Thursday, February 27, 2014

Winter in Banff - Always Something New to Try!

I'm always amazed that we never run out of new things to do when we visit Banff in winter. At only an hour away from Calgary, one would think that eventually we'd have skated every rink, hiked or skied every trail, and be out of fresh new ideas for a weekend trip out that way. 

Our last overnight trip in Banff proved however that there are still new things to be seen and done in the mountain town.  Even staying at a new hotel provides fresh opportunities for fun.  Especially when that hotel is the Douglas Fir Resort!  You don't even have to leave the hotel the whole time you're in Banff - there is that much to do at the Douglas Fir.  And given how cold some of our weekends have been lately, this is a very good thing to have the option of staying in a warm hotel all day.

Winter in Banff - Always Something New to Try!

Banff's Only Indoor Waterpark

The Douglas Fir Resort has an indoor waterpark with two giant waterslides, a hot tub and kiddie pool. The waterpark is free for registered guests and at $20 per person to drop in for the day, you definitely want to be a hotel guest!  There's also a separate swimming pool for those staying at the hotel that is not open to the public.  We had an awesome time in the waterpark after playing outside in the snow and found it to be a great way to finish off the day.

The waterpark provides life jackets for kids as well so no need to bring one from home.  

Douglas Fir Waterpark

The Ultimate Banff Playzone

The Douglas Fir Resort offers a giant indoor play park exclusive for their registered guests and it opens at 8am!  If you know the mountains, you know it's way too cold to go outside with kids that early.  We were even able to get some play time in before checking out the next day.  We thought this was the ultimate family addition for a hotel and it made the morning go a lot more smoothly!  When your child wakes up at 6:30, there's a long wait until you head out skiing for the day. And maybe it's because we stayed at the resort mid week, but we had the playzone to ourselves.  I would expect it to be busier on  a weekend however.

Douglas Fir Indoor Playzone
Great Way to Start the Day!!

Family-friendly condos and chalets

We stayed in one of the Douglas Fir chalets and were able to cook our own meals, light a fire in the wood burning fireplace before bed, and enjoy complete comfort away from home.  We had a loft suite with a separate bedroom on the main floor which worked really well for us.  We put our son to sleep in our bedroom so we could stay up later, and then transferred him to his loft when we went to bed. 

The rooms are nothing fancy but they work.  While you can certainly find newer accommodations in Banff, the chalets at Douglas Fir were comfortable for my family and we had no complaints.  

Simple but Comfortable

New Ski Trails

Yes, we found a new ski trail in Banff we'd never skied before.  That's because it's never been an official ski trail until this winter.  Parks Canada decided to start grooming and track setting a portion of the Lake Minnewanka loop road from the lake to the Upper Bankhead parking lot.  It's an easy ski and offers great views of the valley.  While I still enjoy the trail into the Cascade Valley which also leaves from Lake Minnewanka, it was nice to try something new.  For more information on what's new in Banff this winter, visit the Parks Canada website.  A complete list of cross country trails can be found on their website as well.  And while we didn't try it this time, the  Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court has been trackset for skiing this winter as well and offers a 4.5 km family-friendly loop right in the town of Banff. 

Skiing on the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road

First Time Skating on the Bow River

I'd always heard that you could skate on the Bow River but had never actually seen the oval cleared off until this year.  It's not a big oval, but for those who like natural skating surfaces, this is as natural as it gets.  The oval is located near the summer docks for Blue Canoe on Bow Avenue. While you can skate on the cleared rinks in Banff, skating on the river gets my vote for best place to skate.  For a great article on sweet spots to glide in Banff, check this one out from the Campsite website. 

Skating on the Bow River in Banff

Banff''s Ice Playground

Banff Ice Slide

Quite possibly my favourite thing to come to Banff for each winter, the Ice Playground is created for the Banff Winter Festival each year.  I'm not sure if the slide is still there or not but as of mid-February it was still alive and well.  I imagine it will be there till it melts.  To find it, just go downtown and head towards the river.  It's set up right beside the public bathrooms and main parking lot on Bow Avenue. 

And We're Going Back...

We'll be spending another night in Banff in mid-March so stay tuned for more winter fun in one of our favourite little mountain towns.  I've actually found another new skating rink to try and we hope to try a ski trail that's been on our list for years now.  For a preview of where we hope to skate, check out this story from Family Fun Calgary on the brand new Cave and Basin Skating Rink.  And I guess if it gets really warm over the next couple of weeks, we can always revisit last year's spring trip to Banff.  Always something to do! 

