Travel

The Swiss Alps Have Nothing on the Stunning Canadian Rockies

Head north for epic views.

Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images

I looked up and felt dizzy. The mountain I’d just walked up didn’t feel super intense, so it was surprising to raise my gaze and suddenly realize I was on top of the world. Whether it was the dizzying heights of the jagged peaks surrounding me in all directions, or just the thin oxygen up here causing a slight woozy feeling, it felt like I’d reached a new level of awe as I gazed at ripples of stone humps stretching to the horizon.

It’s easy to see why Banff National Park was once advertised as “50 Switzerlands in one.” Each shard of gray rock piercing the sky in Banff is a reason to stare, every mountain its own bewilderingly unique shape, a sight that brings to mind questionable snippets of 5th grade lessons on tectonic plates. And so many valleys between are filled with pools of water-each a different shade of glowing, ethereal teal-or a glacier spilling out like an icy tongue.

Sure, Banff is renowned for skiing come winter (though some heights have enough snow to backcountry ski all year long, even in July), but the valleys are pleasantly warm throughout late summer and offer perfectly crisp hikes in fall. The Canadian national park is covered in larch conifers, the only pine tree to change colors and shed its needles in autumn, and trailside tea houses that serve steaming cups of comfort, which earns it an A for coziness.

The area has enough going on to keep you busy for days, or even weeks. Immediately next to Banff you’ll find Jasper National Park, located in such proximity that it’s difficult to tell where one park ends and the other begins, a real two-for-one deal. Plus, if you somehow tire of gondolas soaring above a sea of trees, incredibly scenic drives, glacier hikes, and Banff’s tasteful lodge towns, the nearby cities of Edmonton and Calgary offer innovative restaurants, bars, and art. No matter how much time you have, here’s what to cram into your trip to Banff.

Man H/500px/Getty Images
Man H/500px/Getty Images
Man H/500px/Getty Images

Start and end in a buzzing city

To get to Banff, you can fly in and out of either Edmonton or Calgary and then rent a car to drive to the national park. But instead of doubling back to the same city for the return flight, one ideal option would be to continue onward through the park in order to hit up both cities, picking up your car rental from one airport and dropping it off in the next. Both are newer cities with sky-scraper-filled downtowns; Edmonton feels artsy and green, while Calgary is a little more polished.

In Edmonton, look for the enormous parks system running through the centre of the city, thanks to protected land on both sides of the North Saskatchewan River. Locals bike, walk, or scooter around the 40 miles of pathways weaving through pine trees and descending down to glacier-blue water. You’ll find art scattered through the park and the city, much of which is created by indigenious artists and celebrates Métis First Nations or the Cree language. Whether you hike, kayak, or sign on for a dinner or party on a river boat on the North Saskatchewan, no worries about trekking all the way back uphill at the end of the day-you can ride the funicular instead.

Whyte Avenue is the street to check out while you’re in town, with its restaurants, indie theatre, beer gardens, farmer’s markets, and street art. Here you’ll find a bar in an old train station, board game cafes, arcade bars, and restaurants dishing ramen, ice cream, vegan eats, curries, Cajun food, and more. Across town there’s some newer development, but you’ll find cool spots like the Neon Sign Museum. Eat some bao buns and dumplings at the colourful Baiju (don’t miss the Last Days in Vietnam cocktail with soju and Thai basil), and settle in at Braven in the JW Marriott Edmonton Ice District, which features decor that any chic cabin should envy and serves a hearty woodsman breakfast where you’re going to want to put the syrup on your bacon.

LisaBourgeault/Shutterstock
LisaBourgeault/Shutterstock
LisaBourgeault/Shutterstock

The other option is Calgary. If Edmonton is the hip dive bar, then Calgary is the upscale dance club. The restaurant scene here is on point, with places like Nupo serving an omakase tasting menu (and while the regular fish option is divine, we cannot recommend the vegan version enough, which is shockingly innovative for the taste buds). Or there’s Lulu Bar, which creates incredible shared plates like lobster dumplings, fried coconut squid, and skewers-and you wouldn’t believe what they can do to cauliflower, which is roasted in miso and furikake.

