For once, our trip went smoothly and we reached Calgary without a hitch. Our flights landed on time, the bags came through and soon we were at the Budget car rental waiting for our turn. Interestingly, there was a long line but only at the Budget desk. All the others agencies had two or three customers at the most. After waiting for about ten minutes, we realized that there was a delay in handing over car keys since Budget did not have enough cars returned that morning to handle the number of waiting customers.
A quarter-hour later, as we inched forward in our line, we reviewed our existing reservation with Budget (through Costco) and realized we could cancel without penalties. First we checked with National, but there prices were a lot steeper than what we had in hand. Then we went to Alamo and they were able to waive the fee for additional driver but charged us 40 CAD extra. We felt it was better to spend that money than languish at the rental center. After getting our rental through Alamo and cancelling our reservation with Budget, we headed towards Banff.
The day was pleasant, a good 30° F cooler than in Texas where the heat index had been soaring. Calgary to Banff is just under 80 miles, an easy 1.5 hour drive. Once we reached Banff township, the popularity of summer travel hit us head-on. The roads were full of people and cars! We expected to see tourists and travelers but once we laid eyes on them, it felt a bit disappointing. We’ve been to several small towns from Queenstown to Whistler to Gatlinburg, but Banff just felt so crowded. Perhaps, being a Saturday afternoon didn’t help. The baskets of flowers at every establishment held sway over me with their lush colors. But the crush of humanity with the rush of cars was a bit dizzying at first. Several hotels and lodges had large signs stating “No Vacancy”.
As we slowly crossed the Bow River Bridge towards our hotel, the traffic relaxed a bit but at the hotel driveway, the tour buses, crossing pedestrians, returning valet vehicles and fresh hotel guests checking-in, created quite a flurry of organised chaos. We wondered if we had chosen the wrong week to visit!
Once our car was parked with the valet and the bell boys took charge of our luggage, we headed inside to the reception. A few minutes wait saw us pleasantly checked-in and soon we were taking the elevators to our room.
The hotel is modeled after a Scottish castle, consequently, it has a feel of being ancient, even though the lobby areas were recently re-done. Immense and with muted lighting, it felt like what, I imagine, a castle would have resembled. Except the floors weren’t stone cold, there were no air drafts and the ambient scent that engulfed the lobby was very pleasant.
Making our way up to our room, we were happy to see plenty of sunlight streaming in from the windows. Our room offered views of Sulphur Mountain and the gondola. And overlooked the roundabout boasting a statue of William Van Horne, the visionary behind the original Banff Springs Hotel.
Eventually, we made our way down to the Stock, the casual eatery at the hotel. It offered a variety of foods like soups, sandwiches, pastries, beverages, ice creams, etc. The kitchen at the Stock has its own cultivator where they grow cilantro, basil etc. There are several long tables in the adjoining room, which provide the perfect setting for visitors and hotel guests to mingle and chat.
Fairmont guests can hitch a ride with the hotel shuttle to nearby areas like downtown, the Gondola, hot springs etc. We hopped on, intending to reach downtown and the Whyte Museum but along the way, we decided to stop, instead, at the Cascade Gardens.
The detour turned out to be a great idea for the gardens were fragrant, fresh and fantastic. Located adjacent to the Parks Canada administration building, the gardens are terraced with rustic architecture, gazebos and bright, multi-hued flowers of all varieties. The water features enhanced the beauty and serenity of the gardens while the amazing mountain views all around just added a touch of the fairy dust! With the clear, crisp air and the bright golden sun lending a hand, oh! what a magic spell the gardens wove!! To top it all, we were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow across Mt. Rundle.
A long while later, we left the gardens behind and joined the throngs of crowds along Banff Avenue where all the action happens. We stopped to explore several different restaurants but many had a long wait, some nearly 90 mins or longer! The weather bore a biting chill as the sun slowly raced towards the horizon. Eventually, we sat down to eat dinner at a Chinese place called Bamboo Garden. The staff and service were good, the food wasn’t commendable. The spring rolls were cold in the center although they had been deep-fried. We sent it back once only to have the same repeated a second time. My Singapore noodles were just right but the tofu entrée Mr. JJ ordered had too much oil and the noodle soup Missy JJ ordered was a bit too bland. Despite our issues, the restaurant was packed to the rafters and played host to many tour groups.
The Fairmont does not provide a return service from downtown or elsewhere. Guests have to hire a taxi or use the local bus transport called Roam. Their buses are large and have animal photos on their outside. It’s best to carry some small change for these buses. The Roam bus has a stop for the Fairmont that is short drive from town. We took one of these buses back.
The rest of the evening, we spent familiarizing ourselves with the outdoor terraces at the Fairmont, the spa, the pools, playing chess outdoors and generally enjoying the fresh air. One of the nice things about traveling to this area in summer was the ability to harness the long daylight hours, with sunsets happening just past 10 pm. Lot of time to get things done or to just sit and ruminate and let life go by!! And the terraces at the Fairmont do just that. They are so much a part of the area’s natural beauty that one can’t do much more than take in a deep breath, sit back and relax!