A row of cars has stopped behind us by the side of the highway lined with snow-clad mountains and pine. Dozens of tourists have fished out their cameras and are clicking away furiously. “It’s called a ‘bear jam’,” informs our bus-driver-cum-tour-guide Mia in her French accent. In the distance, the subjects of those cameras roll about in the summer grass – a mother grizzly bear with her two baby cubs. More cars slow down. Mia manoeuvres her way out of the chaos and we take off, only to stop a few minutes later to observe another two-year-old cub having a midday snack by the side of the road. “Here we go again,” says Mia, and parks the bus to allow us our voyeuristic pleasure. Within minutes, another bear jam builds up behind us. It’s been an exciting day.
We’re driving through the Canadian Rockies of Alberta where the landscape is unbelievably gorgeous and the weather just right for a summer holiday. Our journey begins at Banff, a quaint town located uncharacteristically inside a national park, and takes us to the snow-drenched Lake Louise. Along the way, we sight a record five bears in one day.
“Alright, everyone, start rowing.”
It’s a mild morning and 12 of us are seated in a canoe in Bow River with a paddle each. After a set of instructions by a guide from Voyageur Canoe, we’re off on a windy sail, learning about the landscape, Banff’s early settlers and how not to tip the canoe while taking a U-turn. Later, we go for a trek through the Fenland trail and end up with shopping bags at Banff Avenue amid lively tourist traffic. Though the town has a permanent population of just 8,300, it hosts up to four million visitors every year, and is well-equipped to handle them all.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Banff was Canada’s first national park set up in 1885. One of Canada’s key tourism hotspots, this 6,641 sq km of protected wilderness area is a winner when it comes to bridging world-class amenities with picture-perfect landscapes. Our hotel Buffalo Mountain Lodge on Tunnel Mountain is a fine example. With wood cabins featuring fieldstone fireplaces and heated slate flooring, the hotel also offers delectable cuisine – even for vegetarians. Step into its backyard, and a stunning view stops you dead in your tracks.
But then that’s a recurring theme all across this part of Canada, where untouched natural beauty stands 4,537 feet above sea level. Nowhere is it more evident than atop Sulphur Mountain, from where hikers can further go on a 1-km interpretive walk up to the Cosmic Ray Station, or else take a gondola ride down and bask in the hot springs at the base.
The ultimate in hot springs, though, remains the exclusive Fairmont Banff Springs resort, which has hosted country premiers and royalty since 1888. Along with 12 restaurants and lounges, two golf courses, shopping outlets, a bowling centre, kid’s club and a whole lot of history, its award-winning Willow Stream spa pampers guests with a pulsating waterfall and a mineral hot-spring bath to “soothe troubled spirits”. It now also offers guided tours throughout the historic property: Check out the black-and-white image of Marilyn Monroe playing golf on the property, and the World War II menu with ‘discounted’ prices.
After an indulgent afternoon at Fairmont, we head out to the Banff Avenue Brew Pub to sample beers like the ‘Reverand Rundle Stout’ and their flagship ‘Head Smashed India Pale Ale’. Come morning, we head out to our next destination, Moraine Lake, nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
LAKE LOUISE IT IS
Our horses form a disciplined line as we take a trotting tour around the mountains of Lake Louise, organised by Brewster Adventures, one of the area’s oldest family-owned businesses now in its fifth generation. Starting behind the glamorous Chateau Lake Louise, the ride ends at the Lake Louise Dance Barn, where we are treated to hot chocolate spiked liberally with Baileys liqueur.
Named after the 2.5-km long alpine Lake Louise, the eponymous hamlet offers an authentic Canadian experience. For instance, the 100-year old Deer Lodge offers, along with its original hand-hewn log structure, a state-of-the-art rooftop hot tub. If you’re looking for a bike ride or a hike, then you’re in the right place. The Canadian Rockies offer the perfect ground for all levels of trekkers with little risk of animal attack.
We go for a full-day hike with Great Divide Nature Interpretation titled ‘Fondue with a View’. The idea is twofold: One, to appreciate nature’s bounty by way of an interactive guided walk; and two, to have freshly cooked Belgian chocolate fondue with fruit as reward when we get to the top. The founder, IGA-accredited ‘master interpreter’ Joel Hagen is so passionate about the mountains that he thinks nothing of stopping short in the middle of the hike and putting on a ‘mushroom’ cap over his head to demonstrate the symbiotic link between mushrooms and trees. He explains why forests are burnt down periodically in this part of the world, and shows us the kind of berries that bears love. He also makes a mean fondue.
You’ll still need dinner when you get back to town, though. Try the Lake Louise Historic Railway Station and Restaurant. Nestled between the original CPR main railway line and the whitewater rapids of the Bow River, the atmosphere in this station-turned-restaurant takes you right back to 1910 when it all began.
Eventually though, when we leave Alberta, besides the snowy peaks and the still lake waters, there are mostly baby bear cubs on our minds.