Welcome to Little Australia

Megan Levy discovers that one foreign town has become a home away from home for Australians.

Half way across the world, standing high in the treetops of an ancient temperate rainforest, and you still can't escape the jubilance of a hard-core Magpies fan.

“Let's sing Collingwood Forever!” cries Rob Blood, a Frankston resident who is on an adrenaline-fuelled high after whizzing through the trees on a zipline in the Canadian snow resort of Whistler.

He strikes up the first few chords of the black-and-white anthem – before our tour leader joins in.

Because Michael “Marchy” Marchment is also a Victorian who, despite guiding thrill-seeking tourists through the forest canopy for the past three years as leader with Ziptrek Ecotours, still has his finger on the sporting pulse of his home state. And an Australian flag hanging from his safety belt.

“It's Collingwood's year,” the Bombers fan reluctantly admits, somewhat drowned out by Mr Blood's enthusiastic rendition.

In other parts of this vast country, the ensuing discussion about Hirdy's chances of resurrecting the Bombers' fortunes would have had punters arching their eyebrows in puzzlement.

But this is Whistler, the alpine playground where young Australians come in droves each year to work hard and party even harder, and where Australia Day is arguably the biggest day on the social calendar.

“You can't walk down the street without tripping over one of us,” says Mr Blood, after spending a week in the village with his young family.


He's not wrong.

Buy a beer at the Longhorn Saloon, and there's Me-Lea from Brisbane behind the bar.

Ride the gondola from the base of Blackcomb, and Steve, a liftie from Melbourne, says g'day.

Grab a massage at the Vida Spa, and there's an Aussie pampering guests to fund her snowboarding obsession.

The village centre supermarket stocks lamingtons, as well as Vegemite (for a staggering $8 a jar) and four varieties of Tim Tams, while dozens of Facebook groups have popped up dedicated to Aussies in Whistler: “'Cause there's bloody well enough of us,” says one.

Australian alpine skier Jono Brauer, who competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, was spot on when he dubbed the village “Whistralia”.

“It's like mini-Australia out here, and I'm loving it,” he said.

The statistics certainly back up his experience.

According to Tourism Whistler, in the past two years Australians have accounted for a staggering 34 per cent of Whistler-Blackcomb's workforce.

They're the second largest group behind Canadians, who make up 53 per cent of workers.

Back at the Longhorn Saloon at the base of Whistler mountain, where thirsty skiers and boarders retire at the end of a long day, Me-Lea says there are three reasons why young people like her swap a summer of surfing for a season of skiing.

“The language and culture are basically the same, so it's easy to fit in, and the visa's so easy to get,” she says, before dumping a trayload of beers in front of a bunch of thirsty Germans.

“And of course there's the snow.”

This year, there has been truckloads of it.

While La Nina has drowned Australia's east coast with a series of devastating floods, the same weather pattern has delivered a monster snowfall for Whistler Blackcomb.

It's already the third snowiest year on record at the resort, and is just inches away from the surging into second spot. The conditions this year were so great that Blackcomb mountain's winter season operating hours have been extended to the end of May.

You could spend hours pouring over the maze-like trail map – or you could just take off and spend those hours tearing down Seventh Heaven, dropping into one of the huge open alpine bowls, or bumping down the steep mogul runs that dot both mountains.

The conditions are truly spectacular. This may be North America's most popular ski resort, but there are those magical moments when you'll find yourself on a wide open, steep run, and look around to find it's entirely yours for the descent.

The two separate mountains Whistler and Blackcomb - which were independently owned, before merging in 1997 - are much more navigable since the opening of the Peak-to-Peak, an 11-minute, 4.4-kilometre gondola ride that stretches, as the name suggests, between the peaks of the two mountains.

The Australians who work here may earn a meagre wage performing menial jobs – waiting bars, manning lifts, showing first-time skiers the ropes - but they say the free lift passes make it worth the hard grunt.

This corner of British Columbia has also become an outpost of Australia due to the generous working visa agreements between Canada and Australia.

Aussie passport holders aged 18 to 30 can apply for a visa under the Canadian government's working holiday program, enabling them to work in Canada for up to two years. They can re-apply to return as long as they meet the eligibility requirements – a luxury not afforded to other countries.

