The town of Banff is the center of excursions through the Banff National Park. The chachka-lined main street is oriented for a perfect view of the mountains towering over the town — the town planners oriented the town for optimum enjoyment of nature. Some of Canada’s top chefs have made this town their home, which has brought Banff’s culinary standards to the top of Canada’s food chain. The towering castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel sets a standard that harks back to the days of powerful railroads and the development of Canada’s West.
My trip to Banff was a research expedition to see what each of the surrounding ski areas were planning for the coming winter. The first snow had fallen on the upper slopes earlier in the week, so excitement for the winter season was beginning to churn.
Sunshine Village, with its on-the-Continental-Divide, unique-in-North-America lodge (reachable during the winter by gondola and cut off from the rest of the world by night), has by far the most dramatic developments following the renovation of their Sunshine Mountain Lodge, adding upscale lodging to the unique mountain lodge. Lake Louise and Mt. Norquay aren’t planning any major changes for the coming season, but it was nice to see the new high-speed lifts that Lake Louise had installed since my last visit in 2006.
Afterwards, Banff National Park offered a full range of summer activities. This was a new Banff experience, since previous visits were always in the dead of winter for skiing. The town certainly lives up to its outdoor action lifestyle booking, but it also has a little-known cultural side. The town is surrounded by spectacular nature, with hiking, boating, canoeing, skiing, riding and golfing within steps of the town center.
The Lake Minnewanka loop allows bikers and hikers to take in some of the most dramatic views in the park. The trails take hikers and bikers across the dam that formed the lake, past Two Jack Lake, and has a spur that reaches out to Johnson Lake that will provide some good solitude, even during the busy summer. For the less athletic tourists, the Minnewanka boat tour provides a pleasant, if a bit expensive, hour-long ride on the man-made lake.
For spectacular views of the town, take the Banff Gondola and for wildlife viewing the Lake Louise Gondola/chairlift ride is a perfect ticket. I can attest to wildlife at Lake Louise. On the drive up to the resort, I had to stop for a herd of long-horn sheep. Later, when I got to the top of that resort, I found myself trapped for about an hour because a grizzly bear decided to stop and munch on a batch of berries right next to the trail I needed to take back to the gondola for my ride home.
The Banff Centre — Art and culture in the mountains
Tucked into the evergreen forests crowned with naked rock peaks, across the river from the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and a couple of hairpin turns from downtown Banff, spreads the campus of the Banff Centre. This is the premier art school in Canada and one of the most prestigious and beautiful meeting spaces in the Rocky Mountains.
The Centre is packed with four theaters (one of them an outdoor amphitheatre), dining facilities, meeting rooms, sound and TV studios, dance stages and more advanced electronics than can be imagined — all to support the arts in all of its shapes, movements and forms.
During the summer months, an arts festival presents string quartets, dramatic readings, bluegrass and folk, orchestral performances, opera, avant-garde plays, modern dance, ballet and more only about a 10-minute walk from the end of Banff Avenue.
The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival takes place from October 27 through November 4th this year. It brings together the world’s top mountain climbers and mountain and wildlife photographers, plus the top nature writers. More than simply film and discussions, this festival includes mountain crafts, exhibitions, workshops, education sessions, music, culture, history and lore. For more information, check out banffmountainfestival.ca
Since the Banff Centre is an art school as well as a performance venue, the concerts and events continue through the winter as well. Make sure to check the program schedule whenever traveling to Banff to enjoy the spectacular surrounding nature.
Other new discoveries:
Bear Street Tavern (211 Bear Street, 403-762-2021) is a place to buy unique pizzas not found elsewhere in my experience. Try the unique smoked bison pizza with caramelized onions, edamame beans and mozzarella.
Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut (Harmony Lane Mall, 111 Banff Ave. 403-762-4106) sells some of the best handmade chocolates on the planet — worth every Canadian dollar.
Storm Mountain Lodge and Restaurant (on Hwy. 93 heading west, 403-762-4155), which opened in 1922 just about midway between Banff and Lake Louise on the road to Radium, is the quality, romantic spot for locals celebrating special occasions. The restaurant cuisine is some of the best in the park and the romantic cabins are just like they were in the olden days — no phones, no TV, no coffee makers.
Photos: ©Leocha except Eric Harvie Theatre at Banff Centre by Trudie Lee