Despite a 45-minute drive to Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) from Los Angeles, the short line to check in at WestJet and go through security probably made the overall travel time to get to the gate less than it would have been to fight the lines that Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has become known for. Checking in with us was Spencer the horse–a real live horse brought in from Alberta’s Rancher Six Resort to add to the hoopla of introducing the new flight route. At the gate, the inaugural WestJet flight from Calgary to Orange County arrived, with passenger after passenger deplaning wearing Mickey Mouse hats. They were greeted by the Peanuts characters (Snoopy and Charlie Brown), highlighting the famous Anaheim amusement parks Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm, which are bound to attract Calgarian families to the new direct route. The fares are family-friendly, too, starting at US$159 each way. As our flight left the gate, WestJet representatives gathered on the tarmac along with Harry the Horse (the Calgary Stampede’s mascot) to wave us adieu. The flight took just over three and a half hours–an easy jaunt to the city known as the gateway to the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Our first stop in Calgary was the Hotel Arts in downtown. The 175-room boutique hotel is one of two in the area focused on renewing the business, arts, and recreational spirit of the city. (Room rates start at CAN$159.) Having been to Calgary about a decade ago, I was surprised at how much the city has grown and evolved, offering luxuries and amenities that were formerly nonexistent.
Inside the hotel is Raw Bar, voted one of Alberta’s 10 best restaurants. The cosmopolitan swanky decor was an unexpected but welcome twist in a city more known for its horses and western vibe (it is called “Cow Town”) than for its urban sophistication. The cocktail menu alone was impressive, with antioxidant drinks and unique concoctions by mixologist Colin Tait like Tea-Jitos, a mojito-style drink made with Martin Miller’s gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, muddled cucumber, mint, and green tea, then topped with ginger beer.
Executive chef Duncan Ly prepared appetizers that were artistic and tasty, from tuna tataki with shitake mushrooms to prawn and papaya citrus sushi rolls wrapped in cucumber. My entrée of choice was the Miso Black Cod Donburi, which left me satisfied but not without room for a few tantalizing bites of Cinnamon Bun crème brûlée, served with pistachio and mascarpone cookies, for dessert.
To work off the feast, we went for a stroll along 4th Street and 17th Avenue, which we were told were the hot spots to check out. But, being a Monday night, it was rather quiet (with the exception of Café Med, a lively hookah bar around the corner from the hotel). It felt like more should be going on and open, with it still being light out until after 11 p.m. We learned the next night that Stephen Avenue was actually the best street in downtown for hip bars and happening watering holes, no matter the night of the week.
A White-Hat Welcome
The next morning we were treated to a traditional pancake breakfast at the home of The Calgary Stampede. Known as “the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the Stampede has been a symbol of Calgary hospitality since 1912. Today, it doubles the city’s population each summer with more than 1.3 million visitors expected between July 8 and 17, 2011.
During the stampede, free pancake breakfasts are served all over the city, from front yards and truck stops to hockey arenas and city halls. The “White Hats” we were given was a similar symbol of hospitality and pride, as they can be considered a virtual handshake or nod of the head to say, “Welcome, you’re now part of something special.”
While enjoying our flapjacks and sausages, we heard from Hall of Fame bull rider and three-time Stampede champion Jim Dunn, who may have more rodeo titles under his thick belt buckle than the country has Stanley Cups. He explained the six events that will take place during the Stampede and all the festivities surrounding the big events. The 10-day party, which takes place on the Stampede grounds and in the neighboring Saddledome (home to the Calgary Flames NHL team), is more than your average rodeo, with a carnival, rides, games, and musical acts (this year will bring in country star Kenny Chesney and pop diva Katy Perry).
