A ski sampler: Testing out the slopes near Banff, Alberta
I can’t get over the scenery in Banff, Alberta, where Mount Rundle peers down over the town like a huge frozen plateau that’s been whacked with a giant sledgehammer.
The winter motto here? Ski Big 3 — as in Lake Louise, Mount Norquay and Sunshine. I’m here for six days, downhill skiing at each of those resorts by day and exploring the Canadian culture after my quads have given out.
My trip happens to coincide with a cold snap, an icy offshoot of the polar vortex that swept into the United States in February 2019. That’s fine with me. My super-chilled fingers work well enough to unpack a quiver of toe- and hand-warmers, and I’ve packed about 17 layers of clothes, including a full-face balaclava and two sets of long underwear. Chowder and whiskey also help.
I’m staying at the Moose Hotel. When it was built, someone saved an old built-from-a-kit, mail-order house that originally stood in the nearby former coal mining town of Bankhead. That town is gone, wiped off the map when the industry crashed. But someone saved the house, moved it to Banff, and it ended up in the courtyard of this hotel. You can even rent it for the night.
Now that I’m settled in, I’m ready to ski.
Day 1: Norquay
Free shuttle buses whisk skiers from downtown Banff to each of the three ski resorts, and a pickup stop is right next door. I don my ski boots and insulated clothes, grab my skis and helmet, and toddle downstairs to grab breakfast before I head out.
The shuttle ride to Norquay, the smallest of the resorts at 190 acres, takes exactly seven minutes, and when I arrive, I find only a handful of skiers. Tiny particles of snow drift through the air and sparkle like glitter.
Norquay opened in 1926, and the vibe remains old-school. Just four chairlifts (only one high-speed) carry skiers up the mountain.
I make runs with Simon Moffatt, who works here, and we break for hot cocoa frequently. My biggest takeaways? The views and the history. From the slopes, you can see all the way into Banff. Norquay once hosted huge ski jump competitions and today still serves as training grounds for up-and-coming ski racers.
During lunch (the cafeteria serves an amazing beet salad), I meet 71-year-old Bruce Henry, who grew up in Banff and has been skiing Norquay since he was 12. He coached the Canadian national ski team for 17 years and now coaches older adults.
“I don’t think anybody has wallpaper like we do in our office,” he says, pointing out the window. “We look out onto the valley, and especially if we get a day with cloud formations, it’s spectacular.”
He’s right. After lunch, Moffatt and I head up the steep front face. We step into the Cliff House Bistro, perched on a knob at the top and decked out with retro shots of Marilyn Monroe, who once made a glamorous visit here.
Then it’s time to point our skis downhill. I take my time, making turns around huge snow humps, or moguls. By the time we reach the bottom, I’m fully thawed. We ride more (empty) lifts and race down more (empty) trails until my legs scream “mercy.”
Day 2: Sunshine
It’s a 30-minute ride shuttle to Sunshine Ski Resort, where snow is falling as I look out the window of the gondola that’s carrying me from the base area to the Village, where ski runs fan out like octopus legs.
Twelve lifts carry skiers and snowboarders over the resort’s 3,358 sprawling acres. The longest run stretches for 5 flowy miles. The terrain here is more open and rolling, and again, probably due to nippy temperatures, crowds are thin and lift lines practically nonexistent.
Highlights? Dipping into a tree run called Star Trek, schussing alongside tree branches loaded with snow, zooming through a run called Wildfire dotted with scorched tree trunks, and flying down a groomer or two.
And did I mention the orange chairlift? The TeePee Town luxury express quad has heated seats and footrests and orange pull-down bubble covers. Wind? What wind? Cold? What cold?
If you’re into apres-ski festivities, drop by the Mad Trappers Saloon. The log cabin, built in the 1920s, once served as the resort’s overnight lodge. Inside, it’s all dark wood, coziness — and beer.
Day 3: Lake Louise
It takes 45 minutes to get here by shuttle, but I know it the moment I arrive: Lake Louise officially ranks as the most beautiful ski resort I've ever visited.
The sun pops out, temperatures warm up to minus 8 Celsius, and I’m spending the day with Stephanie Bruno, the best ski instructor I’ve ever met.
We’re honing my bump skiing and tree dodging skills, and I feel like I’ve pushed off a plateau where I’d been grounded for years. Plus, those views. From an observation deck on the front side of the mountain, I can see all the way to the Chateau Lake Louise, a veritable castle on the banks of a frozen and snow-covered lake.
But the best part? The back bowls. With that injection of confidence from Bruno, I’m ready to step off the launch pad at the top of a tumbling expanse of white fluff and give myself to the mountain.
In all, I’ve got 4,200 acres to explore, served by 10 lifts, including one platter lift that serves only expert terrain. (I conquer that, too.)
I tackle slopes steeper than I’ve ever skied and dive into thickets of trees where I once wouldn’t have dreamed of venturing.
Lunch is at the Temple Lodge, where visitors take turns climbing onto a lifeguard stand to take pictures.
I love this place.
Day 4: Lake Louise
I’ve got one extra day to ski before I head home and decide to return to Lake Louise. To me, it’s the most spectacular of the three resorts, with the most varied terrain. I can dip into trees, bomb down open bowls or hit steep mogul runs.
It wears me out, and I stumble back to my hotel hungry and exhausted. That’s the best part about ski trips for me, that feeling of a day well spent and muscles well used.
I can’t wait to come back.
Texans eat breakfast tacos and nachos; Canadians prefer poutine.
But if you're going to partake of the famous food, gird your loins. The dish, a favorite here in the land of subzero temperatures, snow-laden trees and incredibly beautiful mountain scenery, features french fries, cheese curd and hot gravy.
I ordered up dish of poutine with my burger at a great little hole-in-the-wall joint called Eddie's Burger Bar in downtown Banff. I could have made a meal out of just the poutine.
But, honestly, I'm still trying to figure out the “why” of poutine.
Why take a perfectly good pile of fries, toss them with a handful of lumpy, tiny-dumpling-shaped globs of cheese (that's the curd part), then suffocate them in dark brown gravy? It turns into a soggy mess.
When I stopped for lunch at Chimney Corners Lounge on the mountain at Sunshine Ski Resort the next day, the guys at the table next to mine had ordered up a gourmet version of poutine topped with short ribs. (I ordered an amazing Sunshine Salad, loaded with Broccolini, portobello mushrooms, carrots, arugula and pickled onion.)
They were filming the food with their professional video cameras, so I horned my way over and asked if I could take a shot myself. They filmed me, narrating that "the poutine has attracted visitors."
I'll stick to the breakfast tacos, thanks very much.