Canada is known for its spectacular landscapes and unspoiled beauty, and as I discovered back in February, one of the most stunning places you can visit is the UNESCO-designated Banff National Park. Deep in the Canadian Rockies you will find summer explorers hiking, white water rafting, canoeing, playing golf, camping, horse riding, but I visited in the ‘off’ season to join the snow seekers enjoying the best powder there is.
The area is made up of three connected, world-class resorts known as SkiBig3- Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise- which together encompass around 8,000 acres of pristine terrain. Lake Louise and Banff/ Norquay may be separated by a 45 minute drive, but both offer endless glades, deep powder and varied trails from gentle greens to extreme double black diamonds. With luxury hotels, some wonderful spa experiences and lots of unexpected culinary delights, the Canadian Rockies will go beyond your expectations. Here’s how I spent a winter trip.
Spectacular! The Banff National Park is made up of three connected, world-class resorts known as SkiBig3 – Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise- which all offer perfect powder and varied terrain
Charming: The historic town of Banff was established in 1885 after railway workers happened across the hot thermal spring, it became Canada’s first national park
After landing in Calgary International Airport you can take the two hour Banff Airporter transfer ($137.98 CAD return, departs every hour) or a private car (from $300 CAD) to the historic town of Banff.
Established in 1885 after railway workers happened across the hot thermal spring, Banff became Canada’s first national park and cemented itself as a must-see destination for all. Prince William and Kate Middleton even made sure they visited the area during their 2011 Canadian Royal tour, escaping the spotlight for a private night in a secluded corner of the park, at the Skoki Lodge.
Fit for a King? Prince William and Kate Middleton visited the area during their 2011 Canadian Royal tour, escaping the spotlight for a private night at the secluded Skoki Lodge (pictured)
The remote cabin is a five hour cross-country ski from the nearest resort of Lake Louise, but the Royals enjoyed a helicopter ride to the rustic lodge which is bereft of mobile signal, WiFi even electricity and running water.
I, however, checked in for two nights at the enchanting Fairmont Banff Springs hotel which has hosted an array of notable guests including Robert F Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Catherine Zeta Jones, Barack Obama, Pierce Brosnan, even King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Overlooking the quaint town below, the iconic hotel is like a castle where old world elegance meets modern convenience, or as the Queen wrote in a letter to Princess Elizabeth during the Royal Tour of 1939: ‘like Balmoral only much bigger, and the pine trees smelt delicious in the hot sun.’
A destination itself, the hotel has 747 comfortable guest rooms and suites (winter room rates start at $429 CAD per night), six restaurants including a French brasserie at The Vermillion Room, modern Italian cuisine at Castello Italiana and cuts of the best Alberta beef at the 1888 Chop House, it also has mineral pools and a spa.
A-list guests: The enchanting Fairmont Banff Springs hotel has hosted an array of notable guests such as Robert F Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Catherine Zeta Jones and Barack Obama
Royal approval: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited during the Royal Tour of 1939, writing to their daughter Elizabeth that the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel was like ‘like Balmoral only much bigger’
Room with a view: The hotel has 747 comfortable guest rooms and suites (winter room rates start at $429 CAD per night), six restaurants and a spa
One of the best ways to explore the hotel is with the “Eat The Castle” Culinary Tour which is a designated a Canadian Signature Experience by Destination Canada. For $175 CAD you’ll join a small group of fellow guests and a very knowledgeable storytelling guide as you meander the halls over 2.5 hours from one restaurant to the next, indulging on light bites in each while feasting on the fascinating history, art and architecture of the 130-year-old building along the way.
One spine tingling stop was the staircase where a Ghost Bride from the 1920s apparently fell to her death on her wedding day and ever since guests and staff alike have reported seeing a veiled woman roaming the ballrooms. And don’t forget to ask about room 873 for more chilling tales of guests who have checked in, but not checked out. But don’t worry such tales only add to the character of the castle.
Once you’ve eaten your way around the hotel, head to the Fairmont’s recently renovated Willow spa which features indoor and outdoor natural mineral pools. For the ultimate relaxation book a treatment which gives you access to the adult only baths where you’ll find hot/ cold pools as well as a steam and sauna.
Unwind: For the ultimate relaxation book a treatment which gives you access to the adult only baths where you’ll find hot/ cold pools as well as a steam and sauna.
There’s a lot to do: One of the best ways to explore the hotel is with the “Eat The Castle” Culinary Tour which is a designated a Canadian Signature Experience by Destination Canada. The mountains are never far from view.
With so much going on in the hotel, you could almost forget the majestic mountains and their intrepid ski trails that stare back at you from restaurant and bedroom windows. Almost. With an average of 30 feet of snow falling across the SkiBig3 terrain each season, the powder is what keeps the thrill seekers returning year after year. It’s incredible quality.