The Stampede will celebrate its centennial next year as perhaps the world’s most prestigious rodeo, now drawing the best riders from around the world by invitation only with more than $100K up for grabs in each event. If you go, remember that the “cool kids” call going to the Stampede “ya-hoo-ing.” While day packages to the Stampede start at CAN$105, an “All-In” ticket package costs $199 and includes:
– Stampede Park entry for all guests
– Level One Centre Rodeo ticket
– All-you-can-eat concession fare and four drink tickets
– Reserved parking permit with reentry privileges
– Collectors edition rodeo souvenir program
*Minimum of two packages must be purchased
A Step Back in Time
Our next stop was Heritage Park, located about 20 minutes southwest of downtown Calgary. The park is Canada’s largest living-history museum, open year-round, with more than 50,000 artifacts on display that span the 1860s to 1950s. (Admission is CAN$19.50 for adults, $14.50 for children.) Inside the museum is Gasoline Alley, a collection of vintage automobiles and oil and gas artifacts, most of which were donated by local oilman Ron Carey. The interactive features include a retro drive-in movie theater and a 1930s service station. The true gem of the park, however, is the Historical Village, which is open seasonally. There you can ride in horse-drawn wagons or on an authentic steam train, watch a blacksmith make horseshoes the way they did in the early 20th century, learn how the old printing presses worked (the press is fully functional and used to create the park’s newsletters), visit a replica of an 1860s Hudson’s Bay Company Fur Trading Fort, and make “bannock” (a form of biscuit made from flour, sugar, water, and lard, cooked over a wood-burning fire) in the Aboriginal Encampment.
Its charming facilities have caught the eye of Hollywood on more than one occasion, most recently using the pool hall Snooker for the filming of The Assassination of Jesse James. To be honest, the park wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could appreciate the tremendous efforts and production that go into keeping it an authentic village so rich with artifacts and antiques. For families and children, it’s a perfect spot to visit, with numerous activities and educational opportunities. We capped the morning with lunch in the award-winning Selkirk Grille, which offered distinctly Canadian dishes include a duck poutine. What I will take away most from the morning, however, was meeting an 18-year-old young lady with special needs. She joined us for a wagon ride, and we learned that she visits Heritage Park with her teacher almost every single day with enthusiasm and happiness. The way this teacher interacted with her student (who was never supposed to make it past her 8th birthday), with such generosity and patience and unyielding, genuine attention and excitement, was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, and it put life into startling, touching perspective.
A Bird’s-Eye View
The most obvious physical landmark in downtown Calgary is the Calgary Tower, standing 626 feet tall, with an observation deck and revolving restaurant at the top. The idea for the tower came about in 1963, as city officials discussed what they should do for Canada’s pending centennial celebration in 1967. A Husky oilman spearheaded the effort, and the decision was made to build what was originally coined the “Husky Tower” on land that once belonged to the Canadian Pacific railway, thus bringing together two of the city’s most precious industries–oil and the railway. The tower officially opened in 1968, and 20 years later, during the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, a flame burned at the top, making the Calgary Tower the World’s Largest Olympic Torch.
The torch is still lit today for special occasions. Daring visitors to the observation deck (CAN$14.75 for adults) can step out onto a platform of glass flooring that overlooks the city streets below. I have to admit, I held on to the support beam–as if that would save me should the glass give out. Our guide informed us that the glass can withstand the weight of two hippos, but mind games and optical illusions are certain to make taking just one simple step increase the heart rate for a moment.
As you make your way around the deck, 360-degree views of the city give you the sense of Calgary as a big city nestled at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains seen to the west.
Other landmarks that stand out include the Saddledome, Nose Hill Park (the largest park in North America owned by city government), the largest skylight in the world at the Core building (it’s the length of three football fields), the Glenbow Museum, the “Red Mile” party district along 17th Ave., the Kootisaw or “meeting of the rivers,” Olympic Plaza (recognized by its large blue polka-dotted outdoor square), and in the northwest, the ski jump at Canada Olympic Park.
Next, we headed up a floor to have dinner at Sky360, the tower’s revolving restaurant. An upscale menu featured fish and of course Alberta beef dishes, which was the choice of most of our group, after appetizers like sunchoke soup and beet salad. We tried out a Canadian wine from the Okanagan Valley and were impressed by the richness and equally confused by the complexity of getting British Columbian wines to the U.S. Later that night we took a 15-minute cab ride to Ranchman’s Cookhouse & Dancehall, where we had every intention of riding the infamous mechanical bull, but given its quiet Tuesday-night crowd, we opted out. On a Friday or Saturday night and certainly during Stampede, this traditional western bar and dancehall is the place to rub elbows with bull riders and true cowboys. In fact, it’s the only true cowboy bar left in Calgary, with rodeo memorabilia lining the walls and ceilings and, yes, peanut shells on the floor. During Stampede, they host their own mini-rodeo in the back parking lot, just in case you haven’t gotten enough of the Wild West.
