I’ve been told that Banff, in winter, is attractive only to dedicated skiers (a sport for masochists who seem to enjoy the conditions I detest most, being cold, being wet and being in a cast. Most forms of reasonably intelligent fauna have either migrated or are in hibernation. Check elsewhere for a review of the wonders of Banff in winter. I’m not going.
Summer in Banff is spectacular. By the way, it is not really summer in Banff until after June 22. We were there once in early June and while the snow caps on the Canadian Rockies were breathtaking so was the temperature. The famed turquoise water of Lake Louise was white, as in still frozen.
Combine the falling Canadian dollar, the unrivaled beauty of the place, the great food and the mostly low cost of accommodations and there are no good reasons not to go to Banff this summer. Canadians still like us and it’s a chance to experience real wilderness without having to cross a zillion time zones and revert to Neolithic standards of hygiene and creature comforts.
Having visited Vail, Beavercreek and several other Rocky Mountain retreats, we have seen some pretty nice mountains. They look like rounded horse molars compared to the jagged shark’s teeth of the Canadian Rockies. The water in our alpine lakes and streams is boring, deep blue. In Banff, the water in the lakes and the Bow River is neon turquoise. It has to do with the glacial runoff of minerals, but enough about science. Our parks have vast clearings and fast-food strip centers surrounded by pine forests; Banff has vast pine forests with a few clearings and a single charming village. Even our grand dame Yellowstone feels as synthetic and overcrowded at Disney World compared to Banff.
For those who need more than natural beauty, Banff is a wonderful playground with the clothing stores, gift shops and sporting goods you’d expect. What you will find surprising is how many great restaurants there are in Banff. We had different ethnic food every night, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese except for the nights we ate like cowboys. The local Alberta beef is on every menu and beyond delicious.
To work up a great appetite, you can choose from a thousand hiking and biking trails. Some are short trails that lead to refreshment venues. That’s enough slow-motion exercise for me. Drive to what you want to see, the roads are good. I prefer rafting down the Bow River and watching the scenery come to me.
There are so many lakes and streams to fish, you could stay all summer and choose a different spot every day. There are also plenty of opportunities for wildlife encounters. Mule deer and whitetails are everywhere, herds of big horn sheep lumber by completely oblivious to your presence; mountain jays keep up a steady squawk and bears are always nearby.
The black ones can be observed from a discreet distance. It’s best to observe the grizzlies from your tightly sealed car or better yet, from behind glass at the Calgary Zoo. Our favorite furry friends were three picas who lived in a hole next to our patio. They looked like plush toys, enormous chipmunks. Because they always greeted us, standing up on hind legs (looking for a handout), we named them Simon, Theodore and Alvin.
Our cabin in the park was very comfortable but a bit rustic. Visitors to Banff can also experience pure luxury at the Fairmont Hotels, the Chateau at Banff and the Chateau on Lake Louise. Each was built in the early 1900’s as part of the chain of Canadian Pacific hotels. They retain their charm from that period while the new owners have added every amenity. The Chateau at Banff has riding facilities, white water rafting and a championship golf course all on the property. At Lake Louise, the turquoise water and year round glacier on the mountainside provide something beautiful to look at while you canoe or hike around the lake. They also have a world-class skiing facility nearby with a tram that makes for a fun ride to the top of the mountains.
Another nearby attraction is Moraine Lake, which even in the middle of summer looks like a scene from above the Arctic Circle. No one swims willingly in Moraine Lake, ever. Fortunately, the lodge cafe has my favorite antidote to even looking at something that cold, excellent white chili.
The many Japanese visitors take photos of each other standing atop the stumps of scores of fallen trees with the lake in the background while striking a pose as if to say, “I did this,” apparently a very Japanese thing to do and not recommended. However, picture taking throughout the area is a good idea. Even an amateur, still using the manual to figure out how to remove the lens cap, can take great photos at Banff. There’s always plenty of light, so pick out something cool to shoot, leave the settings on automatic, keep the sun at your back and you will be amazed by what you get. Pro shooters have come from all over the world to create their masterpieces at Banff.
Another great thing about Banff is arriving through Calgary, which has the closest international airport. It’s an up and coming business boomtown, but it’s still full of cowboys, hippies and other renegades from traditional urban civilization. They now have their new skyscrapers, steakhouses and nightlife hotspots, but the old legendary Wild West Calgary is still celebrated. The Calgary Stampede is one of the world’s premier rodeos and the Calgary Zoo has virtually every species native to North America. Our favorite exhibits are the grizzly bears, the bison, the caribous and the moose. One day we saw a moose lying down, so peaceful it allowed a squirrel (a local gatecrasher not part of the exhibits) to sit on its foreleg. My wife and I both immediately thought of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and startled nearby visitors by simultaneously crowing “moose and squirrel!” So mature of us.
Finally, another reason to spend at least one night in Calgary is the Palliser Hotel. It is one of the oldest large buildings in town and the signature icon of the city. Also a former Canadian Pacific hotel, the Palliser has a lower floor swimming pool that looks and feels like a Turkish bath. It has large, beautifully maintained rooms and a concierge floor that provides a complimentary bar with hot and cold hor d’oevres and nibbles at all hours. The price for all this luxury is less than a typical hotel room at the Chicago Hilton.
Once, when we were shooting video stock footage there, Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Benning were also guests of the hotel while making the movie, “Open Range.” At first the actors thought we were paparazzi there to annoy them. When we waved and quickly went on our way without shooting any footage of them, they seemed puzzled and mildly miffed. For us, the wild wonders of Banff are bigger attractions than actors, even very good ones.