VANCOUVER, British Columbia As the winter sky fills with colors rarely seen since the Houston Astros dropped their rainbow jersey design, aspiring Olympic skiers fresh from their Cypress Mountain training runs pull off the road, pull out their cameras and take in the dazzling sunset over the Strait of Georgia.
"OK, I could live here," said Crystal Lee, a Canadian national team skier from Ontario. "Just pitch a tent."
This is what Vancouver will provide next year over past winter Olympic cities (and come to think about it, summer Olympic host cities, as well). Yes, Winter Games have been held in beautiful towns (Innsbruck, St. Moritz). And, yes, Winter Games have been held in major cities (Torino has almost as many people as Vancouver). But has any host provided the combination of mountain and sea views that leave you as breathless and weak-kneed as skiing a 10K cross-country race? And has any host been a vibrant metropolis renowned worldwide for its livability, diversity and vast capacity for showing a visitor a good time?
Sorry, Innsbruck. You may have the Austrian Alps, but do you also have deep salt waters stretching from their slopes to the Pacific? Nice try, Torino, but does your industrial city -- the Detroit of Italy -- provide nearby ski slopes plunging to the city limits, thick emerald forests rising from the water and seaplanes taking off from the harbor? And sure, Salt Lake City, you have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but can you offer world-class restaurants with menus of every imaginable cuisine (the gold-medal favorite is the lamb Popsicle dish at Vij's), plus a city rich in local wines and microbrews?
And that's just Vancouver. Much of the 2010 Olympics competition will take place at Whistler, the posh ski village that 1998 gold-medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati used in explaining his positive marijuana test at the Nagano Olympics -- he attributed it to secondhand smoke he inhaled while living at Whistler.
In other words, Michael Phelps might be kicking himself that Vancouver is hosting the winter Olympics, not the Summer Games. Although Bode Miller should find it an outstanding venue.
"I grew up in Salt Lake, which did a great job with the Olympics in 2002," said U.S. skeleton racer Zach Lund. "And Vancouver is going to do just as good a job or better, plus, there will be a fun atmosphere. It's going to be great. I'm looking forward to getting here and enjoying it afterward."
The third-largest city in Canada, the Vancouver metropolitan area has a population of just more than 2 million, and if you attend the Olympics next year, you may swear all of them are either competing with you for tickets or stuck in traffic ahead of you on the 75-mile Sea-to-Sky Highway that connects Vancouver to Whistler.
Threading its way past snowcapped peaks alongside the fjordlike Howe Sound, the first 37 miles to the town of Squamish rank among the most scenic roads in the world (cue the intoxicating NBC helicopter shot with the music swelling).
The highway is undergoing a major construction, expanding some sections to four lanes and adding a passing lane to others. Whether the construction is finished and how well it trims what is now a two-or-so-hour drive is important because many competitions -- downhill and cross-country skiing, biathlon, ski-jumping and bobsled, luge and skeleton -- will be held at Whistler. And traffic leading out of downtown Vancouver can back up in maddening fashion on normal days.
"Transportation is always a challenge," said Maurice Cardinal, who runs olyblog.com, an often critical site dedicated to the Vancouver Olympics. "They've spent so much rebuilding the Sea-to-Sky Highway, and the reality is that it is the only road to Whistler.
"Because we do live on the ocean and there are a lot of waterways, there are only three bridges that connect Vancouver to the mainland side. The big problem is when there's an accident on the bridge or an emergency like a jumper. When traffic shuts the bridge down, it shuts the city down.
"But I don't think it's going to be any worse than at other Olympics."
Besides, the scenery is so beautiful along the drive to Whistler that you won't mind getting stuck in traffic. Well, not so much.
Tickets and lodging also will be challenging. With several million people living in the area and another roughly 4 million within a three-hour drive (not counting border delays) from Seattle, Vancouver set records for ticket demand and sales during the first purchasing phase.
Another (smaller) phase of ticket sales will open this spring on cosport.com, but my experience covering eight previous Olympics has been that there are always tickets to be had. Or, more important, that has been the experience of my wife, who has not enjoyed the access of a media credential. An excellent ticket source is the official sponsor groups, which often have spare tickets when someone doesn't show up. Hitting up these groups as they get off the bus at the venue can be a good way of getting a cheaper ticket, especially is you want only one seat.
Of course, as the investment companies point out, past results are no guarantee of future performance. And with hockey's popularity in Canada, you better come with a mighty thick wallet plus plasma to sell (and perhaps incriminating photos of Sidney Crosby) if you want to see a game.
Cardinal said Vancouver has a shortage of hotel rooms compared to many major cities because it is a relatively young city. Horror stories about room availability and prices are as traditional a part of the Olympics countdown as the torch relay, however, and rooms can open up as you get closer to games. My wife got a room in Torino, for example, at the last moment for less than $200. That's not inexpensive, to be sure, but it is significantly cheaper than some of the advance packages at Cosport.com that can go for more than $7,000 for four hotel nights and five events. And that's PER PERSON BASED ON DOUBLE OCCUPANCY so it would be more than $14,000 for a couple.
At those prices, you would be better off staying in Seattle and having servants carry you to Vancouver in a sedan chair. More realistic options are renting from a private individual through craigslist. And if you're willing to go farther afield, you can try Bellingham, Wash., (a wonderful college town about an hour's drive from Vancouver) or other towns near the border.
Then again, getting to Vancouver from Washington state may be a problem. The U.S.-Canadian border crossing 30 or so miles from downtown Vancouver also is undergoing construction. During a recent trip, I sailed right through the crossing in less than five minutes. But waiting 30 minutes or more is common, and endurance waits of more than an hour are not unusual during peak traffic. The surest way to lessen your wait is to apply for a NEXUS card (for information click here), which gives access to special lanes for expedited crossing.
Plus, you better hope the Canadian dollar is closer to the current exchange rate of 82 cents to the U.S. dollar rather than the even par of a year ago, because Whistler is pack-multiple-credit-cards-and-increase-their-limits expensive even with a favorable exchange. A seafood crepe recently cost $24 at a restaurant well away from the slopes, pints of beer fetched about $7 at an Irish pub and a souvenir shop wanted $45 for a friggin' Olympic cowbell.
Oh, and did I mention that it probably will be raining in Vancouver?
So, right now, you might be thinking that it would be easier to get to Vancouver next February if you start training and actually qualify for an Olympic team (I would suggest curling over, say, the downhill). And, yes, some money, effort and patience will be required.
But you won't regret it when you're whisking from Whistler to Blackcomb in the Peak-to-Peak gondola with the valley floor 1,500 feet beneath you and snowcapped mountains filling the horizon before you. Or when you're clanging your cowbell and cheering Lindsey Vonn as she flies down the face of a mountain at speeds that should get her pulled over by the state patrol. Or when you're sharing a brew (I recommend a pint from Granville Island Brewing) and singing "The Happy Wanderer" with your new best friends -- the greatest guys in the world! -- from Sweden, Japan, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Australia.
That's the beauty of the Olympics: They thrill and they entertain and they provide friendships and memories that last long after your spouse tosses out the $30 souvenir T-shirt. No matter which country you call home, you'll feel such a spirit of brotherhood that you'll consider yourself a citizen of the world.
Although you may, like Crystal Lee, want to become a citizen of Vancouver. Especially when you've got a couple of Granville Island Maple Cream Ales in you.