In and around Banff

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Canadian Rockies

Our first day in Banff dawned bright and clear… actually, I am going to stop writing that because practically every day on this trip started that way apart from one, so I’ll save the weather report for the wet day and you can assume sunny starts unless I say otherwise. If nothing else it’ll keep the tension going (or perhaps not). Anyway, the hotel promised us hot tea and coffee in the lobby every morning, but when I went to investigate I found it had all been snaffled by the members of the many coach parties that had arrived throughout yesterday afternoon, and whom were currently either busy breakfasting in the packed hotel restaurant or thronging in the lobby waiting for their transport. Bloody tourists. I’ve already mentioned my antipathy towards hotel restaurants, and with the current one full to bursting, it was a no-brainer to hit the town for the best breakfast restaurant on Tripadvisor. It didn’t let us down in the slightest. Tooloulou’s on Caribou Street turned out to be a real gem, so much so, I was compelled to write my own positive review after we left. Nominally a Cajun restaurant, it turns into a pretty normal restaurant (OK, some of the dishes have a Cajun twist) for breakfast. Our waitress was from the UK (hi Emma) and was really sunny and cheerful, which I find slightly scary in a Brit. Food was tops though and there was plenty of it.

Boats lined up ready for hire on Lake Miniwanka

It was still fairly early in the morning when we left the restaurant and headed back up the main street, over the freeway, and up the road towards Lake Miniwanka (stop sniggering at the back).

It’s not far from Banff and there’s regular cruises on the lake, which sounded like it ought to be a thing to do. When we got to the lakeside and jetty, there were several boats tied up, but it looked pretty deserted apart from a few guys working on the boats. We made our way down to the jetty and spoke to one of the guys, who told us the ticket opened at about 10:30, just over an hour to wait.

Mountain Sheep

However, no sooner had we discovered that than the coaches started turning up. Busload after busload of Chinese tourists, who swarmed over the dock and left absolutely no selfie-taking stone unturned. Now I kind of knew from reading the website that you were advised to book in advance, and with the current large number of passengers, all whom I assume would already have tickets via their tour company, I was guessing we weren’t getting on the 10:30 boat. An executive decision was made and we decided to abandon the cruise and drive round the lake instead. Even in hindsight I think that was the better decision because the boats would have been packed, and after all, it’s just a cruise out into the middle of a lake and back.

Two Jack Lake

So we completed the loop of the Lake Scenic Drive, which among other things took us past the picturesque Two Jack Lake and our first glimpse of a large wild mammal (a mountain sheep) and then headed back through Banff towards the cable cars that climb up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. After a short but steep drive we reached the car park at the lower terminal, and luckily we had managed to beat the tour buses this time. Tickets were pretty expensive at $56 each (about £30 at the time) for what is essentially a 8-minute ride of about a mile, even if it does go up nearly 2300 feet in that mile. This was not the first time we’d blinked at the prices and indeed during this holiday there were many times we just closed our eyes and handed over the credit card.

Half way up Sulphur Mountain.

Our thinking was, sure it might be expensive but it’s not like we’ll be coming this way again soon. The gondolas themselves are fairly bijou, seating no more than 4 adults in each, but there’s a lot of them and the handlers have perfected the art of getting people on and off quickly and smoothly so we didn’t have to queue for long. I am not a big fan of heights and I certainly wasn’t a big fan of these gondolas, but loins were girded and we got there. The cable car terminates in a substantial building atop the mountain, with a bistro and a gift shop and suchlike touristy opportunities.

The view back towards Banff from the top of Sulphur Mountain.

The views, however are pretty spectacular, as you might imagine and the weather wasn’t bad at all. I made a lot of attempts to take pictures, but none were as I hoped they would turn out.  Eventually we had had our fill of the views and caught the gondola back down.

After a late lunch in town we drove a short distance over the river and out to the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site. This place wasn’t previously on my radar; i.e. I confess I hadn’t heard of it, which is probably more of a reflection on my ignorance rather than the site itself. It’s one of the Canadian National Parks historic sites, I guess the name is a giveaway, and normally it costs to go in but it’s part of the 150th Anniversary free entry thing I mentioned yesterday. Brilliant! As an aside, when you look at the website for places such as this it offers other nearby places you might like to visit. For the Cave and Basin, the nearest is over 150 miles away. I guess the word “nearby” has a different meaning in Canada!

The hot pool inside Banff Cave and Basin Historic Site.

Anyway, the Cave & Basin has the honour of being the first ever National Historic Site, so where the whole National Park thing started in Canada. It is basically a cave with a hot mineral spring inside it plus a hot pool outside, and was initially developed  as a private tourist attraction up until when Parks Canada acquired it and preserved it for the nation. I was surprised to find that the town of Banff first sprung up to serve the basin site, rather than as a gateway to the Rocky Mountains that it is today. There was a decent museum area in a large, vaulted hall, some re-enactors doing re-enacting things involving cooking on a campfire (thankfully outside), and of course the cave and basin themselves. These were all interesting, but not overwhelmingly so. I mean it is an indoor and outdoor hot bath, just how exciting can it be? Incidentally, you can’t actually swim in the water or anything, in fact they don’t even like you to touch it due to the presence of some tiny endangered snails. Later we had some ice cream on the patio since the late afternoon was warm.

A chance to have a go at a railroad handcar.


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