With winter on everyone’s minds, local ski resorts are luring families with great deals, new facilities and diverse activities this season. The light, fluffy champagne powder, which douses the Rockies in Alberta and eastern BC, attracts international visitors from thousands of miles away each ski season. But it’s Calgary’s back yard, so pack up the SUV or hop on the ski bus and take advantage of the frosty family fun on our doorstep.
Many new parents - and, indeed, newbies to Calgary - assume skiing is just for carefree singles, empty-nesters or international jetsetters, and are unaware of both the practicalities and affordability of skiing as a family. Yana Doyle, a Calgary physical therapist, has been skiing with hubby and three kids for the past 10 years or so, picking and choosing different resorts and varying ski pass deals each season.
“We’re going to get Sunshine and Lake Louise cards this year rather than season passes for one resort,” says Doyle.
“I calculated the cost for us to ski as a family, and it is cheaper this year with these cards because our youngest gets the Grade 2 pass free.”
This is the SportChek Snow Stars 2 FunPass™, which gives all Grade 2 Alberta kids (or those born in 2007) a whole season of free skiing. It’s available at Lake Louise for a $20 fee (www.skilouise.com/passes-and-products/grade-2-pass.php) and also available at Sunshine, costing $35 for the Sun Pass (www.skibanff.com/liftpasses/2014-15-season-passes/).
And the RCR (Resorts of the Canadian Rockies) version (https://secure.skircr.com/pass_types/grade2.asp) gives kids free skiing at Nakiska, Fernie, Kimberley and Kicking Horse.
For those in Grades 4 and 5, there’s also The Canadian Ski Council’s SnowPass™ (www.skicanada.org/grade-4-5-snowpass), with free skiing at many Canadian resorts for a one-off processing fee of $29.95.
Along with free skiing for the under fives at most resorts, this just leaves the parents and older kids to consider. After all, skiing is not a spectator sport but an opportunity for parallel play for the whole family.
“Lake Louise and Sunshine Cards are great value for the rest of the family,” advises Doyle.
“They give you flexibility to choose which resort to ski each time you go and you don’t have to line up at the ticket office every time.”
Taking advantage of three free days and other discounts, each ski day ends up costing around $55. And, once the cards are finished, discounts continue the rest of the season as well as the host of side benefits on accommodation, dining, retail, partner ski resorts and even heli and catskiing. Lake Louise cardholder discounts also apply to Castle Mountain, Panorama and Revelstoke (www.skilouise.com/benefits) and Sunshine cards cover Marmot Basin (www.skibanff.com/liftpasses/sunshine-marmot-cards).
Lake Louise offers a novel parent pass, which enables two parents to buy one season pass and share it while alternating child care. It also includes a Learning Area Ticket for mom or dad to teach toddlers while the other parent explores the slopes (www.skilouise.com/lake-louise-season-passes.php).
The cheapest family season passes - with installment payment plans - are at Mt Norquay, which also has a novel ski-by-the-hour pass. Skiers and snowboarders pay for the exact duration they want on the slopes rather than a full- or half-day pass (www.winter.banffnorquay.com).
Regardless of which ski pass you choose, it’s all about value for money compared to other ways of coping with Calgary’s six-month winter season. Doyle thinks that skiing and snowboarding beat other activities hands down: “Yes, it takes money to buy gear upfront but every Calgary kid already has a ski suit and outdoor gear anyway. As far as clubs go, the 10-week ski club at Lake Louise, which is six hours a week of skiing, costs $499 if you register early. That’s $499 for 60 hours of lessons,” she points out.
“I know you have to buy a pass as well and gas money to get to the hill but as parents, we are also benefitting and doing something we enjoy together as a family,” says Doyle.
And Doyle’s final cost-saving tip: pack a big lunch, snacks, drinks, extra gloves, goggles, hats, spare layers, lip salve and sunscreen to avoid paying resort prices when emergencies occur.
Each season, amenities improve as ski resorts compete for both the local and international market. Gone are the days of lugging all the gear from far-flung parking spots at the end of the access road. Most resorts now have convenient drop-off zones and also offer shuttles to and from car-parking. Lake Louise has a designated day care carpark for quick and easy access, and Fernie thoughtfully provides kiddie carts to help transport children, skis and luggage from carparks to slopes or accommodations.
For those with brand new babies, Lake Louise has the youngest day care facility - starting at just 18 days old (www.skilouise.com/the-mountain/childcare.php). This is unusual in Canada and even in the US where there are only a handful of resorts licensed for baby care. All the other resorts have child care from 18 months and offer early ski/play programs, starting as early as two years old at facilities like the Castle Club at Castle Mountain (www.skicastle.ca/discover-mt-haig.cfm).
A frequently overlooked facility is the complimentary ski guiding program. Known as ‘Ski Hosts’ or ‘Friends,’ the guides are stationed near the base lifts each morning and afternoon, waiting for skiers and snowboarders to turn up for a free half-day’s mountain tour. Families are welcome and there are different groups for varying ability levels. This is also a great way to get to know each mountain without any navigational traumas, learn about the history and amenities of the area, and also make friends with other families.
With kids growing in fits and starts each year, buying ski equipment can be expensive, but so can rentals if required on a regular basis. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies has circumvented this problem this year with its new Kids’ Wings program. For just $149, kids lease ski or snowboard gear for the whole season at Fernie, Nakiska, Kimberley and Kicking Horse (www.skircr.com/kidsgrow).
Having instigated a trade-in program 40 years ago, Ski Cellar Snowboard continues to offer its junior buy back deal: Ride it! Return it! Kids’ equipment, returned within a two-year period, qualifies for up to 50 per cent of the original purchase price toward the next set of equipment. Another option is to buy second-hand clothing and equipment in yard sales and ski swaps such as the Calgary Ski Swap (www.skisale.ca) or the Banff Alpine Racers sale (www.barbvq.com).
