With stunning scenery, uncrowded ski slopes and a fantastic range of activities and après-ski options, the Canadian resort of Banff has all the ingredients for a dream winter sports destination
Picture the scene: you wake up in your hotel room, pull back the curtains, and are greeted with some of the brightest, whitest and softest snow you’ll ever see. Welcome to Banff – the hidden gem in the Rocky crown.
There are not many places on earth that can quite literally take my breath away, but as I sit at the summit of Lake Louise with the icy cold wind brushing my face, staring down at the cascade of skiers descending through the perfect powder snow, I realise this is one of the world’s greatest winter wonderlands.
From the moment I stepped off the bus from the airport, Banff enveloped me in its magical charm. Whether it’s walking along the traditional main street, filled with many charming bars, restaurants and shops, watching coyotes and elk slinking along the icy Bow River looking for food, or just taking in the beautiful white winter scene, Banff is just spectacular.
On the slopes
The three resorts within the Banff National Park offer near endless options for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities, and the regular bus services from Banff to the slopes mean getting around is a breeze. Sit back, close your eyes and imagine icy cold dry air brushing your body, as the sun beams down on your face. Smell the fresh crisp mountain air, and hear the excitement from skiers on the pistes. Ladies and gentlemen, it really is this good.
You’ll find the most skiable terrain of any resort in Canada at Lake Louise, with beginner, intermediate and expert runs tumbling down the mountain from every chair. Admire the countless pine trees dusted with freshly fallen snow, while staring in absolute awe at the pure beauty of the snowy Rocky Mountain panorama that stands before you.
Head over to Sunshine Village for the ultimate in high altitude skiing – in fact the highest in Canada. A 20-minute gondola ride sees you ascend to the resort centre, where you can then choose your route further into the sky. For the extreme thrill-seekers amongst us, a trip to this resort is not complete without an attempt at the double black diamond Delirium Dive. A mixture of intense anxiety, excitement and fear hits as you pass the safety signs, the butterflies racing faster and faster.
Mount Norquay is somewhat overshadowed by its more famous neighbours, but at only 10 minutes away on the ski bus, and with a selection of challenging runs and even night-skiing, it’s not to be sniffed at. It’s also home to the very first ski lift in Canada.
All three resorts are included in your ski pass, as is all bus transport between the town and the slopes. Check out www.skibig3.com for prices.
And that’s not all! There are plenty of other winter activities to take part in, like trekking through Banff’s ice canyons, meandering alongside frozen rivers and waterfalls and walking up through stunning wildlife and scenery. Then there’s the dog sledding, snowmobiling and heli-skiing, or, if you want to slow things down, relaxing your aching limbs in the town’s famous outdoor hot springs.
There are lots of places to eat and drink in the town, with everything from traditional Canadian food to Italian or even Greek. My personal favourite was the Bison Restaurant and Lounge (The Bison Courtyard, 211 Bear Street), where the grilled beef tenderloin is to die for – a melt-in-the-mouth Alberta speciality. This place doesn’t come cheap but it's definitely worth it for the freshness of the ingredients and the ‘real’ taste of Banff. While you’re pushing the boat out, Le Beaujolais (corner of Banff Avenue and Buffalo Street), high above Banff's main street, is also an experience not to miss. At $95 a head, it’s certainly not for the budget-conscious, but this will get you the restaurant’s signature six-course ‘surprise’ dinner – a French delight.
Try The Elk and Orsman (119 Banff Avenue, 2nd floor; above The Ski Hub) for reasonably priced good home-cooked food. You’ll be eating with the blaring sounds of the TVs and the locals, but I always think if it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for me! Other notable, cheaper places to eat include the chain The Old Spaghetti Factory (Cascade Plaza Mall, 2nd Floor, 317 Banff Avenue) and the only Greek restaurant in the town, The Balkan (120 Banff Avenue). You must go just to experience the Greek nights – no plates are safe!
The après-ski is centred around the main street, and if you’re looking for a party, head over to Wild Bills (201 Banff Avenue). The only thing to remember is that the jars they bring you are not for your discarded lemons (which was how a member of our party used them all night before finding out, too late, that they're intended for tips). Tommy’s Neighbourhood Pub (120 Banff Ave) is another lively choice. As with all the pubs here, make sure you bring plenty of pennies, as drinks are at best the same price as the UK, at worst nearly double in some cases.
If you’re looking for the perfect stop for a tipple, or just for a really special evening, head over to the Larkspur Lounge at the Rimrock Hotel (300 Mountain Avenue) and prepare to stare in awe at the beautiful scenery through the floor-to-ceiling windows, from the comfort of the five-star hotel lounge.
Where to stay
The thing about Banff is, regardless of budget, you know you’re going to be well looked after, as it offers a wide range of hotels and chalets to cater for all tastes. If you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful place, check out the immensely popular Inns of Banff. For a more luxurious stay, try the Fox Hotel and Suites or, for the ultimate in comfort, try the five-star, iconic Fairmont Banff Springs or the Rimrock Resort. The latter is my personal favourite; here, you can eat breakfast overlooking the valley, and it even boasts its own ice rink in winter.
For the 2009/2010 ski season, there are many holiday packages to Banff from UK airports for under £400 (www.lastminute.com). So if you’re looking for a resort with fantastic winter sports, stunning natural beauty and quieter slopes than many overcrowded European counterparts, go to Banff!