By Steve Meacham
Senior Features Writer, The Sydney Morning Herald
It's amazing to think that it will soon be 12 years since I first went to the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan - and met my now wife. We were both there working; I was sports editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, desperately planning our coverage of the Sydney Olympics two years later, and Annie was leading a corporate hospitality program.
Four years later, in what looked set to become an Olympic tradition, we went together to Salt Lake City. But, in 2006, I was left minding our two children, while she set off for Turin in Italy - or "Torino" as she insisted on calling it.
Although she is staying at home with the kids this time around, she spent a substantial amount of time in the Canadian province of British Columbia last year checking out the facilities and venues for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, which kicked off last week.
Her verdict? These are going to be among the most organised Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games ever. The venues were completed well before their deadline (no last-minute, Athens-like panic here) and they stretch over a huge 140-km zone, from the shores of Richmond, just south of Vancouver, to the Rocky Mountain peaks of Whistler-Blackcomb - already one of the most popular North American ski resorts for Australians. (Just listen to the Aussie accents of many of the lift attendants.)
At the heart of the Games is BC Place, the largest air-supported domed stadium in the world, capable of hosting 60,000 spectators. This is where the Opening Ceremony was performed, supervised by Australian David Atkins.
The Olympic Games will run until 21 February, followed by the Paralympic Games from 12-21 March.
The historic and picturesque city of Vancouver is hosting many of the most popular of the 20 sports, including ice hockey, figure skating and short track speed skating. (Remember Steven Bradbury's unexpected gold medal at Salt Lake City, after all of his opponents collided and tumbled across the ice?)
There are three other Olympic "zones". Richmond, about 12 km south of Vancouver, hosts speed skating. Cypress Mountain, 30 km north of Vancouver, hosts the snowboarding and freestyle events, thanks to facilities improved specifically for the games. Even Whistler, site of the alpine skiing, sliding and cross-country skiing events, has been re-badged. The name no longer refers to the town, but to the wider ski resort facilities on both the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
As with all Olympic Games, tickets and accommodation are best booked in advance. If you've missed out, or even if you've chosen to watch the Games at home on TV, there's probably no better winter for visiting Vancouver and/or Whistler than 2010 - perhaps after the Games have finished.
It has to be admitted that some of the region's best tourist attractions - such as the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Steveston fishing village in Richmond, the Van Dusen Botanical Garden and the ferry to colourful Granville Island - are best done in summer.
However, Vancouver is known as the San Francisco or Sydney of Canada - an international destination with plenty of winter-friendly activities. Highly regarded institutions include the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, which recently underwent a $C55.5 million (about $A59.85 million) expansion the better to show off its world-class display of indigenous culture from around the world. Similarly, the Royal BC Museum on Victoria's Inner Harbour has a cultural precinct that would take at least a day to explore.
Stanley Park, complete with Beaver Lake and Lost Lagoon, is worth exploring at any time of year. Then there's historic Gas Town, trendy Yaletown, with its cafes and restaurants, and the city's Chinatown, with all the exotic experiences you would expect of a place that benefitted from the gold rush.
Be sure to take the cable-car ride up Grouse Mountain, which overlooks the city and its harbour; from its peak you may well see bears.
Then at night, take the 50-second, glass-sided lift to the top of the 177m-high Harbour Centre Tower for a 360° panorama of a city where mountains meet the Pacific Ocean.
And yet most Australians who fly into Vancouver airport will go straight up the mountain to Whistler. If you haven't taken the 14-hour flight from Sydney for a few years, you'll notice big changes.
The main one is the $100 million Peak 2 Peak gondola, which links Whistler and Blackcomb mountains for the first time. Before it opened last season, most skiers would choose to spend each day on either Whistler or Blackcomb, both of which have more than enough terrain to occupy all but the most ferocious skiers or snowboarders.
Now you can catch the 24-seat gondola cabin, which crosses the 4.4-km gap between the two in just 11 minutes. That may not be quite as fast as the winner of this year's Olympic downhill, but it's a lot more comfortable. And, unlike a downhill skier, you even have time to enjoy the view!
Published: 15 Feb 2010