Canada: Rocky mountain fairytale

By Kathryn Powley

Banff is picture-postcard perfect, but as Kathryn Powley finds, you need to keep an eye out for the wildlife.

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Photo / Banff Lake Louise Tourism
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Photo / Banff Lake Louise Tourism

The headline on the front page of Banff's Rocky Mountain Outlook is enough to make a Kiwi journalist's eyes water: "Grizzly feasting on compost at Banff landfill".

It turns out a large male grizzly bear has spent 72 hours straight "feasting" on corn cobs and steak bones at the local tip. Apparently there are 60 grizzlies in Banff. Gulp. Best keep your wits about you in this town.

Banff is what Queenstown might be like without rampant development, and with extreme wildlife instead of extreme sports. It's picturesque beyond belief and is set in a national park, which means there are strict limitations on population and growth.

The lady at the drug store where a "help wanted" sign is displayed tells me she can't hire anyone to work here without first having somewhere for them to live. There are plenty of those help wanted signs around too, and it's a popular destination for young Kiwis and Aussies on working holidays.

I'm staying at the Banff Springs Hotel, a big fairytale castle. As a little girl I used to gaze at a photo of my grandparents, clad in 1960s floral splendour, visiting this huge stone turreted hotel set among the towering snowy peaks of the Rockies.

The hotel is so big that to get to my room from the lobby I need a map. Getting from my room to the restaurant I get lost, until I learn to navigate these great halls.

Directions from my room to breakfast go something like this: Turn left at the huge bison and buffalo heads mounted above gigantic fireplaces, go up the oak staircase to the arch bridge connecting to the main building - pause to admire magnificent view of Rockies - continue through the armour room, past the gigantic crystal chandelier, past the ballroom, and you're there.

It's a bit like the Chateau Tongariro, only the Chateau is the Lilliputian version, and has no bears.

I arrive near dusk, about 9.30pm, and the view from my gabled window is spectacular. Jagged, rocky, snow-covered peaks jut skyward; firs cover the lower slopes; a crystal clear stony river flows through the glacial valley.

Next morning it's all gone, swallowed up by mist and... snow! It's spring, and the ski season has just ended. In winter it can drop to -30 C, but in summer 21C is about average.

A ride up the gondola is supposed to afford beautiful views, and I'm sure it does, but the day of my journey upwards the fog and mist have hidden the Rockies from view. But for a Northland gal like me, the scenery is delightful, like stepping into a living Christmas card complete with snow-coated fir trees and squirrels clutching pinecones.

Downtown Banff, population 8000, feels a bit sleepy - a big difference from Queenstown. People come here for the outdoors: hiking, skiing, scenery and fresh air.

It's not a bad place if you're looking for cowboy accoutrements either. The best store in town by a country mile is The Trail Rider where you can buy saddles, spurs, Stetsons and lassoes as well as Western kitsch like John Wayne salt and pepper shakers or gingham shirts. You can also book a horse trek to take in the natural beauty.

My last night in Banff I'm on a mission. The food so far has been stunning. If one loved salmon, one could have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and still come back for more. It's usually served fresh, sometimes smoked, but always done beautifully, and doesn't taste as rich as New Zealand salmon.

I've also enjoyed Canadian "spot" prawns, elk pizza and bison salami, all delicious. But "poutine" is what I'm hankering for. When Kiwis are away from home for a long time, they might miss Marmite on Vogel's toast, feijoas, and kumara. For Canadians overseas, poutine is the dish they crave, or so a Canadian friend back home reckoned.

Most popular in Eastern Canada, poutine consists of a big bowl of hot chips, topped with cheese curds smothered in very strong brown gravy.

Eddie Burger + Bar in Banff is a cool place that serves a whole range of innovative burgers and tasty treats, including poutine. It's a favourite after-work hangout for 20-somethings, but it's a long, long, long way from the east coast, and let's just say one bowl of poutine was enough for me.

As I make the pleasant 20 minute walk back to the Banff Springs Hotel, my breath turning to steam in the cold night air, I pass homes where deer nibble the front lawn and note the bear-proof roadside rubbish bins.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: Built in 1888 and styled on a Scottish baronial castle, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is known as the Castle in the Rockies.

It was built as a tourist hotel for railway travellers, and includes two ballrooms, 12 restaurants, a bowling alley and two golf courses. At the hotel's spa you can splash out $870 on a luxury eight-hour pampering session.

Activities offered include downhill and cross-country skiing, dog sledding, snow shoeing, skating, a 27-hole championship golf course, hiking, fishing, river rafting and horse riding.

At this time of year, the cheapest room with a mountain view costs about NZ$650 a night.

A room with a courtyard view is about $550.

A one-bedroom mountain view suite with a private concierge costs $1730.

Where to eat: Try poutine at Eddie Burger + Bar, 137 Banff Ave.

Further information: Air New Zealand operates three direct flights per week to Vancouver. Fares start from $2105 return including taxes.

Kathryn Powley travelled to Canada on Air New Zealand, flying into Vancouver.

- Herald on Sunday

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