Off the beaten path Canadian travel stories brought to you by Mara Sofferin, VP Marketing CottageCountry.com, Canada's leading vacation rental website
At this time of year I normally have one thing and one thing only on my mind: summer in cottage country. The spring solstice is the pistol shot that starts my countdown to another season of swimming and sunbathing along the great Canadian shield; a long-awaited Gregorian go-ahead for Canadians to collectively part ways with winter, strip off their long johns and prepare to imbue their thirsty flesh with a hearty serving of UV radiation.
Over in Alberta, however, people have a very different spring agenda. In the Canadian Rockies late spring is champagne powder prime time: instead of counting down to summer the Sunshine Province residents wish it away, sending prayers to the weather gods for an April blizzard or two. What a bunch of cuckoos.
Perhaps the notion of voluntarily opting into more snow was so twisted I couldn't help but to be intrigued; or, maybe it's because west is where we all plan to go someday. But, this year as spring sprung, I took the plunge toward perpetual winter and packed my bags for a long weekend in Alberta's Banff National Park, home to the longest ski season in North America.
Flying west is seriously underrated. When else do mere mortals have the ability to contort the time-space continuum, traveling thousands of miles but arriving at roughly the same hour you departed? As such, while it would have been an option to rent a car and drive straight from the airport to Banff, I decided to cash in on this freebie from Father Time and take a couple of hours to explore downtown Calgary, the historical epicenter of Canada's cattle-marketing and meat packing industries.
Photos from Banff
Blog continues after slideshow
I hailed a cab and made my way to Stephen Avenue, a pedestrian cobblestone promenade with all the urban fixings. This shopping district has everything from coffee to couture, but it's pride and joy is the Unicorn Pub, a decades-old Calgary fixture whose twitter feed includes gems like, "Beer is like sex, when its good its good, when its bad its still OK." With that gastronomical wit, they were in my good books, and apparently in that of Calgarian businessmen as well, dozens of whom decided this spring day could be best spent away from their desks, day-drinking and watching an Arsenal v. Bayern match. With an appetite one can only accrue after a long morning of travel, I inhaled a bison burger and house microbrew and thought to myself that in the wild west people work to live, not live to work.
I could have spent the day in that dimly-lit basement bar, listening to the roars of tipsy soccer fans and losing track of time over poutine and pale ale, but I wanted to hit the road well-before dark, as it would be a two and a half hour drive from Calgary's city centre to the cabin I rented outside Lake Louise. (Note: you can rent a private cottage, cabin or ski chalet as easily as you would book a hotel room. No longer do you have to manipulate your way into an invite to your friend's friend's cottage -- thank you CottageCountry.com!). So, with moderately higher levels of cholesterol than when I arrived, I picked up a rental car and made my way to the TransCanada highway.
The drive from Calgary starts with a pilgrimage across the side open prairie, suburban sprawl - a symptom of Calgary's rapid population growth - visible in all directions. However, as you continue along the highway, cookie cutter home construction gives way to the cattle-grazing grasslands, allowing drivers to slip into cruise-control and catch a glimpse of the region's pastoral past.
Just as I was beginning to believe that I was the reincarnate of Jack Kerouac -- punch drunk off the open road, windows ajar, my hair dancing itself into dreadlocks with every gale of Chinook wind - my fantasy was humbled. Here I was, venturing off the beaten path to find the Canada of my fur-trapping forefathers, burning fossil fuel like the beatniks burned cigarettes. Petrol, the Lois to my Clark. Perhaps one day there will be sustainable public transportation to the Bow Valley backcountry, but for now redundant gas guzzling was my only means of reaching the remote port of call to which I was headed. With a sigh of indignation I looked to the foothills, flush with spruce and trembling aspen, and gave a respectful and regretful nod. This is the paradoxical price Mother Nature pays to receive a visit from her 21st century children.
As I crossed from the prairies into rugged Kananaskis Country I contemplated pulling off for a pit stop in Canmore, a mountainside mining town turned tourist hot spot; however, I wanted to arrive at my destination before dark so I continued west, chasing the sun at 120 kilometres per hour. I drove past the iconic peaks I had only seen in photographs; past the provincial park gates; past the villages of Banff and Lake Louise; past the ski resorts and famous Fairmont hotels; I drove until all the recognizable landmarks were only visible in my rearview mirror, and then making my way on to the historical Bow Valley Parkway, I drove some more. Finally, as the light of day vanished (along with my cell service) I pulled into Baker Creek, a collection of rustic log cabins that would be my home for the duration of my stay.
The first thing I did when I walked into my log cabin was starfish on the Pendleton-outfitted bed and have an existential crisis about why I don't live in a cabin in the mountains all year around. In this environment I felt unparalleled dimensions of clarity and calmness. However, all it took was one glance at my shower curtain, which was emblazoned with an enormous grizzly bear and her cubs, to remember I was not groomed for the wildlife run-ins inherent to mountain life. Realizing that it wasn't likely that I would permanently relocate to the mountains, I vowed to make the most of my time in the Park and in a bold act of sylvan joie de vivre, I walked over to the Baker Creek Bistro and gobbled down bison corn dogs, their house specialty. Feeling satiated and exhausted, I walked back to my cabin, made a fire, put on some tunes (the cabin rental was tricked out with an iPod dock) and dozed off, the sound of a CN freight train echoing in the distance.
