For spectacular snowsports without the crowds – but with plenty of bison and beer – head for beautiful Banff in Alberta, writes Sean Mallen
It is one of the world’s most glorious drives. As you head west from Calgary, Alberta, along the TransCanada Highway, the white-capped Rockies rise on the horizon, soon to surround you in Banff National Park, a mere 90 minutes away. You are entering a Canadian postcard, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
But for Ross Hastings, a native of Saltcoats, Ayrshire, those views always bring back memories of Scotland.
“It reminds me a lot of Glencoe, driving along a valley with mountains on either side. It’s kind of like Glencoe on steroids, but I think anyone from Scotland will feel a sense of familiarity.”
We were speaking over a platter of Alberta charcuterie, including dried bison, at the Whitehorn Bistro, 6,700 feet above sea level but only halfway down a spectacular run at the Lake Louise resort. Looking out of the windows, we could see jagged mountains dominating the scenery beneath a crystal blue sky.
The room was jammed with a lunchtime crowd who lumbered in wearing ski boots, hair askew and muscles aching after a bracing morning of long runs down the mountainside.
Skiers are more demanding eaters than they used to be, and the Whitehorn menu offers a ricotta and butternut squash salad or rabbit wrapped in filo. I opted for an AAA Alberta flat iron steak with peppercorn sauce – a tasty hit of protein for my weary body.
Hastings has been in Banff since 2009, first as a ski instructor and now as a tourism marketer eager to tell Scots that the trip to western Canada is well worth the journey.
“It’s world-renowned for its diversity of skiing. I think it is on everybody’s shortlist,” he said. Lake Louise hosts World Cup races every year, but has a vast variety of runs for different skill levels.
The area’s links with Scotland start with Banff itself, a resort built around hot springs and fed by the train that joined western Canada to the east in the 19th century. George Stephen, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, gave the town its name in 1884, drawing on memories of his birthplace in Aberdeenshire, and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel was designed in the Scottish baronial style.
Alberta is the heart of the oil industry – independent and entrepreneurial, a kind of northern Texas with politer people, fewer guns and a deep love for the outdoors.
Joining us for lunch was another Scot, Craig Pettigrew, who learned how to ski at Bellahouston, Glasgow, but was now happily teaching beginners in the Canadian Rockies. His journey germinated while he was working in a call centre in Hamilton, where he dreamed of following friends to the mountains of New Zealand to become an instructor – until he came to Banff to take a course while on holiday.
“It just hit me how friendly everyone was. I’d never been to Canada before,” he said. “I thought: why would I go further, to New Zealand?”
Now he has completed five winters as an instructor at Lake Louise.
Both Hastings and Pettigrew suggested that British skiers considering trips to Europe should think about Alberta instead. The flight is longer, but Calgary’s airport has direct connections to the UK. Once you land, it is an easy drive along a main highway to Banff, with several skiing choices close by – unlike many European resorts which can only be reached via many hairpin turns.
Then there is the famed Canadian courtesy, cited by Edinburgh native Kate McCondichie, who works at the Sunshine Village resort.
“I do find everyone is polite,” she said, favourably comparing Banff to the giant, crowded resorts in the French Alps. “There’s no shoving to get into a queue. It’s all well managed. The longest queue I’ve ever been standing in is five minutes.”
Sure enough, when McCondichie strapped on her snowboard and took me on a tour of the Sunshine runs we waited on average 30 seconds to get on a lift. At the top, we took a moment to soak in a breathtaking, 360-degree vista of mountaintops before swooshing down a wide, panoramic run with generous elbow room between us and fellow boarders and skiers.
Sunshine is the highest of the resorts near Banff and claims to have both the best snow in Canada and the longest season: it stays open well into May. A 20-minute gondola ride brings you up from the car park to a vast ski area in the middle of three mountains, with many of the runs above the tree line, including a good selection of easy slopes.
We were provided with a Ski Big 3 pass that admitted us into Sunshine, Lake Louise and the closest resort to Banff, Mount Norquay, the oldest ski resort in North America.
Banff is a quaint, bustling tourist town, with plenty of choices for food and drink. Locally raised bison is worth a try – a leaner alternative to beef (which is also in good supply). Our hotel, the Buffalo Mountain Lodge on the edge of Banff, which comes with fireplaces in the rooms, spectacular mountain views and outdoor hot tubs for the adventurous, serves bison raised on the owners’ property in southern Alberta. The restaurant is casual and friendly, with delicious bison and steak. A landmark restaurant, the Maple Leaf Grill, has a delicious, bacon-wrapped bison tenderloin.
And to round it all off, Banff also boasts its own brew pub, Banff Avenue Brewing, which has a broad selection of fine beers and ales made on site, along with casual food including the all-Canadian poutine (french fries topped with cheese curds and the whole plate drenched with hot gravy). There brew master Pete Jervis, from Sheffield, led us through a tasting of six distinctive beers with names such as Pond Hockey Pale Ale and Head Smashed IPA. The latter refers to an Alberta indigenous heritage site: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, not to a skiing mishap or how your head might feel after a night on this town.
• See the Ski Big 3 website for bespoke itineraries, including packages for rooms, lift tickets and ski equipment rentals (http://www.skibig3.com). There are no direct Scotland-Calgary flights during ski season, but Both Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) and British Airways (www.britishairways.com) offer frequent non-stop flights service from London-Calgary with return fares for next December starting at £770.25. We stayed at Buffalo Mountain Lodge where rooms in December 2016 start at about £110/night, and with a ski package including lift tickets to the Big 3 resorts, £196/night (www.crmr.com/buffalo). The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel is a landmark, worth a visit even if you don’t choose to stay there (www.fairmont.com/banff-springs). The Maple Leaf Grill, meat and game main courses start at £17 (www.banffmapleleaf.com). Banff Avenue Brewing (www.banffavebrewingco.ca) Ski Hub, Banff for equipment hire (www.skibig3.com/banff-ski-hub). WestJet is launching a new Calgary-Gatwick service in May (www.westjet.com)