Trekking to the top of the Rockies, ice walking on a glacier and the thrills of wagon racing are some of the exciting highlights of a trip to Canada’s wild west for Swindon Business News Travel Editor ANNE GORRINGE…
Top picture – The stunning view from our horse ride in the Rocky Mountains
The memory of three plucky nine year olds gamely holding onto a rope as they were dragged behind a wild pony will stay with me forever. Had the situation got really tough they could, of course, have let go at any time. Instead, they held on tight as their tiny pony took them first in one direction, then turned and dragged them through the mud as he doubled back.
Like a cartoon caper it was, quite simply, hilarious. It was also extremely impressive and, for me, one of the best events at the Calgary Stampede. A testament to the fact that they really do breed ‘em tough in cowboy country.
A stone’s throw from the Rocky Mountains, Calgary’s annual 10-day long stampede takes over the city each July and is the main event in the social calendar. Visitors flood in from across the globe, particularly the US, home also to many of the competitors. The ‘wild pony’ demonstration is one small part of a show which sees world-class riders battling for huge cash prizes and the important Calgary Stampede Champion title.
This year was extra special as, having started back in 1912, it was the Stampede’s 100th anniversary. I’d already seen the Mounties perform and watched the headline rodeo and bull-riding events and was just about to go out to sample a beer when the wild ponies came on. Thankfully, I stayed put.
Enjoyable, and fun, it was an inspirational way to begin my own adventure holiday in the west of Canada, where a trek up a mountain path in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, (on horseback, of course!) was the next item in an adrenalin-packed agenda. If nine year olds could be brave enough to lasso a wild pony, then I could certainly manage a four-hour tour on a tame horse, I reasoned.
Mud-splattered drivers struggle to see while their team of horses fight to win the chuck wagon race at the Calgary Stampede
Calgary itself first registered on my radar a year earlier when Prince William and Kate were pictured in the Press wearing white Stetsons and jeans on their post-wedding Canadian trip.
It’s also happens to be the home of a childhood friend of mine who emigrated there after university. Having reconnected on Facebook, I was keen to combine a stopover there with an adventure trip into Canada’s real wild-west countryside. Direct flights to Calgary from London with the airline Canada Affair made this easy and, conveniently, it’s also the nearest airport to Banff and Lake Louise, where I would be heading.
Our first night was spent at a city centre hotel a $30 (£19) taxi ride from the airport, and light years away from England. At stampede time, cowboy fever completely takes over the city. Everyone, including teenage girls in pretty dresses, wear their best cowboy boots to go out, with leather belts clasped around their waists by metal buckles – the bigger the better!
Straw bales are brought to add extra seating, and a country atmosphere, to busy bars and restaurants in the downtown area of the city. We even had to fight through a hay-strewn foyer to reach out hotel reception where cowboy hats were, thoughtfully, on sale.
The downside of a trip to Calgary in the peak stampede season is that the hike in hotel prices means visiting Brits can be taken by surprise. They also have to be booked well in advance to get a good location.
I enjoyed our trip to the stampede but was excited to be heading off to Banff the next day, home to Canada’s first ever national park, established back in 1885 and 120km west of Calgary. Wooden lodge-style hotels line the main streets and prove a pretty backdrop for the jaw-dropping scenery of the Canadian Rockies.
In winter, skiers pile in to ski at nearby runs about a 20-minute drive from the main town. They also head for Lake Louise, a further 53km on and our next stop.
Banff itself is a great place for organising rafting and canoeing trips in summer and, with water levels high, the Bow River, with its glacial green tinge looked spectacular. Also recommended is a ride up on a cable-car (Canadians call it a gondola) where a short walk at the top takes you to a stunning outcrop where tiny, cute chipmunks dart in and out of crevices in the rocks.
