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Ski 7 peaks at Canada's 'Top of the World'

BANFF, Alberta -- At the top of Lake Louise ski resort, surrounded by the massive and breathtaking peaks of Banff National Park, one has the distinct impression of being above it all -- literally. At 8,300 feet, that is precisely why it has been nicknamed the ''Top of the World."

''This week I'll stand atop seven of those peaks," you say to yourself, gazing at mountains that make the Greens of Vermont look like rolling hills. And you can do just that, for about 20 percent less than you'd spend in Colorado or Utah. (Last week, one US dollar bought $1.23 Canadian.)

As a bonus, you're likely to ride the lift with an interesting variety of overseas skiers. The British, for example, will tell you it's a much better value for them to ski Canada than the United States or even continental Europe.

In the Canadian Rockies, you can easily ski or snowboard four world-class resorts on seven peaks in just four days. Within an hour's drive of your Banff condo or hotel, you'll ski Lake Louise, Nakiska, Mount Norquay, and Sunshine.

Day 1: Smart skiers take a complimentary ski tour of the mountain, which is offered at most resorts (groups are arranged according to ability). Lake Louise guides like to show off their wide variety of terrain and are especially keen about a run called Rock Garden.

''There are rocks in there the size of sofas and buses," our guide, Bill, advises. ''My only rule is that you don't ski over any rocks, because you don't know what's on the other side."

Skiing slowly between the boulders is magical. You'll feel as if you've left Earth for a snowy moonscape. It's eerily quiet. The only things you'll hear are the sounds of your breath and your partner's ski occasionally scraping over a rock. (Tip: Pay the extra $5 for insurance on the rental equipment.)

After a big first day on the mountain you'll be starving. An early call for reservations at Banff's Coyote Deli and Grill is recommended. Coyote is easily among the best eats in the region. Don't miss the out-of-this-world chicken corn tortilla soup. One problem with having your first dinner at this snug restaurant -- you may not try another place all week.

Do plan to give other spots a chance, though. Saltlik is great for high-end Alberta beef, hip Earl's is deliciously middle-of-the-road, and for a cheap, hearty breakfast, there's Phil's.

Day 2: You decide to go for the gold. An intimate resort called Nakiska provides the perfect lift: Gold Medal. There are also lifts called Silver and Bronze -- after all, this resort was created for the Winter Olympics, held in Calgary in 1988.

Nakiska is in a region called Kananaskis Country just outside Banff National Park. The Olympics needed a place to hold downhill events without the logistical and environmental constraints of the park. From Nakiska's slopes, the views across the Kananaskis Valley are vastly different from those at Lake Louise. It feels cozier here.

Day 3: Your legs will probably want a break after two full days on the slopes. So shorten the day, and ski by the hour. This unusual option is available at nearby Mount Norquay, the closest resort to Banff town. Norquay has a reputation for being steep, but there's enough variety to keep almost anyone happy for a couple of hours, all overlooking the Bow Valley and Mount Rundle's distinct profile.

The wise will head back to town for an afternoon of shopping. On Banff Avenue, dodge busloads of Japanese tourists en route to buying a famous Hudson's Bay Company wool blanket. Then perhaps find a nifty touque (the Canadian term for ski cap, pronounced ''tuke") at ultra-hot Roots, the company that outfits the US and Canadian Olympic teams. After a latte and sausage roll at Evelyn's Coffee Bar, browse amazing art at Canada House Gallery. Keep your non-food receipts to show at the airport kiosk, where you can apply for a refund on the 7 percent GST (sales tax).

If you stay in a luxury hotel such as the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (Canada's dazzling ''Castle of the Rockies") or the trendy Rimrock, this is the time to explore your spa options. The Fairmont's spa is beyond sumptuous, but with the favorable exchange rate, it approaches reasonable. Even if your hotel has a spa, schedule time for a soak in the pool at Banff Upper Hot Springs. Banff's abundance of soul-soothing natural hot water is what originally put the area on the map. On a wintry day this outdoor pool is pure bliss.

Day 4: Ski the fluffy, powdery bowls of Sunshine, near Banff town. If it seems familiar, it's because the TV reality show ''The Amazing Race" zoomed through on the last episode of its fifth season.

''This is a strange place," you think when you get to the parking lot. ''There's not a ski run in sight. Just a gondola that goes nowhere."

Three minutes into the gondola ride -- when it amazingly turns a corner -- you'll see Sunshine's lovely, high-elevation bowls ahead. Find the ski hosts at the top of the gondola, and enjoy their colorful banter about local history as you ski back and forth across the border between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

On your last day in the Alberta Rockies (for this trip, anyway), you'll realize you've never imagined so many peaks and valleys at such reasonable prices, or so many ski runs all near where you've been staying. Suddenly, Stowe is but a bump.

Randall Shirley is a freelance writer in Alberta.

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