Survive Delirium Dive or take it easy - Alberta skiing offers both

( dpa )- There is only one major drawback to a winter holiday in the Canadian province of Alberta - it can be addictive.

On returning to hectic everyday life in Europe, skiers may well find themselves yearning for the wide open spaces of the prairie and the tranquillity of the Rocky Mountains.

Holidaymakers are apt to wax lyrical about the deserted pistes, the forests knee-deep in light fluffy snow known hereabouts as "champagne Powder", and the relaxed attitude of the Canadians.

"Skiing here is a really laid-back affair", said German slalom ace Felix Neureuther. Alongside the track sets are a wealth of ungroomed trails suitable for experts and novices alike, pointed out ski teacher and Canada expert Bap Koller.

"Thanks to the dry snow everyone seems to find that their skiing ability has suddenly improved". Up to 10 metres of snow a year fall in the Rockies from November to April, transforming the landscape into a winter wonderland.

Not only are the surroundings here a contrast to those found in the Alps. The "Canadian way of skiing" makes a big difference too, said ski tour guide Bart Donnelly. There's no pushing and shoving at the lifts, people don't race down the trails like mad things and apres-ski does not equate to hooliganism and heavy drinking.

Extensive oil deposits have turned the urban hub of Calgary, the venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics, into a wealthy city and not the tourist industry in the Rocky Mountains located some 80 kilometres away. Despite that Alberta is world-renowned for its skiing facilities.

Skiing in Alberta is becoming increasingly popular with European tourists. The region around Banff was declared a national park as far back as 1885 and it has two excellent skiing areas on its doorstep, Norquay and Sunshine. Lake Louise is around an hour away by car which means that by Canadian standards it is virtually around the corner.

For people who don't like driving, Alberta is not the place to be. Indeed people who want to get to know several skiing regions during one holiday might feel like actors in a road movie. Norquay is a perfect place to start after a 10-hour flight, but the same cannot be said for Sunshine which is in another league altogether.

There are 107 trails, some of which lead out as far as neighbouring British Columbia. There are easy runs through the forests which are fine for novices, but others cater for extreme skiers like the aptly-named "Delirium Dive."

This trail offers some of the deepest and steepest terrain in the whole area. After surviving the awesome descent skiers like to meet up at Sunshine Village, Canada's highest ski resort at 2,160 metres.

Nirvana for skiers in Alberta has to be scenic Lake Louise where World Cup races take place annually at the beginning of November.

"You won't find a more impressive panorama than the one from the upper terminal of the 'Top of the World-Lift'," said Hans Koenig, a German-born architect who spends his weekends working as a ski instructor. Anyone who launches into the "Powder Bowl" from can take in the entire view.

The north of the region is dominated by lofty mountains while the view to the south takes in sun-drenched trails down to the lower chairlift terminal and as far as ten kilometres beyond to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel. Looking like something out of a Walt Disney fairytale adventure, the hotel lies beneath the Victoria Glacier.

Lake Louise itself doubles up as a pitch for ice hockey, Canada's most popular spectator sport. Detractors say the place is little more than a road junction with a petrol station and for those whose spending money does not extend to a room in the Chateau, Banff is a better place to stay.

This is a fine place for window shopping with plenty of cafes, boutiques and other store. A crass contrast is Castle Mountain, four hours to the south by car in the southwestern Alberta Rockies. Visitors seeking creature comforts should brace themselves for a culture shock though - the best hotel for miles around is little more than a youth hostel.

The rooms are spick and span but there's a strict regimen to be adhered to. "People who walk through the house with their boots on are liable to the a fine of 100 dollars", states a sign at the entrance.

There are only five chairlifts here, all of them superannuated examples from Sunshine or the United States. Ten metres of powdery snow a year are guaranteed and the trails are almost completely devoid of skiers.

The place is a paradise for experts like Scott Mundell who jokingly hands first-time visitors a snorkel - "just so that they get to breathe in that deep powdery snow." This is a vast playground for just 1,700 skiers a day. By comparison, in the Tyrolean resort of St. Anton more than 10 times than number will be underway at any given time.

The ski business was never a major source of income for this region and it was abandoned by the locals 10 years ago after losses had mounted. That was when five ski enthusiasts stepped in. They formed a cooperative and saved the ski region from extinction.

Apart from its only bar Castle Mountain can now boasts some new chalets and even a steakhouse. Despite its new-found popularity the resort is determined to retain its offbeat charm.

Helping to ensure just that are people like "Huggin Mary": Instead of checking the ski passes with a scanner she squeezes every skier tightly and wishes them "A great day!" It's people like Mary who make the skiers keep wanting to come back.

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