By Frontier Canada Travel Consultant Jeanette Dembrey
Frontier Canada travel consultant Jeanette Dembrey is no stranger to the Canadian Rockies, but on her last visit through this region, there was a chill in the air and the lakes were frozen. After returning in the late summer with her husband, Jeanette found herself falling for this iconic part of Canada all over again, the breathtaking scenery still as spellbinding as ever, and for much of her 14-day trip through Alberta and British Columbia, the country’s majestic mountainscapes were basking in glorious sunshine.
TO CALGARY WITHOUT A HITCH
Our Canada trip got off to a great start, as we had a seamless check-in with WestJet on our flight out of Gatwick, despite some earlier online scanning issues. When we finally landed in Calgary, just 50 miles east of the Canadian Rockies, the automated airport immigration was equally fuss-free, and we were quickly waved through by security. Incredibly convenient, our first night was spent at the Applause Hotel. Only a five-minute drive away by free shuttle, this modern airport hotel receives excellent reviews and serves up a fabulous to-order breakfast.
I was eager to explore Calgary on our very first night, as we would be leaving for Banff the next day, but it’s definitely worth spending longer in Cowtown, especially if you are here for the Stampede. Easy to reach, our free hotel shuttle took us back to the airport, and from there we climbed aboard the Calgary Transit—costing $3.60 per person—the bus taking us right into the heart of downtown in 20 minutes flat. This was our preferred option, but if you want to splash out on a cab, it will set you back around $35–$40 each way.
Our sightseeing began at the most iconic building in the Calgary skyline, the Calgary Tower. Built to celebrate the centennial of Canada in 1967, it offers fabulous 360-degree views across the city and, if you dare to look down, a glass-floored observation deck. Do check out the fabulous revolving restaurant.
We also ventured into the Fairmont Palliser, which is ideal if you want to be more centrally located as it’s within easy reach of all the shops, restaurants, and entertainment. A marriage of old and modern architecture, the foyer feels particularly grand.
Ready to take the weight off, a couple of blocks later we found ourselves at a pub called The Local, where we enjoyed a lovely meal with drinks for a very reasonable $60.
The following day, our Brewster transfer took us from downtown Calgary to Banff, via the spectacularly scenic Canmore—famously appearing in The Last of Us series—and the stunning Banff National Park, the town lying in the heart of this World Heritage Site. We would be staying at the Ptarmigan Inn, a friendly three-star hotel that is only steps away from the downtown area.
Our first adventure began at the Mount Royal Hotel. A vintage tour made for today’s crowd, the open-top touring bus we travelled in is inspired by the same local tours from the 1930s, and it really delivers when it comes to the most beautiful views of Banff. It’s a great way to take in all the main highlights that you might otherwise miss, and it’s an opportunity to learn about interesting local stories and folklore. One of the main stops was Mt. Norquay, where we enjoyed some refreshments and, of course, more photo ops!
A longer excursion later that afternoon saw us make a loop of the Fairmont Golf Course. Sadly, on the Discover Banff & Wildlife tour, there are no guarantees, and during the two and a half hours, only elk and long-horned sheep made an appearance. I imagine a longer round of golf might well throw up a few surprises. The scenery was, as you can expect, spectacular, with our coach driving past Lake Minnewanka, Two Jacks Lake, and Mt. Norquay Lookout.
To end our first day in the historic town, we dined at Earls Restaurant where we received great food and service. Don’t forget about the 15-25% service charge!
SULPHUR MOUNTAIN & BEYOND
Taking the gondola to Sulphur Mountain is like a rite of passage in Banff, and the 360-degree views of six mountain ranges are well worth the journey. We caught the Roam Bus to make our 9:30am gondola departure, and we were treated to glorious views from every angle along with sun-kissed skies.
Sadly, we only had an hour before our return, but you could easily spend the morning here just having coffee and enjoying the views, and perhaps frequenting the Sky Bistro Restaurant or the Northern Lights Alpine Kitchen.
Still, we had more to pack into our day, with Bus One taking us to beautiful turquoise Lake Minnewanka for an hour-long boat cruise. Then it was onto the Cascade Gardens, or, as it’s also known, Banff’s Secret Garden. If you’re an avid gardener, you might have the opportunity to speak to a horticulturalist. A great place to relax, the paths wind through terraced gardens that are resplendent with vibrant flowers, cascading ponds, and wooden gazebos.
For an insight into Canada’s First Nations history, the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum is only a short walk from the centre of town, and we popped in for a very informative visit before heading out for our Banff Trail Riders Cowboy Cookout Dinner. This was an authentic way to sample the Canadian West—a mouth-watering barbecued steak dinner following our covered wagon journey by the Bow River, an hour-long ride that was certainly not short on spectacular scenery.
