Posts in the “Banff” category...
Here again, we were presented with a false start to a roadtrip as we made tracks for Maligne Lake – the access road being in completely the opposite direction to our ultimate destination for that day, Banff.
The road commences from the foot of the Jasper Park Lodge’s own drive, and there are numerous distractions en-route to delay the traveller yet more. The Maligne Waterfalls are worthy of inspection, connected as they are by footpaths and bridges through the forest. Medicine Lake too occupies a few megabytes of the SD Card. The target however is Maligne Lake itself, hero of countless postcards and tending, in the right light, toward that famous turquoise hue borne of suspended ‘rock flour’. It rained for us.
Looking at just the right angle, from just the right elevation, with slightly more squint in the left than the right eye, we could just about detect the colouration, but after a quick scoot around the shoreline near the boathouse and a cursory examination of the distinctly second class Tatarama, we retraced our path to Jasper, passing Medicine Lake once again and then numerous clumps of tourists huddled by the roadside, apparently peering into the gloom of the forest to inspect a rapidly-retreating moose bum.
The weather presented a finer aspect for our lunchtime arrival in Jasper, a town noted for its adventure sports and peak season traffic jams. We were treated to little congestion however and, under blue skies and sunshine, we toured the streets taking in gardens and shops, the most handsome railway station and the slightly Hansel and Gretel Park Offices.
Having been impressed by the sandwiches at Flour Meadow, the Other Paw Bakery on Connaught Drive offered a similar opportunity to stock up in preparation for a picnic. We were not to be disappointed and, having refuelled the Ford, we found ourselves not half an hour later at a look out heralding the start of the famous Icefields Parkway.
With time marching on and much still to see, we travelled the Parkway a short distance before plunging downhill and West towards the old highway and the Athabasca Falls. The rock flour is clearly present here, as the vivid waters hurl themselves from placid meander to thundering verticality through a sink hole in the rock. Unperturbed by the numerous coach parties, it’s still relatively easy to find an unpopulated turn in the path from which to view this mighty force of nature at close quarter.
Leaving the massed bands of blue rinsers behind, the Icefields Parkway continues South, gaining altitude almost imperceptibly as every rise in the wide, well-graded tarmac is followed by a slightly lesser downhill run. All the while the waters which have yet to power through the downstream falls are just to the Western side – sometimes calm and glassy, sometimes racing and rapid.
The highpoint of the roadtrip, in every sense of the word, is the Athabasca Glacier itself. Approaching from the North, the nose of the ice appears to creep from behind the scree as the road rounds a sweeping meander of the meltwaters to arrive at the Glacier Visitor Centre.
From the Visitor Centre, coaches depart regularly to take guests through the ancient forest of stunted, four hundred year-old pines, to a transfer station on the lateral moraine. From here, passengers transfer to the specially designed Snowcoaches for a spectacular journey down the side of the moraine and onto the glacier itself. Flat out at little more than walking-pace, these behemoths of the ice trundle on oversized, monster truck style tyres, up towards the headwall of the glacier and the Continental Divide marked by this finger of the Columbia Icefield. From just above this vantage point, ice and then meltwater flows to the Antarctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and also into the cupped hands of tourists who take the opportunity to scoop up a taste of pure, pure water. To all but the most experienced of mountaineers and ardent students of geography (and then maybe even for them too) it’s a unique and fascinating experience.
This being the final tour of the day, we were treated to a slightly extended trip and, by the time we reached the Visitor Centre once again, the sun had dipped behind the mountain tops and the sparkle of a Rocky Mountain day was being overtaken by a gentle merging of colours into dusk.
In this most atmospheric of lights, the continuing drive along the Icefields Parkway takes on a different mood, with shadows lengthening and the last rays of sunlight turning isolated peaks to into glowing beacons. To this, an air of expectation grows as minds turn toward the end of the road and our target for the day – the Banff Springs Hotel.
In a World obsessed by spin, it’s all too easy to be carried away by hype and history. Faded glories trading on mythical reputations from times past abound, and countless are the disappointments of those who believe them too readily. It’s also much too lazy to resort to cynicism, to discount anything which prompts praise as being over-rated. And so it is that the approach to the Banff Springs Hotel (BaSH) brought with it hope, expectation and not a little fear that it would turn out to be a right royal let-down.
We need not have worried.
Hindered only slightly by roadworks in the centre of town, signposts point their way clearly toward this Victorian palace of hospitality, this fairy-tale tribute to a Caledonian castle which clings to the pine-clad slopes. The drive sweeps up a gentle rise between edifice and mountain and then doubles back to the porte-cochere. Serried ranks of porters and bell hops jump to attention, evacuate passengers and luggage from their chariots and then spirit them away to unseen garages. Inside, the baronial Reception welcomes guests with that most rare of preparations – the correct reservation and package details. No in-room check in or accompanied guide here, but a map of the sprawling wings and annexes is all that’s needed.
