Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise make an excellent multi-centre holiday that offers so much more than just skiing, with jaw-dropping scenery, wildlife, walks and more – here’s a round-up of my recent trip…
Arrival in Calgary Airport is very straightforward: they favour the ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to transatlantic passengers! We managed to speed walk the 15 mile hike (ok… small exaggeration!) to customs and immigration and beat the queue, meaning we were out and ready to collect our car in record time! Car rental is on terminal at Calgary and it’s refreshingly quick and simple. Self-drive isn’t essential for this trip, but it does give you the freedom to take things at your own pace, and with fuel costs around half what they are in the UK, it’s great value too! Canadian roads are a pleasure to drive on, and I’ve never come across such polite and law abiding drivers: speed limits are obeyed; they stop for amber lights and it’s a wonder anyone ever gets moving at the 4 –way-stop junctions: ‘after you; no, after you!’… As driving in Edinburgh can feel like a bit like a combat sport this took a bit of getting used to!
As we were heading to Jasper first we opted to stay at an airport hotel overnight, so the next morning we were wide awake and well rested for the 6 hour drive to Jasper. Don’t be put off by the distance: it’s a drive so pretty we almost didn’t want it to end! And we certainly didn’t need to worry about getting lost – once on Highway 1 (pretty much one junction from the airport) you can’t go wrong! You pass Banff and Lake Louise on the way to Jasper but it’s after Lake Louise that the drive gets really good: the Icefields Parkway is regularly voted as one of the world top drives, not for its technical twists and turns (there are none) but for the stunning scenery.
It’s high alpine country: the road can be covered in compacted snow; and there are no services available between Lake Louise and Jasper (234 km) in the winter; nor is there phone reception, so I imagine in a snowstorm it could be a bit more challenging… but I’ve been lucky on both occasions I have driven it and had good weather. It’s ploughed as required and treated as any highway in Canada, but they don’t grit because the Bighorn Sheep eat the grit!
Jasper town is a year round resort, but sees the majority of its guests come through on the railway in the summer. That lends it a very relaxed vibe in winter and it feels like life travels at a slower pace here. It would be hard to feel stressed out in Jasper, and that’s the true beauty of it. We stayed at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge: 10 mins drive from the town and a hotel like no other: there’s a main lodge with a few guest rooms, restaurants, spa, outdoor pool and hot-tubs, etc… Which has the grandeur and warmth that is common to the Fairmont brand; but the majority of the accommodation is in cabins around the lakeside (around four rooms per cabin with a variety of views and amenities) – and it puts you in mind of the film Dirty Dancing! Elk and mule deer roam the grounds and it’s very peaceful and beautiful. They offer room service to the cabins if required, and they’ll pick you up in a golf buggy and drive you to reception if you don’t fancy walking.
The skiing is at Marmot Basin – 15 mins drive from Jasper town and 25 mins drive from the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. The ski area is not the biggest, but the runs are long, there’s lots of variety and there are no lift lines at all (even on Easter Sunday!). It also has a really good snow record, and where else can you share the pistes with wild caribou?! The Fairmont runs a shuttle to the slopes for a fee each day (around $20 per day I think) although we took the car. The thing that stood out for me was the ease of getting around the mountain, and the fantastic set up for all services at the base: rentals, lift tickets and ski school are all in the same place, there’s direct access to the slopes from the parking lots, and everyone is super friendly. The mountain also naturally funnels everyone back to the same place, making it easy for different ability groups to ride the lift together.
Lake Louise is about 3 ½ hours from Jasper and in terms of proximity to skiing, offers the quickest access to the slopes. It doesn’t have a resort centre as such – just a small shopping mall and gas station, but the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offers a wealth of dining, drinking, shopping and views. It needn’t break the bank either, and we found plenty of reasonably priced dining options (perfect for tight fisted Scots like ourselves!). There’s also a complimentary shuttle to the slopes that runs every half an hour (takes under 10 mins). Upgrade to a Lakeview room and enjoy the views… you won’t regret it…
I could stare at that view all day! We eventually tore ourselves away and checked out the skiing at Lake Louise. One thing became apparent immediately… while Jasper’s run gradings were on the soft side, those in Lake Louise were a bit steeper, and a bit of new snow really freshened things up. Lake Louise is the biggest ski area in Alberta and has loads of variety. The back side of the mountain is my favourite – quiet slopes, long runs and great snow. We did laps of the Saddleback Bowl and Larch Mountain, stopping at the Temple Lodge for simple but tasty sustenance. Considering we were there at Easter the slopes were really quiet – plenty of room to breathe!
Banff is the biggest town – and you could base yourself here and ski Lake Louise too (50 mins away) but mostly people staying in Banff will ski at Sunshine (25 mins) or the locals favourite Mount Norquay (15 mins). Again, we drove to the slopes but there’s a resort shuttle included in the cost of your lift ticket that operates to a schedule, and gets you closer to the gondola too. The town of Banff has so many nice restaurants and shops, so it definitely has more to offer off the slopes than either Jasper or Lake Louise, and it’s virtually impossible to walk down Main Street without being lured off the pavement by delicious ice cream, fudge or waffles. We stayed on Banff Avenue at the Ptarmigan Inn: perfectly located for everything. We could walk to everything, and the free covered parking meant our enormous Dodge was warm and snow free in the morning. Rooms at the Ptarmigan are large and comfortable, if a little old fashioned, but its excellent value and the complimentary breakfast was a winner: made to order omelettes, bacon, sausages, pancakes, fresh fruit, yoghurt and cereal!
We skied at Sunshine while staying in Banff. The ski area had more to offer than I remember from my previous visit… a lot of the runs are shorter than at Lake Louise or Jasper, but they are great fun; and there’s a huge mix of terrain. You can go from open bowl to gully, to trees with ease. The Village base is mid mountain, at the top of the gondola and you can even stay here at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge. You will also find restaurants, ski school and rentals here. We really liked the skiing on Goats Eye Mountain – and again, the pistes were empty, bliss!
All too soon it was time to come home, after a brilliant holiday. Even though Western Canada has had a lean snow year by its own high standards, we found great on piste conditions. The other thing that stood out was the genuinely friendly Canadian hospitality. Thanks Alberta, we’ll be back soon!
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