Pride Travel’s Rocky Mountain Rail Journey Through Canada – Day 9 : Banff, with Helicopter Summit Tour
Day 9 – Banff, with Helicopter Summit Tour
Although we had a 7am wakeup today to upload pictures and write for our faithful readers, it was a pleasant morning nonetheless. Out of habit, we always leave our window blinds open in order for the sun to naturally light our mornings; today we were not disappointed as the morning light permeated our suite with gradual light and a cascade of bright mountain colors. Waking up to such a majestic alpine view, with a river cascading below was breathtaking, and set the right tone for our day. Today we will not need to pack, as our tour departs and returns from the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
We started the day out right again, with breakfast in our suite… we’re becoming way too comfortable with the speed dial to in-room-dining; a habit we need to soon break as we enter the last leg of our train journey tomorrow. Nathan ordered the steak and eggs again, having discovered yesterday that in the Rockies, and particularly in Alberta, steak is king. I ordered the French toast for a bit of a change, though I must say Nathan definitely got the better deal. His steak was cooked to perfection, and melted -literally melted- under his butter knife without a single sawing motion. He received a side of two huge croissants with jam and butter, and graciously shared one with me. My breakfast, by surprising contrast was disappointing. The bread chosen for the French toast was too generic and plain, as opposed to the sweet and richer breads often chosen when not making French toast from scratch in a dough. But, the true disappointment lay in the maple syrup. As I poured it on, I quickly noticed how runny and watery the syrup was. In reading the label, I came to discover a shocking fact: Dickinson’s Maple Syrup is a product of Dickinson’s Family Inc, Oxnard CA 93030… that’s right, CA for California. Now, its possible that the distributor is in California, but judging from the poor quality of the syrup, one can only hope that these are used for emergencies when they run out of the ‘real stuff’ and have to substitute. I’m confident, though, that had I called and mentioned the disappointing quality of the maple syrup, three waiters would be climbing over themselves to deliver a replacement. Such is the way of a luxury five-star hotel, and the Fairmont has been a brand that consistently meets or exceeds our expectations in this area. I must confess, however, that the thought did not occur to me until now as I write this, and it remains disappointing that the kitchen in such a prestigious resort would even consider delivering non-Canadian runny maple syrup in the first place. Serve it to me in a plain plastic jug from the ones sold in the deli if you must, but please, keep it Canadian.
Our most important meal of the day turns out quite filling, and we scurry to get ready for our tour in 30 minutes. Our scurrying turns out for naught, as we arrive early for our pickup and wind up waiting on the bus. But since good things come to those who wait, our wait is rewarded with a rare view of two Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mounties are such a regal sight, all resplendent in their red woolen uniforms and a definite unique part of the Canadian heritage. To see real Canadian Mounties out on their rounds is a bonus treat, not on today’s scheduled itinerary, and we savor this moment of history, heritage, and cultural uniqueness that is the Canadian experience.
The motor coach arrives, and we are picked up by our gracious driver and host who is patient with all of us ooglie-eyed tourists snapping a dozen photos of the Mounties. As we drive down the road back through the Banff town, our driver Mike informs us of the bad news: the helipad operator had radioed our tour operator, Brewster, and warned that our afternoon flights will be canceled due to bad weather. Not to worry, however, as the simple solution already in play is for us to head to our helicopter tour this morning, and swap our morning and afternoon itinerary around so we won’t miss a thing. This is an exceptional example of a tour operator and local operator working together in unison to maintain the overall traveler experience and both Brewster and Kananakis Helicopter Tours get two big thumbs up from these travel pros.
Before proceeding for the heli tour, we stop at the Bow River with a view of Bow Falls, originally scheduled in the afternoon. It’s hard not to get jaded when overwhelmed with such majestic scenery day after day, but Nathan and I can honestly say that each of these lakes, mountains, glaciers, falls, and sights are beautiful unto themselves. Is there such a thing as too much beauty, or so many breath-taking sights as to leave no breath left to be taken away. That said, the Bow River is a majestic waterway carving through the area near the Banff Springs Hotel. The falls allow the waters of the Bow River to drop about 30 feet, near the confluence with the Spray River.
