Western Canada’s Great Outdoors

By Valerie Summers

My outdoor adventure began in Vancouver, known as one of the most livable cities in the world.  A particularly attractive feature of this capital of British Columbia is the 1,000 acre Stanley Park and its close proximity to the city’s downtown area. Like New York’s Central Park, only larger, residents of the densely populated condominiums, visitors and the working crowd all enjoy ambling over to the park for an outing or a respite from a hectic day.
I chose to stay at the Fairmont Waterfront primarily because of its picturesque location.  I could walk out of the hotel and immediately be on the bayside promenade.  Upon entering the hotel I was greeted by Holly and Morgan, former guide dogs and current resident K-9 employees who are available to stroll with guests along the beach or city streets. It was a tempting idea, but I didn’t know how long I would be touring around, so I headed out alone towards Stanley Park along the seawall where two separate paths allowed walkers and joggers not to fear being run down by bicyclers and roller bladers who whiz down their own path.  I passed grassy areas with children playing and adults relaxing all along the way.  People parked themselves on benches enjoying waterfront views, boys and girls ran through streams of water-spouting fountains and folks strolled by the seawall on a beautiful sunny day. Thirty minutes later, I arrived at Stanley Park.
What is now a peaceful refuge began as a military reserve in the mid-1800’s to guard the entrance to Vancouver harbor from aggressive Americans. I discovered that more than 100 years ago, upon the dedication of the park in 1889, Lord Stanley, Governor General of Canada, for whom the park was named, remarked that the park was for “the use and enjoyment of people of all colors, creeds and customs for all time.”  This protected forested expanse continues to serve that purpose and just about everyone shares the opinion that the only acceptable change to the park is cutting the grass.
One of the first things I spotted upon entering this enormous oasis was a horse drawn trolley.  Since it is such a huge park,  a guided tour was the best option for getting my bearings.  Edna, a perky and knowledgeable guide/driver first introduced my fellow passengers and I to the two Clydesdales who would clip clop their way around the park for an hour, pulling us behind them.  As we continued the tour, mostly along the waterfront, I watched a continuation of boardwalk activities with bicyclers, roller bladers, strollers and children playing amidst the green grass and towering shade trees with brightly colored floral beds dotting the landscape.  We learned the history of Deadman’s Island, viewed the graceful Lions Gate Bridge and admired the colorful Rose Gardens.  The driver stopped for several minutes to let passengers get a closer look and take pictures of the handsome Totem Pole grouping. The next landmark we passed was a small statue completely surrounded by water, surprisingly similar to Denmark’s famous “Little Mermaid,” this one called “Girl In A Wet Suit.”  Edna pointed out several more highlights as well as offering some history during the ride.
Following the informative tour, I made my way to the aquarium for a quick look ‘round, particularly enjoying the antics of the graceful snowy white Beluga whales before heading over to Granville Island.  What used to be an industrial wasteland under the Granville Bridge is another of the city’s most popular hang-outs with its abundance of eateries, excellent Public Market, crafts shops, museums, kids market and water park.  I grabbed a sandwich and parked myself at an umbrella shaded table and enjoyed the music of a lively band performing on the outdoor stage before a kayak outing at the Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre.
Next morning I bade farewell to Vancouver and boarded the Rocky Mountaineer for a scenic rail tour, continuing my exploration of outdoor Western Canada.  I would travel through British Columbia and Alberta to view some of the most spectacular scenery in North America.  The Rocky Mountaineer offers two levels of service…Gold Leaf and Red Leaf.  I went for the gold which allowed me to park myself in a luxurious, dome-topped train car featuring huge expanses of glass so I did not miss a single sight and enjoyed pampering throughout the trip. As we sped along, my eyes feasted on scenic wonders of majestic snowy peaks, glittering glacial lakes, roaring rivers and waterfalls, towering trees and occasional wildlife daring to explore close to the rails during our two day trip.  Interpretive commentaries were offered and drinks and snacks were served throughout the day during which time we descended the staircase to the lower level to dine with white linen service and well planned menus.
