The town of Banff is well-known amongst the British skiing public, with thousands of travellers from the UK making the journey across the Atlantic to experience skiing on Alberta’s legendary powder snow.
Travelling to Banff in November 2011 on my first trip to ski in North America, I certainly see why people put up with a 9 hour flight and 7 hours of jetlag to experience all the The Big 3 ski area has to throw at them.
Banff is the town in which the majority of skiers and boarders stay when coming to ski in The Big 3, which consists of the resorts of Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise.
Each ski area has it’s own character, and we’ll be giving you the lowdown on Lake Louise in a separate resort guide, as it’s also possible to stay up at the lake.
Banff town is a not as big as I imagined somehow. With all the hype about this place, I imagined some huge sprawling skiing mecca with miles of condo-lined streets, with neon signs and hotels piled on top of one another as you might expect in the centre of some European resorts. In fact though, the centre of town is not more than a few blocks in any one direction, so it’s easy enough to walk about if you so choose. There are also plentiful taxis if you prefer and you are further out from the centre. The place still maintains a small-town outdoorsy identity of its own, with low-rise, wooden fronted buildings it’s still a ‘real place’ rather than a manufactured, purpose built resort. Although, Banff was always intended as a tourist town; in fact, the first street built was orientated precisely to provide the best views over Cascade mountain.
It may surprise many Brits, but winter is actually the low-season for Banff and the other Rocky Mountain resorts. So not only does this mean cheaper room rates and special offers, but a genuine hospitality and friendliness everywhere you go – something sometimes missing in some resorts in the height of the tourist season.
There is always something to do here, from the fantastic three ski areas within easy reach, to trips further afield to the experts’ ski resort of Kicking Horse for the true powderhounds. But there are also the local natural hot springs, stunning walks through the Bow Valley (pictured below), ice walks in nearby Johnston Canyon, husky rides, snow-mobiling and heli-skiing all on the cards too. If you get bored in Banff, you’re doing something wrong.
Places to eat in Banff
For local cuisine, amazing service and a wine list to die for, the Maple Leaf Grille on Banff Avenue is not to be missed. The head chef here, Morne Burger serves award winning Canadian food, including fresh seafood from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and succulent cuts of bison, beef and elk. And with over 600 wines to choose from, the restaurant pride themselves on their selection, having won nine consecutive Best Awards of Excellence from Wine Spectator Magazine. When I visited I had the AAA beef tenderlion which was divine, melting in the mouth. My fellow travellers who tried the wild British Columbia salmon were equally impressed.
Try a mouthwatering steak at the ‘Keg Steakhouse’ one restaurant in a well-known Canadian chain of steakhouses. The Keg Steakhouse can be found in the Caribou Lodge and Spa on Banff Avenue. There’s a choice of sirloin, rib, or fillet, all of which are served with some of the tastiest mashed potato I’ve ever tried.
And if you want something a little less formal, the Bear Street Tavern (on Bear Street!) serves the best pizza in Banff. Open daily from 11.30am with take-aways an option too, it’s a good spot for lunch, or an apres ski beer and re-fuel.
Nights out in Banff
Banff is the place to head for if you want some wild nights out on a ski holiday in Alberta. There are so many bars – Tommy’s Pub, or Magpie & Stumps Tex-Mex bar are just a couple to choose from. If you’re feeling brave you could always try a ‘Bulldog’ – this is a triple margarita served in an old pickle style jar with a bottle of Corona beer added upside down to complete the cocktail. If you are skiing or boarding with any style after a night on these you’re a better person than most!
If your musical tastes runs to Canadian Cowboy music, then you can always join in the line dancing at Wild Bill’s Saloon on Banff Avenue. With country food, and live country music, you’ll soon be two-stepping and toe-tapping with the rest of the crowds.
If you prefer to savour your beer sat down, then Banff Avenue also is where you’ll find the Banff’s new Brew Pub. Using premium hops and malts and made from the glacial waters of the mountains, it’s very easy to pass an evening away sampling all the ales on offer. There’s everything from a stout, to blonde beers, wheat beers, even strawberry and caramel flavoured beers to work your way through!
For nightclubs, the place to head to is The Dancing Sasquatch. You’ll no doubt bump into the Sasquatch (the Native American equivalent of ‘Bigfoot’) busting some moves on the dance floors, and you’ll be able to experience the famous ‘Time Machine’. Open daily from 9.00pm until 02.00am.
And for a recovery breakfast? Well, Melissa’s Missteak has some of the biggest and best value breakfasts you’ll find in Banff. Judging by the queue of locals waiting to eat here for brunch on a Saturday morning, it’s worth getting here early or making a reservation as the place is rightly, very popular.
Skiing in Banff – Norquay
Mount Norquay is the smallest of the ski areas within reach of Banff, but is also the closest. 5km from downtown Banff, the resort is reachable on the resort-run shuttle bus. Skiing here is limited, but is worth a look, perhaps to warm the legs up without travelling further to Sunshine Village, or on days when bad weather make the higher slopes of Sunshine less appealing.
Norquay has 190 skiable acres of tree-lined skiing available, with runs divided 20% for beginners, 36% for intermediates and 44% for advanced skiers. Head up the ‘Big Chair’ to the teahouse to get some of the best views across to the town of Banff (pictured) – it’s also a great place to stop for lunch.
Night skiing happens in Norquay on Friday and Saturday nights from mid January, along with snow tubing sessions, and separate lift tickets can be bought for this if you fancy a blast in the evening.
Product Manager Amy Finney travelled out to Norquay in December, and the Tea House view was her highlight of the ski area;
“My favourite run was heading up the ‘Big Chair’ to the Tea House at 6,900ft for the amazing view over the Valley and Banff town before heading down the Big Horn Basin black diamond – brilliant!”
