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If there was a Canadian-to-American dictionary, the Rocky Mountains of Alberta would translate to "Colorado." The two areas share the same spiny namesake mountain range, the same flat plains to the east, similar stunning geology and excellent skiing opportunities. However, there are four ski resorts in the Canadian Rockies that have something Colorado, or any ski area in the world, can only dream of-they are located in the country's vast, pristine national parks.
Imagine if Vail was in the middle of Yellowstone National Park or Aspen was front and center in Yosemite Valley and you get the picture. Combining excellent ski resorts with unparalleled scenery creates an experience that is greater than the sum of it parts. You can ski the world over, but there is nothing like the sublime experience of slicing arcs in Canada's Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Buried deep in the mountains, the ski areas of Norquay, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Marmot Basin are not the type of places you stumble on by accident. You have to want it, plan it and make it happen to get there. Having had the desire to ski these areas for years, GreatOutdoors.com and Travel Alberta combined to make it happen. The plan was simple-combine four ski resorts with the best dining the area had to offer and see which part of the skiing journalist gave out first, the legs or the stomach. It was a close race.
The games begin with a flight into Calgary, then a shuttle up to the glowing granite gateway town of Canmore. The strict rules governing development within the National Parks have been likened to difficulties of installing a nuclear facility. Canmore, which is just outside of the park, isn't subject to these rules and over the last ten years has grown exponentially as a base for adventure and culinary expeditions.
Round one began with bacon accented scallop appetizers at the Trough Dining Company, but the calorie burning ying to The Troughs yang was a trip to the Ski Norquay area the next day. Norquay is the true local's hill for the town of Banff and reminded me of what skiing is all about-families, fun terrain, no lift lines, challenging runs and local flavor. Founded in 1926, it was the first resort in Banff National Park and created around the Ski Meister ideal of offering jumping, Nordic skiing, challenging terrain and long scenic runs cut through the forest. It still has that flavor today and offers night skiing and two hour lift tickets, as well as hosting events like the Mountain Smoker, where skiers see how many times they can lap a black diamond bump run in one day.
My calorie count had almost reached equilibrium before being shattered by an insanely good meal The Bison, right in Banff, often considered one of the top ten restaurants in all of Canada. I can't say about that, but I can report it is a ski bum's dream come true, with large helping of Rocky Mountain comfort food, including, of course, Bison Burgers. The walk back to Brewster's Mountain Lodge was a challenge in the dark and cold of a winter night, but nothing like the skiing we were to experience the next day.
With kids and ski areas you are not suppose to admit you have a favorite, but since I don't have kids, I can admit that Sunshine Village was my favorite ski area. Part of this was because I slid into it with no expectations and was blown away with the great layout, excellent facilities, jaw dropping scenery and buffed groomers, but mostly I was infatuated with their three "Free ride" areas, which in the past might have been called extreme out-of-bounds. I've made a career out of skiing steep slopes and Delirium Dive, Silver City and The Wildwest get the double thumbs up, real-meal-deal award. They are legitimately steep, complex, lift accessed terrain like I have never seen before. The gates to these magical kingdoms are literally opened with an avalanche beacon and you are also required to have a shovel and a partner, but aside from that, have at it. Just don't fall.
Surviving Delirium Dive was a mere prelude to the next challenge, dinner at the Walliser Stube in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Like the beautifully rolled corduroy groomers at Sunshine Village, dishes such as the wild boar & bison form the basic offerings. I also experienced the most extreme dessert I have ever eaten, or even conceived of-an entire winter ski scene, complete with a skier, a hill and snowflakes sculpted out of marzipan that is then dismembered and dipped into a gourmet chocolate fondue. I go into hypoglycemic shock just thinking about how much of it I actually ate.
Day three brought us to the best known of the National Park ski areas, Lake Louise Mountain Resort. For the only time on our trip, we were cursed with less than ideal weather, in this case, flat light that required skiing by Braille. Luckily, we had "Wild Willy," a Level 4 French Canadian ski instructor to show us around. Willy brought us to the top of double-black-diamond chutes with inside the milk bottle visibility, offered them up to any takers (there were none) and then diverted us to the groomed cruiser next door. Lake Louise is home of the first stop on the Men's & Women's downhill World Cup races, as well as a monstrous terrain park.
The culinary challenge for the day began place at Deer Lodge, which is also home of the world's most scenic hot tub, which served "full circle" produce that is grown and processed at one of the lodge's various farms. A short drive brought us to the main course meal at The Historic Train Station restaurant, where the food was as great as the fully restored private coach train car which had belonged to the third president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Thomas George Shaughnessy. From the very beginning, trains made tourism in the Banff National Park possible and Shaughnessy's private car gives visitors a clear impression of the grandeur and wilderness excitement of the times.
Ding! We take a day of skiing intermission to travel between the townships of Banff and Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, which is a perennial favorite on the "Most Scenic Highways of the World" scoreboards. Bart Donnelly, our ever patient tour guide warned us from the start, "There are going to be lots of photo opportunities along the way, but we need to pace ourselves and keep moving if we want to make it to Jasper on time." With a trace of new snow and crystal clear weather, the schedule is immediately blown as staggering mountain views grind us to photo stop halts at almost every turn. No one is complaining.
Along the way, we stopped at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (Stoney Plain Indian for "Pine Martin") which is the ultimate mountain retreat. In 1898, frontiersman Jimmy Simpson camped at Bow Lake and vowed to build a "shack" there. Twenty-five years later, the government granted him a lease on four acres of land that brings tears to your eyes with scenic beauty. It is the only lodge in the area and the kind of place where two weeks of doing nothing but relaxing doesn't seem like enough.
Round six brings us to Jasper Inn Alpine Resort where some of us headed out for the ice encrusted canyon wall of Maligne Canyon for a moonlight ice-walk. Where the water comes from and goes to is a mystery, but the ice climbing potential is not. Everywhere you look there are beautiful thick columns of ice and mixed route potential with conveniently placed trees at the top for anchors. Of all the desperate climbs that have been done here, the most famous fall of all belongs to Marilyn Monroe, who slipped off the walking path and survived unscathed.
The last full day of our trip dawns with the culinary team in the lead. Fighting off a food comma, we head out of the town of Jasper to Marmot Basin. I love this area right off the bat as it reminds me of my childhood skiing. At Marmot, all runs lead back to the main lodge, which makes it an ideal place to let kids rage to their hearts content and not get lost. Most of the mountain is moderate, but there are several lifetimes worth of fun to be squeezed out of it, as demonstrated by our 73 year old guide, Ruth Mathes. Ruth was my type of skier. She started at the top, skied long nonstop runs, waited impatiently at the bottom and did it again until the lifts shut down. If the lifts are running at Marmot, I have no doubt what Ruth is up to-spinning laps and enjoying the scenery.
Pacing is everything now as we head into the final meal at Meadow's Restaurant in the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Based on the marzipan/chocolate fondue dessert at the last Fairmont restaurant, I know that saying "no thanks" is going to be the hardest part. I work my way through the Monk Fish entree, survive a hand-to-mouth battle with the Saskatoon Berry dessert and declare myself the winner.
But not so fast. During an innocent after dinner trip to the billiard tables, I'm ambushed by a Canadian Creamy Beaver cocktail. It was small and innocent looking, but like most of the scenery, skiing and eating in Alberta, it packs a punch that knocks me out for the evening. I am finished. I can eat and ski no more forever. At least until I lose a few pounds and come back for a rematch.
Interested in following in the footsteps of GreatOutdoors.com ski correspondent? Check out Travel Alberta to find out how easy it is to make Andrew McLean's ski odyssey a reality for you.