If you haven’t skied Canada, have you really skied at all? Set into monumental peaks, framed by dreamy scenes at Christmas, the ski fields and towns of British Columbia and Alberta are more than a powderhound’s holy grail – they’re snow globes of pure winter fantasy.
Go for the skiing, hang around for the restaurants and the lively aprés scene. Conquer the highest and longest runs on the best quality snow in the world. Indulge in the natural hot springs and soak up the panoramic views. The season is long (you can ski from November till May) and you’ll find the perfect run for everyone in the family.
1. It’s home to North America’s largest ski resort
With 3300 hectares of snowy terrain carved into more than 200 ski runs, the twin ski mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia are connected by the world’s longest, highest gondola of its kind. Whistler is the biggest ski resort outside Europe and skiing’s only a wedge of what puts it top of a ski enthusiast’s list.
The main, pedestrian-only village is Canada’s most lively apres ski scene, studded with more than 90 restaurants and bars that prove winter is no time for hibernation. Live music pumps on outdoor terraces where skiers gather around log fires. You’ll find more sophistication at the village’s rustic wine bars or at fine dining restaurants like Araxi. Here, one of Canada’s most awarded chefs, James Walt, innovates farm-to-table dishes that have a reputation throughout Canada. All sound a bit much after a day on the slopes? Sink into an outdoor hot tub set amid forest at Scandinave Spa Whistler and catch snowflakes on your tongue.
2. Beautiful Banff and Lake Louise
The Alberta town of Banff and the nearby hamlet of Lake Louise (each under a two hour drive from Calgary) are home to the panoramas you come to Canada for – and three of the country’s most accessible ski resorts. Mt. Norquay, a family favourite, is just five kilometres from Banff. At an altitude of 2159 metres, Banff Sunshine is not only Canada’s highest ski resort but also a “snow magnet” thanks to its unique location high on the Continental Divide.
Named for the glacier-fed lake hemmed by famous peaks, Lake Louise Ski Resort offers some of the world’s most spectacular ski vistas and thrilling freeride terrain in its new West Bowl.
Yet this would be a winter wonderland even without the famed slopes. Located within Banff National Park, this is a place where you’ll spy wild elk, moose and bears wandering through forest, below the peaks and glaciers of the Rocky Mountains (you might even see them amble through town). Where, on a Johnston Canyon Icewalk, you’ll find waterfalls frozen into sculptures. Icy sculptures also dazzle on the streets of Banff and the shores of Lake Louise during the annual SnowDays celebration and Ice Magic ice carving competition.
Inside the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, you can travel back in time to find out about the Swiss-guide settler history of the area and celebrate a First Nations culture rich in ceremonies, songs and legends. At Sunshine Village you can strap on snowshoes to hike to Sunshine Meadows, a window into the backcountry at the top of the world.
Many of the luxuries of Banff and Lake Louise are natural – but elevated. Banff is surrounded by mineral-rich natural hot springs and in the pool at Banff Upper Hot Springs you can soak and watch steam curl into the sky before hitting the cafe. A stay at Fairmont Banff Springs, the 19th-century hotel styled after a Scottish castle, delivers the dream views with an extra dose of fantasy.
3. It’s the pinnacle of heli-skiing
Canada invented heli-skiing in the ’60s to access the most remote ski runs in the world. Now 80 per cent of the world’s heli-skiing takes flight here, in regions that receive as much as 25 metres of snow per season. The world’s largest heli-ski company (also its first), CMH, has more than 1.2 million hectares of terrain to use alone. In spots around B.C. you can even heli-ski from a superyacht: luxury, ice-capable ships can take you (and submarines, helicopters, snowmobiles and jet skis) into the most extreme conditions in extreme comfort.
But you don’t need to venture that far to have an epic experience. You can take off from Whistler Blackcomb, where there’s 175,000 hectares of terrain to explore, or from sites near Lake Louise, Banff and Sun Peaks Resort.
The beauty of British Columbia and Alberta’s resorts is that there’s always a challenge to thrill the hardcore but also a cruisier way for kids and novices to ease in. It’s not from a chopper but hurtling down Mount Norquay on a bouncy tube is fun nobody will forget.
4. The perfect White Christmas
Santa might reside in Lapland but Christmas lives in Banff and Lake Louise. Nowhere does a White Christmas like this. Entire forests of Christmas trees (and the mighty Canadian Rockies) set the scene and elk double as reindeer. The pretty streets of Banff glitter with shops and lodges frosted with thick layers of snow, lit up by Christmas lights. At Christmas markets that run throughout November you can sit at outdoor lounges by roaring fires and drink mulled wine with the locals. Carols in the Park through December invokes unforgettable festive cheer.
You can even take a real-life one-horse open sleigh ride through Banff National Park or Lake Louise and stay in a specially decorated Santa Suite at the Fairmont Banff Springs resort (be sure to visit its new holiday bar, The Thirsty Reindeer). At nearby Lake Louise, ice-skate beneath glaciers and the Rockies on a rink right outside the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
5. The best skier’s snow
Canadian ski resorts have some of the most reliable snowfall of any in the world. Sure, they can have a "bad" season but these are rare (about one in 10) and the snowfall still beats most countries’ good seasons. Whistler Blackcomb averages 10.8 metres of snowfall per season – a whopping 2.4 metres of snow dumps in November alone. Sun Peaks Resort averages more than eight metres of snow (for perspective, renowned resorts in Europe average less than four metres). Come here for some of the longest ski seasons in world skiing, too: resorts around Banff open from early November till late May – and enjoy more than 250 sunny days per year. Skiers call these bluebird days.