The Canadian Rockies had been on my travel hit list for over ten years. So when I was looking for a special trip to celebrate my 60th birthday, there was really only one choice … and it didn’t disappoint, writes Professor Ian Cooper.
If you want to experience some of the most breathtakingly spectacular scenery on the planet, walk on glaciers, encounter wilderness wildlife and indulge in a variety of other ‘one off’ semi-adventurous activities to boast about back home, then the Canadian Rockies is hard to beat.
My wife and I chose Titan Travel’s two weeks Canadian Rockies and Vancouver escorted coach tour, which meant that we could sit back, relax and let the excellent tour manager Alex and Lou the driver do all the work.
From the moment we were personally greeted by Alex at Heathrow, for our Air Canada flight to Calgary, we knew we were in good hands.
After a smooth but long flight, we were back on the ground and escorted onto our tour bus … complete with restrooms … and our Canadian Rockies adventure began. First stop Banff for three nights at the very comfortable Caribou Lodge.
Nestled high in the Canadian Rockies, Banff is a unique town with modern amenities, shops, restaurants and hotels yet surrounded on all sides by the towering, snow capped, lush mountains and the glacier fed lakes. Our first excursion was to the world-famous Lake Louise.
I had read that this was one of the most photographed scenes in the Canadian Rockies and it didn’t take long to see why and give thanks to whoever developed the endless shooting possibilities of digital cameras.
Despite it being late May, Lake Louise was still semi frozen over with its pristine turquoise waters peeping through the ice and reflecting the mountains and trees.
Sitting on the lakeside, sipping a hot chocolate bought at the world famous Château Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel, we thought … “not bad for day one”, not knowing that the day was about to get even more spectacular.
After lunching nearby at the Lodge of the Ten Peaks we had the chance to go up the mountain to an awe-inspiring viewpoint.
We were given a brief pre-ascent presentation about the wildlife that inhabits the area and then it’s … “make your mind up time”.
You can choose to make the 14 minutes ride up the mountain sitting in an open chairlift with your legs dangling in mid air, or you can sit in an enclosed four-seater ‘gondola’.
Bravely, my wife chose the chairlift and told me that the peace, silence and tranquility of the ride was fantastic. As someone with no head for heights at all, I opted for the ‘gondola’ and that was still a challenge for me.
Once I had stopped screaming and opened my eyes I almost enjoyed the experience! The views however from the top were simply inspirational.
After all the efforts of travelling and diving straight into the sight seeing, the following day was a welcome day of ‘leisure’, with the opportunity to explore Banff and its many attractions, on our own.
As a very early riser … still the jet lag talking … my day began with a 6.30 am walk near the hotel, when I bumped into an elk casually strolling up the high street, obviously out for breakfast and looking for tourists to meet!
It totally ignored me … probably a good thing given the size of its antlers … but it did let me take photographs, so that I could prove to other jealous and disbelieving members of the group that this had really happened. From then on, I became known as the ‘Elk Whisperer’.
The other ‘must do’ thing to experience in Banff is a dip in the hot thermal waters of the Banff Hot Springs. Sitting in the natural mineral water at a temperature between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius (98-104 Fahrenheit) looking up at the majestic mountains as you gradually get more and more wrinkly is both relaxing and exhilarating.
By the way, on the subject of water, the drinking water from the tap in Banff is not only safe to drink, but the most refreshing and delicious I have tasted anywhere in the world. The advice of the tour manager was to “buy a regular bottle of water, chuck it out and refill it from the tap!”
From Banff our marathon tour took us on to Jasper, moving from the Trans Canada Highway onto what is known as the Icefields Parkway.
Stretching 144 miles through the heart of the Canadian Rockies, this is one of the world’s greatest and most scenically spectacular drives and offers a vast wilderness of glaciers and broad sweeping valleys to admire.
I had been concerned before going, about the amount of ‘coach time’ we would clock up, but this was simply not an issue. We had several ‘coffee breaks’; photo stops, such as an extended viewing of the magnificent Crows Foot Glacier and even a number of unexpected opportunistic stops to take pictures if we happened to spot a bear or other wildlife wandering along the side of the road!
The highlight of this journey however and indeed one of the highlights of the whole trip was our visit to the Athabasca Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefield.
Despite it being cold and windy on arrival, we had all gone prepared with waterproofs and hats and after a 20 minutes ride on an ‘Ice Explorer’ … a giant purpose built tractor, costing around £700,000 each … we arrived to walk around and explore the unbelievable beauty of the Glacier.
By the end of a long but memorable day, we arrived at Jasper. This was our base for a couple of nights where we stayed at the Lobstick Lodge Hotel. From Jasper we took advantage of an opportunity to go ‘rafting’ on the Athabasca River and what an experience that was.
Kitted out in life jackets, under the plastic yellow poncho we were given, we were instructed to sit on the edge of a huge bendy inflatable raft, with one foot under a safety rope, as we tightly gripped another rope attached to the side of the vessel.
