From hot springs to cool walks, beautiful Banff should be at the top of your winter vacation list (if you don’t mind freezing cold weather and lots of snow, that is).
There’s just something about driving into the heart of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains that brings to mind early settlers exploring an untamed land. Aside from the topflight ski options in the Banff/Lake Louise region, other classic winter pursuits include canyon ice walks, dogsledding and skating figure eights. This getaway is all about classic Canadiana.
Stay in a castle
The Fairmont Banff Springs was styled after a Scottish baronial castle over a century ago and it’s still a stunner, full of warming restaurants, newly renovated rooms, teatime and stellar wine lists. After a day of activity, head to the Olympic-size outdoor pool that overlooks the treetops as it billows steam into the alpine air. “This is the life,” I announce amid swirls of wintry blue air. Too relaxed to speak, my warm-water cohorts mumble in agreement as fat snowflakes fall all around us. fairmont.com/banff-springs
Hike beside a frozen waterfall
In summer, Banff National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) offers breathtaking wilderness and so many opportunities to explore — and it’s even more beautiful when winter rolls around. The Johnston Canyon Icewalk cuts a 3.4-mile swath through snow-encrusted spruce trees and frozen falls. Slap on your (provided) ice cleats, stop for hot chocolate at the upper falls (you may even spot climbers scaling the frozen columns) and enjoy one of the most remarkable walks of your life. banfftours.com/activities/johnston-canyon
Take a gondola to lunch
Just because you don’t ski, hike or snowshoe doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the glorious peaks of Banff. The Banff Gondola whisks you to the top of Sulphur Mountain in the heart of the Rockies, where you can hit the rooftop observation deck and take in six glorious mountain ranges (especially spectacular at sunset), tuck into a gourmet burger with a view at Sky Bistro and walk the boardwalk for grand vistas. On Fridays and Saturdays from November to March, they even have stargazing nights at the summit with telescopes and interpreters. banffjaspercollection.com/attractions/banff-gondola
Dine like a rancher
What Texas is to beef in America, Alberta is to beef in Canada. Surrounded by rough-hewn beams and weathered wood floors, we slide into a leather booth at Chuck’s Steakhouse and are immediately greeted by a waiter with a big smile, an even bigger belt buckle and more beef knowledge than you can cram into the restaurant’s dry-aging case. He also points out that the extended family of cowboy hat wearers beside us owns one of the ranches that supplies the restaurant’s beef. Whether it’s Brant Lake Wagyu, Benchmark Angus or Top Grass Cattle Company for free-range, grass-fed steaks, this is the classic steakhouse experience you want in Banff. chuckssteakhouse.ca
Drink glacier rye
For après-ski merriment, head into town and park yourself at the bar at Park Distillery. About five years ago, changes to Alberta’s distilling laws meant that there was no longer a minimum production requirement for distilleries. This launched a mini craft distillery boom. From its small-batch glacier-to-glass Park Alpine Dry Gin (there are local spruce tips in there) to Park Glacier Rye (made from 100 percent Alberta Rye), Park Distillery is one of the best. Potent flights and distillery tours are also available. parkdistillery.com