You can't beat a drop of Canadian champagne if you're learning to ski, as Renata Rubnikowicz testifies
The Canadian Rockies seem a long way to go if you have never been skiing before. What if you don't like it? And how do you decide where to go? Ski experts are fond of publicising their daring exploits using lots of jargon, leaving novices none the wiser.
Surprisingly, at times last winter Canada was beating European resorts on price, which is encouraging for the beginner (although, with the flight to Calgary taking up to nine hours of your holiday each way, it's worth considering a 10-day break). The ski season at the 7,000ft to 9,000ft-high resort of Sunshine Village in Banff National Park lasts from mid-November to late May, so teachers have some choice about when to hit the slopes.
Now for the science bit. The Rockies resorts of Banff and Lake Louise claim to provide "champagne powder snow", which has an average moisture content of 7 per cent, compared with the snow in North American and European ski areas, where the moisture content is about 10 per cent. Put simply, it's fluffier. That can only be good news for beginners - and their behinds.
At all three resorts I tried - Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise - the young instructors were enthusiastic and expert at building confidence.
At Lake Louise, the notice by the drag lift for the "bunny slope", used by the very youngest learners, announces: "Olympic team 2012, queue here". Not that there are many queues. Sunshine Village has invested in a new gondola, the world's fastest, which takes 13 minutes to speed skiers and snowboarders from the car park to the centre of the village. From there, 12 chairlifts and six quadchairs service the three mountains. For absolute beginners like me, the "magic carpet", a kind of snow-travolator, took the slog out of getting back up the nursery slope, so that more of each two-and-a-half-hour session was spent whizzing downhill - and having fun.
Even the most untalented of beginners (yes, me again) soon graduates to green runs. Almost a quarter of Sunshine Village's runs are suitable for beginners, while Lake Louise has a beginners' run from every chairlift. I began to feel like a real skier, swapping tales of the day's runs - Rock Isle Road or Pinecone Way - apr s-ski. The more experienced skiers easily outdid us, of course, with their tales of black diamonds, skiing Goat's Eye from Sunshine or the back of the mountain at Lake Louise, reached by its six-seater Top of the World chairlift. But the instructors' optimism held, and in my less bruised moments I felt I might one day graduate to the huge variety of runs they could choose from.
While Banff, a quietly smart town within the national park, is small enough to stroll from one end to the other in 10 minutes, it has plenty of shopping and refreshment choice - from a raucous talent night fuelled by jugs of beer upstairs at the Rose and Crown to fantastic Alberta steaks at the Saltlik, fondue at Ticino and Canadian cuisine at The Maple Leaf and The Pines, which offers a "trio of grilled buffalo loin, venison sausage and rack of caribou".
Even more rarefied dining awaited us at Lake Louise. While the Banff International Hotel was a comfortable, efficient base for our first day on the slopes at Norquay and for Sunshine Village, the view of the mountains from my window was marred by the local Safeway (handy though it was and open late). At the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, I had an uninterrupted view of mountains, the Victoria Glacier and a horse-drawn sleigh waiting to take us for a ride across the frozen lake. Begun in 1890 to entice tourists to use the new Canadian Pacific Railway, this is a world-class hotel in the wilds, with restaurants to match. But it is far from stuffy, providing a deli for guests who just want to snack on a sandwich.
Nearby Deer Lodge is a downhome delight - a rustic, TV-free hotel with a relaxed atmosphere and (yet another) splendid menu offering free-range buffalo carpaccio and roast elk ribeye. But vegetarians need not despair - after all, this is almost west coast North America.
The national park teems with wildlife, and elk do sometimes wander into downtown Banff, though for a close-up view of bears, owls and raptors, you should drop into Calgary zoo on the way. Or take a snowshoe walk, as we did, with naturalist Keith Webb, mountain guide at Chateau Lake Louise. He showed us animal and bird tracks, explained the natural history of the park and pointed out snowy ptarmigan well camouflaged on the white shore. Tour over, we lined up for our picture, each trying to hold one snowshoe vertical - a classic ski snap pose, but not for snowshoe shufflers. We fell over, sending up showers of the white stuff - that champagne powder again.
Airtours Holidays offers seven nights' room-only accommodation, including flights and transfers, at the Banff International Hotel from pound;459 per person, and at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise from pound;629 per person.
Ski and boot hire is available from pound;39 per person for six days; children from pound;22. Tri-area lift pass: pound;149 per person; children from pound;48. Details: 0800 916 0623; www.airtours.co.uk.Information on skiing in Alberta: www.travelalberta.com
or call 0906 871 5000 (premium rate line) for a brochure.More resort information: www.skibanff.com; www.skilouise.com; www.banffnorquay.com