Winter in the Rockies

People who have been to the Canadian Rockies in summer will speak—still awestruck—about the lustrous aquamarine of Lake Louise and how it perfectly reflects the mountains. For many, that image is their most indelible memory from an extremely memorable place. Although the lake is frozen in winter, the blankets of white make this gorgeous destination that much more ambient, so keep this in mind when you jump-start planning a snowy vacation for your clients this winter.

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A winter view of downtown Banff

You don’t even have to ski to enjoy this cold climate. I learned as much when I spent several days in Alberta this past winter. Although I never put on skis, I still returned telling tales of sporting amid the snow and peaks. Non-skiers—or skiers on a day off from the slopes—can partake in such activities as snowbiking, dog sledding, ice hiking and snowshoeing during the Alberta winter.

I stayed at Fairmont Banff Springs hotel and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. For a little history lesson, these were two of the earliest properties opened by Canadian Pacific when the transcontinental railway started building accommodations in the late 1800s for passengers who traveled to farther-flung stops on its routes. These hotels are entwined in history with tourism to the Canadian Rockies. Their guiding vision is expressed in the famous words of CP president William Cornelius Van Horne: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

A Room With a View
And that scenery is inescapable (not that you’d want it any other way), even if you book clients in rooms not classified as “view.” At Chateau Lake Louise, view means facing the lake; at Banff Springs, it refers to rooms on the valley side. But in both properties, mountains are visible from pretty much any accommodation your client chooses. When it’s time for socializing, each hotel has a lounge with massive picture windows looking out on the prime views. The best rooms to book in either hotel are the Deluxe View rooms, which are luxurious and very spacious—you could fit in a rollaway bed for kids and not overcrowd the room. With their classy decor, abundant space and full range of upscale amenities, Deluxe View rooms should suffice for most any client, though the hotel does offer suites and Fairmont Gold accommodations.

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A well-appointed guest room at Fairmont Banff Springs

Nicknamed “The Castle” for its manorial architecture and layout, the Fairmont Banff Springs is a vast property, and finding your way around can be a little confusing for the first day or so. The resort entails a main building plus three wings, 10 restaurants and lounges, 15 shops and a conference center. The most special public space may be the 38,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa, where guests can choose from 10 types of massage, and about as many different facials and assorted scrubs, wraps and baths. Signature treatments include the Banff Mineral Scrub and the Rockies Rehydration wrap/massage combination treatment. The centerpiece of the spa is a mineral pool, surrounded by hot, medium and cold waterfall whirlpools; the spa ritual consists of a five-minute plunge in each before your mineral swim.

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Chateau Lake Louise has a modern exterior

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has stood at the shore of Lake Louise since 1890, but has a modern-looking exterior. Inside are several bars and eateries and shops, most of them branching off from the airy, elegant lobby. A dining highlight is the Tom Wilson Steakhouse, where guests are served a selection of free appetizers (and refills) before their entrees of Grade AAA Alberta beef. Desserts are a specialty too, such as the white chocolate–passion fruit crème brûlée. Chateau Lake Louise’s Mountain Heritage outdoor activities program, which in winter includes horse-drawn sleigh rides around the lake, operates from a room modeled after a Swiss chalet. The Wild West, meanwhile, is evoked in the swinging-door Glacier Saloon, the hotel’s top nightspot.

Winter Activities
In wintertime, guests can ice skate onsite at both Fairmont properties—right on Lake Louise or on an ungated rink behind the main building of Banff Springs. You must venture farther afield for the more unusual winter activities. Concierge at both hotels, for example, will book the Johnston Canyon Icewalk with Discover Banff Tours. This follows an approximately three-mile trail through an extraordinary snowscape: a gorge with walls sheathed in bluish ice and a snow-coated riverbed pocked with pools of water.

You walk gingerly but firmly on a snowy and icy path, which has some slopes and curves. There’s a guardrail much of the way, but the guide advises against relying on it, especially since it’s on the slipperier side of the path. Your destinations are two frozen waterfalls, which have been called “frosty cathedrals.” You get closest to the Lower Falls by walking, hunched over, through a low-ceilinged tunnel of rock. Then it’s on to the Upper Falls, whose ice pillars may be 100 feet high. At the lookout point there, you’re served hot cocoa and maple cream cookies.

