Karla Courtney takes her family on the trip of a lifetime – a perfect White Christmas in the Canadian Rockies.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is my first aeroplane trip. It was in the early 1980s and my parents and I were going to spend a few weeks of the summer holidays visiting relatives on Canada’s eastern coast, about a three-hour flight from our home in Toronto. There was so much excitement bound up in the whole process: we bought our first set of luggage (heavy, in tan leather and with no wheels); spent hours poring over maps and discussing basic travel mechanics such as kilometres, velocity and time zones; and regularly read the date on our flimsy paper tickets as a countdown ritual. The amount of happy time committed to the entire event has left it etched in my brain.
Maybe it’s nostalgia – or perhaps it’s because I need a break from constant phone notifications – but now that I have a child of my own, all I want for Christmas is an old-fashioned, distraction-free family holiday. So my husband, son and I are heading to the ultimate White Christmas destination: the Banff and Lake Louise region in the Canadian Rockies. We haven’t packed any gifts, largely because -20°C temperatures mean our luggage is fully committed to thermals, jumpers and a lot of Gore-Tex. But the cold is nothing to be feared: as the locals say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. We’ve come prepared.
We arrive late on Christmas Eve at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. It’s dark but as we approach there’s just enough light to reveal two massive mountain peaks cascading into each other, with a Beauty and the Beast-like building in the foreground. Inside, the lobby is just as fantastical – plush patterned carpets, regal staircases sparkling with pine garlands, a colourful model village made of candy and, as the grand centrepiece, a huge Christmas tree haloed by an even bigger chandelier.
Our room is warmly lit with a small, decorated tree in the corner. There’s a table set with welcoming mugs of hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies. A handwritten note assures us that the treats are for us and not Santa. It’s Christmas Eve, the only night of the year children willingly go to sleep early, so the three of us climb into our matching pyjama onesies and snuggle up on the same bed. The classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964 special is on TV. We drift off to sleep with our bodies intertwined.
My husband and I wake to the sound of curtains opening followed by a gasp – our son, Marshall, is silhouetted in front of the almost floor-to-ceiling window, which is filled with a white mountain face falling into a frozen lake. The sun is shining and icicles are sparkling everywhere. There are a few people already out skating. If you could paint a picture of “Merry Christmas”, this surely would be it.
The mounds of freshly fallen snow are taunting us. After putting on five layers of thermals and our moon boots, we race outside to see who can make the best snow angel but the snow is so light and powdery that we’re all swallowed by it. We climb out, shake off and get in our car to drive to the Fairmont Banff Springs for the famous Christmas Day Brunch.
The drive between Lake Louise and Banff is an incredible 50-minute journey through the heart of the Rockies. The highway runs between peaks so tall that they look like they’ve been painted onto the sky. There’s a radio station dedicated to cheesy Christmas carols so we ride along with the likes of Let it Snow and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus blasting at full volume while we take hundreds of dashboard happy snaps and pretend that we can sing.
We stop at Banff Surprise Corner lookout, which we’re told is the best place to survey the hotel’s famous Baronial façade. Originally built in the late 19th century, from where we’re standing it looks like an actual castle tucked in a mystical forest. There’s even fairytale fog drifting into the sky. (It turns out to be steam rising from a heated outdoor pool that’s open for soaking even in the depths of winter.)
We enter a grand ballroom that looks more like a festive food village of lively stations, from carveries to build-your-own sundaes. There are piles of cookies and cakes almost too pretty to eat (but too tasty not to) and a chocolate fountain with fresh berries for dipping. We toast marshmallows in an open fireplace before sitting down to a turkey roast with all the trimmings. Marshall is literally dancing through tables of delicacies, filling his plate giddily as though he’s in Dreamland.
After thirds (or maybe it’s fifths), we’re so stuffed that our oversized Christmas sweaters have become necessities rather than fashion statements. We work off the indulgences with a tubing session at nearby Mount Norquay, the afternoon filled with spinning, bouncing and laughing down groomed runs. Marshall’s voice is hoarse from screeching, “Wheeeee!”
The most strenuous activity comes last – a night-time stargazing excursion. Our guide, Ben, is a young woodsman who has spent his summer monitoring remote river salmon populations. He fits us into high-tech snowshoes with spiky traction grips on the bottom. After a quick lesson on how to walk in them, we stomp up the side of the mountain, examining the constellations above us and spotting animal prints on the ground by the glow of our tiny helmet lights.
After nearly two hours of wandering, we stop in a quiet clearing outside an igloo and Ben pulls a set of index cards from his pocket. The first card he shows us has a simple picture of earth. The next card depicts earth next to Jupiter – a planet so large, he explains, that it can fit 1300 earths inside it. The third card portrays the sun, which can contain 1,300,000 of our planet inside it (earth and Jupiter are now just little dots in the corner).
Finally, he pulls out a card picturing the mammoth star Antares – which is so incomprehensibly enormous that the sun is but a tiny speck next to it and earth and Jupiter are completely invisible. We look up to the sky in silence then Marshall tugs at my parka. “So we’re really just like little snowflakes floating in space,” he says. “Exactly,” I reply, quivering with emotion as I hug him.
If I weren’t so worried about my eyes freezing shut, I’d burst into tears. Each of us is feeling quite moved and a bit overwhelmed. We climb into the igloo and huddle up by the glow of a small oil lamp. Ben pulls out a flask of hot chocolate, hands us each a tin mug and we toast a truly memorable Christmas Day.