The Weekender: Banff

Only the Swiss Alps rival the rugged mountain beauty of Alberta’s lofty ski country

Just how mesmerizing are Alberta’s Rockies? They inspired an 1883 posse of railroad prospectors to put down their pickaxes and preserve these glacier-sawed mountainsides and hot springs by creating Canada’s first national park. Now the town of Banff and three ski areas sit within Banff National Park, where commercial development seems refreshingly tame compared with many Colorado ski towns or Canada’s better-known cousin, Whistler. Spas are few, trophy mansions remain verboten (Parks Canada requires home owners to live there full-time), and no sprawling condos have metropolized the slopes. Instead Banff—an easy 80-mile drive from Calgary—dazzles visitors with miles of dry, light powder and some of the best scenery in skidom.

Fairmont Banff Springs
Fairmont Banff Springs

Wake up to mountain vistas from your room at the Fairmont Banff Springs ($331-$639 CAD). Dating from 1888, this castle­like extravaganza offers the plushest beds in Banff. Surrounded by a stone grotto, the indoor hot tub feeds an outdoor pool with unbeatable views of slanting Mount Rundle. Amble ten minutes into town for breakfast panini at the cheerfully chaotic Wild Flour Bakery, where house-made breads and croissants provide a crisp counterpoint to silky egg fillings. You can also stop by on your way out of town: All three ski resorts around here are within a 40-minute drive. The closest and smallest is Mount Norquay, the 28-run resort where local kids learn to ski (and their parents log lunch-hour powder laps) beside the sheer cliffs of Mount Rundle. For longer groomers and wide-open alpine bowls, head to Lake Louise Ski Resort and pause between runs at the midmountain Whitehorn Bistro. Newly renovated with weathered paneling and stone, it has swapped out tired cafeteria grub for dishes like braised bison short ribs and seafood risotto. But if it’s convenience you’re after, choose Sunshine Village resort. Located at the top of the gondola, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge ($105-$539 CAD) has the region’s only slopeside accommodations—something that’s hard to forget when you’re looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Days start with a lift ride to pinch-me panoramas of Mount Assiniboine, a mighty 11,870-foot shark’s tooth, and can involve rocketing down runs so steep and avalanche prone, skiers must travel in pairs and carry rescue gear.

The on-slope Sunshine Mountain Lodge
The on-slope Sunshine Mountain Lodge

When your quads are cooked, walk off the lactic acid along the broad Bow River, which serpentines around downtown’s southern edge. Or stroll Banff Avenue, where you can see Cascade Mountain rising like a pyramid beyond the row of gabled shops and restaurants. Owing to a commercial cap enacted in 1998, when development threatened to efface Banff’s historic brick storefronts, downtown remains walkable and quaintly low-rise. Along with maple syrup and all the standard ski-town shops, you’ll find standouts like Jacques Cartier Clothier, which sells luxurious yarns and sweaters made of qiviut, the cloud-soft undercoat of musk ox. Evidence of Alberta’s enduring cowboy heritage, Lammle’s Western Wear & Tack specializes in Wranglers and Shady Brady hats. For a less merch­-oriented taste of the town that preceded the ski boom of the 1960s, head five minutes to Rundle Memorial United Church, where the 1927 stained glass depicts cowboy preachers, mountain goats, and other reminders of the wilderness outpost Banff once was. Around the corner is Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, with its settlers’ artifacts and visual art from then and now. If you happen to visit in early November, you can also catch the Banff  Mountain Film and Book Festival. It’s not exactly Telluride—big-name alpinists rather than actors converge here—but the event has become the world’s preeminent showcase for adventure storytelling.

Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar is Banff’s special-occasion splurge, despite its odd location within the Banff Centre arts and conference complex. The glass-walled dining room sits beside the Bow River, and its chefs top the house-cured white sturgeon with lemon curd and organic carrot puree. Most other downtown dining spots offer more casual fare, and they’re clustered close enough to encourage bar-hopping (Banff’s army of service industry employees stays rowdy till well after last call). Banff Ave. Brewing Co. craft beers are made with mineral-choked glacial water, and the poutine oozes with squeaky cheese curds from Quebec, the dish’s birthplace. Tiny and sleek, with painted brick and bare beams, Block Kitchen + Bar plates its Japanese kinpira slaw and Mediterranean “tapas” on wood cutting boards. Also tiny, Eddie Burger + Bar mixes the best version of Banff’s signature cocktail, the Trashcan, which floats an upended can of Red Bull in a mug filled with vodka, rum, gin, and blue curaçao. Or drive five minutes beyond town to Banff  Upper Hot Springs, which stays open until 11. The chlorine is overmuch, but the 104-degree mineral water will have you jelling to views of the starlit peaks as snowflakes drift down.

Three Ravens
Three Ravens

Photograph by Paul Zizka

sidetrip_weekenderSide Trip
Regardless of how many stunning mountain lakes you may have already seen, Lake Louise resets your high bar, framed as it is between two symmetrical peaks and the sprawling Victoria Glacier. Admire it with a cocktail in hand from the lobby bar of the waterside Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (a 40-minute drive from Banff), or rent snowshoes from Chateau Mountain Sports inside the hotel to follow the flat 2.5-mile round-trip along the Lakeshore path. There are also skate rentals, in case you want to stage a game of shinny (Canadian pond hockey) or glide around the ice castle that graces the lake each winter.


Getting there
Banff is 90 minutes west of Calgary International Airport (a three-hour flight from LAX, which operates nearly 20 daily nonstops to YYC). Driving a rental car, you’ll need to buy a Banff National Park entry pass from the tollgate as you approach town ($9.80 CAD per day for an adult; $19.60 CAD per day for a carload). A round-trip Banff Airporter shuttle costs $117.90 CAD per adult.
Peak time
As with all ski resorts, the Christmas and New Year holidays are jammed, and the pre-Lenten Winter Carnival also sees crowds spike. Lifts run from early November through early May (one of the longest seasons in Canada), with April being prime time for bargains.
Weather report
In midwinter daily lows average a nose-crisping -4 degrees Fahrenheit, but sunny afternoons often feel warmer than the 20-degree thermometer reading.