Trying our best to avoid the forecasted severe weather which would scrap our helitour, we make our way to the heli pad and offices of the tour operator which is located on an Indian reservation, behind a rather subdued hotel casino that doubles as the only ‘pip stop’ for weary tourists. Refreshingly, the front desk, lobby and facilities are segregated from the casino floor, so those of us that prefer not to trudge through a smoke-infested gambler’s den to tinkle were well rewarded. On to the helicopter experience! This tour operator’s choppers are a true helicopter setup seating only 3 in the back and one in the front in addition to the pilot making for a very personalized flight unlike more ‘jumbo helicopters; the drawback, weight balancing can be a very personal exercise where we the human cargo are redistributed according to our girth. Kananaskis Helicopters has a sneaky way of avoiding the touchy question of weight; travelers are asked to step down onto a wooden platform of the deck, whereby the operator asks them a few questions, and notes the total weight of the group of four being packaged together for takeoff. The entire platform is a weighing mechanism, an innovation not common to helicopter tours as is the simple digital scale each person is asked to weigh in on at checkin. Nathan and I were able to snag a few photos for our readers.
As luck of the draw would have it, we are scheduled last in the groupings of four that will be flying in the three helicopters operating our group. This is most assuredly due to the fact that older and more impatient travelers amongst us who, perhaps feeling the creeping hand of doom upon their shoulder, scurry quicker than a field mouse running from an mad elk (see our pictures of impatient travelers, ground squirrels, elk, and other crazy critters). The silver lining is that we have the opportunity for dozens of takeoff photos and lounging while awaiting our ride. We make our way onboard under strict rules of movement and procedure. Kananskis takes passenger safety very seriously and instructs us in the proper etiquette and safety protocols to approach, board, and ride in the aircraft. Only a few moments after takeoff, we notice a wide field, an expanse of land with what seem like rounded mounds, pot marks across the landscape, peppering the entire field; our helicopter pilot David, notes that the location served as a World War II Prisoner of War camp and the round mounds are all that remain of the prisoners’ cells. They serve as grim reminders of the ugliness of war, the suffering it causes, and how mankind even subconsciously wants to forget the grisly realities associated with it.
How do we sum up the feeling of helicopter flight in words and pictures alone? This challenge is not easily overcome nor is the recollecting accurate without the experience in hand, but we shall try. Mountains, plains, Glacial ice, lakes, rivers, towns, highways, forests, all a beautiful quilt of scenery laid before us. Our sampler flight allowed for a quick touring of the surrounding areas, but alas was not the full tour delving into the mountains. We would recommend this fuller tour with Kananaskis in order to see the mountains and glacial ice in its true majest.
Our helicopter Pilot Dave is a multi-talented character; although he doesn’t mention any of this even once while flying us in our 20 minute sampler tour of the local area, this “In N Out” sticker toting gentleman has been an award-winning culinary expert, world touring nose flutist, and pilot for Garuda Indonesia Airlines in his career past. This detailed insight into the people you are encountering puts a new perspective on the entire experience, offering a glimpse through their eyes, at several hundred feet off the ground. Kananaskis profiles all their pilots on their employee wall with some interesting biographical and trivial information. For instance Steve, our tour facilitator for the day who prepared us with instructions aboard the bus the has a streakingly nefarious athletic background involving wardrobe malfunctions during a track meet; this all-around athlete has even been inducted as a Babe Ruth League MVP.
With the helicopter tour concluded, we begin our drive back towards Banff for our lunch break. Brewster tours built free time into the day, allowing us to grab lunch on our own, at our pace; travelers were given the option to be bussed up to the Gondola (which we had already decided to visit on our own later that day) or lunch and window shopping down town. Seeing as we were starving and had not had the opportunity to peruse downtown, we opted for the latter.
Our first stop was the mall right at our footsteps where Mike dropped us off. Inside, we were sure to find quick sustenance that would not take up too much time and still allow us walk-abouts for Nathan’s obligatory shopping. With all the gastronomical wonders the last few days, we decide to ‘Rough it’ and purchase Japonesque-style tepanyaki and rice from a wok place, drizzled in teriyaki sauce. Filling, tasty, and cheap are a good combination and departure from haute cuisine (even haute deli at the Fairmont Banff Springs). As we are eating, we notice a dairy queen… something not readily available to us in Long beach. To reward ourselves for the brisk lunch which leaves us ample time to shop, we order two cones (Huge!) of vanilla dipped in chocolate goo; this hallmark ice cream cone is one that DQ has become famous for and we thoroughly enjoy our cones down to the last drop before resuming our downtown jaunt.
