Winter sports: Rockies road to skiing perfection
Spectacular scenery, excellent resorts and slopes for all abilities make Canada a perfect family destination, says Patrick Thorne
Saturday 02 October 2010
With 18 years of family ski holidays behind us and three skiing children (Sam aged 18, Alexander 13 and Robert seven), this was "the big one", for my wife Sally and me. A two-week, near-2,000 mile drive around the Canadian Rockies. Five of us, six ski areas, two time zones and – given the simplicity of the Canadian mountain road network – a totally pointless GPS system.
Our plan was to fly in to Calgary then take a rental car west to Banff, more popular in summer than winter but with two ski areas to choose from at Norquay and Sunshine. Then we'd go north to Jasper, also in Alberta, before heading further west in to British Columbia and the resorts of Kicking Horse, famed for its steep terrain, and Revelstoke which has the biggest lift-served vertical in North America. We'd then drive back to Calgary, breaking our journey with a few nights at Lake Louise, with its big ski area and beautiful lake.
Why did we choose Canada? Primarily because it's family friendly: one of the few countries where resorts routinely charge half the adult price or less for kids' lift tickets – in most countries children pay about 75 per cent of the adult price.
We rolled into Banff after a two-hour drive, watching the spectacular Rockies rise out of the plain. The town lies at the heart of a huge National Park, so development is strictly limited. There is, nevertheless, the extensive selection of shops and restaurants you'd expect from a world-class resort. Skiers here have a tri-area pass to enjoy, including local hill Mount Norquay, the larger Sunshine Mountain, 30 minutes away, and Lake Louise, a resort in its own right, 45 minutes away, as well as a shuttle link to Banff. We checked in to the Banff Springs Hotel, an iconic edifice built in a Scottish Baronial style by the rail pioneers that first brought tourists here in the 1880s. With dozens of shops and restaurants it's a resort in its own right.
We skied Sunshine first, one of Canada's biggest areas, with a good mix of terrain and the only on-mountain lodging in the province, Sunshine Mountain Lodge. (Sunshine also has yet another new quad chairlift this season.)
On day two, we made for Norquay, usually one of Canada's first ski areas to open, at the end of October. Smaller, it still offered a mix of good beginner slopes, thriving terrain park and short steeps for the young ones to fly down, all with immaculate grooming to flatter your turns.
Marmot Basin, Jasper
I'm getting old. The highlight of this trip for me wasn't a ski run but a drive. The incredible scenery as we drove 230km north from Banff along the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, through spectacular isolation and amazing glacial scenery, was breathtaking. Vast, glistening walls of ice cascade down from mountain peaks on either side of the road. The feeling of being miles from civilisation is overwhelming. It can also be alarming: the petrol gauge dropped quickly, and halfway along we realised the nearest petrol station and phone signal was still 70 miles away. We made it to Jasper just as the "empty" warning light came on.
The Jasper Park Lodge, in contrast to our Banff hotel, comprised a collection of wooden chalets with a large central building housing restaurants, shops, spas and bars. We found ourselves upgraded to a huge two-storey, five-bedroom historic wooden lodge next to the lake.
Mid-sized local ski area Marmot Basin has something to offer every level of skier. There are gentle beginner slopes close to the base, with car parking nearby where locals pull up their pick-ups and unload barbecues for a large-scale DIY lunch. More challenging long, cruising trails spiral from the top to bottom of the mountain, with steeper open powder bowls in the upper sectors. A fast new quad chair has made reaching it all quicker and easier.
Back south on the Icefields Parkway we rejoined the Trans-Canada Highway heading west and crossed the provincial line into British Columbia. Kicking Horse lies above the town of Golden. It evolved a decade ago from the original Whitetooth ski area. The first new ski resort in the region for 25 years, it was briefly named Golden Peaks before Kicking Horse was chosen, after a local pass that had been found by a man kicked by a horse.
In a strange way, the name suits it. The resort has steep terrain, with a big vertical accessed by a fast gondola. We were staying in a condominium in the comfortable Palliser Lodge, which stands slope-side by the Catamount Quad chairlift, the most convenient accommodation for the slopes of all of our stops.
