After a brief but uneventful start in Calgary, Alberta (killing a few hours in various cool and trendy parts of the city whilst we waited for the arrival of our friend’s flight from the UK) we headed straight to Banff and woke to start our Canadian Rockies experience tour “a la Gardner” with a spectacular sunny mountain view from the Rimrock Hotel, Banff.
Ignoring jetlag, we enthusiastically bounded out into the wilderness armed with a picnic and a can of the statutorily required bear repellent spray - rather overpriced - unless, of course, you happen to be launched at by a grouchy grizzly ;-) . First hike of the trip – in search of wildlife at Lake Minnewanka (pronounced Mini-Wonker!), Banff National Park.
We passed, with some excitement (and an equal measure of trepidation ), ever increasing numbers of signs requiring hikers to stick like glue in tight groups of 4 due to increased bear activity in the area. It was a good job we had conveniently planned this vacation for 4 otherwise we would have been distinctly disappointed with our “wilderness experience” as almost everywhere we hiked in the Rockies the trails were only open to a group of 4 or more – that’s the kind of thing it might have been nice to know before hand !! ) .
The lake was gorgeous (one of many ever more impressive lakes we visited) … the sun glistened on the peaceful waters … kayakers glided silently in the clear turquoise bays … etc etc … After some time …. barely a chipmunk having been spotted (much less anything as exciting as a bear) …… we gave up our search of exotic mountain creatures and resigned ourselves, hot and exhausted, to a picnic overlooking the chilly rushing waters of Stewart Canyon.
Even fewer wildlife sightings the next day (were all the Canadian creatures on vacation in August – like the French??), we were, however, alternatively rewarded with views of the freezing crystal clear falls and river at Johnston Canyon. It was a long hot hike through the mountain pass to the “ink pots” – small ponds of turquoise water bubbling with mini volcanos and tidal waves of mud like mini tsunamis – mildly diverting - but more happily, we had also found one of the world’s most beautiful picnic spots at the banks of Johnston Creek, surrounded by mountains and puffy white clouds. Geoff was the first (and only one of us ;-)) to race enthusiastically barefoot into the river, rapidly retreating on discovery of just how cold freezing water really can be!!
The third full day into the trip and we were still, unexpectedly, wildlife free – so we followed a tip from a local and braved the swarms of mosquitoes at dusk to visit Vermillion Lakes – the alleged watering hole of countless local fauna. Clutching cameras, long lenses, tripods etc etc and hanging on to the hope of deer and moose majestically sweeping down from the mountains to the watering hole at our feet we swatted something in the region of 2000 bugs and the peace and tranquility was broken by the whining of the boys moaning that they were being eaten alive. Ali, sensibly, observed the wildlife inactivity from the safety of the car. Unsurprisingly, neither deer nor moose were forthcoming (we should have known better than to believe a local that there was any wildlife in the Rockies at all) – but we did spot some ducks in the dim dark distance and the bonus was a spectacular sunset and the moon rising over the mountains in perfect reflection over the lakes – so it wasn’t all bad
Onwards, leaving beautiful Banff, we drove the Bow Valley Parkway to the lake of my dreams – Lake Louise – one of the few places I have always wanted to see We were all also eagerly awaiting our luxurious accommodations at the 5 star Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. We arrived in time to drop Dave at the hotel in charge of the luggage and check-in (and a relaxing day in the “luxurious” spa facilities of Canada’s top hotel) whilst the rest of us 3 (braver ) intrepid whitewater rafters continued on the short journey through Yoho National Park to the river base of Wild Water Adventures
Dressed in wetsuits, fleeces, neoprene gloves, boots, etc etc – mandatory protection bearing in mind Geoff was still recovering from frostbite after dipping his big toe in Johnston Creek a day or so earlier we were hurled unceremoniously into the churning icy waters of the Kicking Horse River. Yippeeee!! This was Ali’s first rafting trip (I suspect not the last!) and we were very impressed with her sportsmanship as it can be rather energetic paddling like crazy then hurling yourself into the centre of the raft in a large flailing pile of arms, legs and paddles whilst the guide screams to hang on for dear life and we plunge backwards over a class 4+ rapid. We were very relieved to see Ali (not only still inside the raft – as we had promised Dave we wouldn’t kill her ) emerging from some quite interesting rapids with peals of laughter and a giant grin :-)
Whilst we were, however, having the time of our lives on the roaring river we were entirely ignorant of the fact that, Dave was enjoying a rather prolonged argument with the management of the “Chateau” Fairmont Lake Louise. It transpired that the “Fairmont” rooms we had booked for 3 nights with a mountain view (the lake view rooms being out of reach to anyone without a recent lottery winning ) had last been remodeled circa 1979, were furnished with all the attractiveness of a spartan office, had a bathroom so small you could barely stand in it and turn around without knocking yourself out …and the piece de resistance ….. far from a mountain view – a view of the car park and the (very close) wall of another wing of the hotel.