There are, of course, many touristy shops up and down the boulevard in the heart of Banff town. What is different than in other cities or major tourist spots is the type of kitchy chatchkies that are being peddled. Here, earth’s stones and mineral deposits are king, with several stores displaying gemological formations worthy of a local museum. Of particular interest are the fossilized remains of ancient crustaceans. I’m not big on bugs myself, but these little critters are very popular as they are also found naturally occurring in the local mountains and under or in the glacial ice surrounding the area. One such fossil which has garnered world acclaim as a gemstone is Amolite. This shell material is similar to mother-of-pearl in principle but displays uniquely prismatic rainbows of color found in no other stone. Amolite has been excavated, processed, polished, shipped all over the world to be set in precious metals and incorporated into exotic designs by world-renowned jewelers. Often found on cruise ships and in the Caribbean for very high prices, this rare gemological oddity is only found in one place: right here in Alberta’s national park and surrounding areas. Passing on the Amolite, my eyes catch another through our journeys: Godiva chocolate truffles by the gram. One of the nondescript stores was an authorized Godiva representative and I could not resist purchasing 100 grams of truffles. These truffles were deliciously fresh, and were quickly consumed, too quickly even for Nathan to photograph (as he was busily helping with the consumption). We wrap up our window shopping trying to avoid a church tour group from Utah, bedecked in coordinated blue shirts, their mission: colonize Banff. Everywhere we went, we couldn’t help but step on, climb over, walk around and steer clear of these clumps of teeny-boppers. Little did we know that our bus pickup point would be ground zero for the explosion of these shirt clad touristic pests….I’m certain that our trials with this is some sort of karmic credit for future bad deeds.
After lunch, we are picked up for our afternoon tour of Lake Minnewanka and the unique extra terrestrial terrain of the “Hoodoos”; we’re ecstatic about the prospect of finding out what all those shirts printed with ‘Hoodoos’ are referring to, and are pleasantly surprised by it. The Hoodoos are a collection of formations in the soft rock cliffs, typically sandstone pillars that stand from fifteen to twenty feet in height. Some have compared these to the Faerie Chimneys of Turkey’s Cappadocia region, but in Alberta, the effect is much more sylvan, more ‘green’ in its grandeur. Lake Minnewanka itself is very picturesque and a unique combination of alpine summits and lake that flow into one another seamlessly. This glacial lake is fed by the cascade river flowing from the majestic Cascade Mountains we glimpsed on the first part of our rail journey. What is viewable above the lake’s surface, however, is equally matched by the sights underneath. When a dam was built in the 40’s to funnel water for hydro electric generation, the resort village of Minnewanka Landing that had been present there since 1888 became submerged under 100 feet of water. The unique nature of the site has catapulted the lake as popular destination among divers from all over the world.
As we concluded our trip and were returned to Banff, we persuaded Mike to drop four of us off at the foot of the Banff Gondola so we can climb to the top of Sulphur Mountain and explore the sights from another vantage point… not to mention that by this point, my itch for a gondola ride was becoming unbearable since missing our opportunity in Whistler due to timing constraints on the hours of operation. Luckily, Sulphur Mountain and the Gondola are open until 9pm in the summer, which is not even sunset, allowing for truly full days of sightseeing and activities. Our trip is hurried as storm clouds begin to decend on the area. While this had the amazing effect of reducing the line at the Gondola, we were warned that the mountain top might need to be evacuated at any time and our trip cut short. No matter, we’d certainly risked worse than rain in our travels. As we ascend the gondola up, we’re able to capture beautiful pictures of the area, albeit cloudy and gloomy looking. Our tiny four person (four if they were small) Gondola was swaying back and forth in the winds, which made for an exciting theme-park ride… for free, since this was not part of the features.
Upon reaching the summit, it seems that the weather had begun to clear, leaving only cold wind billowing round the mountain. We’re able to view and photograph some nice scenery from up here both inside and outside the lookout. TIP: if you’re visiting and are hit by inclement weather or bad rain, head to the cafeteria deck for the best viewing. The cafeteria deck is sheltered by the restaurant upstairs which forms a protective overhang, The actual observation deck is outside on the roof and quite exposed. Our initial plan was to have dinner at the restaurant level, but today is a special menu that neither of us cared for, and the normal options were not available from the kitchen. We head down to the cafeteria and decide against this option as well, as it is plainly ‘emergency’ quality provisions.
Our Gondola trip down the mountain is less eventful… the crowd having dwindled down due to the bad weather from a few hours back. By the time we reach the base, things are much drier and returning to normal; we grab a cab back to our suite at the Banff Springs hotel. There, we pick out nibbles at the 24 hour café which is fast becoming our mainstay in these full days, and collapse onto the beds to wake-up early and pack.
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