Playing through the Canadian Rockies

The following travel feature is a guest post submitted by Dave Jones from

Banff Springs Golf Club

Devil's Cauldron at Banff Springs

It is generally accepted that vacationing golfers like their courses set in scenic surroundings. For proof, just compare the tourism figures for Colorado courses with those of, say, Iowa. But even in the mountains, some scenery is better than others. Until they build courses at the foot of Mount Everest, I’ll cast my vote for the Canadian Rockies.

This area, which is part of the province of Alberta, in the site of Banff, Jasper and all those other places you always planned to visit, but never quite did. Well, the pictures in those magazine ads and travel brochures don’t lie; comparing the Canadian Rockies with other mountain scenery is like comparing pate de foie gras with chopped liver.

But you have to get there, and that can also be a pleasant experience. Geographically, Alberta is much like Colorado: the western portion is mountainous and the eastern is an extension of the vast and fertile plains-country that begins in west Texas. By air, the ports of entry are Edmonton and Calgary, two large, clean and inviting cities. I chose to begin in Edmonton to the east, simply because the mountains are some 200 miles away and I wanted time to let my enthusiasm build. (Don’t underestimate the anticipation factor in these travel equations.)

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, has been a stopping point on routes to the North and the Pacific for two centuries, but never was a stop more significant than in 1931 when legendary aviators Wiley Post and Harold Gatty landed there on the back nine of their round-the-world flight. Heavy rains had left the airfield so muddy Post could barely land the plane, and he certainly couldn’t take off. No problem. Crews took down telephone wires and restrung power lines along Portage Avenue so that no wire crossed the road. the plane was rolled to the head of the avenue and about half of Edmonton’s population watched Post’s successful takeoff the next morning.

By far the chief attraction for today’s visitors is the West Edmonton Mall, which locals boast (modestly, in the Canadian way) is the world’s largest, and who can doubt them? The two-level complex covers 48 city blocks and contains 800 stores, 110 eating establishments and 19 movie theaters. It includes the world’s largest indoor amusement park, a water park, miniature golf course, skating rink and attractions ranging from submarine rides and dolphin shows to a bingo hall and casino. Don’t even think of seeing it all during a casual afternoon stroll.

Anchoring one corner of the mall and impressive in its own right is the Fantasyland Hotel. The fantasy portion of the name describes suites decorated in such motifs as Hollywood nightclub, classical Roman, Polynesian, Victorian coach, railway and romantic Arabian, among others. I stayed in the Polynesian suite, and the erupting volcano on the wall was so realistic I swear I heard Jon Hall say to Maria Montez, “Ah Tondeleyo, the gods are angry.” Next trip I plan to stay in what management calls the “playful truck suite.” The bed is in the back of a shiny pickup (I’m not making this up), and I can’t wait to say “Ten-four; good buddy,” instead of “Good night.” But I digress.

The first couple of hours west out of Edmonton is a lot like driving through the Texas Panhandle, but one soon sees the mountains, and the transportation begins. By the time you reach Jasper, you have already stopped the car two or three times to take pictures of elk and bighorn and to wonder where the bears are.

In laying out the Jasper Park Lodge Course, the celebrated designer Stanley Thompson revealed himself to be a master at marrying his course to its surroundings. Even on its opening in 1925 people marveled at how he always seemed to position each hole so it lined up with a nearby mountain peak. How much is the course enhanced by the scenery? It’s much like the question some ask about Pebble Beach: Would it be considered as great if it were in the middle of Nebraska? No, it wouldn’t but it would still be a damn good course in Nebraska or anyplace else. Jasper Park is a fine course that is well worth the effort to get to.

The five closing holes border the waters of a lovely lake called Lac Beauvert, which brings to mind another aspect of the Canadian Rockies: The resorts are multilingual. A book of area photographs can be found in gift shops in four languages: English, French (Canada’s two official languages), Japanese and German. There are, in fact, so many Japanese tourists that signs on the golf course are in Japanese as well as English.

Jasper Park Lodge comprises a main building and several nearby chalets accommodating 1,000 guests. The lodge contains a number a gift shops and several places to eat. One of the pleasures of staying there is strolling to dinner in the twilight, knowing full well that two or three large elk will be grazing along the path. They say that in mating season the bull elk have been known to charge at human beings, but this could be merely a low jape, much like the story of the square needle in the Army.

