By Karlie Marrazzo
The world has changed completely over the last six months, and travel as we know it will likely never go back to the way it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Like millions of other avid travellers, I had a trip planned before the pandemic broke out – a trip to Italy scheduled for April – and had to cancel. Of course, this is a minuscule problem compared to those whose health and livelihoods have been impacted by COVID. As someone who suffers from anxiety on a day-to-day basis, the outbreak of the pandemic made these anxieties skyrocket and added a large dose of paranoia as well. It has been a struggle for me to think about the huge and rippling impacts COVID will continue to have on the world, the fear of getting sick looming in my mind every day. Everything locked down seemingly overnight in Canada, on a dreary weekend in mid-March. I had been reading the news from China and Italy for weeks already and dreaded the day the virus would hit closer to home. It came as no surprise to me, and when Air Canada cancelled my flights to Italy, it became all the more real.
Alas, this is a travel blog, so this post will be focusing on my first mini-trip out of town since the pandemic hit. Opening up to the idea of going out of town for a day trip or a short weekend trip was not something that happened quickly or an idea that I approached lightly. I have been very serious about isolating myself over the past four months, only seeing a very limited number of people and making essential trips to stores, so taking the step of spending two nights in a hotel, while it seems insignificant and unimportant, was a big one to me.
Fast forward to June. Most of us have been limiting our contact with people as much as possible, and are itching to get out of town, somewhere, anywhere. My home province of Alberta is on Phase 2 of its re-opening plan, which, while I understand the economic impacts of businesses remaining closed, came a little too soon for my liking. I began toying with the idea of taking a short road trip out of town but hadn’t begun to plan anything or put too much thought into it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got a promo email from Fairmont advertising their “Stay Close” promotion, offering every second night FREE at certain properties! (Trust me, this is not an ad! This post offers my opinions and experiences only and was not sponsored.) I immediately phoned my boyfriend and easily convinced him that we needed to take advantage of this deal and take a trip to the nearby Rocky Mountains for a luxury trip that we would not otherwise experience.
There are three Fairmont properties in the Canadian Rockies, each one of them an iconic site in its own right, and important pieces of the history of the Rockies. They are the Chateau Lake Louise, the Banff Springs Hotel, and the Jasper Park Lodge, all grand railway hotels built in the late 19th and early 20th century. We decided to go with the Chateau Lake Louise as neither of us had stayed in Lake Louise before, and had only each even been there once many years before. The image of the vibrant turquoise waters of Lake Louise, flanked prominently by Fairview Mountain and Mount Whyte, among others, with Victoria Glacier the icy centrepiece.
We arrived at the Chateau on a beautiful June afternoon – one of the first days of summer, the sun was shining from a clear blue sky, the air was warmer than I expected it to be, and the mountain air the most refreshing thing I had inhaled in months. Moments before we made the turnoff to Lake Louise, I spotted a large bear atop a short hill beside the highway. We pulled up in front of the hotel and were greeted by a masked and gloved attendant, who asked us a standard series of COVID questions (if we had any symptoms, had been in contact with anyone who had tested positive, if we had been out of the country in the past 14 days), and took our temperatures on our wrists with a no-contact temperature gun. He advised us that valet parking is not an option at the time, which makes perfect sense. We self-parked in the attached parkade and proceeded to check-in at the front desk. We received the same questionnaire, this time in paper form. Throughout our two-night stay, every staff member that we saw or encountered was wearing a face mask, which was very reassuring to see. There were also plexiglass barriers at the check-in desks, and we were each given a “PPE welcome kit” containing a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes.
We had booked ourselves a Fairmont Lakeview Room – we soon discovered that it was a fairly standard, not-very-big hotel room, with one exception. The view looked out smack dab into the middle of Lake Louise; that world-famous view in technicolour right in front of our eyes, from the comfort of our room. I recognized how truly privileged I was to have that view available to me; albeit at a steep discount, the cost was still at least double what I would normally pay for a hotel room. And how truly privileged I am to live mere hours from one of the most spectacular natural places on Earth. I felt a moral struggle inside myself, because I knew that I was only able to see these things, without the normal hordes of tourists clogging up the lakefront. After all, the world is in peril right now; did I deserve to be there? Should anyone be travelling locally at all right now, enjoying the simple things that life has to offer? A beautiful lake, a drive with a loved one, a delicious meal. Something that people who struggle with mental health issues like depression, anxiety or trauma often have to remind themselves of is that, although these things are real and exist, it is ok to enjoy the beautiful moments of life as well. A simple, mindful moment to enjoy something pleasant can go a long way towards healing or happiness.
