Restaurants and more from our week-long anniversary trip in the snowy Canadian Rockies.
by callen60 on March 7, 2009
Even though our household division of labor typically assigns 100% of the trip planning to me, my wife found this place. We were working on lodging for the week in the Rockies, having briefly considered a package tour that would have taken us to all the Canadian Pacific Hotels (now owned by Fairmont). "What about this?", she asked, looking at the web site for this historic lodge, located up Highway 93 on the way to British Columbia. It seemed rustic but comfortable, remote and still accessible, and with a good restaurant to boot. But we stuck with our first plan and booked three nights over our anniversary at the Chateau Lake Louise, figuring such a celebration only comes once. But when, despite their assurance otherwise, they collected for our three night stay in August (which ran well into four figures), we cancelled, got our money back, and then reconsidered Storm Mountain Lodge.That was a great decision. It was truly in the mountains, and our cozy cabin (one of 16 or so here) sat well back from the road, under the snow-laden boughs of pine trees. We spent three nights here, enjoying the distance from Banff, returning from active days outdoors to cuddle around our fire, enjoy a meal at the excellent restaurant in the lodge, and head out on New Year’s Eve for a snowshoe hike to a midnight bonfire.We arrived at about 8 pm, after a full day of touring the Olympic Nordic Center, hiking along the river in Canmore, and dogsledding in the Spray Lakes. We were we ready to reach the lodge and stay put: eating in Banff, and then making the 30 minute drive seemed a lot less attractive than heading straight to Storm Mountain and settling in. I was glad we hadn’t waited. Snow was falling as we left, and it intensified (along with the wind) as we left Canada 1 and climbed up Highway 93 out of the Bow Valley. The road hadn’t been cleared of snow, and although it wasn’t terribly dangerous mountain driving, we had no idea what was around each curve. Plus, it was taking longer than we thought.Finally, we saw a sign for the Lodge, and turned north off the highway. We immediately saw the original rustic lodge, trimmed out in Christmas lights, with two welcoming blue-light reindeer. Light from the dining room shone through the wraparound windows, and it looked exactly like the place we’d been anticipating.And it was: the three nights we spent here were terrific, beginning with the near fairyland experience of heading back to our cottage through the pine trees and snow-laden boughs. We’d requested a cabin well away from the road, but I don’t think that mattered a bit in the wintertime. All the buildings are set back some distance from the Highway, and our #4 cabin was quiet and cozy. Inside, the bare-log walls were decorated with mountain and Christmas artifacts, from the hand-carved Santa on the mantle to the Norfolk pine trimmed with lights.The cozy room held a queen bed, a love seat, and a fireplace. The small porch would have been a great place in summer. Just on the other side was the bathroom, a little tight with a full tub and shower curtain, and also a bit cool (but the baseboard electric heater was enough to take the chill off during morning showers). It was a short walk to the lodge, and we spent an hour settling in, where we found an anniversary bottle of champagne from parents waiting for us on the hope chest at the end of the bed. We walked back up to the lodge for an 8pm dinner reservation. The menu was small but appealing, with five or six entrees. I picked a roast chicken, and my wife chose the gnocchi. We started off with a pair of Kokanee lagers, and moved on to the wine list and the desert. The small dining room wraps around the main lodge room in an L-shape, and holds about two dozen tables. Our server had the whole room, and was busy but still attentive. The meal was excellent. We’d originally planned to have dinner in the lodge restaurant the following night, on our anniversary. But having dined there once, we canceled our reservation and decided to find a nice restaurant in Banff (which we did). We returned to the Lodge for breakfast on our second morning there, for good coffee, freshly baked scones, and fruit and yogurt parfaits.Storm Mountain Lodge has been through several incarnations over the last eighty years. It opened in the 1920’s, located on the new Banff-Windermere Highway that crossed the continental divide down to Sinclair Canyon and Radium Hot Springs. It closed for several years in the late nineties, before Kim and Steve Fraser purchased it in 2003. They’d run Cathedral Mountain Lodge but found it too distant for raising a family, and particularly for getting their kids to school in Banff. They worked hard to reopen it, and brought in a talented chef as well as their own understanding about caring for guests. The staff was friendly, helpful, and polite throughout. The snowshoeing that Steve led on New Year’s Eve was a nice touch. So was the small but excellent gift shop in the Lodge, which had a terrific collection of books, crafts, and unique items (including the metal sculptures of bears and other animals featured throughout the main lodge). This was just what we had in mind: a three-day retreat further in the mountains. From here, we reached Lake Louise and Banff in roughly half an hour, and then retired from those ‘crowds’ at day’s end to sit by the fire in our own personal log cabin. Staying longer would have been nice, but even after ‘downgrading’ from the Chateau Lake Louise, three nights at $269 each was enough for our budget. But we left with no regrets.