Ice Train in Banff
Banff Ice Playground

Big Thanks

Thanks to the Douglas Fir Resort for accommodating our stay.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own and I wasn't compensated in any other way beyond the stay. 

Thanks also to Banff Lake Louise Tourism for their assistance facilitating this visit and trip. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Emerald Lake Lodge - A Romantic Getaway (with a 5 year old chaperone)

Emerald Lake Lodge in Yoho National Park has been promoted as Canada's Secluded Romantic Mountain Getaway.  Their dining room has even been chosen as one of the top 101 restaurants around the world.  Take a browse through their website and you'll see that this lodge has been awarded everything from one of the best cozy winter lodges in North America to one of the best resorts in all of Canada!

Emerald Lake Lodge
Makes you want to pack the kids up and take them to this romantic destination, right?  Well, we did.  And true, it would have been MUCH more romantic without a 5 year old chaperone, but visiting Emerald Lake Lodge should be on your Rocky Mountain bucket list - even if you do choose to (have to) bring the kids.

Family-Friendly Snowshoeing on Emerald Lake

What you should know about staying at Emerald Lake Lodge with kids:  The resort has no water slides, no swimming pool, no family restaurant on site serving chicken fingers and pizza, and no playground (as defined in the traditional sense of the word.)  What it does have far surpasses any of the previous items you might normally look for in family-friendly accommodations.

I call this a natural playground

Incredible Family-Friendly Snowshoeing or Skiing

The Emerald Lake Circuit is 5km long and can be shortened by hiking or skiing straight across the lake to the bridge on the far left hand side of the lake.  The Circuit has no height gain and is the perfect place for young children to learn to ski or snowshoe.  Even if you don't stay at the lodge, you absolutely must come out for a day trip to explore this magical place with the family.

Snowshoeing with Dad across Emerald Lake
Snowshoe Running with Mom across Emerald Lake
As you can see from the photos, the lake is well packed down for snowshoeing and is track set for cross country skiing.  You can also follow the official trail through the trees which is track set as well but more challenging for children learning to ski.  We did hike back through the trees though and it was great for playing hide and seek.

Playing Hide And Seek along the Emerald Lake Circuit
Family-friendly Skiing on emerald Lake

Even if you just hike or ski across the lake to the far end, and return the same way you came, it's a spectacular trip and views from the far end of the lake are unparalleled.

Scenery from the back of Emerald Lake
On the official hiking trail at Emerald Lake (well packed down and easy to follow)

Family-Friendly Resort Amenities

The resort isn't exactly known for its kid-friendly amenities but our son loved the hot tub.  It was a very pleasant temperature for children and was a nice way to end the day after snowshoeing or skiing.

Emerald Lake Hot Tub - with a view
The main lodge also has an entertainment/sports room on the second floor with a television and billiards table.  It is a good place to let the kids hang out while waiting for your dinner reservation.

For dining, the Mount Burgess Dining Room definitely served up some scrumptious meals and even had a children's menu.  The only challenge was keeping the noise level down from our table as to not disturb the couples truly enjoying a "romantic" vacation.  We did try our best though and I confess, quiet games on the iphone saved the dining experience for us.

Walking Paths at Emerald Lake Lodge

Why Stay at Emerald Lake With Kids

Admittedly, Emerald Lake Lodge isn't the easiest place to stay with children.  Lodge rooms don't have a separate bedroom which always makes it challenging to get children to sleep (and makes it hard for mom and dad to stay up past 8pm,) the dining room is a luxury experience and definitely more suited for a romantic date night, and there are no refrigerators in the rooms - meaning you have to eat at the dining room rather than doing a simple breakfast in your bedroom. 

Cabins along Emerald Lake

Challenges aside, I would still recommend visiting Emerald Lake Lodge as a family.  I know myself,  I sometimes get tired of staying at classic family-friendly hotels and long for a bit more luxury for a weekend.  I like gourmet meals and I love the feeling that comes with staying at a decadent mountain resort.  And I'll do it with kids if it means I get to stay in such an awesome place.  Babysitting isn't an easy option for us and if I'm going to call on grandma to help out, I'd rather head off into the backcountry skiing.  Emerald Lake Lodge meanwhile, is perfectly accessible with the whole family in tow.

