Can over-grammed places lose their sense of wonder?
That was my concern while I planned our two week road trip through Canada. (More on that in our fall issue.) I can’t believe I’m going to admit this right now, but I was the least excited about staying in Banff. In fact, I probably did the least amount of research on the area and I left our two night stay completely open. I lusted over Banff for years. I wondered if following Banff images for so long would lead me to disappointment in person. I should also mention, we visited in mid-May when most of the lakes are frozen. I would later understand that my gut was guiding me to leave room for an experience guided by locals.
We had no idea that we were arriving on Victoria Day weekend. Banff closes out the season with the biggest event of the year. Imagine Halloween on Christmas. People fly in from around the world to dress up on the slopes and excite the town with merriment and cheer.
When we drove down the congested streets, I immediately noticed the large groups of quintessential snowboarders and skiers. I felt like I was in a movie. It was a real lesson in staring.
I remember the overwhelming sense of relief as we pulled into Rundlestone Lodge. It gets mixed reviews, but I enjoyed lodging on the edge of town. They offer bikes, but make sure you grab one early. The fifteen minute walk into town is breathtaking. Maybe it was the laid back vibe, but the crowds didn’t feel as touristy as I had imagined. My eyes welled up with tears as we took in the surrounding mountain views. We popped into a bar and the rest of the evening was met by fun locals who guided us through our next forty eight hours. These are the top five things they suggested:
Sit at the bar and order the Observation Peak.
If you follow our Instagram stories, you saw the exciting process behind these tasty cocktails. The bartender torches a cedar block then traps the smoke inside your cocktail glass. You remove the cedar block for your first sip then your senses take over. Save room for more cocktails. They offer free tastings of their award-winning, handmade spirits on their distillery tours. Their menu is full of campfire-inspired cooking. For our vegan friends, get the fire-roasted broccoli, take a picture and send it to us when you come back down to earth.
The Bison Restaurant & Terrace
The most popular restaurant in Banff. You will need to book reservations in advance, or get super lucky and walk right into a seat at the bar. (I still can’t believe we got in!) We made new friends from Calgary who frequent Banff. They named Bison the best spot in town, but warned us that we needed to make a reservation months in advance. I was hit with a surge of hope and decided to walk over immediately to investigate the hype. After a couple in front of us turned down the last seats at the bar, we were in! Not only that, but we prefer sitting at the bar when we dine out.
What to order, according to the chef:
Braised Bison Tongue – This was a real stretch for me. For our meat eaters, this will taste like the best roast beef of your life.
Elk Poutine – You will eat this dish the way the French eat their meals. Slowly and intentionally. The combination of the fresh gnocchi, cheese, truffle and tender meat is out of this world.
Baked Alaska – I’ve always wanted to try it, but I usually go for chocolate. It’s probably a good thing I waited so long, because now I’m obsessed.
*Order their local wine pairings with each meal. They know what they’re doing here.
Tunnel Mountain Secret Trail
What sold us on this hike was our bartender’s tip to find the secret trail at the top. The trek is roughly forty minutes up switchbacks before reaching the trail. The switchbacks didn’t have many hikers, but there were a decent amount of people taking in the view at the top.
Secret trail location: Once you reach the top, the trail is to the right and looks a bit overgrown. You’ll walk through a wooded area for about ten minutes before reaching the very edge of the mountain. These are the best views on Tunnel Mountain.
Kayak Bow River
As a person who used to own kayaks, I was turned off by the rental fees, but the experience was absolutely worth it! Tip: Wear sunscreen and a hat, bring water, photo ID and a credit/debit card. Leave everything else back at your place. You pay by the hour and I recommend one hour on a hot sunny day. (There is minimal shade on the river.) We enjoyed giving our legs a break and our arms a run for their money. Your journey starts against the current. Floating back with the current was a moment I’ll never forget. We had a chance to be still, feel the water that melted from glacier ice and soak in our surroundings.
Park Picnic Along Bow River
We enjoyed ending our stay with a few goodies from the market while immersing ourselves with the locals at the park. There were tight rope walkers, musicians and frisbee competitions. This was a beautiful way to take in the community at Banff. It is a town full of transplants and accents. I loved hearing stories about leaps of faith and the joy that comes with simplicity. Late in the evening, the river starts competing with the mountains. The stillness puts off a chilling reflection that reminds us how small we are in this great big world. To answer my burning question, Banff absolutely must be experienced in person.
Written By Joanna Heitz
Special thanks to Ryan at Park Distillery, David and Carol from Calgary and Sarah at Block Kitchen.