Travel review: Canada - Rookies in the Rockies
Superb scenery, enchanting wildlife and a variety of runs attract Chris Wiltshire to the snowy ski peaks of Jasper National Park in Alberta.
All the old feelings of nervous excitement from my one and only parachute jump come flooding back as I look down from the top of the Canadian Rockies. I thought my days of living on the edge were over, but 25 years on from launching myself out of a plane, I prepare to career down Marmot Basin in the heart of the majestic Jasper National Park, Alberta.
This time, however, I’m three times higher at more than 6,400ft and I have my son, James, alongside me on his first skiing holiday. At the time of my trip, I’m also sharing a rather big birthday – both Marmot Basin and I are 50. And, it has to be said, the old beauty is weathering better than me.
It’s hard not to simply stand and stare at the thousands of miles of snow-capped pristine perfection. However, ski instructor Stephane Williams quickly brings me back to my senses and the three of us are off, gliding down the wide, open expanses with my heart pounding. James is proving a natural, carving through the pine trees like a seasoned pro, despite having only a few hours’ practice.
Marmot Basin may not carry the same glamorous appeal of its more famous Banff and Whistler cousins, but the natural beauty of the place and lack of commercial trappings are part of the reason why almost two-thirds of British skiers are repeat customers here.
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All the skiing starts and ends next to the nursery slopes, making it an ideal place for families. It’s also possible to come down from the summit via a variety of runs, from the easier greens to the nausea-inducing double black diamond runs, so families of mixed abilities can go up on the high-speed quad lifts together, choose one of the 86 slopes to travel down and then meet up at the bottom.
Brian Rode, one of the chefs at the resort, has seen many changes since arriving “just for one season” a mere 36 years ago, and loves the variety of skiing on offer, especially after a £30m facelift five years ago that brought an impressive set of new high-speed lifts. Like many here, he was instantly smitten with the place and now, at 54, loves nothing more than taking his young daughter on to the slopes to savour the idyllic conditions – especially after a heavy snowfall has dropped some of the “Champagne powder”.
Most skiers stay in Jasper, a quaint, friendly town 20 minutes from the slopes. It is, in fact, virtually the only place to lay one’s head in a national park the size of Holland. Jasper is reputed to have half the visitors of Banff but with four times the wildlife, and I can see what they mean. From our base at the renowned Fairmont Lodge, where the Queen and Prince Philip stayed in 2005, we see elk, coyote, big-horned sheep, stags and the friendliest red squirrels you could wish to meet.
During the summer months, black bears roam around the town, attracted by the smell of sausages on barbecues, and there are also said to be around 1,000 grizzlies in the park, as well as wolf packs. However, attacks on humans are extremely rare.
The wildlife is fiercely protected, with penalties for hunting severe, so we have to head west into British Colombia – an hour-and-a-half drive and one time zone away – to experience that iconic pastime of winter sports, dog-sledding.
Any opportunity to travel through the jaw-dropping scenery along Yellowhead Pass should be snaffled up. Our time passes by in a flash, even with a short stop to take in the beauty of Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Rockies, which looks resplendent in all its snow-capped glory.
Sundog Tours guide Kevin Hasson regales us with tales of how the region was once more like the Wild West than a sleepy backwater, with regular cowboy shoot-outs in the lawless towns.
It’s fitting that our dog-sled trip should be called Moonshiners of Whiskey Creek, although the closest we get to a shot of the hard stuff is a warming cup of apple cider over an open campfire. Our excitable pack of six huskies sweep us deep into the heart of the spectacular Valemount countryside, with snow-laden fir trees and steep-sided mountains making it a veritable winter wonderland.
It’s another first for James and he relishes the experience, while I’m happy to bury myself in the sled’s sleeping bag as temperatures dip to a toe-curling -30C.
Fortunately, it isn’t quite so cold for another of our adventures with Sundog, the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk Tour. Every winter, the fast-flowing rivers of the Maligne Valley, a short distance from Jasper town centre, quickly freeze over to leave beautiful ice formations, frozen waterfalls and ice caves.
Guide Joan Dillon leads our group of heavily wrapped-up visitors along the two-mile valley – the deepest accessible canyon in the national park – and explains the causes of the rugged karst topography and the effects of glacial erosion. It’s something of a palaeontologist’s paradise, with fossils showing evidence of life that existed billions of years ago, when the area was covered by ocean. We stand in wonder as climbers ascend the vertical frozen rock faces, armed with small pick axes and heavily-spiked boots.
By the end, we have worked up quite an appetite, although back in Jasper we are rather spoilt for choice. We have already sampled the delights of Papa George’s and Lou Lou’s Pizzeria, not to mention the fabulous breakfast at Fairmont Lodge, with its stunning views of Mount Edith Cavell and Whistler Mountain, so we make our way to the Jasper Brewing Company.
It turns out to be one of the best decisions of the holiday, with delicious beer-battered fish and chips washed down by heavenly ales that have been brewed in the pub’s basement, from Honey Bear Ale to Blueberry Vanilla Ale.
After all the fresh air and exercise, I sleep like the proverbial log that night – and dream of returning with the rest of the Wiltshire clan to this heavenly part of the world.
• Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Travel Alberta. Visit www.travelalberta.co.uk for information on the destination.
Ski Independence (0131 516 4005, www.ski-i.com) offers seven-night holidays to Jasper from £1,197pp (two sharing), including flights from London to Edmonton, car hire and accommodation at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.