By Karlie Marrazzo
Have you ever had the feeling of a hazy memory, a faint image on the edges of your mind that may have really happened, or that perhaps was just a pleasant dream, but you have no way of distinguishing fact from fantasy? A remembrance so close that you can just about grab it, but then it just as easily slips away? The calm, wide lake, surrounded by mountains on either side, the water lapping at the shore with the sepia-toned sun kissing everything it touches has been that memory for me for years, and this summer I was finally able to grasp it again in Invermere, British Columbia.
Invermere is 585km southwest of my hometown, Edmonton, or, in Canadian terms, an almost-6-hour drive without stops. My boyfriend E and I had been dating for a couple of months and wanted to take a fun summer road trip together, but not necessarily to the typical hot spots of Banff and Jasper that are closer to home for us. I had been to Radium Hot Springs and Fairmont Hot Springs, nestled in the Kootenays, in the summer of 2005, and had a feeling that my mystery dream lake was out that way. Planning a trip to the mountains in the summertime typically requires a bit of advanced planning, at least in terms of booking accommodations before everything sells out. Since we were booking only three weeks out, we let the availability of reasonably priced rooms guide us and ended up booking an Airbnb in Invermere. Invermere is tucked in between the two resort towns, but not yet a tourist destination in its own right.
*Read my posts on Banff and Jasper here.
Our trip arrived at the end of August. There are two typical ways to get there from Edmonton; the more direct Highway 1/Highway 93 route, or Highway 22, the Cowboy Trail. We’ve both driven the Cowboy Trail a few times before, and while I’m in love with the rolling hills, hay bales, abandoned grain silos, and the tall and skinny windmills guarding over it all, we decided to take the faster route that day so we could get our vacation started sooner.
We left Edmonton at around 8:30am and made our first stop at the Donut Mill in Red Deer, an Alberta institution and essential for any road trip due South. The drive was easy, the sky becoming clearer and brighter the closer we got to our destination. As the mountains grew outside of my window, I reflected on all of the travels I’ve taken over the past 15 years, from being terrified on my first flight to Winnipeg to travelling solo to Guatemala. Six hours in a car sure goes by faster than it used to.
The entrance to the village of Radium Hot Springs is punctuated by a dramatic pass through Sinclair Canyon, sliced in half by the ribbon of highway leading through it. Twenty minutes later, after passing through the quaint strip of Alpine-themed hotels and motels in Radium, we arrived at our Airbnb at the end of downtown Invermere. After we dropped off our bags, we continued on another 20 minutes south to the Fairmont Hot Springs, a naturally-fed mineral hot pool located in the tiny community of the same name. Invermere is flanked on either side by world-class hot springs – Radium to the north and Fairmont to the south. The Fairmont Hot Springs claim to be Canada’s “largest natural mineral hot springs,” although, with my untrained eye, I couldn’t discern much size difference between it and Miette Hot Springs north of Jasper. The hot springs proper are surrounded by a luxurious resort, families and happy couples in robes strolling the grounds. There are even lawn chairs set up beside of the pools, just in case you feel like taking in the view of the sharp blue water against the mountain backdrop without dipping your toes in. I was surprised that the entry fee was $22.95 – quite steep compared to the $7.30 entry fee for pools that are in National Parks. Alas, it had slipped my mind that Fairmont was privately owned. (Adult rates for July and August are $22.95 and lower at other times of the year). The pools weren’t crowded, and we stayed for about an hour and a half; unwinding, boiling our bones and enjoying each others’ company. The hot pool is a toasty 39°C (102°F), while the swimming and diving pools are a reasonable 30-32°.
Ultra relaxed from our mineral soak, we strolled from our apartment to the heart of downtown, where we had a late dinner on the patio of Ullr Bar, a community-based bar with a Viking vibe. E had found them online before our trip, and we were drawn in by the promise of Viking helmets, long swords and beer served in horns. Needless to say, we were not disappointed. To top it all off, the drinks were strong, the food was awesome and our server was fantastic, going so far as to be the photographer for our silly Viking photoshoot. The evening sky was perfectly clear and moonless on our walk home, allowing us to stop in the field beside our apartment to admire the heavens before tucking in for the night.
