Kate McClymont discovers the pristine World-Heritage listed Banff National Park makes a sensational snow holiday.
'Lake Louise is living proof that God is a skier and he skis here," says our host as we ride the Top of the World chairlift. On this picture-perfect spring day, with such sensational snow and panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, it is almost a religious experience. However, whether Lake Louise is the most heavenly experience in Alberta province is fiercely contested.
Nearby Mount Norquay is considered the oldest and most family friendly, while Sunshine resort boasts of having the most and best snow. More than 1000 centimetres of snow fell in Sunshine last season.
Although there is intense rivalry among the trio, there is one word that unites them: Whistler. It's famous and it's in the province next door, but it has crowds and queues, the Albertans say. If you're an aficionado of powder skiing, Alberta is for you. Because of their locations in the World Heritage-listed Banff National Park, development is tightly controlled in the trio of resorts. This means ski areas are largely in pristine surroundings with little by way of ski-in-ski-out accommodation, apres ski activities or cafes on the mountains.
However, the answer to this is to stay in Banff, buy a three-mountain pass (free shuttles to the resorts come with the pass) and enjoy the town's great array of restaurants, shops and hotels.
The Maple Leaf Grille sources a lot of its ingredients locally and a must- try, especially for kids, is a beaver tail - think longish doughnut dipped in chocolate.
Accommodation ranges from budget lodges to the likes of the Fairmont Banff Springs. We stay at the Rimrock Resort Hotel and wake to spectacular views across the valley.
The closest resort to Banff is Mount Norquay, about a 10-minute drive. It's a great place to get your ski legs back if you haven't been for a while, has beautiful wooded runs and serious blacks if you want a challenge. Three-hour tickets are available, as well as $2 Thursdays once a month, which sees a lot of locals pop out for a quick ski.
The more challenging and larger Sunshine - framed by Mount Standish, Lookout Mountain and Goat's Eye Mountain - is about a 30-minute drive from Banff, followed by a gondola ride to key fields.
As we ride the express lift to Goat's Eye, our guide casually drops the word "frostbite" into the conversation and when we alight, find ourselves on a vast expanse of windswept terrain. The wind is bitterly cold, the visibility poor and while we could've been on top of the world, it's of the inhospitable Mount Everest kind until we head down to the tree line where the light is better.
Here, Sunshine's great tree blue runs unfold, including Wawa Bowl and Tincan Alley. Other lovely wooded runs can be accessed by the Jackrabbit and Wolverine chairs and at the end of the day it's worthwhile taking the green run all the way back to the gondola base.
This is a great resort for experts. I have to confess to almost fainting with horror as our guide pointed out Delirium Dive (which I misheard as Delirium Die). I thought he was suggesting we ski there next. Picture unbelievably steep chutes with cliffs and rocks and possible death at every turn. This famous off-piste area requires avalanche gear, shovels and, possibly, a bring-your-own-coffin. Which reminds me, why is there an endless broadcast of hair-raising, death-defying videos on permanent loop whenever you're waiting for your rental equipment before heading out to the slopes?
Arguably the most picturesque of the three resorts is Lake Louise. One of its great advantages is that you can go up the same lift with skiers of differing skills and meet at the bottom. However, Lake Louise grooms its slopes frequently so there may not be as much powder as Sunshine. Off-mountain, the remarkable Fairmont Chateau on the banks of Lake Louise lives up to its reputation for offering one of the most beautiful aspects in the world - a mountain-framed slice of heaven.
If you hanker for a holiday where you stay directly on the slopes, it's worth thinking about Fernie, a rustic mining town of about 4500, in British Columbia. Fernie's a two-hour drive from Lake Louise. We arrive in the dark, check in to Lizard Creek Lodge and have the thrill of drawing back the curtains in the morning to see a magnificent vista at our front door. That's quickly followed by a sharp intake of breath at the sight of an incredibly steep mogul run that seems to dominate the mountain.
Fernie is the place to avail yourself of the services of Johnny Krasnay, who runs courses for skiers who want to explore the steepest and deepest parts of the resort. After a morning of his guidance, we feel emboldened, retrace our steps and re-ski beautiful places he's taken us to. We head up the Bear Express to ski Cedar Bowl.
Suddenly, before we know it, we are on the edge of a double-black run. Did I mention that in Canada many of the blue runs are closer to an Australian black run? Never mind, we survived.
Kate McClymont travelled courtesy of Tourism British Columbia, Travel Alberta and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada has a fare to Calgary from Sydney for about $1920, low-season return, including tax. Fly to Vancouver (about 14hr), then Calgary (1hr 20min). Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see aircanada.com.
The Rimrock Resort Hotel, Banff, has rooms from $C165 ($164) to $C345 a night. See rimrockresort.com.
Lizard Creek Lodge, Fernie, has rooms from $C255 a night. See lizardcreek.com.
For Fairmont Banff Springs hotel and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, see fairmont.com.
Ski and see from $999 a person, twin share, with four nights at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, three nights at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and a three-day ski pass, if booked by August 31 for travel January 1-31, 2013. Conditions apply. Or ski Fernie from $645 a person, twin share, with seven nights at the Griz Inn and six-day ski pass, if booked by August 31, for travel January 3 to February 7, 2013. Conditions apply. See skimax.com.au.