Travel: A trip to the Canadian Rockies will elevate your senses

O Canada. A day after eyeing Banff’s notorious Merman Monster, I’m confronting higher frights. Yes, that’s adrenalin-amped me gingerly tiptoeing along the glass-floored U-shaped Columbia Icefield Skywalk that juts out from a cliff and thrillingly hangs 918 (see-through!) feet above a glacier-gouged valley in Jasper National Park. Let me emphasize how ultra-freaky it is to peer down at your shoes, seemingly suspended in midair and attached to your cantilevered body. Far below, a waterfall, pine trees and river look like miniature land.

Tourists stand, sit and even lie down on the glass-floored Columbia Icefield Skywalk, dangling 918 feet above a valley in Jasper National Park. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Clearly my trip to the Canadian Rockies rocked. Among other adventures, my husband and I journeyed on an “Ice Explorer” snow coach to stroll atop the ancient Athabasca Glacier, pedaled e-bikes to a trading post where a pet black bear named Teddy once waved to tourists, and sampled local beers aboard a boat sailing over a sunken ghost town. But no, we didn’t try a landmark eatery’s distinctive dish — rattlesnake fondue.

Lake Louise is one of Banff National Park’s gems. Its brilliant color is from light reflecting off sediment deposited by melting glaciers. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

We spent most of our mid-September visit in deliriously beautiful Banff National Park, with jaunts into Yoho and Jasper national parks, all three part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasting Canada’s iconic splashy eco-celebrities: the wildly bright aqua-blue and emerald-bedazzled alpine lakes. Scientifically, the stunning colors occur when light reflects off glacier-pulverized rock particles in the water. Although I swear someone drained the basins and poured in glossy Sherwin-Williams paint. World-famous, teal-toned Lake Louise is regally staggering (and named after Queen Victoria’s daughter). Better yet, climb the short Rockpile Trail to stare open-mouthed at the crazily intensely turquoise Moraine Lake, fringed by jagged pinnacles of Valley of the Ten Peaks. This literally is the money shot. Dubbed the “Twenty Dollar View,” the scene formerly appeared on the back of Canadian $20 bills.

Jewel-hued Emerald Lake, in Yoho National Park, was discovered and named by a mountain guide in 1882. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Banff is Canada’s first national park, founded in 1885, spread over 2,564 square miles, and a hypnotic vacation haven since the late 19th century. What’s cool is you can commune here with nature in unique ways without breaking much of a sweat (unless you’re acrophobic). For starters, the Banff Gondola soars passengers in four-person cars during a breathtaking eight-minute ascent to lofty 7,486-foot-tall Sulphur Mountain. At the summit, there’s an expansive four-story Above Banff interpretive center ringed by six mountain ranges and featuring educational displays (everything from info on Banff pioneers to molds of wildlife scat), two restaurants with sweeping vistas, and a 360-degree rooftop observation deck with lounge chairs and fire pits. On the ground level, a long boardwalk leads to the defunct site of the bizarre Cosmic Ray Station, erected in the 1950s to detect high-energy particles from outer space.

A sign with oversized letters welcomes visitors to the resort town of Banff in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Speaking of UFOs. The best summit seat may be inside the Sky Bistro, where patrons dine next to floor-to-ceiling windows as the sunset casts an otherworldly flaming red-pinkish-purple “alpenglow” over the Rockies. Savor it while quaffing a similarly hued Alpen Glow cocktail (made with Wildlife Adventure-label gin from this neck of the woods). Foodie alert: I had a delish vegetarian orange-and-cardamon endive entrée, my husband devoured braised short ribs, and our forks battled over an apple pie pastry garnished with cheddar cheese gelato. Then, whoosh, a descending gondola zipped us back down Sulphur Mountain to earth.

These boats take tourists on beer voyages or regular cruises around history-rich Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

The next day, we tasted local craft brews aboard the Beer Voyage Cruise on azure Lake Minnewanka, aka “Water of the Spirits” to the original indigenous people and “Devil’s Lake” to early Europeans who believed a terrifying beast lurked there. Our exuberant guide Gary dispensed a boatload of Banff lore, in between shouting “3-2-1, cheers!” as we 12 passengers simultaneously popped open cans of Trail Session IPA and Babe Blueberry Vanilla Ale.

The Merman Monster, apparently a fake conglomeration of who-knows-what, has been a tourist lure at the Banff Trading Post since the early 1900s. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Gary enlightened us about Norman Luxton, a legendary entrepreneur and newspaperman who hyped Banff tourism starting around 1903 and owned so many businesses in town he was called “Mr. Banff.” To entice more curious visitors to cruise this lake, Gary said Luxton “came up with a half-man, half-fish monster” known as the Merman and sporting scales, fins and clawed arms. One story has Luxton buying the fake mummified creature in Japan for $283. After it was “captured,” Luxton put the Merman on display in his Banff Trading Post store, where it has creepily remained for more than 100 years. Shoppers will find the glass-encased decrepit mutant near the “I met the Merman” souvenir tees.