You’ll also find gentle rafting and kayaking on the Bow River, a haunted ghost tour around the city, and chuck wagon races at the Calgary Stampede, where old wooden food carts go neck and neck. Check out the cool neighbourhood of Kensington for nightlife, and absolutely stay at The Dorian Hotel, which is filled with floral decor, a heavy dose of British whimsy, and literary references to Oscar Wilde that quite possibly make it this author’s favourite hotel.

long.explorer/Shutterstock
long.explorer/Shutterstock
long.explorer/Shutterstock

Take in the drive

Getting anywhere in or around Banff and Jasper means you’re doing a scenic drive, so we won’t even bother recommending specific routes-though you’ll probably take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) and the Trans Canada Highway. In any case, just follow your maps app and be ready to look up a lot. Even the driver will be wowed-while still focusing intently on the road and keeping hands on the wheel at exactly the 10 and 2 o’clock positions, of course. Don’t be surprised if a massive caribou stands majestically by the road, allowing puny humans to snap their little photos. And yes, there are bears here, but whether you see them from a car or on the trail (like I did), they’re not particularly interested in humans.

Kit Leong/Shutterstock
Kit Leong/Shutterstock
Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Hit up tea houses and gondolas while hiking in Banff

Whenever you decide to stop the car, it’s time for open-air adventure. The most popular destination for hikers and non-hikers alike is Lake Louise, or Ho-Run-Num-Nay, meaning “the lake of little fish.” This is where you’ll find the most Instagram posts, as well as kayak trips on the turquoise water. One excellent hike in this area is the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, which is a moderate 6-mile roundtrip hike from Lake Louise up about 1,000 feet to a lovely tea house serving cakes, warm entrees, hot cocoa, and-of course-tea. The hike to Lake Agnes Tea House also starts from Lake Louise and is easier to reach at only 4.7 miles roundtrip, though we’d say the less crowded Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is more rustic and rewarding.

If you don’t want to pack your own trekking poles and lunch, or stress about where to find the best wildlife spotting, stopping points, and photo opportunities, companies like Discover Banff Tours offer guided hikes to take all the worry out of the outdoors. Banff is also making an effort to rename peaks back to their indigenous names-since the government spent ages allowing the first European who climbed a mountain to name it after themselves-but until that project is complete, these guides are the perfect chance to find out what the true names are.

Mekdet/Moment/Getty Images
Mekdet/Moment/Getty Images
Mekdet/Moment/Getty Images

Just across from Ho-Run-Num-Nay is the Lake Louise Summer Gondola that runs through early October. From the top dropoff point, you can hike one of the many trails on the summit or dine at the ski lodge that’s open year round.

For an easy but stunning hike in Banff, try Johnson Canyon Lower Falls, which is a flat 1-mile walk on boardwalks suspended over a river in a narrow canyon. You’ll feel like you’re levitating above the river until you get to a small cave and waterfall at the end, where teal blue water gushes into shimmering pools. You can continue onwards from there to Upper Falls for higher vistas. And close to town, Stoney Squaw is another short 2-mile hike that’s steeper and more secluded, with few people and many tree roots along the trail. You’ll mostly be surrounded by pines the entire time, except for some quick views at the top, so this is one for the forest bathers out there.

Alex Ratson/Moment/Getty Images
Alex Ratson/Moment/Getty Images
Alex Ratson/Moment/Getty Images

Climb up glaciers and into hot springs in Jasper

Walking on top of a glacier is a rare experience-and one that’s getting even rarer, since many of them are melting away. Going on a trek with a responsible tourism group allows visitors the chance of a lifetime while also learning about preservation and climate change. The glaciers from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park are shrinking, but they’re still hypnotic to gaze upon as they sit like eerie, silent giants. Columbia Icefield Adventures offers the chance to trek for 30 minutes onto a hunk of ice and see how much the glacier has receded in the past few decades.

