So I packed my bags and flew across the Great Lakes and the endless, aching plains to Calgary, unaware that I was about to experience one of the geologic thrills of our continent: the abrupt change from plains to peaks. Renting a car in flat-as-a-coma Calgary, I popped in a CD and beelined west. Before I knew it, the mountains were crashing toward me; three songs later, I was knee-deep in powder. The town where I was headed, Lake Louise, is nestled in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site: seven contiguous parks adding up to nearly 9,000 square miles of wilderness. Lake Louise is some 5,000 feet above sea level, but it wasn't just the change in elevation that lifted the weight of the past six months off my shoulders. Canada's Rockies are more raw and brutal than America's; looking at them makes you feel a little battered and knocked about—in a good way, like a Russian massage for your soul.
My body, though, was cramping up. I had driven the Trans-Canada Highway with my chest against the steering wheel, the better to peer up through the windshield at snowy summits. I arrived at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, one of those grand old railway hotels that look more like a private castle than lodging for paying guests, and—by the way, did I mention I was trying to shake off a bad relationship? Until the moment I pulled up at the hotel, I'd had no idea that what my withered heart needed was three cute guys in lederhosen to step forward and smile at me. They opened my door, they welcomed me, they carried my bags. Yes, I realize they were paid to be chivalrous. It still felt swoony. Inside, fires burned, lights sparkled, and three-story-high windows glowed with pearly light reflected off the mountain-rimmed glacial lake. I felt like a cross between Heidi of the Hills and Eloise of the Plaza. I had come to the right place.
But as the days went by, it became clear that I wasn't the right person for the place—not yet, anyway. I was a distressed single girl from the city, whose notion of adventure was to scale the airless heights of calamitous relationships. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Canadian Rockies convinced me to swear off such misbegotten thrills, but those mountains did extract a promise from me: that I would come back someday with my family. And to do that, I needed to get busy creating a family. My idea of romance underwent a seismic shift that week. Instead of hankering for an après-ski make-out session with Sven the downhill champ, I longed to ice-skate on a frozen lake under the stars with my blushing, twinkle-eyed children.
I've been back three times, and yes, we have skated—my husband, three kids, and me, twirling around a castle built from blocks of lake ice, while my mother sat inside by a fire with a novel and a sherry. We have been driven in dogsleds over the Continental Divide and hiked through fragrant pine forests, stepping aside to let a horse-drawn sleigh clop by. Mostly, we have skied. I can imagine a day after the kids are grown, when Peter and I will come here alone; we'll stay someplace chic and serene, and ski all day on senior passes. But even then, I will remember the time I thought I was running away, and instead ran headlong into my rosy-cheeked future.
Where to Stay
The Fairmont hotel chain's properties—Banff Springs (closest to Calgary), Chateau Lake Louise (40 minutes west of Banff), and Jasper Park Lodge (about three hours north of Lake Louise)—are generous with amenities: down duvets, high-thread-count cotton sheets, plush bathrobes. At Banff Springs, I adore the heated indoor-outdoor mineral pool, where you can unkink your muscles while snowflakes fall on your hair. From Jasper Park Lodge's heated outdoor pool, you can catch views of Mount Edith Cavell through breaks in the rising steam, then snuggle up in your 1940s log-cabin-style room (imagine Frank Lloyd Wright meets Paul Bunyan). Best of all, these hotels appeal to everyone in my family. They're kid- (and dog-) friendly, which means I never spend a meal shushing my theatrical daughter or have to scold my boys for racing down a stone-arched hall. And they're so spectacularly sited that my 75-year-old mother can enjoy the magnificent landscape without stepping outside, though the paths are clear enough for her to enjoy frequent strolls. (Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, 800-441-1414.)
Admittedly, there's a certain corporate slickness to the Fairmont hotels. A few hundred yards from Lake Louise, the cozy Deer Lodge (800-661-1595) offers an authentic dose of quaint rusticity; 25 miles west, the secluded cabins of Emerald Lake Lodge (above) (800-663-6336) provide something priceless: silence. I've never spent the night at the posh and chummy Post Hotel & Spa (800-661-1586), but I've been dazzled by the perfectly seasoned bison tartare, scallops, and milk-white halibut at its restaurant.
Where (Else) to Eat
Early risers in Jasper face a dilemma: first tracks on the slopes or a warm raspberry-and-white-chocolate scone at the Bear's Paw bakery (780-852-3233)? Miss the day's batch and you'll have to settle for chocolate cream cake or an addictive "monster cookie," studded with everything from M&Ms to oatmeal. I have a soft spot for the Walliser Stube at Chateau Lake Louise, a Swiss-style, wood-paneled pub where I had dinner at the bar every night on that first, single-girl trip: savory onion soup and a glass of red wine. More recently, my family has filled up on their cheese fondue for dinner, followed by…chocolate fondue for dessert. My favorite restaurant in the area is The Bison in Banff (403-762-5550). Smoked bison is paired with butter lettuce in one delectable salad, and spicy lamb merguez is coated with an organic corn flour batter for their delicious take on corn dogs.
Where to Ski
Lake Louise Mountain is huge—four faces, 4,000 acres—and never very crowded; my kids rave about the ski school (SkiLouise.com). The mountain closest to Banff, Norquay, is so intimidating that I've never dared ski there, but nearby Sunshine Village is a treasure. You wind up a long, steep road from the highway, then take a gondola up another 1,750 feet to the base. Sunshine's slopes have the deepest snow in the Banff area—30 feet on average—the latest into the year (typically through May), and the rolling, sugary terrain looks like it was lifted from one of those old Claymation holiday TV specials (SkiBanff.com).