Scotland on Sunday Travel - Why Alberta is the ultimate winter holiday for off-the-beaten-track adventure

Canada has reopened its borders to all fully vaccinated travellers – just in time for the best season

A bison on Elk island, less than an hour’s drive from Edmonton. A National Park, you’re guaranteed to spot majestic bison, elk, moose and white-tailed deer free roaming.

Alberta is famous for its pristine wilderness and postcard-perfect scenes of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains towering over glassy lakes.

It’s famously a summer destination for tourists and landscape photographers alike, but it can be difficult to get around in peak season, with some of the most iconic viewpoints – like Lake Louise – causing lengthy traffic jams and a fight for parking spaces.

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That’s why winter is quietly becoming the best time to travel to the province. The region becomes an empty playground for adventure lovers when the temperature drops, offering adrenaline-thrilled winter sports and spectacular frozen views. (Just be sure to pack your thermals and prepare for a few blizzards.) Here’s how to spend a week exploring Alberta this winter.

Touch down in Edmonton

The capital of Alberta, and its second-largest city, is more than just an overnight stopover en route to wilder parts. I spend three days in this vibrant urban city, easing myself into the adventure lifestyle and discovering a smart holiday destination in its own right.

Less than an hour’s drive from the city you’ll find Elk Island, a National Park where you’re guaranteed to spot majestic bison, elk, moose and white-tailed deer free roaming (admission £4.33 for adults). The park has higher densities of hoofed mammals per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world, and is an important part of Canada’s bison conservation story.

Edmonton itself is a young and creative city with great coffee, hyper-local foodie spots and Instagrammable street art. Food-wise you’re spoilt for choice, and highlights include craft beer taproom Situation Brewing (situationbeer.com), hipster gin distillery Strathcona Spirits (strathconaspirits.ca), brunch haven Little Brick (littlebrick.ca) and boozy eatery Baijiu (baijiuyeg.com) for Asian-inspired small plates and good cocktails.

Downtown Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, and its second-largest city,

Hole up in the JW Marriot in Edmonton’s hottest new downtown area, ICE District. With design-conscious interiors, impeccable service and a destination cocktail bar, it’s the place to enjoy some luxury R’n’R.

Make Jasper your adventure base

It’s a scenic, four-hour drive from Edmonton to Jasper, the largest National Park in the Canadian Rockies with 11,000 square kilometres of untouched wilderness. One of the world’s largest accessible dark sky preserves, you can appreciate twinkling constellations and if you’re very lucky, the aurora borealis. I recommend a Night Photography Tour with Jasper Photo Tours (£86.53 for two hours; jasperphototours.com).

For car hire opt for a four by four with snow tyres and you’ll need to be an experienced driver, as the roads get hairy if the weather takes a turn.

Ice climbing in Alberta.

Ice climbing is one of the more unusual winter thrills you can try in Alberta. Rockaboo Mountain Adventures offer day-trips (£129.75 pp for six hours; rockaboo.ca) that involve a hike through Jasper National Park to a hidden frozen waterfall, where you can safely have a go at heaving yourself up the rugged sheet of ice using crampons and ice axes. Exhilarating and terrifying, it’s one of those incredible travel memories you’ll be talking about for years to come.

I spend another memorable day trip on an Ice Bubbles Tour with Pursuit Adventures (£72.11 per person; pursuitadventures.ca), hiking my way to Abraham Lake and the narrow canyon of the Cline River where ice bubbles trapped underneath the lake are an incredible natural phenomenon to witness against the dramatic backdrop.

Jasper itself is a sweet little Alpine town with cute shops and cafes, and there’s even a wellness centre (jasperwellness.ca) with yoga and meditation classes. When it’s time to bed down, head to the Mount Robson Inn, a little motel with outdoor hot tubs and views of the spectacular mountain ranges.

Ski and snowshoe in Banff and Lake Louise

Esplanade Mountain, Alberta, Canada.

I continue my journey south towards Banff and Lake Louise, a haven for anyone looking for a true Canadian adventure. Known for having some of the finest ski powder in the world, Banff is Canada’s first national park (named in 1885) and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The three-hour drive takes on a different kind of beauty covered in a fresh sheet of snow.

The iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel is the place to stay, a luxury mountain resort that famously overlooks the frozen lake and its surrounding soaring mountain peaks.

With an average annual snowfall of 13 feet, the snowy trails around Banff National Park are the place to try snowshoeing, a giggle-inducing activity that involves wearing footwear that looks and feels like strapping on two mini skis (the hotel can arrange at £37 for three hours). The idea is the weight-distributing shoes stop you sinking into the snow, but there are slips, skids and hilarious wipe-outs.

I also try skiing at Lake Louise ski resort, with 4,200 skiable acres of gentle slopes for beginners, right up to chutes, glades and gullies for experts. I rent gear from the SkiBig3 Adventure Hub in the town, where you can also book lessons and buy lift tickets (single day lift ticket £69).

With incredible views of the Rocky mountains and crisp blue skies, the resort – which enjoys endless powder – is a memorable place to find your ski legs. Within a morning of tuition, I’m navigating the bunny slopes with ease and itching to take on steeper challenges.

Elsewhere, Banff has its own sky gondola (£30 return) that takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain with panoramic views of the Rockies. If you can stomach the vertigo, make a booking at the Sky Bistro (banffjaspercollection.com) – a dining sanctuary in the sky with locally-sourced meats and produce, and an extensive wine list (mains from £18).

Snow tubing in Alberta.

Before making the final drive to Calgary airport, a one-and-a-half hour car journey from Lake Louise, there’s one last winter challenge – snow tubing which involves sandwiching yourself into an inflatable rubber ring with up to three others and holding on for dear life as you’re launched down a snowy hill.

Expect screaming and swearing, but plenty of laughs if you choose to round off your trip with a visit to Mount Norquay (£22.50 pp for a two-and-a-half-hour session; banffnorquay.com).

Summer might be the most popular time to photograph Alberta, but winter is the best way to experience it. Whether you sled, snowboard, snowshoe or tube your way around, it’s an exhilarating breath of fresh air you’re sure to want to revisit.

How to plan your trip

Bon Voyage (bon-voyage.co.uk; 0800 316 3012) offers an 11-night fly-drive holiday to the Canadian Rockies from £2,395 pp, based on two adults travelling. Valid for travel in February 2022, the package includes room-only accommodation, return economy flights from London to Calgary, some activities and 4×4 car hire rental.

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The Fairmont Chateau, Lake Louise.
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