Romantic Traveling - With Kids
Also, it should be added, that I like travelling as a family.  When I go someplace beautiful without my son I always feel bad that he's not there to share in the experience.  Snowshoeing or skiing at Emerald Lake would not have been near as enjoyable without him along.  AND this time, he will remember the trip.  Below is a photo of Noah's last trip to Emerald Lake Lodge.

Emerald Lake - 8 months pregnant
For more information on Emerald Lake Lodge for your next romantic vacation or family weekend getaway, visit the Emerald Lake Lodge website. 

In closing, when I walked into our lodge room after arriving at the hotel, I confess that these are my exact words:

"Forget camping and wilderness cabins!  I was meant to be a princess and I want to move here permanently."

My New Home on Emerald Lake
My New Backyard on Emerald Lake

Big thanks to Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts for sponsoring our family's stay at Emerald Lake Lodge.  As always, all opinions and words are my own in this story.  It wasn't our first stay at Emerald Lake and it's far from our last stay. We'll definitely be back.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Beyond Lake Louise - Where the Real Magic Begins

We went to Lake Louise for the annual Ice Magic Festival at the end of January but after an hour at the overcrowded lake, I was practically running to get as far away as possible.  I wanted to find someplace quiet and off the beaten path.  To find a beautiful mountain lake we could be alone at.  And to look around and see not a blessed other person!

Bow Lake:  Solitude found on the Icefields Parkway North of Lake Louise

Our Retreat on the Icefields Parkway

Fortunately, solitude can easily be found only half an hour away on the remote Icefields Parkway, north of Lake Louise.    Based out of  Hostelling International's Mosquito Creek Hostel, we spent two nights in a beautiful wilderness location far away from the craziness that is Lake Louise.

Paradise at Mosquito Creek

I've written lots about the Mosquito Creek hostel on this blog because I honestly believe it's one of the best places to stay as a family in the Rockies.  Forget the fancy hotels, staying at a wilderness hostel is a real mountain experience, and the Mosquito Creek hostel allows you some extra privacy you won't find at many other hostels.  A private cabin on site accommodates two families nicely with two bedrooms (5 beds per room), and your own kitchen/living area.  Unlike most hostels, you aren't sharing cooking facilities or common space with other hostel users, and it doesn't matter how crowded the hostel gets; You can use the fireside room in the main hostel or just retreat back to your own cabin any time you want.

Dinner in the Private Cabin at Mosquito Creek
The Hostel is simple but comfortable.  There's no hot water but there is a tap with drinking water in the cabin, and the kitchen is equipped for basic cooking.  Just don't plan to go too gourmet and you'll be fine.  Bathrooms are located outside, giving it a real rustic feeling, and it's about 400m from the parking lot to the cabin so plan to bring a sled to haul your gear and food in to the cabin.

The Mosquito Creek Hostel
Think winter camping with a cozy cabin and only 400m to walk instead of a big ski backpacking trip.  Totally family friendly, right?

Sunset over Mosquito Creek
To read more of my Mosquito Creek stories (and see a lot more photos from our past trips), follow these links to: Winter Paradise at Mosquito Creek or Winter Camping in Style

Staying at Mosquito Creek is Snow Awesome!

Day Trip to Bow Lake

It's a 15 to 20 minute drive from the hostel to reach beautiful Bow Lake.  We retreated here when we grew tired of the crowds at Lake Louise and found what we were looking for - solitude, peace, and a winter wonderland all to ourselves.

Winter Hiking at Bow Lake
While you could hike all the way to the back of the lake just by walking across the middle of the frozen lake, we only went a kilometre out at the very most, played around, and headed back.  Still, it was one of the most beautiful hikes I've done in the Rockies.  We made snow angels, played in the snow, and reveled in the fact that it was all ours to share with nobody!

Enjoying Winter at Bow Lake
Next time, we're going to hike to Bow Glacier Falls at the back of the lake.  Fingers crossed for April!

Bow Lake is a great place to hike with a sled

Playing at the Mosquito Creek Campground

The other magical thing we discovered during our stay at the Mosquito Creek Hostel was found right next door at the summer campground.  A group of Scouts had been staying there overnight and built  a village of snow quincies for us to play in.  Thank you!  We had so much fun!

No better place to play!
These were some pretty sweet quincies!
The kids could have played in the campground ALL day.
Who needs a playground?!
We may have almost toppled this one.

We also had fun hiking along the creek in the campground, and what child doesn't like being pulled through soft powder in a sled?

