You don’t have to travel far from town to discover wilderness ski action in Canada’s far west. Bronwen Gora probes the peaks and powder of Fernie, Red Mountain and Banff-Lake Louise in the Rockies.
Boasting some of the world’s most dramatic yet easily accessible mountain ranges, Canada has long attracted skiers and snowboarders, from novices to veterans. Some of its sweetest treats for downhill devotees are hidden in smaller ski fields and other places tucked away deep in the mountains. Resorts and towns such as Red Mountain, Fernie and Banff reward visitors with a true taste of Canadian life, colourful communities filled with kindred mountain-loving spirits.
Calgary, Kelowna and Cranbrook are the main gateways via Vancouver to Canada’s interior ski fields. From any of these hubs, resorts can be reached by car or door-to-door shuttle. Three ski fields – Cypress, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour – are located within a half-hour drive of Vancouver.
Related: Discover the Canadian Rockies
, where nature calls the shots.
The best time to ski in Canada is during the coldest months of January and February. However, heavy snow can fall at any time from early December through to late March and even into April.
- The deal: Fernie can lay claim to offering the greatest amount of alpine bowl skiing anywhere in the Canadian Rockies, altogether covering more than 1000ha of skiing ground.There are five large bowls, imposing chutes and also some gentle beginner terrain, making it a good all-rounder. Skiers and snowboarders alike love Fernie for the same reasons: excellent tree skiing that excels after a fresh snowfall, along with an abundance of back-country-style skiing within the safety of the resort boundary. Last season, Fernie opened a further section of high-alpine terrain with the Polar Peak lift.
- Challenges and risks: Familiarising oneself with the layout of this particularly large ski field requires diligent study of the trail map and a few free tours with mountain hosts. Understanding how the bowls link up with one another and learning the best trails between each can be a tad frustrating. But, once mastered, schussing around this resort is enormously satisfying.
- Talking point: Fernie has one of the best ski instructor courses around, offered by Non Stop Ski & Snowboard. There are spectacular European-style valley views from The Lost Boys cafe, which is an ideal venue for a casual lunch and a local Kokanee beer. In town, the Beanpod is one of the few chocolate-making shops in Canada to follow old-fashioned methods – a definite must-visit – and is opposite a shop selling regional cheeses. Local restaurant Picnic is exquisite in terms of both decor and quality of food. The town is filled with a plethora of well-stocked snowboard stores, so popular is Fernie with boarders. Island Lake Catskiing, one of the best in Canada, is minutes from Fernie. Justin Timberlake celebrated his 31st there this year with several days’ powder skiing.
- Inside scoop: Study that trail map. If it’s particularly crowded, as Fernie can be, head to the resort’s far reaches such as The Fingers, or the resort boundary area around Cedar Bowl, which is magic after a fresh fall.
- Après ski: The Griz Inn, at the base of the ski field, is de rigueur after a day on the slopes. Everyone who desires a cleansing ale will be there.
- Luxury sleepover: Lizard Creek Lodge and Snow Creek Lodge offer plush condominiums with ski-field views and heated pools. Lizard Creek’s high-ceilinged lounge is one of the best places around to sink into a soft lounge chair, order a bite and drink in a snowy mountain view.
- The deal: Discovered by skiers way back in the 1890s, Red Mountain is famous for consistent fall-line skiing. Some of the country’s longest runs and steepest trails can be found here, fanning out in every direction off one chair on Granite Mountain. For those less inclined to thrills, the adjoining mountain, Red, is covered in pleasurable and easier groomers. Numerous natural rock drops delight snowboarders, as do the lengthy, smooth runs. Deep in the Kootenay Rockies, the atmosphere is peaceful and the views sublime. The former gold-mining town of Rossland, a few minutes by car from the ski field, attracts outdoor enthusiasts and is almost as entertaining as the mountain.
- Challenges and risks: Watch for the steeps – they tend to creep up quickly, especially on the main mountain’s more advanced pitches. Red hosts Canada’s extreme skiing championship events, and for good reason. That said, there are easy ways down from the top of any lift, so skiers and boarders of different abilities can easily meet at the base.
- Talking point: Slack country, or accessible back country just outside resort boundaries, is one of the areas in which Red excels. Hire a guide or simply head for one of the several peaks visible from the resort. Make sure that you put safety first, though – be careful to take the right gear and check in with the ski patrol. Big Red Cat offers cat skiing from the base of the ski field. For a far-flung town, Rossland has a thriving music scene, with live bands playing most nights.