Luckily, Dave is a consummate negotiator and managed to convince the management (I have no idea how), that due to his enormous disappointment with the general battered state of the hotel and the appalling rooms that they should upgrade us for free to the new(er) wing of the hotel into a luxury room (with lake view!!) running somewhere in the region of $1000 per night. Not bad for an afternoon’s work, it has to be said, although I suspect Dave may have enjoyed his 5 star afternoon Fairmont experience relaxing in the grounds overlooking the glittering milky turquoise lake, the mountains and the Lefroy Glacier rather more
On that note, should anyone ever be considering a staggeringly overpriced stay at the “Chateau” (more akin to an Embassy Suites on initial sight) they may want to readjust their expectations. For sure, the rooms running $750-1000+ per night are lovely but the rest are awful and in desperate need of gutting – clearly they are there for the overnighters from Japan who arrive mid afternoon in endless droves by tour bus and are simply not going to moan about the general state of the hotel or the appalling rooms because they aren’t really going to spend any time in it. We were there, however, for 3 nights and cared very much – especially as it was the singularly most expensive hotel we had booked for the entire 3 week trip! Not to drone on about the “Chateau” (clearly the owners have never seen a real chateau much less stayed in one) but the food was bland, overpriced and touristy and, to add insult to injury, the “spa pool and jacuzzi” reminded me of the god awful place we used to get dragged to at school for swimming lessons in Slough when I was 10 years old – images of verrucas and floating plasters somewhat destroying the ambiance.
The only thing the Fairmont has on its side (aside from nice $1000 per night rooms) and, to be fair, thoroughly spectacular sunrise views over the glacier if you are lucky enough to get a lake view room, is, obviously, it’s spectacular location and it’s beautiful flower filled gardens running right down onto the shores of my dream lake To be fair any grotty old establishment is going to be a thriving business when it is parked on top of one of the most scenic lakes in the world. The lake didn’t disappoint – albeit it does seem much smaller in reality than it does in the photos – turquoise milk in color and dotted with peacefully gliding red kayaks (the clever bit of complementary contrast of colors for added “wow” wasn’t lost on us ).
The lake is drop dead gorgeous – especially if you can catch it at a moment when 20 tour buses haven’t all simultaneously exploded in the car park disgorging hundreds of noisy gaggling foreigners (we didn’t count obviously !! ) into what is, after all, quite a small area.
It is not as gorgeous, however, as the lake next door – Moraine Lake which will probably go down for all four of us as THE quintessential and most fabulous sight of the entire Rockies vacation (see pic at the top of the blog!). Clambering up the Rockpile to the viewpoint over the lake, I was at least, a little prepared for the sight which lay ahead (that is the upside AND the downside of being the vacation planner – you do know what is coming – the rest of the crew being totally oblivious as to anything I had planned for us to see for the whole 3 weeks ;-)!!. And I have to say even I was speechless. It is hard not to wax lyrical about the Rockies on a warm sunny blue sky day – but you really do gaze on with some reverence of how utterly beautiful the natural world can be – I think we all fell a little bit in love with Moraine Lake … Geoff was thoroughly spellbound…. It really is “Wow” on steroids
Finally tearing ourselves away from the view (and the passengers of a newly arrived Brewster’s tour bus) we headed around the lake for a rather more uphill hike than anticipated and again into bear territory :-). Barely, 10 yards into the hike we were met by a National Park Ranger who was stationed on the trail to check numbers of no less than 4 were hiking together and that we were armed with pepper spray and knew how to use it How exciting!! As she was busily counting that we were, in fact, a group of 4, 2 diminutive aging Taiwanese hikers popped up out of nowhere, overheard the conservation and, obviously realizing that their hike was doomed from the start, they enthusiastically informed Mrs. Park Ranger that they were hiking with us for the day !! We weren’t quite sure what to make of that idea – fearing they may hold us back etc etc ….. which was a joke …. they were actually far faster and fitter than any of us (not being patrons of the world’s best cake shop in Banff, I suspect) and actually spent the day darting backwards and forwards between us and various other groups of hikers (we saw them again at numerous points uphill and on various trails over the hours having barely broken a sweat) ;-).
The hike was absolutely beautiful (did I mention how beautiful it was??) – leaving glimpses of the bright turquoise lake behind us we wound up and through the forest – the smell of warm pine filling the air, skipping around fresh bear scat – STILL not a bear in sight – butterflies flitting between the alpine flowers and the glittering brilliant white glaciers all around us. Luckily, the journey itself we had chosen to take (to Eiffel Lake) was far better than the destination which would otherwise have been a massive disappointment – a tiny muddy grey looking glacial run-off surrounded by mountain scree with all the appeal of a quarry pit – Moraine Lake it certainly wasn’t !!
To avoid the misery of the “Chateau” food – we had, with a little local reconnaissance and some earlier extensive Gardner internet research, located an odd little cabin restaurant in the woods, Baker Creek Bistro, which served far superior food in a setting far more in keeping with the locale than the “Chateau Embassy Suites”. So enthusiastic were we at finding this little gem that we decided to head back for breakfast the following day (as we couldn’t face the 1 hour wait in the Chateau’s restaurant on-site (no reservations allowed) or the inedible grey prison gruel (allegedly oatmeal) served by the “Chateau Deli” again.
