By: Glenn & Sarah Collins
Ultimately, Banff – that fabled getaway in the Canadian Rockies – was the answer to our fervent wishes and a prayer or two. It was the solution to a thorny travel puzzle: where to situate a family summer vacation that grandparents, grown children, and a toddler could find not only tolerable, but also memorable. Specifically, our mission was to find a recreational paradise suitable for celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary. We wanted convenience (given work and family schedules), variety, and a destination that would make the event truly special.
We grandparents hoped for revelry, cosseting, and hiking; our two grown sons craved world-class golfing and scenic views; our daughter-in-law sought riding trails and a wonderful spa. And our much-revered and active grandson Justin was ready for just about everything but funny-looking food. After considering half the locations on the planet, we decided on a luxe blowout in the Canadian Rockies: three days of feasting, sightseeing, and relaxation in Banff and Lake Louise, followed by five days in the nearby busy hamlet of Canmore for a more value- and nature-oriented change of venue. In other words, the best of both worlds.
Banff National Park
Banff National Park is like the Yellowstone of Canada. Established in 1885, it is that country’s oldest national park, encompassing more than 2,500 square miles. Banff is a marvel of scenic terrain – mountains, glaciers, lakes, forests – and adjacent to 4,200-square-mile Jasper National Park to the north. Following the discovery of hot springs in 1883 and then the establishment of the national park, Banff has served as a mecca for tourists, prompted by the visionary gamble of Canadian Pacific Railway general manager Sir William Cornelius Van Horne. Under his guidance, the railroad spent vast sums on a European-style luxury hotel deep within the Canadian Rockies, confident that it would draw everyone from Canada’s upper crust to the crowned heads of Europe. And it did.
Today there are two tourist seasons. Skiers crowd the slopes and clomp around town all winter and into the early spring, while the summer months bring nature lovers hoping to see the landscape in full bloom. The key towns within the park are Banff Townsite and, about 39 miles away, the smaller Lake Louise, two of the most luxury-rich destinations in the Banff area. Canmore, lying 15 miles to the south, is another great base of operations.
Within an hour of picking up our rental car at Calgary International Airport and heading west on the Trans-Canada Highway, the Canadian Rockies came into view. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (405 Spray Ave.; from $312/night; 403/762-2211, www.fairmont.com/banffsprings) was another hour’s drive away, yet still within the Banff National Park boundaries. We had heard that the baronial Scottish-style castle was an elegant and lavish resort hotel, offering serious pampering. We soon discovered – to our relief – that the hype was justified. The hotel hosts luxury-seekers of all kinds, many of whom (like us) are intent on marking special occasions. In recent years, a $200 million face-lift added a conference center and a 38,000-square-foot spa. As befits a Canadian National Historic Site, the castle offers daily tours.
After gawking at the cavernous lobby, we settled into a room with a view of the serpentine Bow River. Also framed by our window: the hook-topped Mount Rundle, carved by glaciers and the river (which played the title role in River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum). Right below our window was the entrance where King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, and countless other dignitaries once arrived.
The most congenial kid-friendly eatery at the hotel is the Waldhaus Pub (403/762-2211), a terraced café overlooking the golf course, providing comfort food and the occasional moose sighting. The pub is the easygoing little brother of the more formal Waldhaus Restaurant, specializing in German and Swiss cuisine; both reside in a 1927 Bavarian cottage.
One attraction of the area is the sheer variety of activities on offer. Top on our list was a morning jaunt with our son Brian to nearby Lake Louise, a 30-minute drive on the Trans-Canada Highway or about 45 minutes on the more scenic Bow Valley Parkway. Despite the throngs of sightseers there, we agreed that the lake was exquisite: a fantasy of glaciers flowing into an unearthly turquoise. Although less well-known than its Banff Springs counterpart, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (111 Lake Louise Dr.; from $391/night; 403/522-3511, www.fairmont.com/lakelouise) is equally classy, with a Swiss Alps twist. Its refined rival is the Post Hotel & Spa (200 Pipestone Rd.; from $279/night; 403/522-3989, www.posthotel.com), a more intimate Relais & Châteaux property that is all pine and fieldstone. Pay a visit if only for a meal at the renowned Post Hotel Dining Room (entrées from $27). In a rustic log cabin setting with a roaring stone fireplace, sample from the extraordinary Swiss-inspired menu and the jaw-dropping 2,200-label wine list.
