BANFF is the unquestioned capital of the Canadian Rockies, and with its intense summer buzz it can be a fun, bustling and likeable base – but if you've come to commune with nature, you'll want to leave as soon as possible. Although the town is quite small, it handles an immense amount of tourist traffic, much of it of the RV and coach-tour variety. Anything up to 50,000 visitors arrive daily in high season, making this the largest and busiest urban focus of any national park anywhere in the world.
What's rather odd, given all the people, however, is that there's next to nothing to do or see in Banff, save a couple of small museums, a cable-car ride and the chance to gape at the crowds on Banff Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with probably more souvenir stores and upmarket outdoor clothing and equipment shops than anywhere in North America.
Whenever Canada is mentioned, one of the first places that springs to mind is Banff. The soaring peaks, dense coniferous forests and abundant wildlife in one stunning region make it a Canadian institution. The Banff town site sits within Banff National Park, Canada's oldest and most spectacular heritage site. Home to many of the nation's most famous landmarks, densely populated with wildlife and full of opportunities for relaxation and adventure, Banff is Canada's ambassador to the world and one of the country's most-visited tourist attractions.
Banff is 100 kilometres west of Calgary and sits in the first range of the Eastern Slope Rocky Mountains. The landscape is rugged, consisting of towering black mountains, deep blue and white glaciers and alpine tundra. The valley bottoms are densely carpeted with spruce and pine trees, and fast-flowing rivers churn through their centers.
Almost all the people and animals in Banff live in these river valleys, most of which are less than a mile wide. Banff is home to black and grizzly bears, whitetail and mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Some people visit Banff just to see the animals as they are easy to observe and fairly docile. Of course, as with most wildlife, it is best to bother the animals as little as possible.
The city of Banff is relatively tiny, squeezed into a narrow mountain valley and bisected by the Bow River. Nearly all the restaurants and businesses in town are crammed onto three blocks of Banff Avenue , which makes for a densely packed market atmosphere. South of the Bow River is home to the legendary Fairmont Banff Springs , and the Upper Hot Springs . Several kilometers to the west of town is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site , and to the west is the Golf Course Road, which is flanked by verdant fairways and greens.
A kilometer or so northwest of town are the Vermilion Lakes, a small chain of marshy ponds with walking trails that allow for picturesque strolls, summer or winter. The deserted airstrip lies across the Trans-Canada Highway, along with the Cascade Ponds and Lake Minnewanka. This area is popular with hikers in the summer, but should be avoided in the winter, as there may be icefalls from the steep slopes above.
To the north is Mount Norquay Ski Area , which is only a 10-minute drive from town up a spectacular mountain road. Sunshine Village Ski Resort is a 20-minute drive to the west, and Lake Louise Ski Area is another half hour north. Along the Icefields Parkway towards the north end of the park is the Icefields Center and Athabasca Glacier—both are worth a visit. If you are driving to Banff, you might want to take a day or two and visit the Radium Hot Springs, which lie a two-hour drive west of Banff along one of the most spectacular stretches of highway in the world.
The town of Canmore is a 15-minute drive to the east of Banff, just outside the park boundaries. This small mountain community received international attention in 1988 when it hosted the Winter Olympics Nordic skiing events at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Since then, it has become a popular spot for athletes to train, because of both the high altitude and excellent facilities. There are many hotels and shops in Canmore that rival those in Banff, and a great many tour companies that operate in the park are based here. Canmore is a great place to find the down-home local culture that is sometimes lacking in Banff. With lower food and housing prices, Canmore is home for many Banff business owners, as well as a center of late-night activity during the summer. Canmore's dramatic mountain backdrop and easy access to the back-country has made it an ideal location for shooting Hollywood mountain movies. The actors can often be seen wandering around the downtown area and hanging out with the locals.
Getting to Banff is quite easy. The park is an easy two-hour drive from the airport in Calgary, and many Banff hotels offer airport shuttle service. If you are planning to drive to Banff, which requires driving through the park, make sure to purchase a parks pass from the kiosk on the Trans Canada Highway in Canmore. If you are caught without a pass in the park, you could receive a ticket and fine. Parks personnel often check vehicles in ski area parking lots, so it is better to spend CAD10 on the pass than face a hefty fine.
Camping areas are scattered throughout the park, from commercial campgrounds with showers and cooking areas to wilderness campsites that are little more than a clearing in the trees. If you intend to camp, be sure to check with Parks Canada to ensure that the area you are heading into is safe and that there are vacant sites available. Fees for camping in Parks Canada campgrounds range from CAD10-CAD25 per night.
Drinking and dining are two very different activities in Banff. Well known as both a party town and a seat of haute couture, the town boasts raucous bars, but also gourmet eateries. From the starched linens of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel's banquet hall to the grimy oaken tables of the Pump and Tap Tavern , your search for sustenance can show you the many sides of Banff.
Dining With hundreds of restaurants scattered throughout the town, it can be hard to choose one. Almost every hotel has a restaurant or two, most of which specialize in steak, which is eaten almost as commonly as breakfast cereal in Alberta. Vegetarian diners may struggle as it is nearly impossibly to find a meal without meat hidden in it somewhere.
The hotel restaurants typically are quite nice, though their menus are often limited. Most feature a casual dress code and meals in the CAD 10-20 range. Wine is a point of pride amongst Banff restaurateurs, and many of the hotels have cellars with hundreds of different varieties. Independent restaurants have flourished, particularly along Banff Avenue, and here you'll find greater variety, including foods from the Mediterranean, Asia, South America and Mexico. As Banff is particularly popular with visitors from Japan, sushi bars and noodle houses abound. For Greek cuisine, Caramba! and the Balkan can whip up a savory batch of calamari at a moment's notice. The Magpie and Stump serves huge helpings of fine Mexican food in a rather eccentric atmosphere, and the Saki House will have a steaming bowl of fresh noodles ready for you in seconds.
