The Canadian village of Whistler is home to so many Australians that it has been dubbed 'Whistralia". Ben Groundwater finds out what they're doing there.
The Australians have taken over. In fact, they took over long ago. Everywhere you go in Whistler, Canada, there's an Australian. You couldn't throw a snowball without hitting an Australian.
Wake up in the morning and go for breakfast – you're being served by an Australian. Grab your ski gear from the hotel – the girl behind the desk is Australian. Smile at the cleaner – he's Australian.
Head to the chairlift – the operator is Australian. Maybe take a lesson – your instructor is Australian. Eat lunch – served by an Australian. Grab a beer once the lifts closed – cracked open, of course, by an Australian. Time for dinner – guess where your waiter's from? Australia.
You're starting to get the idea now. There's a reason this place, North America's largest ski resort, has been nicknamed "Whistralia": because it really is chock full of Australians.
It's difficult to get your head around the sheer scale of the invasion until you actually arrive and take in the number of Australian accents at Whistler Blackcomb. There are others, too – plenty of English accents, even the odd Canadian one – but the massive majority are speaking genuine Strine.
So what's the attraction? Why do some many young Australian travellers wind up living and working in Whistler when Canada and the USA offer so many alternatives? Why are we taking over en masse?
Dylan Stewart is the Marketing and Communications Editor at IEP, an organisation that helps travellers get over to North America with the appropriate working visas. He says Whistler has plenty of attractions, not least of which is that huge bulk of other Australians.
"Many Aussies end up at Whistler because they know that there'll be countless other Australians there as well," Stewart says. "The benefit for Aussies is that with all the Australian accents, they never seem too far away from home."
Then there's the not-insignificant lure of the Whistler nightlife. Unlike some of the more family-oriented resorts, once the sun goes down in Whistler the nation's biggest ski area becomes the nation's biggest party. And for some reason that seems to appeal to young Australians.
"Whistler has always had the connotations of being a huge party town," says Stewart, "and you don't need to spend long there to realise that the reputation is warranted. Apres-ski activities are as big a drawcard as the mountain itself, and it means that even if you aren't a great skier or boarder – or if you break your arm on the first run of the winter – there's still plenty to do."
More than anything else, however, Whistler is just well known. You could probably find better terrain at Revelstoke, or nightlife in Banff, or beauty in Lake Louise. But ask anyone which ski resorts they know in Canada and Whistler will inevitably be top of the list. So where else are you going to go?
There's also a certain ease for Australians in taking a working holiday in Whistler, or Canada as a whole. It's not just the familiar accents, the similarities in culture between Canada and Australia and the many opportunities for employment on the mountain, but the lack of issues in getting there in the first place.
If you're under 31 it's relatively straightforward to get hold of a working holiday visa for Canada through the International Experience program. The visa lasts for two years, but get talking to a few people around the mountain and you soon realise that plenty of Aussies have figured out ways to extend the fun. And given Whistler is a year-round resort, with the ski area morphing into a mountain-biking park in the warmer months, most people never feel the need to go anywhere else.
Plus, the ski terrain is long and varied. If you've got two mates, one of whom fancies himself as the next Shaun White and the other who's never strapped into a binding, Whistler is the sort of place that's going to please them both. And there's always the Tube Park if you want to hang out together.
The jobs Australians are doing in Whistler range from the predictable to the bizarre, the well-paid to the... well, not very well paid. There are the traditional ski-bum jobs like lift operator, cleaner, chalet all-rounder (a nice way of saying that you have to do everything), and barmen.
(There's an Australian guy called Dave working at a hotel there, and his sole job seems to be to replace broken doors. "You wouldn't believe how many people manage to kick their doors in here," he says with a sigh. "Mostly drunk Czechs for some reason.")
But there are other employment options in Whistler as well.
Right now there are Aussies driving shuttle buses for hotels, as well as cooking the food in the restaurants. Some wind up spending their nights behind the wheel of the huge snow groomers, while others with experience nab a coveted position as a ski or snowboard instructor. And there's more.
"Some manage to use their trade to carve out a living, which often keeps them employed once the season has finished, too," says Stewart. "HR and hotel guest staff are other positions that many of our participants find themselves working in both at Whistler and other resorts throughout Canada, as well as in shops, takeaway restaurants, car parks and tourist info places."
Of course, it doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you're doing something to keep the cash flowing in and the dream alive. What you're really there for is that huge mountain, those metres of snow, those pumping bars – and the fact that you're a long, long way from home.
For more on working holidays in Canada, visit https://www.whpcanada.org.au/
The writer travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism British Columbia.