The stream of rich and famous pouring into Whistler, B.C., widens each year. Often, there’s no warning for the ski guides and vacation planners who host the big names. Ben Thomas was taken aback when British singer-songwriter Seal phoned him. “He called my cell out of the blue,” says Thomas, who, at the time of telling this story, was driving to Vancouver to collect Heston Blumenthal, owner of the Fat Duck, one of three restaurants in the U.K. to rate three Michelin stars and one of the most famous chefs in the world. (“North Americans don’t really recognize him. He likes to come here to get away from it all,” says Thomas.)
Still, Thomas doesn’t know how Seal got his cell number. He was even more surprised when the Grammy winner pressed him for advice in the romance department. “He said, ‘Hi, I’m interested in proposing to my girlfriend . . . uh . . . Heidi Klum. Can you help?’ Eventually, he said, ‘What would you do?’ So we ran through a few scenarios.”
Thomas owns VIP Mountain Holidays in Whistler. The company arranges accommodation, entertainment and full itineraries for clients, who typically want their groceries shopped for at the local IGA, or a Starbuck’s brought to their hotel room, or their snow boots waiting in the bar at the end of the day. “That’s the first thing a lot of people want, is to get out of their ski boots,” he says.
Seal liked Thomas’s idea of building a custom igloo (going rate $5,000), but the rugged singer wanted two parts to the proposal, and he pictured the igloo being on top of a mountain. “He wasn’t too concerned about budget” (total project $20,000)—so that’s when Thomas came up with a plan to “pimp out the inside of an ice cave” as well as build an igloo. Pimping out an ice cave involved Thomas and crew snowmobiling high into alpine backcountry, locating the natural ice cave and toting in supplies of sheepskin pelts, pillows, candles, wine, food, a red carpet, flowers and Seal’s guitar. “We wanted to make the area look pristine, so we walked in single file, covering our footsteps, sprinkling our footsteps with snow.”
Heidi had been told she was going heli-boarding. “They came over a ridge and there were all the rose petals on the ground. They landed on the petals. They went into the ice cave. We put down a red carpet. He got down on one knee and sang a nice song. Then, outside the cave, we had an igloo built.” With a bed in it? Thomas demurs to client confidentiality. However, Maclean’s can reveal that the fur-lined candlelit igloo had pillows in it.
When Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher visited last winter and wanted a ski pro bright and early, Darren Kinnaird got the call. Kinnaird runs Whistler/Blackcomb’s corporate ski instructor program. Moore and Kutcher were looking for a “guide instructor.”
“Demi is an intermediate skier, and I definitely worked on technique with her. Ashton’s a snowboarder. He’s a good athlete and a strong snowboarder. Quite often, I’d point him in the direction of a nice powdery bowl and say, ‘If you go down there, Demi and I are going to take the road around to the trail, and we’ll hook up with you at the bottom.’ He’d say, ‘Sweet! See you at the bottom.’ ”
Kinnaird’s day with Moore and Kutcher started discreetly at the Westin Resort & Spa, but by mid-morning, it was clear this was no covert operation. “I met them at 7:30 a.m. We snuck out a back door, got into a Suburban, went over to Starbucks, went over to the back entrance of the gondola. I didn’t tell the lifties who it was. I said, ‘Can we sneak up?’ They said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ ”
At 10 a.m. they went in for coffee. “Demi was saying her idea of a day of skiing is about two hours.” Kinnaird carefully inquired, “Do you want to go someplace a little quiet?” “No, no, no!” they insisted. Moore had taken off her toque and goggles. “We walked up to the coffee bar. I could see people at the coffee bar going, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher,’ and before you know it, all the serving staff and cooks are coming down the stairs and out from behind to take a peek but no one came over and bothered us or took a picture.”
For celebrities craving privacy, it doesn’t get more ingenious than a ski vacation. Katie Holmes didn’t feel like being spotted, says Kinnaird. “Whistler is so huge, it’s easy to slip into the crowd. Pull a toque over your head. No one really notices. You’d think people would notice the white teeth and beautiful smile, but no one ever does.” “It’s way better than the beach,” adds Michelle Leroux from Whistler/Blackcomb. “There’ll be no tabloid pictures of cellulite to be found.”
Then there’s Lina Jakobs of Whistler Home Holidays who once had a client whose visit was so cloaked in secrecy even she didn’t know who she was booking accommodation for. Jakobs tells the story of how a woman named “Kathleen” and an “inspector” flew in from Europe. The client needed four homes in Whistler. “They wanted a log home experience.” Security was critical. Jacobs showed them some homes.
