It’s spring break in the Canadian Rockies. The kids are at ski school, and my husband and I chase Jasper around Lake Louise with punch-drunk giddiness. Since our arrival seven days before, we’ve been on the receiving end of both sun and storms.
As if that weren’t enough to fulfill our skiing fantasies, there’s the destination itself, which trends toward fairy-tale land. Here in western Alberta, towering peaks with rugged glaciers ring the glorious Bow River Valley. Nestled next to the lakes, rivers and hot springs are elegant hotels, legacies of this region’s turn-of-the-20th-century railroad. With the stunning landscape seared into our psyches, we feel like explorers in Banff National Park, overwhelmed by its magic. As Jasper said on our first lift ride of the day, “Here you get the million-dollar views without the million-dollar homes crowding everyone out.”
He’s right. Even though we have our pick of three ski resorts, development is strictly limited in Banff National Park, which means the only ski-in, ski-out lodging we’ll experience is at Sunshine Mountain Lodge, a boutique mountaintop hotel accessed by a gondola. For the rest of our trip, we will stay at the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise, and being a drive away from the slopes will encourage us to explore more than just the skiing.
In Banff, that translates mostly into eating. Balkan, a Greek restaurant on the main drag, entrances my children with its flaming cheese (saganaki), and hooks me with marinated, slow-cooked lamb. Unfortunately we aren’t there on a Tuesday Greek night and thus miss the plate smashing and belly dancing, but the food more than makes up for it.
Another night, we ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain to 7,510 feet in elevation for a memorable meal at Sky Bistro, a modern spot with floor-to-ceiling windows. Before dinner, we brave stiff winds for the 15-minute walk along Banff Skywalk, which offers unparalleled views of the Bow Valley. Then the restaurant’s ocean-to-sky seafood chowder, a light yet robust offering of clams, salmon, prawns, tobiko (roe) and bacon, warms us up. The bison steaks are tender and flavorful, and the dessert is edible art. This sweet creation resembling a Japanese garden (and, in fact, dubbed the Nanaimo Garden) is served in a glass globe and consists of crumbled cookie and coconut, a buttery custard and chocolate shards.
Fortunately we spend the bulk of our days outside and moving. At Banff Sunshine, a gondola from the parking lot whisks skiers and snowboarders to high alpine terrain. Of Banff Sunshine’s three mountains, my family and I stick to Standish and Lookout for the mix of intermediate and advanced terrain that’s ideal for our kids. They adore the TeePee Town Luxury Express Quad chairlift, which has heated seats and an orange bubble we lower to protect us from the cold. My husband and I trade off kid duty so we can each explore the exhilarating steep bowls, at far skier’s left, of Lookout. (We save the most extreme terrain, Delirium Dive on Goat’s Eye Mountain, for next time because the snow coverage is thin and the cliff drops are reportedly huge.)
At Mount Norquay, we find a down-to-earth locals’ hill that packs a punch. It’s steep. Its views are even better than those at the top of Sulphur Mountain. The resort’s North American, a fixed-grip double chairlift reminiscent of the early days of the sport, slowly ascends 1,300 vertical feet. From the top, we bomb down a steep bump run before heading to the other side of the mountain and testing our edges on Norquay’s precipitous groomed runs.
We meet up with the boys. To our delight, they have navigated the same terrain we have with their ski school instructors. The four of us decide to spend the afternoon on the tubing hill. This is not really a break from Mount Norquay’s trademark challenge. Just as the slopes here are exhilarating, so are the tubing lanes. Once the staff gets a feel for us, the men and women at the top of the tubing park gladly add a touch of whirling dervish to our descent, and we veer down in a blur. Personally, I prefer the skiing, but my kids insist that tubing reigns supreme.
At 4,200 acres, Lake Louise is the largest of the “Ski Big 3” resorts. The skiing here is phenomenal, but that doesn’t stop me from taking a break one afternoon and signing up for a guided backcountry snowshoe tour. My interest is twofold: to get a sense of the backcountry terrain and to absorb this stunning landscape at a slower pace. My guide, Lydia, delivers. She works for Parks Canada year-round as a naturalist, and her affinity for this landscape is matched only by her well of knowledge about the ecosystem. She holds forth on grizzly bears and wolves, larch trees and smaller plants, all while leading our group of five away from the ski resort and onto a pristine ridge.
Each night we want to fall exhausted into our beds, but because our hotels are so interesting, we don’t immediately hit the sack. It would be impossible to pick a favorite from the three hotels we stayed at. At the Banff Springs, we discover myriad dark-wood-paneled nooks and intimate gathering spaces. My husband and I gravitate toward the Ramsay Lounge for a pre-dinner cocktail where we can keep an eye on the boys playing in the open-air lounge below. We bowl at the hotel’s alley and play in the expansive indoor-outdoor pool every evening.
The thrill of Sunshine Mountain Lodge begins with the gondola ride up to the hotel (our luggage is delivered by snowcat), but extends to the intimacy of being among the few people at the resort long after the lifts stop. This hotel boasts one of the most beautiful hot tub views I’ve experienced. It’s also next to Mad Trappers Smokehouse, a stand-alone restaurant established in 1928. With rough-hewed logs and Coors Light on tap, Trapper’s feels like a classic ski town bar — the kind that makes a person wish walls could really talk.
At Chateau Lake Louise, our room looks over the eponymous lake and the glaciated mountains beyond. We watch ice skaters twirl and play hockey and horse-drawn carriages circle the lake, then we explore the castle of a hotel for hours. The two major highlights are fondue at the Walliser Stube and people-watching from a plush couch while we sip cocoa and nibble on the contents of an antipasto board as a vivacious wedding party in black tie holds court after the marriage ceremony and before the reception.
When it’s time to leave, we aren't ready. In the airport, we buy Canadian flags for the boys and sort through our Canadian money. They swap stories, and as I listen, I have a heart-lurching thought: I hope they do this together for the rest of their lives. I want my family to travel and ski for as long as we can, and then, someday a long, long time from now, I hope Henry and Silas take to the mountains in the winter — together and with families of their own — and that they explore new slopes and find cozy taverns and toast us and their memories of trips like this one.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
405 Spray Ave., Banff
A luxury, landmark hotel, often referred to as Canada’s “Castle in the Rockies.” Rooms from $302.
Sunshine Mountain Lodge
1 Sunshine Access Rd., Banff
Offering rooms that range from bunk to suites, this is the only ski-in, ski-out property in Banff-Lake Louise. Rooms start at $227.
Chateau Lake Louise
111 Lake Louise Dr., Lake Louise
Nestled at the base of Lake Louise with views of Victoria Glacier, this grand hotel was built more than 100 years ago, originally to cater to outdoor enthusiasts and alpinists. Rooms start at $195.
Where to eat
120 Banff Ave., Banff
A lively locals’ favorite that serves authentic Greek food. Entrees start at $22.
100 Mountain Ave., Banff
Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain for a distinct Canadian menu featuring sustainably sourced seafood, beef and bison. Entrees start at $20.
What to do
Ski Big 3
This is a consortium of Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise and Mount Norquay ski resorts, and one pass offers access to all resorts. Ski Big 3 also offers lodging reservations and advance gear rentals. These resorts are also included on the Ikon Pass. Day passes start at $87; advance purchase multiday passes deliver discounts of up to 15 percent.
Black Tie Ski Rentals of Banff
128B Eagle Crescent, Banff
A full-service mobile ski and snowboard shop that delivers equipment to your lodging and picks it up at the end of your trip. Day rental packages start at $20.