Breakfast was served the next morning at a cute little spot on the main drag downtown called the Blue Dog Cafe. The man behind the counter with the gentle accent from Down Under (or was it Kiwi?) was warm and affable. We each ordered a breakfast sandwich on an amazing cheese biscuit topped off with their wicked homemade hot sauce. Seriously, the best hot sauce I’ve ever had. I could drink the whole bottle straight. Yes, you can buy it to take home. Yes, we did. Afterwards, I wanted to go to The Book Cellar, a used bookshop on the end of the same block as the cafe, but they weren’t open until 1pm. With some time to kill, we headed south again towards Fairmont, stopping short in a tiny community of 1000 people called Windermere. What brought us to Windermere, you ask? The day before, on our drive to the hot springs, we saw a billboard for a place called “Treasures in the Wind” and the name stuck with us, along with the song Candles in the Wind by Elton John. We couldn’t stop singing it (whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is for you to decide) and had to see what they had on offer. The small shop was jammed with trinkets and treasures, even spilling out onto the covered porch outside – the sign of any good, rustic antique shop. Both of us immediately gravitated to the room full of records at the front of the store and spent most of our time there. In the end, I came away with 10 records, a tiny metal seal and a small statuette of a bowling man that was from the same family of statuettes that were at my Nonno and Nonna’s house when I was growing up. Coincidence? I think not.
Our shopping spree continued at the Book Cellar, hidden away beneath street level just off the main drag in town. Books were stacked floor to ceiling, on shelves, in boxes, on tables, and in piles on the floor. The kind owner and his big fluffy dog were sitting behind the counter, ready to answer questions or chit chat about books. I came away with a few Alfred Hitchcock anthologies and a Douglas Adams to add to my collection. We emerged from the cellar onto a nearly-deserted street. It was Friday afternoon, in the height of summer, in the mountains, and there was nobody around! The town was picture-perfect, with beautiful flowers hanging from the lampposts and blooming in planters all along the streets.
After a morning in town, the afternoon was time to get out into nature. We had thought about going to Lussier Hot Springs, an all-natural, untouched hot spring off the beaten path in Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park, based on the recommendation of a few friends back home. Those who wish to visit the hot springs have to drive a rocky, and active, logging road that also happens to be precipitously on the edge of a mountain road. Unfortunately, we decided not to go that day due to the vehicle we were driving. Perhaps we will come to regret that decision, or perhaps we will make it there on our next visit. Instead, we went to Liliane Lake, just a 10-minute drive from Invermere on Toby Creek Road, on the way to Panorama. There wasn’t a beach there that I saw, but there was a dock and a path that went partway around the lake. We found a small clearing, laid out our Mexican blanket, and simply relaxed. There were quite a few people out enjoying the water, bobbing along in kayaks, gently paddling on standup paddleboards. The only sounds were the lapping of the water on the shore and the breeze rustling the leaves. Hours passed as we unwound on that blanket, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence, eating snacks and sketching the scene in the small notebook I had with me. When I think back to perfect moments in my life, that will be one of them.
A couple of hours passed us by. We packed up our blanket and drove further up the mountain towards Panorama, a popular ski resort in the Purcell Mountains. We took a stroll along the Valley Trail, a paved trail that runs alongside the Toby Creek. The cool blue-grey mountain water – that captivating colour that I have failed to see anywhere else in the world except for my Canada – rushed over the rocks. E had a blast driving down the empty, winding mountain road on the way back into town.
Dinner that night was at Peppi’s Italian Fuel, a small pizza joint in the style of an old school auto garage. The place was packed and the energy was vibrant. The patio had a beautiful view of the mountains, but it was too windy for anybody to sit outside that night. We split two pizzas, one on regular crust and one on thin crust, the highlight being the delicious tomato sauce they were slathered in.
Afterwards, we strolled around the still-deserted town. Where was everyone? Surely we couldn’t be the only out-of-towners who were staying over for the night.
When E and I had first decided to go on a mountain road trip together, I didn’t want to do the standard weekend in Banff or Jasper that people from Edmonton usually do. I wanted a serene lake nestled into the mountains, away from the hoards of tourists unloading from coach buses, away from souvenir shop after souvenir shop after fudge shop, our own little slice of heaven.
