Starting from either Calgary (two hours from Banff) or Edmonton (about three hours from Jasper), a Canadian Rockies tour is an unforgettable road trip, drivable in a few days, but offering enough attractions and activities to lure you back again and again. Along a 175-mile route from Banff to Jasper, a seemingly endless succession of peaks towers over deep glacial valleys and turquoise lakes. Streams fed by an ice field a quarter-mile thick cascade through rock-walled canyons. Elk and deer frequent the roadsides, black bear are common in campgrounds and in the backcountry are mountain caribou, bighorn sheep, grizzlies and wolves. From the mountain summits, climbers see panoramas of peaks in every direction. There’s boating and canoeing on pristine lakes, white-water rafting, kayaking, fishing, mountain biking and spectacular hiking. Together, the Banff and Jasper national parks and neighboring Yoho and Kootenay cover nearly 8,000 square miles, more than Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks combined.
From Calgary, our first stop was Banff, where the most recognizable structure in town is the Fairmont Banff Springs. It’s an imposing Scottish baronial-style hotel with dormers and turrets, alcoves and balusters, more than 760 rooms, several restaurants, an elaborate conference center, an elegant spa, a plethora of glittery shops and a worldwide reputation. Overlooking the Bow Valley and a lovely golf course, the hotel is itself a tourist attraction; it’s on Canada’s list of National Historic sites.
This trip, however, we didn’t stay there. Instead, we drove up Sulphur Mountain, about two miles from the town center where The Rimrock Resort Hotel looks out over the Bow and Spray river valleys below. The street-level lobby is on the hotel’s seventh floor. Just beyond the reception desk, the wood-paneled Larkspur Lounge features a massive stone-fronted fireplace and, through a wall of glass, views of 9,360-foot Mount Rundle. There’s a small terrace with a handful of tables where you can appreciate the scenery with a drink or a light lunch. Other amenities include two restaurants and a martini bar; a small but full-service spa with an indoor pool, sauna, whirlpool and steam rooms; racquetball courts; and a 24-hour fitness facility.
The 343 rooms and suites offer a range of comforts. Even the basic rooms are spacious enough, and most offer views. We had reserved a GrandView One-Bedroom Suite, which included a gas fireplace and a balcony. Located on the hotel’s third level, the suite consisted of two rooms that seemed to have been joined as an afterthought. There were two identical bathrooms, both disappointingly plain, two closets, and a hallway that led from the sitting room to an unused entry. The sitting room came with leather-upholstered chairs, a queen-size pull-out sofa and a fireplace. The bedroom held a king bed and a work desk. Floor-to-ceiling windows in both rooms compensated for the uninspiring décor by granting picture-postcard views of Mount Rundle. We sat late one afternoon and watched a surprise September storm sweep down the Spray River valley and leave a skift of snow on the mountains’ upper slopes. We were certainly comfortable enough, but with the advantage of hindsight, another time we would upgrade to at least a Signature GrandView Suite.
Other than that, there was much to be pleased with, including superb service throughout: the young woman who delivered our morning coffee and pastries along with a cheery weather report; the valet parking attendant who gave us clear and precise directions to our next stop; the solicitous concierge who made sure he understood our preferences before making dining recommendations; a young server in the lounge who thoughtfully moved us to a table with a better view when one became available. But seldom have we found more polished, yet relaxed, service than we encountered at Eden, the hotel’s highly regarded restaurant. The French-inspired menu changes every six weeks to feature seasonal local ingredients. Two-, three- or four-course options are paired with wine from a 17,000-bottle inventory, and there’s a 10-course tasting menu for gourmands. My favorite entrée included two portions of Alberta beef: a succulent tenderloin and a braised fork-tender short rib. We had asked for and received a window-side table, and we watched, rapt, as the light of the setting sun played across the town below and the mountain panorama beyond.
From Banff, you can comfortably explore the park’s attractions on day trips. Lake Louise is about 40 minutes away via the Trans-Canada Highway, and it’s only a little longer by way of the quieter, calmer Bow Valley Parkway, where you’re more apt to see wildlife. And just 20 minutes from Lake Louise is Yoho National Park, with a spectacular waterfall, lovely Emerald Lake, the Burgess Shale and miles of hiking trails. Conversely, you could stay near Lake Louise and make a day trip to Banff for some sightseeing and shopping.
The Rimrock Resort Hotel 90
Superb service and spectacular location overlooking town of Banff and Canadian Rockies.
Unimaginative room décor.
Good to Know
Hotel’s Eden restaurant is one of the finest in the Canadian Rockies.
Rates: GrandView Room, $400; GrandView Suite, $480.
