Exploring the Canadian Rockies

Ski season is back! Pack your bags and head to Canada for some guaranteed snow, sun and…well ski!

Away from the crowded slopes in destinations such as Whistler and Jasper lies Banff National Park in Alberta.

Voted top Canadian location by TripAdvisor.com, Banff National Park in Alberta, welcomes over three million visitors a year and it’s not hard to see why so many people flock to the tiny town. With a range of outdoor adventures, breathtaking scenery and gourmet cuisine, the winter months make a great ski destination, while the summer months are perfect for exploration.

Banff itself has a small population of just 6,000 people with strict enforcements on building and expansion so the town is based on residents, rather than empty second homes and therefore has a strong community feel. Watch out for the free roaming deer and elk, and that’s not the only wildlife here – many of the parks are home to grizzly bears, wolf and big horn sheep, the latter particularly visible during the summer months.

Sleeping in Banff

Banff is a quaint town and despite its low population, there is no shortage of hotels.

Delta Banff Royal Canadian Lodge
For classic alpine style with log fires, custom made maple leaf furniture and deer heads, this is the perfect location. Owned by the Charlton Family of Banff for 20 years, its evident that they are still very much hands on and any problem, no matter how small, the family or the staff are able to assist. The hotel has recently undergone a renovation but has kept the boutique style very much about it – each of the 99 spacious rooms each has its own fireplace and amenities you would expect from a top hotel. On the lower floors, the hotel also features a whirlpool, saltwater mineral pool and treatment rooms for some r’n’r when all those joints are seizing up!
Flights (British Airways), transfers and a 7 night stay with Crystal Finest start from £825. www.deltahotels.com

Fairmont Banff Springs
Standing proudly at the south tip of Banff Avenue lies the very grand Banff Springs hotel which has fondly become a bit of an icon of the town. It was built in the 1920s with its main purpose to recreate a Scottish castle and pretty much does just that – the interiors exude luxurious deep hardwoods while its exterior is magnificent and enchanting. In addition to the 768 bedrooms, the hotel also boasts the Fairmont Gold rooms, ideal for families sleeping two to four people, located on the 5th floor with a private check in/check out desk and use of the exclusive lounge. There are a variety of high end shops and a golf course so even if you aren’t a guest it is still worth a visit.
Flights (British Airways), transfers and a 7 night stay with Crystal Finest start from £865.

Buffalo Mountain Lodge
For a true lodging experience, Buffalo Mountain Lodge is a great location located above Banff Avenue in wooded grounds with a lot more emphasis on the great outdoors, and a great chance to really take in the natural beauty of the surroundings. This mountain oasis features a main lodge with high open beam ceilings with a reception area and restaurant, and then separate accommodation out buildings featuring three different room types ranging from the luxury rooms right through to the premium luxury suites.
Flights (British Airways), transfers and a 7 night stay with Crystal Finest start from £899.

Sleeping in Lake Louise

Lake Louise doesn’t offer the same choice of hotels as that of neighbouring Banff however the tranquillity of Lake Louise makes for a quieter, more relaxing stay.

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Another of the Fairmont properties take our top pick here, and quite rightly so. This striking hotel is again a stunning feature of Lake Louise that resides right next to the lake, and can be seen from the top of the nearby ski pistes. In addition to 550 top class rooms, the hotel has a fantastic health club, fitness centre, choice of pools and dining options.
Flights (British Airways), transfers and a 7 night stay with Crystal Finest start from £855.

Deer Lodge
Deer Lodge is the perfect haven for solace and taking in the beautiful scenery of Lake Louise. The rooftop hot tub has one of the finest backdrops nature can possibly offer – the Rockies and Victoria Glacier and it is worth a visit to the hotel to take a dip alone! This hotel is a blend of rustic traditional and contemporary, with many of the tower rooms preserved throughout time featuring its original character, and newer rooms offering a modern simple stylish take. One thing to note is that none of the rooms have a television, so if you really do want to leave the real world behind it’s ideal.
Flights (British Airways), transfers and a 7 night stay with Crystal Finest start from £795.

Eating Out

With such a wide array of local ingredients and delicacies to hand, the Evergreen fine dining restaurant takes full advantage and in turn creates some wonderfully fresh dishes. The open kitchen allows diners to take a sneak peak as their meals are prepared. I always love to try something new whenever I visit a new destination and opted for the new tasting menu which included some delicious dishes including Nova Scotia lobster saffron risotto and Saskatoon berry granite.

Rocky Mountain Cuisine is the resident fine dining restaurant at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge and it doesn’t disappoint. Scenic and serene settings were calming surroundings as wildlife wandered up to the floor to ceiling windows for a unique experience to get so close to nature. We tucked into the Rocky Mountain Game Platter – a tasty treat for two to sample dishes such as smoked dried buffalo, elk salami and game pate, followed by tender medallions of wild northern caribou cooked to perfection with a red currant glaze and mashed sweet potato.

You can also pick up a copy of Simple Treasures, the new cookbook from Chef Alistair Barnes of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts, to recreate some of your favourite dishes back home.

If you’re after some good hearty pub grub, local favourite Melissa’s Restaurant serves great pizzas and Alberta beef at great prices.

Things to see and do

As soon as you enter Banff National Park, the views are second to none, with the Rockies bordering the highway, it’s evident that there is going to be enough ski for every level – the 2009 World Cup alpine ski racing takes place in the park.

Within an hours drive, Banff boasts three ski resorts – Banff Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise Mountain resort. Between the three of them, they offer 200km of trails spread across an impressive 7,748 acres! The three resorts are very different and if time allows, I would recommend all three – Mount Norquay is the smaller of the three and an excellent location for beginners and intermediate with excellent groomed slopes, Sunshine Village is very diverse and accommodates all levels with extremely wide slopes (take a ride on the Continental chairlift which actually takes you over the border to British Columbia) and Lake Louise is unique in that all the chairlifts offer a run down to accommodate all levels so different level skiers can pretty much ski together.

If you aren’t a skier or a boarder, don’t discount Banff because there’s so much more to see and do.

Dog sledding is big business and a great way to explore the breathtaking scenery without having to do anything. Kingsmik Dog Sled Tours offer a choice of rides from as short as half an hour up to two hours taking you through the park’s forest with views of Mount Temple’s summit. You can learn the art of mushing or just sit tight wrapped up in your sleeping bag as the over-excited dogs pull you through the woodland trails.

For some pampering, you are spoilt for choice with a selection of premium spas, but what really separates Banff is the hot springs. Located 4km south of the town, near the Banff Gondola, the water emerges at a hot 47 degrees which is then cooled by surrounding snow and ice. Banff Upper Hot Springs offers a range of spa treatments in addition to the hot springs baths.

We’re not sure whether après-ski is classed as an official activity, but it’s definitely a must-do after a hard days ski! Downtown Banff is bustling with bars, restaurants and hotels and for a small town there is certainly no shortage of places to grab some food or a drink. Our favourite was the busy Elk and Oarsman on Banff Avenue – whether it’s an Elk burger or just a pint, the atmosphere, giant screens, pool tables and generous sized portions make it a great watering hole.

Last but not least, remember to check out the bars on the pistes, as soon as ski’s up, these places fill up and the atmosphere is soon buzzing.

Banff National Park is a stunning location for winter, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting yet, it really is a sure fire for your must-see list.

Amanda started off her career as a chalet girl in Meribel when she was 18, she is the founder and editor of Skibible.com, has written and contributed to features for fashion publications, broadsheet newspapers and previously worked for the Good Ski Guide.

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