Wednesday, 12 Dec 2018

A family trades sand for powder on a spring break in the Canadian Rockies

Silas, from left, Jeff and Henry Walker get ready for tubing at Mount Norquay in western Alberta. (Rachel Walker / The Washington Post)

"Follow me."

I'm trying. But with torched quads trying to stay on top of the skies floating through fluffy powder, it's harder than it sounds. In front of me, Jasper Johnson, in Banff local, go on the slope at Lake Louise Ski Resort. We weave through the trees at high speeds, laying the first tracks in last night's snowfall. When the pitch flattens out, my heart is racing, my cheeks are cold and falling snow has already erased the tracks I just left.

It's spring break in the Canadian Rockies. The kids are at ski school, and my husband and I chase Jasper around Lake Louise with punch-drunk giddiness. Since our arrival seven days before, we've been on the receiving end of both sun and storms.

If there are not enough to fulfill our fantasies, there's the destination itself, which trends towards fairy-tale land. Here in western Alberta, towering peaks with rugged glaciers ring the glorious Bow River Valley. Nestled next to the lakes, the legacies of this region's turn-of-the-20th-century railroad. With the stunning landscape of our psyches, we feel like exploring in Banff National Park, overwhelmed by its magic. As Jasper said, "Here you get the million-dollar views without the million-dollar homes crowding everyone out."

He's right. Even though we have our pick of three ski resorts, Banff National Park, which means only ski-in, Sunshine Mountain Lodge, is a mountaintop hotel and a gondola . For the rest of our trip, we will be staying at the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise, and we are looking forward to more than just skiing.

The TeePee Town Chair at Banff Sunshine is Canada's only heated lift, a nice perk when the temperatures drop. (Rachel Walker / The Washington Post)

In Banff, that translates mostly into eating. Balkan, a Greek restaurant on the main drag, entrances my children with its flaming cheese (saganaki), and hooked me with marinated, slow-cooked lamb. Unfortunately we are not there on a Sunday night.

Another night, we ride the Banff Gondola up Sulfur Mountain to 7,510 feet in the sky for a memorable meal at Sky Bistro, a modern spot with floor-to-ceiling windows. Before dinner, we brave stiff winds for the 15-minute walk along Banff Skywalk, which offers unparalleled views of the Bow Valley. Then the restaurant's ocean-to-sky seafood chowder, a light yet robust offering of clams, salmon, prawns, tobiko (roe) and bacon, warms us up. The bison steaks are tender and flavorful, and the dessert is edible art. This sweet creation resembling a Japanese garden (and, in fact, dubbed the Nanaimo Garden) is served in a glass globe and consists of crumbled cookie and coconut, buttery custard and chocolate shards.

Fortunately we spend the bulk of our days outside and moving. At Banff Sunshine, a gondola from the parking lot whisks skiers and snowboarders to high alpine terrain. Of Banff Sunshine's three mountains, my family and I stick to Standish and Lookout for the mix of intermediate and advanced terrain that's ideal for our kids. They love the TeePee Town Luxury Quad Chairlift Express, which has heated seats and an orange bubble we lower to protect us from the cold. My husband and I trade off duty so we can explore the exhilarating steep bowls, at far skier's left, of Lookout. (We save the most extreme terrain, Delirium Dive on Goat 's Eye Mountain, the weather is so thin and the cliff drops are reportedly huge.

At Mount Norquay, we find a down-to-earth locals' hill that packs a punch. It's steep. Its views are even better than those of Sulfur Mountain. The resort's North American, has a double-grip fixed-grip reminiscent of the early days of the sport, slowly rising 1,300 vertical feet. From the top, we bomb down a steep bump run before heading to the other side of the mountain and testing our edges on Norquay's precipitous groomed runs.

We meet up with the boys. To our delight, they have navigated the same terrain with their ski school instructors. The four of us decided to spend the afternoon on the tubing hill. This is not really a break from Mount Norquay's trademark challenge. Just as the slopes are so exhilarating, so are the tubing lanes. Once the staff gets a feel for us, the men and women at the top of the tubing park gladly add a touch of whirling dervish to our descent, and we ve down into a blur. Personally, I prefer the skiing, but my kids insist that tubing reigns supreme.

At 4,200 acres, Lake Louise is the largest of the "Big Ski 3" resorts. The skiing here is phenomenal, but it does not stop me taking a break for a guided snowshoe tour. My interest is twofold: to get a sense of the backcountry land and to absorb this stunning landscape at a slower pace. My guide, Lydia, delivers. She works for Parks Canada year-round as a naturalist, and her affinity for this landscape is matched by her. She holds forth on grizzly bears and wolves, larch trees and smaller plants, a pristine ridge.

Every night we want to fall in love with our beds, but we are so interesting, we do not immediately hit the sack. It would be impossible to pick a favorite from us. At the Banff Springs, we discover myriad dark-wood-paneled nooks and intimate gathering spaces. My husband and I gravitated to the Ramsay Lounge for a pre-dinner cocktail where we can keep an eye on the boys playing in the open-air lounge below. We bowl at the hotel's alley and play in the expansive indoor-outdoor pool every evening.

The thrill of Sunshine Mountain Lodge begins with the gondola ride up to the hotel, but extends to the intimacy of being among the few people at the resort after the lifts stop. This hotel is one of the most beautiful hot tubs I've experienced. It's also next to Mad Smokehouse Trappers, a stand-alone restaurant established in 1928. With rough-hewed logs and Coors Light on tap, Trapper's feels like a classic ski town bar – the kind that makes a person wish walls could really talk.

At Chateau Lake Louise, our room looks over the eponymous lake and the glaciated mountains beyond. We watch ice skaters twirl and play hockey and horse-drawn carriages circle the lake, then we explore the castle of a hotel for hours. The two major highlights are melted at the Walliser Stube and people-watching from a couch while we're in the cocoa and nibble on the antipasto board as a vivacious wedding party.

When it's time to leave, we are not ready. In the airport, we buy Canadian money. They swap stories, and I have a heart-lurching thought: I hope they do this together for the rest of their lives. I want to be a long time ago, I hope Henry and Silas take to the mountains in the winter – together with families of their own – and that they explore new slopes and find cozy taverns and toast us and their memories of trips like this one.

Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.

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