Snow activities: Go on, release the inner child in a white heaven
For fun, fine food and majestic scenery, Banff is an unbeatable wintertime destination, says Deborah Spillane
I love skiing, but I must confess that I also regard myself as a complete coward. I simply do not want to feel the fear -- and then make it my friend. I have no desire to speed down a black run, or push myself to the limits of my abilities as I race down the slopes. I suppose you could say that I prefer to smell the coffee, take in the view, and enjoy the journey whenever I put on my skis. And I like to take a break from the skiing.
Most top ski resorts are built around some wonderful landscapes, but they can fall short when it comes to offering activities other than skiing or snowboarding. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, and some of the best of them can be found in the Canadian Rockies, which has spectacular mountains a whole range of exciting snow-centred activities and some truly distinctive hotels.
That combination explains why I was prepared to go all the way to Alberta for just five days. It was a long trek by any standards, but it was hassle-free. We have had some cold weather recently in Ireland, but when I stepped out of the plane, the temperature was minus 27C: just right for the deepest falls of snow.
From Calgary, I headed to Banff. I had visited this magical place some summers ago, and had been overwhelmed by its glorious mountain scenery, and its turquoise glacial lakes. The vast wilderness around Banff contains extraordinary wildlife, and, back then, we saw elk, moose, porcupine and bears and fell asleep at night to the wild and plaintive call of the coyote and the wolf
The beauty of the Canadian West and its potential for tourism was recognised a century ago by the Pacific Central railway. Its general manager, William Cornelius Van Horne, famously stated, "Since we can't export the scenery we'll have to import the tourists".
To achieve this goal, he built the Fairmont Banff Springs in 1887. As was the fashion of the time, he modelled the hotel on a Scottish baronial castle.
The Banff Springs is certainly huge, but the staff were relaxed, friendly and welcoming. My room had a stunning view of snow-covered, moonlit mountains.
The next morning, after the extensive buffet breakfast, we travelled up to Sunshine Village. It's 2,180 metres high, and is the only ski-in, ski-out resort in Banff National Park. It's is also famous for its "champagne powder" snow. It is home to some very steep terrain, and its dangerous black double-diamond runs. I'm always little nervous on the first day and most instructors take a no-nonsense, get-on-with-it approach, which doesn't suit me at all. However, Chris, our Canadian ski-instructor, understood my anxieties and before long, my confidence was restored and I was gliding through the most wonderful powder snow I've ever experienced.
Coming down after the first day's skiing can be unexpectedly dangerous. Muscles may have stiffened and become unpleasantly taut. Time for a trip to the hotel's spa. Swimming outside under the stars in the warm mineral pools eased both the jet lag and my tired muscles. After a massage, and then gorging on some succulent lavender- and rosemary-crusted Alberta lamb, I was ready for another good night's sleep.
I began to feel that time itself was slowing down -- always a good sign on holiday. The next morning brought another clear, intensely cold day and a tour with Discover Banff Tours of a genuine ice canyon.
We walked on high steel runways bolted into the Johnson's Creek canyon walls. We could see the frozen river below us, with its extraordinary frozen waterfalls, known as icefalls. When we hiked to the highest falls, we found some climbers scaling the peaks.
Back in town, we discovered the Banff Ave Brewing Co. It brews its own beer and cooks the sort of hearty meals that can beat off the canyon's fiercest chills. Then it was time for me to move again: this time to the small village of Lake Louise, and the Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel.
The hotel was full of guests who were there for the Men's World Cup Downhill Ski Championships. The next day I watched in awe as the skiers hurtled down a terrifying looking course at speeds of up to 150kph. The crowd supported the contestants by ringing huge cow bells. Inspired by the spectacle, I headed off for Lake Louise's slopes. The facilities here are extensive and first-rate and offer skiing for every level of ability.
Then, for something completely different, I decided to book a snow-shoeing excursion. As you get older, you often forget the importance of playing activities. Mike, one of the hotel's guides, is adept at re-awakening those dormant skills. Using classic willow snow-shoes, a group of responsible adults were soon reduced to acting like a bunch of raucous kids. We clambered up through the forest after Mike, trying to find and identify animal tracks -- falling repeatedly into deep powdered snowdrifts as we competed with each other to impress him. It was a day that I wanted to hold onto forever.
Trying to regain some of my composure, I followed the snow-shoeing with a more restful pastime: afternoon tea. The hotel has its own maple blend tea, which I can strongly recommend -- particularly, with finger sandwiches and an array of cakes and hot, buttered scones.
After that, a brisk walk across the frozen lake was the order of the day. I reached the middle of Lake Louise as dusk fell. If anything, the darkness seemed to enhance the thrilling scenery.
When I went back to the hotel, my appetite had also returned and we had different fondues -- one served with truffle oil, a cheese fondue with schnapps, and for dessert Swiss chocolate fondue -- the hotel is famous for its affiliation to Switzerland.
I felt more than a tinge of sadness going back to my room on that last night. Then, I made a solemn promise to myself: that I would continue to come back to this very room, in this hotel, until I have climbed all the peaks and walked all the trails and skied all the slopes of this utterly captivating resort.
British Airways (www.ba.com, 0844 493 0787) flies from Dublin to Calgary via Heathrow, return fares from €678, including taxes. Fairmont (www.fairmont.com) prices in January start from €207 based on two adults sharing, both in the Fairmont Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise.
For more information on visiting Alberta: www.travelalberta.com. Apres Ski Massage at the Willow Stream Spa, Fairmont Banff Springs is €145 for a 60-minute massage. www.skibig3.com www.banfftours.com www.kingmilkdogsledtours.com.