IN RECENT years, the Canadian ski slopes have surged in popularity among British skiers, largely because they can offer many of the attractions of skiing in the neighbouring USA - no language barrier, expert tuition, groomed pistes, spacious accommodation and good service - but all at lower prices and off a better exchange rate, and with some spectacular scenery.
With daily non-stop scheduled air services from the UK to Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal, plus regular charter flights, journey times are considerably shorter and more convenient than to the USA as connecting flights are largely eliminated. In some of the most popular areas, such as Banff and Lake Louise, winter is still considered to be off-season, so hotel rates are exceptionally good value.
However, the weather and snow conditions can be less reliable than in the US Rockies, with rain sometimes providing a damp start at resort level in the Pacific coast resorts of Whistler and Blackcomb. Extreme cold and icy conditions in the early season can affect the resorts around Banff and the eastern centres such as Mont Tremblant, north of Montreal, and Stoneham and Mont St Anne, near Quebec City. This year the effects of the global El Nino weather system helped create a late and patchy start for several of the top resorts, but conditions have since improved dramatically with substantial snowfalls since the start of the New Year.
Despite its patchy weather record, the British Columbia resort of Whistler, a 75-mile scenic drive from Vancouver, has been consistently voted the top resort in North America. It certainly has the largest skiing and snowboarding area on that continent with spectacular scenery, a vertical drop of over 1,600 metres and seemingly endless pistes, including one almost seven miles long. As a result it has a large following of British devotees who refuse to go anywhere else.
For the more adventurous among us, heli-skiing - being flown up by helicopter to ski down from otherwise inaccessible places - is becoming a big attraction in Canada. If you haven't tried it yet, there are some great value introductory trips available in Alberta and British Columbia.
While standards of service may not be quite as polished as those across the border in the USA, Canadian resorts have a more cosmopolitan atmosphere, exuding a strong Asian influence in the west and a very charming and distinctive French flavour in the province of Quebec. There are no valets to carry your skis around the resorts, but a genuine attitude of courtesy and efficiency, supported by recent huge investments in the latest ski lift technology, ensure that lift queues are kept to a minimum and everything runs smoothly.
Effective ski patrollers ensure high safety standards on the slopes, and there are usually also plenty of volunteer "ski friends" on hand to guide newcomers around the pistes. As an alternative to conventional skiing and snowboarding, the Canadians insist that no winter holiday is complete without trying snowmobiling, dog-sledding, snow-shoeing or even ice-fishing.
Most Canadian resorts rely heavily on spacious and good quality self- catering accommodation such as the Residence Inn by Marriott (Tel: 00 1 604 905 3400), a ski-in, ski-out property on Blackcomb Mountain. Each resort has at least one upmarket hotel, usually operated by the Canadian Pacific group, such as the five-star Chateau Whistler (00 1 604 938 8000).
In the Laurentian Mountains, Canadian Pacific also operates the newly opened Chateau Mont Tremblant, and in Quebec City its Chateau Frontenac is a very comfortable base from which to ski the nearby resorts of Mont St Anne and Stoneham. Although showing its age and in need restoration in parts, the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta is set in one of the world's most stunning locations. All of the Canadian Pacific hotels can be booked in the UK (0500 303030).
Foodies will enjoy staying at the three-star Buffalo Mountain Lodge. Set in the pine forests above the town of Banff, it features a highly regarded and award-winning gourmet restaurant. Conveniently it is also on the shuttle bus route for the neighbouring ski resorts of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay. In Jasper, Canadian Pacific's four- star Jasper Park Lodge (00 1 403 852 3301) has some excellent cabin-style rooms with lakeside views.
Whistler has more than 100 restaurants, bars and clubs which can become very lively and crowded, particularly at weekends when the locals from Vancouver head for the mountains. There is a strong Asian influence in the resort with several sushi bars (try Sushi Village) and Thai restaurants (try Thai One On in the Upper Village) to choose from, in addition to the more conventional Mexican and Italian restaurants and good steak houses. Umberto's is one of the top Italian eateries in town, but budget-conscious visitors will be more at home in the Crab Shack for good sea food or Citta Bistro, both worth a try. Another fun way to spend an evening is to take a snowmobile trip to the mid-mountain restaurant, Christine's, and ride back under the stars. In eastern Canada it is an entirely different scene, with plenty of authentic French bistros and excellent fine dining to be found in Mont Tremblant and Quebec City.
The bars and clubs in Canadian resorts stay open later into the morning hours than is normal in the USA and, perhaps because in British Columbia the legal age for drinking alcohol is 19 and in Alberta it is 18 (compared to 21 in the USA), they attract younger and more vibrant crowds. In Whistler, where up to a third of the weekend visitors can be snowboarders, the clubs are full of "cool dudes" with a determination to party all night. Worth a visit in Whistler are Garfinkels, the Savage Beagle, Rogue's Wolf, Tommy Africa's and, for rock'n'roll fans, Buffalo Bills.
