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The Exhilarating Rockies – Banff, Calgary, Canada

We had a week, a limited budget and lofty expectations of where to spend our vacation. After much debate, we decided on the Canadian Rockies, a place that balanced our sense of adventure with some much-needed relaxation and pampering. In the Rockies you can cling to a raft hurtling down rapids one minute, soak in hot springs the next.

As we wanted to combine the serenity of the outdoors with some good food, a little nightlife and squeeze in some shopping, we decided to divide our time between the bustle of Calgary and the peacefulness of Banff.

Calgary is one of Canada’s fastest growing cities, yet it has an unmistakable center. Downtown is compact and brimming with fun diversions. We discovered many attractions simply by wandering around. Stephen Street (8th Avenue) – the main downtown thoroughfare is closed to traffic during the day, so it makes a pleasant pedestrian promenade. Shops galore line both sides, restaurants and bars abound at street level.

After grabbing a quick bite, we stumbled upon the serene Devonian Gardens, Alberta’s largest indoor gardens. They are incongruously located in a large shopping center, cover nearly three acres, replete with waterfalls, turtles and freakishly oversized koi fish.

Indoor diversions are appealing because they are available year-round, but in the summer, locals flock outdoors. The Bow River, which cuts through the city, offers an escape from the skyscrapers of downtown. On a sunny day, rollerbladers and cyclists fill the area, taking advantage of the paved trails hugging the riverbank.

Next to the river is Eau Claire Market, which boasts an IMAX theater, shops, numerous eateries and pubs. Nearly everywhere we went in Calgary, we came across a pub – most with patios out front. The long warm summer evenings lend themselves to a vibrant patio scene. But no matter what time of day, patios are crammed with people sipping cool beverages, like the popular locally brewed Big Rock beers. To complement the Canadian brews, many pubs serve excellent meals. Pub grub is an affordable alternative, but a favorable exchange rate also makes fine dining an option. Whether in a pub or upscale restaurant, we found the service impeccable. Servers took a genuine interest in our travels and offered many helpful recommendations rivaling any guidebook.

We were enjoying Calgary, but we needed to tear ourselves away for the second part of our journey – the mountains. We debated whether to rent a car, decided against it, as we wanted fewer hassles. By selecting activities that provided transportation, and strategically using tour companies like Brewster, we were able to travel from Calgary to Banff to Lake Louise, even to neighboring Yoho National Park in British Columbia with relative ease, and for far less than if we had rented a car.

Brewster, the major tour company in the Rockies, is a great way to get around. Our driver even provided us with commentary for the hour and a half drive from Calgary to Banff. Towards the edge of the city, he pointed out Canada Olympic Park, where Eddie the Eagle soared (sort of), and the first ever Jamaican Bobsled Team hurtled down the icy track in the 1988 Olympics. After Olympic Park, came miles of nearly identical houses crammed next to one another, stretching for miles. Soon the uninspiring housing tracts receded in the distance, replaced by lush foothills, then by the unmistakable jagged Rockies piercing the landscape.

Banff is 75 miles from Calgary, yet feels more remote. The mountain air is crisp and the setting idyllic. The Bow River snakes its way through town, the Cascade Mountain rises at the periphery. Banff is compact and easy to get around. We stayed on the outskirts, only a 15-minute walk from the town center. For a dollar, you can catch the “Happy Bus", which runs along the main drag. Abundant gift shops and galleries pervade downtown – some are stocked with tawdry trinkets, while others sell fine artifacts, such as beautifully carved jade sculptures.

Up the hill from town, is the Banff Gondola, opened in 1959. The four-person gondolas precariously grip thin cables, while whisking tourists up the 5,000-foot track. The dizzying ride affords a great opportunity to see wildlife. We saw only one deer and some chipmunks, anticlimactic, as we heard that grizzly bears are sometimes spotted. The upper terminal has an altitude of 7,486 feet, a meandering boardwalk leads to the actual summit of Sulphur Mountain. Every few steps is a vantage point offering increasingly picturesque views.

Adjacent to the Gondola, is the naturally formed Banff Upper Hot Springs, initially helped make Banff a destination. The Hot Springs restored facility also houses a day spa, where you can indulge in a massage. The day we went, the pool was crowded with people looking relaxed, but we forwent a plunge. The air temperature was in the 90’s, so taking a dip in the 104-degree pool quickly lost its appeal.

The Hot Springs, however, are an exception; renowned Lake Louise has a more typical water temperature for the area – bitingly cold. The lake, located about forty-five minutes from Banff, lives up to its hype – unbelievably gorgeous. Its deep turquoise color is mesmerizing, hard to tear your eyes away from the majestic Victoria Glacier looming above. Even the busloads of tourists traipsing around the lake can’t spoil the serenity of the area.

Nearby there are several trails with varying degrees of difficulty. The easiest and most popular trail borders Lake Louise. It’s flat and starts off paved. There are plenty of benches along the way to sit and soak up the luster of the surroundings. It’s about 1.5 miles to the end of the lake, but you can continue on a more rugged trail. Mosquitoes quickly engulfed us so we had to turn back. I cursed myself for not heeding the advice to lather on insect repellent loaded with deet.

Signs describe the difficulty of the trails and give approximate hike times, though sometimes this information is misleading. One trail promised a gentle easy climb, but as we huffed up its steep incline, we wondered who had rated it. We weren’t alone. An English woman staggering up behind us, bemoaned, “What kind of fitness freak classified this trail?” The steep ascent, however, was worth it – the view of the lake with the famed chateau perched at its base was stunning.

After the exhilaration of clambering around outdoors, we decided to continue in an athletic vein by trying whitewater rafting. There are dozens of rafting companies. We decided on Wild Water Adventures’ Classic Day trip, included a ride from Banff to the company’s base on the Kicking Horse River in Yoho National Park, British Columbia.

It was our first time rafting, so we were a little nervous. We signed the release papers, but the guide calmly informed us that only four or five rafts capsize a season (there had only been three this year so they were about due) did not allay our fears. Our trip promised Class I to Class IV rapids. Class IV can be pretty burly, certainly manageable, unlike class VI, which as one guide told us, is equivalent to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

The first hour was fairly tame until we hit the rapid, aptly named “Alarm Clock", the ice-cold water trickling down our backs got our attention. At one point, our guide, Wade, pulled the raft to the side of the river, had us hike up a little hill. From this vantage point, we surveyed what was to come. Below us, as far as we could see, were huge class IV rapids. Wade gave us a rundown on how we should approach the rapids. He mentioned the ominous sounding “Terminator", which we were to avoid. Everyone in our little raft paddled like crazy to steer clear. The mile of uninterrupted rapids was cold, tense and invigorating. You couldn’t help having a sense of accomplishment at the end.

Most of the activities we participated in were summer oriented. the Canadian Rockies is a year-round destination, though. Next time I plan to go in the winter. Instead of jostling down a river, I might try heading down a world-class ski slope. The activities may change, depending on the time of year – the stunning scenery remains constant.

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Older comments on The Exhilarating Rockies – Banff, Calgary, Canada

10 January 2010

Thanks for this article. I’m heading on a surprise trip to Calgary (with a potential overnight in Banff) in 2 days. I’ve been there before only briefly, and didn’t hit downtown. Despite the fact that it’s now winter, you gave me a great idea of what to look for!