Canada is not America.
I had to remind myself of that multiple times during our 10 day vacation to Vancouver and Banff.
Yes, we all speak English (unless you’re from provinces that are innately French in culture and language or come from a multi-lingual family), our coin currency does look faintly similar, we drive on the same side of the road (thank goodness), and both our geographic offerings run the gamut from mountains to beach and urban to rural.
Then I would come across something distinctly Canadian, such as a Bloody Caesar Vodka drink. Similar to our Bloody Mary, but using Clamato juice and often other embellishments. The best one I sucked down was at the famed Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel as we sunned on the deck of the hotel’s Walthaus pub, overlooking a gurgling stream running over rocks and a golf course whose water features would be a challenge for any player.
My husband, Russ, had read that the pub’s deck was a hidden treasure not too many tourists discover. Even many of the hotel guests don’t tackle the seven-minute walk from the ornate lobby to the European-styled building, with a fine dining Bavarian restaurant on the ground floor. We lucked out and snagged a table perfect for people and scenery watching.
Russ invariably tries out new ales. I read the description of their Caesar: a blend of olive juice, muddled pickles, Clamato juice, and vodka. The mug was rimmed with a salt-pepper and olive salt combo. This was a midafternoon snack break, so we also ordered their hot pretzels combo. It came with three types of mustard and bacon butter. The sweet and sour tang of the mustards and the soft melt of the bacon butter was the perfect complement to both our piquant drinks.
Another reminder that we weren’t in the U.S was the frequent addition of elk meat on many menus. We stopped for lunch at Apostoles, a Greek restaurant in Golden (near to Banff), which advertised elk short ribs as the special for the day. When our waitress didn’t know what a gyro or a schawarma was, we nearly bolted. Hunger locked us in place. The preparations weren’t what we’re accustomed to: the Greek salad had no lettuce and just a smattering of feta, but the chunks of tomato, cucumber and peppers were certainly fresh and my souvlaki pita sandwich was packed with juicy seared chunks of well-seasoned lamb.
At this moment, you’re likely wondering if I’ll discuss anything but food. If you know me at all by my writing, then you know food plays a heavy role in any journey. But no, that’s not all I will tell you about.
My enthusiasm for tastes, sensations, and gorgeous scenery often erupts like a wordy volcano, spewing descriptive details when all you want to know is what made the experience so fabulous and would we encourage others to try. Soooooooo, I’m going to just share the highlights that made this the long-anticipated jewel of a trip.
RESTAURANTS (you knew I’d start here, didn’t you?)
Top of our list is Coyotes Southwestern Deli & Grill in downtown Banff. Do not let the signage fool you into believing this is a place for selecting processed meats and cheeses from a deli counter. Though famed for 21 years for its breakfast and lunch offerings, our schedule meant dinner. We were so impressed the first time that we returned again a couple nights later. This is the first time in all our travels that we have done this.
Coyotes is an intimate space with a few outside sidewalk tables. You have the option to sit at the bar and watch the preparations. Two days after slurping up their margaritas and devouring the Grilled AAA Alberta Beef Tenderloin dinner, Russ’ taste buds were still salivating from memory-recall. The tenderloin was served with a roasted red pepper and green chile relish, along with a smoked onion mayo atop a sweet potato-chipotle polenta. He ordered the same exact meal and declared it even more juicy and flavorful than the first. A restaurateur at another establishment initially recommended Coyotes to us, noting that she has never had salmon cooked better. I agree. My hefty portion of Pan Roasted Chimayo Chile & Honey Glazed Salmon, served with a black bean sauce and smoked corn salsa was not only one of the prettiest plated meals I’ve ever had, but one of the tastiest. The flavors meshed sublimely.
The second night we shared another Southwestern-spiced Caesar Salad. They were out of the salmon, so I ordered the shrimp and goat cheese enchiladas, which came with a seasoned rice and a side salad. They were wonderful though I’d had my tongue yearning for the salmon. This time, we rounded out our swelled stomachs with delicious espressos and shared a slice of the Lemon Goat Cheese Cheesecake with a pine nut crust and surrounded by a thin river of raspberry jus. How could we not try something so interesting sounding? The delicate flavors melted in our mouths.
Another favorite restaurant was Bridges, a two-story structure fronting the marina on Granville Island in Vancouver. We shared a spicy bowl of seafood chowder. Russ had a juicy burger while I feasted on a grilled salmon dish over a dusting of veggies and quinoa. The quality of the meal was wonderful, but it was the combination of sitting on the first-floor wide verandah in the warm sun, watching boats cruise by while we sipped on innovative cocktails like the Commercial Drive (dark rum with pureed raspberries etc) that ranked this place as a must-do.
THE BEAUTY OF WESTERN CANADA
My husband’s obsession with going to Banff began from other travelers’ vivid descriptions of impressive mountains, stunning views, and lakes the colors of a painter’s imagination. I hear mountain driving and think “Eeeks. He’s found yet another set of switchback curves to caress while my hands grip whitely to my seat belt.” Thankfully, Canada’s mountain highways are blessedly smooth and wide enough to not fear dropping off an eroding cliff at any given second.
