Extra enjoyment at Banff at expense of Canadian dollar

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Skiing -- certainly skiing in the Canadian Rockies -- offers up some of the world's best mornings.

You are among the first to the mountain's top. It might be Lake Louise, Sunshine Village or Banff Mt. Norquay. Mountain peaks spread out in every direction, a wind-torn sea of striated blue and white to the horizon.

Your fingers still feel numb from the lift ride up. But the sun, pale and yellow, warms your face. From beneath your skis -- and this is the best -- you can hear the squeak-squeaking of dry snow.

Trust me. In that sunshine moment no one is richer or is living better than you -- no king, no sultan, no Hollywood mogul.

Mornings in the Canadian Rockies are particularly wonderful because the mountains are more spectacular than almost anywhere else in North America.

I do not give this praise lightly. I am a former Coloradan, so you know this is a very big admission.

To me, Canada's Rockies look like a small child drew them with a crayon in one fist. The mountains all have sharp, pointy peaks with lots of white Crayola snow and v-shaped valleys. These are the mountains of our most theatrical imagination, the way mountains should look.

For downhill skiers and snowboarders, these Rockies of the north and the collection of three ski areas near the town of Banff are Never-Never Land, Oz and an Alberto Tomba fantasy all rolled into one.

What's more, it's cheap. The Canadian dollar now sits at about $1.50 U.S. For Americans, a week here can cost less than a hotel room in places like Aspen or Vail.

Think of this: A one-day lift fee at Lake Louise is $32.75. This single resort has skiable acreage equal to the combined size of Aspen's Aspen Mountain, Highlands and Snowmass. The lift fee for any one of these Aspen areas is $62.

With a package through SkiCan of Toronto, Detroiters can spend a week at Banff for $755. That includes airfare, lift fees for five days, hotel for seven nights and transfers. That works out to about $108 a day. Just try to find a $108 hotel room in Aspen.

"At Banff, all the ski venues are beautiful. This is the equal of any place that I've been to," says Frank Marriott, 53, of Daytona, Fla., who came on a ski group package last March. The Canadians are courteous to a fault," he continues. "And the U.S. dollar goes a long, long way."

Frankly, the town of Banff, which is about an hour and a half drive west of Calgary in the midst of Banff National Park, does not have Aspen's celebrity-fueled glamour or Vail's nouveau-riche glitz.

I'll admit that.

Banff has remained a nifty little mountain town. It boasts enough restaurants to give you first-rate meals in a different place every night for a full week, lots of shops to buy native art and other Canadian stuff, nearby hot springs to steam away those aching quads and a smattering of night-time entertainment.

And don't expect it to change much. With national park lands on every side, this small town will remain small. And that, to my mind, is to a good thing.

I particularly like seeing elk wander in from the woodlands to nibble on hotel lawns and gawk at the visiting tourists.

Yes, it is possible to stay at a lodge right on the slopes at Sunshine Village or at Lake Louise village within minutes of the ski hill. But I think a hotel in Banff is preferable since it puts you in walking distance of a good number and variety of shops, restaurants and entertainment.

When it comes to eating, Banff offers a huge variety. In addition to Canadian cuisine (which I can hardly tell from American cuisine, except that it can be a bit gamier), you can also get French, Chinese, Japanese (Banff is a big destination for Japanese skiers), Greek, Italian, Southwestern, Mediterranean, Korean and on and on.

Beyond skiing and snowboarding at the three resorts, the Banff area offers a whole lot more -- ice skating, cross-country skiing (with easy routes around town and more demanding ones in the backcountry), helicopter skiing, fly fishing, dog sled tours, guided walks, sleigh rides, ceramic painting and so on.

Lake Louise, about a 45-minute drive from Banff, is simply a huge resort with 4,200 acres sprawled over two mountains. Louise is the biggest ski area in Canada, if you count British Columbia's Whistler and Blackcomb as two separate mountains. In terms of U.S. resorts, it is about four times the size of Utah's Deer Valley -- and one-third larger than Aspen's Snowmass.

And this does not count a great deal of out-of-bounds skiing, which has become increasingly popular. You could easily spend a week at Lake Louise and still find new runs on the last day. You can actually ski 5 miles on a single run.

This season, Louise boasts a new four-person or quad lift from the base lodge, which will further speed skiers to the slopes in the morning. The area guarantees that you will have a lift line of no longer than 10 minutes, or you get a free lift ticket.

Also new this year is a so-called super pipe, a big deal for the hottest of the snowboarders. Instead of 12 feet across, it's 17. And the walls can be as high as 18 or 20 feet -- definitely not for the timid or inexperienced. Its snowboard park, the Jungle, is the largest in North America, with a vertical drop of 1,905 feet.

