Mention a family ski trip to Banff National Park to any sultan of snow and you will likely get an absent nod and hear obligatory words of niceness – as one might afford to a boring old auntie.
The unspoken – and unjust – argument is that the park’s downhill scene is dated and difficult to navigate. It’s so achingly 1980s, a haven for Japanese tourists in the summer and, as Albertans themselves will complain, it’s inhospitably cold for most of the winter.
For skiers, it also has a reputation for being a hassle. For all that it offers in Ye Olde Gift Shoppes, the town of Banff does not offer the conveniences of ski-in/ski-out lodging. To head out to the three big nearby ski areas – Mount Norquay, Sunshine or the area’s signature resort, Lake Louise – you have to pack up and drive. Which is what pushed most people to Intrawest’s condo-stacked resort towns such as Whistler and Mont Tremblant, or for that matter, the family-focused indulgences of Big White or the collagen-pumped Bognerian opera that is Aspen. Banff, you’d think, is done.
Well, not just yet. For eight years, my Toronto family of five had scraped our way down the ice-coated, one-turn hills of Southern Ontario, and my wife and I wanted to reward our three children for their dedication and thick skin.
One spring, we tried balmy, convenient and bland Tremblant in Quebec. Now we wanted the anti-Tremblant, a place where we could find distraction and majesty in equal measure. I also hoped that – skiing in a national park – we’d come across some serious wildlife.
During our visit to Alberta last March, we discovered a region determined to make itself more accessible, kid-friendly and well-rounded. We skied at Mount Norquay, but we also went tubing there. Before skiing at the majestic Lake Louise, we took a breathtaking snowshoe hike up the side of Fairview Mountain. (Miraculously, there were only two complaints, and one was about the supposedly unfair portion of hot chocolate.) At Sunshine, there was top-notch ski schooling and a gourmet hilltop restaurant. In Banff, even the folksy Whyte Museum has a scattershot charm that appealed to my tween and teenage kids. (When we were there, the striking, feral work of local photographer Sarah Fuller captivated us all.)
For these Ontario skiers, the Big Three is the big Canadian secret. As contrary as it might sound, winter is actually low season in Banff and at the Big Three. During the summer, the town is a swirling vortex of fanny packs, but come December, the area literally and figuratively chills out. The slopes are a bargain, and they aren’t crowded, either.
Weekday rates at three- and four-star hotels can dip below $100 per room. But the best reductions are the waiting times for the lifts. There were never more than four or five queued up, leaving barely a minute to adjust the helmet or whip off the poles before being whisked off your feet and up the slopes. One of the main reasons for this whooshing absence is somewhat obvious: Banff is a national park, meaning that there is little commercial development. While on a summit ridge of Lake Louise, where the wind whistles quietly or in hysterical fits, you can peer down into the abyss and find solace in the beauty and perils of nature. There are no Lego-like condos stacked into the base of the mountain. And therefore, no last-minute charge of meandering skiers at the end of the day that chews up the runs.
When it comes to downhill skiing, I’m like Henry, Mickey Rourke’s character in the 1987 cult-film Barfly: I don’t hate people, but I feel better when they’re not around.
The other advantage during our trip was the spring skiing conditions. The temperature at any of the three peaks never dropped below -10 C, even in the mornings at any of the summits. By noon most days, we gleefully shed our layers. Not that every day will be heavenly, March weather can be hit and miss. We left Sunshine Village, for example, on a glittery, sun-drenched Friday, while friends that we travelled with stayed on for a dour, blustery Saturday when the temperature dropped 10 degrees.
Each of the three resorts has its own personality.
Norquay is the small and scrappy sister, minutes from the village of Banff, that’s great for beginners and challenging for experts. Lake Louise is the queen bee, the belle of the ball, proud, majestic and always engaging.
Yet for us, sprawling and accessible Sunshine was the family highlight. She’s the approachable sister who gives you her all. “The mountain was fun and it felt small,” said daughter Noa. Ever scalable, we never felt lost. No matter where we were, it seemed, we could always see the village below, which is especially handy for a worried kid who thinks she is lost. The ski school was especially strong, emboldening our kids to the point where typically cautious Eli, 13, felt he could conquer 10 black diamonds and Noa, 10, felt at one with the moguls.