Roads in the summer peak season are busy, and it’s worth having a good map to plan ahead and look for pull-in areas where you can take a walk to a waterfall or find a picnic spot. If you see cars pulling into the side of the road it’s usually a sign that they’ve spotted a bear, or an elk ambling along in the bushes. I saw both!
Arriving at Lake Louise resort we headed for the second of two stables offering riding on site. We’d booked with Timberline Tours who take small groups of riders up into the mountain.
As a complete beginner I was relieved to find my well-behaved horse seemed to know to follow the lead horse, without any instruction from me, for the two-hour trek to the top. Our guide pointed out unusual flowers, explained the landscape and rock formations and made time for a stop off at a ‘tea shop’ – actually a small cafe on a spectacular lake on the way back. She also provided packs with wet weather gear (fortunately we didn’t need it), helmets and as much instruction and advice as you need. The best way to see the mountains!
Feeling a little bit saddle sore after our journey I was so glad that we opted to stay at the luxurious Moraine Lake Lodge, a small resort just 5km down the track from the more bustling Lake Louise with its huge hotel complex.
More out of the way, it still gets tourist buses calling in during the day for visitors to take pictures but, by 5pm, the only people left are those staying in the luxury wooden lodges that come complete with log fires.
It’s certainly not cheap to stay here (or eat in their top class boutique restaurant) so it’s worth looking out for special offers and packages which include a dinner option. Thankfully, all the rooms have lovely bathrooms, ideal for soaking aching limbs!
Next day it was an early start for a drive up the amazingly-named Icefield Parkway to find the start of the Athabasca Glacier and our next adventure. At 9.30am the rain started and I was so glad that, despite being summer, our guide at Icewalks insisted that we put on the waterproof jackets, trousers, woolly hats and gloves they provided.
She also gave us a stiff safety talk, told us how to use crampons and, over the next three hours explained how glaciers moved using an ‘expensive model’ she’d brought along.
This turned out to be a Mars Bar which she bent and manipulated, demonstrating how ice flows and moves beneath a harder, cracked surface. If only geography lessons at school had been as good, I’d have learned a lot more.
As the clouds cleared and the sun burst through we realised we were hungry. Thankfully, she let us eat her ‘model’. Fantastic and full marks for initiative! A trip to remember.
Getting there: Canadian Affair (tel: 020 7616 9933 or www.canadianaffair.com) fly direct from Gatwick to Calgary all year round. Their extensive timetable to other big cities including Vancouver and Toronto, with connecting internal flights, makes the possibility of a two centre trip, flying back from a second Canadian location, an option. Canadian Affair also offer local flights from Exeter to Toronto or both London Heathrow and Gatwick into Vancouver. Return Economy Class fares start from £398 in October 2012.
· In Banff, a night at The Fox Hotel & Suites, booked through www.bestofbanff.com cost around $500 including taxes for a two-bedroomed suite which sleeps up to six people.
· Moraine Lake lodge offers luxury wooden cabins (with luxury prices) with log fires set around the most beautiful lake I saw in the Rockies. It also has a fabulous restaurant, free kayaks to use on the lake and offers nature talks in the evening. It opens during the summer months only through until the beginning of October. Prices start at around $350 per person for a wooden lodge. Cheaper rooms are available in the main hotel. See www.morainelake.com
· In summer you can walk on the 6km ‘tongue’ of the Athabasca Glacier Glacier. Sign up for your trip with Icewalks on the Columbia Icefields. See www.icewalks.com The cost is around $70 Canadian dollars per adult for a morning tour, including hire of all wet weather gear and crampons.
· Horseback riding: Timberline Tours at Lake Louise can arrange 4-hour morning or afternoon ride in small groups. They provide horses with guide to lead the group, jackets and helmets. Beginners are welcome and prices vary depending on the ride. See www.timberlinetours.ca or email email@example.com
· Whitewater lovers who want the excitement of going through rapids should contact: Wild Water Adventures who run rafting trips, and pick-ups from local hotels, in the Lake Louise area. See www.wildwater.com