In total, I've visited the Canadian Rockies 3 times. Once in summer, and twice in winter. A fourth trip was aborted 150km into the journey due to heavy snowfall and road closures. That failed trip taught me that driving long distance on mountain roads in wind and snow required immense experience and skill, and we were better off joining a conducted tour than to play with our lives on slippery icy roads.
When it was decided that we would visit the Canadian Rockies again, I scoured the web for good value tours i.e. tours which covered the key sights, gave sufficient time to explore, and yet were not overly costly. All things considered, we went with Discover Canada Tours. Theirs were not the cheapest tours in the market, but I liked that they were a Canadian owned and operated tour company which knew where the best sights were, the tempo of their tours was moderate, and their activities were a little different from the run-of-the-mill Rocky Mountain tours, many of which cater for the Chinese mass market.
Our packaged 4D3N Classic Winter Tour of the Canadian Rockies cost C$445.00 per adult and C$369.00 per youth on a quad-share basis. Breakfast was included, but not lunch and dinner.
Optional activities were offered at additional costs as follows:-
a. Banff Gondola (C$55.00 per person from age 16 / C$30.00 per person between 6 to 15 yrs old);
b. Marble Canyon Snowshoeing (S$75.00 per person from age 13 / C$43.00 per person between 8 to 12 yrs old); and
c. Johnston Canyon Ice Walk (C$75.00 per person from age 13 / C$50.00 per person between 8 to 12 yrs old).
There was a mix of young and old on the tour, but our group plus one other Singaporean lady and 2 Korean ladies made up the only Asian faces. Most on the tour were either European or South American in their 20s or 30s.
Our guide, Michelle, was a fun-loving 20-something who enjoyed partying with whoever was up for a tipple at the end of each day. Unlike a tour in China where the guide had to know the history of China at the tip of their fingers and go on for hours with narratives on China's historic events, a Rocky Mountain bus tour by Discover Canada Tours focused on fun and laughter. Michelle gathered everyone's feedback on their favourite tunes and made a playlist for the entire journey. During long stretches of travelling on the bus, quizzes and crazy games were played and prizes given. When someone was late getting up the bus, hilarious penalties were dished out. Everyone felt young again on the trip!
Michelle made it a point to surprise my younger daughter with a birthday celebration on board. She even got the whole bus to sign on a Canadian flag and present it to my parents as a gift for their 45th wedding anniversary. Brought a tear or two to their eyes.
The tour started and ended at Canada Place in Downtown Vancouver. In 4 days, we covered the Okanagan Valley, Kamloops, Revelstoke, Rogers Pass National Historic Site in Glacier National Park, Emerald Lake, Lake Louise and Banff. As we headed deeper into the interior, the temperature drop and snow blanketing the area increased. By the time we arrived at Lake Louise and Banff, the temperature was hovering around minus 15 degrees celcius and the chill went to our bones. Although I had on German winter boots, the cold froze my feet and I could barely walk from the intense pain. Worried about frost bites, I bought new hardcore boots in Banff. I've experienced all sorts of negative temperatures from the top of ski mountains to the arctic circle in Finland, but the bitter cold at Lake Louise and Banff would stick out in my mind.
Here's my list of the highlights of our latest Canadian Rockies trip:-
No. 1: Monte Creek Ranch Winery, Thompson-Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
Just outside the city of Kamloops lies the charming Monte Creek Ranch Winery, a working ranch with stunning views of the South Thompson River. Glasses of fruity Riesling, full-bodied Cabernet Merlot and well-blended Rose were handed out for sampling. The thoughtful hosts didn't forget the kids, as glasses of fruit juices were quickly passed round to them.
Whilst the adults contemplated their purchases, the kids reclaimed their childhood and played catch around the ranch. With wine in hand, we watched the kids unleash their carefree inner spirit and run around in the fast setting sun, with untold joy and envy in our hearts.
No. 2: Quaaout Lodge & Spa, Chase, British Columbia
About half an hour from the winery was our final destination for the first day, the Quaaout Lodge & Spa. A cosy lodge in Chase by the Little Shuswap Lake, its lobby had a unique and inviting fireplace. We claimed our positions around it, and opened bottles of wine we'd purchased earlier at Monte Creek for our very own "Happy Hour". A perfect relaxing evening with friends.
The evening didn't end there though. The lodge had organized story-telling by a First Nations Cultural Host in a large teepee. Everyone huddled around the campfire. In the dark and warmth of the teepee, it was hard to keep our eyes open and pay attention to the tribal tales. When the story-telling was over, marshmallows were skewered and roasted over the crackling flames. Smores were assembled as pre-dinner snacks. An evening in a teepee brought back childhood memories of bedtime stories and candied snacks.
Dinner wasn't provided, and the only place to get some food in the remote area was the lodge's restaurant, Jack Sam's. Food was delectable and we shared happy memories at the dinner table.
The evening finally ended with adults and kids alike plunging into the indoor pool for a playful splash about.
