THERE IS BOTH majesty and serenity in the mountains. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are drawn to places like Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise and the Columbia Icefields. No matter how many of our fellow travellers we encounter, there are always moments when we feel awed and utterly at peace with the natural world, enveloped in the stillness.
If you’re now emerging from your pandemic seclusion and thinking the time has come for exploring, head west to the Canadian Rockies. Whether you’ll be retracing familiar steps in much-loved places or seeing this rugged part of Canada for the first time, the mountains will never disappoint.
We chose a western holiday itinerary curated by Pursuit, a travel company known across North America for its collection of outstanding adventure tour options. While we could easily have spent weeks enjoying dozens of Rocky Mountain experiences ranging from sun-drenched cruises on Lake Minnewaka, to hiking adventures around Maligne Lake to gondola rides up Sulphur Mountain, we chose to put the focus on two iconic destinations: Banff and the Columbia Icefields, home to the Athabasca glacier.
Skywalk at the Columbia Icefields. Photo credit: Mike Seehagel
Established in the late 1800s, modern-day Banff combines an alpine ski town fun vibe with a new-age focus on health and wellness. Never able to resist the pull of a touristy wellness classic, we started our visit with a soak in the waters of the Banff Upper Springs on the side of Sulphur Mountain. It was discovered in 1883 by railway workers who spotted the natural hot springs and recognized something that might just rival the popular thermal spas of Europe. The proximity of the CPR
railway meant that eager tourists were soon traveling by train to immerse themselves in the healing waters of the Banff Upper Hot Springs, fueling the reputation of the area as a wellness centre and accelerating the development of the town. While I’m not sure that we emerged from our hot springs soaking looking twenty years younger or cured of every ailment, we were certainly thoroughly relaxed by the very warm water.
Already tired after an early morning flight to Calgary, we needed a bit of a loll at our hotel, the well-known Mount Royal. Not only one of the oldest in Banff, the Mount Royal is also one of two in the Banff Pursuit collection. The other, Elk & Avenue, is a few blocks away on Banff Avenue. Both are comfortable, well-appointed and, most importantly, located right in the middle of the Banff buzz, surrounded by cafés, pubs and restaurants, outdoor gear stores, candy shops and all the other treats that make a Rocky Mountain tourist town so much fun.
This is a fabulous part of the Pursuit experience. From start to finish, every aspect of your holiday is organized. When you land at the Calgary airport, there’s no need to worry about a rental car, because the Brewster Express coach is waiting to take you to Jasper, Lake Louise, the Icefields, Canmore, Banff or any of their other many destinations. Your luggage is whisked on board and your only travel responsibility is to pick a window seat in the coach.
Exploring the Athabasca Glacier. Photo credit: Mike Seehagel/BanffLakeLouise.com
In each of the destinations you visit, you’ll be welcomed at a Pursuit collection hotel, ordinarily the pick-up point for the adventures that lie ahead. Keep your itinerary in your hand for reference if you like, but relax. The smiling and ever-present Pursuit team knows what’s been lined up for you and they’ll make sure you never miss a step.
Also, part of the Pursuit experience is the opportunity for great dining at Brazen, in the Mount Royal and Farm and Fire, the restaurant in the Elk & Avenue. The creative menu of locally sourced foods we enjoyed the first evening was enough to entice us to return to Farm and Fire for breakfast the next day, for a feast of Eggs Benedict served mountain-style, with generous slices of artisanal bacon and tiny new potatoes, smashed and grilled to a crispy perfection.
Our next Banff adventure was an Open Top Tour, in a custom-built vehicle designed to accommodate small groups in 1930s-style luxury, modelled after the original vehicles used by the first members of the Brewster family to ferry travellers around the Rockies. In good weather, the glass-panels on the funky vehicles pop off to create the open top experience they’re so proud of. Whenever there’s a scenic point to enjoy or a random bear or elk wanders out of the woods, guests can pop out for an unobstructed view.
So, you’ll understand and fully appreciate what you’re seeing, a 1930s costumed guide and driver tell stories and share seemingly endless Rockies lore as you roll along.
Some of the stories are historic, while others touch hilariously on tourist blunders, such as the tale of the over-eager photographer who was approaching a large, photogenic bear with a dripping handful of peanut butter until a park ranger swung into rescue mode, averted sure disaster and slapped him with a $25,000 fine! For a bit of musical interest, while you tour, the driver plays both Benny Goodman swing – in recognition of that musician’s many visits to the iconic Banff Springs Hotel and Indigenous drumming, in honour of the original inhabitants of the land. The combination is a lively way to experience an iconic part of the Rockies.
After a healthy lunch at the cozy Nourish vegetarian café back in the centre of Banff, we met another Brewster coach for the three-hour drive to the Columbia Ice Fields. Ordinarily, a three-hour drive is more to be endured than enjoyed, but this excursion on the Icefields Parkway is so scenic, we were almost sorry when it ended. On either side of the coach, rocky cliffsides rise to snow-topped peaks – even in June. Though shooting through a window doesn’t produce top quality photos, no one could resist trying. With phones and lens pressed tightly to the glass, we struggled to capture the dark pines and the glistening ponds scattered like sequins at the base of towering peaks.
Spectacular views at Glacier VIew Lodge. Photo courtesy of Pursuit.
It was late afternoon when we reached the Glacier View Lodge, another Pursuit collection hotel. Check-in was in the lounge, where other guests were already enjoying both a mind-bending glass-walled view of one of Canada’s largest and most impressive glaciers, sipping special icy-blue glacier-themed cocktails and digging into an impressive charcuterie spread. It was the warmest of welcomes.
The next morning, we joined other glacier-seekers for a journey down the steep slope to reach the shimmering blue ice of the Athabasca glacier. Though the eco-responsible vehicle we rode in was equipped with both enormous ice-handling tires and a transmission designed to deal with a 38-degree downward angle, we still had the feeling that we might pitch end over end at any moment and come to a crashing halt on the glacier. We didn’t. Apparently, our driver, who was also a very informative guide, had ridden this ice road a time or two before and knew just what to expect!
Walking on the glacier, feeling the crunch of the ice under our feet and taking photos with the conveniently- placed Canadian flag was fascinating, as was a later stop at the newly completely Skywalk, a glass floored balcony that hangs over the gorge in a breathtaking arc.
We loved every minute but the moment I know I’ll never forget came when we crouched for a moment beside a frigid little stream on the ancient glacier, scooped freezing water into our hands and filled our mouths, throats and perhaps to some extent, our souls with the primeval purity of the Rockies.
Written by Liz Fleming for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (Summer 2022 issue). Main photo: Open Top Touring in 1930s-style luxury. Pursuit's custom-built vehicle is modelled after the original vehicles used by the first members of the Brewster family to ferry travellers around the Rockies. Photo courtesy of Pursuit.