Looking ever so smart in our brand new Cadillac hired from Calgary Airport we were on our way to Banff. The hire car company gave us very specific directions for leaving the airport and getting onto the highway but we completely missed the directions they provided and somehow ended up on the more scenic route of Highway16 which is ‘straight as an arrow’ all the way to Banff. The two and half hour drive was easy and pleasant driving with a divided road all the way through stunning scenery where the green rolling Canadian Prairies led us right to the very base of the Rocky Mountain Range.
(Tip: You need to purchase a visitor’s pass for your stay in Banff National Park. When you arrive at the entrance of the Park there is a ticket office and you might find the car line is long, as we did in mid-August. If you are checking into your hotel straight away be bold and drive right past as the National Park Visitor Passes can be purchased at most hotels in Banff. If you are parking in town before checking into your hotel, you will need to stop and get a pass or organise one with your hire car company before leaving Calgary.)
Banff is a total resort town in the Canadian province of Alberta, located within Banff National Park. As we drove down Banff Avenue, the main street through the town, we saw château-style hotels, dozens of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and tourist booking agencies with plenty of ‘bear spray’ on sale. Heads out of our car windows we could also see the amazing peaks of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade, part of the Rocky Mountains that dominate the impressive skyline around the town. Luckily our whole stay in beautiful Banff was coloured by warm, fine weather.
Our hotel, about three kilometres out of town, was the Rimrock Resort and Spa just near the Banff Hot Springs and Gondola at the base of Sulphur Mountain. On our arrival we were welcomed by strong Aussie accents but this was not a ‘one off’, Australians were working everywhere in the Banff area.
The Rimrock Resort and Spa is a hotel we can highly recommend with its stunning scenic mountain backdrop, traditional dark timber decor, an enormous central fireplace and several quality restaurants, including awarding winning Eden Restaurant, renowned for its French cuisine and spectacular wines. We enjoyed eating at Primrose, the hotel’s Italian restaurant and evening drinks lounging in the bar area looking directly onto snow capped mountains.
Our hotel room was beautifully refurbished with incredibly comfortable beds and downy white pillows. The hotel also has wet and dry saunas, an indoor heated pool, large enough for lap swimming and a well equipped fitness centre, spa and gift shop. Even though the hotel was a little out of town we caught the Roam Shuttle bus (free to guests) right at the hotel entrance which took us down to the town centre, about a 12 minute journey.
On our first afternoon we explored the town and the best restaurants and bars are to be found in the back streets. The friendly ladies at the tourist information centre directed us to the Wildflower Cafe in Caribou Street for the town’s best kept secret coffee sensation. It was outstanding, as was the super fresh organic food. Next, we found the Visitors Information Centre where we were advised to purchase a four pass package which included:
1. Ride to the summit of Sulphur Mountain on the Gondola
2. Guided lake tour of beautiful Lake Miniwanka
3. Athabasca Glacier Adventure Tour
4. Glacier Skywalk
The four pass package was great value and allowed us to book entry and tour times on the spot.
We arrived at Sulphur Mountain Gondola right on 8:30am. At this time there were no crowds at the entry gate and the fabulous light crisp morning air invigorated us for the magical world awaiting at the end of the cable car ride. The ride was as breathtaking and exhilarating as one would expect when suspended metres above some of the most strikingly picturesque mountain ranges on Earth. Up top the new boardwalk led us on a 2 kilometre walk meandering through awe-inspiring 360 degree views overlooking Banff and the six incredible mountain ranges of the Canadian Rockies. A photographic wonderland, the mountains were at their shining best. In fact, we were being spoilt seeing them on one of Banff’s finest mid-summer mornings. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this heady, majestic realm and return to the world of bleating cars and herds of gathering tourists below.
After an eight minute Gondola ride down the mountain we walked back to our hotel to collect our car for the drive to Johnson Canyon on the Bow River about 30 minutes out of Banff. The Lower Falls walk along the river was not that amazing and the trail was very crowded. The highlight of the walk was the thundering waterfall that broke through the canyon and the newly married hunk who stripped down to his shorts and jumped into the freezing Bow River, we assume to impress his new bride. We gave the Upper Falls walk a miss and in hindsight we would not bother with Johnson Canyon and perhaps should have given Upper Hot Springs historic spa and bathhouse a more thorough investigation. There are several hot steam pools located there and over the centuries travellers have made a pilgrimage to ‘take the waters’.
In the late afternoon we drove to Lake Miniwanka (pronounced mini-wonka) which everyone was keen for us to to say in our Australian accent. Lake Miniwanka is a large glacial lake just 5 kilometres from Banff. The lake in summer is a glorious spot for picnicking, mountain biking, hiking, canoeing and, when the lake freezes over in winter, it is popular for ice-skating.