The base stations of Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise are all pretty dead at night, but party types can head for nearby Banff to visit Wild Bill's, Barbary Coast, Outta Bounds, Silver City or the Rose and Crown.
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
The lower altitudes and shorter runs in the Quebec resorts of Mont Tremblant, Stoneham and Mont St Anne are have successfully set out to large numbers of school groups and families trying their first ski holiday. They each have extensive artificial snow-making equipment to ensure that the main pistes stay covered even when nature does not provide natural snow. Mont Tremblant has installed a "magic carpet" people mover as part of its expanded Kidz Club to avoid all that exhausting side stepping. Reached through the Montreal gateway, the eastern resorts offer shorter flight times and often lower prices.
Whistler is also well set up for beginners and children. There is a dedicated Kids Kamp at the base of Blackcomb Mountain with well equipped nursery facilities for infants from 18 months upwards, plus programmes for children of all ages and abilities with names like Ski Scamps, Mice, Bunnies, Black Busters and Superstars.
In Alberta, Lake Louise and Mount Sunshine have acres of well-groomed intermediate runs from the top of every peak. In Mount Norquay, the Mystic Ridge area has 11 tree-lined blue runs served by two high-speed quad chair lifts. Whistler, however, outshines all its rivals with endless delightful blue runs including some enticing open pistes in the Glacier, Symphony and Harmony bowls.
BEST FOR EXPERTS
While every resort can justifiably claim to present some tough mountain challenges, even for the most expert skier, it is in the advanced/expert skier category that Whistler really comes into its own. Each of the five bowls on Whistler Mountain has endless chutes and gullies to get the adrenaline pumping. It is really up to you to decide just how steep and narrow you like it. Some of the most challenging areas can be found in the Whistler, Glacier and West bowls, with runs such as The Cirque and Doom and Gloom. Blackcomb Mountain, linked to Whistler at base level, also has some excellent bowl skiing but, in general, the Blackcomb bowls are not regarded as being quite so varied or extensive as those on Whistler Mountain.
Snowboarders are welcome throughout Canada, with most resorts providing purpose-built snowboard fun parks with half pipes and table tops and special instruction schools for beginners. Whistler gets the lion's share, with up to one third of all visitors on busy weekends using boards in preference to skis. You can join a two-day Oxygen Snowboard Camp for as little as pounds 50, which includes instruction and video analysis. Extended courses are also available, and virtually nowhere in this extensive area is off limits to boarders. The World Ski and Snowboard Festival is to be held in Whistler from 10 to 19 April. The 1998 Grundig FIS Snowboard World Cup will be held in Mont St Anne.
FOR THE DISABLED
This season, Mont St Anne has introduced a new instruction programme for disabled skiers, providing students with the special equipment they need at no extra cost during their classes. Three bi-skis, two mono-skis and many stabilos are available. The resort also has a team of volunteers to ski with those disabled skiers who can ski without an instructor but need assistance to take lifts.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Some of the packages to the three resorts surrounding Banff provide unbeatable value, using charter or discounted non-stop scheduled flights to Calgary and the "off-season" winter hotel rates in this area. Indeed Canada overall offers exceptional value, especially when it comes to eating out, accommodation and lift passes. Alcoholic drinks can be pricey due to local taxes. This year there are some heavily discounted late availability packages based on charter flights to Vancouver and Calgary from some of the bigger operators like Crystal Holidays. Be sure to check them out before you confirm your booking.
British Airways (0345 222111), Canadian Airlines (0345 616767) and Air Canada (0990 247226) each operate daily scheduled flights from the UK to Canada's ski gateway cities of Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal. In addition, there are non-stop charter flights to the western gateways available through tour operators.
Ski the American Dream (0181-552 1201) has seven nights at the Travellers Inn, Banff from pounds 599, based on scheduled flights to Calgary with an upgrade to executive/first class on Air Canada available for from pounds 885 return. The company also has seven nights at The Villas in Whistler from pounds 595 and seven nights in self-catering accommodation in Mont Tremblant from pounds 539.
Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144) has seven nights at the King Edward Hotel in Banff with breakfast, based on charter flights and four people sharing a room from pounds 495. Whistler Creek Lodge is available from Crystal from pounds 565, using British Airways' scheduled services to Vancouver, and in Quebec's Mont Tremblant, the company has seven nights in Les Condolets condominiums from pounds 461, including scheduled flights to Montreal and transfers.
Other tour operators featuring winter sports packages to Canada include All Canada Travel and Holidays (01502 585825); Canada's Best (01904 658436); Canadian Connections (01494 473173); Frontier Ski (0181-776 8709) and Ski Independence (0990 550555).