Western Canada is world famous for its deep powder and heli-skiing, but what if you want more of a regular ski holiday – groomed pistes, good food, comfortable accommodation and perhaps a bit of shopping and culture?
Many people are familiar with the big-name resorts of Banff and Whistler, but there are dozens of resorts in Alberta and British Columbia which remain largely unknown to us Brits. Over the past decade, these lesser-known resorts have been making huge investments, reaching world-class standards in terms of modern accommodation and fast, comfortable lifts.
I took my family on a 1,000-mile, two-week road-trip along the ‘Powder Highway’ visiting six resorts, to enjoy the floaty powder, yes, but also to see what else the resorts had to offer the ‘average’ British family.
Follow the roundtrip route on the map
Calgary & the road south
Flying into North America can be an ordeal, increased security as you reach a US gateway airport will mean you need to pre-purchase a visa, go through finger printing and may have a long queue at immigration, and the mood is generally suspicious rather than welcoming. Calgary is the antithesis of this; a spacious, well designed airport where people stand around ready to help you and even the border guards smile and say, “Welcome to Canada.” It’s a good start.
Car rentals are all onsite and it’s a straightforward three-hour/305km drive to Fernie heading south on route 2 past the city, through ranching country and then west on route 3 and into the Rockies (route numbers are mostly clear on this trip, no sat nav required). The seven-hour time difference from the UK means we arrive mid-afternoon and manage most of the trip in daylight.
Plenty for shoppers and foodies in Banff
Copyright: Paul Zizka/Banff Lake Louise Tourism
Fernie: Steep slopes, deep powder & community feel
Fernie has a reputation for ‘steep and deep’ powder skiing and it is fairly awesome for that, in fact it’s a leading player on the world stage up against the likes of Chamonix and Jackson Hole when it comes to challenging stuff.
But conscious not to appeal only to the hardcore skiers, Fernie has been emphasising its softer side in recent years, or at least the fact that is isn’t ONLY steep and deep. We found that this was the case, with plenty of intermediate cruising and some gentle beginner runs winding between the black and double black diamond terrain. Famed for its steep bowl skiing, there are also gentler bowl skiing options where you can learn technique.
Off the slopes the village at the base has grown to offer enough shopping, eating and après activity to see you through your holiday, but it would be a mistake not to visit the atmospheric old mining town of Fernie, a few miles down the road with a wider choice of shops and dining options.
“With the addition of the new Polar Peak lift, Fernie, with its five bowls, now has the most ski runs and the biggest vertical in the Canadian Rockies. Add in the most snow in the Canadian Rockies (actually, this year and last year most snow in the Rockies – US & Canada) and you have an amazing adventure,” says Matt Mosteller of Resorts of the Canadian Rockies which operates Fernie as well as Kimberley and three other Canadian ski areas.
A bluebird day at Fernie, Canada
Copyright: Mark Shannon
Kimberley: Convenient base-to-summit lift & Bavarian ambience
From Fernie we headed northwest on route 3 for 90 minutes/123km to Kimberley, perhaps the least well known of the ski areas on our tour.
Kimberley was a community ski field until just a few seasons ago when the group which owns it, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, gave it a makeover which crucially included the installation of a base-to-summit high-speed quad chair and, right next to the slopes, the creation of the Trickle Creek Lodge .
The result is the near perfect ski holiday destination. Trickle Creek is your standard high-spec condo complex, although with a plush spa attached. What makes it stand out is the sensible skier-friendly design. As you leave your room in the morning you pass a little breakfast café, then a few steps further on is the heated ski room and, once kitted up, you're through the automatic doors and a few steps from the high speed base-to-summit quad lift.
All little things but so rarely got right; there’s no staggering down stairs trying to hold your gear or pushing through heavy double doors on slippery surfaces, just effortless.
Fortunately Kimberley gets the big things right too. The lift whisks you up to the mountaintop where every type of terrain from long flattering cruisers to steep powder slopes through the trees await, more than 70 trails in total and not many people to be seen.
The final ace up Kimberley’s sleeve comes when you drive the few miles down to the original town below the resort. This was a mining settlement, mostly populated by immigrant Germans, so there’s as fairly surreal Bavarian theme to it all. Oompah music plays, frankfurters are sold and Canada’s largest cuckoo clock squawks out when you put a coin in the slot. But it’s not all tourist tat, the combo of quirkiness and excellent skiing has brought in a fresh wave of smart incomers who’ve set up some great cafes, shops and restaurants to explore too.
Trickle Creek Lodge at Kimberley Mountain Resort. Photo by Becky Lomax.
Copyright: Becky Lomax
Panorama: Alpine scenery, cosmopolitan feel & spa pools
Panorama, another two hours/140km north, had a different feel to Fernie and Kimberley. Reached via a mountain road from the small town of Invermere, the landscape suddenly becomes much more reminiscent of the Alps than the Rockies, but no less pleasing for that.
