Poor Banff. As the tourist capital of Canada celebrates its 125th anniversary, the Rocky Mountain resort is suffering a serious identity crisis. In the face of negative visitor feedback, a full-scale review of municipal land-use bylaws is now under way. Have officials allowed too many fast-food outlets to run rampant? Should they finally put a cap on all those tacky souvenir shops?
It may be too late for Banff. But amid these picturesque peaks and valleys, scrappy little Canmore – located only five minutes outside the Banff National Park gates – has emerged as the winning tourist attraction.
Long considered Banff's working-class cousin, Canmore used to be the cheaper place to live on the wrong side of the tracks – or the national park gates. The 1988 Winter Olympics and the development of the Canmore Nordic Centre did give the former mining town a new lease on life. But rather than remain a bedroom community for Banff, Canmore has become a destination in its own right with a distinct, laid-back personality.
Compared with Banff, it's more authentic (Olympic athletes actually live here), more rooted in the area (restaurants and shops feature local foods, designers and artisans) and more affordable.
Although Canmore's population (currently 12,000) has surged in recent years, followed by significant commercial growth, this sporty mountain getaway has maintained its friendly, small-town atmosphere. For travellers who want to avoid Banff's busloads of tourists while enjoying easy access to the region's endless outdoor recreational activities, it's the obvious place to stay.
HAPPY TRAILS An already superb network of mountain-bike and cross-country-ski loops at the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park has been recently expanded with 30 kilometres of new trails that offer adrenalin junkies plenty of rolling terrain, banked turns and whoop-de-doos. Adventurers of all ages and fitness levels can challenge themselves on new permanent orienteering circuits and an 18-hole disc golf course. 1988 Olympic Way; 403-678-2400; www.tpr.alberta.ca/ parks/kananaskis/parks_canmore.asp
Hikers, cyclists and in-line skaters will soon be able to cruise straight to Banff from Canmore on the new Legacy Trail. Running alongside the Trans-Canada Highway, the 26-kilometre paved trail is slated for completion in late September. Hop on at the Parks Canada gate. www.banff.ca/locals-residents/recreation/banff_legacy_trail
HAPPY HOOPING For something a little offbeat, shake it with a shimmery hoop. Canmore just happens to be one of North America’s hula hot spots. Who knew? Take a fun retro fitness class (large, customized hoops make it easier these days) with hooping sensation Babz Robinson ( wildgirlhoops.com, 403-688-7926) or drop into one of the local, outdoor jams with the Bow Valley Hoopers.
WHERE TO REFUEL Why settle for fast food when you could have duck and wild mushroom soup and a fresh cheese Danish? You’ll find these scrumptious lunch offerings at the Whyte Horse Café (637 Main St.; 403-678-2241), the latest addition to an impressive selection of Canmore eateries that include sushi at Chef’s Studio (709- Main St.; 609-8383; chefsstudiojapan.com), organic pizza at the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company (838 10th St.; 403-609-5508; rockymountainflatbread.ca); and local comfort cuisine at Crazy Weed Kitchen, last year’s regional winner of the Gold Medal Plates culinary competition (1600 Railway Ave.; 403-609-2530; crazyweed.ca).
FIND A LITTLE PEACE Connect with your inner yogi at Gaia Collaborative Medicine. For travellers, the eight-month-old integrative healing centre offers yoga and meditation classes, guided nature walks, acupuncture, massage, chakra balancing and Ayurvedic consultation in a serene, spa-like setting. 101-75 Dyrgas Gate; 403-675-4242; www.gaiaclinic.ca
PACK YOUR OWN PICNIC Grab some nourishment to go before heading on a hike. Pick up freshly baked foccacia at Bella Crusta (903 6th Ave., 403-609-3366; bellacrusta.com). Stop in at the recently expanded Mountain Mercato (102-817 Main St.; 403-609-6631) for a hunk of Alberta Sylvan Star gouda and peppered duck breast cured by locally renowned Valbella Meats. If it’s Thursday, you’ll find fruit and veggies at the Farmers’ Market (in the plaza in front of Canmore Town Hall. And don’t forget a bottle of rare wine or beer, from the amply stocked shelves at Canmore Wine Merchants (836 Main St.; 403-678-4999; canmorewine.com).
GET OUT OF THE GORE-TEX Given Canmore’s excellent access to outdoor activities, Main Street is awash in tight technical fabrics and fleece. But the toned and buffed townies have a stylish side too. City fashionistas will squeal over Gingerella, a sexy little shoe shop that carries designer heels with major bling (106-721 Main St.; 403-609-3144) and spend hours trying on funky finds – Nougat London! Lilly P! Clogs of Sweden! – at Indigo Bay (100-817 Main St.; 403-678-8808).
BRING HOME A LITTLE SOMETHING IN YOUR SUITCASE Canmore isn’t impervious to the made-in-China syndrome that has turned Banff into a haven of tacky souvenir shops, but there are far less found here. Stonewater Home Elements is an eco-conscious home furnishings store that carries a lovely array of Canadiana, from one-of-a-kind plaster-cast bear print hangings by NorthPaw Designs to Greg Martodam’s high design wood-and-stone platters locally crafted from Mount Rundle slate. 638 Main St.; 403-609-4477; stonewaters.com
Special to The Globe and Mail
Where to stay
Grande Rockies Resort This is the first luxury hotel brand to open in Canmore. Operated by Metropolitan Hotels, it offers modern design, fine dining in its pan-Asian Habitat Restaurant and a family-friendly pool area. Spacious one-, two- and three-bedroom suites come equipped with full kitchens, Vera Wang pillow-top mattresses and state-of-the-art steam showers. Rates from $215 a night. 901 Mountain St.; 877-223-3398; granderockies.com.
Paintbox Lodge Retired Olympians Sara Renner and Thomas Grandi are the new innkeepers at this charming hotel, conveniently located in the centre of town. Lofted guest rooms and suites are appointed with hand-hewn timber beams, local art and antiques, feather beds and luxurious bathrooms. Amenities include complimentary town bikes, toy boxes and playpens for children and (coming this fall) a show kitchen that will offer cooking classes, demos and wine tastings. High-season rates from $229 a night. 629-10th St.; 888-678-6100; paintboxlodge.com
Editor's note: The original version of the story contained the wrong population of Canmore and the wrong day and location of the Farmer's Market. This copy has been corrected.