Hiking through the Mosquito Creek Campground
Hiking over the frozen creek on a snow bridge

We had the best weather we've ever had for our annual trip to Mosquito Creek and it guarantees we'll be back for more adventures next year.   Lake Louise is a great place to visit, but the real magic begins on the Icefields Parkway!

Snow Angels on Bow Lake
Big thanks to Hostelling International for taking care of our stay at the hostel.  As always, all words and opinions are my own.  Thanks as well to the great friends that joined us on our trip.  Playing in the snow is always more fun with friends.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

20 Years of Ice Magic at Lake Louise

We spent a weekend at Lake Louise during the popular Ice Magic Festival at the end of January and I was quickly reminded that I don't like crowds.  Why did I possibly think it would be good idea to visit Lake Louise on one of the busiest weekends of the year? 

Ice Magic at Lake Louise

It was the 20th anniversary this year of the Ice Magic Festival and it felt like all of Calgary was out to see the professional ice carvings and to skate around the ice castle.  At times you could hardly even make out the castle on the lake for the sheer number of people clustered in front of it.

Trying to get close to the ice castle - good luck!

Fortunately for us, we had a second chance to visit Lake Louise again on the Monday after the festival had wrapped up - without the crowds.  And this is the secret for those who want to visit the famed ice festival next January - go AFTER the festival has finished.   The sculptures don't melt overnight.  The ice castle will still be there weeks later.  The crowds however, will not.

One day after the festival - no crowds

Family Highlights of the Festival This Year

Viewing the Ice Sculptures


The International Ice Carving Competition always takes place over the third weekend in January.   We headed out the next weekend during the Little Chippers Festival where you get to view the finished sculptures.  This year's theme was Freeze Olympic Fever. 

Carving Through the Gates - 3rd place
The Silence Below - First Place Winner

Skating Around the Ice Castle on Lake Louise

Always a highlight of the festival, we didn't even bother trying to skate on the lake when we were there on Saturday.  Monday however, was lovely with a fraction of the people.

The Ice Castle on Lake Louise
Who knew ice could be so beautiful?
Looking through one of the windows on the castle
So lovely without the crowds!
Skating around the castle
Ice Magic 2014

Learning to Carve Your Own Block of Ice

One of the reasons we chose to visit Ice Magic Festival over the Little Chippers weekend was so that Noah could try his hand at carving a block of ice.  We were disappointed however that the kids had to pay for their block of ice.  (Meanwhile, they didn't at the Christmas in the Rockies festival we went to in December.) Also, the kids' carving was down at the village rather than up at the lake.  - Something that Lake Louise would do well to change for next year so that you don't have to find parking twice! 

Little Chippers Festival

We actually had to come back on Sunday for the kids' ice carving because we were busy up at the lake on Saturday and weren't able to get down to the village in time for the Little Chippers Ice Zone, which only ran from 11am till 2pm.

So cute, right?

Skiing Across Frozen Lake Louise

If you have to visit the festival on a weekend at the peak time, at least take the time to go for a ski or hike across Lake Louise to get away from some of the people.  We only had to ski for 15 minutes before the crowds thinned out and we had some solitude.

Child-friendly skiing across the lake
Teaching our son to ski with a tow rope for an upcoming backcountry trip
Always bring a sled for the return trip with kids

Notes for Ice Magic 2015

If you want to go to Ice Magic next January, check out some of my advice below:

One - As mentioned above, don't go on a weekend.  Go mid-week, view the sculptures, skate on the lake, and skip the rest of the festivities.  My son's attention span for the kids' ice carving was about 10 minutes, and we had to pay for it.  Other family activities also had a cost including face painting, crafts, and games.  And don't even bother thinking about the sleigh rides.  You probably can't afford them.

Two - If you have to go on a weekend, plan to arrive at Lake Louise before 10am at the latest.  If you arrive early enough, you will be able to park at the lake and avoid the shuttle bus from the Village, which had wait times of an hour or more later in the day.  With a family, I can't imagine having to pack skis, skates, sleds... up to the lake in the shuttle bus.  Better to arrive early and park at the lake.

Three - If you like photography, plan to be at Lake Louise by 10am as well.  The lake is in the shade by 11am in January.  All of the bright photos you saw above were taken between 10 and 11am. 

Four - If you are going for the kids' ice playground (something we were excited about), go to the town of Banff instead.  In past years, Lake Louise made an ice slide for the festival.  This year they chose to set it up downtown Banff instead.

Playing in the Ice Castle