Scenery that takes your breath away, soaring mountains, and excellent roads makes driving from Vancouver through the Rockies a road trip to remember.
Without detours, the trip is just over 1,000km. Although only two of us, our Avis car turned out to be a people carrier which may have been a problem driving on narrow, winding roads but this drive was mainly on well-maintained motorways.
First stop and less than a 2-hour drive from Vancouver Whistler, although primarily known as a ski destination, has so many activities to choose from that would keep all members of the family, both young and old, busy.
Outside our hotel The Westin Resort & Spa was an 18-hole golf course and a few paces away, streets filled with restaurants and shops. Although my visit didn’t coincide with the skiing season, I was still able to ascend the mountain slopes by gondola where people were also hiking and mountain biking. During the more temperate months until mid-September one of the must-do experiences is the Peak2Peak gondola. The world’s longest and highest lift, it connects the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, providing breathtaking if somewhat scary, panoramic views of the area.
Near Whistler are lakes and rivers. Water rafting doesn’t appeal but it did to my partner, and while he enjoyed this extreme sport with several others in an inflatable dingy, I visited the Scandinave Spa which for me was a unique experience. The spa is based on the natural thermal spas found in mountain resorts. Here it is a bit more contrived using hydrotherapy, a series of hot and cold experiences followed by a period of relaxation in a landscaped setting. No-one is allowed to speak once they have checked in. I benefited from my visit to also have a rejuvenating massage. An environment where I could easily have spent the entire day. The First Nations people are being acknowledged in Canada. On a visit to the modern Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre my guide, whose ancestors go back to the local indigenous people, provided an insight into how they used to live.
Driving through the mountains, although the roads sometimes twist and turn there are no sheer drops. Rather we pass slopes covered in trees in various stages of green, yellow and rust with mountain peaks, although it is only September, covered in snow. Lakes and rivers, in different shades of blue and aqua-marine depending on where the sun hits, suddenly appear. Distances are vast and travelling from one place to another can take the best part of a day, hardly seeing another car. Road signs warn us that this is bear and moose country. Clouds drift across the mountains, sometimes seeming so near that it feels as if I could reach out and touch them.
A sign announces that we are approaching the border between British Columbia and Alberta. We have lost an hour, it is much colder and the scenery is changing. The trees on the slopes are disappearing until all that can be seen are the bare face of the mountains – The Rockies. Jasper is the stopping-off point before continuing on the road known as the Icefields Parkway where, along the route, are fields of ice, and places to stop to view cascading waterfalls.
Seeing cars stopping by the roadside was usually an indication of an animal sighting. Just outside Jasper on a grass verge we saw, surprising close, a black bear. Sadly, by the time we had stopped, got out the car, and aimed the camera the bear had, encouraged by a ranger, disappeared into the distance, and away from the town**. Seeing bears in the wild was far more exciting than, as we had in Whistler, gone on a bear sighting expedition. There we had visited the site of the Winter Olympics 2010, driving around for two hours before we saw from the distance a bear feeding on what was a grassy ski slope.
The Icefields Parkway ends at Lake Louise, famous for its turquoise colour and the glaciers that surround it. When I visited people were canoeing, but in the winter when it ices over the lake becomes a skating rink. Situated in Banff National Park, the town of Banff, flanked by towering bare-faced rock mountains, is less than an hour from Calgary, and offers a wide spectrum of sporting activities throughout the year similar to that of Whistler. Whistler and Banff both revel in jaw-dropping scenery although Whistler will appeal more to those who enjoy top quality restaurants and stylish shopping.
** Please see comment below regarding warning and advice given by Parks Canada.