I'm trying. But with the ruined quads trying to stay on skis and floating through the soft dust, it's harder than it looks. In front of me, Jasper Johnson, a local of Banff, deviates from the slope into a reserve at the Lake Louise reserve. We move through the trees at high speed, placing the first traces in the snowfall of last night. When the field is flat, my heart beats, my cheeks are cold and the falling snow has already erased the traces I have just left.
It's a spring break in the Canadian Rockies. The kids are at the ski school, and my husband and I chase Jasper around Lake Louise with drunken dizziness. From our arrival, seven days before, we have been on the point of receiving both the sun and the storms.
As if this were not enough to satisfy our fancies on skis, there is the destination itself, which tends towards the fairytale land. Here, in the western part of Alberta, towering peaks with jagged glaciers surround the glorious Bow River Valley. Next to the lakes, rivers and thermal springs are elegant hotels, a legacy of the railway of this region of the twentieth century. With the wonderful landscape burned in our psyche, we feel like explorers in Banff National Park, overwhelmed by its magic. As Jasper said during our first elevator ride of the day, "Here you get the million dollar views without the million dollar houses that crowd all".
He is right. Although we have our choice of three ski resorts, development is strictly limited in Banff National Park, which means that the only ski-in, ski-out accommodation we will live is at Sunshine Mountain Lodge, a boutique hotel on top of the mountain which is accessed by a gondola. For the rest of our trip, we will stay at the Banff Springs Hotel and at Chateau Lake Louise, and being a bit far from the slopes will encourage us to explore not only skiing.
In Banff, this translates primarily into eating. Balkan, a Greek restaurant on the main street, enters my children with its flaming cheese (saganaki) and hooks me with the lamb marinated and cooked slowly. Unfortunately we are not there on a Greek Tuesday night so we miss the shattering plate and belly dancing, but the food more than makes up for it.
Another evening, we climb the Banff Gondola on Mount Sulfur at 7,510 feet above sea level for a memorable meal at the Sky Bistro, a modern room with floor-to-ceiling windows. Before dinner, we face impetuous winds for a 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 but robust offer of clams, salmon, prawns, tobiko (eggs) and bacon, warms us up. The bison steaks are tender and flavorful, and the dessert is edible art. This sweet creation similar to a Japanese garden (and, in fact, nicknamed Nanaimo Garden) is served in a glass globe and consists of crumbled biscuit and coconut, a buttery custard and chocolate chips.
Fortunately, we spend most of our days out and on the move. At Banff Sunshine, a gondola from the parking lot takes skiers and snowboarders on alpine terrain. Of the three mountains of Banff Sunshine, my family and I remain loyal to Standish and Lookout for the mix of intermediate and advanced terrain ideal for our children. They love the TeePee Town Express Express Quad chairlift, which has heated seats and an orange bubble that we lower to protect us from the cold. My husband and I exchange children's homework so that each of us can explore the exhilarating steep bowls, to the left of the distant skier, of Lookout. (We save the most extreme terrain, Delirium Dive on Goat's Eye Mountain, for the next time because snow cover is poor and the falls are considered huge.)
At Mount Norquay, we find a hill of locals with their feet on the ground making a fist. It is steep. His views are even better than those at the top of Mount Sulfur. The North American resort, a double fixed-grip chairlift that recalls the early days of this sport, slowly rises to 1,300 vertical feet. From the top, we make a ravine along the slope before heading to the other side of the mountain and testing our edges on the dotted slopes of Norquay.
We meet with the boys. To our delight, they sailed the same terrain we have with their ski school instructors. All four of us decide to spend the afternoon on the hill of the pipe. This is not a break from the Norquay brand challenge. Just like the slopes here are hilarious, as well as the lanes of the pipes. Once the staff had an idea for us, the men and women on top of the tubing park gladly add a touch of whirling dervish to our descent, and we turn into a blur. Personally, I prefer skiing, but my children 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 this does not stop me from taking a break one afternoon and signing up for a guided tour with snowshoes in the backcountry. My interest is twofold: to have an idea of the backcountry terrain and to absorb this beautiful landscape at a slower pace. My guide, Lydia, offers. He works for Parks Canada all year as a naturalist, and his affinity for this landscape is equal only to his knowledge of the ecosystem. It carries grizzly bears and wolves, larchs and smaller plants, leading our group of five people away from the ski resort and on a pristine ridge.
Every night we want to fall exhausted in our beds, but since our hotels are so interesting, we do not immediately get packed. It would be impossible to choose a favorite from the three hotels we have stayed at. In Banff Springs, we discover a myriad of corners with dark wood panels and intimate gathering spaces. My husband and I gravitate towards the Ramsay Lounge for a pre-dinner cocktail where we can keep the kids playing in the open room below. We flock ourselves in the hotel alley and play every evening in the indoor and outdoor pool.
The shiver of the Sunshine Mountain Lodge starts with the gondola up to the hotel (our luggage is delivered with the snowmobile), but extends to the intimacy of being among the few people at the resort, long after the elevator stop. This hotel boasts one of the most beautiful views of the hot tub I have ever seen. It is also near Mad Trappers Smokehouse, an independent restaurant founded in 1928. With hewn trunks and Coors Light on tap, Trapper's looks like a classic ski bar – the kind that makes a person want the walls to really talk.
At Chateau Lake Louise, our room overlooks the lake of the same name and the frozen mountains. We watch ice skaters twirl and play hockey and horse-drawn carriages surround the lake, so let's explore the castle of a hotel for hours. The two highlights are fondue at the Walliser Stube and people watching from a luxurious sofa while sipping cocoa and nibbles on the contents of an appetizer table while a lively bridal party in black tie holds the bench after the wedding ceremony and before the reception .
When it's time to leave, we're not ready. At the airport, we buy Canadian flags for the boys and rearrange our Canadian money. They exchange stories and, while I listen, I have a heartbreaking thought: I hope they do it together for the rest of their lives. I want my family to travel and ski as long as possible, and then one day or another, I hope that Henry and Silas go down in the mountains in winter – together with their families – and that they explore new slopes and find cozy taverns and toast us and their memories of trips like this.
Walker is a writer from Boulder, Colo. Find it on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
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