I’ve traversed many mountain ranges but what sets these apart is that each looks sculpted. No two mountains are alike. You know how you can see images in clouds? I saw cuffs adorned in treed bracelets. I saw columns rising like monoliths from the movie 2001. There were faces where hard snow still packed crevasses. We saw flattened tops as if cleanly shaved smooth and pointed peaks like a soft ice cream sundae. Mountains surrounded the small city of Banff like a flowing cape, leaving room to breathe but protective against all other elements.
Against my better judgment but being the solicitous wife that I am, I braved the famed gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain at Russ’ insistence and then scaled staircase after wooden staircase to reach the meteorological research center building. I don’t do heights comfortably, but Russ assured me that the Gondola has never lost a passenger, so I just took deep breaths and focused on the beauty that lay beneath the 8,000-foot high mountain.
Sulphur Mountain, near to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, overlooks the city and the surrounding Bow Valley. It’s one of those on-a-clear-day-you-can-see-seemingly-forever type places. My husband refused to believe that on July 1, Canada’s Independence Day, all the locals and tourists would mob the ride (they did) so it wasn’t until our third attempt at 7 pm that we finally were able to board the ferris wheel-type cable car. Seasoned hikers with hours to burn opt for the challenge of climbing or descending along multiple paths, some more treacherous than others.
This gondola ride was scarier for me than the one we’d ridden three days prior, descending over swollen raging waters that led to Hell’s Gate. It’s a tourist attraction in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon, off Canada Highway 1. We stopped enroute from Vancouver to Banff. Hell’s Gate contains a mini museum, gift store, ice cream and fudge shop, and a café that had surprisingly wonderful food. I had a bowl of salmon chowder and we shared a hefty portion of lightly breaded fish and chips. Russ braved walking along a bridge over the 154’ deep river (that day… sometimes even higher) to the next mountain. I say braved because the wind was gusting across that bridge and even my Iowa meat-and-potatoes hulk of a hubby had to fight for his stability.
Many of the stops we made were possible because we had changed our plan to ride from Vancouver to Banff on the Rocky Mountain Express. When we re-examined the way we like to travel—stopping to take lots of photos, finding interesting places to eat, resting when we wanted, we opted to follow the train tracks route by car as much as was possible. The bonus was that we spent time at places, such as Hell’s Gate and later the Ice Fields, we would otherwise have missed. Bonus– we could see all around and ahead of us vs looking through a train window and we spent a fraction of the money the train trip would have cost.
Despite what non-global climate change believers pontificate, it is a very real fact that glaciers are melting at record speed. The Ice Fields inside the Banff National Park are the remains of what were once extensive icy rivers flowing over and down mountains for miles. There are markers showing where the ice fields were in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Since the park has kept track, the glaciers have decreased by 60%.
There were two options for up-close viewing. We could each buy a $100 ticket to board the Brewsters tour bus that would drive us from the Visitors’ Center onto the ice, whereupon we could step out onto the glacier to say that we had done that. Or, we could trudge up a rock-strewn steep path still crusty with some packed snow that is all that’s left of where the glacier once lay, and walk towards the roaring freezing creek-sized river that separates the land from the glacier remnants. We walked. We climbed. We oohed just as appreciatively for what had been and aahed for how little is left.
There are three lakes and a river within an hour of Banff that are absolute must-sees. Don’t even think about swimming in them. They stay just a couple degrees above freezing year-round. One guide said you would suffer hypothermia in just 15 seconds, so when I saw a young couple canoeing with their two year old sitting between them wearing nothing more than a miniature life jacket, I drew in a stabbing breath.
Of the three lakes, Lake Louise is the most famous. It is also the most crowded. Think fire sale at Macy’s on Black Friday and don’t forget, we were there just before season hits hard. It seemed as if the clouded sky was breathing mist over the snow-capped tops of the surrounding mountains. We started walking around the lake’s paved path along with hundreds of friends-who-we-had-never-met, hoping to get to the Tea House for a brief respite. We didn’t make it even halfway. Between the people who rode bikes– even though large signs said no bikes permitted, and the people who didn’t mind stepping in front of you to take a picture even though you were already poised to shoot that exact vista, we decided we’d had enough.
We visited Peyto Lake before heading to the Ice Fields, an hour away. Travel experts consider Peyto Lake one of the most photographed and prettiest lakes in the world. The shifting bright green and turquoise of the shimmering glacial lake had Russ spellbound. He just didn’t want to leave even after we’d rotated taking pictures of other couples and them photographing us against the stunning background. Getting to the observation decks to view the lake was no easy matter. The path is worn, but the climb is steep. Rain had rendered parts of it quite slippery. That didn’t deter the scads of visitors jostling to take pictures. The length of lake ends in distinct curved shapes resembling paw prints or half a daisy.
