2018 so far has been the year of snow! I’ve been lucky enough to hit the slopes on two different continents – Canada and France – and wow have they been awesome! Over 5000 miles (8000km) apart but some of the best snowboarding I’ve ever done.
The season isn’t over yet so I thought I’d compile a quick comparison of my two trips in case you’re thinking about getting your ski on this year.
3 pilot friends and I boarded a BA flight from Heathrow to Calgary – flight time just over 9 hours on the Dreamliner (this was my first time on the 787 and it’s an amazing machine…possibly my new favourite and what I’d love to fly next!).
We rented a Lincoln Navigator – this is basically a presidential 4×4 with 450 horsepower to liven up the drive…
Only one hour cruise later in temperatures of -20C and more fresh snow than I could dream of, we were already passing through Banff National Park. A further 2 hours later we arrived at our first and furthest destination, Kicking Horse mountain resort. Throughout the week we then worked our way back via Banff boarding some of the world’s best off piste.
One of the best things about getting to Canada is that we departed at 2pm on a rainy London day and arrived at 4pm the same day in snowy Calgary (thanks to a 7 hour time difference). After a few films, some fizz and a nap on the plane (NB: the higher cabin pressure and humidity in the 787 does wonders for passenger comfort) I was honestly so pleasantly surprised at how fresh I felt on arrival!
22 of us this time boarding a flight from Gatwick to Grenoble for a friend’s 30th birthday – flight time ~1 hr 20m. We caught a 10am-ish flight arriving in France 12.30 local time.
After spending a good hour or so gathering bags and loading them onto a coach chocablock full of snow seekers, it was just over three hours to our accommodation for the week – a catered chalet in Val Thorens, part of the infamous three valleys (les Trois Vallees).
Verdict: Despite the idea of going half way across the world to Canada potentially feeling like a chore, the time difference and well-timed flight from LHR actually means you’re effectively still only spending a day getting there. Having been to the Alps many times it really felt like a huge adventure heading over the North Atlantic Ocean. So while France is nearby it still takes a good full day to get to your resort so don’t let the distance to the Rockies put you off if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous!
We stayed in two apartments. The first was in Kicking Horse. The apartment slept 4 comfortably with a hot tub outside – good for a beer in -22C after a gnarly day off piste! It had a car park underneath to ensure our wheels didn’t freeze. Given Kicking Horse is essentially a village (there are a couple of lodges and a few apartments) booking accommodation in advance is recommended.
The second apartment was in Banff – it was essentially a massive hotel full of apartments called The Fox Hotel and Suites (if you stay there definitely make use of the grotto-inspired pool for some R&R and the waffle maker at breakfast with the local maple syrup!). Compared to Kicking Horse, Banff had a lot more options for accommodation – from hotels to hostels.
I’ve been skiing and snowboarding in the Alps many a time having been based in nearby Lyon for 3 years.
As I’ve done a couple of times before we stayed in a catered chalet – for a large group this is an awesome option. Some great chalet hosts, a space you and your group can call your own and some delicious food provided throughout – cooked breakfasts, cake and tea on the table when you arrive back after a hard day in the snow and dinner every night but one when the chalet hosts deserve a well earned break!
We stayed in one of SkiWorld’s many catered chalets in Val Thorens which was very comfortable and had the option to ski in/ski out which was a huge plus. If you’re feeling more upmarket the other nearby resorts of Meribel and Courcheval have plenty of other options too whether self-catered apartments, hotels or catered chalets. (I once stayed in Hotel & Spa L’Helios in beautiful Meribel – definitely recommend if you’re looking for a romantic getaway!).
Verdict: if afternoon tea and dinner made for you each night is what you’re looking for then a catered chalet is for you – you’ll find these in abundance in the 3 Valleys. For my trip to Canada we went for the self-catered apartment option which gave us a base from which we could explore local restaurants and bars. Essentially, both areas have got many options of accommodation to meet your needs – ultimately your decision will likely be guided by cost, number of people…..and availability!!
Kicking Horse is a small resort centred around extreme skiing and boarding and was once only accessible by helicopter. There really isn’t much there in the way of apres 🍻 but it’s the champagne powder capital of Canada – enough said 👊.
2 hours along the powder highway Banff offers a completely different resort experience. What’s odd about Banff for Europeans is that you can’t actually ski or snowboard in the town itself. It’s essentially used as a base to drive from each day to some new slopes and powder in the area (hence why the V-6 engine was a real necessity 😉).