The Lodge’s trump card is the Edith Cavell Dining Room, whose high prices would lead one to expect something just this side of Lutece. The ambiance and service are excellent, but the food, while good, is not something to make Escoffier look nervously over his shoulder.

The highlight of the trip for me was the 175-mile drive south from Jasper to Banff along the Icefields Parkway. You should allow an entire day for this because there will be numerous stops for photo ops along the way. While much mountain driving is done parallel to the range (i.e. along the Teton Range), in both Jasper and Banff national parks you drive down a valley, which provides great scenery on both sides of the road. You’ll see various glaciers; at the Athabasca Glacier you can actually drive a few hundred miles off the highway and walk out on ice that began as snow about 150 to 200 years ago. Now that’s snow play.

You should leave Jasper reasonably early in the morning to reach Lake Louise in time for lunch. Go straightaway to the Poppy Room at Chateau Lake Louise and dine while enjoying the view of the lake and the awesome mountains around it. The quote on of the guidebook: “There is a good chance that no hotel – anywhere- has a more dramatic view out its back door than this chateau.” Amen, brother.

Next stop, the Banff Springs Hotel, which, next to the Royal and Ancient clubhouse in St. Andrews, may be the most recognizable structure in golf among persons who haven’t been there. The hotel first opened in 1888, but has existed in its present form only since 1928. Experts report it is Scottish baronial in style, with a hint of French chateau; whatever, it contains 800 rooms and is impressive.

Banff’s course was also designed by Stanley Thompson and was completed in 1927, two years after Jasper, and was officially opened by the Prince of Wales. The two courses met with worldwide acclaim, and Thompson’s fame quickly spread. Among his assistants was Robert Trent Jones, who later became his partner. Once again, the magnificence of the setting doesn’t detract from the quality of the golf. A third nine, the Tunnel, was added in 1989 along with a handsome new clubhouse. The golf is grand, but if you choose to follow more sedentary pursuits one day, it’s pleasant to sit in your room high above the valley and watch the elk grazing on the course while you graze on a sandwich and a beer from the deli, one of the hotel’s 16 eating establishments.

The third resort destination on this mountain pilgrimage is called Kananaskis Country, located about halfway between Banff and Calgary. Three hotels: The Lodge at Kananaskis, Kananaskis Inn and the Hotel Kananaskis and two courses – the Mt. Kidd and the Mt. Lorette – are here. The courses are the work of Trent Jones and like most of his courses (and most everyone else’s, too) they are fun to play if you resist the temptation to go all the way back to the tips.
Calgary: rising and falling
The Mt. Lorette, opened in 1983, and the Mt. Kidd, in 1984, are named for nearby mountains that tower over the proceedings. Mt. Kidd, in particular, looms menacingly, much as Punjab used to do when someone threatened Annie or Sandy. And if you play in the autumn, as I did, when the sun drops behind Mt. Kidd late in the afternoon the temperature also descends – about 15 or 20 degrees.
Kananaskis wasn’t nearly as crowded as Jasper and Banff and I’m not certain why; maybe because it was so late in the season. At any rate, these are fine golf courses and there seems no good reason they aren’t full all the time, particularly given their close proximity to Calgary.

The first thing one sees on the approach to Calgary is the Canada Olympic Park, the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics. There are regular tours of the facility so I availed myself of the opportunity to go to the top of the 90-meter ski jump. When I looked down, it confirmed my long-standing belief that nobody in his right mind would ever attempt such a leap. They also have stimulated a bobsled run, which I just as soon would forget. Suffice it to say when we banked through the first right-hand turn, my stomach did a hard left; I closed my eyes and held on grimly. Surely this wasn’t what Huxley envisioned when he describe going to the “feelies” in Brave New World.

This journey was designed to cover only the mountain courses, but a number of courses are located in and around both Edmonton and Calgary. In particular, Heritage Pointe, just south of Calgary, was so impressive it deserves mention. There are 27 holes now, with another nine on the way. Ron Garl, who designed the course, laid out 18 holes in a small valley so adroitly the golfer is treated to a drive from an elevated tee on seemingly every hole. The Desert Nine, to which another nine is being added, is just what its name implies: the kind of course one might find in the American Southwest. It’s difficult to imagine two courses so entirely different in look and feel, yet only a few hundred yards from each other.

It’s also difficult to accept that such an enjoyable trip has to end. Once you have seen the Canadian Rockies, you’ll definitely want to go again.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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