Banff is a busy little town in Canada’s beautiful Banff National Park. In 1883 the transcontinental railway reached the Rocky Mountains and railway workers came upon the natural hot springs bubbling from the base of Sulphur Mountain. Pioneers went on to build grand hotels for summer visitors. Today it is also a sought-after destination for good skiing in three different areas within the park. The town has its own small area of Mount Norquay, but Lake Louise and Sunshine Village are the main ones.
Lake Louise lies 56km away across the park and consists of little more than a handful of hotels. Most important of these is the splendid and cavernous Victorian structure, Chateau Lake Louise, in its dramatic glacial setting.
Sunshine Village, little more than a ski area base with a small amount of accommodation, is sandwiched between the two – 16km from Banff and 24km from Lake Louise.
Where to stay
Most visitors base themselves in Banff and commute by ski-bus or car to the different mountains, all three share a lift pass. The classic hotel in Banff is the Fairmont Banff Springs, built in the 19th century (along with Chateau Lake Louise) by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Buffalo Mountain Lodge is a boutique hotel set slightly above Banff and decorated in a rustic ski lodge style with open fires and lots of beams. On Banff Avenue, comfortably close to the shops and bars, is The Fox Hotel & Suites has inviting rooms and suites, all of them extremely spacious.
Also Worth a Look
A couple of blocks away is Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa with its lovely little Red Earth Spa. The modern Rimrock Resort Hotel is further out of town but only a short walk from the natural hot springs. At the far end of the park, Fairmont Château Lake Louise has a breathtaking position overlooking the frozen lake. Its rooms have the faded elegance of a bygone era. Nearby, The Post Hotel & Spa recreates Edwardian elegance but with modern comforts. Deer Lodge is much less luxurious, but a good-value option.
The concept of the chalet hasn’t made it to Banff, largely because of stringent restrictions on homes and businesses within the national park.
Where to eat
Best Lunch Spots
At Mount Norquay, Lone Pine serves hearty mountain fare. At Lake Louise, Sawyers Nook at the Temple Lodge has table-service food and an intimate atmosphere. Kokanee Kabin, at the mountain base, has barbecued food, but the other choices are mainly characterless self-services. At Sunshine all the restaurants are at the mid-mountain base area, with Sunshine Lookout Bistro offering a good menu and a roaring fireplace. Eagle’s Nest in Sunshine Inn is where to head for a long lazy lunch.
Best Supper Spots
Banff has a wonderful range of restaurants. Maple Leaf Grille & Lounge has a lively ambiance and fine elk, bison, duck, and lobster, try the bison tenderloin, bacon-wrapped with Benedictine blue cheese, Dauphinoise potatoes and a shallot jus. The Sleeping Buffalo at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge serves all manner of game in an attractive setting. Melissa’s is a log cabin with great steaks and ribs, while Le Beaujolais is a romantic French venue that regularly wins awards. The Silver Dragon is Cantonese, and Miki is Japanese.
Best Night on the Town
Take a pub crawl down Banff Avenue. Stops should include Tommy’s Neighbourhood Pub (120 Banff Avenue; +1 403 762 8888), the Magpie & Stump (203 Caribou Street; +1 403 762 4067), the Rose & Crown (202 Banff Avenue; +1 403 762 2121; http://roseandcrown.ca), and the Irish pub St James’s Gate (207 Wolf Street; +1 403 762 9355; www.stjamesgatebanff.com). For live music, Wild Bill’s (201 Banff Avenue; +1 403 762 0333; www.wbsaloon.com) has Country & Western, and the Elk & Oarsman (119 Banff Avenue; +1 403 762 4616; www.elkandoarsman.com) hosts rock bands. Aurora (110 Banff Avenue; +1 403 760 5300; www.aurorabanff.com) and Hoodoo Lounge (137 Banff Avenue; +1 403 760 8636; www.hoodoolounge.com) are the best clubs in town.
