My Guide to Banff, Alberta, Canada
Christmas of 2018 my sister-in-law had the brilliant idea of spending next years gift allowance on a Christmas trip with the family. At this point in our lives, memories made together far outweigh any physical thing we could buy one another. She was currently living in Dallas, and we knew it wouldn't be long before Ford and I were venturing across the country. It was the perfect gift.
Before planning a trip to Banff, you should first ask yourself which you prefer (my preferences are italicized) :
Winter sport vs. summer sports
Relaxation vs. action
It's not always possible, but I do believe a trip like this, depending on the time of year you are planning on visiting, should be thoroughly planned out due to things booking up fast. I don't think a travel agent is super necessary if you allow yourself enough time to research the area and things you would like to do. We completely planned this one on our own.
When to go -
This is a hard question to answer as there are amazing things to do in all seasons in Banff. It's very dependent on what activities you want to get into while you are visiting. As for the Wilson's, we are winter birds. We wanted the winter wonderland that you see in magazines and something so different than anything we could experience in Tennessee. After going in December, I would find it difficult to recommend any other time but the holidays. It was PERFECT.
Where to stay -
Fairmont Banff Springs, of course! This is where I feel those preferences come into play that I mentioned above. If you noticed, I italicized relaxation AND action. In my opinion, if you are going to hit the slopes from morning to dark, maybe spending the extra money on lodging doesn’t appeal to you. We wanted to do a couple of snow adventures (not skiing or snowboarding) while also enjoying the activities, dining, and amenities offered at the Fairmont. There is something so relaxing about having everything you could need right there without leaving the hotel.
Let's talk about some of the things I liked about the Fairmont. First off, there is an experience to be had here for all types of travelers, the honeymooners, the family vacationers, etc. It's adult and child-friendly, a huge plus!
Fairmont Gold || as on their website, Fairmont Gold is privately located on the 4th and 5th floors of the main building, offering guests exclusive services and amenities. The amenities for their guests include a private lounge exclusive for Gold Guests, continental breakfast in the lounge, afternoon canapés + honour bar, dedicated Fairmont Gold Manager + personalized service windows that open for fresh mountain air, complimentary newspapers and personalized wake-up calls, selection of DVDs, CD, books and games to enjoy at your leisure, as well as private check-in.
Relaxation || a lovely thermal pool overlooking the mountains with a poolside bar close by + willow stream spa with any and every service offered under the sun.
Fitness || spacious gym with mountain views offering a variety of fitness classes throughout the day + a lap pool for you swimmers.
Activities + Entertainment || concierge service is available to provide information on all activities within and outside of the hotel. There is also a list of daily activities offered to you throughout your stay. I loved this. A few examples during my stay included Bingo!, which let me just add that around the holidays they make winning worth your while, giving away free spa services, dinners, etc., ice skating on their outdoor ice rink, a live production of the Christmas Carol (fabulous!!), curling, cookies + letter writing to Santa, a bowling alley, and so much more!
Dinner + Drink || 7 restaurants + 3 bars
Shopping || numerous shops for browsing ... and buying :)
The Essentials -
There are a couple essentials to note before your trip. First off, if you are visiting during the winter, you must have the appropriate attire. The good news is, for most of the activities, you can rent the winter gear; however, I found it very helpful to have it while even walking around the property, as it is in the negatives. Amazon has cheap and effective snowsuits and base layers. I would spend extra money to have good snowshoes, socks, and gloves.
Another thing to note - I was nauseated almost every day at some point due to the altitude change. For some reason, I had trouble adjusting. As you can imagine, this can be a damper. Bring some medication just in case you experience the same thing.
Bring a bathing suit no matter the season ;)
Our Itinerary -
Day 1 (travel day)
There is truly nothing like the first day of vacation. We took an early flight out of Nashville, with one layover, that flew into Calgary, Alberta, Canada by mid-day. Calgary is your closest, easiest option to Banff. Land, get a rental car, and enjoy a nice lunch in Calgary before your scenic hour and a half drive to Banff. Just some advice, depending on the time of year you are visiting, allow yourself plenty of time to get from Calgary to Banff before dark. We drove in a snowstorm (: Once you arrive in Banff, I recommend a relaxing dinner and cocktail at the hotel to gear you up for your first full day!
I've noticed that everyone is very different in how they utilize their early mornings on vacation. Some, like to get that extra sleep that they usually aren't able to enjoy at home. Others, like myself, prefer a more active morning on vacation. Being a nurse, it's hard to squeeze in a morning workout, needed quiet time, or enjoy a cup of coffee on the days I work. So, I make the effort to do such on my vacations. The Fairmont has an awesome gym overlooking the snowy mountains and an indoor lap pool for swimmers. After a nice sweat sesh and clean up, I enjoyed coffee and breakfast in the private lounge, exclusive for Gold Guests, which I explained above.