If you are looking to dine while still drinking in the spectacular view of the Rockies, many restaurants have expansive patios and glassed in dining areas. Two of the best mountain views can be had at the Big Horn Steakhouse and the Eden . One nice thing about Banff is that there are very few fast-food outlets. Aside from a McDonald's and a Subway, the town is free from franchised chains. This allows for a great variety of food, and makes for some surprisingly good lunches and snacks. Aardvark Pizza and Sub is Banff's undisputed late-night snacking locale, with fast and healthy pizzas, wraps, donairs and sandwiches.
And then to drinking Drinking is a very serious affair in Banff, and an activity that the denizens of the town approach with a great deal of enthusiasm. Nearly every hotel has a venue of some sort, whether a quiet martini bar or a feverishly loud nightclub. Banff is almost as famous for its nightlife as it is for its skiing. Should you arrive in Banff at any time of night, on any night of the year you are guaranteed to see Banff Avenue teeming with carousers. Braving subzero cold in nothing but t-shirts, revelers hop from bar to bar along the Avenue, sampling the specials that each has to offer.
The Aurora Nightclub is the classiest of the clubs, with purple neon fuzzing the distinction between the doors of the maze-like interior and the mirrors scatted about the walls. The Rose and Crown Banff is a little more laid-back and serves as a family restaurant during the daylight hours. After dark, however, it fills with resort workers dancing to the live music.
For those who don't need many distractions to enjoy their drink, the Pump and Tap Tavern is a faux-Irish pub with a half-dozen tables and nightly showings of British soccer and rugby matches. Wild Bill's Saloon is a more Western bar, with hand-hewn wooden railings and a reputation for serving huge steaks and oversized draughts of beer. The clientele is unpredictable, as the band on stage may play anything from Country & Western to punk rock. For a more sedate drinking experience, wander into any hotel lobby and ask for the cocktail lounge. Almost all of the downtown hotels have specialty lounges, which are quieter and serve a wider variety of exotic drinks than the clubs. If you are in the mood for a forty-year old Scotch or wine of similarly ancient vintage, pull the bartender aside and ask to see their private stock, which is usually kept separate from the main bar.
Whatever your taste in apres-ski entertainment, you are sure to find it somewhere along Banff Avenue. Simply walk along the sidewalk and listen for music pulsing out of the open doors. Select your preferred scene, wander in and have a great time.
With spectacular and stunning beauty, Banff and the surrounding area is a perfect place to explore nature's beauty, both in winter and summer. A large number of touring companies have sprung up to cater to those who want more than great skiing and snowboarding in Banff. From classic to more extreme tours, whether it's for 2 hours or 2 weeks, there is a guided tour to suit every taste.
For hiking, White Mountain Adventures provides comfortable walks as well as more strenuous hikes. People who want to take it easy but also want a long hike should check out the Canadian Rockies Tour while hardcore hikers may enjoy the Rockwall Highline Hike offering a more intense trip. To get up close and personal with glaciers without expending any effort, try Columbia Icefield Snocoach Tours where a specially equipped vehicle drives you onto the glaciers themselves. Or for a different kind of water tour, take a Lake Minnewanka Boat Tour where heated boats show off the majesty of Lake Minnewanka.
Canadian Ski Museum West
Exploring downtown Banff might best be done by simply wandering around this beautiful town nestled in the mountains. With an area of less than one square mile, it is easy to hit every nook and cranny. For those who just want to hit the highlights, make sure to spend time on Banff Avenue . Amble down Banff Avenue stopping in at specialty stores abound. Skiing enthusiasts should check out Canadian Ski Museum West to get a sense of local ski history as well as the development of skiing through the ages. Continue down Banff Avenue and if you are feeling out of contact with the world, stop in at the Cyber Web Cafe to check the news online or send some emails. Take some time to explore the area around the intersection of Banff Avenue and Caribou Street. There are excellent eateries such as the always busy Evelyn's Coffee Bar , Aardvark Pizza and Sub , or Pump and Tap Tavern for some British fare and a happy hour starting at 1pm. But save room for dessert because the Fudgery serves up fudge, caramel apples, and a number of other sweet treats. Continue down Banff Avenue and stop in at Kabin Fever for traditional souvenirs of the t-shirt and postcard variety.
Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Art buffs should take a right on Buffalo Street to Bear Street and check out the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for a celebration of Rocky Mountain heritage. Cross the water and turn right on Cave Avenue. Stop in at the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum to learn about the Plains Indians. Farther down Cave Avenue is Cave and Basin National Historic Site with caves, springs, and wildlife, a great place to spend an afternoon wandering the trails, if it isn't too cold that is!
There are plenty of touring companies that offer tours of the various activities one can part take in any time of the season. Plus, Banff National Park is open all year round, so be sure to check out the offered tours of the national historic sites found there.
Banff National Park Tours
Banff National Park ( +1 403 762 1550 / http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/index_e.asp )
Discover Banff Tours ( +1 403 760 7629 / http://www.discoverbanfftours.com/season.php?type=winter )
Discover Banff Tours ( +1 403 760 7629/ http://www.discoverbanfftours.com/season.php?type=summer )
Banff Transportation and Tours ( + 1 403 762 8400/ http://www.banfftransportation.com/index.htm )
Raft the Kicking Horse River
Banff Adventures Unlimited ( + 1 403 762 4554 / http://www.banffadventures.com/adv_wknds.html )