Alberta, Canada – Travel Review
By Richard Jones
They say it helps to have friends in high places. It’s an old adage that is particularly true in the Canadian Rockies.
The Lake Louise Ski Friends is formed in 1978 by the wives of those working at the ski resort in the Banff National Park, Alberta. They want something to occupy their time during the winter months. So a group get together and volunteer their services showing skiers and snowboarders of all ages or abilities around their resort. Nowadays they number over 100. One of them – my namesake Dick, a chiropractor by day – is effectively my own personal tour guide around the mountains near Lake Louise.
This proves invaluable for a solo traveller like myself. Dick enthusiastically leads me to the best runs on the front and back side of Saddleback Ridge. These include the World Cup Downhill course, and a few hidden gems. All without me having to consult a map once. However, it isn’t just Dick and his Ski Friends who show me remarkable hospitality during my week-long trip to the Canadian state of Alberta.
“Scale and beauty of the desolate mountainous landscape is bewildering”
After landing in the bustling city of Calgary on a bitterly cold snowy evening, I check in at the Hotel Arts in the Downtown area. I receive a very warm welcome with supper at the Raw Bar by Duncan Ly, followed by a good (albeit jet-lag tainted) night’s sleep in one of their newly refurbished rooms, and breakfast in the Yellow Door Bistro.
Then it is time to hit the road in my rented SUV. I head west via a quick stopover at the Calgary Olympic Park for a look around the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Then I snake through the Rocky Mountains. Some say this stretch of the road on the Trans-Canada Highway 1 is among the most spectacular drives in the world. True, I found it hard keeping my eyes on the road at times as I sit mouth agape. The sheer scale and beauty of the snowy and desolate mountainous landscape flanking the highway is bewildering.
My first destination after entering the gates of Banff National Park is Sunshine Village ski resort.
I board the gondola during the late afternoon and make my way up to Sunshine Mountain Lodge. This is the only ski in-out accommodation in the Canadian Rockies. I then try a delicious beef tenderloin at the hotel’s Eagle’s Nest Restaurant.
“Uncrowded slopes and plentiful snowfall”
The next morning, I awake from my slumber 2100 metres above sea level, and halfway up the mountain, to the sight of falling snow. This fresh Champagne powder, along with the late morning sun, makes skiing conditions on Mount Standish, Lookout Mountain and Goat’s Eye Mountain nigh-on perfect for my guide Sinead and I.
It is easy to see why many people I speak to during the week consider Sunshine, on North America’s continental divide, as among one of the best skiing areas in North America. It’s mainly due to its uncrowded slopes and plentiful snowfall.
However, the other resort that makes up the so-called ‘Big 3’ with Sunshine and Lake Louise, Mount Norquay, gives the others a run for their money. Despite being smaller in size, Norquay is the perfect setting for family ski holidays in the area. It features a good range of green, blue, red and black runs to suit all ages and abilities. Nevertheless, Norquay’s main pulling point is its location adjacent to the town of Banff.
The ‘college town without a college’ has a reputation for being a party destination. From the Mount Royal Hotel on Banff Avenue visitors are within a short drive or decent walk to the town’s main attractions, including Norquay, the Hot Springs and Sulphur Mountain gondola. I am lucky enough to be in Banff on a Friday and Saturday night when the town really comes alive.
“The freshest beer you’ll ever taste”
This is when many of the wealthy oil business people come in from the city. The locals nickname them the ‘Calgary All Stars’. But there are tourists from all around the world. When I was last in the town during the summer of 2010, I stopped by a bar called Banff Avenue Brewing Co. Despite the place having just opened I was impressed by the look and feel of the place, not to mention the taste of the beers brewed in the micro brewery at the back of the pub.
Five years on, I get the chance to see how the beer is made. This is courtesy of the brains behind the tasty ales – master brewer Kent Paterson. Again, Kent, along with his staff make me feel more than welcome. He takes me for a look around his brewery, inviting me to sample a few of the beers he has on tap, straight from the barrel. “This is the freshest beer you’ll ever taste” he justifiably boasts. He also gets me into the process itself. I share a glass of his ‘Brewer’s Breakfast’ with him the morning after – a cocktail of warm water from the boiling hops along with a shot of Scotch.
Another great place to eat, drink and hang out in Banff is at fondue and steak specialist Grizzly Bear. When I arrive there for dinner on the Friday evening, I immediately spot there are telephones on each table. Following a bit of digging, I find out that the place used to be a disco-cum-swingers bar during the 1970s. The phones, which are all still in full working order, are a throwback to those heady days.
“Views of the majestic Victoria Glacier”
After a couple of days in Banff, it is with a heavy heart (and head, thanks to the potency of Kent’s dark pilsner), that I make the 30-minute drive up to my final stop off of the week – Lake Louise. Louise doesn’t have the night life of Calgary or Banff, and the small village is home to just a few restaurants and shops. But after a short drive up to the hill I arrive at one of the most iconic and beautiful settings in the whole of North America – the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Originally opened in 1911, the Chateau is one of the most desirable and picturesque hotels in the world. It comes with world-class restaurants, including the acclaimed Alpine-inspired Walliser Stube, remarkably personalised service and, of course, views of the frozen lake and the majestic Victoria Glacier.
There is also plenty to do in and around the ice. Skaters, hikers and climbers are all in their element. The area around Banff and Lake Louise is also teaming with wildlife, especially during the summer months. In the winter most of the grizzly bears are sleeping, but grazing deer and elk are still a common sight.
“An exhilarating sleigh ride”
One animal which doesn’t sleep is the wolf. A visit to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary near Cochrane is well worth the trip. The owner Georgina encourages myself and the other guests to get up close and personal with the animals. She even gets one of them, Kuna, to eat treats out of my hand. The animals here are nothing like they are painted in the sensationalised Hollywood films. Although they are still effectively wild animals, as they have varying degrees of dog in their DNA make-up, they are actually quite friendly, if a bit timid.
However, a group of animals which certainly are not shy are the excitable Alaskan Huskies at Kingmik Dogsled Tours just down the road from Lake Louise. After a lot of barking and howling from the excited quintet of canines, I get wrapped up for an exhilarating sleigh ride through the snow-covered forests pulled by the dream team of Chompsky, Flo, Loki, Lennox and Lexi.
They say dogs are a man’s best friend. However, these adorable huskies have a lot of competition on my memorable trip making friends in Alberta.
For more information on holidays in Alberta, Canada, go to crystalski.co.uk and travelalberta.co.uk.