It was from this position that we got a totally different and unique perspective of the Canadian Rockies, as we floated down the river for a couple of hours, under the skilful care of our raft guide and pilot.
Every now and then we would have to put our cameras away, to safeguard them and ourselves from moments of being bounced around on stronger currents.
This whole experience was for most of us, well outside our normal day-to-day life and indeed comfort zone, which is precisely what made it so memorable.
It was immensely enjoyable, but after 16 miles on this raft, I have reluctantly decided not to pitch for a place on the ‘Team GB’ white water rafting team for Rio in 2016!
Next stop … onto Kelowna for a one-night stay as we made our way to Vancouver Island. This was another scenic driving day, with several stops along the way … most notably at Mount Robson, the tallest peak in the Rockies. We were incredibly lucky because the sky was blue and the visibility crystal clear.
One of the things we learned was that the weather in this part of the world is incredibly changeable. One local told us: “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes” and another gave us a similar message: “if you don’t like the weather at the front, go out the back!”
Eventually, we arrived at Tsawwassen for the lovely hour and a half ferry ride to Schwartz Bay on Vancouver Island and then onto Victoria for our three nights stay at the Coal Coast Harbourside Hotel.
This Oceanside city (pop. 360,000) is the provincial capital of British Columbia. It is a clean, attractive, non-intimidating city.
Its British ancestry is apparent in its general ambience … the double-decker buses, horse-drawn carriages, the restaurants serving fish and chips and its Government building. It also sports a cosmopolitan centre and a wonderful array of attractions, ideal for a few days.
Just outside the city, are the Butchart Gardens. These are simply the most beautiful gardens I have ever been to, anywhere on the planet! Do not miss them. We spent an entire morning there marvelling at this botanical wonder.
Back in the city centre, there is plenty to see and do. We road tested a few of the attractions. I would recommend a wander around the Inner Harbour with its craft stalls; small boats and ‘float planes’ coming and going; a stroll in Beacon Hill Park; a visit to the Government Building that runs free tours every 30 minutes; a visit to Craigdarroch Castle, the former house of a coal mining millionaire and an unusual attraction called ‘Miniature World’.
I was less than excited about this, but had my arm twisted by others who wanted to go, yet the detail, design and artistry of the models made it well worth the visit.
After a very enjoyable time in Victoria it was back to the ferry and our final destination … Vancouver. Here we stayed at the Marriott Hotel near the cruise ship terminal and this was a very convenient location for everything we wanted to see and do.
Before being turned loose, we had an included guided tour of Vancouver to give us a feel for the city and what to see. With a population of just over two million people, it is the third largest city in Canada.
Boasting a modern cruise terminal that provides a gateway to Alaska, Vancouver, which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics has a great infrastructure to help tourists get the most out of the city.
On offer from Titan, was a trip to the Capilano suspension bridge, one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist attractions. This involves plucking up enough courage to walk over a long, very high wobbly suspension bridge holding onto support ropes.
Some of our group were up for this but most, like my wife and I decided to do other things. Instead we took a cable car up nearby Grouse Mountain to experience the stunning views, a very entertaining lumberjack show and to see two orphaned grizzly bears who had been rescued and were now looked after on the mountain.
Other highlights in Vancouver are a walk by the ocean around Stanley park, one of North America’s largest urban parks and a visit to Gastown.
As the birthplace of Vancouver, Gastown was initially a settlement that developed around a tavern founded in 1867 by sailor and gold prospector John ‘Gassy Jack’ Deighton from Hull.
This lively and historic district’s cobblestone streets are lined with Victorian buildings that today house everything … dozens of souvenir shops, bars, restaurants and galleries. As our final stop before the flight home, this was the perfect place for buying last minute gifts.
So what was Titan Travel like? I have an admission to make. As a ‘self-confessed’ control freak, who usually likes to do things independently, I had been a bit hesitant before we left, about handing over so much control of my trip to someone else!
To my pleasant surprise, however, I found being escorted in this way, actually had the opposite effect. Titan Travel, fronted by tour manager Alex were so professional and the trip so seamlessly run, that it was almost therapeutic not to have the hassle of making minute by minute decisions about where to go, what to see and how to get the most out of the destinations.
I am now converted and I would definitely do another escorted trip and I would certainly recommend Titan.
As for the Canadian Rockies, if you want to experience scenic beauty on an epic scale then this is a destination that is hard to beat.
> Ian Cooper travelled with Titan (0800 988 5803 www.titantravel.co.uk) on their 14-day ‘Canadian Rockies and Vancouver’ tour. Prices start from £2,299 per person (including a saving of up to £200 pp on a limited number of places) when travelling in October 2015. Cost includes scheduled Air Canada flights, 12 nights hotel accommodation, two meals, six excursions and visits, the services of a Titan Tour Manager, coach travel and the VIP Home Departure Service.