I could picture it all so clearly in my mind’s eye, yet the details still escaped. When we arrived at Kinsmen Beach at Lake Windermere, only 3 minutes from our AirBnb, the sense of deja vu I had, a true a-ha moment, felt so overpowering, deja vu quickly turning into a concrete memory. This was it. This was the place I had been daydreaming about for years, without knowing where it was or if it was even real. I had found it again simply by following my heart and intuition, knowing it would lead me back to the right place.
It wasn’t quite as serene as I had stored away in my memory; the clouds had parted that day and the beach was busy with families enjoying themselves, eating chip sandwiches, blowing up inflatable water toys and building sandcastles. Even still, the warmth of the sun kissing my skin while laying on a blanket, reading a book is one of my favourite feelings in the world, and I was truly happy in that moment. How perfect would it be to live in one of the houses that are right on the beach, being able to walk out your door and dip your toes into the water any time of day or night? Relaxation was on the menu that day, but I would love to rent a kayak or walk the trails around the lake next time.
I always work up an appetite sunbathing, so we headed to Scotty Burger for lunch. On the same block as the Blue Dog Cafe, Scotty Burger is a food truck tucked into a small alleyway with a few tables of outdoor seating and cool metal planters hanging off of the wall. Their specialty is stuffed burgers, with a menu that changes daily. I ordered a full-sized burger stuffed with mac n’ cheese, and a corn on the cob, and absolutely devoured them.
The rest of our afternoon was dedicated to pure fun and joy at Funtasia Fun Park, an epic roadside amusement park 5 minutes from the Fairmont Hot Springs. I had been there once before, on that trip 15 years ago, and as somewhat of a mini-golf/roadside attraction aficionado, it has always stood out in my mind as one of the best. They boast an 18-hole mini-golf course that is more challenging than it looks, furry and feathered friends from llamas to goats to bunnies to pheasants, bumper cars, pretty gardens, a greenhouse, and, of course, a multitude of ice cream flavours. You can pick and choose which activities you would like to do for different price points, but that day, we were all in. We chose the Grand Slam; all three actives (mini-golf, bumper cars, and the animal park) for $30 per adult.
The weather was on our side yet again that day, with the few clouds parting shortly after we arrived, sunbeams shining down onto the mini golf turf beneath our feet. The course was crowded, with multiple groups clustering around every hole on the gently sloping terraced course. I knocked one out of the park (almost literally), scoring a hole-in-one on the second hole! Our putts were precise and the scoring was neck-and-neck for the entire game, with our final scores only being three points from each other. E won a free game on the 18th hole, ensuring our return next summer.
Next up; bumper cars. Safety is always a top priority, so we were asked to watch a two-minute safety video (that looked like it was filmed in 1991) on a tiny TV before strapping in. As someone who didn’t partake in many rides as a child and lives with vertigo as an adult, bumper cars are not usually my preferred mode of transportation. E and I buckled ourselves into our cars, silently agreeing to team up to knock out the team of three brothers who were our bumper car companions. The middle child, likely no more than 9 years old, saying he was “out for blood” as we stepped onto the track made me laugh with horror and ignited my competitive streak. Those little dudes were quite vicious, and the intense yet hilarious 10 minutes seemed to last for an hour, but E and I put up a good fight.
Strolling through the green gardens, smelling the flowers and petting goats was the perfect way to wind down from our low-speed battle. We stopped to say hello to the bunnies in Rabbit Town, replete with a mini post office, fire hall, barn and houses. But, as the great Vanessa Williams once said, you always save the best for last. As we neared the end of the park, at the bottom of the small hill, we looked up and saw the most beautiful and brilliant alpaca bounding towards us. White hair, partially shaved with a fabulous 80s side-swept hairdo and an attitude to match. Of course, the default name that came to our minds was Tina; we talked to her, fed her and pet her as long as she would let us, laughing and taking selfie after selfie. We later found out from messaging Funtasia that Tina was actually a boy and his name is Prince, which is even more fabulous given my love for The Artist. After having ice cream cones to top it all off, we spent two and a half leisurely hours at the park, and it was the highlight of our weekend away.
There was only one way we could have ended such a nice day, and our first vacation together; a soak in my favourite pool, Radium Hot Springs. I love the way the pools are sunken into the earth, surrounded by the rugged cliff face and the towering mountains overhead. The pool wasn’t busy that evening, and with the sun setting in the mountains around us, it was an idyllic way to end the last night of our romantic mountain getaway.