Also, Lake Louise opened a day lodge in 1998 with western Canada's largest stone fireplace, plus cafeteria, lounge, store, rental shop and so on.

The area has a vertical drop of 3,365 feet with 25 percent of its runs for novices, 45 percent for intermediates and 30 percent for experts.

For those headed to Louise for the first time, here are some of the best runs: For beginners, every lift has at least one easy or green run; intermediate cruisers will like Larch, which is big, wide and has roll, Cameron's Way and Meadow Lark, when it is groomed. Bump skiers will like the moguls on Paradise Bowl (locals call it Comedy Bowl). The very steep black diamond and double black diamond runs for advanced skiers are White Horn Too, the Gullies, which are lettered A-G, and some very steep stuff in the back bowls off the Summit Platter lift such as the Diamond Mine, Swede's, East Bowl, Crowl Bowl and Soul Bowl. Lift fees this season are $32.75 for adults, $27.90 for ages 13-18 and over 65, and $9.75 for ages 6-12.

Lake Louise, as far as I can tell -- and I've been there half a dozen times over the last 15 years -- has only a few negatives.

It does not get as much natural snow as nearby Sunshine Village, which is often viewed as Lake Louise's little brother, but every year it adds snow-making capacity, and this season it was Canada's first area to open.

Winds up on top can be ferocious, 50 m.p.h. or higher, sending the Summit Platter lift to flying horizontally. Also the back bowls, which get little sun, are often subject to flat light -- making it hard to see the bumps.

Also nearby, is Banff Mt. Norquay, the forgotten resort. Too small, they think. Only 162 acres and 25 runs. Surely there's not enough runs to ski for a full day. Or too tough -- the mogul runs facing the highway look like a vertical parking lot for Volkswagens.

Frankly, I thought the same. I've skied in the Banff area six or eight times and never went to Norquay. Last March, I decided to ski there only out of a sense that I'd better do a complete job of reporting.

Frankly, I liked it. It's certainly worth a day's skiing.

In mid-week, I did not wait in one lift line. People were friendly. And Cascade Lodge at the base is just a hugely convivial place to hang out. And I am told that the real hot-shot snowboarders among the locals hit Norquay every Friday evening to ride the half-pipe and generally show off. The area is open, under the lights, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays.

Yes, Norquay's front is steep. Black diamond runs and double blacks will steal your breath faster than the 7,000-foot elevation at the top. If you've got spring-steel knees, this is your place.

At one time, Norquay's famous North American Run (way to the left on the mountain) was the longest, steepest pitch on the continent.

But don't despair if your Gen-X card has been revoked or you don't carve turns like Alberto. In recent years, Norquay has added intermediate and beginner trails. You find them as you follow Mystic Ridge, working your way around the mountain to the right.

The breakdown for terrain is 20 percent for beginners, 36 percent for intermediates, 28 percent for advanced skiers and 16 percent for experts. Daily lift fees are $27.25 for adults, $22 for seniors age 55 and older, ages 13 to 17 and students with an ID up to age 24; and $9.75 for ages 6-12.

The downside, in addition to the ones we mentioned, is that Norquay does not get a lot of snow -- 10 feet a year, less than a third of what falls on Sunshine. So you often must ski on grainy, man-made stuff.

The other disadvantage is when you get back home, tell friends that you skied at Norquay and they say, "Where?"


IF YOU GO TO BANFF

GETTING THERE: You must fly into Calgary and rent a car or, in the case of package tours, get on the bus. The drive is about an hour and a half west. Airlines serving Calgary International include Air Canada, British Airways, Continental, Horizon, Northwest, United and WestJet.

CLOTHES: Ski clothes and casual wear.

WHEN: While average temperatures in January can be in the 20s, you can expect it to be very, very cold. So cold that you will not want to go skiing. On the upside, the skies tend to be clear and brilliantly blue. If you like warmer temperatures, try February or March, or even later at Sunshine Village.

EXCHANGE: $1 U.S. equals about $1.50 Canadian. ATMs are everywhere and will give you a decent exchange rate.

WHAT'S IN A NAME: Banff is named after Banffshire, Scotland, the birthplace of two major financiers of the Canadian National Railway. Lake Louise was named after Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise in 1884. The local Stoney Indians called it "the lake of little fishes."

Lake Louise: Call 800-258-7669 or go to www.skilouise.com.

Sunshine Village and Banff Central Reservations: Call 877-542-2633 or go to www.skibanff.com.

Banff Mt. Norquay: Call 403-762-4421.

Banff National Park: Call 403-762-1550.

SkiCan Ltd., Toronto: For some very fine ski packages, call 888-475-4226, 9-9 Mon.-Thu., 9-5 Fri. and Sat.

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