The Frolik family had its annual Park Getaway trip together and this year we (by “we” I mean myself, my parents, my brother Cory, and Cory’s longtime girlfriend Ashley) made our travels through the Canadian province of Alberta.
Our trip began with an arrival in Calgary International Airport by way of Minneapolis. For all its “Wild Wilderness” reputation of lore Calgary is now a major metropolitan area of three million people with a skyline that includes a space tower as well as major skyscrapers.
We didn’t have time to get to know the city better though, since we were headed to the Banff Park Lodge in the town of Banff approximately eighty miles away. Unlike the U.S. Canada, allows towns to be built inside its national parks, which means that Banff National Park, sports the community of Banff which was actually the first town to be incorporated in a Canadian National Park. It’s at a high elevation, (4,800 feet) and it can take a while to adjust. Visitors will find themselves drinking copious amounts of water.
Banff is one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations and is for better or for worse a fully fledged resort style town. Every address in Banff is either a yuppie geared restaurant, a yuppie style boutique, a hotel, or a souvenir shop filled with kitsch. They’re very visitor friendly to say the least but some people might find it too commercial or artificial. All the streets are named “Moose Street,” or “Beaver Street,” or some such. Other people like my brother (who’s a big fan of Vegas) will absolutely adore it.
The town by way of its location sports many natural attractions such as its world famous hot springs, Sulphur Mountain, and the misleadingly named Tunnel Mountain. (Misleadingly named because there is, in fact, no tunnel—personally I prefer the old first nation name, “Sleeping Buffalo,” because the mountain is shaped like a sleeping buffalo. My family hiked the Sleeping Buffalo, which was more like a paved walk than a hike and did a little window shopping. That night at the Banff Park Lodge we enjoyed the sensational on site spa level pool and hot tub before enjoying dinner in the lounge area complete with some of the best original cocktails any of us had ever tasted.
From the town of Banff, in Banff National Park, we drove 179 miles to the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park. The town of Jasper is utterly unique; it is surrounded by mountains on literally every side. It is a popular destination for tourists (in summer, hiking, rafting, and kayaking, and in winter, world class skiing) and so has an array of restaurants (you can find everything from Mediterranean cuisine to Japanese) and shops but it has its own real fulltime community as well and feels far more “authentic” than Banff.
Bears are a major decorating theme here as are some spectacular flower gardens. Because summer in Alberta, has such long days it creates a prime growing season for gardening which the locals take advantage of. At the Best Western Hotel, we noticed that every room came equipped with its own ski locker and once again there was a great pool and hot tub. Most importantly this was a tremendous day for wildlife spotting; we saw elk, mountain goats, big horned sheep, and even bears all of them on the side of the road while driving. None of the animals paid the slightest bit of attention to the humans gawking at them. Local hikes in the area include Maligne Lake, the Bald Hills, the Valley of Five Lakes, and the beautiful Mount Edith Cavell with the view of the Angel Glacier.
Jasper’s local pride and joy is the Bear Paw Bakery, which sports the famous “bear paw” (not bear claw!) pastries among many other delightful baked goods. We also discovered Café Mondo a local eatery that makes a point of not offering free wi-fi but does do delicious waffles, sandwiches, and more. Jasper has a number of rivers/falls in the area and at least two different rafting companies. That day, Ashley, Cory, and I all went rafting on the Sunwapta River, on a route that offered fifty minutes of continuous rapids mostly class threes. It was a magnificent outing sure to please fans of rafting or adventure, thanks especially to Melotte our Quebec rafting guide. That evening we went out to dinner at Earl’s, a local chain of restaurants that offers a nice upscale menu and dining experience. Everywhere we go in Alberta you hear a lot of different accents among visitors and staff alike; from India, to Australia, to Europe, to Kenya. Alberta is truly a global attraction.
A day that featured hiking, bear spotting, and shopping in the afternoon during the rain. A local candy store was raided and my mother and Ashley were entranced by a specialty boutique. Jasper is also a “deep sky park.” It is known for having night time views of the stars that are unmatched anywhere else, and on a clear night visitors will often go out to Marmot Basin to gaze at the sky. Jasper National Park also has Canada’s highest gondola ride to the top of the mountain and there places all over downtown where you can make reservations. The Trans-Canadian Railroad goes directly through town and train tours are available as well. The Jasper Pizza Place does amazingly good pizza that can be ordered in or for take-out.