- Inside scoop: Breakfast at Clancey’s or the Sunshine Cafe in town. On the hill, fresh falls draw locals to Powderfields.
- Après ski: Rafters Bar in the newly refurbished Day Lodge at the base of the ski field is the only place to head to after skiing. Drink the locally brewed Tree Cutthroat Pale Ale. In town, The Flying Steamshovel in Upper Rossland is a lively pub housed in a historic Canadian inn.
- Luxury sleepover: Slalom Creek’s condominiums at the base of the mountain win hands-down. Brand-new, this complex epitomises luxury lodging. Plush throws drape deep leather lounges, spa baths sit on every balcony and kitchens are huge
- The deal: Whether skiing or snowboarding, Lake Louise, surrounded by the panorama of the jagged Continental Divide and Victoria Glacier in the distance, is an unforgettable experience. Mountain scenery doesn’t come much better than this. The field has an almost equal proportion of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs ensconced across 1700ha, making it the largest Canadian resort after Whistler. It also receives snow galore: this year, so much fell that the season was extended to early May with a 220cm base on closing day. What’s more, Lake Louise’s ski-lift pass is valid at two other, smaller, resorts: Sunshine, about 20 minutes from Banff; and the town’s local ski hill, Mount Norquay. Sunshine is a good intermediate, family-style ski field; and Norquay, being just five minutes by car from Banff, is the place to go for some fresh air on the groomers before whipping back to the distractions of town.
- Challenges and risks: Lake Louise’s steeper runs tend to come with steep drops, so it is important to follow the golden rule: if you can’t see over it, don’t ski over it. Lake Louise is a 35-minute drive from Banff, minimum, although it is just five minutes from Lake Louise village.
- Talking point: The Showtime Terrain Park right underneath the main lift makes for spectacular viewing. It is one of the largest terrain parks in North America and has no fewer than 51 features, from jumps to rails. Heavily patronised by both skiers and snowboarders, there are runs for all abilities from every chairlift, so everyone can ski right across the resort. Ice skating on the frozen lake, with the majestic Chateau Lake Louise on one side and Victoria Glacier towering above on the other, is a must-do.
- Inside scoop: Where the wind blows, the snow goes. Yes, it can be cold and blowy, but that is what makes for great skiing and snowboarding. There are pillowy pockets of fresh powder galore in Lake Louise.
- Après ski: The bars in the Chateau Lake Louise buzz during après ski. Relax in the Lakeview Lounge overlooking the glacier with a cocktail or afternoon tea and be transported to another world. On the mountain, the Torchlight Dinner is a tradition. The weekly event starts with cocktails at an on-mountain lodge as the ski field empties, followed by a twilight run down the deserted slopes, and a smorgasbord dinner and dancing at the base.
- Luxury sleepover: The Fairmont’s Banff Springs Hotel (fairmont.com/banffsprings) and Chateau Lake Louise (fairmont.com/lakelouise) are two of the world’s most glorious hotels. Historic and opulent, both must be experienced at least once in any mountain lover’s lifetime. Their like will never be built again, and the breakfast buffet at the Banff Springs Hotel, prepared by international chefs, is a gourmet paradise. Likewise, The Post Hotel at Lake Louise (of the luxury Relais & Châteaux group) has world-class service, dining and lodgings.
The Fairmont Waterfront and the Pan Pacific Vancouver both offer glorious views across Vancouver Harbour and are ideal stopovers on the way to or from the Rockies. The former offers local wine and cheese pairing and fitness gear for a bike ride or run, while the latter has a sea-to-ski package including accommodation, car rental, a massage at Spa Utopia, ski equipment and ski passes to either Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain or Mount Seymour, all within a half-hour drive.
With long, smooth slopes of windblown powder, Castle Mountain is a great warm-up for the larger fields and is an ideal location for those wanting to perfect their arcing snowboard turns. The restaurant lists prime rib nachos and duck confit on its après menu. New luxury homes at the ski field’s base are available for rent, while several upscale B&Bs and restaurants are nearby. Castle Mountain is a three- hour drive from Calgary International Airport and one hour from Fernie.
Source Qantas The Australian Way December 2012