If you were to ask anyone around the world to tell you what images come to mind when visualizing Canada, more often than not, the Rockies will be mentioned along with Niagara Falls and the RCMP.
They are, in many ways, the symbol of what defines the country; lofty snow-capped mountains punctuated with crystal clear rivers and lakes set against a backdrop of indigo skies. An imposing challenge for 20th century engineers who longed to unite this vast nation from east to west, they are a proud reminder of what makes the Great White North so great.
A recent trip to two of Canada’s most famous national parks in Alberta reminded me again of the magnificence of the west.
Early visitors to this area did not enjoy the advantages of modern transportation we now take for granted. Often their only means of getting to Banff and Jasper National Parks was by horseback and years later by rail. With the invention of the automobile, roads were improved and access to and from the area dramatically increased the number of tourists.
For many visiting this area, a trip to Calgary is generally followed by a drive into Banff National Park, a must see destination if you desire to truly understand the beauty and majesty of Canada. Here, the AAA Four Diamond Award winning Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel reigns supreme as the resort of choice for even the most discriminating traveler.
A stay in Banff continues down the road on a stunning drive into Lake Louise, and a visit to the revered Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. One glimpse of this hotel and the surrounding vista will leave an impression to last a lifetime.
At the end of their journey, countless visitors return south, leaving the area having never fully experienced all of the natural beauty Alberta has to offer.
But to visit Banff and Lake Louise and not continue northwest on Highway 93 to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, is to miss one of the most breathtaking drives and rustic, luxury resorts this country has to offer. Our plan was to do all three over a five day period.
The initial drive from Calgary to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel lasts just over an hour. This icon of the west has played host to both royalty and regulars since 1888. Founded as a railroad hotel for the rich and famous, it is styled in the fashion of a grand Scottish castle. With 770 lavishly appointed guest rooms and total of 12 seasonal restaurants, it offers something for everyone and a quality of service worthy of elite status.
The on site Stanley Thompson designed 18-hole championship golf course was originally built in 1928. It is consistently rated as one of Canada’s top 50 golf courses, playing host this year to the 2011 TELUS Skins Game. Here the natural splendor of Banff is presented at its finest, as players are challenged in a setting unrivaled for its beauty.
While at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, we are treated to a massage at the Willow Stream Spa, taking the opportunity to also experience many of the available amenities including the signature three waterfall treatment whirlpools. Renovated in 2003 at a cost of 2.3 million dollars, it rates as one of North America’s premier spas by Condé Nast and Travel and Leisure magazine.
Leaving Banff behind, there are two main routes for the scenic drive into Lake Louise. We choose the most famous of these, the Bow Valley Parkway, a 51 km two-lane highway that stretches from just north of Banff to Lake Louise. Many travelers prefer this course over the four-lane Highway 1, as it is almost a guarantee that somewhere along the way you will be sharing the road with elk, caribou or maybe even a female black bear and her cubs.
The steep, winding road leading up to the AAA Four Diamond Award Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise succeeds in heightening anticipation for the adventure that awaits us. Designed in 1913 by Walter Painter, Chief Architect for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the “Chateau style” resort captures the essence of the Italian Renaissance period.
There are a total of 550 elegant guest rooms, 8 dining facilities, 18 stores and a full fitness center to go along with a recently modernized The Spa at The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
With so much to do inside, it may seem reasonable to never leave the confines of the hotel. But peer out any of the massive windows facing Lake Louise and it is immediately apparent why this is considered by many to be one the most scenic places to visit on planet earth.
A stroll down to the shore of the aqua and emerald colored lake provides an intense view of nature that can only be described as surreal. Tourists by the busload stand in awe, gazing into the distance at the accompanying lush evergreen foliage of the surrounding mountains. The icy blue visage of Victoria Glacier stands proudly at the farthest point of the lake, wrapping her majestic arms around Mt. Victoria and feeding this secluded lake with icy blue glacier water.
Walking trails abound. Guided tours take visitors on hikes of varying lengths, building on the proud tradition established by the original mountain guides of the late 1800’s. Horseback riding, mountain biking and fly-fishing are other popular summer activities, while in winter, skiing and horse-drawn sleigh rides are perennial favorites.
A short one hour drive from Lake Louise, the city of Golden, B.C is booming with activity. Here the Golden Golf Course offers a challenging 6,778 par 72 layout set amidst tumbling creeks and wide rivers. A highly touted design, it is rated as one of Canada’s best courses. Even if you don’t golf, you may want to take a side trip to this part of British Columbia and experience a true mountain drive for yourself.
Relaxed and inspired the next leg of the trip winds along Highway 93 to Jasper National Park and eventually the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
I have traveled many different roads over the years and only a few measure up to the awe inspiring splendor of the mountain scenery surrounding this highway. At every turn, it seems appropriate to pull off to the side of the road and take another picture. The posted speed limit is set at 90 km per hour, but with little traffic and perfect road conditions, I find myself challenged to stay at a reasonable pace.
A must see spot along the way is the Columbia Ice Fields. Covering nearly 325 square miles, it sustains eight major glaciers and rests proudly on the continental divide. Unique in the world, its melt water feeds three oceans; Arctic, Atlantic and the Pacific.
Arriving in Jasper five hours after starting out from Lake Louise, (including a 1.5 hour stop at the Columbia Ice Fields), we enter the rustic gates of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge greeted by the elk and deer that freely roam the resort.
The Lodge was originally constructed as an 8 bungalow retreat, but has subsequently expanded over the past century to include 446 rooms, 10 dining facilities including the new Cavell’s Restaurant & Terrace, a shopping walkway and a year round heated outdoor pool on a total of 903 pristine acres.
Guests who have stayed at Jasper Park Lodge include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Marilyn Monroe, the Dixie Chicks and Bill Gates to name a few.
A favorite hangout for Bing Crosby, the 18-hole Stanley Thompson championship golf course opened in 1928 is rated the #1 Best Golf Resort Course in Canada by SCOREGolf Magazine. Measuring 6,663 yards in length, the par 71 course offers dramatic sight lines, elevated tee boxes and a demanding layout requiring pinpoint accuracy and determination.
During our stay at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, I am challenged to push the limit on many of the surrounding highways in our 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible. For the most part, roads in this area are well paved and traffic is light. After a few days, my favorite road turns out to be the 48 km drive into Maligne Lake. Located south east of the Jasper town site, this delicate lake is the second largest glacier-fed lake in the world. It is also home to Spirit Island, one of the most photographed and painted natural settings in North America.
The drive back from Jasper to Calgary takes a total of 5.5 hours. This includes a few quick stops along the way to photograph several of the seemingly endless picture perfect scenes that materialize with each bend in the road.
Bumblebee, as our Camaro is affectionately referred to by many, performs flawlessly throughout the five days of hard driving at varying altitudes. With reluctance we return the keys, catching a mid-afternoon flight back home. A return trip is already being planned for next year.
Where to Stay
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
405 Spray Avenue
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
111 Lake Louise Drive
Lake Louise, Alberta
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Old Lodge Road