Address: 300 Mountain Avenue, Banff, Alberta.
Telephone: (403) 762-3356.
Post Hotel & Spa, Lake Louise
Lake Louise is undeniably lovely, but in July and August and most holidays, it is aswarm with sightseers. Most of them also wander through the only hotel on the lake, the vast 554-room Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which faces Victoria Glacier. If you can live without the Chateau’s famous view, the Post Hotel & Spa, just three miles away near the hamlet of Lake Louise, provides every comfort and is much less frenzied. The attractive red-roofed timber-and-stone building and four log cabins lie along the boulder-strewn Pipestone River. Rooms on the hotel’s “Preferred” side overlook the stream and hotel lawns, and through the trees, there are glimpses of the Lake Louise Ski Area. On the other side of the hotel is the parking lot, and beyond that, railroad tracks, the Bow River and views of 11,627-foot Temple Mountain. (In our suite on the Preferred side, we were not disturbed by passing trains.)
The hotel’s agreeable chalet style is true to its ski-lodge roots with river-rock and fieldstone fireplaces, hewn timbers, peeled logs and rustic beams. The unpretentious lobby displays the requisite big game trophy, which here seems appropriate. A wood-carved owl perched atop the stairway’s newel post gleams with a warm patina, as do the polished pine floors and the sturdy furnishings.
The lobby leads to the hotel’s casually elegant white-linen dining room, presided over by Swiss chef Hans Sauter. Regarded as one of the finest restaurants in Canada, it certainly lived up to its reputation during our stay. The menu changes to take advantage of seasonal fare. We ordered medallions of Québec veal with porcini mushrooms and homemade spinach pappardelle, along with a delicious miso-marinated Pacific black cod fillet from British Columbia, presented in a ginger and white-wine sauce. The adjacent wine cellar, in addition to a 25,000-bottle inventory, holds large tables for tastings and occasional winemaker dinners. The post-and-beam dining room has tall windows and its own grand fireplace. There’s another fireplace in the cozy Sir Norman Lounge, one in the Fondue Stübli (for traditional Swiss fondues) and yet another in the pub-style Outpost.
Tucked one floor above the dining room is a delightful little library, with wood-plank floors and ceilings, rustic beams and floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with books, the ones on the top shelves reached by rolling ladders made of pine poles. A moose head overhangs upholstered chairs and couches grouped around the fireplace. Fresh flowers decorate a console table. A pine-paneled bar and a glass-fronted liquor cabinet fill one corner, and at either end of the room are cozy windowed reading nooks, each with a pair of wingback chairs.
On the ground floor, the 3,200-square-foot Temple Mountain Spa includes steam rooms, plunge pools, a Jacuzzi and a blue-tiled saltwater swimming pool.
Our suite made us feel welcome rather than wowed, with a beamed wood-paneled ceiling, rustic prints, sturdy unadorned furnishings and simple drapes on French doors that led to a generous semi-private deck. But we also got a real coffeemaker, a woodburning fireplace (with a fire already laid), a wet bar, a roomy closet, a functional desk, a glass-and-tile shower and a jetted tub in a spacious bath, as well as a separate bedroom that can be closed off from the living room. We felt right at home.
Post Hotel & Spa 93
Excellent dining room and appropriately casual chalet-style décor.
Proximity to railroad tracks.
Good to Know
Location near famed Lake Louise provides easy access to park’s attractions, but is just a half-hour from Banff shops and galleries.
Rates: Preferred Side Deluxe Room, $310; Preferred Side Suite, $450.
Address: 200 Pipestone Road, Lake Louise, Alberta.
Telephone: (430) 522-3989.
Moraine Lake Lodge, Moraine Lake
Twenty minutes from the Post Hotel, at the base of 10,000-foot wraparound mountains, lies a little turquoise jewel of a lake that is surely one of the loveliest places on the planet. Moraine Lake gets its name from a large rock pile deposited at one end by retreating glaciers. For a time, the scene graced the back of Canada’s $20 bill.
We very much wanted to like Moraine Lake Lodge. Set above the lakeshore, the lodge affords a partial escape from the crowds, especially in a Deluxe King Cabin, which we had reserved. The cabins are duplexes that sit on a steep slope. Ours was cheery but small, bordering on cramped. The bath, just inside the entry door, included a vanity and a combination tub/shower. A closet just outside the bath provided almost enough space for luggage, and an armoire offered a little more. A built-in couch in a step-down sitting area had lake and mountain views through a floor-to-ceiling window; a rustic chair stood in front of the woodburning fireplace. French doors lead to a small elevated balcony, which is where we stored a cooler of delicacies, until it was plundered by a resourceful raven known to the staff as Sasha.