Come December, each guest room at the Banff Springs is decorated with its own Christmas tree, all 500 of them. It’s clearly obvious where the tree is to be placed in our suite, and no finer position could there be. The window it seasonally frames looks straight along the Bow Valley, across forest and river, to distant mountains whose snow capped peaks flame with the reflected glory of an unseen sunset. Closer, and to left and right, darkly forested and brooding foothills swoop up to yet more lofty summits.
At the other end of the cosy living room, a high mantled fire place is topped by a large recessed plasma screen. The Bathroom is luxurious and, though hardly wildly spacious, matches the proportions of the rest of the accommodations. The bedroom is similarly homely, looking out on that same spectacular valley view.
As with the Jasper Park Lodge, the Banff Springs is a Fairmont Hotel – and yet the experience here is altogether more worthy of the rates charged. President’s Club membership affords free (wired) net access once again, but here in these suites, all gratuities are included and staff will politely refuse them if offered. In North America, this is absolutely stunning.
Too late for dinner and exhausted by the day’s assault of spectacular scenery, we turned in for the night to revive and restore our constitutions as best we could.
Banff is only a short drive from the world-famous Lake Louise. Indeed, the Icefield’s Parkway from Jasper passes close by just before arriving into Banff. Numbed into partial surrender by the sheer volume of spectacles already enjoyed however, this was one sight that would go unseen on this trip, in favour of a leisurely trawl of the vast breakfast buffet at the BaSH, and then a stroll around the township itself.
Breakfast, naturally, takes longer than planned when backfilling for a missed dinner, but a table by the French windows onto the terrace afforded yet more opportunity to drink in the same Bow Valley view enjoyed by our own suite. Blue skies and sunshine glaze a frosty air and photo opportunities abound on the stroll back around the outside of the hotel to prepare for the day.
It was almost with resignation (if not utter defeat) however that our gentle, unchallenging potter into town became an all-out assault on the senses again. Somehow little, if any, mention is made of the stunning Bow Falls, which inconveniently hove into view as the path from hotel to town sneaks past the golf course. No wonder they don’t talk about them; it would surely put off lesser mortals who could take no more natural wonders, those who are all waterfalled-out.
Bravely, we consumed yet more megabytes of the SD cards and pushed on into town, fearful of glimpsing yet more stunning views which may arrest our progress.
Roadworks aside, Banff proves to be the pleasant little town our earlier brush with it had suggested. A few streets of tastefully-stocked shops, outdoor sports emporia, bars, restaurants and galleries. Riverside parks, pleasure gardens and elegant street furniture lend an air of quiet confidence, well-planned and organised.
With the senses returned to a general status of pleasurable taxlessness, the BaSH provides a welcome comfort to well-walked limbs. Lunch in the Bow Valley Grill is as gargantuan a spread as breakfast, but this time with chef’s stations preparing freshly cooked delights, alongside cold cuts, salads, pastas, roasts, seafood and desserts galore.
Though not unique, the hotel is one of few that have numerous public areas, and many a spare moment can be enjoyed exploring the landings and galleries, halls and lobbies of the vast building. Even more surprisingly, the shopping arcade which occupies part of this space offers goods at prices which undercut many of those in the town outside. There is also an interesting exhibition space given over to the history of the hotel, the visionaries and the railway that brought it about.
American Express’s late check-out arrangement affords the opportunity to retain the room until 4pm but, mindful of potential teatime traffic and a 7.25pm flight from Calgary, our time at the BaSH would come to a well-fed conclusion shortly after 3pm. Not before a small blot on their copy-book was marked however. Initially, the front desk refused the late check-out request when telephoned. A confirmatory visit to the front desk brought forth an English Supervisor who apologised profusely and, of course, granted the extended check-out time. All seemed well, until the housekeeper-whose-first-language-was-not-our-own banged on the suite door and demanded to know why we were still there. At 1pm……
Final check-out itself was relatively smooth, notwithstanding the usual tussle with the bill to get all parts of the AMEX Fine Hotels & Resorts rate applied correctly. All the more surprising here, as a little card explaining all the benefits had been presented at check-in. It’s something AMEX really should take up with their partner hotels as it’s seems a constant and universal struggle to sort, in my experience.
The drive to Calgary is no more than 90 minutes, with the valley widening progressively past Canmore and then flattening out into the first taste of prairie. The mountains retreat into the rear-view mirror, disappearing and reappearing alternately with the rises and falls of the freeway. The signposts would take you on a three-quarter loop of the city to reach the airport but, for once, the Permanently Lost comes up trumps and navigates a single quadrant shortcut through suburbia to reach the airport from its less salubrious side. The gauchemoble abandoned, it’s a short walk to Check In and the first steps of the impending leap from nature to nurture, fresh to furnace, mountain to desert and Alberta to Nevada.
A sightseeing tour-de-force comes to an end and the decision to drive West to East, to let the excitement and anticipation build gently from Vancouver to Kamloops and Jasper, with only a short final hour to Calgary of less than memorable scenery, is well and truly vindicated.