Banff, Alberta — Six years ago when I was here, the few skiers who were trying out the then recently winterized Banff Springs Hotel seemed in danger of being lost in the immense hostelry.
Today, you almost have to fight your way into the elevators. Skier business has been building until one can safely say it is booming from December well into late spring. Winter bookings are running at better than 90 percent of capacity. And the trade is not confined to this famous CP hotel but can be seen throughout the ski centers in this gorgeous niche of the Canadian Rockies.
Japanese skiers are everywhere. They represent some 20 percent of the winter business, althought the locals say their numbers have dropped slightly this year. California leads the parade with some 40 percent of the groups and individual skiers who pour in weekly. In close pursuit are skiers from upstate New York and Ontario, the Midwest (particularly around Chicago), and a small but growing number from Atlanta and the Deep South. A speedy breakfast buffet
Each frosty morning they can be seen climbing into buses and heading for one of the three major ski areas serving Banff with one common lift pass. (Earlier, several hundred skiers are served breakfast at the Banff Springs with surprising efficiency by means of a long buffet loaded with all-things-eatable-for-breakfast. Thirty minutes and you can be heading downstairs for your bus.)
Fourteen miles west of Banff lies Sunshine Village, a self-contained Alpine resort perched almost above timerline at 7,000 feet. Cars are forbidden at Sunshine. Buses carry skiers up the one-lane switchbacking access road, as ascending and descending drivers talk constantly to each other on two-way radios to make sure the way is clear. Next season, a new $8.5 million gondola will move everything -- people at 1,800 per hour and all freight -- up the three miles and 1,600 vertical feet.
Sunshine is primarily wide, open bowl skiing on pitches made for intermediates. By the time you reach the top of the Great Divide chairlift, you have crossed into British Columbia and back into Alberta again; but you're still less than 1,900 feet above the village. The vistas are spectacular and the snow of such quality and quantity that spring skiing lasts here until the Queen's Birthday, May 24. Powder soon gives way to corn snow on the sundrenched slopes.
New lifts planned
New lifts have expanded the variety and challenge of Sunshine's skiing considerably since I was last here. Next year, two more lifts from the new gondola's midstation will diversity the runs further and allow a long runout to the valley floor. More lifts are in the offing.
The current hotel accommodates 200, who frankly seem to be captives for the week. A ski-week package includes everything -- lifts, lessons, lodging, three meals a day, nightly entertainment, Molstar races, gratuities, hot tubs, saunas. Management does run a bus to the Banff hot springs for "bath night"; but once up in the Village, you are probably not going to move around a lot except on skis. This year's prices run around $380 for six nights. Next season, they will go as high as $450 for seven nights, eight days.
Lake Louise, 38 miles from Banff on the Banff-Jasper highway, boasts "more mountain than you can ski in a day." That comes to 3,200 vertical feet, 17 square miles of terrain on three faces of two mountains. In all, there are some 50 miles of downhill runs and three day lodges including an attractive new restaurant and lounge. On a busy weekend more than 4,000 skiers from Calgary and points beyond can be found on Louise's tree-lined runs and powder bowls. A sense of wandering
The area vies with Whistle Mountain in British columbia as Canada's biggest. The relatively new summit (8,650 feet) T-bar has given Louise the height, length , variety, and challenge a major destination resort should have. A wonderful sense of wandering is easy to come by here. You can feel as if you are miles from where you started, even when you're not.
Six years ago, controversy swirled around Imperial Oil's plans to build a major destination village on the mountain. That plan eventually was killed, but a more modest 1,600-bed "visitors' center" on the valley floor has just been proposed by the federal government.
A new hotel and hostel are also planned, and the famous Chateau Lake Louise is to reopen for winter business either next season or the following. These are in addition to th present three hotels, plus, of course, the many inns and lodges of Banff. Regular bus service connects the two resorts. Some 35 restaurants in town
Banff itself features a vintage ski area rising sharply some 2,400 vertical feel only five kilometers outside of town. Mr. Norquay is popular for those who want some pleasant convenient skiing as well as for those who want to test themselves against some of the steepest runs in North America.
Downtown Banff has some 35 restaurants running the gamut from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Ticino's, where reservations are advised. There are some nice places to go, but the night life would not appear to threaten Aspen of Vail.
Some 180 miles to the north over one of the continent's most scenic mountain highways lies Jasper, surrounded in its close-packed forest of graceful lodgepole pine. The skiing here is 15 miles away at Marmot Basin. Marmot features 2,300 vertical feet of alpine bowls and trail skiing, with powder snow lasting well into Mary and even June. The town is charming, and the newer hotels and condominiums with the saunas and indoor pools well clustered. Two days of skiing, however, and most people are ready to move on. To help them do so, there are packages with rental cars and plans for ski-weeker air service between Edmonton and Jasper with bus service linking Jasper and Banff. Cross-country, too
Cross-country skiing as well as high country alpine touring is available throughout the parks. And the helicopter skiing in the nearby mountains of British Columbia attracts the world's best powder skiers.
The two air gateways -- Edmonton for Jasper and Calgary for Banff -- are served by Air Canada, Cp Air, Western, Hughes Air West, Northwest Orient, and Pacific Western. As an example of costs, Air Canada's Skifari one-week land packages range in price from $98 to $335 (Canadia dollars). With current exchange rates, Americans can figure Canadian vacation costs at about 80 cents on the dollar.