No. 3: Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
We began the second day of our trip with no snow in sight. By mid morning, after passing Revelstoke, we started to see dusting of it along the way. When we arrived at Emerald Lake in the early part of the afternoon, the whole lake had frozen over and the area was blanketed in a thick layer of white.
In the summer, the lake is known for its gorgeous turquoise colour. However, from November to as late as June, the lake is frozen due to its high altitude.
Once we saw snow, everyone scrambled to get to the lake to roll about in the snow and start a snowball fight. No one paid any attention to the ominous "Danger. Thin Ice." sign.
No. 4: Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta
After staying an hour at Lake Emerald, we crossed from the province of British Columbia into the province of Alberta, and arrived at a takeaway joint to pick up pizza, pies, etc. for lunch. Michelle said we could all have a picnic on frozen Lake Louise. It sounded fun and no one questioned its feasibility.
As it turned out, the footpath to Lake Louise was extremely slippery. My parents struggled to get to the lake, as they kept falling over. They literally had to scooch their way there. When we finally got there, it was so cold that we could only stay a few minutes on the icy lake before calling it quits. My ski jacket kept my body warm, but my feet really hurt from the bone-chilling cold.
We returned to the coach with our takeaway food barely touched and frozen stiff. So much for a picnic by the lake!
No. 5: Town of Banff, Banff National Park, Alberta
The town of Banff is a popular tourist resort known for its hotsprings and outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking and skiing. It's a pretty little town surrounded by snow-capped mountains with interesting shops and good eateries.
The second night of our tour was spent at Mount Royal Hotel, a historic hotel dating back to 1908 located in the heart of Banff. It was devastated not once, but twice, by fire. The first time in March 1967 and more recently in December 2016. The hotel was totally refurbished after the second fire and it reopened its doors in July 2018. We were fortunate to spend the night at the beautifully refurbished hotel.
No. 6: Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park, Alberta
The creme de la creme of our Canadian Rockies tour would have to be the Johnston Canyon Icewalk. Emerald Lake and Lake Louise might have been fun snowy playgrounds, but their beauty is best appreciated in the summer when the lakes show off their turquoise hue and the reflection of the snow-capped peaks. Johnston Canyon, on the other hand, is probably at its best in the winter when the waterfalls are frozen presenting a most stunning spectacle. The scenery is enhanced when you spot ice climbers with nerves of steel scaling these walls of ice with the help with little more than an ice axe and crampons.
At the start of the ice walk, we were provided with crampons to strap onto our winter boots. A guide accompanied us on the walk, giving us valuable insight into the area, pointing out especially slippery sections, and handing out delicious hot chocolate at the rest stop. Some slippery parts were very close to the edge of the cliff. Young and old, we all made it back in one piece, and unanimously agreed that this was the best thing we did in the Rockies.
On our way back to Banff, we even encountered wild bighorn sheep licking salt off the road. Spotting wildlife in Banff National Park seems quite common. On previous trips, we encountered elk and even a moose! We've yet to see a grizzly bear. There're more of these giant mammals than black bears in Banff National Park, but bears hibernate in the winter.
No. 7: Town of Golden, British Columbia
We arrived at Golden just past 1700 hrs and checked into the Travelodge by Wyndham Golden Sportsman Lodge. A mouthful for a motel by the highway. The motel comprised of blocks of 2-storey buildings with no lift. We struggled to carry our suitcases up and down the stairs. After being pampered at the luxurious Mount Royal Hotel the previous night, this was a severe downgrade. Thankfully, the room was clean and the continental buffet breakfast was filling. They even had waffles with maple syrup.
The motel was away from the town centre, and there was not much point in travelling there, as shops would almost certainly be closed at that hour. Quite a few restaurants were just down the road from us and we ended up getting takeout from McDonald's for dinner in our rooms.
The motel had an indoor pool with a slide. We were exhausted after the ice walk. Even the kids had no energy and gave that a miss.
No. 8: Roger's Pass Historic Site, Glacier National Park, British Columbia
Roger's Pass is a high elevation pass through the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia. It is used by the Canadian Pacific Railway and Highway 1 (also known as the Trans-Canada Highway).
It was snowing incessantly when our coach pulled into the Roger's Pass Historic Site, delighting all the winter-lovers on board.
No. 9: Village of Craigellachie, British Columbia
Fresh snow had just fallen when we arrived at Craigellachie, the famous site of the "Last Spike" of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The kids rushed to make snow angels and start an intense snowball fight. Some of the adults got in on the action too!
No. 10: City of Kamloops, British Columbia
We stopped at Aberdeen Mall twice during the tour. Once for lunch on the first day, and another time for lunch on the fourth day. Both times, there was just enough time for us to eat at the food court and shop a little. There was an A&W in the food court. Singapore's probably the only country in the world where people still queue for A&W. Not only do they have no queues at A&W, they offer specials to bus drivers and truckers.
The mall is in the city of Kamloops. Home to just shy of a 100,000 people, the city is known for its ski resort called Sun Peaks Resort. When we drove through the area, it was still blessed with plenty of sunshine and snow had yet to arrive. Hard to fathom we were knee-deep in the white stuff just before our lunch break in Kamloops.