The Great Banff Bargain
It takes a special resort to make your annual family ski vacation feel like an actual vacation. Alberta’s SkiBig3 is just that, boasting three Ikon Pass resorts, unreal beauty, a charming town… and an exchange rate that makes the whole thing half price.
WORDS • KIMBERLY BEEKMAN |PHOTOS • REUBEN KRABBE
“Honey, put the phone down.”
My 11-year-old daughter, Cate, and I are driving to Banff, Alberta, through damp yellow hayfields into a horizon of fog. There are big, dark mountains hulking behind the clouds and, suddenly, a massive peak breaks through that looks like the curved incisor of some kind of prehistoric predator.
“Mom, I’m not texting—I’m taking notes,” she says, her moon-shaped face twisted in an expression usually reserved for when the cat throws up in your shoe.
I turn up the radio to hide the smile that’s tugging at my mouth, a smile that says, “I knew she’d love it here” and “My daughter might be a writer,” and then to hide the ensuing frown that says, “Oh God, my daughter might be a writer” and “Somebody in this family needs to go into finance.”
I knew I’d be right about this place, though. SkiBig3’s Banff & Lake Louise is smack in the middle of Canada’s first national park, it boasts both hardcore couloirs (for me), endless groomers (for her) and its sea of jagged peaks is so unfathomably beautiful it makes even this member of the tween girl species put down her iPhone and look around. It’s also easy to get to, inexpensive due to exchange rates and the Ikon Pass and safe for kids to explore on their own. (No true vacation, after all, comes without wondering where your child is.)
“Hey, Cardi B is a thing even in Canada,” she says, turning up the volume. “Did you hear about her fight with Nicki Minaj on Instagram?”
“Wait, why are you on Instagram, and who is Nicki Minaj?” I ask, while making a mental note to research what, exactly, she’s been watching on YouTube.
Parenting is a constant reminder of the so-called human condition. When they’re born, you love them fiercely, but your life as you knew it lies smoldering at your feet. And then when they get older, your happiness about being able to pee with the door closed is shadowed by undercurrents of loss—of running your hand through their hot little head of hair or having them fall asleep on you as you carry them through the airport. Nowadays, I still have moments where Cate still feels like an extension of my own body, but more frequent moments when the space between us feels like an object I can touch.
Which is why this family ski vacation is so important to me: I can both savor the last shred of her childhood—and take advantage of her newfound independence to go ski cool shit.
The radio fuzzes out, and she searches for another. A local news broadcast catches. There’s a bear alert—it’s that time of year—and there’s a big male hanging out by a carcass near the train tracks. She puts down her Pringles and gives me another look. This one says, “This place is so cool.”
“O-M-G, mom, where is the car?” she says as we walk through the parking garage, geared up for our first day on skis here at Mt. Norquay, Banff’s hometown family hill.
“You know what, honey, ‘O-M-G’ is not a word. It’s not even a worthwhile acronym. It takes more time to say than ‘Oh my God.’”
“Mom.” Eye roll. “Where is the car?”
I hear the beeping of the lock three rows over, and give her a look that says, “I may never remember where I park, but I know how to drive you right past that fudge shop you’ve been begging me to go to.”
We drive the winding road to Norquay and I tell her to look straight ahead so she doesn’t get carsick up the curvy two-lane road. “Mom stop the car. Mom-Mom.” I turn, trying to think about the possible location of a plastic bag, and see she’s pointing out the window at two huge big horned sheep, sitting in a grassy spot looking at us with one eye. “O-M-G,” I say, stopping the car.
She posts a picture of them on my Instagram account, and we drive into Norquay, find a parking spot right up front in the dirt lot and crunch through the ice puddles in our ski boots. It’s decidedly old-school here, the way I remember skiing as a kid: no crowds or attitude. Mt. Norquay is Banff’s original ski hill—and one of the first in all of North America. It was created in 1926 when a few locals noticed that logging and forest fires had created perfect ski runs on Norquay’s flank. Indeed, the whole history of Banff could be told from this spot—the people of the Stoney-Nakoda First-Nation who cleared trees to entice animals to graze, the railway workers who discovered hot water in the nearby sulfur springs, the Swiss mountain guides who pioneered these peaks.
Norquay’s lifts spin on the skirt of a summit that juts up too precipitously to be skiable. It’s not big in terms of acres, but each steep and winding run keeps us psyched to explore the next. Some of the runs originated as avalanche paths from the summit, and are currently closed due to said avys, with boulders of debris stacked up right up to the rope. We eye the North American—or “Big Chair”—that serves the steepest lift-served run in Canada, but because I have to keep Cate’s stoke level high (and make up for a track record of hot tears fogging up goggles), I don’t push it.
I tell Cate that Norquay’s runs, named after famous racers in Banff, are informed by its deep racing history—from Nordic jumping to FIS races, the last of which was held here in 1972. Cate doesn’t much care. But then we ride up with the chair with a local who tells us that, come summer wedding season, they hire five guys to keep the bears out of the buffet line, and she is all ears.
After a few hours, we have skied pretty much everything in our wheelhouse here, so we tromp upstairs to the Lone Pine Pub and devour the single best meal I’ve had at any resort to date. (Sorry, Deer Valley.) The best part, though, is the black-and-white photos that line the walls, like a ski museum you can peruse while holding a local pilsner.
We go back to town and walk around for a bit. Without her friends or phone or all of the chores that are omnipresent in our regular lives, she’s back to being mine. She holds my hand, asks me to put her hair in a bun, laughs at my mom jokes. She wants to buy souvenirs in every shop we pass and I indulge her—the Canadian exchange rate helping her cause. We buy polished rocks, a pair of yoga pants with cats all over them, a white geode and, of course, the fudge that ends up stuck in her braces.
