By Karlie Marrazzo
Full of spectacular and abundant natural beauty, Banff is Canada’s outdoor playground, nestled in the Rocky Mountains and busy with visitors from around the globe all year round. In the winter, the town is full of people who love to hit the slopes at one of the three world-class hills in the area. Since I am not even close to proficient in skiing or snowboarding, I tend to save my trips for the summer, when the days are warm and the sun doesn’t go down until late at night. Expedia.ca encouraged me to see what I was missing, so I made the four-hour drive south at the beginning of March to experience what the area has to offer in the chillier months.
One of the most iconic images of Banff, and possibly Canada, is the Banff Springs Hotel, nicknamed The Castle, which has been standing since two decades before Alberta became a province in 1905. I had never been to the Banff Springs on any of my previous visits, so we stopped in on our first evening in town for a nightcap. As I walked through the lobby and into the hotel, I was in awe of the grandeur, amazed that such a place exists surrounded by wilderness. There are a plethora of gourmet restaurants and lounges to choose from, and that evening my partner and I settled into the cozy chairs of the Rundle Lounge, sipping on hand crafted mocktails, nibbling on snacks and enjoying the luxury of it all. It was the perfect setting for a date night in one of Canada’s most romantic places.
To further our relaxing evening, we drove up the road to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. A dip in the hot pool, another iconic Banff experience, is almost mandatory. Going on a crisp winter night is completely different than on a summer’s day. The dash through the frigid air followed by the relief and relaxation of sinking into the hot, soothing mineral waters provides a rush that is totally exhilarating.
Happy to experience outdoor activities but not eager to return to the ski hill, I decided to hike Johnston Canyon, a place I hadn’t visited since the summer of 2003. Arguably the most popular day hike in Banff, the 4.8km round trip hike takes you through the canyon to the Lower and Upper Falls. We went around 10am with hopes of avoiding some of the crowds. The trail was covered in snow that was hard packed and icy in some parts. Even with proper footwear on, most people were slipping and sliding, holding on to railings and even giving each other helping hands to get past icy patches. I saw many hikers with slip-on ice cleats over their shoes and mentally noted this for future winter hikes. The freezing cold water of Johnston Creek is impossibly clear, glowing green against the snow and ice. Massive icicles cling to the canyon walls, neon blue and bright white. You can admire the Lower Falls from the trail, or pass through a tiny cave-like opening for a closer look. The Upper Falls lie another kilometer along the path, which widens and flattens out in parts and is easier to traverse. Those falls were almost entirely frozen, with ice climbers nearby preparing for their vertical journey. By the time we left shortly after noon, the trail was busier and the parking lot was overflowing.
Whenever I travel abroad, I seek out art, whether it’s world-famous art galleries, smaller, contemporary galleries or street art. Yet, for some reason, that hasn’t been something I’ve done on my travels in my own country. Banff has provided inspiration to countless artists throughout history, and is home to the Banff Centre, a world-renowned arts, cultural, and educational institution. The only formal gallery there is the Walter J. Philips gallery of contemporary art, named after the British artist who made his home in Canada and was an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre beginning in the 1940s. The space and the number of works are small, but I was impressed with the strong Canadian pieces on display. We were free to roam upstairs, where artists-in-residence have studios and are kind enough to let you have a peek at their creative space and works in progress. The Banff Centre’s permanent collection is shown throughout the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Building and the Kinnear Centre. We had spent the afternoon with my aunt Rosa, who raved about the Blueberry Teas – Grand Marnier, amaretto and Earl Grey Tea – at the Rimrock Hotel. There was no better way to cap off our afternoon with a few warm drinks beside the panoramic windows of the Larkspur Lounge.
The next morning, we made our way to Johnson Lake, 15 minutes from Banff, near Lake Minnewanka. I was excited to try snowshoeing, a quintessential Canadian activity. Unfortunately, due to the warm winter this year, there wasn’t enough snow on the trail to necessitate snowshoes, but we still enjoyed the hike around the lake. With very minimal elevation gain, the path passes through rich forest and over small gurgling streams, running along the lakeshore for half of the trail. As we walked, a light snow began to fall, creating a sharp and distinct sound that only snow falling in the pure silence of wilderness can.
We made one last stop in town to refuel at my favourite spot, Aardvark Pizza, a place I have been visiting since I was a kid. I grabbed a few souvenirs at one of the abundant gift shops in town before making the trip back home to Edmonton.