Just outside downtown Banff, the Bow River Trail, leading to Bow Falls, is a scenic path to bike and walk. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Gary also noted that if we were scuba diving under our boat — instead of slurping Banff-fermented Black Pil and gnawing complimentary warm pretzel buns —  we’d be inspecting the submerged Minnewanka Landing resort village. Initially established in 1886, the lakeside summer getaway once thrived with hotels, restaurants, avenues, cottages and sailing tours. In 1941, it was flooded when a new dam was built to provide hydroelectric power. Recreational divers can still see haunting remains of the sunken town, preserved by frigid waters and including hotel foundations, wood stoves, sidewalks, a picket fence and wharf.

Zipping over tree tops, the Banff Gondola first opened in 1959 as a tourist attraction and has been hugely popular ever since. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Planning-wise, here’s what makes our Rockies’ trip so easy: Almost every activity (gondola, beer cruise, Skywalk) plus our lodging, tours and transportation (including shuttles from and to Alberta’s Calgary airport) are operated by the Pursuit Collection. You can devise your own personalized, independent, car-free itinerary by piecing together various deals and combo packages on Pursuit’s website ( Their Brewster Sightseeing excursions date way back — in 1892, the Brewster brothers, ages 10 and 12, first led tourists on an outing into Banff’s wilderness. Recreating the past, Brewster’s Open Top Touring now ferries passengers to scenic overlooks in vintage 1930s-style vehicles with drivers-guides dressed in period clothes, and among tidbits, pointing out where Marilyn Monroe rode a chairlift. (Due to winter weather, except for the gondola, most tours and attractions are open May through early October.)

The guests-only lobby of the Glacier View Hotel offers a gorgeous glacial and mountain landscape, a stone’s throw away. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

One afternoon a Brewster bus picked us up at our contemporary Elk + Avenue Hotel in downtown Banff and drove three hours, mostly on the two-lane incredibly picturesque Icefields Parkway, to the middle of nowhere near the Athabasca Glacier. The only lodging is the 32-room chalet-chic Glacier View Hotel, the sole glacier-view auberge in Canada. You’ll melt. We walked into the cozy private lobby, were handed signature welcome glacier-blue cocktails, and gazed through the cathedral ceiling window at a spectacular panorama of ice fields and snowy chiseled Rockies — right across the street. We ate up the same view from the onsite Altitude restaurant and our room.

In Jasper National Park, a tour takes guests to the Athabasca Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefield that spans 125 square miles. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

In the morning, a mega all-terrain Ice Explorer brought visitors out to the Athabasca Glacier, one of six glaciers comprising the massive Columbia Icefield, formed some 240,000 years ago. Our driver talked about climate change, and then we had about a half-hour to amble atop a thick frozen plain of the sprawling but shrinking glacier. It’s humbling and extraordinary to be on this pristine natural wonder; upsetting to consider its future.

The glass-bottomed Columbia Icefield Skywalk is bolted to a cliff in Jasper National Park. It will elevate your senses. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

After the Icefield experience, a bus shuttled us to the glass Skywalk, bolted to a craggy bluff, perched above the gaping Sunwapta Valley and facing white-powdered peaks. As I tottered along, trying not to imagine free falling, an elderly mauve-haired British woman hollered to me, “I can’t stop smiling!”

Banff’s main avenue, lined with shops, restaurants and hotels, is a lively pedestrian zone during the summer and early fall. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Back in downtown Banff, we rented cycles from Black Diamond Bikes and began an idyllic ride, first along the forested path beside brilliant blue Bow River. Banff is a charming hamlet, its main avenue bookended by majestic towering Cascade Mountain and the flowering terraced Cascades of Time Garden. Between souvenir outlets, The Fudgery sells chocolate “bear paws” with cashew nut “claws.” The rustic half-century-old Grizzly House serves its viper fare, rattlesnake fondue, which customers cook themselves over a hot rock. (I did overhear a waiter on the patio apologize to a customer: “Sorry, we don’t have rattlesnake today. We’re substituting kangaroo.”)

The four-acre flowering Cascades of Time Garden surrounds a historic Parks Canada building in the town of Banff. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

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I preferred to people-watch out the windows of Brazen restaurant while relishing a scrumptious mushroom ravioli made with Swiss chard, blister tomatoes, leeks and, for flair, sprinkled with gold. Brazen is located in the historic Mount Royal Hotel, surely teeming with ghosts of colorful characters. Banff’s fabled park warden, Wild Bill Peyto, once strode into the bar with a live (but sedated) lynx around his neck to clear the joint out.

And as for Teddy, the greeter bear cub? In the early 1900s, Luxton, the renowned Banff promoter, trained the young bruin to sit outside the Trading Post and attract customers, who fed him biscuits and chocolates sold in the shop. Teddy was eventually taken away by authorities, and of course these days bears can’t be store props. Not true for the Merman, though. Over a century later, the only-in-Banff oddity still calls the Trading Post home.


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