Tired now, we decide to eat dinner at the cozy little Italian place next to our hotel. “What’s ‘antipasta?’” she asks, looking over the menu. “Is that for people who hate pasta?”
I know the time will come for me to let go, but, thankfully, it hasn’t come just yet.
“Mom, get up! It’s a powder day!”
There could be no words in my life—other than “Mom, I’m going into finance!”—that I would be happier to hear. She pulls the curtains open and, sure enough, everything is blanketed in five inches. Today we’re skiing Banff Sunshine Village, just 15 minutes away, and I am feeling quite pleased with myself: The child who routinely begs to trade ski boots for spa slippers is psyched for a pow day.
“Honey,” I say from the bathroom while I brush my teeth. “You know what would be fun? Go see how much water fits in that coffee maker. And pull out the tray and put that coffee pouch in. Then you can push the button.”
“Mom. Making coffee for you is not fun.”
“Bet you can’t do it in less than 30 seconds,” I reply.
Within the first hour at not-so-sunny Sunshine Village, however, my cocky mom-of-the-year attitude slides a little south. The visibility is zero—a side effect of having the region’s highest snowfall—and my fantasies of skiing the famed 55-degree Delirium Dive while Cate happily cruises blues nearby vanish like the guy in the red jacket I’ve been trying to follow in the fog. Banff Sunshine is a sprawling playground just on the border of B.C. (The Great Divide lift passes through it briefly; a sign on the lift tower says, “Welcome back to sunny Alberta”), and both the Dive and the Wild West zone—renowned for being some of the spiciest terrain in skidom—are high on my checklist.
The falling snow intensifies to a blizzard, and Cate’s legs revert from French fries to pizza, so we stop at Chimney Corner—in the mid-mountain lodge next to the only ski-in, ski-out lodging in Banff—to comfort ourselves with short-rib poutine (Oh, Canada!) with mushroom gravy. As a gust of snow transforms the landscape out the window to Planet Hoth, I admit, to her immense delight, that today we should go to the spa.
We cinch up our hoods around our helmets and make our way down the 3,510-foot vertical drop of the Ski-Out. We ski through the now-bare bones of a larch forest—one of the few deciduous conifers—and, lower down, through evergreens draped in moss. I stop and wait for her, drinking in the rich and loamy smell, hearing nothing but my own breathing and the squeaking of snow under her skis as she makes her way down. By some magical trick of wind, the big, fluffy flakes of snow seem to hang suspended in the air. It’s like being on the inside of a snow globe.
One of the coolest things about these resorts is that, because they’re all independently owned and operated, each one has a distinct feel. Norquay is the locals’ spot for families and sneaky pow days; Sunshine has slopeside lodging and bragging rights; and Lake Louise feels like Europe, with its scenic, exposed alpine peaks and staggering 4,200 acres of skiable snow.
When we arrived at the latter this morning, the mountain was curtained by fog, but as we neared the top of the aptly named Top of the World Express, bam, out came the sun. An ocean of peaks stretched on all sides: blue, green and gray in the golden light. “Mom, who was that artist you always talk about, who painted the colors like he saw them, instead of how he thought they should be?” Cate asked me. “Vermeer,” I answered, giving myself another mom-point that makes up for at least a few of the times I microwaved her food in Tupperware.
We’ve taken a couple of warm-up groomers on the front side, so we skate over to the Platter Lift. From the top, we see the backside, which glitters with double-diamonds—rowdy cliff and spine lines, all in the open alpine. But what makes this zone so unique is the mellow blue and green runs that meander through it, so we could both ski in sight of one another in our own respective habitats.
For now, however, we stick together, and I stay behind her so I can remind her to plant her poles as she turns through the boot-top fluff. It’s tricky in spots where it’s tracked, but she navigates it beautifully. The views—the views! Even on a powder day, Lake Louise is bereft of lift lines, despite the fact that all of these resorts are now on the Ikon Pass. And the locals we ride the lift with even dish their secret stashes. (Are you listening, Jackson Hole?)
After a few laps there and a long lunch at the Whitehorn Bistro, we head back out. Our stomachs full of cheese fondue for two, we lazily poke around a few more blues over on Larch, whose double-fall-line groomers remind me a little bit of Vail’s Blue Sky Basin (without the four-lift commute). The terrain is so big and varied, each pod feels like a different resort. The afternoon sun has softened the snow down low to corn, so we end the day carving trenches on the slushy groomers off of the Glacier and Grizzly chairs, popping in and out of the trees on sneaky little traverses.
Ready for après, we load up the car and head back to the hotel. In the parking garage elevator, Cate presses all the buttons. As annoying as that may be to anyone else who’s also trying to ride said elevator, I laugh, grateful she still thinks that’s fun. (Her suitcase, I was sad to discover, held nary a stuffed animal that has historically taken up most of our luggage real estate.) We head straight for the rooftop hot tub, soak until our fingers are wrinkled, and watch the light change on the snow-covered peaks around us.
“Mom, can we just relax and get room service tonight?” Cate asks—again—as we wrap up in our robes to go back down to our room.
We’ve already explored town plenty—walking all the way to the enchanting Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, which lords like a fairytale castle over the river, and dining at Saltlik and Park Distillery. And besides, I have plans in the morning to go back to Banff Sunshine Village to check Delirium Dive off my list. (Spoiler: It will land as one of my 10 best runs ever.)
So I sit down in bed, still in my robe, and concede—and even hold my tongue when she orders the chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert. This is vacation, after all.