The fabled Canadian Rockies showcase Banff’s majesty for contributor Bruce Northam—and dazzles a New York City starlet.
“Public washrooms?” inquires a confused 10-year-old. It’s my daughter Bella’s first time in Canada, where a public bathroom sign conjures up images of strangers showering communally. This is a new frontier for a New York City duo with similar genes but different tastes in food, music and ski slopes. Alberta, one of Canada’s 10 provinces, is the stage for its country’s rendering of jagged, serrated Rocky Mountains and its bewildering menu of four-season activities. New lexicon aside, Bella also discovers that Albertans are huggable.
“It was weird, taking a subway with luggage.” Bella’s commentary on dad’s NYC airport transit choice not being a car service.
Every valley town we visited had trendy boutiques, gourmet and comfort dining options, eclectic art galleries, fire-pits, and a diverse population of residents, including accomplished mountaineers and Olympic athletes. One such town, Canmore, nested in a flat-floor valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks, was Bella’s introduction to the Bow Valley, and other Canadian lingo. Beholding her first herd of elk, she reached for her iPad to capture the moment but then recoiled after reading a nearby sign—Traffic laws photo enforced—thinking it applied to pictures.
If you’re frequently at war with your kids about food, this is a great place for a truce. Dining at The Market at Three Sisters, a French-inspired restaurant, she ordered a plain bagel “with nothing on it.” Plain food, colorful personality (Bella and the café). Simple but elegant—like many Rocky ski community restaurants—this one is a favorite among long-distance cyclists. Another repeating theme at many restaurants here is outdoor fire-pits that invite instant gatherings. Nearby, the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company adds rock ‘n roll and handcrafted soda to its on-site brewing resume. It seems that wherever you dine, a mountain range, an indoor ski-cap-wearer and someone living their dream is within sight. Likewise, there is not a mopey face to be found inside folky Good Earth Café, where comfy couches beckon beneath an overhead overturned canoe.
Although Bella can ski black diamonds, dog sledding provided her most vocal adrenaline rush. Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours, a compassionate outfitter, mushes with Canadian Inuit Huskies and Alaskan Huskies (mutts)—several from the Calgary SPCA. Customers have the option to eventually adopt the dogs and follow them on Facebook until they retire at age 10, which, apparently, is the same age Bella officially retired from needing adult consultation. Riding first inside the sled, Bella filmed the experience, and then drove the team of dogs as she announced in play-by-play mode. After our mush through the scenic Spray Valley, a team of guests enjoyed hot cider and brownies around a campfire.
Despite being offered $20 to nibble a strawberry, willful Bella has never eaten a piece of fruit in her life (okay, she’ll nibble dried coconut). She does, however, enjoy sushi, as noted years ago: “I like sushi, lobster, oysters, crabs, and any kind of seafood—I’m not a cheap date.” Wild Orchid Bistro, which is inconspicuously tucked away inside Canmore’s Silver Creek Lodge Resort & Spa, specializes in Asian fusion and Japanese hot pots and was the only place in town to satisfy Bella’s plain sushi addiction. The staff at the elegantly set, word-of-mouth place was impressed by her ability to order seamlessly, without travail.
She does, however, enjoy sushi, as noted years ago: “I like sushi, lobster, oysters, crabs, and any kind of seafood—I’m not a cheap date.”
The drive to our first date with a ski mountain percolated one of several mini in-car radio music battles: 80s rock versus Disney Channel pop. However, most of the time we were in the car, she sang her own tunes, as she often does. It’s hard to pull most kids off an iPad, but it’s harder to pull Bella out of song. Yet, the splendor of Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, wowed her attention away from both. “Raw beauty,” I sighed. “Uncooked?” she wondered aloud about my use of raw.
Sunshine Village, a beacon for all-natural snow and uncrowded slopes, is also renowned for its lengthy season (mid-November through late May) on 3,300 acres of terrain blanketing three mountains with an average annual snowfall of 30 feet, mostly powder. An 18-minute, 7,920-foot gondola ride takes you to an auto and stress-free nirvana, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, where family fun comes alive in a mammoth outdoor Jacuzzi, while listening to live music in the restaurant and staying in the only ski-in, ski-out lodging (for some, right off their balconies) in a Canadian national park.
The Chimney Corner restaurant, along with the more upscale Eagle’s Nest, defines the mountain lodge’s intimate atmosphere with grand views of Lookout Mountain and glamorous ski-bum servers who always have a spare minute to join our family discussions—which include fruit and Disney tunes. The specialties are AAA Alberta beef, bison, salmon, and not worrying about your kid pining for video games. Sunshine employs many seasonal foreigners, mostly uber-approachable Australians and New Zealanders on reciprocalCommonwealth country two-year working visas.
Bella notes, “People with accents seem friendlier.”
The next morning, after skiing out to the base of Sunshine, we made our way to Lake Louise Ski Resort via the Trans-Canada Highway—which I’d hitchhiked decades ago. Canada’s iconic “Route 1,” aptly loaded with epic National Park scenery, landed us at lunchtime at the Northface Bistro’s three-station buffet, which offers tasty options ranging from local prime rib to a massive salad bar. We were becoming accustomed to the concept of easy drive-up and park for full mountain access—and no lift lines.
