Caymus, special selection (back to '80) and Dom Perignon (vertical back to '66). But on this particular evening, our attention was on BC wine, and what a pleasant experience it was.

We sampled two lovely Okanagan wines by Burrowing Owl Vineyards: a Chardonnay with a light golden color and definite hints of nectarine flavor, and a Merlot with flavors of black currants and plums. Burrowing Owl is located on the eastern side of the Okanagan Valley. Its Merlot has already attracted international acclaim. The winery also concentrates on Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. When the days in the Okanagan Valley get shorter and cooler, the grapes can go through final stages of the ripening process at a slow, steady pace, allowing for great flavors and aromas.

The Okanagan region is located in central British Columbia and is the oldest and largest wine growing region of the province, with 3,700 acres of premium grape varieties. The south end of the valley, which receives fewer than six inches of rainfall a year, is the only classified desert area in Canada, while the north end, also arid, receives fewer than16 inches.

Classic red vinifera grapes are widely planted in the south end, with French and German white grape varieties dominating vineyards in the north. British Columbia also produces Icewine from 100% British Columbia-grown grapes, which are harvested naturally frozen on the vine at -8 Celsius or colder.

Spectacular mountains and beautiful lakes surround over 30 Okanagan wineries, where visitors can experience a world-class wine-touring holiday in an unparalleled setting. Along the Okanagan's legendary Golden Mile, you can find wineries at every turn of the road.

Cuban Cigars, Anyone? Canada has had diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba for some time, and while they must account for a very small amount of trade, Cuban cigars are one of the most popular items -- especially for Americans, who are prevented from buying the cigars back home due to the U.S. embargo. The Canadians know this, obviously, because signs advertising fine Havana's seem to be everywhere in Vancouver and Whistler. "Ninety percent of customers are Americans who want to try them," said Steve S. Shokar of "Castro's Cuban Cigar Store" in Whistler Village, a cozy shop with no connection to Castro or the Cuban government, despite its name. Shokar reminds Americans before they indulge that Havana's "are innately spicier" than other brands.

The entrepreneur sells top-rated Cuban cigars, including the Cohiba, the Cuban diplomatic cigar for over 20 years that was produced for Castro's personal use or to be given out on behalf of the Cuban government to foreign dignitaries. The cigars range in price from $14 -- $25 U.S., though there is one, the Cohiba Pyramid commissioned for the millennium and the anniversary of the Cuban revolution that sells for a "mere" $180 U.S.

"In a resort that most people find absolutely stunning," said Shokar, "if they have a great experience like a golf game in summer or skiing in winter, they can cap their day with one of the world's finest cigars." Shokar's Havana Lounge, where one can also enjoy a cigar, serves Jamaica Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona coffees as well as Indian and Chinese teas. Cognacs and ports from around the world are planned.

Vancouver: A Pacific Gem People often compare Vancouver with San Francisco. After all, they are both Pacific urban centers. But Vancouver, surrounded as it is by water and the Coastal Mountains, is more than steel and glass. The city lies on the edge of the great Northwestern outdoors, and you really do feel the clean pull of nature in the city.

Nowhere is this more evident than when you're looking out on the city from atop the Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel, a spectacular 23-story waterfront location at the Canada Place complex -- with unforgettable views of the harbor and the hilly northern and western suburbs. This is one of those hotels you always remember, not only for its impeccable service and wonderful comforts, but also for the centrality of its food experience.

At the Pan Pacific, the food side, understandably, plays on a Pacific Rim theme. The restaurants feature Cafe Pacifica, an informal place with operatic selections every Friday night at the Italian Opera Buffet and a jazz trio for Sunday Brunch; the 92-seat Misaki Restaurant for Edomae-style Sushi; the Cascades Lounge, a lobby bar perfect for light lunches or cocktails; and Aromaz Coffee Bar, for a sweet pastry and what most Vancouverites go crazy for -- their morning coffee fix.

But best of all, I think, is the Five Sails Restaurant, where chef Jean Yves Benoit, newly arrived from Provence, oversees fine international cuisine. Get a seat near the window, and the harbor-mountain skyline is yours for the evening. The Pan Pacific's location makes it very close to downtown shopping, historic Gastown, and Stanley Park, whose 1,000 acres, located on a woodsy peninsula that juts out from the city's core, have been described as "a thousand-acre therapeutic couch."From the front door of the hotel, it's a 10-minute drive across Lion's Gate Bridge to Stanley Park, and presto, you're in a slice of wilderness within the city, with squirrels, raccoons, and numerous species of birds and waterfowl. The park offers something for everyone. Some examples: The wonderful Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Science Center is perfect for a family outing to view the richness of Pacific Canada and the Canadian Arctic.

At Nature House, you can rent a bike and ride around the Stanley Park Seawall. Or if you prefer, you can walk or run it. In early morning, you'll likely pass Chinese fishermen at Siwash Rock, where Indian princess-poet Pauline Johnson's ashes are scattered. If you stroll around Lost Lagoon, you may spot a blue heron or a wood duck Beaver Lake, nestled inside the park, is a sanctuary for birds and people alike. Come night, no matter where you find yourself in Vancouver, you'll hear the Nine O'clock Gun -- a loud old English sea cannon dating back 100 years which was fired originally to remind local fishermen of fishing time limits. Today, it sounds every evening at nine, a reminder of a modern Pacific city's rich heritage.