Twenty minutes from the Post Hotel, at the base of 10,000-foot wraparound mountains, lies a little turquoise jewel of a lake that is surely one of the loveliest places on the planet.
When we arrived at the lodge, we got a warm welcome at the reception desk and an unhurried tour of the property. The lodge operates the canoe concession on the lake, and as guests, we had access to the canoes anytime at no charge. But the deteriorating weather kept us ashore and inside. The busy public hiking trail follows the lakeshore, and several times we were aware of hikers looking up enviously at our situation, especially as wet weather moved in and the cold rain turned to snow. We had hiked to the end of the lake in a drizzle, but we decided against another trail that is limited to groups of six or more as it is frequented by grizzlies. We contented ourselves instead with sitting by the fire in our cabin, reading and watching the fog play over the mountains, lifting to expose a rocky flank along the lakeshore, parting to reveal a snowy peak thousands of feet above.
Breakfast in the atrium-style dining room proved tasty, substantial and cheerfully served. Dinner, in the same dining room, was a disappointment. We had made reservations weeks earlier, but when we arrived, the dining room was overcrowded and understaffed. Our food was unremarkable, and the server was stressed and impatient. But for snowy roads, we would have driven to the Post Hotel for dinner the next night.
Moraine Lake Lodge 88
Setting next to lovely lake at the feet of 10 towering mountains.
Small lodgings and disappointing dining room.
Good to Know
Just 15-minute drive from Post Hotel’s fine dining options.
Rates: Lodge Suite, $500.
Address: 1 Moraine Lake Road, Lake Louise, Alberta.
Telephone:(403) 522-3733. Website
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Jasper
We drove the 150 miles from Moraine Lake to Jasper on the famed Icefields Parkway through fog, intermittent rain and, while crossing the 6,849-foot-high Bow Summit, through about five inches of snow. But as we wound down the pass, the clouds lifted, and we were treated to mile after mile of spectacular mountain scenery. On the outskirts of Jasper, a magnificent bull elk posed for photographs.
While settling into our room at the sprawling Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, we read this prominently displayed notice: “Please report aggressive elk or bear activity by dialing 55 from your guest room telephone.” However, we saw little wildlife, aggressive or otherwise, during our stay, except for gaggles of Canada geese practicing take-offs and landings on picturesque Lac Beauvert and making their presence known on the resort’s lovely golf course.
The resort offers a dozen categories of rooms, suites and cabins, but you should avoid anything less than a Lakefront Suite; ask for upper floors with private balconies and better through-the-trees views. Friends or families traveling together might consider one of the larger cabins, such as “Viewpoint,” “Gardener’s” or “Outlook.” We had booked a Junior Suite Lakeview — the names don’t reveal much about the accommodation — and we spent a portion of the second day arranging for something more suitable. Throughout, the resort staff remained patient and courteous.
Lakefront Suites occupy a series of fourplexes set between the lake and the golf course, away from the main lodge, and thus offer much more privacy. They are comfortably furnished, if not imaginatively so. In the living room, a rugged woodburning fireplace occupied one corner; French doors and windows opened onto a balcony overlooking the lake. The bedroom could be closed off from the rest of the suite. The bath included marble-topped vanities, a whirlpool tub and a separate glass-enclosed shower.
We enjoyed dinner in The Moose’s Nook Chophouse, where the menu lists variations of wild game, Alberta beef and seafood dishes. The food was good, and a service misstep was quickly and graciously made right. We also liked The Emerald Lounge, where in good weather, guests enjoy cocktails and light snacks on a broad terrace. We had an appetite for pizza one evening in the lounge, and although there was none featured on the menu, our amiable server managed to rustle up a tasty flatbread from the room-service menu.
The Fairmont Jasper Park offers everything one would expect from a year-round, full-service resort, including a grand spa, multiple dining venues and a long list of activities, from helicopter tours to whitewater rafting, guided hikes and fly fishing, boat tours on lovely Maligne Lake, mountain biking and horseback riding, plus a full range of winter activities. And while the resort is popular with tour groups and conventioneers, there’s ample elbow room for smaller groups and individual travelers looking for a quiet space.
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge 90
Obliging, courteous staff and ample elbow room at what is a large and popular resort.
Multiple room categories with unhelpful names and descriptions.
Good to Know
Avoid anything less than a premium Lakefront Suite.
Rates: Junior Suite Lakeview, $600; Lakefront Suite, $715.
Address: Old Lodge Road, Jasper, Alberta.
Telephone: (780) 852-3301.