Romancing the Rock
Gondola rides, gourmet food and hot-spring pampering — and did we ment
Shafts of golden light pierce the slowly parting clouds overhead, unveiling the most spectacular sunset my wife, Rita, and I have ever seen. What just a minute earlier was simply a pretty mountain valley transformed into a shimmering crown of silver, amethyst, amber and emerald. Then, just as quickly as this vision in bejewelled chiaroscuro appeared, it’s gone. Nature’s coy way of welcoming newcomers to the Rocky Mountains, I suppose.
Giddy with anticipation (or is it the altitude?), we’ve been dreaming of this very moment for years. The larger-than-life picture show zooming past us on the drive to Banff is a stunning sight, especially for a pair of Quebeckers who’ve never seen anything taller than the stubby, sparse Laurentians. Being in the company of these whitecapped stone giants, even if just for the weekend, will take some getting used to.
The rustic feel of our room at the Douglas Fir Resort & Chalets, on a ridge above downtown Banff, helps acclimatize us to life in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. But its stand-out feature awaits us behind the curtains, where a great, solitary mountain — perfectly framed by wall-to-wall glass — seems to sit just beyond our spacious balcony. A room with a view, and then some.
A short stroll before calling it a night reveals another perk of being so close to nature: on our way back, we chance upon a small herd of mule deer, happily munching on the adjacent hotel’s lawn. Not bad for a first evening.
In the morning, after flinging open the curtains to let in some light — and reminding ourselves that there really is a mountain outside our window — we grab breakfast at Coyotes Deli & Grill. The menu features Southwest-style fixings such as huevos rancheros and chorizo sausage frittata. We opt for honey-baked granola with yogurt and fresh fruit and a plate of thick slices of French toast, stuffed with cream cheese and berries. It’s an auspicious beginning: so far, so tasty. Granted, most people probably won’t travel to Banff just to eat a terrific breakfast, but we Italians will follow our stomachs anywhere, hence all the fa- mous explorers.
While chatting over glasses of just-extracted carrot-apple juice, we notice that, apart from the staff, we seem to be the only Canadians in the place. The voices at the tables around us are a mix of Southern U.S. drawls, British lilts, and a cacophony of German, Japanese and some Eastern European tongue — “Estonian or maybe Bulgarian,” offers our waitress. It’s hard to keep track when over 3.5 million visitors from every corner of the globe pass through this town of barely 8,000 residents, many of them seasonal workers.
We make our way up Banff Avenue and across the Bow River bridge toward the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, where we’ve booked a couples’ massage: the one-hour “Hip Honeymooners Treatment” at its posh Willow Stream Spa.
The 120-year-old, Scottish baronial-style hotel, known locally as “the castle,” is as stunning as anything you’d find in the Highlands, and worth snooping around to get a taste of architectural opulence from a bygone era. We feel wistful for the early days when a room here went for less than $4 a night. Following a quick spa tour, Rita and I rendezvous in one of the dimmed massage rooms, where we are greeted by the burly pair of masseurs who will perform our side-by-side, rose-themed romantic treatment.
A dry brush exfoliation gets things started. Basically, it’s a perfectly pressured body scrub with old-fashioned shower brushes — just forceful enough not to trigger tickles, but well below the pain point. Then we’re slathered in rosehip oil and kneaded all over, inducing sensations (and smells) that send me into a cocoon of serenity. By the time we get to the warm body wrap and, especially, the hot-towel face wrap, we would gladly have stayed another hour.
Feeling melted and rubber-legged, we poke around the hotel’s swanky shops, then head back into town, where we judge the credit-card damage will be less severe. Pounding Banff Avenue’s pavement for an hour or so, we load up on gifts and souvenirs at the Rocky Mountain Soap Company, Smashing Cosmetica, Mountain Chocolates and other local boutiques. Spent, in both senses of the word, we take a break at the Wild Flour Bakery on Bear Street, sharing an inexpensive organic vegetarian lunch. We cap off the afternoon with a halfhour stroll on the trail winding along the Bow River towards the Bow Falls; not Niagara, but still a splendid sight in the warm sunshine.
Later that evening, when our stomachs start rumbling, we return to town to the Bi-