Our one hour Lake Cruise took us across beautiful emerald waters and beside dramatic mountains where we looked for those elusive bears. From the commentary we learned a great deal about the bears of Canada, the indigenous people and what happened when a dam was constructed on the lake and a local settlement was completely submerged.
We left early the third day to drive to the Columbia Ice Field in Jasper National Park which is the largest ice field in North America. Again we managed to miss an important turn and got badly lost making a three hour journey much longer.
(Tip: Don’t miss the turnoff to highway number 93 heading to Jasper)
The drive however was spectacular passing gorgeous crystal clear lakes, enchanting little towns and towering snow capped mountains.
Finally, at the Columbia Ice Field we had to reschedule our tour time, had lunch and then took the bus first to the Glacier Skywalk. The views were astonishing, from the spine-tingling, cliff-edge walkway where you look down to the valley floor to see an ancient wilderness supporting the most captivating alpine and glacial vistas imaginable. The finale of the one kilometre walk was the glass-floored observation platform, cantilevered 280 metres over spectacular glacier-formed valleys and rushing waterfalls.
Next we were off to the ‘main attraction’, the Athabasca Glacier. Loaded into a huge snow coach with mega wheels, specially constructed for icy terrain, we climbed the river of ice and soon found ourselves standing on one of the great glaciers of the world. The ice was cold, hard and in the brilliant sunshine, dazzling to our eyes but the air temperature was surprisingly warm with only a light jacket required. Even though there were many other tourists we did get the feeling of being on the frontier. Looking high into the mountain peaks, where the glacier begins, the grim isolation the first explorers would have experienced was palpable.
Our time on the glacier was very special but made even more so by having the opportunity to personally shake hands with Mr Ban Ki Moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was making a special visit to the glacier that very day.
On our way home to Banff we visited another highlight of our tour of Canada, Lake Louise and the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel.
By now the time was about 7pm perfect for seeing the lake, easy parking and hardly any tourists. With the sun just beginning to set we saw the lake at its absolute best. The brilliant acqua-marine water was calm, flat and the whole atmosphere serene, with just the soft echo of canoe paddles carving into the water.
After a multitude of pics we took a walk into the Fairmont Chateau, famous for luxury around the world. Now we know where all the tourists had disappeared to. It was cocktail hour with the best view of the lake but unfortunately no table vacancy for us. We reluctantly returned to the car happy to have seen such a parade of stunning natural scenery. However, on the way home, we stopped by the side of the road to watch a small black bear feeding on summer berries by the roadside. How amazing was that?
For our last full day in Banff we decided to go canoeing. Before we set out we revisited our favourite Wildflower Cafe for a coffee and had a stroll through the local framers’ market opposite and where we tried organic candy corn and the elk sausage which were delicious.
We rented a canoe from the Banff Canoe Club located at the corner of Wolf Street and Bow Ave, in downtown Banff. From the canoe docks we left to explore the gentle creek to the right of the Bow River but our rowing skills were somewhat inadequate and we managed to crash into everything and everyone heading our way.
Later, with a little more experience, we ventured out into the main channel and had much more success. The river was flanked by luxuriant redwood pines and the beautiful blue mountains in the hinterland made for a perfect few hours of relaxation communing with nature. We did not see any wildlife but it is common to do so, especially further up the river.
In the afternoon we had our last wander around the shops in Banff which feature many rock and gemstone stores. Some of the stores had dazzling displays of Ammolite, an opal-like organic gemstone found primarily along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and beautiful Jade jewellery. Some of the gemstone sculptures were exquisite but we had to be careful not to make one of those impetuous purchases you can sometimes regret when you arrive home.
Basically there is none. There are no gay bars, gay cafes nor gay restaurants and we did not spot any businesses displaying rainbow flags. However, there are plenty of gay friendly bars and hotels in Banff and, with so many tourists, you will be sure to meet ‘fellow adventure seekers’.
Returning to Calgary
On our way back to Calgary we called into Canmore, another beautiful little town just outside Banff National Park. We visited the local markets, interesting clothes shops and the Nordick Centre which is a major tourist attraction. After a hearty lunch of homemade soup and fresh crusty bread we made our way back to Calgary Airport along the National Highway.
(Tip: If you don’t wish to drive to Banff you can take the ‘Airporter‘ from Calgary Airport.)
Banff was the highlight of our Canadian holiday and in summer there is so much to do and enjoy but when we spoke to our ‘Aussies friends’ around town it was the winter ski season that mostly attracted them. Many had arrived, fallen in love with the area and not yet returned. We certainly fell in love with the area as well but when the temperatures plummet to minus 15 degrees in the depth of winter we would rather be luxuriously ensconced on a tropical beach another hemisphere away.