Sunshine Village sounds like a misnomer for a ski resort deep in the Canadian Rockies.
A Caribbean beach complex, maybe, but a ski arena that straddles the Continental divide of the Americas? But when you’re at the peak of Mount Standish, an impossibly blue sky hanging over a seemingly endless white expanse, it starts to make sense. This is why you make the eight hour flight to Toronto, two hour layover, four hour domestic flight to Calgary, 90 minute drive into Banff National Park and 20 minute drive to the resort.
The Canadian Rockies are a long way when the Alps are within driving distance. But when you can shoot from piste to lift without barely a snow plough to slow you, I’m prepared to believe the shorter queues will act as something of an equaliser.
Being out on these serene yet imposing mountains is a serious skier’s dream. There are fewer wide-open cirques for making large, looping horizontal turns than you’d find in the Alps, so skiing is more fast and furious, replete with mogul fields and tree-skiing, which shreds the nerves and works out the hips. Although there’s enough terrain here to cater for beginners, the majority of the skiing is more white-water rapids than wide open sea.
Despite the cold — it can fall as low as -25 degrees celsius at the height of winter — I worked up a sweat by lunch-time, having ducked beneath a few branches and buckled over on a black run.
Considering the propensity of perilous bumps and jumps that, coupled with low-visibility, threaten to throw you onto your backside at any given second, the snow here is mercifully soft and provides the perfect pillow for any slip-ups. As the snow is dryer than in Europe, it doesn’t compact into shin-rattling ice-packs, instead forming a fluffy carpet to glide through. Silently floating atop fresh powder is a fitting way to experience this often deathly quiet scenery.
Sunshine Village is one of three ski resorts in the area, alongside Mount Norquay and Lake Louise in Banff National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site whose scenery attracts millions of visitors every summer but is relatively neglected for the rest of the year.
For European skiers used to seeing concrete complexes lurking at the base of the Alps, or being squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in overcrowded, over-ripe boot rooms, the Rockies offer space, seclusion and — should you want it — easy escape from the slopes.
In fact, the vast Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel has enough going on within its castle-like hallways and spiral staircases to tempt you away from practising your parallel turning altogether. “An island of civilisation in a sea of wilderness” is how the Canadian railroad developer William Cornelius Van Horne described his hotel after it was completed in 1888.
The description still fits. With smoke billowing out of its turrets underneath a vast backdrop of deep green pine and mountain peaks, the Banff Springs possesses the kind of views Hollywood studios spend millions trying to recreate. No wonder film stars from Marilyn Monroe to Hugh Jackman have visited.
The grand interior — baronial ballrooms, statues of knights in shining armour, bronze elevator floor indicators with spokes that point instead of screens that flash — and storied history has made this a destination for political dynasties from the Kennedys to modern day Gulf royalty. The castle boasts at least nine restaurants for guests to choose from – 13 during high season – ranging from a Bavarian-style pub to a wine bar to a boutique steakhouse.
Lake Louise, less than an hour’s drive, is no less cinematic in its setting. Frozen beneath a blanket of white, it’s both staggeringly beautiful and blissfully free of the crowds that line its banks in the summer. The powder on the mountains here doesn’t quite match the stuff that makes the skiers at Sunshine Village go weak at the knees, but it shares the same epic vistas.
The mountains rise straight up out of deep, curvaceous valleys, providing panoramas of cloud-filled troughs and frozen streams — glaciers here are said to get so thick they could bury the Eiffel Tower. Banff’s national park status means development is restricted, keeping eyesores out of view.
The nearby Jasper National Park offers even more remote skiing. Its equidistance between Edmonton and Calgary means locals are less likely to visit on weekends and the “champagne powder” can last up to a week. The Queen and Prince Philip stayed in the Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge when they visited in 2005, although they presumably didn’t take advantage of the slopes.
You couldn’t keep me away from them, though. The Rockies may be a long way from home, but they’re also a million miles from the crowds at Val d’Isère. And when you’re hurtling down a mountain with only the sound of your skis for company, that’s hard to put a price on.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts offers winter stays at Fairmont Banff Springs, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge from C$399 per room per night based on two sharing on a room only basis. To book: www.fairmont.com; 00 800 0441 1414
Visit Travel Alberta to plan your trip: www.travelalberta.co.uk