Next up on the agenda, enjoy another beautiful 50 ish minute drive to The Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise. This was one of my favorite days by far. It can be as active or relaxing as you want it to be. I would plan to at least spend half a day here. I highly recommend the "Afternoon Tea" menu in the beautiful Lakeside Lounge with the most delicious pastries, finger sandwiches, and your own personal pot of tea.
Afterward, Ford and I decided to go ice skating on Lake Louise while my in-laws enjoyed cocktails at the lounge, obviously made better with the free entertainment Ford and I were providing on the ice! We may not have gotten to experience the emerald-colored water, but ice skating on the lake was surreal. Afterward, warm up with some hot cocoa!
At this point, before heading back, if you are visiting in the summer you may decide to visit Moraine Lake close by, another beautiful lake worth visiting. Unfortunately for us, the road leading to the lake was closed due to snow and ice.
We spent the rest of our afternoon exploring the downtown area in Banff, The town is filled with shops, both local and well known, restaurants and bars. The backdrop isn't half bad either. I may never get over those mountains!
For dinner, we decided to dine at one of the many hotel restaurants, Castello Italiana. I think it's important to take advantage of staying at a place like the Fairmont, plus, it was delicious. As always, end your evening with a nightcap from one of the many hotel bars - we chose Waldhaus Pub + Biergarten.
So, another awesome perk of staying at the Fairmont is their concierge service. They are wonderful at helping you plan out your perfect, individualized vacation throughout your stay and can attest to some of the more popular attractions offered. This takes the weight and stress of planning off of the vacationer so you are able to simply go and enjoy. Some of the more common winter snow activities include snowshoeing, snowmobiling, snow tubing, and dog sledding. For our first activity, we chose to go snowmobiling, which I had never done before. By the time you get to your snowmobiling destination, snowmobile, and get back, it's definitely a whole day affair - but so worth it. It was a tour type set up where we followed each other up the trails of the mountain, but you do get some time to free ride and enjoy some good speed. Also, you stop at this precious cabin at the top of the mountain and enjoy burgers and hot chocolate with incredible mountain views.
For dinner, we decided to branch away from the hotel and dine in downtown Banff at Block Kitchen + Bar, which was delicious and I highly recommend.
After a busy and activity-filled first several days of vacation, we dedicated day four to relaxing and exploring the Fairmont! Our day started with a nice walk around the Fairmont property, where we met a herd of friendly Elk, wondered beside crisp Banff streams, and hiked to a pretty waterfall, Bow Falls.
Saturday, was our "fancy" dinner night. Before getting ready I relaxed and swam in the outside thermal pool with, no surprise, the loveliest views. Make sure to pack a bathing suit. I did not and ended up in a disposable onesie sold by the hotel. I'll spare you the pictures. You're welcome.
Completely in the moment, I do not have any pictures of dinner. We dinned at 1888 Chop House (yum!) in the hotel, and then Ford and I snuck away for our own little date night to see A Christmas Carol, shown in the Fairmont theatre.
I have probably been asked about this day the most - a true bucket-list check off!
Set up, again, by the Fairmont, this was an unreal experience. These dogs are INCREDIBLE. From the moment you walk up, they are howling with excitement and begging to run! The experience itself is such a peaceful one. As you are enjoying your ride, all you hear is the snow crunch under the dogs feet and their breathing. I feel that if there is anywhere to do this, Banff is the place!
The rest of the day was spent cozily in the nooks and crannies of the Fairmont with spiked cider, hotel snacks, and playing BINGO! .... DREADING LEAVING!
Day 6 (travel day)
Does anyone else hate the travel day home as much as I do?! It's so sad, especially when it involves leaving loved ones, aka Meaghan. BUT, more than anything, I am grateful for amazing time spent with loved ones and memories that I am able to write about and re-live six months later.
As far as "coulda, woulda, shoulda" goes, I have zero regrets. I feel that we made the most of our time and did exactly what we wanted to do. We paced ourselves well and it actually felt like vacation, versus stretching ourselves so thin that we needed a vacation from vacation. I'm guilty of doing this far too often on trips. Sometimes you have to be choosey, which only leaves things to do on your next visit back :)
If I came back, what new things would I do?
If I came back to Banff, I would obviously want a few new experiences. Here are a few things I would do and you should look into -
Travel to Moraine Lake, given I was visiting in the spring/summer
Banff Upper Hot Springs, if I wasn't staying at the Fairmont where I have my own thermal pool
I hope you enjoyed reading my guide as much as I enjoyed writing it. For more photos and videos on our Banff vacation, visit my insta page!