With the help of two guides, we skied separately: Bella’s black diamonds (including blind-taste-test tree skiing) versus my wide-open, groomed green runs, which I tested over and over, faster and faster. The 4,200 skiable acres of world-class terrain make it one of the largest ski areas in North America. The unique layout allows families and groups of varying abilities to ski together. There are beginner, intermediate and expert runs down from every chair—including some of the Rockies’ most challenging terrain. I ached. Bella ached for more. Vast and varied, Lake Louise Ski Resort has views of our next accommodation, The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Before heading indoors, we experienced the Johnston Canyon Icewalk, where outfitters provide ice-cleats that strap on over your winter shoes to make navigating the icy trail possible. Intermittent steel walkways built into the river canyon’s walls led us through wildlife habitats to the trail head’s frozen waterfalls. This is way more than a walk in the woods.
The one-of-a-kind Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is not just a world-class resort; it’s a world-class encounter. A yellow lab arrives with the bellman delivering our luggage as the Director of Pet Relations. While he (the lab) inspected my room, I inquired, “Drug dog?” The breathtaking views from the rooms immediately invite every guest outside. While beholding the frozen lake, ice castle and backdrop glaciers clinging to the rocky peaks, I watched Bella ice skate in paradise, her first time blading on a lake. “Yes hun, we’re a long way from the Bryant Park rink.”
After a horse-drawn sleigh ride, we discovered that kids run free inside, too. While dining at the old-world Walliser Stube restaurant, Bella met new friends and they took occasional romps away from the table to explore the arena-sized landmark hotel. Our Czech waiter, who’d been there for 25 years, re-timed the food delivery for the posse of roving kids, and proved that employee loyalty is alive and well here. It goes without saying that many of the Chateau’s customers are also long-timers.
The next day, we went on the fabled Cave & Basin Discovery Tour. Before it started, I heard loud, proud singing emanating from the restroom and wondered if Bella was starting a new trend. This hot springs reserve later expanded to become Banff National Park. It all started here when three railway workers came across the cave and basin’s thermal springs and set into motion a series of events leading to the creation of Canada’s national park system in 1885—another trend taking root here.
Bella was in curiosity overdrive throughout week, challenging pretty much everything I said with two questions: “How do you know?” (85 times) and “Why?” (110 times), typically issuing a follow-up “Why?” to contest my initial replies to “How do you know?” Near the end of the week, I tried “How do you know?” on her a few times, which only led to her asking me “Why do you want to know?” Ah, that wondrous cycle of life moved me to call my parents and make them chuckle.
Kids can see right through superfluous advertising: “Why are there so many car rental companies—can’t there be just one? I mean…” Bella at Calgary Airport.
As a prelude to our return to New York City, we headed to the Canadian Rockies’ charming downtown, Banff. Few hotels in the world can rival the grandeur and personnel cordiality of The Fairmont Banff Springs. For more than a century, its take on Rocky Mountain-staged opulence has landed it on many ultimate to-do lists. It’s styled after a Scottish baronial castle, and its Euro-style pools magnetized Bella and gave me a chance to let her mom know that all of her outfits were matching, without direction.
As we ambled down a Banff side street, Bella saw another perplexing sign and asked me, “What’s therapeutic massage—do they talk to you?” Banff Bear Street Tavern is a custom pizza tavern that doubles as an inspiration center. The waiter explained that this region has the finest alpine experiences the world has to offer, then added the national trademark sentence-ender “Ay.” Thus, segue-inclined Bella asked him, “When you were in school and writing, would you write ‘Ay’ on the paper?” Excellent question.
Many ski destinations brag about airport landings and takeoffs being interchangeable with the possibility of same-day skiing. Banff Norquay ski resort doesn’t need to brag, it just delivers. A 10-minute drive from Banff, this ski lodge—the first in western Canada—will celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2016. Widely considered to be Banff’s best family ski resort, it dazzles kids with its snow tube park and terrain for all levels, including groomed runs, bumps and a night-lit terrain park with 28 runs spread over 190 acres. Not only does Norquay have the only night skiing in the Bow Valley, but it’s also affordable and has the only hill in the area with hourly passes.
“I don’t really like to see you with your shirt off.” —Bella’s reply to (hairy) me after suggesting a warm-weather vacation next year while blow-drying her hair.
Parenting is an evolution of bonding moments. We shared a few more—literally in a line, one after another—on the Norquay snow tube park’s conveyer belt “magic carpet ride.” It lifts you (even four-year-olds can stand on it) and your inflated truck inner-tube to the hilltop. From there you fly, with the option to also spin, down the mountain on numerous large sliding lanes with your group; an open door for everyone to enjoy the slopes. The mellow uphill ride on the magic carpet provides ample time to chat. One of the tots lost his tube and as it slid back down the hill, a parent standing near us reclaimed an old adage: “The good, the bad and the ugly!” to which Bella wittily countered, “Yeah, but bad is ugly too.”…the only time I’d heard those two words in a week.
As we descended into Calgary for our flight home, I caved in to join in on the Disney pop radio singalong.
For more information on Banff, Canmore and the Canadian Rockies, visit travelalberta.us.