Enjoying scenery and lots of cocoa

The year I first experienced the Canadian Rockies, one of those "This is your captain speaking" announcements came from the cockpit of the aircraft as we were about to land in Calgary. It informed the passengers that the temperature down on the ground was roughly equivalent to that found in your average home freezer.

I would be told any number of times, once we touched down, that this was the coldest winter in 30 years.

Never let it be said that this intrepid traveller doesn't know how to make an entrance.

Off on a cold adventure

When I landed – and taught myself how to breathe in a kind of atmosphere that seared your lungs as you inhaled – I made my way to the waiting bus of the Banff Airporter shuttle service operating between the Calgary International Airport and Banff.

Very quickly we left the city and the mucky gray snow on its roads, and were among snow-covered firs in a magnificent forest, climbing toward peaks capped in blinding white.

Long before we passed the gates to the Banff National Park, I was in love with the place.

I was there to ski in the Rockies – and for this, without a doubt, Banff is probably one of the best-known and most-renowned sites on the planet. With three world-class ski areas within a short shuttle hop, the skier is almost spoiled for choice.

The closest, Mount Norquay (which the locals pronounce Nor-kwai, as in "The Bridge on the River Kwai"), may be a little daunting to the beginner, with its focus on more advanced runs.

It also boasts the idiosyncrasy of having a "blue" (intermediate) section inserted neatly in between two "green" (bunny slope) runs, so that the psychological effect on the green skiers is to fall over like skittles as soon as they hit the "blue" section – because, they think, being beginners, naturally they cannot do this harder stuff.

When I was there, this usually meant that the section was littered by fallen beginners, most of whom could not get up without help, waving their arms and legs in the air like overturned turtles.

Surprise triumph on the ski slopes

But this sneaky blue run was one of my proudest moments. I was caught alone on the top of the slope while the rest of my ski class (all fellow skittles on the blue stretch on at least two previous occasions) was riding the ski lift or down at the bottom of the slope.

So I made the decision to ski it on my own. This was the subject of some internal debate – Wait for my classmates? Go solo? – but I was uncomfortably aware that if I did wait, I would be faced with negotiating the usual obstacle course of fallen skiers, and I would probably fall, too, as had happened before.

I was a rank beginner, my efforts so far not distinguished by either precision or speed, but on this occasion, almost alone on the slope and to my own utter astonishment and delight, I did the run with such easy and unusually accomplished grace that I didn't come down from the high for days.

My ski instructor, a wiry Frenchman from Quebec, happened to be in the chairlift as I streaked down the pristine slope below him. From his perch, I could hear him enthusiastically yelling, "Magnifique! Magnifique!"

For that alone, I treasure the memory of skiing in Banff.

Lake Louise, with a number of runs more accommodating to the beginner, is a short drive away, and frequent shuttles operate to most hotels.

But snow isn't its only attraction. Lunch at Cháteau Lake Louise, with a dining room whose windows open up to a glacial lake surrounded by magnificent mountains provides a view spectacular enough to make you stop chewing from sheer awe.

It's a must for any visitor to this part of the world.

The area's third ski area, Sunshine Village, is also the highest, with a cable car ferrying skiers from base camp (itself at more than 2,000 meters) to the upper camp with its ski lodge and access to ski runs.

It's higher and drier, and provides more powder-skiing experience than the other two areas.

But it can also be ferociously hard on those unused to the altitude combined with the thin, dry, cold air.

This was a whole different ballgame from learning to breathe down below in Banff, and it necessitated frequent thawing trips into heated lodges. I drank a lot of hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate is the beverage of choice in any Canadian Rocky Mountain winter. On Cougar Street, just behind the main thoroughfare of Banff Avenue, a family restaurant that I discovered almost by accident served delicious thick soups and lovely crisp bread. But the reason I stuck with it, going back again and again, was the magnificent hot chocolate served with a marshmallow melting in the mug. It's the ultimate antidote to the cold.

So is opulence.

A visit to the world-famous Banff Springs Hotel, modeled on a Scottish baronial castle and opened in 1888, is a must.

Experiencing elegance

The castle turrets glimpsed through the firs as one drives up toward it are breathtaking enough – but the inside is even more astonishing. At least two floors of the lower levels of the hotel are devoted to an in-house shopping mall, much of it in the "if you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can't afford it" range.

Taking the elevator out of this emporial mecca is far less fun than climbing one of a number of sweeping staircases. You'll find that many of these lead out into unexpected balconies overlooking small private dining rooms.

Looking down from these balconies, it's often possible to watch high-society weddings in progress. (I observed one where the bride, groom and all the guests were in full medieval panoply.)

In summer months the hotel boasts a 27-hole golf course on the magnificent grounds; in winter, of course, it's a jumping-off point for the ultimate ski adventure.

The hotel offers both summer and winter "Castle Packages" – with rates ranging from $500 to more than $1,000 a night (that works out to roughly between $328 and $656 a night in US dollars).It may be pricey, but it isn't the sort of thing you can get in many other places.

And it certainly fits in with one of the humorous explanations of the Banff's unusual name that I heard when I arrived: Be Aware Nothing's For Free.

This is, after all, the heart of a national park – Canada's top tourist attraction – a town that makes most of its living through tourism, and the prices you pay reflect this.

But how do you put a price on magic?

Once winter is over

There are annual arts festivals put on by the Banff Centre in July and August, with summer events ranging from Shakespeare in the Park to contemporary literature lectures, from aboriginal dance to Balanchine.

There are summer hikes and winter skiing experiences, in scenery that's more than magnificent in any season. You can go dog-sledding, bicycling, or merely revel in the view through floor-to-ceiling windows. You may choose to enjoy lemonade and ice-cold mountain springs on a hot summer day or hot chocolate and fireplaces when temperatures plunge.

Pick a time, pick a season, and Banff will rise to the occasion.

My farewell to the city was the night I hired skates from the Banff Springs Hotel and made my careful way down iced-over steps to a natural pond set in the surrounding park. The firs around the frozen pond were wrapped in twinkling fairy lights. The only other light was that provided by a low, golden full moon hanging in a winter sky of uncanny clarity and brightness.

I skated for an hour, by myself, rapt in the enchantment of this rough natural ice and the silence of the winter woods.

Then I made my way back up the stairs and into a cafe, and ordered a mug of hot chocolate.

• For more information, see these websites: www.banffview.com, www.discoverbanff.com, and www.banfflakelouise.com. Or call the Banff-Lake Louise Tourism Bureau at (403) 762-8421.

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