An Insider’s Luxury Guide to Banff Lake Louise

THERE IS NO MORE MAGNIFICENT VIEW FROM ANY SKI RESORT IN THE UNITED STATES or Canada than at Banff Lake Louise Mountain Resort, looking out on the craggy, rough-hewn beauty of the Canadian Rockies. And post-skiing, there is no experience more civilized than enjoying afternoon tea in The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, watching couples skate through sculpted ice palaces on the frozen lake at the foot of massive cliffs and a turquoise glacier. Canada’s Banff National Park is home to several of the world’s great hotels, a cuisine to challenge that of any tourist destination on the continent, a truly happening night life, and enough wilderness to fill several days of excursions and make a lifetime of memories. Luckily, it’s also home to some of the best skiing in North America.

The Park

Banff National Park stretches up the Bow River Valley along the Trans-Canada Highway, through mountains so recently formed that gravity and erosion seem to have taken little toll. From Calgary International Airport it takes less than two hours to reach the town of Banff (five miles past the entrance to the park proper), the park’s center of activity, with restaurants and bars, hotels in all price ranges, shopping, and even some cultural diversions. Banff also provides easy access to the ski resorts of Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay. Another 40 minutes up the highway are Lake Louise Village and the nearby Lake Louise Mountain Resort. All offer superb skiing — still largely undiscovered by Americans — a surprisingly Continental atmosphere, memorable ski hotels, and, perhaps most impressive of all, exquisite and unforgettable beauty.

On the Hill

Lake Louise Mountain Resort with 4,200 lift-served acres and a 3,260-foot descent, this is North America’s fourth largest ski area, and the terrain feels fittingly immense. High-speed groomers cascade down the frontside like rivers through the trees, including two steep plummeters that serve as courses for World Cup races, as well as Meadowlark, a three-mile intermediate forest trail perfect for carving wide arcs around islands of trees.

banff-dealsThe vast, treeless bowls on the back side, as well as dozens of super-steep 1,500-foot chutes, are the best expert skiing on the mountain, and few people venture into them due to the long Poma lift, the only mechanical means of access. This translates to fresh tracks for days after a snowfall, especially since prevailing winds blow in even more snow. Intermediates can get a taste of tough terrain by traversing to Boomerang Bowl’s less intimidating pitches, and for those wishing to take it easy, a green run winds down from the top of the front-side gondola.

A ski trip here is not for those who expect the glamour of Aspen or Deer Valley, nor those who insist on ski-in, ski-out lodging (which the resort is unable to provide under National Park restrictions). But five minutes away by shuttle is the Post Hotel, one of North America’s finest ski lodgings, and another five minutes beyond that is the storied Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. People who want to ski hard, then kick back and enjoy fine dining and a romantic setting, quickly become Lake Louise loyalists.

banff_walkSunshine Village A three-mile, 16-minute gondola ride is a bizarre way to access a ski resort, but once at the 7,000-foot treeline “village area” that straddles the Continental Divide, visitors discover a bustling hub of activity in a natural basin. High-speed quads shoot off like spokes of a wheel, taking visitors another 1,500 vertical feet to four summits that, among them, provide all-day skiing in the sun.

If there’s sun, that is: Sunshine Village deserves its reputation for Canada’s best snow. Legend has it the area was discovered by Swiss guides who saw its slopes glistening with snow when the rest of the range was dry. Indeed, when groomed runs at Lake Louise are slick, the peaks of Sunshine seem to pull snow from the heavens — handy, since the resort relies almost entirely on natural snow.

With much of the skiing above the timberline, visitors can head in almost any direction and find runs that fit all levels and tastes. From the summit of Lookout Mountain,skiers are treated to a 360-degree view of serrated peaks— the Matterhorn-like Mount Assiniboine among them— that is simply stunning. Goat’s Eye, a hulking hill with steep runs falling 1,500 vertical feet, provides expert terrain with challenging mogul runs, tree skiing, and a few double-black chutes, along with a few groomed runs for advanced intermediates. For boarder cross wannabes, the Eagle Creek run demands precision at every turn, and the transceivers-required, safety-gated Delirium Dive is as extreme as in-bounds skiing gets.

banff_snoeshoeMt. Norquay Skiing history is writ large on this hometown mountain hovering 1,000 feet over Banff that offers first-day visitors a place to warm up and feel the local vibe. When time is short, with just a few hours to run laps, it’s a great escape. It’s also where the locals learn to ski, on terrain ranging from intermediate fun to super steep moguls, and where the town’s young have trained for weekend races since the area was established in 1926. Last year, Norquay — which offers a free season pass to all school children — sent six children from its ski club to the World juniors competition, and three members of the Canadian World Cup team call this small resort home.

