BANFF, Canada—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.