(Banff Springs Hotel)
By Ed Wetschler
Go to Banff and Lake Louise next week. This isn’t some out-of-left-field imperative; this is good advice. And not just for skiers. March may be the most beautiful month of all in the Canadian Rockies, and given the region’s grandeur from late spring through midwinter — I’m talking scenery that gives you cramps in your shutter finger–that’s saying something. The pristine peaks, forests, and lakes are still covered with white stuff, but the midday mercury averages about 40 degrees F, and the sun brightens your day until around 7:40 or even later.
It’s a brilliant sun, too. When I was in Banff last week, I used sunscreen on my nose that first day but forgot to put it on my ears. By 3 p.m. the ears looked like Melba toast. Dumb, but I’m happy to report that everything else I did was smart, even brilliant. Which brings me to those 10 reasons for visiting Banff now:
1. The Weather and the Light
2. Banff National Park
The first national park in Canada (1885) and now a World Heritage Site, its 2,555 square miles include about 150 miles of Continental Divide and photogenic locals, such as elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. Alas, you won’t get to see the bears in March, but life is rife with trade-offs. Eh?
The Canadian Rockies are not as high as, say, the Colorado Rockies, but then, the gateway city, Calgary, has a lower altitude than Denver, and even the hotels within the park are rarely higher than 4,500 or 5,500 feet. So you have dramatic views of white-capped peaks, a plethora of photo ops, and fantastic terrain for downhill skiing — but you don’t have altitude sickness. That’s a godsend for my wife, who is susceptible to that malady yet loves to ski against the backdrop of the Rockies. And circling back to my imperative to go now–the skiing in March is a delight. Visit Banff National Park.
3. Shopping and Dining in Banff
Because the town of Banff lies within the park, it’s subject to such strict building regulations that they can never ruin it. The quality of goods in the shops — art and crafts by regional and Native American artists, jewelry made of beautiful local stones like jaded amethyst and picture Jasper–runs high, but in March, prices trend low. Visit Rocks & Gems for superb fossils of fish — hey, these mountains started out under the ocean — and Silver City Gallery (120 Banff Ave.) for rustic jewelry and multicolored blown glass. Valentine’s Day is over now; buy something for yourself.
Then savor breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants. You won’t have to stand in line to be seated, and Banff’s dining establishments serve terrific food, from the stuffed French toast at Coyote’s Deli & Grill to the Pacific mussels with coconut milk and ginger at the Maple Leaf Grill & Lounge.
4. The Fairmont Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise
Both were built more than a century ago to serve tourists riding the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and today they serve them well indeed. Looking somewhat like immense Scottish palaces, these hotels offer splendid guestrooms, glorious views, various flavors of fine restaurants, imposing public spaces, shops, myriad activities, and the most accommodating staffers east of Bangkok. The Banff Springs is a 10-15 minute walk (or a three-minute bus ride) from town and maintains an exceptional spa, among a slew of other amenities; the Chateau (below) looks out over its namesake lake, enclosed in a bowl of cliffs conveniently arranged for optimal photo ops.
There are plenty of less expensive lodgings in the area, too. But this is a tempting time to test-drive the Fairmonts. I mean, do you think room rates are lower Christmas week, the middle of February, or March? C’mon, that’s not a trick question. Visit Fairmont.com
5. Dog Sledding in Banff National Park
I’m thrilled to go mushing any time, and sled dogs, usually native huskie mongrels who are smaller, smarter, faster, and more affectionate than Siberian huskie showdogs, feel the same way. Still, whether you’re sitting in the sled or directing the team, dog sledding is most enjoyable when the sun is high and the temperatures moderate.
A number of companies offer dog sledding near the park; Discover Banff Tours, which also runs snowshoeing, wildlife viewing, heli-skiing, and other excursions, maintains a sledding operation right in the park.
6. Cross-Country Skiing
One of the many x-country trails in Banff runs parallel to the dog sledding trail, and it is a hoot to watch those quasi-huskies racing past–or even better, toward–you, especially when the musher wants them to pause (ah, can’t we just run another 10 kilometers at sound-barrier speed?). Many of the trails near the town of Banff lead through fairly flat woodlands, with views of the half-frozen Bow and/or Spray rivers to one side, and snow-blanketed mountains rising up in every direction. On Lake Louise you can set out across snow trails covering the ice and see the eerily blue waterfall at the other end, or take trails into the woods. Or both. No need to bring Nordic skis from home; rentals are ubiquitous and inexpensive.
When I joined a group that was snowshoeing (wearing lightweight, modern aluminum-frame rentals), we floated through Christmas tree forests atop four or five feet of soft, virgin snow. Our gear was so good, I wouldn’t have realized how deep the snow was, but then one guy stepped out of his snowshoes to see how deep he’d sink. Answer: up to his waist.
8. Swimming Outdoors
Both Banff Springs Resort, a ten-minute walk from the town, and Chateau Lake Louise have well-heated outdoor swimming pools. I wade in, feel the warmth, and find myself surrounded by soaring, white-clad crags and, behind me, a glorious Scottish-Canadian-Victorian pile. So I don’t really swim at all; I just rotate to let the hotel and the Rockies spin around me.
9. Night Tracks
The moon hitting snow on the mountains made the headlamps our guide handed out unnecessary. Our guide stopped us to point out the little tracks of a mouse to our right. To our left were the larger tracks of a marmot. He showed where the tracks met, and the surface of the snow was churned up. From there the marmot’s tracks continued pretty much in the direction from which it had come, but there were no mouse tracks to be seen. The dramatic impact was as visceral as things you see on the Serengeti. Visit whitemountainadventures.
Okay, enough stalling. Here’s the lowdown on three ski areas:
Sunshine Village, just received a visitation by Eddie the Eagle, marking the 20th anniversary of his big splash (splat?) at the Calgary Olympics. What a piece of work is man. But that’s not why I love Sunshine. A three-mountain side-by-side expanse somewhat reminiscent of Winter Park, Sunshine has plenty of hair-raising descents, like Delirium and Silver City, which are for more agile skiers than this one. But I love the groomers on Lookout Mountain–aka the Continental Divide–and near the end of the day, the long, long descent to the base on blues and greens (with a few half-pipes thrown in) is pure pleasure.
By contrast, Norquay, is kind of small and unexceptional on paper (inexpensive, too). But the glades are lovely, and some of the steep black diamonds, like Excalibur, are so artfully groomed as to be perfect runs for fine-tuning turns. I went on a Saturday, and there were no lines at the lifts. A Saturday! My definition of heaven.
What can I say about Lake Louise Mountain Resort? That its 4,200 acres make it one of the largest mountains in North America? That it has a vertical of 3,250 feet and 139 marked mogul, glade, and groomed trails–plus bowls? That the back bowls transport you to another world? Okay, here are two things you may not know: There are expert, intermediate, and beginner slopes from every lift–yes, every lift. Beginners can even negotiate an easy back bowl trail, whetting their appetites for more. Second, the ski area is positioned up and behind the Chateau Lake Louise, so its front, or south face, actually faces southwest, offering extraordinary views across Lake Louise. Not to mention wonderful lighting conditions.
Bonus reason to visit Banff: I could give you lot of them, including ice skating on Lake Louise (they clear part of it). As for the horse-drawn sleighs, they were crafted by Canadian Mennonites, and big gray Percherons and brown Belgians with white manes trot them around Lake Louise beneath evergreens blanketed in fresh snow. Book a ride at brewsteradventures.com and cuddle up with your honey; the only thing more romantic than this is unprintable in Everett Potter’s Travel Report.
For more information, visit banfflakelouise.com or call 403-762-8421.