“We sat down for lunch and had a very, very good bottle of wine.” The conversation meandered. “They started talking about the security for this group.” They said the houses Jacobs showed them did not have the security they required. They mentioned the guest played polo. Prince Charles! thought Jakobs. “That’s when I put it all together. I looked them straight in the eye and I said, ‘I know now who is coming and you’re right. This is not the most secure spot for them.’ ”
“They did not acknowledge me. They looked at me and thought, how the hell could she figure this out? They left, and they gave me a retainer to find something secure.”
Jakobs found three of the four homes on Peak Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac in the ritzy enclave of Blueberry Hill. “Prince Charles and his sons used one home. Another home was used exclusively for dining and entertainment. They shipped in all their own cutlery, silverware, stemware. All their own signature and embroidered linens. They had their own housekeepers.”
Jakobs was instructed to have all new phone lines put in. “We hired a guy from Telus and swore him to secrecy. They put in new phone lines so none of the bills would go to the homeowners. The RCMP cordoned off the area. They had infrared crossbeams to make sure no one entered the periphery. It was a real interesting show,” says Jakobs, whose website now touts the endorsement, “Booking agent for the Royal Visit to Whistler.”
A more recent royal visitor was the multi-billionaire Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Time magazine has called him “the Arabian Warren Buffet.” At the time of his visit in December 2007, he and Bill Gates had just become the largest shareholders in the Four Seasons luxury hotel chain. (The prince owns London’s Savoy hotel and a large stake in the Fairmont hotel chain.) In Whistler, news spread quickly that the prince had hired for himself not one but three private ski instructors.
Then there’s the star who eschews the royal treatment. “Robin Williams didn’t make much of a case of him coming here,” confides his mountain guide, James Jofre, who snowboarded with Williams in December. “The Four Seasons called me. Sometimes the concierge tells the client to book a guide for one day to see if they get along with the instructor. After half a day, [Williams] asked me if I was available for another five days.” Jofre was excited but not nervous, he says. “I didn’t know much about him.” Raised in Argentina, Jofre moved to Whistler in 1998. “I didn’t know he was a big stand-up comedian. He told me about his career with Mork & Mindy.”
“He didn’t hide from people,” Jofre observed. “He walked through the resort like any other guest. In fact, he wouldn’t necessarily want the private car from the Four Seasons to transport him from the hotel to different places. He was very happy to take the shuttle. A few times I asked him, ‘Would you like me to call and have them pick you up?’ He’d say, ‘No, James. I can walk to the shuttle.’ I heard the shuttle chauffeurs say he was super-friendly. He would get in, and talk to them.”
Jofre says he was hired “to show him the mountain.” He reports that Williams loved the new Peak 2 Peak gondola—the world’s highest, longest gondola, which opened in December.
Jofre was impressed by Williams’s endurance. “He’s in incredible shape. When he was here, it was snowing 15 to 20 cm a day. I asked him, ‘Would you like to get the cream of the cream of Whistler?’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, Fresh Tracks,” which is a pay-extra, early-bird program for powderhounds to hit the slopes before regular ticket holders.
“He didn’t want to stop for a break or give a rest to his legs. He’d do top to bottom with one little stop.” Jofre remembers, “I was giving him some tips about his riding to take it to the next level. ‘You might want to put your hands here . . .’ He kind of looked at me and said, ‘Okay, I’m listening to that. But let’s move on.’ ”
The day before New Year’s Eve, Williams asked Jofre to recommend a restaurant in the village for him and his son Zach. Jofre suggested Après on Main Street. “It’s intimate and the chef, Eric Vernice, always comes to the table.” Jofre called and was told Après was booked, so he went in person to the restaurant. “I said, ‘This is a guest you might want to have.’ We looked at the reservations. Eric said, ‘Oh James, I wish I could.’ But they were booked up, not one seat available.” Instead, Williams dined at the Bearfoot Bistro (a favourite of chef Blumenthal’s, though he also liked the Garibaldi Lift Co., a pub at the base of Whistler). Williams told Jofre later he was delighted with the meal at the bistro.
“He did indeed make me laugh,” says Jofre. “I’d say nine out of 10 times we went on the chair or the gondola, he’d put on a show like a stand-up comedian, and just make people cry. People would ask me, ‘Do we need to pay for this chair ride or what?’ ”
“When I noticed he was doing that, as soon as we got on the gondola, I would ask people, ‘Where are you from?’ They would tell us and half the time they would look at him and go, “Oh my God! You’re Robin Williams!’ And he would look at them and go, ‘Oh my God! And you are!?’ ”