The following day, we returned to ride the Bow Valley Trail on horseback. I would highly recommend the activity, and perhaps coming here for a longer ranch stay, as Banff Trail Riders is offered by our sister company, American Round-Up.
BANFF BY BIKE
If you like to cycle, then this is the perfect location to get into gear. We hired bikes for the day and took a short 15-minute ride to the Cave and Basin Historic Site. This is actually where Banff’s first sulphur hot springs were discovered, so you can really get a sense of the town’s history. We also visited the Sundance Canyon, followed by a 4K hike. Don’t be put off if you’re not a regular walker, as after the steep hill at the beginning, the path is mostly flat and easy-going the rest of the way.
Overall, it’s worth looking at a stay of three to five nights in Banff, as there is so much to do. The Roam buses also make it incredibly easy to get around, and for spectacular mountain and lake views, Banff is hard to beat.
MOUNTAINS, LAKES & WATERFALLS
En route to Lake Louise, we enjoyed a Mountain Lakes and Waterfalls tour. Best viewed from on high, at Moraine Lake we climbed a set of steps that are quite steep, but if you have the energy, the views are so worth it. One of countless picture postcard moments from this trip, it was another glorious day of sunshine, and the mountains were reflected in the lake’s azure blue waters.
Having only ever seen Lake Louise in its frozen state, another glacial lake that glimmers an opaque shade of tiffany blue, I was looking forward to capturing its beauty on camera at the tail end of the summer, and it did not disappoint. My top tip is to get here early for the best photo opportunities.
A leisurely walk around the famous lake later, and we were headed towards Field and Yoho National Park: first stop, the Takakkaw Falls. One of the tallest in the Rocky Mountains, the waterfalls reach upwards to a staggering 1,250 feet, and when you cross the bridge towards them, you can’t help but feel their magnitude and power.
Also contained within the national park’s boundaries is the Emerald Lake Lodge, a 1902-established timber property set on a peninsula overlooking a glacial lake. When we arrived, it seemed as though every consecutive lake we visited was upping the wow factor, as the Emerald Lake, which you have to cross to reach the lodge, is simply breathtaking.
The lodge also has a lovely tea room with a large terrace, and we decided to have lunch here as the combination of stunning views and great food was far too good to pass up. Before returning to the Lake Louise Inn, we made one last pitstop at the Wapta Falls, the 30m high and 150m wide cascade of water, the largest waterfall of the Kicking Horse River.
LAKE LOUISE: HIKING & KAYAKING
Only a 15-minute walk from the Lake Louise Inn, is a lovely hike following the Bow River, and luckily for us, it was bear-free, though we did have bear spray at the ready! The route would take us to Lake Louise, and getting there early certainly paid off in terms of photos, as there were very few people, and the glacier’s reflection on the water made for memorable snaps. It is every bit as, if not even more, picturesque in the late summer.
We continued onto Mirror Lake, which, as the name suggests, mirrors the trees and the mountains, and about half a mile later we reached Lake Agnes, passing some lovely waterfalls on the way. Thirty wooden stairs will take you to the lake where you will spy incredible views, and don’t worry, as after all that walking, you’ll be pleased to hear Lake Agnes has a tea room. Don’t forget to bring cash as they don’t accept cards!
Proof that travel always has a few surprises in store, our decision to explore more of the lake led to a further unexpected hike called the Beehive, and a steep climb around lots of bends and trails. Go a little further and you will be treated to an unforgettable wow moment with Lake Louise pictured in all its glory from on high; from around 7,500-feet to be exact. The very same trail, the Plain of Glaciers or the Lake Louise Shoreline trail will take you back down.
We could hardly come to Lake Louise without experiencing its turquoise splendour by canoe, so we ended our day paddling across an almost luminous expanse of blue, the Fairmont Lake Louise Chateau looking even more imposing from the water. That additional hike back to the inn certainly gave us a big appetite, and we can heartily recommend the hotel’s Outpost Bar followed by a well-earned soak in the hot tub.
JASPER AWAITS: ICEFIELDS DISCOVERY ADVENTURE
In Canada, driving is always an adventure, as the landscapes are larger than life, and that was never more true than when we joined our guided Icefields Discovery Trip. The excursion was also a wonderful opportunity to discover the country’s lesser-known lakes, including the peaceful Lake Herbert—after all, Canada does have more lakes than any other country in the world. The turquoise Peyto Lake—located at the highest point on the Icefields Parkway—was yet another stunning must-see. Said to resemble a wolf, its shape and what it represented seemed to vary with everyone in our group, but whatever we thought, we could all agree it was a bucket list location.