Late in the afternoon of the first day, the train stopped at Kamloops, a mountain town half way to our destination, Banff/Lake Louise in the majestic Canadian Rockies.  My group was shuttled to the South Thompson Inn guest ranch which offered real western hospitality.  My charming room overlooked the South Thompson River.  A quick change and I sauntered over to the stables, admiring a mare and her new colt before hopping on Madison, a beautiful American quarter horse, for a ride around the property before dinner.  Next morning, we headed back to the train for the final leg of the trip, the scenery becoming more and more spectacular.  Nearing the end of our trip, we spotted a group of soaking wet rafters rocking and rolling down the white water of Kicking Horse River.
Arriving at our destination, I checked into the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, one of the most unique properties in North America, a castle-like structure which appears to rise up out of the wilderness in the midst of Banff National Park.  Virtually a city within its walls, it includes 770 newly restored guest rooms and suites, 12 restaurants including the Five Diamond Banffshire Club, 17 boutiques, championship golf course, tennis courts, horseback riding, swimming pool, and a newly refurbished European-style spa, ranked number one in Canada with Spa Finders. I went right to the heart of the Willow Stream spa which beats with pulsating waterfalls and a mineral pool and slid right in. The spa’s pampering signature treatments include unique massages, body balancing, rehydration, exfoliation, facials and complete salon facilities.  After a day of activity outside, nothing soothes tired muscles like a trip to the spa.
In Banff, the sunshine took a day off, but as I learned during my first long distance walk in Snowdonia, Wales, you can’t always count on the weather to cooperate.  But if you want to be outside, you adapt and the right equipment always makes a difference.  I had planned to try rock climbing, but because of the light rain making everything slippery, my group, guided by Yamnuska mountain guides, opted for an afternoon of rappelling at Rundle Rock, but I stayed comfortable and dry in my lightweight Columbia jacket and pants.  From the summit of our decent, we had a clear view of the “castle” before we each tied ourselves in to a sturdy harness and one by one, lowered ourselves to the ground, and then clamored back up the rocky path to the top for another go at it.
After a delicious lunch back at the hotel, I hiked up Mountain Avenue to the historical hot springs which emptied into a man-made pool at this modern facility.  Pulling on my bathing suit in the changing room, I joined the group already soaking where travelers have come to “take the waters” for more than a century.  Later, I moseyed on over to the close-by ariel tram, determined to ride it even though I was sure, at least half of the ride up to the 7,486 foot top would be in the clouds.  I was right but the next day, the sun came out.
Nearby, I visited another exceptional hotel, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, recently named fourth best in Canada by Conde Nast Traveler and among the 20 best hotels in North America. This glamorous property, nicknamed the Diamond in the Wilderness, has hosted hundreds of celebrities through the years including many Hollywood luminaries.  At the new and secluded Fairmont Gold floor, I discovered all the comforts of a luxury boutique hotel where every guest is treated like a celebrity.   It’s like a hotel within a hotel offering access to all the facilities of this grand resort (550 rooms) while providing the ultimate in privacy.
Perhaps best of all was the hotel’s picturesque location, situated at the edge of the aquamarine glacier fed waters of Lake Louise.  I rushed outside for a hike along the path around the lake.  Huge frozen waterfalls still clung to the mountainside in May.  At the far end of the lake, the path diverted away from the lake, so I retraced my steps back toward the Chateau where I joined a guided tour led by Bruce Bembridge.  His uncanny connection with nature and astounding knowledge added immensely to the enjoyment of the walk.  The hotel offers Mountaineering and Interpretive Hiking Programs throughout the year and rafting, horseback riding, golfing and canoeing are available summer activities.  But all year ‘round, being pampered in the spa is a relaxing and revitalizing experience.
Both Fairmont hotels, Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs are situated minutes away from fine ski areas for both Alpine and Nordic skiing, ice skating, dog sledding, snowshoeing, horse-drawn sleigh rides and other exhilarating outdoor winter sports, but that’s another story.
For information:
Air Canada
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
P.O Box 960
Banff, Alberta, Canada T1L 1J4
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada TOL 1EO
Fairmont Waterfront Hotel
900 Canada Place Way
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Greater Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau
Suite 210 – 200 Burrard St.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada  V6C 3L6
Stanley Park
Vancouver, Canada, British Columbia
Rocky Mountaineer Rail Tours
South Thompson Inn Guest Ranch
RR #2. Site 12. Comp 25
Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada  V2C 2J3
Yamnuska: custom adventures for the vertically inclined
200, 50 Lincoln Park
Canmore, Alberta, Canada T1W 1N8