Winterized motorhome turns family vacation to Banff into ski adventure

Winterized motorhome turns family vacation to Banff into ski adventure

Spilling down Lake Louise’s cliff-topped Back Bowls, Boomerang is one of the most scenic marked ski runs in Banff National Park.Ava Bisby/The Globe and Mail

Nine minutes and 52 seconds. On a five-day February vacation to Banff National Park, it probably took about that long for my family to accomplish any number of things: Lace up skates on the snowy shores of Lake Louise, polish off a cornucopian charcuterie board at The Prow, knock back craft cocktails and mocktails in the newly renovated Rundle Bar, the list goes on. But as a parent whose patience quickly wears thin on powder days, I know it took exactly that long to go from pyjamas to full ski gear in the back of a rented CanaDream Maxi Motorhome.

An RV for a ski vacation? In the frosty Alberta Rockies no less? Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife, Angela, and I were intent on showing Ava, 15, and Grace, 12, that family time is about more than screens and sourdough one-upmanship. That it can, in fact, be an adventure.

Given the lack of self-catered slopeside lodgings in Canada’s oldest national park, we also reasoned that renting an RV would combine transportation, accommodation and food prep in one relatively economical package that would allow us to splurge on select meals, experiences and services. Goodbye circuitous resort shuttles, hello kitchen, suitcase and ski locker on wheels.

Still, many questions remained: Would the vehicle be comfortable in winter? Would it require more effort and skill than motorhome rookies could muster? And most importantly, was it wise to drastically reduce our indoor living space after spending so much time together in our Toronto home?

From RV to afternoon tea

The Fairmont Banff Springs’ Afternoon Tea is served in the solarium fronting the Rundle Bar.Adam Bisby/The Globe and Mail

My confidence behind the wheel had nowhere to go but up after executing a 27-point turn out front of CanaDream’s Calgary headquarters. By the time we arrived at the Banff East Gate, however, the speed limit no longer felt out of reach, and it looked like we might avoid being late for a very indulgent date: afternoon tea in the solarium fronting the Fairmont Banff Springs’ Rundle Bar.

Our selections from the 20-blend tea menu arrived within minutes of parking our 8.9-metre-long extra-wide ride in the grande dame hotel’s free visitor lot. Next came plates of flaky scones accompanied by clotted cream and house-made preserves, followed by three-tiered towers laden with petit fours, ranging from pain de mie slathered in cucumber-and-herb cream cheese to opera cakes filled with almond japonaise and coffee buttercream.

Dark and cozy nights

Any heating, plumbing and comfort concerns were put to bed soon after we pulled into Parks Canada’s Tunnel Mountain Village 2 campground, which was already playing host to a half-dozen RVs. Whether plugged into our site’s power outlet or drawing on the 63-litre propane tank when parked elsewhere, the furnace had no trouble keeping up with the wall-mounted thermostat. Steaming tap and shower water flowed freely from an insulated freshwater tank that also supplied the compact toilet, with padded curtains and fleece bedding kits – one for the (almost) queen-sized bed at the rear, and two others for the twin mattresses tucked above the cab – completing the cozy package.

The 240-square-metre interior was so cozy, and its setting between Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain so Instagrammable, that several minutes of precious ski time had already been lost by the time I threw down the gauntlet. “If we can get out of here in less than 10 minutes,” I announced as we rolled into the parking lot at the foot of Sunshine Village’s 4.6-kilometre-long gondola, “everyone gets BeaverTails.”

Nine minutes and 52 seconds later, according to my iPhone stopwatch, I opened the RV’s cavernous rear storage compartment and began passing ski equipment to the jubilant pastry winners.

Chilly peaks and warm apres

Skates rented in the basement of the Fairmont Lake Louise cost $23 for hockey skates and $13 for junior skates.Angela Bisby/The Globe and Mail

Talk of outrageous BeaverTail toppings soon gave way to awestruck silence as our gondola cabin passed frozen waterfalls and glacier-capped peaks en route to Sunshine’s base area, a hub of activity from which dozens of runs radiate outward. Having spent much of my youth on and around Banff’s ski slopes, sharing their glories with the brood was a joy. From the top of Mount Standish, the smallest of Sunshine’s three peaks, I pointed out the distant silhouette of 3,620-metre Mount Assiniboine before leading the charge down to the Continental Divide chairlift and up to the desolate summit of Lookout Mountain.

“Let’s shred this!” Ava exclaimed, gazing wide-eyed at the mogul-strewn slopes below. We wanted an adventure, and Sunshine was delivering.

Five hours later, we began our end-of-day descent of Sunshine’s ski-out, a five-kilometre valley trail that meanders down to the parking lot. Our vehicle’s cabin allowed us to shed boots and clothing in comfort while others in the lot waited for shuttles or for car heating to kick in. The compact fridge kept cans of Banff Ave. pilsner cold, while the propane stovetop quickly heated hot chocolate to wash down BeaverTails we had scoffed in Goat’s Eye Lodge.

A tube, pool and trail with a view

Our second ski stop, Mount Norquay, is renowned as the home of Lone Pine, which at 39 degrees is one of the steepest marked runs in North America. Less infamous and thigh-exhausting is the eight-lane tube park, which is said to be Alberta’s largest. Spinning down Lane 6, legs splayed and tuque askew, I can proudly say that I conquered at least one of Norquay’s claims to fame.

By this point, one of my secondary motorhome queries – how will we hot tub? – was looming large. Fortunately, the Banff Upper Hot Springs offer plenty of RV parking. Sufficiently soothed, I steered us down Sulphur Mountain and toward our third and final ski destination.

Ava and Grace were especially ebullient after spending the trip’s final ski day at Lake Louise. After all, they had just taken Banff’s loftiest chairlift, the two-year-old Summit Quad, to the top of “Boomerang,” one of the most scenic runs in the park. Dropping into Louise’s cliff-topped Back Bowls also cemented their new-found appreciation for Rocky Mountain powder. Like father, like daughters.

A new record

A hush fell over the RV as Angela and I set out to make the second and final waste-water dump of our Banff trip. CanaDream’s mandatory instructional videos had prepared us well for most tasks, but our first confused and protracted emptying of the RV’s black- and grey-water tanks proved that visceral tasks are often best learned by doing.

Ava flung open the side door the moment we stowed the reticulated waste hose. “Twelve minutes and 16 seconds!” she exclaimed, brandishing her cellphone in mocking reference to my earlier pastry proposition. “It’s a new record!”

Again, my heart swelled with pride. My family had to deal with its fair share of crap during the pandemic, and now we had found a way to have fun with it.

The Fairmont Banff Springs’ newly renovated Rundle Bar.Angela Bisby/The Globe and Mail

If You Go

Five-day winter rentals through CanaDream start at $920 for Maxi Motorhomes, which can accommodate up to four adults and two children.

Serviced sites that can accommodate a Maxi Motorhome at Tunnel Mountain Village 2 and Lake Louise campgrounds start at $44 a night.

Black Tie Ski Rentals of Banff delivers and fits ski equipment wherever its clients are staying, including campgrounds. From $47 a day for adult ski packages, and $27 for juniors.

Chateau Ski and Snow Rentals, in the basement of the Fairmont Château Lake Louise, offers four-hour skate rentals ($23 for hockey skates, $13 for junior skates).

Four-day lift tickets for Sunshine Village, Mount Norquay and Lake Louise Ski Resort can be used over six days and start at $568 for adults, $442 for youths aged 13 to 17, and $227 for children 12 and under.

A four-person family pass to soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs costs $29.

The writer was a guest of CanaDream RV. It did not review or approve the story before publication.

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