Thirty three Ski Club members set out for Banff, Canada on Friday the 13th—a day in history that luckily turned out benign rather than calamitous. Covid-19 had recently started to emerge in the US, but it was early days and the perceived risks seem low, particularly where we were heading in Canada that had very few cases.
We headed for the Lake Louise Ski area as our first stop, followed by Banff Sunshine. Our first ski day was very cold, but those that braved the 0 degree weather were rewarded with new snow and sparse crowds. Sunday was a ‘blue bird’ day and temperatures climbed to comfortable levels --and some new snow. Those perfect blue bird days would in fact continue throughout most of our trip. Conditions were optimal and lift lines and slopes uncrowded.
We were greeted, however, with news on Monday that Vail Resorts closed all its ski resorts in N. America and most of Europe had already closed is ski areas, having experienced covid earlier. Fortunately, our ski areas inside the Banff National Park were independently owned and located in Alberta, where there had very few cases at that point—and none had surfaced in Banff itself. Our skiing continued to be awesome, but social distancing quickly became the norm as chairlifts and the gondola was allowed up with singles or pairs. Skiers generally kept their distance—even when wearing multiple layers of clothing, helmets, gloves and boots outdoors insulated us from each other.
The optional trip to Kicking Horse Ski Resort, that many had signed up for, was cancelled Monday night when the resort announced at short notice that it would close on Tuesday due to covid-19. Most of those bound for Kicking Horse therefore skiied another epic day at Lake Louise in perfect conditions, while other proceeded with a wide variety of mid-week activities like cross country, lakeside hikes, ice skating, photography and park tours. Some spent the day relaxing at the Chateau spa.
By the time we moved to the Banff Springs Hotel on Tuesday for our last two days of skiing, the trend of closures hit Banff Sunshine, and we realized our fabulous skiing in Lake Louise had been the last that anyone would experience in North America or Europe in 2020.
We enjoyed hiking or other activities around the fabulous Banff Springs hotel on Wednesday. But when Canada and the U.S. announced Wednesday that they would close cross border traffic later that week on a day undetermined, we decided to return to the U.S. on Thursday-- one day early.
We found the empty scene at the Calgary airport on departure somewhat surreal. Check in would have been a breeze except that Delta had only 2 check in agents.
The return trip took a bit longer than anticipated as our connecting flight from Minneapolis was cancelled at the last minute and we were rerouted via Atlanta. American air carriers had begun to significantly curtail their schedules that very day. Nevertheless, we all arrived safe and sound, with no injuries, and most importantly all in good health.
Most of our trip members went into self-quarantine in their homes on return to the U.S., but we continued to monitor everyone’s health condition for 2 weeks, the incubation period for infection—in case contact tracing was needed to ascertain exposure. This was before ‘contact tracing’ was even talked about. Fortunately, no one from our trip experienced covid-19 infection.
Some of our trip participants continue to meet for ‘virtual happy hours’ where we enjoy each other’s company and new friendships made or renewed on this Club trip—a shared experience like no other in the Club’s history. Definitely one for the record books.
THE LODGING: Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs Hotels
The group stayed the first 4 nights at the Chateau Lake Louise, right on Lake Louise and just a few minutes shuttle to the ski area.
Our last two nights were at the Banff Springs Hotel outside the town of Banff in the National Park. To say that both hotels were incredible in terms of accommodations and setting would be an understatement. These fabled historic inns are part of the lore and draw of the Banff National Park for anyone lucky enough to stay there so it was a treat to be able to experience both in the same trip.
By the time we arrived at the Banff Springs Hotel, it had begun to empty out, and some restaurants had closed. Remaining restaurants had spread out tables for social distancing and sharply restricted occupancy, thus making reservations harder to come by, and the famous Willow Spa had closed its doors. Still, I think all of us would welcome a chance to stay at these hotels again, with or without skiing. They were a destination in and of themselves.
We had a memorable evening together for our Group Dinner in a private room at the Railway Station Restaurant in Lake Louise. It felt like a scene out of Dr. Zhivago when a long freight train passed through the station at a seminal moment in our gathering. The food was superb and the company even better.
Unlike some other resorts where the Club has skiied, most of the top eateries in both towns were located inside the two historic hotels. We therefore seldom ventured beyond their walls to eat.
We had wonderful dinners together at the Walliser Stube in the Chateau Lake Louise. But the crowning meal was surely our last evening together, a multi-course gastronomic experience paired with exceptional wines. We booked the entire Castello Italiana for our meal so we could spread out. Many glasses were raised to our good fortune for being together at this place and time in history. We were also beginning to contemplate what life would be like when we returned home the next day. Life and the social interaction that we all enjoy would be so very different than it was when we departed only a short week earlier.
A toast to fabulous Banff!