Discover a cute village that sees both midnight sun and the Northern Lights. Or find the side of Banff that only locals know about and the cosiest family getaways in the Rocky Mountains.
Banff has secrets that tourists don’t see
“The thing I love – and that makes Banff really unique – is it has a charming main street and the feel of an alpine town but all the vibrancy and advantages of a big city,” says Daymon Miller, who grew up on Alberta’s mountain air and is now the general manager of Discover Banff Tours.
“Whether you’re here for the snow at one of our three ski areas, Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise and Mt Norquay, or you come in summer, Banff always has a real bounce to it. You can’t come without either ice-skating or canoeing on Lake Louise, of course, but it’s so popular that you have to join a tour or you won’t get into the parking lot. And as famous as this part of the Rocky Mountains is, it still has secrets that only locals really know about.
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“One of my favourite lesser-known wilderness spots in the national park is Silverton Falls, a double-tier waterfall you reach via a hike along a narrow trail. It’s only 1.4 kilometres but not many people go there and I find a real sense of remoteness and peace. You don’t have to wander far from town to see deer, elk, even the occasional moose. Between April and October, join a tour to spot grizzly bears.
“It’s amazing that you can step straight out of such wild back country into world-class hotels and restaurants. Fairmont Banff Springs hotel is famous for grand luxury and has history in its foundations. The Peaks hotel is on Lynx Street, close to the pedestrian-friendly Woonerf area of town, and has a more contemporary feel.
“For dinner, I’d head to the Maple Leaf for Canadian cuisine – you haven’t had ribs until you’ve had bison ribs. Chucks does the best dry-aged Alberta steak you’ll get anywhere. And there’s nothing better than a beer on the patio at Three Bears Brewery after a day on the trails.”
If you like quaint villages in epic nature, you’ll also love…
Revelstoke, British Columbia
You’ll love… Conquering mighty alps
If you’re one of those people who feels more comfortable with sky over your head than a roof, this oasis in the Kootenay Rockies, a five-hour drive or 2.5-hour flight (to Kelowna airport) from Calgary, is for you. Surrounded by the mighty Glacier National Park and Mount Revelstoke National Park’s thundering waterfalls and rugged hiking trails, Revelstoke town is big on charm. You can tell why people from Scandinavia picked this spot to introduce the art of skiing more than 100 years ago. Views from Abbott Ridge are as spectacular as any you’d see in the alps of Europe, and Revelstoke Mountain Resort has North America’s longest vertical ski slope.
When it’s time to shake the snow (or soil) from your boots, head to local favourite Quartermaster Eatery for small-farm Canadian cuisine or Main Street Café for all-day breakfast. Where to stay? The family-owned Regent Hotel has rooms for two to four people and a wood-panelled sauna.
Local tip: Hike or bike in technicolour during the Revelstoke Wildflower Festival in August, when the meadows and mountains are bursting with alpine blooms including red paintbrush, pink mountain heather and yellow arnica.
Dawson City, Yukon Territory
You’ll love: The midnight sun and Northern Lights
In this former goldrush town on the banks of the Yukon River, brightly painted wooden storefronts and wide streets could still set the scene for a showdown. But these days, you’ll find local beers, coffee shops and handmade crafts behind closed doors. Book a room at the Victorian-era Bombay Peggy’s, once a bootlegger’s den, and take your chances at the poker tables of Diamond Tooth Gerties (and catch a cancan show). Annabelle’s Noodle House is a much-loved local dinner spot – the Korean fried chicken is unbeatable.
But Dawson is still on a wild frontier. Hike into Tombstone Territorial Park, traditional Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory, to explore the landscape of an arctic tundra. This far north, the sun shines well into the evening from mid-May to early August. The Yukon offers a front row seat to the spectacular aurora borealis, particularly from September to March, when blazing ribbons of light dance across the dark night skies.
Local tip: Hike up the Midnight Dome, 10 minutes outside Dawson City, a peak so named because locals come to its lookout to gaze upon its night-time wonders.
You’ll love… A chill scene and unique family adventures
Located on the south-east boundary of Banff National Park, about 100 kilometres west of Calgary, cosy Canmore is sort of like Banff’s low-key little brother… but with all the Rocky Mountains’ greatest hits at the tips of your skis or hiking boots. Saddle up to ride a horse along the epic Bow River with Discover Banff Tours. Kids will never forget joining Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours to go mushing through the snow with a team of happy huskies in the winter (you can jump in a trail-ready cart instead in summer). Alpine Helicopters Canmore can give you the big-picture perspective on the Rockies’ ragged mountains and glacial lakes. Back in town, chat with friendly locals, especially over a bowl of eggplant fries and beers at fun restaurant Crazyweed.
Local tip: Charming, artsy rooms are one good reason to stay at Paintbox Lodge. The locally famous, daily baked sourdough at breakfast is another. As a bonus, ski champions Sara Renner and Thomas Grandi are the owners and can offer tips on snow spots near town.
You’ll love: French-accented luxury
Famous for its ski resort, this elegant Québécoise town, in the Laurentian Mountains about 140 kilometres north-west of Montreal, is just as lovely when there’s no snow on the ground. A stay at the Fairmont Tremblant hotel is a full-immersion luxury holiday experience that makes ticking off world-class golfing, hiking, kayaking or helicopter tours easy. If you don’t need a concierge, book your own cruise on Lake Tremblant and make time to soak in the outdoor springs or eucalyptus steam baths of Scandinave Spa Mont-Tremblant. The best food here leans French: you’ll find refined Mediterranean fare at La Petite Cachée and the sommeliers behind the wine bar at Restaurant La Quintessence really know their stuff.
Local tip: There are several ways to hike Mont-Tremblant but locals suggest Le Grand Brûlé (red path) – it seems longer than other trails but it’s the easiest walk. Or just hop on the Panoramic Gondola to the top.
Image credits: Destination BC/Ryan Creary (View of Revelstoke); Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours; Fairmont Tremblant.