The ice walk is a good workout (I started to tire in the second hour), and it’s exhilarating to wander within what seems like forbidden territory, with amazing scenery you won’t find many other places. Guests are free to ice walk on their own, but they really need the cleats that the tour operator provides to affix to your boots. And you’ll get insights into the geology and history of the canyon from your guide. The price this past winter was $64 for adults, $40 for children, including hotel pickup and drop-off.

For a different type of hike, try snowshoeing. I went with the Mountain Heritage Program at Chateau Lake Louise. It started with a trek across the lake. Then we headed into the woods. Our excellent guide, Kristi, pointed out various animal tracks, identified both edible and poisonous lichens and encouraged us to “free” trees that were bent over with their branches buried under snow. At a clearing about a mile up and in to the woods, she served us berry tea and granola. Snowshoeing is easy to do. You may find yourself sinking into the snow if you pause on some that’s deeper than it looks, and a couple of times on our hike someone in the group toppled over. But recovery was quick, and to be honest, the deep, clean snow looked so inviting I was tempted to plop down in it. A three-hour snowshoe excursion costs $59 for adults, $29 for children.

On the snowshoe and ice canyon excursions, I had a transcendent experience of being one with nature—out in the fresh, bracing air, surrounded by glorious vistas and not a lot of human-made stuff. I was also stirred by such feelings while dogsledding. Kingmik in Lake Louise is the only dogsled tour operator permitted in Banff National Park. Their “Ride the Great Divide” adventure lasts about two hours and covers nearly 10 miles of terrain that can only be described as a winter wonderland. Your vantage point is unparalleled, too, as you swoosh along at a fast but steady pace, with no fits and starts or physical obstructions to impede the view.

Just before the ride begins—as the dogs start barking boisterously—the guide seats you two (three with a small child) to a sled, nestled one behind the other with legs outstretched, and bundles you up in blankets. You’re secure, yet you can’t help but feel a touch of daredeviltry on the ride since you bump up and down if the sled hits a nub in the snow and it’s the seven charging dogs in front of you that provide your locomotion. They gallop along a straight trail right up to the Alberta/British Columbia border, site of the Great Divide (known in the States as the Continental Divide). On the way back, the course detours through woods. You also get the chance to drive the sled—which involves standing on the runners at the back, with the guide beside you to do any hardcore steering that’s needed.

Ask for Ryan as your guide on the “Great Divide” tour. This friendly young man introduces you personally to each of the dogs on his team, tipping you off to their personalities and lineage, and shares stories of the sledding competitions in which he’s participated. This trip cost $275 per sled last season; Kingmik also operates a shorter journey and conducts mushing lessons.

Snowbiking is a skiing alternative you do right on the slopes. Sunshine Village is the only ski resort in Banff National Park that offers snowbike rental. Snowbiking is closer to skiing than biking: You control your direction and speed through arm, leg and foot positioning, rather than just turning the handlebars. A snowbike has a banana seat and the basic structure of a bicycle, but neither pedals nor wheels. There are short skis where the tires would be, and you attach such skis (also known as gliders or blades) to your ski boots as well. Though snowbiking’s been around for more than 50 years, rentals are not commonplace at ski resorts (in the U.S., some Colorado resorts have them) so it’s often described as a “new” kind of fun. The folks at Sunshine Village give you a lesson on the practice hill, and then you’re free to take any of the lifts up and join skiers and snowboarders on the big hills (in other words, the mountains!). While riding the chairlift, you hold your snowbike, which is lightweight, off to the side. The rate for a full-day rental during the 2007-08 season was $49, including the lesson and all equipment.


* Banff Lake Louise Tourism:, 403-762-0270

* Ski Banff:, 877-754-7022

* Fairmont Banff Springs: [email protected], 403-762-1722

* Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: [email protected], 604-465-1210