I’m not the type of writer to use words like “stunning” or “breathtaking”; I generally avoid them at all costs as they are completely overused. But when I walked out of the hotel and to the shore of Lake Louise, I was nearly brought to tears by the overpowering beauty of the scenery before me. For a moment I wasn’t sure if it really was that beautiful (surprise, it is), or if I was overreacting because I had barely left my living room for the past ten months. I remarked out loud that it was the most beautiful place I had ever been, and I meant it. Thinking back over the 36 countries I have been incredibly fortunate to travel to, reflecting on pure natural beauty, the only place that could give Lake Louise a run for its money was Iceland. Tears came to my eyes as I absorbed the natural wonders before me, and reflected on the beauty and goodness that does exist in this world.
There are five restaurants in the Chateau Lake Louise; however, when we checked in we were informed that only one of them, the Fairview, was open. Reservations were strongly recommended. Our dinner reservation wasn’t until 8 pm that night, so we decided to grab a drink in the Fairview bar before getting ready. We pulled up on two stools in front of the gorgeous bar. The black marble bar accented with bronze touches around the ceiling-high mirrors gave off a total 1930s underground speakeasy vibe. I was drawn to the Mountain Calling on the cocktail menu – 2oz. Of Oloroso sherry, gin, lime and chamomile bitters. I don’t normally drink cocktails at 5 pm, but this one was hard to resist. It came in the most elegant glass and tasted heavenly. It turns out that the bartender, originally from Germany, has worked all over the world before coming to Lake Louise. He picked the chamomile flowers himself to make the bitters used in the drink. Wow.
We returned to the Fairview two hours later for our dinner reservation and were seated at a table near the big picture window looking out over the spectacular view of Lake Louise. We were hoping to be seated right at the window seat, but really, almost every table in the restaurant comes with a million-dollar view. After a fabulous dinner of rack of lamb for him, and salmon with crab ravioli for me, we retired to our room. The bed was like a king-sized slice of heaven with clouds for pillows. I had just settled in when I saw the 10 pm sunset blooming outside the window, so I had to run downstairs and outside to take it in before going to sleep.
I opened my eyes the next morning to find the stunning postcard view of Lake Louise still looming outside my window. We pinched ourselves once more and ordered breakfast to the room – another luxurious treat we wanted to experience. The meals were delivered on a rolling table right into our room, and we set up alongside the window. Whether you’re beside the most gorgeous lake in the world, at an Italian piazza or in a beachside hut, food just tastes better when it comes with a beautiful view.
The forecast that day was spotty; it was partially overcast that morning, and the forecast was calling for heavy rain in the afternoon. If we were going to canoe, now was likely the only time we would have. The boathouse opens at 10:30 am each day; by the time we got arrived, there were already two dozen people in line. Guests of the Fairmont can skip ahead to a much shorter line at the front. As we were there during a pandemic and not just normal circumstances, I thought it was noteworthy that nobody else in the line was wearing a protective mask. We made sure to wear them whenever we were walking through shared spaces in the hotel, or outside whenever other people were around. We were again administered the COVID questionnaire and had our temperatures checked. I had never been canoeing before and was excited that this would be the site of my first try. I let them know it was my first time and they told me to sit in the front of the canoe and how to paddle.
We were off. The water was calm, the temperature was steady and there were only a few other canoes on the water. Seeing Lake Louise from the shore or one of the hiking viewpoints is one thing but being in the centre of it, dwarfed by the power of the mountains and glacier, with the Chateau shrinking in the distance. We took our time paddling to the other side of the lake, pausing at intervals to simply enjoy. As we began to think about heading back, the air got a little cooler and the wind started to pick up. A clap of thunder boomed nearby. I had been leisurely paddling, and now had to pick up the strength. We made it back to the boathouse in half the time it took us to get to the other side of the lake. Halfway there, a bell rang out, I’m assuming to call everyone back who was out on the lake to shore. The wind was whipping, and as we approached the dock, the windswept us sideways and bounced us into some shrubs on the shore. I laughed it off and paddled harder as the attendants on the shore pushed us towards the dock and shouted instructions. We made it back mostly dry, and just in the nick of time to miss the rain.
There are several hikes around Lake Louise for all skill levels, and I wanted to do at least one of them on our short two-night stay there. Arguably the most popular is the Lake Agnes Teahouse hike, a moderate 6.8km roundtrip hike that takes hikers to, you guessed it, a family-run tea house on the shores of Lake Agnes. It takes approximately 3 hours round trip, depending on your fitness level, and is steadily uphill. We were both interested in taking this hike but didn’t want to chance it and get rained on the whole time. There is also an easy path running the circumference of Lake Louise, but we wanted something more. We decided to hike up to the Fairview Lookout, an easy 1km uphill that brings you to a spot in the forest looking out over Lake Louise and the Chateau. We only passed a handful of other walkers on the path, no more than 10, and we made sure to put our face masks on whenever we passed someone else, although we noted that nobody else did so. Perhaps we were overly cautious to do so, and it can be easy for some to feel that they don’t need to wear a mask when in the great outdoors.