The Weather

Americans, as Canadians are quick to note, are afraid of the cold. For our northern neighbors, skiing in the Arctic blasts of January poses no problem, but spoiled Yanks prefer to visit in late February or early March, sandwiching a stay between the cold of midwinter and the longer, sun-filled (and snow-melting) spring days. More northern climes produce snow at much lower altitudes, and indeed the peaks of Banff’s ski areas sit at roughly the same elevation as a Main Street bar in a Colorado resort. For flatlanders, that means that the first day of skiing isn’t a battle with hypoxia, merely fatigue. Another plus: Hangovers aren’t quite as severe.

Off the Hill

banff_pupsAmong the advantages of skiing in a national park is that, well, you’re surrounded by a national park and all its associated wilderness activities. Kingmik Dog Sled Tours offers half-hour introductory runs through the woods, as well as 1½- to 2-hour trips that venture for miles through some of the park’s most stunning scenery; guests who feel up to it are invited to drive the team home. Hikers will find memorable trails through narrow, ice-encrusted canyons, a stunning landscape of frozen rivers and waterfalls often dotted with ice climbers. Four-hour guided trips explore Johnston Canyon Ice Falls and Grotto Canyon.

For day-skiers looking to heli-ski, Purcell Helicopter Skiing has three- and five-run packages as well as bus service from Lake Louise and Banff.

Banff Snowmobile Tours takes adventuresome types into the backwoods just west of the park (about an hour from town) on a three-hour tour that includes a shuttle from Banff or Lake Louise and a hot lunch.  At The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, merely sitting beside the jewel-like lake can elicit reverent odesto nature, but skating on its frozen surface, or snowshoeing or taking a sleigh ride around its perimeter, evokes pure delight.  At the hotel, book a horse-drawn journey through the majestic landscape, Nordic skiing on 20 miles of well-maintained track, ice skating on the lake itself, or take yourself on a snowshoe trek along the Great Divide, about three hours from the resort.


The inspiration behind Willow Stream Spa at The Fairmont Banff Springs is the European tradition of “taking the waters,” and indeed, this large, handsome spa offers a big mineral pool as well as several pools with neck-massaging waterfalls. Stunning views bring the outdoors in, creating an idyllic background for indulging in the extensive menu of treatments. In Lake Louise, Temple Mountain Spa at the Post is exceptional: Treatments are unusually creative, the hot tubs have wonderfully strong jets, the steam bath is a toasty haven, and the Phytomer products from France are among the best available. Add a genuinely friendly staff, and it’s no wonder this spa is considered first-class.

Castles, etc.

banff_castleAlthough set within a national park, Banff and Lake Louise boast world-class lodgings that blend Old World grandeur with Canadian graciousness.

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Cradled in an idyllic setting at the foot of the steep, sculpted, snow crowned massif of the Canadian Rockies, just across the valley from the ski resort, the Chateau Lake Louise is entwined with the history of Canada’s western expansion.  Built in 1890 as “a hotel for outdoor adventurer and alpinist [sic],” it is now a massive 550-room hotel, a grande dame where tea and scones are served to visitors cosseted in easy chairs, taking in the dramatic view of the icy blue Victoria Glacier at the far end of the lake.

Post Hotel & Spa For atmosphere, service, quality, and comfort, this low-key, high-polish chalet may well be the best hotel near any North American ski resort.  As with grand European hotels, the proprietors — Swiss brothers André and George Schwarz — are never far from the lobby, dining room, or guests, many of whom, like the employees, tend to hail from Switzerland and Germany. A Relais & Châteaux hotel, the multi-award winning Post is noteworthy for its extraordinary restaurant and spa, afternoon tea service, 30,500-bottle wine collection, well-stocked cigar bar, homey library, and handsomely appointed rooms and suites.

Sunshine Mountain Lodge Set in the heart of Sunshine Village, this boutique property offers the only ski-in, ski-out accommodations in the park. After the day skiers head back down on the gondola, the place can feel as isolated as a backcountry camp, but there’s delicious food and lively entertainment — not least at Mad Trapper’s Saloon, which caters to a fun-loving clientele, many of whom work at the resort.

banff_castle_lightsThe Fairmont Banff Springs This sister property to The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louis is popular with royalty and celebrities. Once the flagship of the famed Canadian Pacific Hotels, it remains an enduring and oft-photographed symbol of the park. It was built in 1888, then rebuilt between1911 and 1928 in the Scottish baronial style; today many of its 768 rooms are in fairy-tale towers and turrets with plummeting views of the Bow River below. Fittingly, its golf course, built in 1924 by Stanley Thompson, was at the time the most expensive course in the world.