The Columbia Icefields Centre was a major highlight on our itinerary. Part of our experience included travelling out onto the Athabasca Glacier by tundra buggy. I can honestly say, having travelled to this same spot over a decade ago, that the glacier has shrunk in size dramatically, but it’s still nothing short of incredible to find yourself walking across a 10,000-year-old sheet of ice.
A little further down the road, we stopped at the Jasper Skywalk, a glass-bottomed observation platform situated 900 feet above the valley and river below. From this vantage point, you are able to hear nearby waterfalls and spy spectacular views of the mountains and the glacier.
Our final leg to Jasper took us to the Athabasca Falls. An amazing wonder of nature, the water is forced through a narrow gorge, making the flow over the 75-foot waterfalls extremely powerful and an impressive sight.
IN THE WILDS OF JASPER
Located across the road from the Athabasca River, we stayed at Jasper’s Alpine Village in one of their beautifully appointed cabins. There are so many picturesque walking trails between the resort and the mountain town, and we greatly enjoyed the opportunity to explore and stroll back and forth after lunch and dinner. Also a wildlife hub—and yes, we encountered quite a few elk—we are hoping to return in June to see the resident grizzly bears and their cubs.
Ten days into our trip, we had our first sign of rain, which was a little concerning as I had booked with Jasper Motorcycle Sidecar Adventure Tours for my husband’s birthday. Thankfully, the weather eventually perked up, and dressed in our leathers, we headed towards Edith Cavell Mountain with Rob, our guide. Rob showed us many more of his favourite spots, including Leech Lake and Lake Beauvert—the latter overlooked by the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Our knowledgeable guide also gave us a restaurant recommendation, and we are more than happy to vouch for the 50-year-old L&W Family restaurant and their eclectic Mediterranean, Greek, and Canadian dishes.
LAKES & CANYONS GALORE
Our last day in Jasper was jam-packed as we were headed out on the Maligne Valley Wildlife, Waterfalls, and Maligne Lake Cruise—our first stop, Medicine Lake. Low-lying, as it empties in the summer, the lake is surrounded by hundreds of trees that were burned in a lightning strike over a decade ago and it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled as the area is prime spot for wildlife.
The largest lake in the Canadian Rockies, Maligne Lake, was the real showstopper on this trip, and after boarding the John Albert Boat, we were able to take in views of the glacier and towering mountains (bearing Queen Elizabeth’s name to mark her coronation) that surround these blue waters. We also touched on First Nations culture at Spirit Island—a spiritual place for the Stoney Native Indians. Maligne Canyon was our final stop on the adventure, the deepest canyon in Jasper National Park, boasting depths of more than 50 metres. There are six bridges here, which make it easy to reach the best viewpoints, and while we only managed to reach two, we would certainly have been happy to spend more time exploring.
HITTING THE TRACKS: VIA RAIL
We enjoyed four nights in Jasper, and if we could, we would definitely have extended our stay, but alas, it was time to hit the tracks and travel by rail on our VIA Rail journey from Jasper to Vancouver.
Once we had boarded the train and settled into our cabins, we headed to the observation carriage for canapes and refreshments. The scenery was fabulous, with the North Thompson River, Yellow Head Lake, Moose Lake, Vale Mountain, and the Pyramid Falls passing us by on our way to Kamloops. John Piere, our host, would regularly regale us with stories to keep us entertained, and with a surprisingly comfortable bed, it was a great way to relax after an adventure-crammed holiday.
OUR FINAL STOP: VANCOUVER
To reach Vancouver, we headed for the Skytrain and boarded the Canada Line to the Vancouver Central Terminal. We were then within easy reach of our hotel, the Rosedale on Robson.
As we only had a day left, we decided to explore the city by bicycle. We rode towards Stanley Park and the Vancouver Sea Wall Path, which is around seven to nine miles and a bucket list activity. In the afternoon, we made fresh tracks to Granville on the ferry from False Creek. If you’re a fan of boutiques and galleries, this is a fabulous place to go, and don’t miss the indoor market with its sumptuous food stalls—the Mexican was our favourite!
All in all, Vancouver is an easy place to get around, especially with the hop-on, hop-off bus, and we only wish we’d had more time to explore. In fact, that pretty much sums up how we felt about our entire 14-day holiday. There are so many pursuits on offer for everyone in Western Canada, from the hardy adventurer to those who want to go at a more leisurely pace. The journey is also the destination in this region, and the chance to be escorted from place to place makes it a very relaxing and even more rewarding experience as you can simply kick back and savour the stunning scenery. Proof that Canada only grows on you, I fell for the Rockies all over again on this trip, and I am already planning my return escape!
For more information on the holidays we offer at Frontier Canada, and to book, call us on 020 8776 8709 or email us at email@example.com. ATOL PROTECTED No 5405 ABTA W3207.