Another favored spot was Lake Moraine. Though less hyped than Lake Louise, we were more enchanted with its natural beauty, less encumbered by artificial walkways and standing-room-only crowds. We hiked along the dirt and wooded path following the aquamarine river’s edge until we reached a natural waterfall that splashed and glittered over a bed of fallen rocks. There were less-trampled paths leading up the mountain but at the base was a poster of a growling bear and the warning that state law makes it illegal to walk these wooded paths unless you are with at least four people. I joked with a group of giggling teens that as long as they weren’t the last person running if they spotted a bear, there was little to be worried about. The wide-eyed unsure looks they shot me was priceless. My favorite moment was spotting the image of a ghostly mask made of snow. Trees and melted ice formed triangular eyes ripping across the stretched mask.
Though barely mentioned in guide books, we also loved the Bow River waterfall at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The gushing roar of the waterfall broke in white foamy tiers before spilling into the aqua lake. Apparently there’s a limited time of year when kayakers and canoers can safely maneuver the rapids even with a guide.
Our trip had begun in Vancouver. Albeit the magnificence of the diverse architecture, our two favorite Vancouver adventures were walking to and through Stanley Park and our afternoon at Granville Island Market.
We followed the seawall in downtown Vancouver to the 1001-acre Stanley Park. The day was hotter and the park larger than expected, so jumped aboard a trolley car ($10 each). There was a horse-drawn affair, but it was $33 each and would move slower than we wanted. Our trolley driver pointed out all the highlights as we passed. You could spend a full day in the park picnicking and riding bikes or just strolling casually. There is a children’s area, a recreation of the First People’s Indian campgrounds, and a lovely rose garden.
We discovered this architectural beauty called the Marine Building accidentally. We love preserved art deco buildings and this featured ornate ironworks, intricately-carved ceiling beams, and a tiled astrological chart set into the lobby’s floor. There was no mention of this building in the guidebooks.
We loved Granville Island Market. Open seven days a week, it is a thriving consortium of four community theaters, boutique artisan crafts, clothing and leather working shops, gift stores, and many restaurants. If I lived nearby, you would find me browsing and buying in the farmers’ market building. I have never seen so many unique delis representing different ethnicities in one place. Bakeries and chocolatiers’ goods had my tongue salivating. Meat markets displayed counters of sausages or cuts of beef, pork, chicken and fish I’ve never before seen. Produce spilled in a colorful array from overflowing bins or along lengthy tables. If we hadn’t had our hearts and stomachs set on eating at Bridges restaurant, we’d have had a difficult choice of where to eat among these kiosk-styled restaurants.
- 1. During the summer, Western Canada doesn’t get dark until 11 pm. More time to see more sights. We were so active that by the time we thought about dinner, we didn’t eat before 9:00 pm.
- 2. Even though Banff is mobbed with tourists from May though early September, during the week only three downtown restaurant kitchens are open after 10 pm… and I do mean 10, not 10:01. We found that out the hard way. All three are more bar than restaurant, so if you have minors under 21, don’t even think about a late night meal. We ate at Eddie Burger. I am fussy about burgers and am not much of a fast food junkie, but this was the best of three choices. Russ had a burger (duh!) and I ravished a large grilled spicy chicken salad, loaded with gorgonzola and walnuts. Another of the three open is Magpie & Stump. My advice: unless you’re college-aged and food is of minor consequence, don’t. Let’s just say I’d rate this as “only if you’re desperate” or want to get drunk and see who can yell louder than everyone else in the joint.
- 3. Western Canada has many rest areas along the highway. However, unless you’re within the boundaries of a national park, those rest areas may or not have facilities and if they do, it’s an outhouse with no sink, soap or even hand sanitizer. Be prepared.
- 4. Even though we followed beaten paths around lakes we visited, water trickles down the surrounding mountains and seems as if bursting in spurting rivulets that sluice across the paths. It can make for slippery footing. My walking sneakers have no grooves and I found myself sliding more than once. Step carefully.
- Canada’s liquor stores are mostly government controlled. Wine prices are nearly double what we pay in the States (at least for the ones we often drink).
- We have Global Entry, so were surprised we still had to take off our shoes and remove our toiletry bag.
- We flew out of Calgary on United Airlines. Americans pass through immigration before heading to the terminal. Unlike the States where you are encouraged to report three hours ahead of your international departure, you are not allowed to pass through immigration until a strict two hours before your departure. The exception is by having Global Entry or Nexus credentials.
- Signage is sparse. Can’t tell you how many times we didn’t see a sign for our exit until we were on top of it; too late to do anything but make a u-ey when possible.
- I have never heard so many different languages spoken, not even when meandering through EPCOT.
- We were there in late June through July 4. Tourist season really gets into gear in July. If the crowds we encountered at scenic locations were “pre-season” then expect long waits to pose before choice photo ops. The spectacular mountains and lakes are worth waiting to see.
- Carry Canadian coins. You never know when you’ll be somewhere (like a local bus) that doesn’t accept paper money.
Our 10-day trip to Western Canada has ended, but the memories will live on through the hundreds of photos we shot and in the telling and retelling of our adventures to anyone willing to listen. Canada surpassed Russ’ expectations. He is thrilled and that makes me happy. Isn’t that what vacations are supposed to do: make you happy you were on the journey?
Whether you head to Canada or some other destination, Happy Travels!
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.