by callen60 on February 18, 2009
We debated among three comparably priced and well-reviewed restaurants for dinner on the night of our anniversary. Nothing is too far apart in Banff, so we walked by each of them, examined the menus, peeked inside them all, and eventually settled on the Maple Leaf Grille. I’m glad we did. In addition to our mini-tour of restaurants, one of those mandatory hotel-room tourism books helped tip the scales towards the Maple Leaf. In between the glossy photos, mostly useless articles, and copious ads was a one-page feature with eight top chefs' opinions about the best places to go, best food, best presentation, etc. No one named their own restaurant, but most named Maple Leaf Grille.Located beneath the King Edward Hotel on Banff Avenue, it has a prime location to go with its reputation. The lounge downstairs is a pleasant, open space, with restaurant seating on one end and tables surrounded with large, very comfortable-looking leather chairs on the other end with the bar; the two spaces are divided by the stairwell leading up to the main dining room. When we popped in at lunchtime, it was awfully tempting to settle in for a drink, and enjoy the bright sunlight with a cold drink instead of cold hands. When we returned at 7 pm for our reservation, we were offered our choice of seating, and opted for the dining room upstairs.Both rooms are done in a lodge style, with similar large and light woods. Where the downstairs feels open and spacious, the upstairs is cozy: sort of a dining mezzanine. Our 4-top was tucked against a pillar, with soft bench seating along the wall and a stack of comfy pillows at the end. (I was tempted to recline, but my wife sternly shook her head.) Although we lost the very intimate feeling of our cove-like location when two young families were seated next to us, the entire space stayed quiet through the whole evening. Plus, it was fun to watch their young kids and think about our own.The wine list was excellent, featuring over 600 wines and proudly displaying recognition by Wine Spectator. Some excellent Canadian wines make up a non-trivial fraction of that number, but a beer just sounded good for starters, and we both ordered a Kokanee, and never made it back to the wine list.The menu was large but not overwhelming, and each section had a healthy number of attractive choices. Curried meat balls with mint-scented yogurt, spring rolls with chili plum sauce, a hoisin duck lettuce wrap, seared scallops with wild boar bacon: we debated all these and settled on a trio of dips. The smoked salmon, buffalo mozzarella/tomato, and curried chicken came with a platter of crostini, and were an excellent start to the meal. Both the ‘butcher block’ and seafood options were tempting, particularly a eastern seaboard cod with fennel and a gherkin aioli, but I’m in a rare phase where chicken just sounds awfully, awfully good. The prosciutto chicken had a chicken breast pounded thin, and rolled around a stuffing of sun dried tomatoes, garlic, olives, and then wrapped with prosciutto, covered in herbed bread crumbs and served on a bed of linguine. I get hungry thinking about it again: although the chicken was thin, it wasn’t dry, and the tastes were amazing. My wife opted for the apple-crusted pork tenderloin, which was accompanied by herbed mashed potatoes and a mustard au jus. The tenderloins were arranged nearly vertically, looking like an architectural construction, but she wasted no time laying them horizontal and dissembling them. We weren’t in need of any additional food, but if you don’t splurge on your anniversary, when will you? I reluctantly passed on the crème brulee trio (maple, espresso and white chocolate raspberry) so that we could share the dense, rich flourless chocolate cake. Three or four cups of coffee later, I could still taste the chocolate.This was an excellent meal, perfect for the special occasion we were celebrating. The server was pleasant, attentive, and unobtrusive, providing just enough of a presence to ensure we were lacking nothing, and not becoming a part of our evening. I hope I get the chance to come here again.
