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On a Rocky ride

One can visit Canada repeatedly and still feel that one has not seen enough of the unassuming country, writes Shivangi.
Hindustan Times | By Shivangi Ambani-Gandhi, Mumbai
UPDATED ON OCT 18, 2007 07:11 PM IST

Canada fascinates me endlessly, stuns me with its beauty and is one of those places I can return to repeatedly, and still feel that I haven't see enough of.

Last summer, I drove through the majestic Canadian Rockies Range - a place to be described in superlatives. It was capped with the whitest shimmering snow, the most accessible glaciers, glorious summer sunshine and the bluest, clearest waters.

Banff National Park
Arriving in Banff, I was instantly taken in by its small town charm. I spent the evening with a relaxing stroll through the main street lined with small shops displaying skiwear, jewellery and gemstones, and even spotted a few elk and deer in parkland just off the road.

Banff sits close to snowy peaks and valleys, making it perfect for activities like hiking, biking, camping, and skiing. As twilight fades, each little house in the town is illuminated with small lights creating an illusion that blends in with the clear starlit sky above.

The valley town looked completely different in brilliant sunshine the next morning, as we drive to the Banff Gondola. The views are even more stunning during the gentle gondola ride up to the summit of Sulphur Mountain.

The gondola terminal offers breathtaking 360-degree views and interesting boardwalks.

We then visited the Upper Hot Spring of Sulphur Mountain, though I didn't stop to take a dip. In these limestone mountains, the hot springs of geothermally heated water loaded with minerals create little lakes. It was fascinating just to watch the vapour rise from the clear blue waters.

Driving through the Cave and Basin National Park, we stopped to take a look at the curious pillar like formation called Hoodoos: strangely-shaped rock formations made of glacial till, cemented together with dissolved limestone.

Lake Louise
The following morning, we headed to Lake Louise - spectacularly set among snow-capped peaks. The trails around the lake are serene, with varying reflections in the icy blue waters.

At the time I was there, in April, the lake was still partially frozen, surreal in its brilliance.

The Fairmont Chateau that overlooks the lake is very luxurious, but I stayed at a smaller resort just behind it. All resorts in the region offer eco-friendly toiletries and services - they have photographs to prove that despite growing tourism, they have managed to maintain the natural surroundings in almost the same condition as they were 100 years ago.

Columbia Icefield
The Icefield Highway is one of the most scenic routes in the world, punctuated by emerald green lakes, thundering waterfalls and rugged mountains. You are likely to encounter interesting wildlife like elk, bighorn sheep, moose and mountain goat.

The thumb rule is to stop every time you see someone else stopping - they've probably seen something you missed. These areas are also home to grizzly and black bears.

The Columbia Icefield is the largest in the Rocky Mountains, and one of the most accessible expanses of glacial ice in North America. The most famous landmark here is one of the massive tongues of ice flowing out from the icefield, the Athabasca Glacier.

As you approach the site by road, the glacier suddenly comes into sight - majestic and massive. The Icefield Centre at the base of the Glacier offers great views, with a large display area that details the story of glacier formation and movement. But it really is the trip aboard the Ice Explorer to the glacier that gives a unique firsthand experience.

The Ice Explorer - a unique vehicle equipped with massive tyres to travel across the ice makes for an excellent joy ride. Stepping onto the glacier, was a feeling probably akin to taking that first step on the moon. Layers of snow accumulated over the millennia lay at my feet; it was amazing to believe that I was leaving footprints behind.

Medicine Lake

On the road from Icefield to Jasper, I crossed the intriguing Medicine Lake, which gets its name from the fact that it vanishes every autumn.

When I went, the water levels were low and I could see the underground drainage system. The guide explained that during summer, the melt from the surrounding mountains fills the lake. By September, however, the runoff dries up and the lake rapidly drains. People have actually tried to stop this drainage - once with old mattresses and once with magazines. Neither, of course, had any effect.

Athabasca Falls
Next, along the drive, are the Athabasca Falls - not very high, but one of the most powerful in the region. The Columbia Icefield feeds these perennial falls, whose pounding waters have created intricate features like potholes and canyons, before turning into a gentle river that flows out over the valley.

Driving along the Athabasca river, I finally approached Jasper. It is a small town, and the views are not as spectacular but it has lovely curio shops worth your time.

There is no better way to culminate a journey than in Vancouver. The city, ranked as one of the best urban regions to live in, is close to the sea and also sits on the shoulder of the snowy Whistler Mountains. The locals will tell you that it is the only place in the world where you can snow ski and water ski, all in one day.

It is a charming city, with the Lions Gate Bridge arching over the Stanley Park - an unspoiled region of giant trees retained from city's days as a forest. With the Grouse Mountains towering above, Vancouver is a visual treat, and the multi-cultural populace makes it satisfying culinary destination. A must-see on any visit.

(Shivangi is a Sydney-based freelance writer)

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