Our golf-maven son, Alex, stayed behind in Banff Springs and later raved about the mountainview tee offs at Fairmont’s Banff Springs Golf Course (from $90/round; 403/762-6801, www.fairmontgolf.com/banffsprings). The world-famous Course on the Roof of the World opened in 1928. Meanwhile, after a 3-hour horseback ride our daughter-in-law Lisa relaxed at the hotel’s Willow Stream Spa in restorative multiple-temperature pools.
All too soon it was time for our anniversary dinner. A grand oil painting of a bearded Van Horne, the railway executive and tourism pioneer, presided over our private room in the hotel’s best restaurant, the Banffshire Club (tasting menu from $78; 403/762-6860). All the adults and grand-toddler Justin celebrated our marital longevity in the sublimely sequestered haven. We feasted on Kobe beef, Alberta elk tenderloin, pork chops with sage spaetzle, and Vancouver Island halibut with chanterelles and buttermilk risotto.
The next day we wandered into Banff Townsite, an impeccably clean town in Canadian chalet style across the river from the hotel. The town sports a cornucopia of tidy shops, including gift emporiums, art galleries, jewelry stores (many displaying local gems), as well as The Bay, a division of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Canada’s oldest department store. The town gets mobbed in the high season but never loses its quaint appeal. We discovered the Banff Park Museum (91 Banff Ave.; $3; 403/762-1558, www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ab/banff), a restored 1903 natural history museum and national historic site. Like a time machine, it presents vintage dioramas of the region’s flora, fauna, and geology in their original hand-rolled glass vitrines.
Many visitors opt for helicopter tours of the mountains, but chopper-phobes may prefer the Banff Gondola (Mountain Avenue; $21; 403/762-2523) for its Ravello-esque views of the mountain range and the town below.
That night we headed into town to Elk and Oarsman (119 Banff Ave.; entrées from $10; 403/762-4616, www.elkandoarsman.com), a casual pub and grill where we devoured Angus sirloins and rosemary-infused, grilled New Zealand lamb chops. Another night, we dined at Melissa’s (218 Lynx St.; entrées from $13; 403/762-5511, www.melissasrestaurant.com), a Banff institution offering hearty fare such as steaks, pizzas, a signature Canadian mountain stew, and a homegrown version of beef Stroganoff.
High-end lodging options abound in the Banff Townsite area. Set on the side of Tunnel Mountain, Buffalo Mountain Lodge (700 Tunnel Mountain Rd.; from $187/night; 403-762-2400, www.crmr.com/buffalo-mountain-lodge.php), welcomes guests into an antler-rich lobby; many of the rough-hewn, wood-beamed rooms have a fireplace. Rimrock Resort Hotel (300 Mountain Ave.; from $281/night; 403/762-3356, www.rimrockresort.com) is a gorgeous mountain retreat, whose richly hued decor is set off by dramatic Bow Valley vistas.
Our festivities thus accomplished (and son Brian sent back into the working world), we drove south to bustling Canmore. Upscale yet inviting and still affordable, Canmore is located right outside the southern entrance to Banff National Park and dominated by the tripartite majesty of Three Sisters Mountain.
In this veritable town o’ lodges, we opted for the family-friendly, competitively priced Mystic Springs Chalets (140 Kananaskis Way; from $228/night; 403/609-0333, www.mysticsprings.ca), whose multi-bedroom suites seemed perfect for our needs. It proved a convenient base camp for visits to natural wonders and those of the man-made variety, including the renowned 18-hole Silvertip Golf Resort (2000 Silvertip Trail; 403-678-1600, www.silvertipresort.com). Alex played amid thrilling mountain views and unexpected frissons: At one point the video screen on his golf cart warned of a grizzly bear a few holes behind him. We lunched at Rustica, a scenic terrace restaurant overlooking the course, sans bear.