Skiing in Banff – Sunshine Village
A twenty minute shuttle bus ride from Banff is the ski area of Sunshine Village. On the continental divide between Alberta and British Columbia, the name Sunshine Village is something of a red herring, as there is no village here, just one hotel, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, and it’s not the sunniest place in the world either. But then, it has got the best snow record of all the Alberta ski resorts, so we can live with that. Annual snowfall here is up to 30 feet, or nine metres, and averaging at 670cm, with the season running through until late May.
The ski area consists of three mountains, Goat’s Eye Mountain, Lookout Mountain and Mount Standish, and is covered by 12 lifts. Access to the ski area is by the 8 man high speed gondola, which has a mid-station at Goat’s Eye, and then continues up to the Daylodge from where the rest of the skiing is accessed.
There is a mixture of skiing above and below the tree-line, and a huge variety of slopes to choose from. Perhaps on the whole the skiing might be a little easier here than at Lake Louise, but it is a very rewarding ski area, and I could have happily spent longer here exploring.
Goat’s Eye is the serious place to head to on the mountain, with plenty of double-black diamond runs from the top of the Goat’s Eye Express Quad. To the left is the backcountry Wildwest area, which, for the experts with the right kit can provide some big thrills.
There is also the infamous Delirium Dive restricted area – to ski here, as with Wildwest and Silver City, you must have a companion, avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, and a guide is highly recommended. You are able to pick up these items in Banff (they are not available to rent at Sunshine). The walk across the top to the drop in has been described as the worst bit. Unfortunately the area was closed when I was there, but I am keen to give it a go on my next trip.
For beginners there is a magic carpet for those first few runs, then some long greens to progress on to, including those served by the new Strawberry Quad chair on Mount Standish (photo above by Sean Hannah). 50% of the runs at Sunshine are classified as intermediate, with blue and green visible on the piste map on all three mountains, so it’s easy to ski the whole area even if you are not of an expert ability. There is some easy cruising along the Continental Divide, on the border between British Columbia and Alberta. The high altitude summit of the resort, Lookout Mountain, at 2730m helps to account for Sunshine’s impressive snow record season after season, and it’s worth a trip up here and a cruise down the Green Run from the top for some great views over the slopes below and to the mountains beyond.
“My favourite run was the Trappers’ trail (named after 94 year old local legend Trapper Jerry, who allegedly still skies double-black diamond runs at Sunshine), off the top of the Wolverine Express. The weather was not great on the day I skied here, as it was snowing so hard, so down in the trees playing in the powder gave for some great conditions.
The highlight of the day though had to be spotting a fully grown bull elk, majestic with his antlers, strolling across the piste in front of us. Doug from Sunshine’s management company and Kenji, one of the instructors from Sunshine’s ski school who were skiing with us were equally gob-smacked. Usually these creatures are not spotted so high up the mountain during the winter season.”
Up on the mountain, although it is a long journey bus and gondola to the ski area, it is more than worth the journey. The on-mountain facilities and restaurants at Sunshine are first rate. Forget spending lunchtime in a draughty, overpriced and overcrowded canteen. Try comfy settees, warm and cosy surroundings, open fires, and friendly service in the Daylodge at mid-mountain.
Skiing in Banff – Lake Louise
Please see our Lake Louise resort guide
What’s new in Banff for 2011/12
The shuttle bus service from Banff to the ski area has been improved with more pick-ups, as we reported back in the summer.
Last year, Sunshine replaced the aging Strawberry triple chair with a fast new quad, and the creekside bar and grill at the foot of the gondola has re-opened following renovations.
Where to stay in Banff
There is a huge choice of accommodation to choose from in Banff, with something to suit all budgets and tastes.
For a taste of Edwardian opulence and historical luxury, look no further than the Fairmont Banff Springs. This purpose-built hotel is designed in the style of a Scottish baronial castle, and with a winding labyrinth of ballrooms, restaurants, shops, bars and wellness facilities, you could easily spend your week here and still not have seen all the hotel. I was most impressed with the Willow Stream spa and the attached swimming pools. I don’t think I have ever seen such expansive wellness facilities, so little wonder this is recognised as one of the leading spas in North America. With indoor hot and cold pools, mineral pools, outdoor hot-tubs, indoor and outdoor pools, steam rooms and saunas, as well as every beauty treatment you could wish for, this is a cut above the rest.
And it doesn’t stop there. The food in the hotel’s restaurants follows the same theme, with a huge choice and excellent quality wherever you choose to eat. Perhaps the nicest ‘quirk’ with the Fairmont is the historical tour, guided by the hotel’s longest serving employee, Dave, who has some wonderful stories to tell about the hundreds of celebrities, politicians and royalty that have passed through the doors of the Fairmont Banff Springs, including King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. Tours are open to the public, or you can pick-up a map at reception and take a wander yourself.
It’s often thought you can’t get a ski-in ski-out experience in North America. But this isn’t the case with the Sunshine Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Sunshine Village. Up at the top of the Sunshine Gondola, it’s the ideal place to get away from it all and be first on the slopes in the morning. The only ski-in ski-out hotel in the Banff area, this new luxury hotel has amazing 360˚ views over the Albertan Rockies and includes a lift pass with your stay. Rooms sleep up to 6 people.
If you want to stay in the thick of the action, then look no further than the Banff International which offers some of the best value rooms in Banff, and is found right in the centre of town. Rooms are huge and come in a variety of layouts, sleeping up to 4 people. Hotel facilities include a sauna, steam room and hot tub, with a bed and breakfast option available.
Have you skied or snowboarded in Norquay or Sunshine? Have you got favourite run or favourite place for a bite to eat? Leave us a comment below, or join in the conversation on our facebook page
This post was written by Amy Fletcher, Online Content Executive for Crystal Ski