It’s a picturesque resort, well catered for tourists – plenty of shops, restaurants and bars. Block Kitchen & Bar was our favourite – it offered a fusion of Japanese Indian food which was a welcome break from your traditional lunchtime piste-side food (e.g. chips, hotdogs etc.). For a delicious burger I’d recommend Eddie Burger + Bar. Finally, remember to try the local dish, poutine, which you’ll find in most eating establishments in the town.
Val Thorens is the highest of the three valleys resorts at 2300m (7500ft) and the highest ski resort in Europe so they say. While a relatively functional resort its height does mean you’re guaranteed some good snow.
As with the three main resort villages in the region (Courcheval, Meribel and Val Thorens), you’ll find shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and spas to satisfy either a day off or a good bit of apres. In Val Thorens you’ll find the infamous Folie Douce with pumping music on the mountain side (although the one in Val D’Isere is arguably bigger and better). We also popped into 360 bar for a quick afternoon wiggle…
In town head to Tango for a more sophisticated vibe which serves some great cocktails (and is a favourite of local ski/snowboard instructors). Or on the same strip head to one of the many bars with live music – e.g. Saloon Bar – or pop to Crewzer which has a great atmosphere and serves Belgian beer. The local bar to our chalet was The Red Fox which we happily frequently a couple of times for a beer.
If you’re looking for a more picturesque resort, Meribel and Courcheval might be more your cup of tea or one of the smaller satellite villages such as St Martin.
Verdict: apres in Kicking Horse is a crate of beers in the hot tub – so chilled, I loved it! Meanwhile in Banff it’s a 10 minute walk into the centre of town where you can find some great food and bars if you’re interested….essentially you can find much the same in Banff as in Val Thorens. It’s up to you the extent to which you make the most of the amenities.
The aim of this trip was to board as many double black diamond chutes and bowls (AKA crazy black runs for us Europeans) as we could in the week, working our way from Kicking Horse back to Banff. We weren’t disappointed.
We went the second week in January and the slopes were practically empty, it was unbelievable. No queuing for lifts, no queuing for lunch. The terrain was impressive – vast pistes lined by thick alpine forest amongst which live numerous grizzly bears…thankfully I met a friendly one!
The steep alpine terrain was perfect for off piste. A constant booming of avalanche blasts by the snow patrol (not the band!) gave us the reassurance (and the odd startle factor!) that we were pretty safe despite having all the necessary equipment.
In Kicking Horse you can get a gondola from the base of the mountain to the very top which in January temperatures is a massive plus! You’re also guaranteed to make new friends during the journey up as everyone is incredibly friendly.
The resorts we visited while based in Banff (Sunshine and Lake Louise) offered a wider network of pistes and in general were more beginner friendly. There were plenty of blue and green runs that take you cruising through the forest and are suitable for beginners. In fact, if the slopes are always as quiet as they were a couple of weeks ago then I’d much rather learn to master skiing or snowboarding in Canada than on one of Europe’s packed pistes.
As for the snow itself, during our visit we got a fresh dump of powder on arrival although it was limited thereafter.
The three valleys essentially make up one of the world’s largest lift-linked ski areas. The whole region is incredibly well connected via a huge network of gondolas, chair lifts and bubbles.
There are a huge variety of runs to satisfy all levels of skier and snowboarder. If you’re based in Val Thorens then the 3 valley lift pass gives you access to the pistes in Meribel and Courcheval as well so there’s a huge amount to explore and a lot of lifts and pistes to make your way up and down to get to the far reaches of the area.
Compared to Canada it is a lot busier. Mornings are definitely the best time to explore although if you’re heading off piste then generally it’s a lot quieter.
At lifts you’ll have to jostle with a cocktail of snow seekers – stay calm and inch yourself towards the lift, you will make it! This trip it wasn’t too bad but during school holidays you’ll need to stand your ground!
We had incredibly good weather for the end of January – sunshine nearly everyday offered good visibility. But by far the best day came at the end when, following a day of snowfall, the off piste was unreal. I headed out with a guide (Matt from Prosneige – such a cool guy!) and haven’t ever experienced snow so soft, powdery and deep!
Verdict: Canada is known for some of the world’s best snow and off piste and I had the most amazing time, especially exploring with 3 other snowboarders. However, this year for the snow Val Thorens just tipped it thanks to some mid-week snowfall – I subsequently experienced my best day ever of off piste (and possibly the best day of my life!!) – it was INSANE!!!!!
Wherever you choose to visit, you’ll have an amazing time.
Remember, GET OUT THERE AND LOVE LIFE!