By Matt Muir

In 1988, a young Canadian named Sara Renner watched the cross country skiing events at the Calgary Olympic Games in her hometown of Canmore, Alberta. It was then, she says, “I caught the Nordic bug.”

Skip forward to December 2005 and Renner medaled at the FIS Cross Country World Cup on those same Canmore Nordic Centre trails. By January 2008, after the completion of a roughly $25 million upgrade to the Canmore center, the 31-year-old Renner would make her return to World Cup racing after giving birth to her first child, daughter Aria.

The Canmore Nordic Centre, owned and operated by the Province of Alberta, has produced more than a hometown hero who is among the best skiers in the world. It has become a great Nordic skiing destination and a venue that continues to play a key role in the successful, competitive structure for Canadian cross country skiing.

A cross country enthusiast in North America is bound to feel like World Cup racing only happens on a video screen. Canmore offers an exception.

The town lies about 90 minutes west of Calgary and its convenient, international airport. Nestled in the scenic Bow Valley among the Rocky Mountain foothills, Canmore has emerged from its reputation as a broken mining town to rank among the most stylish spots in Canada’s spectacular western provinces, while to its credit, retaining at least some of its authentic feel.

For the Nordic skiing or biathlon fan, the Canmore Nordic Centre has twice -- in just over two years -- hosted cross country World Cups and will host the biathlon junior world championships during the 2008-09 season. Organizers hope that World Cup events will continue to return, since everyone from racers to FIS officials laud Canmore as one of the best venues on the circuit.

Supremely spectator-friendly, the competition trails perch on a terraced slope immediately above the stadium, making the racing at Canmore visually comprehensible and accessible for the fan. Best of all, the event organization at Canmore is first-rate. A friendly army of volunteers and staff combine to make watching the racing and enjoying the events an easy and fun outing.

There is plenty to do while not watching the racing, too. The Nordic trails provide varied terrain, with a total of about 70 km wending through the surrounding provincial parkland. Included are 6.5 km of lighted trails and 20 km with snowmaking capability, centered on the strenuous competition trails.

The trail system works year-round as a multi-use venue for mountain biking, rollerskiing and disc golf. Visit the handy, downtown tourism office and check on the two-and–a-half page report of other ski trails in the region that receive at least some form of grooming. The nearby region contains four major downhill resorts as well.

At these latitudes, the sun rises late during the winter and the skilled traveler will quickly assimilate to the slightly more civilized pace of Canadian culture, with its wise avoidance of cold early morning temperatures. Dividing the day into more relaxing parts seems to be the trick. Sleep in, lounge around, do the “second breakfast” at any of the many cafés or bakeries in town (a meal especially popular with children), let the sun get up in the sky, and generally move the start of the day back.

Visitors with family in tow may want to make themselves temporary regulars at the Main Street location of the Rocky Mountain Bagel Company, where the friendly environs serve as a great place for a basic breakfast or lunch and nobody seems to care if your kids run laps around the comfortable interior during your entire meal.

It is a good idea to pack a few extra layers, some good winter footwear, and know that waxing will be a simple matter of blue or green hard wax during the cold, mid-winter months.

That same civilized touch of Canadian culture is pleasantly present in its Franco-European-influenced cuisine. Canmore possesses some good and even great restaurants. Principal among them is The Trough, which has earned its national reputation for fine dining. The experience offered by restaurateur Michael Western and his chef, wife Rosie Gair, propels a visit to Canmore up one full notch of pleasure.

The Drake, alternatively, serves good, old-fashioned pub grub with those famous Canadian beers in a classic atmosphere in the middle of town. After hard skiing and good eating, check into a range of lodging options from bed and breakfasts to hotels to condos. A great place to start the search is www.tourismcanmore.com.

Since the 1988 Olympics, Canmore has reinvigorated its popularity as a ski destination, thanks to forward-thinking investment at the venue. “At $7.50 for a day pass, we’re not making money,” is how Ron Henderson, the manager of the Canmore Nordic Centre, puts it.

The ski area is really a provincial park and belongs to the Province of Alberta. In coordination with the Canadian federal government and Cross Country Canada (Canada’s Nordic governing body), the center’s transformation to a modern, World Cup venue was initially accomplished in 2005. But the decision to invest in Canmore was about more than bringing elite racing back to the area.

A Canadian FIS official explained the broader goals eloquently, “The government looked at rising obesity rates, especially among aboriginal and even youth populations. They wanted to showcase healthy lifestyles in order to preventively lower health care costs, and they wanted to do this in a sustainable and popularly accessible fashion that would benefit the town and region economically, while creating excellence in a venue with epic scenery.”

The Nordic center also serves as the headquarters for the Canadian National Team and development programs. Canadian skiers are issued stipends, depending on their skill level, so that they may defray the cost of living while attempting to train and compete full-time. Many choose to live in Canmore.

The collaborative work and consequent successes taking place around the Canmore Nordic Centre are impressive. The investment in making Nordic skiing enticing to locals seems to be paying off, as well. Who was the women’s freestyle sprint champion at the January 2008, Canmore FIS World Cup? It was a young Canmore native and Olympic gold medalist named Chandra Crawford who must also have “caught the Nordic bug” on those very same trails.