BANFF, ALTA.—If anyone needs some spa R&R, it’s me. I thought participating in a writers’ workshop at the Banff Centre would mean sitting around on my butt all day, but this group is hiking crazy. If I’m not sitting on my bum writing, I’m hauling it up a mountain.
Hiking Helen Lake
“It’s an easy hike, only 12 kilometres,” someone assures me as we drive to the Helen Lake trailhead on the Columbia Icefields Parkway. “It’s steep at first, then you’re in an alpine meadow.”
Maybe I’m not as fit as I should be, but the “at first” part seems to go on for hours. My lungs are twisting inside-out in an attempt to get air, and I start daydreaming about plush spa beds and kind therapists massaging my feet.
The best moments are when we stop to look at wild flowers, the massive blue-white Crowfoot Glacier behind us or even a grizzly den up on a rocky slope.
Are we there yet?
Finally we reach Helen Lake, a steel-coloured circle at the base of a bald grey peak. Fat whistling marmots whizz across our path and as I sit on a rock eating my turkey sandwich I’m filled with a sense of triumph. This is followed by bliss because I think the hard part is over.
When it comes to hiking in Banff, the hard part is never over.
“There’s a 19-kilometre hike tomorrow at Healy Pass,” says Don Gillmor, author of the novel Kanata. Briefly I consider it, and then sneak off to the Upper Hot Springs to soothe my thigh muscles instead.
Even the easy hikes around town are given added complications. The trail up Tunnel Mountain becomes a jogging track. Gillmor runs up it in 16 minutes. Ian Brown, author of The Boy in the Moon, in 17. Journalist Leah McLaren doesn’t walk the Hoodoos Trail she “trail runs” it. Something is seriously wrong with these people, but I still let them talk me into a final hike at Sunshine Meadows. Our trail begins at the Sunshine Village Ski Resort, a five-kilometre uphill bus ride from the parking lot.
Within five minutes, I’m gasping. “It’s the altitude,” I tell myself. Sure enough, by the time we reach Rock Isle Lake with its pint-sized pine-covered island, I’m breathing deep. At the top of a ridge, a downpour moves in and I’m surprised when the group decides to turn back. I think I’ve gotten off easy until we reach the village and someone suggests hiking down to the parking lot instead of taking the bus.
All downhill from here
Heading downhill on gravel is worse than dragging yourself up a mountain. The sun has emerged, tossing shadows over the pines, and the snow-streaked peaks look so sharp and gorgeous I want to fling my arms around them, but with each step my toes are hurling themselves against the end of my sneakers. The minute the workshop ends, I decide I’m checking myself into the Fairmont Banff Springs for some remedial relaxation.
When the historic hotel, modelled after a Scottish castle, was built in 1888, the nearby sulphurous hot springs were a major draw. The natural thermal water doesn’t reach the hotel itself, but Banff Springs has constructed its own upscale version of a mineral pool infused with healing salts from thermal waters in Europe.
Now to relax
The mosaic-tiled pool is the centrepiece of the hotel’s 11,600-metre Willow Stream Spa. The lofty glass dome overhead reminds me of an elegant Turkish bathhouse, while the stout pillars of dark rundle stone look faintly medieval and bring in the hotel’s chateau-style exterior. The most vivid design element, however, is the pure Canadian view, a slope-side panorama of Bow Valley flanked by Tunnel and Rundle Mountains.
Desperate to scour off some backcountry grime, I book a Banff Mineral Scrub. It’s like a floaty sanitized version of being outside. Kayla, my therapist, buffs my skin with geranium and pine, ingredients that could be indigenous to Banff but — like the minerals in the water — are chi-chi European imports.
Buffed and polished
The problem with having a polished body is that your face feels like crusty paper mache in comparison, so I add a deep-cleaning facial. My esthetician exfoliates the rough outer layer of my sun-battered cheeks and plies my face with antioxidant-rich serum.
Afterwards, I soak in the outdoor Jacuzzi, feeling clean and invigorated. Literally, I’ve shed my old skin, and the new me that has emerged is struck with the urge to race up Tunnel Mountain, just to see how fast I can go.
Banff travel tips
STAYING An Escape to Willow Stream Spa Package at the Fairmont Banff Springs starts at $499 a night and includes breakfast, access to spa facilities and one spa treatment. Accommodations-only are from $299. 405 Spray Ave. 866-540-4406 The YWCA’s Y Banff Mountain Lodge has doubles with private bath from $83. 102 Spray Ave. 800-813-4138.
DOING The Banff Centre offers a variety of writing programs.
SIGHTSEEING On a budget? Try these tips: Banff Upper Hot Springs is one of the best deals in town at $7.30 for adult entrance. Located at End of Mountain Avenue. www.hotsprings.ca.
The Roam Bus is a great way to get around Banff. Pick up a timetable from the Banff Visitor Information Centre at 224 Banff Ave.; 403-762-1550.
For more information on Banff, visit www.banfflakelouise.com.
Read more about Canada: For more about travel to Canada visit my Things to do in Canada article. Happy planning!