An excellent 10km-long run snakes down the mountain affording wonderful views and has plenty of dream steep terrain dropping off it, but the usual pre-dominance of intermediate cruisers just aren't there. Sam and Alexander loved racing down on alternate steep routes from top to bottom ("Definitely a must-do, but I'd say always go with a guide at least the first few times," said Alexander).
Kicking Horse has drawn British investors, including Peter and Helen Hawkes, who now own the well-stocked general store and several restaurants including the Local Hero in the Highland Lodge. Meanwhile, the impressive Eagle Eye restaurant looks great, perched at the top of the lifts (at 2,450m) with a vast mountainscape behind it.
Our most distant stop, Revelstoke lies two more hours' drive away and one time zone west. It's another creation of the railroad. It revived in the 1960s when a new road arrived, but its distance from major hubs (Calgary 413km, Vancouver 631km) makes it a trek for international travellers. However, it's exactly this isolation that makes Revelstoke worth the effort. The quirky town mixes traditional architecture and excellent infrastructure, unspoilt by rapid growth.
As with Kicking Horse, developers here took a small existing local ski area and expanded it massively, this time with an even longer gondola. This takes it beyond Whistler's maximum-skiable vertical to a North American record 1,713m. It still feels new, too: Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened for the first time in winter 2007-8, and claims to be the first resort in the world to offer heli- and cat-skiing as well as long lifts.
We'd gladly have spent longer here than two days. The gondola opens up dozens of wonderful, long descents and terrain suited to every skier type. After skiing, the resort excelled with colourful cafes and a swimming complex. Bad Paul's Roadhouse was the only restaurant we visited twice on the trip – it worked for all of us.
Our last stop, having retraced our steps back past Kicking Horse to the Icefields Parkways junction, was Lake Louise. I've drooled over pictures of it for decades: it's one of the most stunning settings in world skiing. In the brochures, a brilliant blue lake shines out from the heart of a pristine snowy mountainscape of spectacular peaks.
Our visit started badly, though: the weather had closed in. In all those years of ogling the pictures and reading of people skating on the lake, I'd never considered that that would mean the lake would be frozen a steely grey in winter. We were booked in to the Chateau Lake Louise. Even if the mountains had been visible and the lake blue, our room – in a bland modern annex – faced a wall of snow at the back. But things improved when we reached the busy ski area itself the next morning and met our guide, Sandy Best. And the weather had cleared up.
Sandy, a Brit, took us on an enthusiasm-packed tour of the mountain. He started at the spectacular Lodge of the 10 Peaks, a huge modern base building of vast timbers; it was built recently but to a classic log cabin style design, albeit on an epic scale. Sandy also found those jaw-dropping views I'd hoped for, and took time to give us some technique tips. Lunch in the Lodge offered a low-priced buffet of much higher quality than the normal on-mountain experience. From a skiing perspective, the highlight was The Rock Garden: a boulder-filled descent.
The home run
This year, as usual, Mount Norquay will be one of the first ski areas in the world to open, on 30 October. However, despite reliable powder snow over a long season that lasts to mid-May, Canada saw business from the UK dip last winter. The local resorts are hoping to bounce back this season, thanks to the successful Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler. Take my advice: it's worth it.
I'm often asked which ski areas I'd recommend from the 300 I've visited. I tend to say it depends who you are, what you want and when you go, rather than where you go. But all six of these areas are in my personal top 20.
Travel essentials: Canada
* In Alberta, the writer stayed at The Fairmont Banff Springs, The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Nightly room rates start at C$279 (£166), room only (0845 071 0153; fairmont.com).
The Ski & Snowboard Show
The Independent is working in partnership with the world's largest consumer winter-sports event, the Ski & Snowboard Show (0871 2301 100; metrosnow.co.uk), which takes place from 20-24 October at London Olympia. New elements at the show include the Land Rover Mountain Theatre, featuring Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Steve Redgrave, and the "Ice Driving Experience". Tickets are £12 (£9 in advance) for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, or £16 (£13 advance) for Saturday and Sunday. But readers of The Independent Traveller qualify for a reduced price of £15 for two (on weekdays) or £20 for two (weekends) when booking by phone or online and quoting "Independent".
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