by callen60 on February 1, 2009
Not surprisingly, real estate in Banff must be at a premium. Like most other places we saw in town, the tables at Coyote’s were crowded together in a density unusual in most locations. But both locals and visitors gather here amiably enough, in a long narrow space that brings a touch of the southwest to the Canadian northwest. While in Banff, we took to asking folks at museums and shops for recommendations on where to eat. Two people in a row named this place, so we tracked it down about a block west of Banff Avenue.We opted for a seat at the counter instead of a sizable wait for a table. That was a fortuitous decision, as we watched the kitchen staff work at quickly and efficiently assembling the day’s salads, sandwiches, and pastas. If you enjoy food and cooking, I’d recommend you make the same choice we did. Our counter seats were away from the door, and allowed me to settle on the Panini Maple smoked ham and swiss sandwich as I watched one under construction. One of our sources had named the sweet potato & corn chowder as their favorite thing to eat in Banff, so I paired the chowder with half a Panini in the Soup/Sandwich combo. My wife did the same with the chicken tortilla soup and club sandwich. We could tell from the sandwich board that half a sandwich was a healthy serving, and the $10 combo was very reasonably priced. While we were eating, the chef who was clearly in charge stopped by to see how we were doing. He didn’t stay long, but he was friendly, glad to hear we were enjoying our food, and seemed unaffected by the pace he and his crew were maintaining in order to stay up with the orders streaming their way. This place was a definite change of pace in Banff, and I’d return for another lunch, or a dinner.
Towards the end of our stay, we were looking for another quick, local option for lunch. Several Banff residents recommended Evelyn’s, which comes in the original incarnation at 201 Bear Street, Evelyn’s Too a half block south at 119, and Evelyn’s Again a block west at 229 Bear Avenue. All three feature baristas ready to prepare your favorite beverage alongside a fresh baked good or one of several tasty sandwiches. The only drawback is the limited seating, which consisted of four tables or so at both Banff Ave. locations. We walked north to the original Evelyn’s hoping to find more tables, and managed to score one. Since they were at a premium, we ended up sharing it for an enjoyable 20-minute conversation with a couple from Australia, who finally arrived in Banff after an amazing spiral route caused by the winter storms in Seattle. At 2pm, Evelyn's was out of soup (all I remember is that it sounded tasty). Although the Roast Chicken or Valbella Ham & Cheese sandwiches sounded tasty, we opted for a Health Sandwich of avocado, hummus, cucumber, tomatoes and Monterey Jack cheese on a thick, delicious bread. After splitting that, we passed on the tasty looking cookies, Rice Krispie treats, and cakes and splurged on a slice of carrot cake. With coffee, our modest shared lunch ran $10.I grew more comfortable with the close quarters the longer we were here, as our table mates turned to friends. One of the baristas knew every other customer, checking with them about their holidays, their job, and their life. In a warmer season, with everyone shedding a few pounds (and cubic meters) of winter gear, I'd probably feel that comfortable and welcome from the start.
by callen60 on February 2, 2009
In between nice dinners at places like Crazyweed Kitchen and Maple Leaf Grille, we needed to let our stomachs and wallets recover. The morning of our anniversary, we headed into Banff to find a quick breakfast before a ride up Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola. We pulled into town around 8:45, with nothing but blue sky overhead. Things are still pretty sleepy that early, even on a perfect winter morning, but a largely local crowd was already gathering at Cake Company Cafe on Bear Avenue—about the only sign of activity we found in town.This coffee bar and bakery is just inside a small indoor mall (an arrangement that’s pretty common in Banff), with the baked goods counter and coffee bar parallel to the outer hallway. The seating area is against the windows in the front: it isn’t extensive, but could accommodate a few dozen people. They have the full range of coffee and tea options, but the real draw is the pastries, muffins, and cakes. I was looking for something a little more substantial, and started with a sausage, cheese and egg muffin. My wife did something similar, and then we split a cinnamon roll. Coupled with a large coffee, breakfast was both tasty and cheap ($10). I thought we’d come back here during our trip for more treats, but we didn’t make it. Our loss. It opens at 7 am, so it’s great for getting up and going early.
