This was also the case at nearby resort Sunshine Village and Norquay, the third ski area in Banff National Park, supposedly (I never got there) even quieter. Some estimates put the average number of skiers in all three resorts combined at one per acre, which puts the queues at rival Whistler to shame. So why aren’t more people riding the Rockies?
It’s certainly not the snow – Banff National Park has one of the most consistent snowfalls in the world. Our first run of the day at Sunshine Village was a blanket of champagne powder making a passing British skier whoop “so this is what real snow feels like”, as he kicked a soft spray of white stuff in his wake. And this was on piste. Off-piste, the great snow and low numbers mean you can still get fresh lines in the afternoon.
Perhaps the expense puts people off. You’d struggle to get a week in Canada for the same price as a European package deal, but it is possible to do it on the cheap by going independently (plus if you’re flying so far, why not stay for two weeks). Low-cost airline Zoom flies into Calgary, a two-hour drive from Banff.
Once there, hostels such as the HI-Banff Alpine Centre offer beds from C$23 a night and have onsite cooking facilities.
If you’re staying in Banff – the main town for all three resorts – it’s a bit of a trek to each area. Mount Norquay is the nearest resort, but not as popular as Sunshine Village (25 minutes by bus) and Lake Louise (45 minutes). Not exactly ski-in, ski-out, and having to catch the last bus home at 5.30pm puts a bit of a dampener on apres-ski. One way around the situation is to stay in Lake Louise town. But, with one main street and two bars there, it would be better to divide your time between the two centres so you don’t miss out on Banff.
It’s a fully fledged town – not just a ski resort – so you’ll find everything you need along Banff Avenue from ski hire to groceries, as well as stuff you don’t, such as home-made fudge and fine art. You can feast on Alberta steak or pad thai, drink ale in Legendary Wild Bill’s Saloon or sip cocktails in the Hoodoo Lounge.
My last impression of Banff, though, is hurling myself into Gap to escape the face-numbing -29˚C chill outside. And that, along with the commute, is perhaps the area’s main downside. The week before we arrived it had been -40˚C in the mountains – not much fun even for the most hot-blooded. With Sunshine Village and Lake Louise both famous for their good, late-season snow, head from March onwards for more chance of warmer weather.
Before another cold snap hit we were lucky to sneak in a couple of mild days and local Anthony Brook, the ultimate outdoor guy, took us snow-shoeing along Marble Canyon. Padding past the plunging canyon to Tokum Creek, we fashioned armchairs in the snow-covered river bank and sat gazing at the distant peaks.
“If you come and only see the ski hills you’re surrounded by people and development and you miss the essence of the mountain,” Anthony explains, sunken in his fluffy chair.
I can see what he’s getting at. But when you take The Top of the World chairlift to said top, strap on your board before an endless landscape of jagged peaks and head down an almost-deserted slope, it’s hard to worry that the essence may have been diluted.
» Amy Adams travelled to Canada with Hostelling International Canada (www.hihostels.ca) and Zoom Airlines (0870-240 0055; www.flyzoom.com). Flights from London to Calgary start at £199.
The tri-area lift will get you access to three resorts in Banff National Park. Which one is best is a matter of personal
taste and the cause of much local debate.
» Lake Louise
Often voted the most scenic ski resort in North America, Lake Louise also gets credit for its challenging, varied terrain – with four mountain faces and huge powder bowls on offer. Local Anthony Brook hits the nail on the head when he describes skiing here: “you really feel like you’re skiing a big mountain”.
» Sunshine Village
Pro Lake Louisers will tell you this is the Teletubbie land of ski resorts and for snowboarders the long flat stretches can be a problem. But with five mountains, there’s rough with the smooth, notably the famous stomach churner, Delirium Dive. Oh, and the resort is said to have the best snow in Canada.
Dubbed the ‘ski in the morning, shop in the afternoon’ resort, Norquay is only a 10-minute drive from Banff. It’s much smaller than the other two areas, though, and generally the snow isn’t as good. Still, it’s the place to head for night skiing (included in your lift pass).