Discover a picture postcard around every corner
in the Canadian Rockies.
Published Selector Spring 2012
Graham Evans loves bees, so much so he keeps nearly half a million of them. His five hives are nestled on the rooftop of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, Vancouver, where he’s director of housekeeping. While Graham’s portly build may indicate a predilection for the odd sweet treat, it’s not just for the honey that he keeps the bees. As part of the Fairmont’s Green Hotel Partnership Program, they pollinate the plants within a six-kilometre radius of the hotel, including the hotel’s herb garden.
But, before you start thinking the Fairmont is some kind of beacon of environmental righteousness, it’s actually just one cog in Vancouver’s wheel of sustainable change. Planning to be the world’s greenest city by 2020, the city has a number of ambitious but admirable targets to reach. These are outlined in the ‘Greenest City 2020 Action Plan’ and include doubling the number of green jobs over 2010 levels by 2020, reducing community-based greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent from 2007 levels and requiring all buildings constructed from 2020 onward to be carbon neutral in operations.
Of course, a commitment to sustainability often has some delicious by-products and Vancouver has a sumptuous array of eating opportunities. The Fairmont offers Sip + Savour afternoon teas where they match Blasted Church wines from the Okanagan Valley with British Columbian cheeses and locally made condiments including their own honey. Or if you want to shop with the chefs, head over to Granville Island where the public markets are a sensory haven of local produce and homemade products. To see how this fare looks on the plate, next to the markets is Edible Canada where the Okanagan granola will set you up for the day.
Once you’ve eaten your fill, you can always while away a few hours and calories walking, jogging, cycling or swimming in the 1000-acre Stanley Park. Or, if you prefer to let your food settle in a more sedate mode, Aquabus tours of False Creek are a great way to see the city’s sights from the water.
Sea to sky
While the Vancourverite bees are a fascinating quirk of this intriguing city, they’re hardly the first creatures that come to mind when you think of Canadian wildlife. I had a bingo card of fauna to fill with elk, moose, beaver and, of course, the ultimate tick, the bear: grizzly or black.
While researching this trip I’d come across the headline, ‘Bear swats man taking quiet soak in Whistler hot tub’ so it seemed Whistler was the place to go to ‘bear witness’ to Canada’s celebrity critter. Luckily, Whistler is up the road from Vancouver and what a road it is. The Sea to Sky Highway is one picture postcard after another with enough scenic lookouts to risk turning this two-hour drive into a much longer day.
Home to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler is an outdoor adventurer’s haven. The thrill of most mountain sports is the downhill challenge, but what comes down must first go up.
Thankfully for the legs, and the lazy, Whistler has the world’s longest continuous lift system incorporating 38 lifts including the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. This 4.4 kilometre line, linking Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is purported to be prime for bear-spotting, but I had to be content with the awe-inspiring alpine views.
Worn out from all that fresh air, the trip back to Vancouver called for some serious relaxation by rail. All aboard the Rocky Mountaineer! The Whistler Sea to Sky Climb takes three and a half hours and whizzes past scenic highlights such as the Tantalus Mountains, Cheakamus Canyon and Howe Sound.
Providing the energy to take in all this beauty, I was served finger sandwiches featuring local smoked salmon and a choice of desserts including scones with jam and cream, lemon tart, and profiteroles.
This quick trip was a great introduction to the two solid days of Rocky Mountaineering to come on the Journey Through the Clouds route from Vancouver to Jasper via Kamloops.
Bigger than the Whistler service, this impressive train is divided into Red, Silver and Gold Leaf services. Given this is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the Gold Leaf service is well worth it if you’ve got the money. Complete with glass-dome roof and separate dining car where executive chef Frederic Couton dishes up impressive breakfast and lunch menus, it’s the ultimate in train luxury. But the scenery is the real drawcard of this journey.
The day-long trip to Kamloops takes you through Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon where in the southern end the water squeezes through a 35-metre wide passage called Hell’s Gate; a perfect photo opportunity if you can jostle for a spot on the outdoor viewing area.
The overnight stay in Kamloops gives a brief snapshot of this attractive town that is seen as a quieter getaway for the adventurous than the more party-centred Whistler. That’s not to say its nightlife is understated; hip restaurants such as Felix on 4th, nightclubs like Cactus Jacks and pubs such as The Noble Pig Brewhouse provide a lively evening’s entertainment.
Back on board the Rocky Mountaineer, it’s into the heart of the Rockies between the Monashee and Cariboo mountains along the North Thompson River. It’s a lucky day for all of us on board as the highest peak in the Rockies, Mount Robson, is on show against the brilliant blue sky.
The final destination is Jasper, which has all the charm you’d expect from a mountain village. By this stage, I’m starting to understand the way locals talk of the inescapable pull of the Canadian Rockies, especially after meeting local guide for the SunDog Tour Company, Kevin Hassen. This Ontarian arrived in 1985 with a backpack and his guitar, but left with something less tangible. The mountains had seduced him with not only their beauty, but also the sense of protection they offer all who dwell in their shadows and he returned soon after to make Jasper his home.
My first adventure with Kevin is a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site of Maligne Lake for a boat cruise out to Spirit Island, one of the Canadian Rockies’ most photographed spots. I’m beginning to realise that you can never tire of picturesque views, and Maligne Lake, encircled by mountains, elicits yet another round of oohs and ahhs.
Kevin’s next treat is a walk to nearby Moose Lake where he demonstrates his moose call and, to my delight, actually lures said creature from the woods. Capturing it takes all the strength of a 14x camera zoom, but it’s a sighting nonetheless, albeit blurry. In fact, this turns out to be the region for fauna.
Before the day is out I’ve ticked both male and female elk, a Colombian ground squirrel and not one, but four black bears off my list. Thankfully, Kevin is in the know when it comes to bears and knew of a mother and her three babies who frequented a particular stretch of road. A magical sight well worth the wait.
Leaving Jasper the Icefields Parkway takes you towards Banff, via The Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure. This tourist magnet is touted as ‘one of the most accessible glaciers in the world’ and the crowds testify to that claim. Its cavalcade of massive coaches spilling out fellow glacial explorers doesn’t make this the most peaceful of mountain experiences, but it’s still a unique chance to stand on a glacier that’s ‘as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall’.
Photo opportunities abound along the remaining journey to Banff as Lakes Peyto, Moraine and the legendary Louise, with their impossibly blue glacier-fed waters, provide even the amateur snapper with fodder for professional looking shots.
The town of Banff, home to Canada’s first National Park, is another fantastic base for skiers, boarders and mountain-bikers. But if you prefer to keep your feet on the ground and your bones in tact, the hiking is superb, especially in Sunshine Meadows, which Lonely Planet recently named the No.1 hike in Canada.
In summer, regular tours with White Mountain Adventures reveal a wonderful array of wild flowers. But even in the off seasons your walking workout is punctuated by stunning scenery as you cross the Continental Divide and the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia.
Leaving Banff and the cradle effect of the Rockies, the landscape on the drive to the airport at Calgary feels very open and exposed and I better understand why so many visitors are drawn back time and again to this magical terrain.