Riding the train across the Canadian Rockies, staying at the legendary mountain resorts in Banff and Lake Louise was one of trips Lev and I often talked about but never did.
Accepting the fact that my days of driving trips are over was hard. Do I abandon my dreams or join a tour group? I decided to combine a trip to visit my cousin in Montana with that long-postponed trip across the Rockies. When I joined my Tauck Tour group in Vancouver, I learned virtually everyone in the group, most of them over 60, had similar romantic fantasies about the trip. In fact, so many have these fantasies that these tours operate week in and week out, all summer long, every summer.
This was not the trip of our dreams, though the Canadian Rockies are more magnificent than I ever imagined, very different from our more developed and commercialized U.S. Rockies. As for the resorts, Fairmont does an excellent job managing huge properties in obscure locations with short seasons. On the other hand, the train—old, crowded, poorly maintained—has nothing to recommend it. No one in my group would disagree. Vintage, like charm, can cover a multitude of sins.
Worth the Trip
We all loved Jasper Park Lodge—not quite glamping, but close—maybe a luxury summer camp for grown-ups is a better description. We adored our spacious log cabins facing the lake.
In sharp contrast, we were overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists at the Chateau Lake Louise. The public spaces and lawns facing the lake were overrun with daytrippers from around the world.
Our rooms and baths at Banff Springs were twice as large, the mountains impressive, the nearby town appealing. And every town, every hotel had spectacular flowers.
So, yes, the Canadian Rockies are definitely worth the trip, not something to be postponed until you’re too old to do adventurous travel in other parts of the world. The lakes, streams and mountains offer outdoor adventures better suited for the young and fit, though I was content to soak in the scenery.
A Better Way to Do It
Knowing what I know now, if I had it to do over, here’s what I would do:
I’d fly to Calgary (nonstop flights between DFW and Houston, as well as most major US cities) and rent a car. It’s only an hour and a half on the Trans-Canada Highway to Banff, but I would keep on driving another half-hour to the Post Hotel in Lake Louise, where I’d settle in for a minimum of four or five days, making day trips to explore Banff National Park.
The Post Hotel is everything that the huge Fairmonts in Banff and Lake Louise aren’t: oozing with charm, beauty and intimacy; far from the madding crowds in atmosphere while only a few minutes away by car; with elegant dining and a famed wine cellar. Judging by appearances only, I’d compare it to Jenny Lake Lodge in the Tetons. It’s a ski lodge on a mountain stream, part of the elite French-based Relais & Chateaux group of country inns, which pride themselves on their cuisine and their wine.
Our group had lunch there, and everyone asked our tour guide afterwards, “Why aren’t we staying here?” She said the Post is near the railroad tracks and the train noise might bother some, and I noted in the hotel information that rates are higher for the “quiet side.” I’d pack ear plugs. I’d also bet that the Post doesn’t cater to tour groups.
Do Your Homework
If you’re on your own, you will need to do your homework in advance. Do you want a lake cruise, white-water rafting, a glacier walk, a mountain bike ride? Will you explore Banff Springs from Lake Louise? You can compare what the established tours offer, and you should definitely contact the hotel concierge well in advance to see what they can arrange for you. The amount you want to do will dictate how many days you linger in the idyllic hideaway.
While the Post could easily be your destination, I urge you to head north along the Continental Divide, up the 145-mile Icefields Parkway to Jasper for two or three days. While the highway is only two lanes, it is superbly engineered and the traffic is usually not too heavy, though construction work is common in the summer.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is much larger than it looks, with about 400 rooms spread around the lake. It’s a gorgeous piece of property with horseback riding, a top golf course, kayaks and canoes, tennis courts, children’s program and more; while the nearby small town of Jasper has a cute Main Street and offers a variety of mountain activities, including gondola and motorcycle rides up the mountain.
The views driving south on the parkway are more dramatic, so allow plenty of time to make the drive back to Calgary. If you aren’t willing to let go of your fantasies about the train and the grand old hotels, you can take a day trip by train from Jasper to Mount Baker, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies; and you can spend two nights in Lake Louise or Banff before returning to Calgary. I’d choose Banff, because it’s closer to Calgary; not so overrun with tourists; the town more appealing; and the hotel accommodations—while not stylish—are spacious and comfortable, and it has a large number of excellent restaurants to choose from and shops to poke around in.
I’m sorry I didn’t spend a couple of days in Calgary, so I can’t advise on hotels there. However, there is a modern Marriott attached to the airport terminal, convenient if you drive in the day before your flight home.
I started out by saying that as a solo traveler, my days of road trips are over; and then I describe my ideal of the perfect road trip. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable renting a car and driving to Banff—it’s a shorter drive than from Corpus Christi to San Antonio and the highway is as good and as well marked. I also am pretty sure that the concierges at the Post or the Fairmonts could arrange for a driver to meet your plane in Calgary. The Icefields Parkway and Jasper would be a slightly bigger challenge.
Finally, there are other options worth exploring: The privately owned Rocky Mountaineer offers tours through the Rockies on deluxe trains, stopping each night for travelers to spend the night at a hotel; and Tauck, the Smithsonian and National Geographic offer tours of the Canadian Rockies plus Glacier National Park in Montana. Smithsonian’s hotel choices are a notch below Tauck’s, but they have more intellectual heft, while National Geographic tours have more physical rigor.
In other words, there’s something for everyone.
If you have been to the Canadian Rockies, please share your recommendations and advice below. Thanks!
Apology from the Author: After my obligations to promote RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS ended in June, I took a long break from writing. It’s been so long since I’ve blogged that I have forgotten how to use the photo software I need to post here. You can click on the small photos to see them full size. And I promise to get back on an almost weekly schedule. Thanks for reading. Ella