The Sea-to-Sky corridor is many things to many people.
When the sun finally rouses from hibernation, it's all about golf -- and some of the best to be found in Canada.
In Pemberton, just a brief drive beyond Whistler, there is Big Sky.
Rated by Golf Digest as runner-up for "Canada's Best New Golf Course" when it opened in 1994, Big Sky has continued to rack up accolades from the media and playing public ever since.
This multi-faceted facility includes a nine-hole Par-27 Academy Course, a large outdoor practice range and teaching centre, a generously appointed pro shop and club house, Fescues Restaurant and patio and, of course, the Big Sky Golf Course.
At 7,100 yards from the tournament tees, Big Sky was designed by course architect Robert Cupp -- creator of Oregon's Pumpkin Ridge courses and Liberty National in New Jersey -- and it stands among his finest works.
Big Sky is enough of a course to match the landscape: large, open and generous in spots, but filled with peril for the careless or unwary. Bent-grass tee boxes, fairways and greens give it an incredible playability in any weather, and when we finally get some sunshine, it will be the fastest track in town.
On the Monday of the May long weekend I was joined by my friend Dan Foster and we made the pilgrimage. Neither of us had played Big Sky before and on the way up we swapped tales gleaned from others. It was like heading to fight a guy you had only heard rumours about: nine feet tall, made of solid titanium, a cannibal.
In this case, it was about the fairways, the greens, the hazards and the otherworldly experience of playing there.
The journey began grimly in showers and grey weather. As we worked our way up the rocky passes of the Squamish Valley to the Pemberton Plateau, the morning temperature scratched and clawed its way barely into double digits.
Just outside Pemberton, the rain eased.
The otherworldly feel of Big Sky was reinforced by what we saw as we arrived at the course: a collection of funky metal sculptures began at the entrance and lined the driveway to the clubhouse. The work of Vancouver-based sculptor Davide Pan, they combined bits of industrial metal into large, stunning, post-apocalyptic bird and animal shapes and served as an apt metaphor for a golf course: the look of nature as interpreted by the hand of man.
We checked in and loaded our clubs in the cart. It was like crossing a portal into another world. Before us lay a wide expanse of rolling fairways punctuated by carefully placed trees and in the background Mount Currie loomed, walling off the outside world.
Everyone we spoke to that worked there seemed genuinely happy to see us and there was none of the hauteur still found at some resort courses. At Big Sky, they have managed to keep the "country" in country club.
The front nine is an introduction, with hazards gradually inserted as you move further into the course.
No. 1, at 424 yards from the blue tees, was an uncomplicated straightaway Par 4 with no hazards to speak of. What impressed us both was the fairways -- bent grass and perfectly trimmed -- which allowed some roll-on tee shots even in the lee of the wet weather.
Stay on the short grass, and you'll have a great lie to attack the pin on your second shot.
The greens were also in excellent condition. Speed and roll were both better than expected for the time of year and will only improve once the warm season finally arrives.
Note: the health of the fairways and greens is echoed in the rough: wispy, grasping and well worth steering clear of.
We walked away with bogies, which, after the drive up and not pausing to warm up on the range, were satisfying results.
Here we also met Carol -- who was operating the beverage cart. She was to be an unofficial member of our group and a welcome sight. Not so much for the food and drink on offer, but for her cheerful disposition. It was contagious.
Holes 2 and 3, a 376-yard Par 4 and 177-yard Par 3 respectively, introduce hazards to your shot calculations. On No. 2, there's a small lake to the left of the landing area and on the right, the first of many bunkers. On three, there's a creek in front of the tee box and water down the left.
Things got very interesting starting with the fourth hole. At 520 yards from the blues, it's cut in three by a creek that sits about 240 yards from the tee box and curls back to run in front of the green.
When we reached the tee box, the sun was beginning to exert itself and the view down the fairway to Mount Currie was spectacular. Dan was down the middle all the way for a great par and I was close but missed the putt for a bogie.
No. 6 was a 330-yard Par-4, but narrow by Big Sky's standards. On the right was a tree-lined ridge, on the left a forested verge and beyond that the river. The distractions began to multiply.
No. 7 was all water down the right to a green some 350 yards from the tee box. Slicers might wish to hit a long iron or fairway wood for a dry landing.
No. 8, a 360-yard Par 4, was landlocked but gave us all the sand we could ask for. There are two bunkers to the right of the landing area, three to the left and one more on the right just before the green. There are many places on the course to play "grip-and-rip" golf.
This is not one of them.
The 518-yard ninth hole led us back to the clubhouse and gave us a great panorama of the northern reaches of the Pemberton Valley. There's water almost all the way down the left side, but a generous helping of fairway to balance it off.
Having been introduced to sand and water on the front nine, on the back nine they were almost constant companions.
On No. 10, a 418-yard Par-4, there was an assembly of bunkers on the left of the landing area and, with the rightward arc of the fairway, these must be reckoned with.
No. 11, a 155-yard Par-3, was all water down the centre to the left, with the well-bunkered green jutting out into the pond. It's a beautiful layout, but very easy to miscalculate and end up wet.
No. 12 was also very interesting. This 412-yard Par-4 has a long stretch of fairway, but there's a creek running down the left that separates the last bit of fairway and the green from your tee shot. It can get in your head and cause you to over-think your second shot.
The 14th hole was also visually intimidating. While there was a generous landing area, it's all centre-left and down the right was a tree lined ridge with no room to slice. To the left of the green was another of the course's ten lakes, and overcompensating left for the peril on the right puts it seriously in play on your shot to the putting surface.
Water was very much at issue on the 378-yard 16th. It's a long right-swooping dogleg with water on the right from tee to green. It's easy to find the rough on the left as you try to escape the starboard hazard.
There are a number of memorable holes on this remarkable course, but for my money, No. 18 was the show-stopper. It's a 505-yard left-to-right Par-5 whopper of a hole. Like the 16th, there's water from tee to green down the right. Like the ninth, there's a generous landing area if you're not too wild off the tee. Like the fifth, there's a creek running in front of the green to add a scintilla of stress to your attack.
Unlike anywhere else though, there's a vast, cavernous, gaping maw of a bunker that runs from the mid left of the green around the front of the putting surface to the mid right. It's enormous and I can't think of its equal.
Easy to avoid you say? Au contraire.
I had plans for my third shot. Big plans. In the theatre of my mind it was to go up on a line left of the pin, then fade in and stop right beside the cup.
The line was good, the fade was good, but the distance? A little short and into the jaws of the Sahara.
Fortunately, the bunkers were as carefully maintained as the fairways and greens -- well sanded and very well drained. I was able to save par.
After our round, in the warm sun on the patio of the club's Fescues restaurant, we reminisced about the day.
Big Sky is a remarkable course. It's as grand as the scenery that surrounds it and the ground conditions are equal to or better than anything else you'll find in the Lower Mainland.
There is indeed an otherworldly feel to the place that's hard to pin down. Maybe it's the friendliness of the staff, maybe it's the condition of the greens and fairways, maybe it's the scenery. Maybe it's finding all of this in a single location.
Whatever it is, Big Sky is a triumph of design, execution and hospitality. If you've never played here, go. If you've played here before, you don't need me to tell you to return.
Dan and I certainly plan to.