Jasper National Park is known for its hot springs (which are built into a swimming pool like complex) but my father and I were less entranced by the springs themselves as the surroundings. big horn sheep in that area are so numerous and used to people that they come right up to cars or to barbecue pits to lick the drippings. In the Hot Springs area there are at least two major hikes; the Bald Hills hike and Sulphur Mountain. Sulphur Mountain is the lesser traveled trail that is part of a larger stretch of trails used by backpackers as dad and I discovered on the trail along with some truly gorgeous wildflowers. Cory, Ashley, and Mom enjoyed a ramble along the Mt. Edith Cavell. For our last night in Banff, we tried the local Japanese restaurant and I tried sake for the first time. Sake in my opinion is rather tasteless but it felt good to experiment; that’s what vacations are for. The seafood tempura on the other hand, was quite good.
For the final leg of our trip we drove over 120 miles to Lake Louise. Along the way we stopped at the majestic Athabasca Icefield. Seeing the receding lines of this massive glacier is a worrisome sight; further evidence of global warming that tells a cautionary tale of a time when ice fields like this will no longer exist and the world will be poorer for it. There were further wildlife sightings including a mother bear with her cubs romping behind her and we hiked Parker’s Ridge together. Of all the hikes on that trip Parker’s Ridge was by far the best. Indeed it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful hikes I have ever seen. The Parker Ridge Trail is about five kilometers out and back, with a steep elevation gain of over 800 feet. It is well worth it though, for the sensational views of the Columbia icefield’s and to enjoy the subaltern pine, spruce, and wildflowers along the way.
From there we did the long drive to the Chateau Fairmont in Lake Louise. The Chateau Fairmont is literally right on Lake Louise and is in fact the only hotel in that area. (Though Lake Louise, has world famous ski slopes as well.) The Lake itself is enormous and fed by glacial water giving it a green-blue coloring that seems almost unreal. In early morning the lake can be so clear that it gives a perfect mirror reflection of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The best word for the location is idyllic, and the Chateau Fairmont itself is a jewel box of a luxury hotel, sporting five different restaurants, a giant pool and hot tub, a selection of boutique stores, and beautifully decorated rooms with baths that seem like a spa. Needless to say all this opulence comes with a high price tag but you do feel you’re getting your money’s worth. Upon arrival we soon met Marcus a golden Labrador who is the hotel’s official ambassador and indeed the Chateau is very dog friendly; we saw tons of people there accompanied by four-footed friends. That evening we tried the Glacier Saloon on the bottom floor for a less formal but still tasty dining experience.
Another thing distinguishing Canadian National Parks from those in the U.S. is the “teahouse” hike. This is a hike through the forest that ends with the hiker’s arrival at a quaint rustic little teahouse in the middle of the woods to enjoy a nice cuppa and maybe a pastry as well. The Lake Louise area sports two such teahouse hikes right off the path around the lake area; one is the Teahouse Hike to the Field of Six Glaciers, the other slightly shorter hike is up the mountain to the glacial Lake Agnes. Lake Agnes is a small lake but the teahouse is situated by a lovely waterfall making it extremely popular.
Like myself, my parents enjoyed the hike but unlike me they didn’t bother with tea. (Note the teahouse only accepts cash.) Both these hikes are of moderate difficulty but they are open to the public and not just to guests at the Fairmont. In fact, there’s plenty of foot traffic through the Chateau every day by non-guests who are visiting the Lake Louise area and want a look inside and possibly stop for a drink and/or snack. There’s no swimming on Lake Louise but you can rent a canoe for an hour to paddle around the lake and back, something Cory and Ashley enjoyed together before hitting the indoor pool. The Chateau boasts a five star spa, an art gallery specializing in First Nation works that go for thousands of dollars, and a fossil store that showcases museum quality pieces including a completely intact 35,000 year old mammoth tusk that can be yours for the bargain price of $85,000. The main dining rooms and restaurants make a point of requiring guests to wear something other than hiking gear for dinner and each place offers its own signature cocktails as well as classic cocktails available throughout the hotel. For dinner we ate Lago’s an Italian restaurant open seasonally which offers a comfortable, low key atmosphere, as well as amazing views. Anyone preferring more budget friendly food options should check out the Deli on the first floor; especially for breakfast they offer scrumptious croissants.
A long but scenic drive back to Calgary International Airport for a trip to the Duty Free Store before saying a fond farewell to Alberta before we headed home.