On the way to the Rockies…
The next morning, we were off to the mountains. Banff is about a 90-minute drive from Calgary, but some visitors opt to take the scenic Rocky Mountaineer Train. On the way to Banff, we stopped at Kananaskis Country, where they offer a number of adventurous activities to bring out your wild side, including whitewater rafting. The ranch also provides limited accommodations and camping and has a church on the grounds that is often used for weddings. (Side note: The horse that greeted us at the WestJet check-in counter in Orange Country was brought in by the owner of this ranch.)
We started our adventure with a horseback ride through the Bow Valley (CAN$45 for an hour). The rain let up halfway through the ride, allowing us to take in the crisp, clean air and picturesque landscapes. Deer sightings were common, and the laidback western vibe was palpable. After a quick break for hot chocolate in the lounge, we headed for the ropes course (CAN$72 per person, or $159 with a trail ride). Surrounded by spruce trees and Douglas firs, we climbed a ladder to the first platform. Making the adrenaline pump and requiring utmost focus to get to the next platform, the course is a test of mental fortitude and physical control, particularly in the rain when the lines may be a little more slippery than normal. Either way, you quickly learn the art form of trusting your gear. Granted, proper attachment to the safety line before each obstacle is the only way to ensure your safety should you lose your balance, which none of us did. The grand finale of the course is a speedy zipline to the field below, where you then repel a few feet to reach the ground. One member of our group learned the hard way that slow and steady pressure while repelling is a much more conservative approach to the ground than going all in and landing on your derriere.
Arriving in Banff and Lake Louise
Next stop: Instead of making a pit stop in Banff, we headed straight for Lake Louise. Arriving late for our horseback trek to an alpine tea house, we learned that when people say Lake Louise is just 45 minutes from Banff, they really mean an hour and 20 minutes, especially when you leave 15 minutes late and stop along the side of the road to check out wildlife. Note: If you see cars pulled over on the side of the road in Banff or Lake Louise, they are not experiencing car trouble. There is something out there to see, so stop and look! During our three days in the national parks, we were fortunate enough to see an abundance of wildlife including a black bear, grizzly bear, a moose, and a loon on her nest.
We rescheduled our ride to the tea house for the following day, and spent some time checking out the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The sun came out long enough to make the stunning turquoise water of the lake even more vibrant. The original Chalet Lake Louise was built in 1890 and hosted visitors from different dining stations along the Canadian Pacific Railway line as well as day visitors from its sister, the Banff Springs Hotel, built in 1888. Both were the result of the vision of Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the CPR, who wanted to build “a hotel for the outdoor adventurer and alpinist” as a means to increase tourism and business via the railway. Today the Banff Springs is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Accommodations at both will run you at least $400 per night, depending on the season.
Picturesque Views of Lake Louise and Historic Charm in Banff
One of the best views of the Italian-styled Chateau is from the top of the Lake Louise gondola($26.75 for a ride, open 7 days), where you get
a sense of the hotel’s unique location alongside the gem of a lake surrounded by the majestic snow-capped Rockies. Along the ride up or down, visitors often see Olivia, a bear who has made her home along the lift. The best time for sightings is in the early afternoon while she’s making her way back up the mountain, depending on the season and how short or long the summer has been. Bears are found in lower elevations and sighted more often when there is still snow at the higher elevations, as they need to get to the greener areas where food is more readily available.
After the gondola, we checked in to the Banff Springs Hotel and went to dinner at the Waldhaus, which was a short stroll from the main building and designed like an authentic hunting cottage in the woods. They served traditional German and Swiss dishes, including fondue (the truffle is the best) and Wiener schnitzel. During dessert, we opted to try ice wine, a dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine.
The hotel itself is grand, styled after a Scottish baronial castle featuring 768 rooms. There is a 27-hole golf course on the property, and the hotel is known as the birthplace of tourism in the Canadian Rockies. Six royal visits have been hosted at the hotel, and many speculated that William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, would make an unannounced visit during their Canada tour in July. In fact, one of the banquet attendants in the hotel’s Mount Stephen Hall alluded to the fact that menu preparations were already being made. With just days left in their Canada leg of the trip, all eyes are on Banff to see if the rumors were true.
Hiking in Banff
As we made our way to the hiking trails in Banff, we passed the Bow Falls, where Marilyn Monroe is known to have sprained
her ankle during the filming of River of No Return. The falls, while not tall or large in size, are powerful and fierce. Rumor has is that bellmen at the hotel would flip coins to see who would have the special opportunity to push her around in her wheelchair. A book is now being sold in the hotel– Marilyn, August 1953–that details her time spent in Banff.