“I would definitely recommend used gear for younger kids, whether it’s hand-me-downs from an older sibling, from neighbors or friends whose gear is still in good condition, or from a used sale,” says Doyle.
Although many people think that skiing and snowboarding are extreme sports, according to the National Ski Areas Association research, they are no more dangerous statistically than any other high-energy participation sport - so long as skiers are fit, follow etiquette guidelines, have sufficient instruction, use good equipment and obey resort signage.
But to make things even safer, Panorama has GPS tracking to pinpoint exactly where ski school kids and instructors are (www.panoramaresort.com/flaik). Giving parents more peace of mind, the system also enables Panokids and parents to review their day’s achievements. This is also offered at Big White and Whistler Blackcomb.
Many resorts separate beginners, kids and families from busier, faster runs by offering kid’s zones, slow zones, family zones and kid’s trails. Panorama’s new quad lift opening in December will improve access to beginners’ terrain below Founder’s Ridge and entry into an expanded Novice Ski Zone. At Lake Louise, there’s a blue run off every lift and beginner zones at Wiwaxy, Eagle Meadows, Pika, Marmot and Saddleback. Pine Cone Way is an undulating tree run, popular with kids.
As well as its two magic carpets, Sunshine has a beginner lift at Strawberry Mountain, two magic carpets and slow zones by all the lodges. There are also fun kids’ areas off the Jackrabbit and Wolverine lifts where runs are quieter, less steep but full of interesting jumps and bumps - notably Rollercoaster, a firm favorite with more daring kids. Haig Mountain is a great family hill, especially the multiple green and blue runs off the Huckleberry Chair and the Green Chair on Granstafel Mountain is dedicated to beginners. Kicking Horse, renowned for its advanced skiing, is currently ‘blue-ing it,’ adding intermediate runs into its bowls, groomed trails off ridges and providing a new kids’ learning and lunch area right in the heart of the resort base. Fernie, Kimberley and Nakiska all have Minute Maid Kids’ Trails. And most of the hill at Banff Mt Norquay is dedicated to learning and kids’ progression.
For those worried about winter warmth, many resorts have warm-up huts spread around the slopes. And on colder days, instructors will take ski school kids indoors for restorative hot chocolate. In extreme weather conditions, ski schools generally close at around minus 25.
Whacky winter sports
It’s not just about skiing and snowboarding at resorts anymore: the trend is toward more non-skiing activities. Recently voted the Best Family Ski Resort in Canada by the UK newspaper, The Telegraph, Panorama excels in family après ski including tubing, night-skiing, cross-country tours, sleigh rides, cookouts, arts and crafts, games and movies.
And there are equally impressive après amenities at other resorts:
Tube parks - Lake Louise, Nakiska, Banff Mt Norquay, Revelstoke, Sun Peaks, Whistler Blackcomb, Big White.
Winter ziplining - Fernie, Whistler Blackcomb.
Ice-skating - Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise Inn, Jasper Park Lodge, Kimberley, Kicking Horse and the Delta Lodge near Nakiska, Sun Peaks, Big White, Whistler Blackcomb, Jasper.
Snowshoeing - Sunshine Mountain Lodge (featuring a historical snowshoe and fondue tour), Lake Louise (gondola-accessed high alpine), Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, Big White, Revelstoke, Whistler Blackcomb, Jasper, Castle Mountain, Panorama, Fernie, Kimberley (snowshoe/fondue tour), Kicking Horse.
Geocaching - Marmot Basin, Whistler Blackcomb, Banff and Lake Louise, Sun Peaks.
Paragliding - Revelstoke.
Dogsledding - Lake Louise, Canmore, Banff, Jasper, Sun Peaks, Big White, Whistler Blackcomb and Revelstoke.
Sleigh rides - Lake Louise, Sun Peaks, Big White, Jasper.
Snowmobile tours - Sun Peaks, Panorama, Big White, Kicking Horse.
Kids’ snowmobile track - Big White.
Snow limo tours - Sun Peaks, Big White.
Snow groomer rides - Sun Peaks, Whistler Blackcomb.
Ice climbing tower - Big White.
There are also winter wildlife tours throughout the National Parks and ice canyon walks in Johnston (www.banfftours.com/banff-activities-and-tours/winter/Banff-IceWalks-Johnston-Canyon/johnston-canyon-icewalk) and Maligne Canyons.
Resorts and mountain towns run regular family-focused events and these don’t stop for the winter.
The Banff Lake Louise Winterstart Festival runs from November 29 to December 21 this year (www.banfflakelouise.com/Area-Events/Festivals/Winter/WinterStart-Festival) and includes recreational skiing, the Lake Louise Alpine Ski World Cup, the SportChek Snowboard Cross World Cup, street entertainment and Christmas celebrations.
In January, Sun Peaks runs its Family Cup from January 4 to 11 with races and fun activities (www.sunpeaksfamilycup.com).
Jasper in January is a two-week celebration of winter in the mountains. And all resorts have Family Day, Valentine’s, Easter and Spring Break programs.
For those who dream of their own mountain maison or cute chalet, prices are still relatively low on second-home ownership at many BC ski hills. Calgary CP marketing exec David Walker bought his onhill condo at Kicking Horse in 2010, and has been enjoying it for weekends and holidays with his family ever since.
“We come up here Friday nights, my wife’s usually made lasagna or a big pot of stew, we have a hot tub and really relax while the kids play Xbox, watch a movie or do homework and really calm down.” Next day, it is straight onto the slopes enjoying the diversity of runs and incredible scenery. “We often feel like it’s our own hill,” says Walker.
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