Whistler-Blackcomb also makes an annual recruiting trip to major Australian cities to encourage young Aussies to indulge in a season of snowboarding, skiing – and, of course, socialising.

Because that's the reputation Australians, unsurprisingly, have garnered for themselves here.

Chat to the locals though, and they say while Aussies party hard, they also work hard, in those menial jobs that are necessary to keep such a large resort ticking over.

Scott from Squamish, less than an hour's drive away from the resort, says he and his friends bear no ill-feelings to the antipodean blow-ins.

“Sure, some of you guys are here to party and live 10 Aussies to a house,” he says.

“But if you weren't here, this place wouldn't be able to operate.”

Owing to the booming Aussie dollar, this year has also seen an influx of cashed-up Australians flying in for a holiday on the slopes.

Travellers from China, Australia and Brazil recorded a massive jump in visitor numbers this year, posting increases in overnight arrivals of 37 per cent, 20.6 per cent and 19.4 per cent respectively compared to 2010, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission.

This year particularly has seen a different breed of Aussie tourist splurging on – and off – the slopes.

They're skiing straight into the Fairmont Chateau, a castle-like hotel smack bang at the bottom of Blackcomb mountain, where a concierge relieves you of your snow equipment and checks it into storage until the following day. The concierge just happens to be a guy from Perth, too.

At the Scandinave Spa, they're spending a lazy afternoon rotating between the thermal baths and Nordic plunge pools or kicking back in front of the outdoor fire in a bathrobe. Sharon, a taxi driver from Mission Beach, has been ferrying her country folk up here all winter.

For globe-trotting Australians wanting a life-altering, cross-cultural experience, Whistler's probably not the place to go. You're likely to become best mates with a bloke from Bondi – or end up singing Collingwood Forever in a rainforest, half a world away from the MCG.

But it's a hell of a ride, both on and off the mountain.

And, if you're like Rob Blood and crave a little piece of home away from home, then you don't have far to go.

“We brought our own Tim Tams, but they're already gone,” Mr Blood says, one week into his family's seven-week tour of North America.

“Where did you say that supermarket was?”

The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism Whistler.


Getting there

Air Canada offers direct flights between Sydney and Vancouver - the closest international airport to Whistler.

Qantas and V Australia fly from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles, codesharing with Alaska Airlines for connections to Vancouver.

Whistler Village is about a two-hour drive north of Vancouver on the scenic Sea to Sky Highway. Numerous bus companies shuttle passengers between the two locations for about $CAD25 one-way. Sit on the left-hand side of the bus on the way up, and the right on the way back, and you'll have stunning views of the water.

Staying there

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is located at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, a short taxi ride from the centre of the village. This up-market hotel offers ski-in, ski-out facilities. Rooms are on offer for $CAD149 a night as part of a special promotion until the end of next month. See www.fairmont.com/whistler

Another option is the boutique Adara Hotel, in the centre of the village. Rooms are available for $79CAD as part of a special deal for the next month.See http://www.adarahotel.com

Working there

The Working Holiday Program gives young Australians between the ages of 18-30 the opportunity to work in Canada for up to 24 months. In 2008, the eligibility requirements were changed so that Australians can re-apply for the visa, even if they have already worked in Canada under the program.

For more information visit www.whpcanada.org.au

Things to do

Lift pass

A one-day adult lift ticket for Whistler Blackcomb is $CAD95, with discounts for multi-day tickets. See www.whistlerblackcomb.com

Scandinave Spa

Spend an afternoon jumping between the warmth of a spa and an icy plunge pool to really get that blood pumping. There's also a steam room, sauna and outdoor fire. But shhh - there's no talking here to make the experience more relaxing. Bath access starts at $CAD58, with massages available for an extra cost. See www.scandinave.com/en/whistler/

Ziptrek Ecotours

Adrenaline junkies can zip 20 storeys above the snow on a single strand of wire with Ziptrek Ecotours. Prices start at $CAD99 for adults and $CAD79 for children. http://www.ziptrek.com/whistler-canada