BANFF, Canada — "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists!" declared William Cornelius Van Horne, superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The year was 1888 and the scenery was the spectacular, soaring Rockies in Banff National Park.
Under Van Horne's direction, two magnificent hotels soon loomed in the Western wilderness, thousands of miles from civilization--the opulent Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise, affectionately called "The Lady of the Lake."
In uncharted wilderness amid lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, flowery meadows and exotic animals, guests could sip tea, eat continental cuisine, hear chamber music, browse in libraries and, if in Banff, bathe in soothing hot springs after a mountain jaunt.
Banff and Lake Louise remain immensely popular tourist destinations both for the rugged and the not-so-rugged in search of fun, beauty and relaxation. To see them in summer sunshine is more in vogue, but don't let a wintry cover deter you.
The skiing, downhill and cross-country, is outstanding. Ice skating, old-fashioned sleigh rides, moonlight walks over crunchy snow, helicopter sightseeing, outdoor and indoor swimming, tours to the Columbia Icefields, discos, fine restaurants, Indian and wildlife museums and numerous other activities await.
Banff and Lake Louise are in Alberta, about a two-hour drive from Calgary, site of the 1988 Winter Olympics. The ski season is long--November through May at Sunshine Village, which is on the Continental Divide 13 miles north of Banff, and well into April at Lake Louise, 34 miles north of Banff.
Another ski resort, Mt. Norquay, is only five miles from Banff. The climate is dry, so skiers enjoy the best of snow--dry powder.
Each area has cross-country trails, numerous downhill slopes and its own ambiance. Mt. Norquay is known primarily for its challenging expert and gentle novice slopes. It's also the only area offering night skiing.
A gondola takes you to Sunshine Village, where you'll find the 90-room Sunshine Inn, a three-tiered lodge, ski school, rentals and a day-care center. Most runs are wide open and above the tree line; 60% groomed for intermediate skiers.
March is still winter skiing; that means wear those long johns. In April you can get by with only a sweater or windbreaker. In May, bring your shorts and swimsuits.
After a day's skiing at Sunshine Village you may either take the gondola down or the "ski-out," a mountain road winding through tall pines gracing the valley below and mountains above.
Lake Louise is the largest ski area in North America, with 17 square miles of skiable terrain featuring four mountain faces and two mountains. There are two lodges on the slopes and one at the base along with Chocolate Moose Park, a day-care center and ski school for kids.
Lake Louise recently introduced C.O.D. skiing and training stations. C.O.D. skiing offers 90-minute theme lessons depending on weather and snow conditions. One day it could be skiing moguls or powder, another day race turns or tree skiing. You pay after the lesson--cash on delivery--but only if you feel you've learned something. A C.O.D. lesson costs about $10 ($14 Canadian).
Training stations are at the top of selected runs and offer impromptu private lessons. Each trip down the mountain with intensive one-to-one instruction plus a ride back up the lift for analysis and advice from the pro costs about $9 ($12 Canadian).
If you're skiing alone or are with friends unfamiliar with the huge area, you might want to ski with the Friends of Louise. They wear orange and blue jackets with "Ski Friends" printed on the back. You may meet them at the lower chairlift daily at 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The service is free.
What's in it for the Friends of Louise? A free lift ticket, and, of course, new ski friends. On the chairlift ride they'll tell you the area's history and about Banff's in spots for apres- ski fun. For instance, the B-52s at Melissa's Misteak are "wicked"--equal parts of coffee liqueur, Irish cream and Grand Marnier. Then there's Silver City, a disco jammed and jumping.
For classical music lovers, the Banff School of Fine Arts gives regular concerts. Faculty and students also play at the Banff Springs Hotel in a stately salon complete with chandelier, candelabra, antique furniture and an enormous fireplace flanked by two stone ram's heads.
If you savor fine sweets, stop in at the Post Hotel in the village of Lake Louise. It's famous for its afternoon tea. A Swiss chef prepares tortes, creams and pie that are served between 2 and 5 p.m. Plum pie with custard, Black Forest cake and Linzer torte topped with whipped cream melt in your mouth.
Perhaps you'll meet silver-haired Slim Flemming at the Post Hotel. He's been dropping in for more than 40 years. Slim tells great stories, like the one about the time in the spring of 1938 when an old grizzly plopped next to him and laid his head on Slim's lap.