The chill spirit of the place even worked its charms on my wife, who overcame certain trepidations about public pools and immersed herself in the lodge’s famed hot tub for the good of familial cohesion. The setting was a beauty, facing the summit and the chalky moon that shines in at around 7 p.m. “Sunshine is my favourite,” said my 8-year-old daughter, Lila. “I like the loft, the skiing and when they put on movies every night. And when Mommy went in the hot tub.”
For three nights, we stayed at Sunshine Mountain’s lodge, which is nestled in a valley toward the top of the slopes. It’s a simple but elegant, modern hotel where you can hit the slopes each morning without having to wait in a gondola line. It’s one of its kind in the park. The rooms are vaulting, modern and capacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows that face the peak.
Despite all that natural beauty we saw on the peaks, I felt the trip still lacked some kind of visual trophy in the valleys. In the village of Banff, we didn’t have too many moments of local authenticity. The looming mountains lend an aura of ruggedness to the main drag (a collection of gift shops that alternate with brands such as Lululemon) and one day we did see a herd of white-tailed deer, which caused a car full of iPhone-waving Aussies to halt. So, that was something, I guess. I was almost a little distraught as we left Banff in the dead of night to catch our flight.
But while driving through the dark on Moose Street, Noa cried out: “A moose!” My wife and I thought she was mocking the animal-themed street names, which by then felt kind of ersatz. “Really,” we both sighed, already tired and annoyed. “No, look!” she pleaded. And there it was, an eight-pointed behemoth stretched out on someone’s lawn, chewing as though it didn’t have its dentures on.
The old lady delivered after all.
Skiing in Banff
Start with the quaint, chill vibe of Mount Norquay. It’s 10 or 15 minutes from Banff, and for beginners stiff from the plane, it’s easy on the legs. Plus, the kids will love the tubing park. After the first day, work your way up the Trans-Canada Highway to Sunshine Village and then Lake Louise. Alberta ski mom Kristen Beachli suggests buying ski bags for your kids that have backpack straps so that they can carry their own ski stuff. As a transplanted Torontonian, she suggests leaving the kids’ skis at home and renting once you arrive. “Ontario skis are going to suck here anyway.”
Where to stay
If you want to stay in one place, Hidden Ridge Resort makes for a great base (rooms from $119, banffhiddenridge.com). The Trans-Canada has been widened to four lanes, which means a speedier and less perilous route to Lake Louise, which is around 45 minutes away. (But take at least one drive along the parallel route, the extremely breathtaking Bow Valley Parkway. It’s an absolute must.) At Sunshine Mountain Lodge, though, the hotel is nestled into the slope, which means there’s no need to wait in a gondola line to get started (rooms from $238, sunshinemountainlodge.com). In Lake Louise, there is, of course, the legendary Chateau Lake Louise (rooms from $299, fairmont.com/lake-louise), which offers a wide array of non-skiing activities. While four hours of snowshoeing up the side of Fairview Mountain sounds daunting, our kids couldn’t get enough of romping through the snow and the logistics of avalanche control. There is also a skating rink on the lake itself, and then the pièce de résistance, the postcard relief of the Lakeview Lounge.
Where to eat
My son, Eli, said he had eaten his “second-best ever” pulled-pork sandwich at the Banff Ave. Brewery Co., where they also serve up a pretty mean homespun lager. Wild Flour bakery on Bear Street serves delicious coffee and pastries. The big culinary beast in town these days is The Bison. Also on the upscale end of things is Walliser Stube at Chateau Lake Louise. By far the family highlight, it serves a creative, tasty – and surprisingly light – take on Teutonic cuisine. For setting and drinks alone, the historic, wood-paneled Lake Louise Railway Station and Restaurant is a trip to another century, both ur-Canadian and slightly Mad Men. And if you’re at Sunshine Lodge, order the apple crisp – no matter what time of day.
The writer was a guest of Ski Big Three, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Hidden Ridge Resort and Sunshine Mountain Lodge. None reviewed or approved the story.