Alberta: Banff, Calgary, And The Adventure Of A Lifetime (pt. 1)
Thanks Pursuit Collection for gifting me some of these wonderful experiences!
Have you ever dreamt of going on an Eat Pray Love-style journey at an opportune time in your life? Self-discovery is often something that happens when you're alone and far from home so I completely understand the allure. Would you believe me if I told you that I went on an accidental Eat Pray Love trip of my own? Accidental because I wasn't trying to tap into some deeper version of myself or have a personal reformation of sorts: I just wanted a break from my awful job. However, a few days before I was supposed to leave, I ended up losing that awful job—and gained an identity crisis and a veritable slew of self-esteem issues in the process. Thankfully, and perhaps somewhat unsurprising, I got it all back, plus more.
Not to sound like too much of a mystic but they say the mountains are healing, so I took my impending adventure as an opportunity to grow and lean more about myself. Like most adults, I'd sort of fallen out of touch with who I am. As a slightly-claustrophobic, anxiety-riddled, chronic people-pleaser, long distance solo flights are the perfect catalyst for cathartic experiences. What kind of transformative event doesn't begin when you face your demons then have some good old fashioned forced introspection?
Good things fall apart so better things can come together. I have no idea who said that and I think it's a bit corny but the sentiment behind it begs this question: what about when things aren't so good? I had this thought as I was standing in line to go through customs at Calgary International Airport. My expectations of adventure had fallen so low that even my choice to not purchase an international data plan seemed like a grand escape. The very idea of spending the time between the airport and my destination in an unplugged state felt pretty damn adventurous. Thankfully, that was only the beginning.
Just about everyone knows about and dreams of going to Banff these days but how about Banff's lesser-known but still absolutely breathtaking counterpart, Canmore? It's a gorgeous little town nestled in the Bow Valley region of Alberta's Rocky Mountains, about an hour's drive from Calgary. You absolutely have to stop for a stroll, a coffee, and a soak in the Nordic Spas on the way to Banff. (It's less than a half hour from the entrance!)
One of the first things I did in Canmore was walk around the town. I didn't really have a plan. Rather than traveling with an itinerary, I have an idea of what I want to see and come up with a loose schedule to accommodate it. On this trip, I decided that I would treat myself well. Of course finding a coffee shop I could work from (read: mooch wifi from so I could get to the job search) was a priority but since I was only allowing myself an hour or two of work a day, finding things that interested me was paramount. Since I've always just loved to wander, I did what I do best: aimlessly navigated myself around town in search of something that could catch my eye. Aside from a rack full of amazingly tacky (in the most brilliant way) tees from The Mountain, (I promise you will NOT regret clicking on that link) what caught and kept my attention the best to start was the Policeman's Creek Boardwalk.
After a short walk, I was pretty hungry so I set out to find a coffee shop that would appease my... well... "discerning" taste in brew. Communitea Café delivered. In addition to good coffee, they had an entire menu of espresso-based drinks, as well as breakfast and lunch items both big and small. (Plenty of vegan, gluten-free, and even keto-friendly options, by the way.) I actually went to Communitea twice on my trip and though I wanted to try something new the second time, I ended up getting the same thing again because it was just SO good: avocado toast with hummus, tomatoes, and various seasonings. (Really though, you cannot go wrong with that combination.)
Nothing could have ever prepared me for these mountains. I had limited access to them, and in my almost 27 years of life, I think the largest mountains I'd seen (besides Mount Fiji from above, but I'm not sure if that counts?) were the Blue Ridge Mountains when I used to visit my brother in Virginia. (I definitely shed a tear or two or three or a whole bunch on this trip.)
Alberta is an other-worldly place, especially when you grew up somewhere like I did: the beautiful but very flat east coast. While my home of Philadelphia has a lot of history, Alberta has just as much, in a very different way. I'm so thankful for Pursuit's Lake Minnewanka Cruise. Without giving too much away (the tour guide did a much better job than I could at this point) the whole region looked a little different a few couple million years ago, and it definitely wasn't the kind of terrain you'd think it was. Being on the water felt great. Even though this particular day was on the warm side, (especially by Alberta standards) there was a glorious soft breeze and those cool glacial waters made it even more enjoyable. When we got back to shore, I sat on the edge of the dock and dipped my toes in. I won't lie to you, it was quite chilly, but in the best way possible. (I'd do it again.)
After the tour of picturesque Minnewanka, there was some downtime between it and what was next on my agenda, so into town I went. Banff is quirky and kitschy in a really charming way. If you're a fan of souvenirs that are the perfect amount of "too much" and endless options to satisfy a sweet tooth while also getting some serious outdoor lifestyle shopping done, the town of Banff is the place for you.
Because of my fun new "just laid off" budget and limited carry-on space, I couldn't hit up the shops but decided to treat myself nonetheless: with decadent food and boozy libations. I love a good distillery so Park was an obvious stop that I just had to make. I definitely want to go back for a full dinner experience because the drinks and appetizer that I had were phenomenal. I got the beetroot hummus (because of course I did) and it was simply fantastic, especially paired with my Bankhead cocktail: a mix of Park's Alpine Dry Gin, triple sec, strawberry, basil, lemon, and agave. (I still think about it sometimes when I'm sad.)
After drinks and apps at Park, the hour drew nigh to finally do what I was probably most excited for: a perfectly-timed gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain for a glass of wine from Sky Bistro and breathtaking views of the sunset.
Aside from the fact that the views are absolutely stunning, not much can be said about the experience of taking Banff Gondola to the summit of Sulphur Mountain because it's something you truly must see for yourself to understand the scope of it all. Fear of heights be damned, you barely notice the earth becoming further and further under you as you scale high above the tall, wispy pines. It's breathtaking to see the mountains as they wind and cut through the landscape far, far into the distance, cascading far beyond what the eye can see. They're HUGE, and to sit in the midst of it all makes you feel small in a way we should all feel every once in a while. (It does wonders for perspective.)
Once at the top, it's important to go directly to the rooftop observation deck. (NOTE: even in August, it was still pretty chilly up there, even though it was pretty warm at the bottom. Remember to pack a jacket even if you think you won't need it. Trust me, you will and you do NOT want to deprive yourself of these views!) This is where you can get some really beautiful views of the mountains and play giant Connect Four, if you'd like. It's just a great place to recharge and remember your humanness. At this point, I was hankering for a glass of red wine so I headed back inside for a glass at Sky Bistro. If don't make reservations and you have to end up waiting a little longer for it, I promise a window seat is absolutely worth your time. The views never get old, especially at sunset. I found myself getting lost in the mountains, first grey, then splashed with a brilliant red and orange, then the most majestic periwinkle purple that has ever existed. Aside from the visuals of those beautiful old mountains, Sky Bistro also offers a great menu and solid list of Canadian wines and beers. (And cocktails featuring local spirits.) One thing about this place? It's so difficult to leave. Thankfully, I don't see it going anywhere soon.
Now, I'm sure you've seen Lake Louise on the internet once or twice, but have you ever heard of Moraine Lake? It's just as stunning and there are some wonderful hiking trails, plus, in my experience, it tends to be a lot less crowded. The water is so insanely blue because it's fed by glacier—which means it's also very cold but when I was there, I wasn't mad. That just meant that it was extra refreshing. As you'll see in the photos below, I even made a little friend. (How cute is he?) Oh, and the color of the lake? It's really that blue. I gasped when I saw it. I gasped a lot on this trip but the Moraine Lake gasp was a BIG one.
I need to travel more, right? I hope to have a whole lot more of it in 2019, that's for sure. Stay tuned for part two of my trip!