Sunshine Village is the main ski resort in Banff with a wide range of varied terrain and a lively base to glide into after a euphoric run. Take a seat besides the fire place at the cosy Chimney Corner (one of six eateries) in the only ski-in-ski-out property Sunshine Village Lodge, and get that lovely feeling of loosening your ski boots while tucking into a hearty, healthy lunch. Sunshine Village also happens to boast the longest non-glacier ski season in Canada which stretches from early November all the way until late May.
Sunshine Village is the main ski resort in Banff with a wide range of varied terrain and a lively base to glide into after a euphoric run
Just a snowball’s throw away is Mount Norquay, the first ski resort to open in the Canadian Rockies in 1926, which is a must visit too. Not only is it a great place to ski but you can also get your kicks at the tubing park and don’t forget to take the chair lift up to the Cliffhouse Bistro where you can take in the same views as Marilyn Monroe did when she visited Banff to film River of No Return in 1953.
Iconic: Marilyn Monroe visited Banff to film River of No Return in 1953. Take the chair lift up to the Cliffhouse Bistro where you can take in the same views as she did
Make sure you also head into town for dinner at Chucks Steakhouse for Alberta raised wagyu ribeye and pine haven grass fed tenderloin steaks, or if you’re a vegetarian like myself go for the Caesar salad which is meticulously made in front of you, and don’t forget a bottle of the local Black Rock wine. The decor has a wonderful contemporary Western vibe, the service is impeccable and the food really is exceptional.
Culinary excellence: The food was an unexpected highlight of the trip with Chucks Steakhouse in town being a hot reservation favorite
Another must visit is Eden at the Rimrock Hotel, a delicately crafted French restaurant which has held prestigious AAA/CAA 5-Diamond since 2003 and ‘Best of Award of Excellence’ from the Wine Spectator awards. Take a seat in the carriage-inspired dining area and allow your palates to be taken on a spectacular culinary journey.
Multi-course menus include appetizers of scallop sunchoke and tuna edamame, entrees of monk fish and Alberta pork, finishing with desserts of custard tarts and lemon parfait. The three course option costs $161 CAD and comes with alcohol pairing, as recommended by a very knowledgeable sommelier Julian who will guide you through some of the 17,000 bottles of wine he has in the cellar.
The Rimrock hotel rooms are charming and reasonable with rates starting at $198 CAD during the low winter season going up to $528 CAD per night during summer if you wish to mix up your accommodation.
Award winning: The Eden restaurant at the Rimrock Hotel has held prestigious a AAA/CAA 5-Diamond since 2003 and ‘Best of Award of Excellence’ from the Wine Spectator awards
Pretty view: Multi-course menus at The RimRock’s Eden restaurant include appetizers of scallop sunchoke and tuna edamame, entrees of monk fish and Alberta pork, finishing with desserts of custard tarts and lemon parfait.
After spending a few full-packed days in Banff, it was time to head over to Lake Louise, named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, which is a 45 minute car ride away, and another 5 star Fairmont hotel, this time swapping a castle for a chateau.
Originally built as a base for outdoor activities over 100 years ago, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise- where rooms start at $229 CAD per night- is one of the most beautifully situated hotels you can imagine. It rests at the foot of the Rockies and on the edge of the famous emerald lake, although when I visited that was frozen and functioning as a magnificent outdoor ice-skating rink.
Breathtaking setting: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is one of the most beautifully situated hotels you can imagine. It rests at the foot of the Rockies and on the edge of the famous emerald lake
Lake view: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise- where rooms start at $229 CAD per night- is a beautifully situated hotel
Winter wonderland: After a day on the slopes head back to the hotel for ice-skating, dog sledging, or searching for the Northern Lights
A year round destination: Deep in the Canadian Rockies you will find summer adventurists hiking, white water rafting, canoeing, playing golf, camping and horse riding
The hotel has a short shuttle to the ski resort which has 4200 acres, making it one of the largest ski areas in North America. There are beginner and intermediate runs down from every chair with an abundance of gentle slopes and long cruising paths, but it’s especially enticing for experts with endless chutes, glades, gullies and remote bowls in some of the Rockies’ most challenging snowscapes on offer.
Want a break from the pistes? Enjoy a sushi lunch at Yuma Kuma at the base, or head back to the hotel for ice-skating, dog sledging, or if you’re lucking enough; gape at the Northern Lights come nightfall. It’s hard to imagine the National Park being any better than I experienced, but with a whole host of scenic summer activities on offer too I will have to return to see for myself. Whether you’re a winter or summer adventurist, there’s something for everyone hidden in the mountains of Banff and Lake Louise.
For information on how to keep your winter vacation healthy and SkiBig3 during Covid-19 click here.
Nature overload: Everywhere you turn in Alberta there’s natural beauty
Magical: Whether you’re a winter or summer explorer, there’s something for everyone in the Canadian Rockies. The night sky, as seen here, is lit by magnificent spread of shimmering stars that make for the most unforgettable view