Travel: The other Banff (it’s in Canada)

The continental divide above Sunshine Village, Banff. Picture: Jane Barlow

The continental divide above Sunshine Village, Banff. Picture: Jane Barlow

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THE high resorts of the Canadian Rockies offer spectacular winter sport, finds Jane Barlow

I know there is another Banff across the Atlantic, inspired and named after our seaside town here in Scotland. So when the opportunity came to visit and ski outside Europe for the first time, I couldn’t say no, despite the thought of a nine hour flight and the ensuing seven hours of jet-lag. So with thermals packed I am Canada-bound. On landing at Calgary, I am convinced I have come to the wrong place. It’s flat as far as the eye can see. There are no hills, let alone mountains. But after a 90-minute bus trip heading west along the Trans-Canadian highway the Rocky Mountains emerge – and they are worth the wait. The mountains rear straight up to the sky from almost sea-level, overwhelmingly huge and majestic. The effect is startling.

I am here to ski and explore the triple-ski area of Lake Louise, Mount Norquay and Sunshine Village, known as the ‘Big 3’, all within the boundaries of the UNESCO Banff National Park in Alberta province. Banff was first settled in the 1880s after the transcontinental railway was built through the Rocky Mountains to link British Columbia with the rest of Canada. In 1883 three Canadian Pacific Railway workers stumbled upon a series of natural springs on the side of Sulphur Mountain. In 1885 Canada established a federal reserve of 26 square km (10 sq miles) around the hot springs and began promoting the area as an international resort and spa as a way of supporting the new railway. The area was named Banff in 1884 by George Stephen, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, after his birthplace Banffshire, Scotland, now simply Banff.

Each of the ski areas has its own character and the first port of call was Lake Louise, a giant of Canadian skiing with incredible mountain views from every angle. The annual first meet of the World Cup season takes place here, attracting the best skiers from across the world. However, as well as the thigh-shredding downhill courses, from every lift there are runs for all levels, enabling our group of differing abilities to move around the mountain together.

Coming to Canada to ski is not like going to the Alps, where you can happily fetch up at your resort, ski the week, and go home without worrying that you didn’t even get to the next valley. Canada is so big there are no crowds or lift queues of any note. You can ski up to any lift and pretty much get straight on, and once you’re on either the groomed runs or open bowls you rarely have to worry about other skiers and boarders getting in the way. Indeed, this being North America, such things are quantified – apparently, on an average day every skier and rider enjoys one acre of terrain all to themselves.

Surrounded by wilderness but not by people it’s easy to forget you’re on a piste, which makes for some serene stress-free skiing. Wildlife roams freely here and although the grizzly and brown bears are hibernating now, it’s not uncommon to see elk or big horned sheep strolling across the tree-lined runs. It’s very easy to never want to leave this place, perhaps Prince William and Kate felt the same. The newly-weds managed to duck under the radar of the world’s media during their official visit to Canada in July 2011 to spend a short time at Lake Louise.

Banff is the town in which the majority of skiers and boarders stay and commute daily to the resort of their choice. It is very much a frontier town with the famous Trans-Pacific rail-road running right through its grid of streets lined with shops, restaurants, hotels and typical Canadian bars with walls filled with TV screens showing endless ice-hockey. It is one of those rare ski towns that’s actually busier in summer due to hikers bound for the surrounding National Park. The upside of this is that there’s strong competition between businesses for the diminished winter client base which drives down prices.

The closest of the Big 3 to Banff is Mount Norquay and it’s great for those who want to hit the slopes fast. Norquay, pronounced Nork-way, was the first ski hill (Canadians have this charming habit of calling their mountains hills) to be created in Western Canada back in 1926 when European engineers working in the area were among the early pioneers. And it’s deceptive. Just because the ski terrain is the smallest of the three, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easier here. It’s used as a training ground by Olympic and World Cup skiers and many of its short, sharp blue runs would be black diamonds on any other hill.

Anyone looking to progress their skiing would do well to ski here as with short lift rides you can clock up run after run and make the most of your time. Thanks to special ticketing categories, people can ski any time during the morning or afternoon, or just for a few hours any time of day. There are also other activities on offer to provide some light relief from the steep runs. There is a sightseeing gondola up to the old cliff tea-house where you get the best views of the valley below and a wonderful tube park which is not just for kids. I mean, what’s not to like about whizzing downhill on a giant inflated inner tube?

Despite the name Sunshine Village is not a village, it’s just one hotel, the plush, four-star Sunshine Mountain Lodge and it’s one of the few resorts with ‘ski-to-door’ accommodation. On my first day’s skiing here it didn’t have any notable sunshine either. I had to endure disorientating white-out conditions and some seriously cold early-season weather with the temperature plummeting to -34C at one point. Sunshine is Canada’s most elevated resort, hence the cold conditions, and it straddles three mountains, Goat’s Eye, Standish and Lookout, serving 107 named runs and the in-bound extreme free-ride zones dauntingly named ‘Delirium Dive’ and the ‘Wild West’. Sunshine has one unique run where it’s possible to ski in two provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. This provincial boundary is also the Continental Divide which means if you ski straddling the line snow from under one ski will melt and eventually flow into the Pacific Ocean and the snow from under the other ski will eventually flow into the Atlantic. When it comes to reliable snow, Sunshine is hard to beat. With copious amounts of natural snow the season runs to the middle of May, making it a good choice for a late ski break when most of the European ski areas have closed.

Strangely for such a massively mountainous place, Banff is defined by what it is not. It is not Aspen overrun with celebrities, nor Megeve with its Michelin-starred restaurants, nor is it status-conscious St Moritz, nor hard-partying Whistler. There are no trends in Banff and even the surrounding mountains are negatives formed less by the up-thrusting of clashing tectonic plates, than by 20 million years of erosion. What remains after all that paring-down is a thing of remarkable purity. A ski trip to this part of Alberta is pleasure for every part of you – a treat for your eyes to gaze upon, fun for your legs on the slopes and some of the most relaxing surroundings for the soul I’ve ever come across.

• Canadian Affair offers ski holidays to Banff Lake Louise from £719 per person. The return trip includes direct return economy class flights from Gatwick to Calgary, resort transfers from Calgary airport and seven nights’ accommodation at the Inns of Banff (twin room, accommodation only). For more information, tel: 0207 7616 9933 or visit www.canadianaffair.com

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