Due to the inclement weather, we opted for a hike around Johnson Lake instead of a more treacherous hike through the mud to views that could not be fully appreciated. Our knowledgeable guide, Paul Sylvester of White Mountain Adventures, first explained proper bear protocol, something anyone visiting the area should know. Number one, know the difference between a grizzly and a black bear. The grizzlies are territorial, meaning if you see one, gently back away, give them space, and don’t look them in the eye. Black bears are predatory and often travel alone, which means if you run into one you should stand big and tall, throw sticks, make loud noises, and as a last resort, always carry “bear spray,” a form of pepper spray that our guide assured us is 98 percent effective. That being said, if it’s not a sighting from the side of the road with a fence between you, the best thing to do is stay undetected and immediately get into a vehicle and leave the area.
While seeing wildlife–elk, moose, wolves, birds, and bears–is an awesome experience, the one you never want to see is a cougar. They are the most dangerous and the most predatory in the park, and if you see one, they’ve already seen you first, and you’re in trouble. As our guide said, “In all my years hiking here, I’ve never seen one, but I have no idea how many have seen me.” Whether for a gentle trek along the lake or a more taxing jaunt up the mountain, going with a guide is recommended, particularly because of the education you’ll get–like how bears’ reproductive cycles work–and the simple pieces of Mother Nature you could miss along the way, like wild purple orchids and the intricate nests of red squirrels that would otherwise look like a pile of pinecone dust. (Guided hikes cost anywhere from CAN$80 to $250 and up depending on the adventure; they also offer heli-hiking.)
An Alpine Tea House in Lake Louise
Later that day, we were back in the saddle for the one-and-a-half-hour trek to the Lake Agnes Tea House, which is quite simply a very special place not to be missed while visiting Lake Louise. You can only get there by horse or by foot; given the rain and snow at the top, horseback was a much more pleasant way to arrive. Our cowboy guide from Brewster Stables (on the Chateau’s property) was Andrew Campbell, a former rodeo star and a story in and of himself. He made the ride that much more interesting, even encouraging us to sing country songs along the way. They offer two three-hour rides per day for CAN$115 per person.
Halfway up the trail we passed a small blue-green luminescent pond with the Beehive mountain as the backdrop, then among the trees we came to a powerful waterfall, the front doorstep of the stairs up to the rustic alpine tea house. No matter the direction you look, picturesque views are omnipresent. I found myself contemplating life and my place in it and never wanting to leave this magical place.
Inside the tea house, there is no shortage of selection of freshly brewed teas, coffees, and sweets. I chose the hazelnut vanilla black tea (CAN$5). Keep in mind that if your intention is to stay at the tea house for an extended amount of time, arriving by foot would be your best choice, as on horseback time is more limited to accommodate other visitors. Again, precaution is the key, and the park is diligent about reminding novice explorers that there are indeed significant dangers–from weather to wildlife–to consider at all times, no matter the time of year, despite the breathtaking beauty.
The Town of Banff
Not having time to go back to the hotel to shower and change, we went straight to dinner at The Saltlik, a steakhouse in the heart of the town of Banff. The laid-back, casual atmosphere was an upscale dining experience juxtaposed with a quaint and charming appeal to both the food and decor. The town itself has great coffee houses, restaurants, shopping, and even music, and late-night spots like the Sasquatch that can make you almost forget you’re in the Rockies instead of in the middle of a New York hot spot, spinning house music amid funky lighting. It’s easier to get to the town of Banff by cab, but in nice weather, it’s just a 20-minute walk from the Banff Springs Hotel.
Relaxation in Banff
After the endless opportunities for adventure in Banff and Lake Louise, not to mention the altitude, relaxation and rejuvenation are more than welcome amenities. The Willow Stream Spa at the Banff Springs has every kind of service desired, but even just the public areas are enough to make you feel pampered with four different mineral baths to choose from, eucalyptus saunas and steam rooms, and an outdoor thermal hot tub to soak in with ancient glaciers and magnificent mountains as the backdrop. If you head off the hotel property, you can visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs, which were discovered in 1884 and have become one of its most famous attractions. Two other natural hot springs run by Parks Canada are also in the vicinity. Parks Canada is currently celebrating 100 years of conservation and tourism around the country.
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.