The resort too, feels different. Designed by Intrawest, the company behind Whistler, although now run locally, there are the company trademarks of a state-of-the-art village layout for maximum space and convenience along with a unique attribute of Panorama – a complex of indoor/outdoor spa pools in the centre of the village for very relaxing après ski. There was a cosmopolitan feel too, with no less than three Italian style coffee bars purveying espressos and cappuccinos in a land where such basic necessities of the urban European can be hard to come by.
Panorama’s ski stats are impressive and once again the terrain varied – there’s plenty to keep anyone entertained for a week or more. The resort’s vertical, served by a succession of three chairlifts, is among North America’s five biggest (1,200m/4,000ft).
Panorama Mountain Village, Canada
Copyright: Kyle Lane/Flickr
Lake Louise: Stunning scenery, huge ski area & varied terrain
170km through the grand desolation of the Kootenay National Park and crossing back over the provincial border into Alberta and we roll in to fourth stop, Lake Louise.
Here there’s no slope-side lodging but a collection of large hotel complexes within a mile or so of the slopes (free shuttle or large free parking lot), ranging from the family-friendly Lake Louise Inn to the Grand Chateau Lake Louise or, if you just want to fly straight here, a rare Canadian all-inclusive option from the UK with Inghams (flights, transfers, half board, ski pass all for one price) at the Great Divide Lodge.
Lake Louise is one of those few iconic locations on earth where you can just stand in awe of the surrounding scenery, more spectacular here than at any other resort in North America and matched, but not bettered, by views like that of the Eiger from the Swiss Jungfrau or the Matterhorn from Zermatt. It’s worth the trip just for that view and the feeling it gives you.
But fortunately there’s a bit of skiing too. In fact one of the biggest areas in North America, the location of World Cup races each autumn and of some of the most challenging terrain you’ll find anywhere, but with oodles of easier greens and blues too, everybody’s happy.
When you’re in Lake Louise it is well worth taking a day out to drive north, to the amazing Icefields Parkway. Make sure your tank is full as you’re driving into a wilderness environment of spectacular forest, mountains and magnificent glaciers; all right by the road so you can stop and gasp in awe at any time. This road takes you to the town of Jasper, home to the ski resort of Marmot Basin, which is well worth visiting too. From Lake Louise you can also make a spectacular 7km journey, this time on cross-country skis or snowshoes, to the remote Skoki Lodge, a luxurious and historic mountain lodge that was used as a bolt hole to the escape the world by Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, after their wedding in 2011. If you do visit Lake Louise with Inghams this is offered as an optional excursion.
Routes into the Back Bowls at Lake Louise.
Copyright: Becky Lomax
Banff – Mt Norquay and Sunshine: Good for shoppers, foodies and all ski levels
Banff and its local ski areas of Mt Norquay, as well as a third area, Sunshine, are included on the Ski Big 3 lift pass with Lake Louise, so it’s no surprise that it’s only 40 minutes/60km down route 1 to Banff.
This classic ski town is busier in summer than winter apparently, but it’s still plenty busy in winter with a vibrant feel and far more shops and restaurants of all types than anywhere else on the trip. It’s well worth taking a day off to explore this historic town.
Sunshine, half an hour’s drive from Banff, is one of the largest ski areas in Canada so another where you could easily spend a week or more and again there’s terrain for all standards. Mt Norquay is the small, local’s hill that is well worth a visit too, just across route 1 from Banff centre, a 10-minute drive. As well as runs for all abilities there’s a great terrain park.
Cascade Chairlift at Mt. Norquay in Banff.
Copyright: Banff Lake Louise Tourism
Nakiska: Good for families, Eddie The Eagle & film buffs
And finally to Nakiska, just on hour/80km from Banff heading east on route 1 and the closest ski area to Calgary – it’s only 99km and 75 minutes back up route 1 to the airport, thus completing our circuit). Nakiska is a mid-sized, family-friendly ski area which owes its existence to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. It was here that of one of Britain’s best- known and best-loved snowsports athletes, Eddie ‘The Eagle” Edwards, shot to global fame, if not to the top of the podium. Nakiska’s base lodge not only serves up good food but also great Olympic memorabilia on its walls.
Accommodation is provided a mile or so from the slopes at the excellent Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, a huge, all-inclusive complex of comfortable accommodation with its own indoor mall of shops and restaurants, spa, childcare centre and more – a complete holiday destination.
A final stop on the trip is 20 minutes along the road past Nakiska. The former ski resort of Fortress has been used as a film location in several blockbusters over recent years, most famously for the climactic scenes of the movie Inception. The centre’s owner has been re-investing money from the film companies in rebuilding the resort and hopes to re-open it as a result.
A snowboarder cuts through powder at Nakiska.