by callen60 on February 3, 2009
Despite its worldwide reputation, Lake Louise is a small place. It consists of, well, the lake and accompanying institutions (the Chateau, dominating the eastern shore, and Deer Lodge up the road a bit). The village is several miles away, along the railway, and largely consisting of Sansom Mall, which holds about a dozen businesses. Dining options are really, really limited, and for those not looking to drop a fortune on a meal, Bill Peyto’s Café is your best option—nearly your only option—and also a good one.Don’t let its location in the Lake Louise Youth Hostel scare you off. For starters, this is a really nice looking hostel; and secondly, the restaurant is very good. It’s located in the back of the main building, reached most easily around the right side. It feels a lot like a ski lodge, with a large wooden room framed around the stone fireplace facing the entrance. There’s a healthy amount of seating, including several small, high round bar tables, and most were taken when we arrived for a very late lunch after leaving Lake Louise.Although there was a cafeteria-style buffet along the far side of the room, all the food was served off a varied and tasty sounding menu. Something hot seemed appropriate, and I went with a bowl of bison chili, which came in a large metal dish reminiscent of a prospector’s pan. The big serving came with cornbread, and was just different enough to be memorable. My wife opted for a large salad with chicken breast—large enough that I got a few good bites of that dish, too. The server was friendly and attentive, and my only complaint was that I couldn't keep my eyes off the long snowboarding promotional video running on the TV in the corner.The rest of the menu was filled with pastas, burgers, grilled fish and steaks, all pretty reasonably priced. Lunch for the two of us was under $30. Dinner and breakfast are also served here, and the breakfast menu included an appealing number of scrambles. If you were to spend any time in Lake Louise, I think you’d be well advised to frequent this place.Although the café is comfortable, and not too fancy, I can’t help thinking that this place is a little too ‘citified’ for the real Bill Peyto, a turnoff-the-century outdoorsman and jack-of-all-trades from the turn of the last century. As a teen, he left London and arrived in Halifax, riding the rails to Golden, BC, where he finally left the train to work for the railway. He spent the next six decades as a cowhand, trail and mountain guide, prospector, outfitter and park warden, taking time out to serve in the Boer War and World War I, where he was wounded at Ypres. In addition to the café, a beautiful lake along the Icefields Parkway also bears his name.
by callen60 on February 15, 2009
This is the place that created Banff. Well, this and the railway, and the railway made this place. After the Hot Springs were discovered in 1883, the Canadian Pacific began planning to create a reason for passengers to ride its new trains. "Since we can’t bring the mountains to the people", reasoned President Cornelius Van Horne, "we’ll bring the people to the mountains."At first thought, it seems that they chose an unusual location for this huge brick castle. It’s not close to the railway, the hot springs, the Bow River, or Lake Minnewanka, or even (for the first few decades) ‘downtown’ Banff. But it is perfectly nestled in among the mountains, at the intersection of the valleys, with beautiful vistas in nearly every direction. Carriages brought passengers to and from the station, and for decades, pipes brought the water from the hot springs.Like many remote mountain hotels, the current hotel is not the original, with fire and expansion leading to today’s massive structure. The most recent additions were a new entrance a few years ago, needed to accommodate today’s larger vehicles, and a new convention center. Done in dark brick, the entire 800-room structure still looks like a Victorian era castle. Once it sat nearly alone in these beautiful mountains; despite the tremendous growth in Banff’s popularity, it still maintains its appeal and reputation.For years, this was one of the crown jewels in Canadian Pacific’s string of western hotels. But along with its sister property at Lake Louise, they were most recently acquired by the Fairmont chain early this decade. Despite the smallish rooms (175 square feet for some), the increased competition in the area, and the high prices ($450/night for Christmas/New Years when we looked), it remains a prestigious and popular place to stay. Even amid the tougher financial times of this year’s holiday period, the Springs was full during our stay in Banff.The hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmas. As we conducted our own tour in place of the hotel’s guided visit (free to guests, $15 for others), we sipped the complimentary hot chocolate provided at several locations in the lobby and registration area. Despite the exclusive air that such places sometimes seek to project, I love these large, old hotels, with their numerous restaurants, public spaces, shops, and amenities. "It’s like staying at a cruise ship," my wife said, and she nailed it perfectly, just as we passed a trio of guests in white robes and slippers returning from the spa.We made our way through the hallways to the outdoor patio, chatting along the way with a flower girl and ring bearer from a recent wedding, headed to the reception in one of the many ballrooms. Just outside the dining room lay the ice rink, perfectly positioned between two mountain ridges, with Christmas lights supplementing the deepening purple skies. I looked back through the glass at the numerous staff setting tables for the upcoming dinner hour, then turned to watch the last glimmer of daylight leave the mountain landscape. It was easy to imagine staying here. Spend a few days in the mountains, then return to civilization here for a few nights? Sounds perfect. Even though we didn’t see Lake Louise at its best, for a splurge, I think I’d choose Banff Springs over its sister property Chateau Lake Louise, since the Springs seemed to retain more of its own history, architecture, and mountain feel despite the town setting. But I’ll have to save up for a while.
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