Making the drive from Calgary to Lake Louise, you want to bring along a good co-pilot. Otherwise, you're liable find yourself snapping photos from behind the wheel, which might lead to a close encounter with a caribou.
Situated in the heart of Alberta's Banff National Park, Lake Louise is best known for its 4,200 acres of big-mountain terrain and jaw-dropping scenery. It's one of the only resorts in the world located within a national park, and its proximity to Calgary is similar to that of Denver to Vail.
Getting there from Colorado is a breeze: about two hours by way of puddle jumper with flights several times per day into Calgary. Then it's just a quick drive up the world-renowned Powder Highway to the mountain town of Banff - a funky little town with a vibe similar to Aspen or Telluride.
Upon our arrival in Banff, we discovered our generous host at the bureau of tourism had, at the last minute, upgraded our stay to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. So we grabbed a burger in town and boogied it up the road another 40 minutes to perhaps the world's most beautiful mountain hotel.
With impeccable hospitality and a friendly staff that anticipates your needs (often before you do), a stay at the Chateau is an experience to check off the bucket list. As we approached the hotel, we got the sense that maybe we had been knocked on the head and dropped into a fairytale.
The pristine grounds that overlook Louise (the lake from which the town and ski area derive their names) and hotel lobbies were completely decked out for Christmas during our early-December visit, which also happened to correspond with women's World Cup races.
Strolling around the Chateau is an activity unto itself; however, there was much snow to be had in Alberta this December, so it was a strict regimen of gourmet hors d'oeuvres (enough to call dinner) and nightcap of Johnny Blue before bed.
With 3,240 vertical feet of both raw and manicured terrain, the resort might be best known as the site of Canada's only men's and women's World Cup downhills. But beyond the speed course, Louise offers big-mountain lines for serious skiers - make no mistake about it.
From the base area, there are two primary options for accessing the mountain. The Grizzly Express Gondola is the fastest, most direct route to the top, but the best way to crack into expert terrain is by way of the triple-combo ride: Take the Glacier Express quad directly to the Top of the World six-pack chair. Then, it's just a fun, quick traverse over to the Summit Platter (poma lift), which is the locals' route for snagging steep powder-day lines on both the front and back sides of the resort.
With views of Mount Temple, the highest mountain in the Lake Louise area, and the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the scenery from the ski hill is about as dramatic as anything imaginable from a commercial resort. Be aware of other skiers on the mountain who might be looking left, right, up - anywhere but the direction they're skiing.
One of the best ways to see Lake Louise is from a helicopter. An hourlong ride runs about $2,500, so it might not be the most realistic option for most visitors. But take our word for it: There are nine bowls (or bowl-like zones) amounting to 2,500 skiable acres on the backside of Lake Louise, and some of the best terrain can be found on the outskirts of the map.
The bowls are big and wide open, like Vail's but with a pitch that can support a two-foot dump. So the terrain is steep, and there are places you should drop in and places you probably shouldn't. Along the top of the bowls, skiers will encounter dozens of bare, wooden posts - that's where you drop in.
There is no signage on any of these posts because the resort doesn't want to encourage the masses into areas they shouldn't be skiing, and the presence of a post does not necessarily indicate an abundance of snow. That said, for expert skiers looking for terrain through cliffs and chutes, the posts mark the spots (but scout your line from the chairlift first).
Lake Louise is one of the most elegant destinations in Canada. The World Cup is a great time to visit, with the obvious spectacle of the races, which take place the last week in November for the men and first week in December (Birds of Prey week) for the ladies. The town is also appropriately Christmased-out, which adds to the charm.
Like anywhere in the world, the skiing is hit or miss during those dates. Two years ago, there wasn't much snow, and folks spent most of their time eating and watching the races. This year, it was the most expansive and complete early season skiing our crew has ever experienced: The whole mountain was open; some of the steeper mountaintops weren't quite ready, and you needed to be prepared to hit a rock or two. But for early December, it was pretty unbeatable.
If skiing is your primary concern, you'll want to visit during the peak months of January, February or March, not surprisingly. The rocks and gnarlier lines should be filled in by then. However, the spring is also prime time for a visit to Alberta. The ski area stays open a full six months, usually through the last week of April. Being so far north, they get ample daylight - we overheard talk of 10 p.m. sunset runs for closing week.
The Chateau is definitely the place to stay if you've never been. Rooms start in the mid-$200 range, but it's one of those hotels you should probably visit at least once in a lifetime.
If you're looking for a bit more privacy and seclusion, the Post Hotel and Spa is equally elegant but with a low-key atmosphere. Professional athletes, dignitaries and high-profile business people frequent the historic mountain lodge. (We ran into a couple of famous ski racers enjoying a glass of wine at the luxurious cigar bar.)
Strolling through the wine cellar at the Post is an impressive sight. With an inventory of more than 25,500 bottles, the lodge houses some of the finest wines from all over the world, valued at upwards of $35,000 per bottle and amounting to one of the most comprehensive collections in Canada. Like the Chateau, it's worth a visit, even if you're not planning to sleep there.
The Deer Lodge, located on the right as you approach the Chateau, is another great option for a more private getaway. The rooftop hot tub boasts views of Mount Temple, and the dinning room serves up authentic Canadian wild game.
Forget the mixed-greens salad, and start your dining experience off with a true Canadian appetizer: the Rocky Mountain charcuterie platter. Smoked air-dried buffalo, prosciutto, pepper duck breast, game pate, Sylvan Star gouda, elk salami, mustard melons and cranberry relish - put it all together for a unique assortment of the area's most delicious wild treats, for two.
There are a few other great ski areas located along Alberta's Ski Highway, but after a couple of days in Lake Louise, you may never want to leave.
Geoff Mintz is the sports editor at the Summit Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.