Our favorite casual restaurant in Canmore was the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company (838 10th St.; pizzas from $7; 403/609-5508, www.rockymountainflatbread.ca), a Vancouver-based mini-chain known for its pizza (the kids’ section includes a toddler pizza oven). The goat cheese lasagna, linguine with red sauce, and hickory barbecued–chicken pizza all tasted quite good (pasta choices change frequently). But be ready to wait patiently since the meals seem to take a bit of time to prepare.
To replenish the calories lost on our hikes and rambles, we also enjoyed Patrino’s (1602 Bow Valley Trail; entrées from $6; 403/678-4060), a congenial eatery preferred by locals. There we ate prime rib and marinated chicken souvlaki and topped it all off with strawberry cheesecake and deep-dish pecan flan.
In town, the charming Canmore Centennial Museum and Geoscience Center (902B 7th Ave.; $2.50; 403/678-2462, cmags.org) has interpretive exhibits on the gritty past of this former coal-mining town; rock hounds can pore over a display of the region’s geology.
For the last few days, it was just the two of us in Canmore, and one sparkling morning we took a day trip to the ridiculously spectacular blue-green Moraine Lake. There we determined that even if Lake Louise has the brand name, Moraine Lake, a striking jewel nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, is more dramatic.
The 1,000 miles of hiking trails in Banff National Park can provide everything from family jaunts around well-trodden lake shores, where flip-flops are not out of place, to strenuous multiday treks requiring some climbing skills and stays in remote huts. We wanted something in-between, a moderate half-day excursion. To our disappointment, at the trailhead of a 2-mile path from Moraine Lake to the rock-strewn shore of Consolation Lake, we found a government sign indicating hikes are restricted to groups of four or more. (Apparently grizzlies rarely attack large groups.) Luckily, a family from Belgium happened by. We all hiked together to the lake for a picnic – chatting loudly to scatter any bears.
Another morning our car zoomed north out of Canmore and we rode along the Icefields Parkway past glacier after glacier until we reached the legendary Columbia Icefield (877/423-7433, www.columbiaicefield.com). About 128 miles from Canmore, across the boundary between Banff and Jasper national parks, the Icefield Centre is a hub for glacier exploration. The classic glacier experience is a 1.5-hour guided tour in one of the famous “snow coach” buses with $5,000 balloon tires; passengers are dropped onto a safe haven on the ever-shifting, 3,200-foot-wide glacier, which we learned to our dismay is shrinking 30 feet each year. Visitors have about 20 minutes to explore on their own in carefully marked areas. We gingerly traipsed about on the ice, stepping by vast fissures and torrents of chilly meltwater. The guided tours cost $38 a person and depart every 15 to 30 minutes from the visitor center; given their popularity, arriving sometime before noon is highly advisable.
Another dazzling day trip is to tour the extraordinary Johnston Canyon (www.banff.com/hiking/johnston_canyon.shtml), a cascading chain of waterfalls about 30 miles from Canmore. Visitors climb up a suspended walkway alongside a mountain where they can enjoy fantastic views. At the trailhead snack bar we wolfed down generous $9 Canadian-bacon BLTs on kaiser rolls, which really hit the spot.
So much of the Canadian Rockies resembled a postcard fantasy of a mountain vacationland: The best part is that the fantasy kept turning out to be real. In the end, we admitted something: We had each worried that an anniversary trip so close to home would be too dull. That turned out to be unjustified condescension. We were stunned to realize how remarkable Banff is. For a place that threatened familiarity, it was nothing short of otherworldly, and we barely sampled its glories.
Making it Happen
Fly into Calgary International Airport, which is served by a number of airlines; Air Canada and United offer direct service from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Factor in about 5 hours of flight time from New York, 3.75 hours from Chicago, or 3 hours from Los Angeles. Those seeking a more leisurely, romantic adventure should consider the Rocky Mountaineer Railway (877-460-3200, www.rockymountaineer.com), a swanky railroad line journeying from Vancouver to either Jasper or Banff (rates to or from Banff start at $667/person one-way).
When to Go
Prices generally double during Banff’s high summer season, from June through September. There is a similar spike in prices during ski season from December to March. Ice and mud can block hiking trails as late as May; tourist crowds are thinner in June and September.
Read our Banff Travel Guide for even more in-depth destination coverage and trip-planning advice!