After I discovered the crisp, fresh air of the Canadian Rockies, I knew I had to go back. The early foggy mornings. The rush of bear sightings (from a safe distance, of course). The peaceful embrace of nature as the purest way to escape and relax. Canada’s mountains are the best place to leave your stress and I now make an annual trip to our northern neighbor. Whether you want a rugged mountain experience or prefer to ride in style via the high-end Rocky Mountaineer train, the Canadian Rockies call visitors of every stripe with hiking, soaking in outdoor hydrotherapy areas, fishing, dining with views of Lake Louise and so much more. This region does not disappoint. Here’s how to spend the perfect weekend in the Canadian Rockies, starting in modern Vancouver and exploring your way over to Banff.
Day 1: Vancouver
Although Canada is our next-door neighbor and many elements might feel familiar, its distinctness from the United States can be sensed as soon as you land. The Vancouver Airport walkway is decorated with outdoor scenery and bird sound effects, as well as the Pacific Northwest Coast Native artwork of wooden statues and beautiful totem poles. Canada casts a magical spell, starting with the most relaxing airport I’ve ever stepped foot in.
That was the first of many lessons Canada would teach me: Be in the moment. While some people travel to escape and indeed destinations like Disney are designed to transport you away from reality, the best way to experience Canada is by being present. Be there, and soak it all in. You won’t want to escape this reality. Not even the airport.
Spend your first day in Vancouver, a thrilling, modern city built on the edge of the ocean, and flanked by snow-capped mountains to the north. This city is ripe with a unique blend of culture, urban amenities and nature. Stay at the luxurious, award-winning Fairmont Pacific Rim, a modern hotel that offers both downtown access and full mountain and harbor views. While there, take time to visit the Willow Stream Spa. This day spa, on the fifth floor, is the only spa where I’ve ever needed to bring sunglasses. It features unique outdoor relaxation lounges and hydrotherapy areas with a view of the ocean. You’ll find a private Jacuzzi, infrared sauna, meditation pods and a mineral bath. Plan your day to include time here both before and after your treatment. It’s worth it for the view alone.
The spa itself has nine different treatment rooms, including one with a deep Japanese Zen tub. But the highlights here are the locally inspired treatments; after all, when in Canada, you may as well immerse yourself in it from head to toe. One you’ll want to try: the Coastal Mountain Retreat, which includes a hydrating body exfoliation using essential oil (blended and designed on-site), a massage using body butter specially crafted for the spa, a scalp massage and reflexology treatment. As the spa describes it, this treatment is designed to be “as soothing to the body as Vancouver’s coastal mountains are to the soul.”
After the perfect spa day, fill up at CinCin Ristorante + Bar, a great Italian restaurant on busy Robson Street. Food here is made with fresh ingredients sourced locally whenever possible. Pasta is made fresh in-house daily. The atmosphere tops it all off: You enter via an elegant, winding stone staircase, and the dining room features views of the busy kitchen.
Day 2: Banff
The best way to travel from Vancouver to Banff is via the Rocky Mountaineer train, which brings as much joy to the journey as the destination. On my ride, I was in awe of the mountains towering above like friendly giants, and I took a moment to thank the Earth so many years ago for going through such a transformation to bring us this majesty today. I relaxed on the train as it seemed to chase osprey, leading the way past rivers and elk and moose.
If time permits, stop in the off-the-beaten-path town of Kamloops for its wine trail. Take time to visit the local, award-winning wineries and do a tour. Try the Harper’s Trail Dry Riesling, the best one I’ve tasted since I was on the Rhine in Germany. Fair warning: It’s strong. Grab dinner at The Noble Pickle, and don’t miss their fried pickles.
When you arrive in Banff, you’ll feel like you have been dropped into a real-life fairytale. Seriously, this must be where Disney sends its imagineers to find inspiration. This town left me speechless. Imagine clouds cascading over the mountain and dancing along the peaks and valleys. Don’t even get me started on the bald eagles soaring past breathtaking frozen waterfalls and snow-capped mountains. I expected to see a unicorn around any corner.
If you must go indoors, the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs (aptly known as “the Castle in the Rockies” and the place to stay in Banff) makes it worth it, especially with a complete hydrotherapy circuit worthy of at least seven passes through.
Tip: Even if you’re alone or traveling with same-gender friends, don’t miss the co-ed lounge. Here, you can order from the spa menu and indulge in a bento box lunch while relaxing and gazing at the mountain peaks. Yes, the spa lounge is one of my favorite places to eat in the area.
The quiet and serene (and multiple award-winning) Willow Stream Spa does a great job of bringing the magic of Banff’s nature indoors. You’ll be amazed by its waterfalls and mineral pool, a great place to rest sore muscles from adventuring in nature all day. Inside, spend time in the steam rooms, saunas and breathe in healthy eucalyptus in the “inhalation rooms.” Outside, inhale the fresh mountain air on the spa terrace and take a dip in the outdoor whirlpool.
Willow Stream boasts many signature treatments unique to this spa and region. One to consider is Destination Rejuvenation, a massage with personalized essential oils to help you adjust to the altitude or fight jet lag. This is especially ideal for visitors and targets areas of the body that can be affected by travel. Another notable treatment is called Majestic Blue, inspired by the colors of Banff’s rivers, sky and glaciers. It’s all about healing, and features organic mountain lavender, which is called “blue magic.” The Majestic Blue treatment includes an exfoliation treatment, a wrap and massage.
There’s no better way to (quite literally) wrap yourself in the relaxation that Canada has to offer.
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