The Rimrock Resort Hotel Visitors willing to forgo the monumental charm of The Fairmont Banff Springs will discover a sophisticated alternative at the 16-year-old Rimrock, 700 feet up slope. Watching the evening light ebb on the enchanting snow-covered peaks around Banff after a day of skiing is so enjoyable that it’s best to abandon plans to venture forth until night falls (which, this far north, isn’t very late most of the winter). Being a mile from the lively comings and goings of Banff is a challenge, but the hotel offers shuttles to town as well as to the three mountain resorts for skiing.

Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge For those who revel in nostalgia, it’s hard to do better than this turn-of-the-20th century lodge, situated on Bow Lake a half-hour north of Lake Louise. Location is the luxury here — you’ll have to venture off campus for amenities beyond a dining room —but its setting is one of the most dramatic in the park.

Cabins, etc.

banff_ramClicking into a pair of randonée bindings on touring skis for a three-hour trip to a back country lodge may be a daunting prospect, but the pay off is enormous: a pristine winter wonderland of snow-draped mountains and valleys, and an intimate getaway where the food is delicious ,the wine abundant, and the company delightful.

Lake O’Hara Lodge In winter, the lodge locks up its cabins and opens only the eight rooms of the handsome main building, built in the 1920s as an Alpine Club camp.  A seven-mile ski-in (or snowshoe-in) on a groomed track rewards the intrepid with a 1,500-vertical-foot gain. The loyal clientele loves the remarkable setting, delicious meals, fine Okanagan wines, and good companionship, as well as treks into the wilds led by a resident guide.

Skoki Lodge Access to rustic Skoki Lodge is via a seven mile trail from Lake Louise Mountain Resort, making the journey an ideal excursion into the Rockies back country— and its scenic high-mountain ridges and frozen lakes — for a confident skier. (Ski-touring gearcan be rented at the ski area.) Built in 1930 by members of the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies, the recently renovated lodge boasts cozy rooms, delectable meal sthat invite amiable conversation, an outdoor sauna, and remarkable views of clear, star-studded skies.

Emerald Lake Lodge Nestled on the shore of Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, 25 minutes west of Lake Louise along the Trans-Canada Highway, Emerald Lake Lodge has the advantage of accessibility by car and the disadvantage of being busier and more crowded than the true back country lodges. Activities include snowshoeing, ski touring, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, and ice skating on the lake. The restaurant is known locally for its excellent, hearty food, especially the bison, elk, and caribou it raises on its Calgary-area ranch.

banff_stepsCanadian fine wine — once an oxymoron — has arrived. The southern Okanagan Valley, some 200 miles from the Pacific Ocean at the foot of the Monashee range, has a warm, sunny, and typically dry climate, with 5,000-plus acres under vine supporting more than 75 wineries. Ninety percent of their product is sold in British Columbia and Alberta alone, so local sommeliers are not only knowledgeable about Okanagan wines, they’re often the only people who can give you a taste.
With dessert, don’t miss the country’s greatest wine: sweet, delicious ice wine, made from grapes frozen on the vine and picked only when the temperature is no higher than 17 degrees. Europe has ice wines too, but Canada’s are the world’s best.

Beyond the comfort of the wood-paneled whiskey bars at the top hotels, Banff’s best bets after dark are pubs and a Western saloon, where locally crafted beers and ales are the order of the day — or night. St. James’s Gate Irish Pub has antique Irish fixtures, live Irish or classic rock music, and — more to the point — 26 beers on tap, 50 single-malt scotches, and eight Irish whiskeys.  The Elk & Oarsman is favored by the locals for its many beers on tap and giant TVs featuring sports competitions, which make for a crazy atmosphere, especially during hockey games. In addition to a full bar and hearty eats, Wild Bill’s Legendary Saloon caters to a fun-loving crowd with live country and rock bands, karaoke, line dancing, and even calf roping.

Banff and Lake Louise boast a high level of culinary artistry; there are enough gastronomic delights to merit a stay here for the top restaurants alone.
In Lake Louise, Chef Hans Sauter makes superb meals at the Post Hotel Restaurant, offering an extraordinary dining experience in the best European tradition. Walliser Stube, at The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, serves classic Austrian and Swiss alpine fondues, raclette, and game in a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled setting. Casually rustic Baker Creek Bistro relies on great local produce to create Canadian contemporary comfort cuisine.

banff_skiIn Banff , Eden at The Rimrock Resort Hotel showcases tasting menus that are revelations in flavor and texture, especially when paired with superb Okanagan wines. The Fairmont Banff Springs has several options for fine dining — including Italian specialties at Castello Ristorante and the Bow Valley Grill’s seasonal dishes —but for a remarkable meal just at the edge of excess, in an exclusive setting, the clubby, dark-paneled dining room of the Banffshire Club is a must-try.