Best Recovery Plan
Take a dip in the historic hot springs set in the open against the beautiful backdrop of the park. Banff Upper Hot Springs (+1 403 762 1515; www.hotsprings.ca) has a day spa, restaurant, gift shop, and historic 1920s swimsuits to rent.
Best of the Rest
Retail therapy is great here, with over 250 shops. Banff Avenue has some good bargains, but don’t expect to find any high fashion boutiques, casual clothing shops are the order of the day, including Gap and Roots (a sort of Canadian Gap). There’s a wonderful Canadian native arts and crafts store called Banff Indian Trading Post (101 Cave Avenue; +1 403 762 2456; www.banffindiantradingpost.com) which looks like a small museum with mounted stuffed animals from the early 1900s and an unusual 1915 merman display. It sells masks, beadwork, and some good moccasins and leather and fur boots. Similarly, Sleeping Buffalo (111 Banff Avenue; +1 403 762 8443) stocks native headdresses, dolls, quivers, bows and arrows. Sports outlets include The Ski Hub, (119 Banff Avenue; +1 403 762 4754) which has good equipment hire and helpful service.
Of the three ski areas, Lake Louise is many people’s favourite, although it is an inconvenient five-minute bus ride away from the village and all the accommodation. Here you will find every type of terrain from gentle tree-lined trails to steep chutes and challenging bowls, but there’s an easy alternative way down from every lift. The men’s downhill is especially good fun, but the top choice for experienced skiers and snowboarders is off the backside of the mountain where a collection of demanding chutes are reached from the ridge. Sunshine Village has three separate mountains: Mount Standish is more exposed, with a mixture of terrain for all standards; Look Out Mountain is suited to more advanced skiers; and Goat’s Eye Mountain is hardcore. It is here that you will find the classic steep and deep descent called Delirium Dive, it is not in the same league as Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, but it is still spoken of with reverence by the cognoscenti. Mount Norquay has only three chair-lifts serving limited but interesting trails through the trees.
The best thing about the whole Banff-Lake Louise area is the lack of queues; the worst is the mid-winter cold. In January and February the thermometer can drop to -30′F (-35′C).
Best Guides and Instructors
The instruction at the Lake Louise (+1 403 522 1333; www.skilouise.com), Ski Norquay (+1 403 762 4421; www.banffnorquay.com/snowschool), and Sunshine Village (+1 403 277 7669; www.skibanff.com/ski_board_school/overview.php) ski schools is friendly, brilliantly organized, and great value for money. If you want to chop and change your ski area while learning, Club Ski/Snowboard (+1 403 760 7731; www.skibig3.com) is the one to pick because it runs three-day courses with guided tours of all three resorts.
The Club Ski/Snowboard Junior programme (+1 403 760 7731; www.skibig3.com) offers a mix of guiding and instruction for older children. It’s a long journey and very cold for the tiniest ones, but if you must bring babies or toddlers Lake Louise’s Day Care Center (+1 403 522 3555; www.skilouise.com/news-and-info/childcare.aspx) looks after them from just 17 days old, while Tiny Tigers Daycare (+1 403 762 6560; www.skibanff.com/ski_board_school/child_programs.php) at Sunshine Village and Ski Norquay Day Care (+1 403 762 4421; www.banffnorquay.com/rates/daycare.html) accepts little ones from 19 months.
Best Insider Tip
Hire a car, you will avoid waiting around for buses in the brain-freezing low temperatures.
January is the coldest time to come here, if you do, wear layers of thermals, a mid-layer and really good quality outer clothing. Add a fleecy neck warmer, hat or helmet, goggles (they cover more of your face than sunglasses), mittens rather than gloves, thin under-gloves and good ski socks. Glove heaters, which look a bit like tea bags, are a must and can be bought in the resort.
If you like the idea of a girls’ day out, Sunshine Village is the place. The ski school is running a new course called ‘Women Will’, which includes steep skiing, bumps, powder and carving. You are taught in small groups with others of similar ability in a step-by-step approach with video analysis. The day includes lunch and après-ski.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to send us your comments.