It's not every day you come across a little piece of heaven but when you do the chances are its name is Jasper.
I discovered Jasper nine years ago; it was months after serious illness and I wanted somewhere offering me comfortable skiing and complete stress free relaxation. Here I struck it rich!
Jasper is small in size, a mere four and a half thousand people, but its huge heart has made it a favourite within Alberta, Canada as well as across the world. This railway town was established by the Scottish settlers and adopted soon after by tourism. Unlike Banff, further down the road, Jasper maintained its roots and identity. It didn’t close down when the tourists finally went home because so many of them simply didn’t!
It is almost a catch phrase here that “I only came for six months – that was fifteen years ago”. Jasper is one of those places you never want to leave.
If it is wildlife you want then this is the place for you. In winter it is elk, deer, the occasional moose, coyote, lynx, wolves. In the summer the bears come out to play, both black bear as well as grizzly. Whilst having dinner I watched as half a dozen elk wandered past. Faces fresh to town immediately withdrew their mobile phones and flashed with almost strobe frequency at these otherwise gentle creatures. The elk were far more restrained than some of our so-called celebs tend to be.
For its size Jasper offers some amazing places to both stay and more especially eat. Friday night is wild in the Dead Dog and Sunday isn’t Sunday without dinner in Mike Cassio’s Italian restaurant. I remember Mike as general manager of the Sawridge Hotel from my past visit. It seems he does nothing by halves, as my plates return to the kitchen completely empty, that is bar the ice cream, which even I can’t finish off. There is no way I will be losing weight this holiday!
For those wanting classic solitude there is the Jasper Park Lodge, part of the Fairmont group and one of the places where the Queen and Prince Phillip stayed when touring Canada. Those wanting to be in the thick of it have a wide range of options from motel to solid three star. My home for the week was the Lobstick Hotel. Named after a method of marking trails, the Lobstick clearly points guests to all that’s good here. Good food, good rooms, good people, good beer, good value.
No early call was needed each day as I knew what was waiting for me at Marmot Basin, Jasper’s local ski hill. I am being a bit unfair to refer to Marmot as a ski hill, in reality it is a beautiful collection of peaks tenderly caressed with snow each season. The wonderful thing about Marmot is that even on the busiest of days there is still so much space. In fact my quote of the week was one fellow Brit announcing on arrival by shuttle bus “Good God, there’s someone on our mountain!”
It really is that special, with steep gladded runs and mogul fields for those that want them and miles of perfectly groomed open bowls for those wishing to ‘hero’ ski for the week. This is where families can play together each enjoying their mountain at their own pace. Lynx have been spotted watching over their young close to the slopes and cheeky squirrels zip out in front of you just to highlight that they are quicker than you.
It is impossible not to progress here at Marmot, unlike so many ski areas there are a multitude of slopes allowing nervous novices to graduate to cool couloir dudes in easy increments.
I had skied with Colin, ski director, when visiting Sunshine Village in the past. “Sunshine is brilliant; I loved every day there, but look around you. How could I turn the opportunity of this down? This isn’t work being here, it’s an honour.” Colin as well as all his other duties is responsible for the Ski Academy which trains potential ski instructors. So far over 150 are booked on the 2008/9 course which lasts eleven weeks.
Energy sapping runs are interspersed with refreshments. Good honest Alberta beef, the best in the world tops my list with a pint of ‘red’. The food is good and wholesome and in my view head and shoulders better than that offered in America.
Saturday is to be different, Kokanee beer is putting on a bit of a show. Live music, freeride skiing, more music and beer. It ends on the hill at 4pm and then continues in town until 2am. I said the town is small, I didn’t say it was dead!
Marmot is also a favourite ski area with British school children and the British Army. Both groups have benefitted in learning to ski and board in a safe, yet fun filled atmosphere. Even Eton College Ski Club were in town on my arrival, now if it is good enough for the movers and shakers of tomorrow!
It’s back into town, a hot tub, bath or shower awaits and then more of those beers whilst deciding where to eat tonight. Maybe it’s not a bad move to relax in the lounge of the Lobstick and enjoy a chicken and rib combo with an Okanagan wine.
There is never a desire to rush in Jasper, whatever it is you want will be there tomorrow. My host Dave Gibson, President and CEO of Marmot Basin puts it all in perspective. “Hey fella, we have only spent a lifetime working on this, but nature has spent thousands of years, see what happens when you don’t rush things”. Dave takes absolute pride in all he and his team have managed to achieve. We sit on his new sun deck “You know, this is the first time I have managed to sit on this all season and I still end up buying the beers!” There is an honest warmth about Dave, he is old school, one of the ones to roll up his sleeves and swing the pick rather than just bellowing out orders. “Jasper gets into your blood, the days aren’t long enough to take it all in. I could never be anywhere else”.
Unlike Dave my turn to move on has arrived. Sun Dog and their SUV comes early to take me back to Edmonton Airport, I don’t want to go, I haven’t had my six months yet. But go I must. As we head down the road towards Hinton a herd of 50 or so elk stare at me and I stare back. I have probably eaten part of their family on my many visits to Canada, or could that have been a bison burger? I am feeling lonely already, Jasper has got into my blood as well. I look at the open streets, snow capped mountains, smiling faces of those just feeling lucky to be a part of it. Who knows when I will return, all I know is that I shall.
Information on Jasper can be found at www.jasperalberta.ca and www.discoverjasper.com
Jasper is a four hour road transfer from Edmonton Airport or a five hour transfer from Calgary (via the Icefield Parkway)
For hotel accommodation go to www.mpljasper.com
Jasper is served by Calgary Airport see www.flyzoom.com and other major airlines
Jasper is also served by Edmonton Airport
Marmot Basin is open from mid November through to the end of April www.skimarmot.com
January is a great time to visit Jasper for the “Jasper in January” festival