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Highway Star: Jasper & Banff National Park, Canada.

Summary: A journey through Canada's legendary mountain parks takes you past an

untamed blend of savage wildlife, gushing waterfalls and ancient lakes.

BY SUPRIYA SEHGAL

Cowboy hat tipped slightly to the right, calf length leather boots and a faded check shirt peeping from under an olive jacket. The man sitting opposite me on the Calgary Airport looked nothing like a Ladakhi clothes trader. Yet, the wrinkles etched on his face were far too familiar. Little of the cowboy era or the Silk Route remains in the foothills of the Rockies in Western Canada or the mountains of Ladakh in India--but the weathered faces remind you of the vivid similarity between the two harsh mountainous regions.

This sentiment had stayed with me through the journey from Jasper to Banff as I drove through U-shaped valleys, fringed by craggy crests of the Rockies weighed down by massive glaciers, spiky alpine forests, dull grey crags and rumbling streams converging into emerald lakes. On several trips made to India's bastions of outdoor adventure, Ladakh and Spiti, I was convinced that no other mountain drive could enthrall me more. This route was, in my mind, the epitome of adventure and history, strung together with a vibrant local culture. Add to the glory of dry mountain desert topography, there was a historic hook of the legendary Silk Route attached to this--nothing else could come close to the experience. I couldn't wait to witness something more exhilarating and be proven wrong. On a trip through Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta, I was delighted to be just that.

Under the reassuringly calm surroundings of the Jasper National Park at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier lies an untamed blend of savage wildlife, gushing waterfalls and ancient lakes named by the first nations of the region. No wonder, spotting a young moose and a black bear grazing on dandelions by the roadside, a few feet away from my van was not altogether ludicrous. From the few countryside cottages, guest houses and restaurants that house a sparse population of 4,000 in the town one could look up to the perennially snow-topped Edith Cavell Mountain, drive through Maligne Valley, make pit stops at the hauntingly beautiful Medicine Lake and the thunderous Sunwapta Falls plummeting down a narrow gorge. The two days at Canada's largest mountain park were filled with a wild charm, but the thrilling part of the journey was yet to come. With urbane attractions like the Sky Tram or restaurants making a reluctant entry on my list, I was excited to be on the road. With sensory perception on a spin, I could only assimilate the magnificence of the drive through the Icefield Parkway once I halted at the Columbia Icefield. The sensational ride through one of the world's most beautiful highways had me constantly behind the camera. Bighorn rams looking sceptically at slowing cars, elks peeping from behind bushes, large campers cruising down an immaculate highway that hardly tarnishing the raw mountainscapes--the montage of sights could be absorbed only at this break.

A large red monster bus with wheels higher than me inched its way up the glacier and stopped for half an hour to have us spill out of the bus in excitement and crunch the ice below our feet in a dazzling white backdrop. The intimacy with the mountains was overwhelming. That night, the excitement of halting just across the 215 sq km glacier, guarded by 11 of the 22 highest peaks of the Rockies, hardly gave me a wink's sleep. I found a perch on my window and looked out long at the glistening ice under the moonlight.

The lack of sleep hardly tainted the experience next day, as I stood speechless in front of the frozen Bow Lake, 91 km from the Icefields. White knobby peaks towered behind an extensive sheet of ice, as many travellers hopped down from cars and buses to clink on the sheath of ice that stretched from the road to the base of the mountains. Some of us successfully managed to create diverging cracks from a weak spot, the challenge against the rock hard ice taken up quiet fiercely. Veering off the highway on this road is imperative if you want to peer into the valleys plunging down behind rows of lower Aspen trees. The Hoodoos Point was perfect for this. It was in these insidious altitudes that the first intrepid travellers carved out a fur trade, living entirely off the woods. Then came the Victorian braves who manoeuvred the mountains with slightly more sophisticated infrastructure till the Canadian Pacific Railway made its way through these treacherous conditions in 1881. Though muted compared to the stalwarts, an imaginative mind was all I needed to infuse a sense of adventure in my own vagabondish journey. The highway swings to the left to catch the Bow Valley Parkway and enters the town of Banff wedged between the forested mountain valleys of the Banff National Park. The jagged crests of the Rockies encompass an area of 6,641 sq km of sweeping valleys, and pristine blue lakes Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a series of stunning vistas unfold as one sets out to explore the Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise, Lake Moraine and the open seating gondola ski-lift that swishes through a misty mountain. As I stood at the railing of the Lake Louise gondola, I couldn't help but accept that the Rockies fringed drive was, in fact, as enigmatic as the one to Ladakh. For a highway junkie as myself, that could only be fabulous news!

Secret

Head 58 km northwest on the Trans-Canadian Highway to 'The Station Restaurant at Lake Louise' which transports you to 1910. It's a secret that many might be privy to, but only a handful stop at for a meal. The sound of the chugging trains on the railway line just behind the cafe have long fallen silent, but the remnants of leaded windows, historic coaches, Delamere (1925) and Kilarney (1906) are now fashioned into dining cars. Contact: (200 Sentinel Rd, Lake Louise; Open mid-May-Oct; cost: $17-38 CAD

At a Glance

Getting There: Arrive at the Edmonton International Airport and transfer to Jasper (392 km/4 hour 30 minutes) via the Yellowhead Highway. The journey from Jasper to Banff on the Icefield Parkway is only 288 km but can be broken up into two days with a stopover at the Columbia Icefield. Plan your departure from Calgary International Airport, off Banff (144 km/1 hour 30 minutes).

Stay: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Jasper: A mountain lodge experience is guaranteed for those looking for a luxury wilderness retreat. (www.fairmont.com/jasper; Cost: $409-$649 CAD double sharing)

Eat: Papa George's Restaurant, Jasper: Local brews and juicy steaks await you. The 1925 establishment focuses on authentic Canadian cuisine. (www.papageorgesrestaurant.com) else check out Nourish Bistro Banff

Celebrate

Dinner and dance inside while it snows outside

If you travelling to Banff and Jasper in December, you are probably there to whet your skiing skills. Take a break from the chilly winds, and settle in at the Fairmont Banff Springs, Banff or Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge on December 31 for the last meal of the year! While the streets are covered in snow and the town looks an ethereal white, it's time to shed the extra layers and attend the New Year's party (cost per head CAD$200 onwards). Both Fairmont properties host a dinner and dance celebration to thaw you from the icy Rockies experience.

Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2014. LMIL. All rights reserved.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
Words:1279
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