Whether or not you opt to walk on the icefield-for which a guide is required, lest you fall into one of the deep cracks-you can also hike a short trail that takes you to the edge of the glacier. The hikes start at the Glacier View Lodge, which is an elegant place to stay and see the bluish ice from the hotel’s huge floor-to-ceiling windows. From here, you can also purchase tickets for the Skywalk, where visitors walk out onto a glass platform suspended 900 feet above the rugged glacial landscape.

Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock
Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock
Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

If even the thought of a glacier hike is chilling, there’s also plenty of heat to be had in Jasper. The Sulphur Skyline Trail is a stunning hike that ends in hot springs. About 5 miles roundtrip and with around a 2,000-foot elevation gain, this hike climbs gradually up inclines and switchbacks until you’re suddenly beholding the world from its crown. You’ll want to be extra careful with your footing at the very top, since it’s somewhat gravely. Or just skip the whole thing and sit in the natural Miette Hot Springs at the foot of the trail, surrounded by all the peaks you can admire regardless of whether you decide to climb them.

The Bald Hills trail is another iconic hike in Jasper with huge views at the top. The majority of the 8-mile route goes through forests, either steeply to the left or on an easier fire road to the right, until emerging for the ridgeline view. The trail starts and stops by Maligne Lake, where you can opt to go on a boat cruise.

Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock
Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock
Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock

Relax each evening in a lodge town

A couple of towns located within the national parks exemplify the best version of lodge towns. While there are certainly many tourists, the villages don’t feel plasticky; there’s an authenticity to the wood and fireplaces that perhaps comes with weathering many long winters. The main towns are eponymously named Banff and Jasper. You’ll find numerous shops and restaurants, all within wooden mountain houses. Tour operators pick guests up directly from the hotels in town and make it easy to get around the national park without having to drive or fight for parking at trailheads.

If you get back to town and still have the stamina to take in more mountain views, bike trails are the best way to explore the immediate area-which can be done via e-bike for those who want to see the sights but whose legs have called it quits. At Snowtips-Bactrax in Banff, workers will outfit you with either a mountain or electric bike and offer maps and suggestions of which routes to take from the centre of town, depending on how long you want to ride. One nearby option with a glorious vista is Lake Minnewanka Loop, which goes up and down some hills in a 15-mile route along protected bike lanes and a low-traffic road.

Three Bears Brewery & Restaurant, Banff
Three Bears Brewery & Restaurant, Banff
Three Bears Brewery & Restaurant, Banff

While Jasper has plenty to offer as well, Banff is the perfect home base to return to after a long day of excursions. Three Bears Brewery is a highlight, where the food is as inventive as the beer. Whatever you do, order the lamb rib with pomegranate glaze and a hint of chilli oil, which is an outrageous dish you’ll keep dreaming about on the trails. And though the beer menu is extensive, with hoppy trail brews and local pine pilsners, the restaurant’s signature drinks are infused beers. Using teas like rooibos and fruit such as blueberries or peaches, brewers experiment with flavours that come out fresh from the on-site infusion chamber. Look out for a peppermint stout as the seasons get colder.

For a final dose of relaxation, one highly suggested activity is to soak in a steam room full of eucalyptus. Steam rooms might seem like they’re the same all over the world, but the humble mini-spa that’s free (I repeat, free) for guests of Peaks Hotel & Suites must have a secret beyond just a lovely smell. The new hotel in Banff is beautifully designed with rustic-chic vibes, small private balconies, and free hot cocoa by the gas fireplace-but their indoor pool and plunge pools are transformative after mountain climbing. The potent eucalyptus in all that steam seems to penetrate both your muscles and lungs for a deep hiking recovery that’ll have you ready to get back at it in no time.

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Danielle Hallock is the Travel Editor at Thrillist, and she totally appeared to keep her cool when she saw three bears.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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