19 August 2014 by David Ward
Wexas Travel's Terhi Millar travels to Alberta in Canada, courtesy of Travel Alberta, to hunt for the Northern Lights and experience a host of exciting winter activities.
Our trip began with an Air Canada flight from London Heathrow to Calgary in the spectacular Canadian province of Alberta. On arrival we boarded an onward service to the small town of Fort McMurray, located around 750 kilometres to the north in the heart of the Alberta wilderness. Fort McMurray, which shares the same latitude as Scotland and northern parts of Denmark, has a winter climate far harsher than its European counterparts and when we landed the temperature had dipped to a somewhat chilly -37 degrees Celcius. After transferring to our hotel, the delightful Sawbridge Inn, we were presented with our warm thermal clothing before setting off on our first excursion, a guided hunt for the Northern Lights.
Fort McMurray is renowned as one of the best places in Canada to see the Northern lights due to its location in the vast expanses of northern Alberta and often clear night skies. Our excursion took us to a nearby clubhouse outside of town and away from any light pollution. Here we sat with our guide as he told us stories about Northern Lights and explained the science behind them while we waited for the aurora to make an appearance. After a while waiting and feeling somewhat wilted after the 14-hour journey from London we decided that it was time to call off the hunt for the night and try again tomorrow.
The following morning, with the mercury showed no signs of rising, and with the conditions looking less than favourable, our outdoor activity we had scheduled - downhill tubing on a nearby ski slope - was sadly cancelled. Instead we paid a visit to the Oil Sands Science Centre to learn about the history and continuing importance of Fort McMurray's oil industry. In the afternoon we took a short walk in the company of our guide in search of local flora and fauna.
On our second evening in Fort McMurray, we headed out again in the hope of catching the elusive Northern Lights. The skies were clear and conditions were ideal but there was still no sign of the aurora. So we waited and hoped our patience would pay off. At around 1am, feeling jet lagged and tired, we decided to call it off for the second night when the guide stormed in and shouted that the lights were on! The aurora started as a faint green wave just above the horizon but gradually got stronger and stronger. In the end, the lights formed a curtain crossing the whole sky and danced above us in greens, whites, reds and purples. We had had a quick lesson on how to photograph the Northern lights and spent the next while happily snapping away.
After Fort McMurray, our journey continued with a flight back to Calgary, where we hit the highway and headed west into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. After the flatness of Northern Alberta's prairies, the feeling as we moved closer and closer to these giant snow-clad peaks was amazing. Our first stop was at Kananaskis - or K-Country as the locals call it. Kananaskis and Canmore is the winter play ground for Calgarians, offering downhill and cross country skiing, ice climbing and caving and dog sledding. Our first night in the Rockies was spent in Canmore at Grande Rockies Resort, a beautiful resort hotel in Banff National Park and an ideal stopping point on the way to the better-known resorts of Banff and Lake Louise.
The highlight of our stay in Canmore was learning to play ice hockey like a Canadian. We met up with Andrew and Jeremy from the local ice hockey team, Canmore Eagles, and headed to the rink, where we got kitted out in full ice hockey gear and were instructed on how to strap on the shin shields and shoulder pads that would give us that much needed protection, while Andrew gave us an insight to the world of ice hockey and how they train with their juniors. I was breaking a sweat just trying to get the gear on and I hadn't even hit the ice yet! Fortunately, once we got onto the ice, there were no tears or spilt blood, only more sweat while trying to get up after constantly falling over. Once I found my 'ice' legs, Jeremy, an ex-NHL player, taught me how to shoot the puck. It was no mean feat trying to balance on skates while aiming at the goal, but despite our obvious lack of skill we eventually managed to get a little game going, passing the puck around and even scoring a few goals. After couple of hours it was sadly time to leave, and even though we were beaten, we could easily have spent all afternoon playing on the ice. After all, there aren't many places around where you can be taught by ex-NHL players.
After the ice hockey, we left Canmore behind and headed further west to ghe mountain resort of Banff. Our first stop was The Banff Gondola, which is just five minutes from the town centre, on the shoulder of Sulphur Mountain. The upper gondola terminal offers spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys below and is one of the best vantage points in the region. We were blessed with gorgeous winter sunshine and blue skies, which made the visit even better. The views were breathtaking and I would recommend the gondola for anyone visiting Banff, regardless of the time of year you choose visit.
Another must-see attraction is the Banff Upper Hot Springs, a natural outdoor hot spring set against beautiful alpine scenery. Travellers have been visiting the historic bathhouse for centuries to "take the waters' and enjoy the mountain landscapes. The water is 100% natural mineral water and the temperature is kept between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius, making this the perfect spot to relax and soak away the aches after a long day enjoying the region's many winter activities.
Banff town itself is a great base for a winter break in the Canadian Rockies. There are plenty of non-ski winter activities on offer such as snowmobiling, winter wildlife tours, snowshoeing and sleigh rides, as well as some adventurous winter walking tours such as the Johnston Canyon ice walk, where you take to a series of steel catwalks for views over the dramatic natural ice sculptures in the canyon below. If skiing is your thing, Banff is close to the Big 3 of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay, offering some of the best skiing in North America. Shuttle buses connect Banff to the resorts and it's possible to get a tri-area lift pass, allowing you to experience all three resorts. The town centre of Banff offers a village charm and is packed full of quirky shops and superb restaurants. Make sure you eat at Ticino, a Swiss-Italian restaurant, which speciality that all-time mountain classic, cheese fondue.
After Banff, our journey continued to Lake Louise, one of the most iconic places in the Canadian Rockies. Here we met up with a local dog mushers for a husky safari to the Great Divide, the vast continental divide that cuts through the heart of the Rockies from north to south and runs from the Bering Strait in the north to the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America. The temperatures here dropped to cool -20 degrees Celsius, but we needn't have worried as we were tucked in to a sleigh and covered with an Arctic expedition-strength sleeping bag, keeping us nice and toasty throughout. The tour was excellent, taking us from Banff National Park to Yoho National Park through the Kicking Horse Pass at the Great Divide and across the border into British Columbia, passing jaw-dropping view after jaw-dropping view, while sitting back and letting the team of huskies do the hard work.
Following the safari we headed to the finest hotel in the area, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, where we checked in for a one-night stay. The hotel is set right on the shores of the lake, and in the summer has famous views of the green, glacier-fed water, framed by mountains and the magnificent Victoria Glacier. The winter vistas are just as stunning, with the lake is covered in a thick blanket of ice and snow, surrounded by magnificent, frosted mountain peaks. The day ended with us watching the changing colours of sunset against the surrounding landscape. For those wanting to see the mountains in the morning, the hotel also offers sunrise wake up calls.
There's a great selection of activities on offer at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and our early morning start saw us depart on a snowshoeing trip to across the frozen expanse of the lake The views of Victoria Glacier and the surrounding mountains were spectacular and a perfect ending to an unforgettable trip.