It was Friday night, and more guests were checking in to the hotel. I noticed more directional ropes placed in the lobby, and more hotel staff were present. Whenever we came back inside that day, a staff member outside the doors asked to see a room card, ensuring that the only people entering the hotel were guests there. We had dinner reservations at the Fairview again, and I was surprised to find out that two of the other restaurants opened back up that day. The restaurant was much busier than it had been the night before, full of families, hikers, groups of friends, and couples having a romantic evening. I was totally pooped after canoeing and hiking that day (nobody ever said I was in shape!) and passed out as soon as my head hit those blissful pillows.
Our time at Lake Louise was short but supremely sweet. We checked out on Saturday morning and made our way back home to Edmonton via the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93), one of the most gorgeous and celebrated drives on the planet, and the David Thompson Highway (Highway 11). The 230km Icefields Parkway joins Lake Louise, in Banff National Park, with Jasper National Park in the north. Construction began in the 1930s and lasted until 1940; incredibly, much of the construction was done by hand, with crews using teams of horses. Nowadays the drive takes 3 hours without stops, but I can guarantee that you will be getting out often to take in the spectacular views.
Although I have driven parts of the Icefields Parkway before and drove the whole length once, I will never fail to be amazed and humbled by the beauty of the nature that surrounds it. Our first pullover point that day was alongside Bow Lake. We stopped at two viewpoints that are only a few minutes apart; the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint, and the Bow Lake viewpoint. At the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint, we were visited by two calm, plump ravens. I’m not afraid of birds per se, but I normally feel a little skittish when a bird is coming towards me. These two were different; calmly walking towards us, their talons clicking on the pavement, gazing calmly and silently into our eyes. There were other people at the lookout point, but the ravens seemed to be drawn to us. Some people may see ravens as a bad omen, but in the spiritual realm, they can be seen to connect the material world with that of the spirits, something that resonates strongly with both myself and my boyfriend. Communicating with those two ravens in a spot of such rich natural beauty and historical significance felt profound.
Our next stop was at the Saskatchewan River Crossing, where you can exit the Icefields Parkway to the David Thompson Highway. I had never been there before and saw a handful of cute cabins, a pub!, a gas station and a souvenir store slash restaurant. Visions of a more remote, down-to-earth mountain cabin stay immediately began to dance through my head. After a brief stop, it was off to Abraham Lake. Abraham Lake is famous on social media for being the site of incredible photoshoots during the winter, showcasing dazzling sunrises and bubbles formed beneath the frozen lake, a result of methane trapped under the surface of the ice. In the summer, the azure water framed by low cliffs, rocks and Alberta wildflowers. There are several places to pull over for a look, but our favourite is Allstones Creek. I had never been there before, but it is an important place for Eric and I was excited for him to introduce me to such a beautiful new spot. It’s a cool place to pull over, pitch a tent and camp, and there is also a 5.5km trail for day hikes. The water was quite low, and we were able to scramble down the rocks, take some deep mountain breaths and simply enjoy the moment.
Finally, our last pit stop on the way back to Edmonton was the cute little town of Lacombe, 125km south of Edmonton. I had been there once before to check out their Lacombe Days festival (click here to read about it!) and kept hearing about a great little restaurant there called Cilantro and Chive. Lacombe also just so happens to be home to Eric’s favourite brewery, Blindman Brewery. Due to COVID, we had to make a reservation for dinner at Cilantro and Chive. With a bit of time to kill before then, we stopped in to Blindman to stock up on some favourite beverages and a couple of souvenir glasses. The outdoor patio was enticing, and something we took note of for our next trip south. A hearty dinner at Cilantro and Chive was the perfect way to end a long day of driving and seeing Alberta’s most spectacular sites. Dill pickle poutine, buffalo chicken burgers and homemade lemonade filled our bellies and the memories of our weekend away filled our hearts.
Overall, my first major jaunt out of my living room during COVID times was a success. I made sure to wear a mask anytime I would be near other people, washed and/or sanitized my hands after touching things in a public space, and made sure to appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to go somewhere beautiful, whether during a pandemic or not. I was disappointed to see the majority of people around me not wearing masks, but comforted to see most staff at hotels, restaurants and other service points wearing them. As long as it continues to be safe to do so and not advised against by health authorities, I will continue to explore my own backyard during these times.
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