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Canada’s Fairer at the Fairmont

Checking into any one of Fairmont’s properties in the Canadian Rockies is a heady experience. Checking into four of them over eight days feels like an alpine traveler’s quest for nirvana.

The Fairmont properties in Whistler, Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff all occupy hallowed ground. As hotels, they are masters of all they survey.

My wife, Kim, and I had the opportunity to visit them a couple of summers ago after we purchased an eight-night package offered by Fairmont for a Tourism Cares fundraiser at the United States Tour Operators annual conference. Faced with lots of packages from around the world, we zeroed in on this one. I had not been to the Canadian Rockies since I went on business 30 years earlier; Kim had not been since a family vacation during her childhood.

As soon as we bought the package, I emailed a couple of friends in the industry who could counsel us on when to go and what to see.

“That’s an incredible package,” Canada native Jim Warren of Anderson Tours told me. “It’s almost impossible to get into those properties in the summer months, so be sure to check on blackout dates.”

He was right. The high-season months of July and August were off limits, so our choices were early summer or early fall.

“If you go in June, you can count on having some snow on hiking trails and maybe even a few of the higher roads you’ll be driving,” said Bart Donnelly of Travel Alberta. “If you go in the fall, early is better than late for day hiking. By mid-October, it will be getting pretty cold in the higher elevations.”

We decided on late June and booked the dates. We’d fly into Vancouver and out of Calgary. Our route would be Whistler, Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff.

Whistler: Young and Happening

We arrived in Whistler after maybe a two-hour drive from the Vancouver airport. Of these four Fairmont properties, Whistler skews the youngest. It’s a ski resort that is building its summer business. This is extreme sports country.

The weekend we were there, hundreds of runners were in town for a road race that left from its manicured downtown. Much of the Olympic Village from the 2010 Winter Games remains in downtown Whistler.

In the promenade directly behind the lodge, kids were constantly getting on lifts with mountain bikes. In the summer months, they careen down the mountainside, hitting banked curves for thrills and speeding down straightaways like they’re late for supper.

“Whistler would be the odd man out for most tours,” said Warren. “They are first and foremost a skiing destination. Most tour companies are concentrating more on Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff.”

The lodge is spacious and open, with a busy bar in the back. Outside, a patio overlooks a swimming pool and a miniature golf course. The pool was busy, even though the temperatures were in the mid-70s. For Southerners like us, it seemed too cool for pool time, but the other guests were getting their money’s worth.

We took the incline up the mountain to ride the Peak to Peak Gondola, the world’s longest unsupported tram, between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Along the way, we watched a black bear make its way down a trail about 300 feet beneath us. We made it back down for a great dinner at the Rim Rock Café.

We left Whistler early in the morning because the drive to Jasper was the longest of the trip. Driving in the Canadian Rockies is not time wasted.  There is nowhere that isn’t scenic. We stopped for a late breakfast at the Rugged Bean Café in Lilliooet, British Columbia, and had an outdoor lunch at a local drive-in in Clearwater.

Jasper: Scenic and Serene

Jasper Park Lodge is the least pretentious property of the four Fairmont hotels in the region. The sense we got was that this family retreat in Jasper National Park has been visited by generations of families for decades. These folks probably don’t care if anything ever changes. The rustic lodge has a great bar off the back with windows overlooking the lake and golf course. I sat there one day and watched Jordan Spieth win the U.S. Open.

“The lodge at Jasper is a bit outdated,” said Warren, “but their occupancy level is very high, so it doesn’t seem to matter much. A cruise on Maligne Lake is a must in Jasper. It’s the most beautiful lake in the Rockies.”

I played the resort’s historic Stanley Thompson golf course with two Chinese businessmen from San Francisco. Somewhere on the back nine, I looked up and noticed a huge bull elk foraging just off our tee. We all took photos from a distance, but then one of the men got right in its face for a close-up. Thankfully, that elk never blinked.

The drive from Jasper to Lake Louise was magnificent. The highways are designed for heavy visitor traffic, and Canada has built wildlife crossings over them to avoid accidents involving wildlife. Warren told me the crossings aren’t used much, but miles of highway have been fenced to make it safer for motorists.

We made a stop at Athabasca Falls on the way. This magnificent corkscrew waterfall drops several hundred feet into the Athabasca River and is worth a stop.

Tauck and Brewster coaches were sitting out front of Sumwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge like billboards, so we pulled in. This old favorite serves a buffet breakfast and features original art in its massive gift shop.

“That’s a great old place that a lot of groups use,” said Warren. “They’re only open from May through October due to snow, and for years, they threw a big party for all the tour guides and drivers when the season closed.”

Several glaciers were visible above us on the drive to Lake Louise. Many groups stop here to board sightseeing vehicles that carry them out to the Columbia Icefield.