In 1883, when three railway workers stumbled upon a smelly hole while boating the Bow River in Canada’s Alberta province, they couldn’t have known that their discovery—a hot sulfur spring—would lead to the creation of the country’s first national park. Tourists and entrepreneurs followed, making Banff National Park one of the New World’s most enduring attractions. It’s also home to some very serious skiing: Sunshine Village is known for its extreme terrain, while little Ski Banff/Mount Norquay is a soulful working-man’s mountain. Both fall within park boundaries, so the too-frequent visual ills of ski country—overdevelopment, tangles of power lines—are absent. Which is especially nice, since the views alone are worth the trip.
The two-hour drive along Highway 1 to Banff from Calgary International Airport is painless. Relax and enjoy the views as bleak metropolitan sprawl dissolves into peaks and crags. Pay the $10 to enter Banff National Park and pull into Banff, tucked into a bend in the Bow River. Take a slow cruise through the three or four blocks of cafes, boutiques and bars that make up downtown, then check into the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, so named for the nearby hot springs (from $200;
; 866-540-4406). A great baronial castle that seems to rise out of the springs’ incessant steam, the hotel is large enough to need its own map; set aside time for a historic tour later in the weekend. Try to get a corner room, facing Mt. Rundle to the south and the Bow River to the east.
After your drive, find sustenance in the Rundle Lounge, a hall of fame for classic cocktails: Try a Moscow Mule (a 1940s mix of vodka, lime and ginger ale) or a Negroni (a gin recipe from Harry’s New York Bar in Paris) while enjoying the live piano. Order the steak sandwich with blue cheese butter and a Grizzly Paw Pilsner—brewed down the road in Canmore and made without flavor-killing preservatives.
The Banff town center comprises barely a square mile, so there’s no need for a car. Take the Fairmont’s free shuttle to town—ski gear in tow—for breakfast at Coyote’s Deli and Grill on Caribou Street: cappuccino, fresh orange juice and a massive breakfast burrito with green chile (403-762-3963).
Shuttles from town to Sunshine Village resort are free with a Tri-Area ski pass, purchased online (
) before your trip and good at Sunshine (today’s destination), Ski Banff/Mount Norquay (tomorrow’s) and Ski Lake Louise, another excellent option if you’re in town longer than a weekend.
At Sunshine, follow the sun by hopping on the Wawa quad first; the summit offers a perfect layout view of the resort. Cruise Wawa Bowl for an easy warmup before heading for the steeps under the Mount Standish Express. Stay on Standish until lunch—a salmon burger at Chimney Corner in the Sunshine Inn should keep you going—then once more up Standish. At the top, follow the ridge over to black-diamond Laryx; partway down look skier’s right for beautiful views into Sunshine Meadows and stretching into neighboring British Columbia.
Tougher sorts should head over to the Continental Divide chair toward Delirium Dive, one of Sunshine’s serious “freeride zones”; bring your shovel, avvy beacon and a partner for this inbounds backcountry (read: unmarked cliffs) experience. Those not feeling it will find plenty of earnest terrain under the Conti and Angel Express chairs.
Heading down the mountain at day’s end, avoid flat spots by staying high and hopping on the Jack Rabbit quad for some last-minute steeps. Look for the frozen waterfall, frequented by ice climbers, pouring off Mt. Bourgeau, skier’s left off the Banff Avenue runout to the base.
No trip to Banff would be complete without a visit to the hot springs, the town’s raison d’etre. For $7, you can go soak in the Upper Hot Springs—the public springs operated by Parks Canada—up the hill from the Fairmont (
). Those seeking a more luxurious—and child-free—experience should head to the Willow Stream Spa in the Fairmont for its waterfalls and mineral pools.
With your soul thusly soothed, head for drinks at the Saltlik bar on Bear Street (403-762-2467). The scene can get a little brash as the Banff party set filters in later, but the earlier happy hour (4–7 p.m.) offers up enough excellent cocktails (try the icewine martini) to make up for the hockey highlights on the omnipresent flatscreens. Try some tapas—olives with manchego cheese, bacon wrapped dates—to lessen the effects of your martini, but save room for dinner, a few doors down at Bison Mountain Bistro. The menu is deep with organic and slow-food Canadian cuisine. But it’s not twee wholesomeness by a long shot—the Bison’s fresh-lemon whisky sour might be the best in this hemisphere (
If dinner hasn’t popped your cork just yet, local favorite Magpie & Stump serves up big Canadian beers in liter jars along with an occasional raucous music scene (403-762-4067). Gentler folk might just stroll back to the Fairmont for a scotch at the quiet and cordial Ramsay Lounge.
Skip the shuttle and walk to town for breakfast; you’ll have the time. The Wild Flour’s “powder rack”—baguette sandwich, protein bar, organic fruit, OJ and a free-trade coffee to go—is $15 (
). Hop a shuttle to Norquay, across the highway from town. Norquay offers skiing by the hour, starting with two hours for $32—perfect for those flying home but still seeking turns. It’ll be all you need—the trail map’s the size of a hankie.
If Sunshine is the fat-ski resort, Norquay is the racer’s haven, with plenty of fast, slick groomers. Check out the former racecourse off the A Chair, and don’t miss the views of Cascade Mountain off the Mystic Chair. You’ll cover the whole resort in a couple of hours, but the real action is in the cafeteria, where heliskiing’s godfather, Mike Wiegele, might be sipping cocoa with a grandkid. The place is rife with old-school characters like Eddie Hunter, who’s been skiing Norquay’s hills since the ’30s and is so dedicated to them that he wrote a book:
The Spirit of Norquay
. You may be on your way home, but these spirits will be here when you come back.
SIGNPOST: Banff, Alberta
3,358 skiable acres; 3,514 vertical feet; 364 annual inches; 107 trails; 12 lifts. Lift tickets: $62; seniors (65 and over) $51; youth (13–17) $44; children (6–12) $21
Ski Banff/Mount Norquay:
190 skiable acres; 1,650 vertical feet; 120 annual inches; 28 trails; 5 lifts. Lift tickets, full day: $45; seniors (65 and over) $35; youth (13–17) $35; children (6–12) $14. Hourly passes $12–$43
Banff is 84 miles from Calgary’s airport. Take the TransCanada Highway west to Banff National Park; exit at Banff. American travelers need passports.
; 877-542-2633. Ski Banff/Mount Norquay:
; 403-762-4421.Town of Banff:
– SKI MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 2009