The next morning I suited up and set out to shred the famous backcountry bowls of Lake Louise Ski Area. Located just 15 minutes from my cabin, Louise is the largest of Banff's three ski areas, collectively known as the "Big 3", and its slope-side scenery is beyond sublime. Located just off the TransCanada, you can exit the highway, park your car and be up the chairlift in minutes. The resort's famous off-piste territory is easily reached by riding up the main lift or gondola and dipping over the edge -- no guides or hiking gear necessary.
My favourite part of the day, however, was knocking back a beer with one of the resort's senior staff, an 18-year vet of Banff National Park (he was the first of many people I met during my stay who once upon a time took a job in Banff and never left the place). He was a wealth of regional knowledge and exhibited an enviable sense of place within the Canadian wilderness, relaying stories of run-ins with wolves and witnessing kills in the wild. The conversation had me thinking Banff, a place right here in our beloved homeland, could give the Serengeti a run for its money.
After a day on the slopes, I drove into the village of Lake Louise (which is more or less a four way stop and one-story shopping centre) and picked up some staples. The great thing about renting a cabin as opposed to staying in a hotel room is that I had my own kitchen, meaning I could save a ton of money by preparing my own meals and stocking my own booze. So, I grocery shopped for all the major food groups - salami, beer and a few grapefruits for good measure -- and headed home along the Bow Valley Pkwy to end my day by the fire with a good book and log cabin comfort food. The next day I would be setting out to snowboard Sunshine Village, which is closer to the town of Banff than Lake Louise. That meant I'd have a bit of a trek, but I figured a 45-minute drive was a small price to pay to experience what Ski Magazine says is Canada's best snow.
Unlike the Lake Louise Ski Area, which is visible and accessible right from the highway, Sunshine Village is tucked high up in the mountains. The ascent to the ski area starts with a 10 minute drive up a winding mountain road that brings you to a parking lot. From there, it takes an 20 minute gondola ride to reach the resort base, an alpine valley referred to by patrons as "the village", outfitted with a historical saloon, a Starbucks (go figure), and Banff National Park's only ski-in ski-out lodging. When traveling within Canada, especially the backcountry, I think I will always be partial to the authenticity of staying in a cabin rental - it is such a quintessentially Canadian experience, not to mention much more affordable. But, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, a stunning eco-boutique hotel high up in the Rockies, is a one-of-a-kind accommodation and if you like being the first person on the slopes each morning there's simply no better place to stay.
From the village you can access all of Sunshine's three mountains, which are known for their 100% all-natural snow. This mountain resort doesn't mess with the manmade stuff. I started with Goat's Eye, known for it's black diamond runs where skiers and snowboarders can satiate their appetite for the super steep. Yet, after a few runs my thighs needed a break so I headed over to Lookout Mountain, which straddles the Continental Divide high above the tree line and offers bowl after bowl at the top of the world. It was while drinking in the views at the top of Lookout that I linked up with one of the resort's guides, a Banff resident who graciously took me on a snowy trek to an abandoned trapper cabin, along the way narrating stories of the region's founding fathers. I don't know what I liked better, the snowboarding or the history lesson, but the combination of the two made for another spectacular day on the slopes. Sure, Sunshine was a little harder to get to, but the best places usually are.
On my way back to Lake Louise from Sunshine, I stopped in the town of Banff. Unlike tranquil Lake Louise, Banff is packed with people and lined with brand name stores. However, I didn't come to Canada's oldest national park to buy made-in-China goods, so I ducked into The Eddie Burger + Burger Bar, a local tavern that serves cheap beer and eclectic pub fare such as a peanut butter and jelly burger and truffled fries. Packed with a mix of locals and visitors, this was the perfect apres-ski pit stop before heading back to the serenity of my cabin for one last night.
After another day in the great outdoors, I was spent. What a welcome feeling it was to be exercised and oxygenated with fresh mountain air. By April, northern hemisphere travelers usually have their sights set on white sand and sun, not snow, but with so much to see and do in Alberta's Rockies this paradigm makes no sense! A vacation spent being active in the great outdoors is a way better recipe for rejuvenation of the mind, body and soul than sedentarily sipping daiquiris while sunburning. And fear not, Banff National Park is known for its clear blue lakes - visitors will still have their token turquoise bodies of water, albeit under a cover of ice.
The following morning as I loaded up my car and pulled out of Baker Creek, I was struck with the nostalgic despair a child feels on the last day of sleep away camp. In a few short days, my cabin rental came to feel like a home away from home; the national park residents (both human and non-human), like neighbours. From my own little piece of unpretentious paradise I played, rested and recharged -- the bona fide Canadian travel experience that many come west looking for but never find.
I guess those Albertans aren't so cuckoo after all.
By Mara Sofferin, VP Marketing CottageCountry.com