To a lot of international visitors, the mountains, the lakes and the wildlife that envelop the town of Banff epitomize the Canadian experience. More than four million people arrive in Banff annually to soak it all in, which means this mountain town of 7,851 year-round residents is infamous for its congestion. Most visitors arrive by the busload and spill out over Banff Avenue, wandering the main drag for a day before heading deeper inland on their tours. But it doesn’t have to be that way – once you’ve arrived on a shuttle from Calgary, it’s shockingly easy to get into the wilderness on foot. By stepping away from Banff’s tourist-plagued main drag, you’ll get a crisper, clearer understanding of what makes this place so special, so iconic even, in the Canadian canon.
And even if you feel as if you’ve "done” Banff, consider a return trip outside of peak season. You’ll see it in a fresh (likely quieter) way – and have a chance to explore the new treats in town.
Mount Royal’s renewal
This Banff landmark reopened in July after a fire in December, 2016, destroyed the property and forced 256 guests onto the street. But the hotel’s 18-month closing gave owners a chance to rebuild it into a chic, four-star style experience (with a restaurant expected to be open by fall). Stuart Back was one of the many volunteer firefighters called into stop the blaze, and since then he’s been involved in the Mount Royal’s rebirth as the vice-president of operations for Pursuit, the company that owns the hotel. It started with paying tribute to the hotel’s 108-year-old history in Banff. “The hotel had evolved with the city,” he says, and one of the biggest jobs was returning the exterior to match the rest of the street. The Mount Royal’s 133 rooms fill four buildings that stretch along Banff Avenue. “We wanted to restore the differences between these buildings, because as you can see,” he added, waving his arm toward the main drag, “Banff isn’t homogeneous.”
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The redesign is modern and thoughtful, and nods to the property’s history but doesn’t pander to it – instead of stuffed elk heads decorating the lobby (as they did in days past), the hotel commissioned an Alberta blacksmith to forge a trophy head instead. A new second-floor library/work space and tour-booking desk offers a take-a-book/leave-a-book shelf and handy local guide books to plan your visit. “It’s not about just having hotel rooms,” Back said, “it’s about the [guests’] experience in a national park.” A rooftop storage area was transformed to take advantage of its unobstructed views with an indoor lounge and two outdoor hot tubs that are open year-round (and overlook Mt. Norquay ski runs). Vintage Banff photography is found throughout the hotel and a mini-museum in the lobby give guests a great glimpse of the way it was, while offering amenities they expect today. Each new room is an oasis: large windows (that open!) with mountain views; fresh, comfy beds backed with clever, canvas-quilt headboards; and hexagon-tiled showers that stand out in sleek bathrooms. Perhaps most welcome – a Nespresso coffee machine, kettle and mini-fridge are in each room. It is a shame, though, that throwaway cups (each one individually wrapped) are provided instead of glasses and mugs. That doesn’t feel right, especially when you’re staying in a national park. What does feel right is Mount Royal’s location – right in the midst of a lively main street. Guests are well placed to take advantage of Alberta’s puny 5-per-cent sales tax and, more importantly, to start exploring further afield on foot. Rooms from $359 (summer); $189 (winter);
Walk to your adventure
Five blocks directly east of the Mount Royal (a 15-minute walk), you’ll find the trailhead for the Tunnel Mountain hike. The trail is just more than four kilometres, a two- to three-hour return hike that gently climbs 300 metres (with a few steep sections) and leads to views of the town, Mt. Rundle and the Banff Springs hotel. Walk in early August and you’ll likely find alpine wildflowers in season; the trail is open year-round.
A five-minute stroll west of the hotel, at the foot of Wolf Street, brings you to the local canoe club docks on the Bow River. This is a club anyone can join for the afternoon and paddling out into the too-blue-to-be-believed glacial waters is a must do, even if you’re inexperienced. Kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards are on a first-come, first-served basis. Paddle up river into the wider faster waters of the Bow, or turn right for the mellow, shallow water that empties out into Vermillion Lake with views of all the surrounding mountains.
$40 for the first hour; BanffCanoeClub.com
A five-minute walk further down Banff Avenue is the public transit hub where visitors can board a bus that whisks you out to another glacial lake, about five kilometres from town. Roam transit makes express trips to Lake Minnewanka for $2 one-way, and here you’ll find longer scenic hikes (this is bear country, pack your bear spray) and outboard boat and kayak rentals to explore Banff’s longest lake. An hour-long boat tour is also available. The beaches and trails close to the car park are quite busy in summer – make sure to get out on the water for quieter views of this mountain-fringed lake and paddle into Stewart Canyon for a close look at the bridge where Marilyn Monroe shot a scene for River of No Return.
Kayaks from $60/hour; motor boats, $85/hour; banffjaspercollection.com/canadian-rockies/banff/lake-minnewanka-boat-rentals/
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite
Earlier this year, the Banff Springs hotel reopened one of its restaurant spaces as a chic French bistro and christened it the Vermillion Room. The Banff Springs should be on your itinerary anyway – if only to admire the stately public spaces and castle-in-the-woods mystique. Grab a map and wander along Banff Avenue toward the Bow River bridge. Take in Cascade Gardens and the stately stone building in its midst, turn off Spray Avenue to follow the Bow Falls trail, before turning up at the Banff Springs’ Vermillion Room. Here, a pyramid of Moët & Chandon sets the tone for a fine dining menu of French classics with a Canadian twist – bison bourguignon, anyone? Lunches are lighter but no less French with a very healthy, even tasty, cauliflower steak. A welcome change from the parade of bison and elk burger restaurants in town.
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Long popular for its tacos and tequila flights, Magpie & Stump opened “El Patio,” last summer, a rooftop space that’s often forgotten about while patrons pack out the downstairs bar. Up here, colourful Mexican-themed murals, patio lanterns and sun shades still don’t block snow-top views of Mt. Rundle. This is a scenic spot to linger over a margarita and share stories of your day’s adventures.
But if it’s a truly local meal you’d like – with some of the best views in town – better head up to Sky Bistro atop Sulphur Mountain, part of the 2016 renovation of the Banff Gondola experience. (Since this is a long walk from the centre of town, hop on the free shuttle that runs regularly until Thanksgiving.) The gondola brings you to an elevation of 2,281 metres, which means Sky Bistro’s floor-to-ceiling picture windows make it dizzy, jaw dropping dining – no matter the weather. Watch for bighorn sheep, pikas or marmots scurrying underneath. On my visit, sleet and rain were followed by a heavenly looking sun breaking through the clouds. Chef Scott Hergott ensures the menu makes use of Alberta’s farms, including heritage pork, bison and trout and local produce. Okanagan and other B.C. vintages make up the wine list and there are gems to discover, such as Noble Ridge’s sparkling wine. If you really want to work up an appetite, visitors can hike up the mountain to the restaurant and 360-degree viewing platform for free (but must pay a reduced fee to ride the gondola down).
Hidden gem: If the patios in town are packed, call the Juniper Bistro to book a table on their scenic patio at the base of Mount Norquay overlooking Vermillion Lake. Bistro guests can take a free return shuttle from town (pickup isn’t far from the canoe docks) and the five-minute drive from from downtown Banff means fewer people and an awe-inspiring view of the area you likely haven’t caught yet. Alberta beef, bison and boar make up some of the local offerings on the menu.
The writer was a guest of Pursuit, which owns the Mount Royal hotel, Banff Gondola and boat rentals at Lake Minnewanka.