Before the border between the United States and Canada was opened on August 9, the inquiries preceded what has been a rush to vacation in Banff and Lake Louise. Sudheep Sandhu, general manager at Canalta Lodge, says the weeks leading up to the border opening had seen a spike in website activity as well as bookings.
A family-friendly property, Canalta Lodge is among the Banff businesses that have enjoyed a boost in tourism in early summer when Canadians — particularly from Ontario and Quebec — began to venture west as lockdowns eased, vaccinations picked up, and data showed those needles worked. With COVID-19 fears lowered among the fully vaccinated, travel has had a staggered but determined re-start.
While the world of tourism has seemingly stood still during the pandemic, destinations didn’t stay static. Even if overnight stays plummeted and their marketing focus shifted to attracting domestic and hyper-local travellers, work was being done. When you return to a favourite place, you’re likely to find numerous changes. Some, like restaurant closings, will be sad, but many additions and improvements will have been made, too.
Banff and Lake Louise are used to massive international tourism, but were historically quiet in 2020. During my visit last month, the return of tourism was clearly afoot. Lake Louise was busier than I have seen it in my six previous trips (filled mostly with day-trippers from Calgary, according to tourism contacts) and Banff Avenue was bustling, though far from crowded and street parking was readily available — a pandemic-related phenomenon unlikely to last much longer.
“Everybody comes for that nirvana. And they they’re happy to get it, to get a dose that their spirit is looking for,” Sandhu says philosophically. He studied tourism management in his native India and has worked at luxury properties around the world. In September 2019, he took over at Canalta Lodge and has focused on delivering a customer-service experience that satisfies.
A fun part of the property, especially for kids, are the complimentary nightly s’mores kits that can be cooked over the gas firepit near the lodge’s hot tubs. Soon, Canalta will upgrade its food-and-beverage program to add more crowd-pleasing options. Maxim Sayapın, the property’s new F&B manager, joined Canalta Lodge this month after moving to Banff from Russia and is focused on raising the quality of the menu.
“The beauty that guests observe in Banff cannot be described in words, one needs to see it live,” says Sayapin, who has 14 years of experience, much of which was spent at five-star properties in Europe. “A real getaway is not a vacation for the family as a whole, but rather for each of its members. After all, everyone prefers their own type of recreation. Someone is in a hurry to explore the local sights, someone wants to lie quietly on the porch, sipping a cocktail. Children want to play, they are capricious, demand constant attention, and adults dream of getting out to a restaurant and finally having a romantic evening for themselves. Accordingly, the main task for an F&B department is to diversify its offerings to meet these expectations and to create various opportunities to experience family unity.”
When bookings pick up, Canalta will be among the jammed properties in town. Soon, though, it will have some help in accommodating guests. Next door, the Canalta-owned Voyager Inn has started renovations and will close in September with the plan to reopen in 2022 as a Marriott that features a retro ’80’s feel. That new space will add to a growing number of renovations and additions in Banff and Lake Louise.
The town’s main streets — Banff Avenue and Bear Street — have seen positive changes. A two-block stretch of Banff Avenue has been closed to automobiles and part of Bear Street has turned into a space where cyclists, pedestrians, and cars share space. These alterations, which may become permanent, are easy for residents and visitors to love.
Among the businesses that will benefit from the foot traffic is Three Bears Brewery, which opened in the fall. The brewery has a massive multi-storey space, including a retractable roof, and total seating for 192 inside and 50 on its patio. Across the street, Japanese-focused Hello Sunshine debuted in July with a karaoke theme and cocktail enticements. Over on Caribou Street, Shoku Izakaya also elevates the drink scene with crafty cocktails, several of which evoke Asian locations. The sake selection is deep (ask the knowledgeable staff to recommend a good pairing for the variety of rolls and shareable plates on the menu).
Not new, but freshly renovated is the historic Rundle Bar at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Those familiar with Banff have no doubt dropped in on the Rundle at one point or another. The space underwent a $5 million renovation and was reopened in June 2020. Along with elegant decor and an eye-catching library shelf that leads covertly into an opulent alcove. A menu with Canadian cuisine has debuted under executive chef Robert Ash and daily cocktail classes featuring local craft spirits are offered.
Over in Lake Louise, the eternal beauty has some contemporary tourism infrastructure. Most notably, a shuttle service began operating this summer that takes guests between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, which is another unique and jaw-dropping waterway that is a 10-minute drive away. The parking lot at Moraine Lake fills up almost as soon as it opens each morning, so the municipality and Parks Canada began offering the reservations-only shuttle service ($8 for adult seats; 50% of seats are held for last-minute bookings).
Fairmont’s other notable property in the national park, the Chateau Lake Louise, launched its Fairview Bar in 2019 and has continued to uplift the space with new cocktails and menu offerings. Nearby, on the mountain, new ski lifts and hiking trails have debuted atop the Lake Louise Ski Resort.
South of Banff, Mount Norquay has expanded its popular Via Ferrata climbing tour with the Alpinist Route that offers more thrills on the vertical cliff face.
While the global pandemic continues to have a tight rein on travel, the industry knows it will loosen and robust visitation numbers will return. For now, Canada’s leading destinations are relying largely on domestic visitors to provide the revenue to keep businesses going. The message in the Rocky Mountains as the summer wildfires ease and confidence among the double-vaccinated rises is come see what’s new. There’s plenty of that — and all the classic delights, too.
MORE ABOUT VISITING BANFF AND LAKE LOUISE
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Where to Stay: Canalta Lodge (545 Banff Avenue, see map below) features full kitchens, two communal hot tops, firepits, and lots of seating inside and on its patio. Free s’mores kits come with a bag of marshmallows and chocolate-covered cookies (and use of steel roasting rods) and are available each night.
Park Passes: A day pass to visit Banff National Park is required. Visit the Parks Canada website to see what fee best applies to your trip. Also consider an annual Parks Discovery Pass that allows for entry into 80 national parks and historic sites.
COVID-19 Guidelines: Read Alberta’s public-health policies and guidelines as your visit approaches.
Banff’s Soft Adventures Are Solid Family Fun: A 3-year-old experiences a canoe trip of a lifetime on the Bow River and other nature-focused activities that connect with the national park.
Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi will be producing additional articles on Banff’s culinary scene and more, while Deputy Editor Claudia Laroye’s article on wellness retreats in the area will be published in September.
Vacay.ca is focusing coverage on Banff & Lake Louise in summer and fall of 2021 as it is a destination that is fundamental to so much happening in tourism in the country, including adapting to environmental challenges, resurgences from the pandemic, and renewed awareness of domestic tourism.
Note: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, Travel Alberta, and Pursuit Adventures provided travel costs for author Adrian Brijbassi and his family. No organization reviewed the article before it was published.