DUBAI: Have you ever truly experienced the color blue before a trip to the Canadian Rockies?
The famous lakes that dot the area’s national parks are such electric shades of cyan and turquoise and cerulean it will leave you wondering if you’ve ever seen such a hue in your life.
Hemmed in by serrated mountains in every direction, these mountain tarns are the crowning jewels of Canadian tourism — and they’re at their most glorious in Alberta’s Banff National Park.
You’ve likely seen pictures of Banff before — even if you don’t realize it. Canada’s oldest national park covers 6,641 square kilometers of prime Canadian Rockies real estate. And those glassy, ice-blue lakes, with the jagged peaks towering over them, are as ubiquitous in the area as Tim Hortons is in the city.
After some of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world, Canada reopened to vaccinated international tourists on September 7. Which meant that on our much-anticipated trip to UNESCO-listed Banff on September 9, we expected to be greeted by at least a few selfie-stick-wielding tour groups and Americans from just over the border. Instead, operators repeatedly informed us that 90 percent of their customers that weekend were from Ontario.
“That’s why now’s the best time to explore Canada,” the woman selling tickets for canoe rentals on the postcard-ready Lake Louise said with a wink.
The hamlet of Lake Louise — known for its sparkling, glacier-fed lake, ringed by high peaks — is arguably Banff’s most-recognizable destination. There is no bustling township here, though — no hawkers selling keychains or chocolates shaped like moose dung — just the stately Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, standing sentinel over the area.
To stay here is to be escorted into your own oil painting; waking up each day to be greeted with the mountains and waters that grace many a Microsoft screensaver, and — if you’re up early enough — without hordes of tourists. Come 10 a.m. or so, the crowds arrive along the lakeshore in front of the hotel, but though the car parks are full and a space without photo bombers hard to find, operators are quick to point out that ‘Banff Mania’ means there are usually many more holidaymakers here at this time of year. So several dozen people taking in the sunrise atop a rocky outcrop at the nearby Lake Moraine, perhaps the national park’s most awe-inducing sight (even craggier peaks and somehow more-turquoise waters), apparently constitutes a “quiet” morning. As the access road to the lake is only open from June until mid-October, it’s a coveted excursion, with the lake’s 150 parking spots completely full most days by 5 a.m.
Banff is a year-round destination. In summer, hikers flock here for the 1,600 kilometers of hiking trails, and in the winter the frozen lakes and white, powdery mountains bring in skiers and ice-skaters.
From the Fairmont at Lake Louise, some of the area’s most incredible hikes are literally outside your front door; head for the Big Beehive Trail for panoramic views over Lake Louise courtesy of a reasonably steep but well-trafficked climb, while the Plain of the Two Glaciers hike is a meandering stroll through a larch-tree-filled valley.
Forty minutes’ drive back towards Calgary, the famed Banff township is where most visitors to the national park stay for at least a few nights. The town is famed in international ski circles for the Sunshine Village ski field, but despite being touristy, its natural hot springs, hiking trails and the sloping rooves of its timbered architecture create an authentic ‘mountain escape’ feel.
Fairmont has a monopoly on luxury accommodation here too. The turreted, fortress-like structure of Fairmont Banff Springs is one of the country’s oldest railway hotels, and houses its own thermal springs and championship golf course. With sweeping views over the Bow River, the instantly recognizable peaks of Mt. Rundle and Tunnel Mountain, and an interior that resembles a castle in the Scottish Highlands, this is a landmark in itself for both international and domestic tourists.
In summer, take to the gentle slopes of Tunnel Mountain for views over the town and the surrounding valley, or if you’re feeling plucky, tackle the demanding Mt. Rundle and follow it up with a drink on the hotel patio. From there, you can toast the craggy rock face that will have you walking bow-legged for the next three days at least.
Because whether it’s rising before the sun to beat the crowds or heaving yourself up a sheer rock face for the best views, Banff will give you some spectacular memories — but it will make you work for them.