Whilst this was actually a little out of our way (and in the wrong direction as we were actually leaving and heading north to Jasper National Park via an all day drive on the famous Icefields Parkway) we decided it was still worth the detour. To cut a very long and complicated story short we ended up marooned in the bistro car park halfway along the Bow River Parkway trapped in the middle of a 4 hour cycle race which had closed off the road outside of the cafe and everything around for a good 20 miles. Oh dear! Our early attempts to convince the organizers to let us drive out very slowwwwwwlllyyyy behind the cyclists were unsuccessful (unsurprisingly) and rather fraught. The cyclists were in full swing and clogging up both sides of the road by the time we had consumed our eggs benedict in blissful ignorance and had wandered back out to the car. It seemed we were doomed to spend the morning in a car park in misery. However, the organizers hadn’t reckoned on the fact that we were armed with ”Dave the supreme negotiator” and (to my eternal mystification) they were somehow convinced to lend us their motorcycle back-up safety officer crew who would lead us in convoy between the groups of cyclists. I suspect the cyclists themselves were equally mystified as to what a scruffy dusty Avis rental SUV crammed with luggage and 4 even scruffier tourists was doing in the middle of their (probably well publicized and locally famous) bicycle race It had its hairy moments as we weaved (at some unexpected speed) between overtaking cyclists and oncoming cyclists – our motorcycle convoy were obviously enjoying the unexpected diversion of escorting the stupid tourists off the parkway ;-)
Finally, we left the lovely sunny Lake Louise area and we were heading northwards on our way up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, slightly exhausted even before we had started, and straight into the rain Barely bothering to stop in the grey and damp and crossing all limbs that the drive back south again in 4 days time would be sunnier (this being one of the top scenic drives in the world and one most definitely to be seen in the sun) we eventually arrived in Jasper.
The town itself has a far more “lived in” feel than rather more exclusive Banff – more grungy hiker than wealthy skier – and I had, somewhat nervously, booked us a cabin for the 4 of us to share out of town on Patricia Lake. As we weaved up the country road following the map to the cabin we heard a scream from the back seat (finally !!! Ali had spotted a black bear in the undergrowth !!!!!! ). So they hadn’t all gone on vacation after all :-) We watched it feasting on berries and wandering about in search of even more juicy berries no more than 20 feet away – completely disinterested in our presence – it was fabulous This very same short section of road turned out to be the only place we saw a stag too – wandering about in the marsh and at the roadside causing traffic chaos – cars screaming to a halt and abandoned in the middle of the road for all the other fellow wildlife watchers to photograph (who had probably barely seen a single creature larger than a chipmunk all vacation either)
Surprisingly, Patricia Lake turned out to be a highlight – the cabin was more a modern cottage in the woods – and the lake itself was emerald green, surrounded by mountains and absolute peace and quiet – it was bliss
Maligne Lake, in Jasper NP, (another one of my dream lakes!) turned out to be slightly less than perfect for my fellow travelers – nobody fancied the 2 hour wait for the tiny little enclosed boat to take us and the hordes out to Spirit Island – bobbing across the choppy waters for an hour and a half for a 5 minute view of the island So, we decided to walk around the lake instead, which was lovely, until a million tiny gnats decided to start feasting upon the delicate British flesh of Dave and Ali (they obviously didn’t like the taste of our more southern thin Floridian blood) – after a while the slapping of bugs on flesh ringing in the air had become too much for any of us to bear so we beat a hasty retreat back to the Cabin and spent the afternoon drifting about aimlessly on a kayak on picture-perfect Patricia Lake with no company other than the dragonflies buzzing around us Our final hike at Maligne Canyon was better received than the Maligne Lake, by group consensus. Very rain-foresty … more freezing rushing waters …. deep emerald and bright lime greens everywhere .. so damp that the moss was actually growing on moss We almost expected a family of hobbits to scuttle out from the undergrowth in front of us
And so, the Rockies nearly over … we made our way back down the Icefields Parkway – via the Columbia Glacier, the Saskatchewan River, endless other blue and turquoise lakes, the Athabasca Falls and the Sunwapta Falls – to an unexpected picnic lunch stop with the last of our mountain creature encounters – mommy and baby moose grazing at the waters edge of Waterfowl Lake. Yippeeee To get a closer look we stumbled about in the marsh, scampering and tripping over almost impassable undergrowth (4 sets of soggy hiking boots as a momento) but it was worth every soggy sock!
I think we were all a little subdued at leaving the Rockies (difficult to imagine it would be possible to beat those lakes anywhere else in the world) :-( but it was great to be back in civilization in Calgary for no other reason than the food!! Jasper – to be fair most of the Rockies – is definitely a little stuck in the 1970′s from a culinary perspective ;-) Luckily we love salmon – and they do have lots of it - which is a good thing if you don’t eat meat – otherwise you might just starve to death – but you could still die of boredom
So … onwards and upwards to the next stage of the Canadian Experience – Vancouver and Vancouver Island … blog and photo’s to follow…..