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Kim Pemberton: Rocky Mountain adventure a trip for your inner child

A visit to Calgary and Banff brings back some favourite memories of being a kid

When it comes to travel, some of the best vacations are reminiscent of childhood.

This was certainly the case for me on a recent trip to Alberta, which brought back some of my favourite memories of being a kid.

In Calgary, I literally stepped into the pages of the beloved children’s storybook, Goodnight Moon, and in Banff I rode in a horse-drawn sleigh and a gondola for a magical light and sound show.

“Adults want to have as much fun as kids,” says Eirin Bernie, marketing director for Telus Spark Science Centre.

The centre, which opened in its current locaton in 2011, has created new exhibits and programming geared specifically for adults, with topics ranging from climate change to the very adult oriented science of arousal. In recent years, the centre has hosted Calgary’s annual Beakerhead festival, spotlighting art, science and engineering in a unique way every September.

“Kids will always want to learn about science but we want to get the adults excited about science too,” says Bernie.

The science centre also features a digital immersion gallery, the first of its kind in Canada. Inside the 3,000 sq. ft. space, floor and wall projections, as well as sensors that pick up the movement of visitors, help bring stories to life.

The current exhibit, running through February, is the beloved children’s book Goodnight Moon, written by Margaret Wise Brown 75 years ago.

“It has a really nostalgic feeling for a lot of adults, who enjoy being in the story as much as the children” says Bernie.

Next up, in March, is the “Secret Defenders of the Universe” exhibit, about the four different elements (earth, air, fire and water), told through an indigenous lens.

After my visit to Calgary, I drove the hour and half to Banff, a popular skiing destination within Banff National Park — Canada’s first national park and part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Even if you don’t ski or snowboard there’s lots to keep you busy in winter, but you’d be remiss not to explore the region’s mountainous terrain. The best place to view the park’s soaring mountains is Banff’s most popular tourist attraction — the Banff Gondola. It’s an eight-minute ride to climb the 2,292 metres to the summit of Sulpher Mountain, where you can hike during the day or just relax in a restaurant in the sky.

I went in the evening to experience Nightrise, which opened in December 2021, providing an after-dark, multi-media experience that shows off the Rockies and the town of Banff in a new way from four levels of the summit building.

Nightrise was created by Moment Factory, a Montreal-based studio, which is well known around the world for creating Lumina Night Walks, transforming outdoor sites into illuminated journeys. The Banff show, done in partnership with the Stoney Nakoda Nation, provides visitors with the opportunity to learn some of their stories.

Another fun activity that kids and adults alike will enjoy, is a sleigh ride at Warner Stables, just a short 20 minute walk from downtown over the new, wooden Nancy Pauw Bridge that crosses the scenic Bow River.

Warner Stables is the only backcountry horse outfitter in Banff, with a working ranch operating year-round. The stable has a herd of 300 horses but the 13 on site in winter are kept busy pulling sleighs through the snow covered pastures. The rest of the horses spend the winter on a 640-acre ranch north of Calgary, says our guide Mike Beerwald.

He assures us our two Percheron draft horses, Atlas and George, are enjoying the 40 minute ride as much as we are. They do this about five times a day.

“We get asked all the time if they enjoy their job. Absolutely they do. In fact, they’ll fight over who gets to come into the barn first in the morning and help us put their collars on. We’ll just hold their collars up and they’ll just put their heads right through it,” says Beerwald.

If you go: Where to eat and stay in Banff

Brazen, in the historic Mount Royal Hotel, is one of Banff’s newest restaurants, open since June 2022. The restaurant’s focus is shared plates, where traditional menu items are done with a new twist. Some of my favourites were the Mac & Brie, truffle parmesan potatoes and beet carpaccio with walnuts, cashew cream and fermented honey. The hotel, built in 1908 with many renovations and expansions since, is an ideal place to stay in Banff, especially if you enjoy shopping. You only have to step outside and you are in the heart of downtown, with its many unique shops and restaurants nearby.

For a fine dining experience there’s no better place to eat then the top of Sulpher Mountain at Sky Bistro (via the Banff Gondola). The food, showcasing Canadian cuisine from Arctic Char to Alberta beef, was amazing. It was no surprise to learn it was named one of the Best Rooftop Restaurants for 2022 by the World Culinary Awards.

The Grizzly House has been a landmark destination in Banff since 1969, making it one of the oldest restaurants in town. Besides the food, what I love about The Grizzly house is the fact that it hasn’t changed much since first opening. They still have that 70s western vibe with wood panelled walls and eclectic decor like buffalo heads and totem poles. While I ate my cheese fondue with bread and veggies, meat lovers have a wide selection from Alberta staples like beef, buffalo, and venison to exotic meats like alligator, rattlesnake and ostrich cooked on a hot stone at the table.

A great place to stay in Calgary is at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel, just steps away from some of the city’s top attractions, such as the Calgary Tower. Its restaurant, The Hawthorn Dining Room & Bar, updated in April 2019, still has its original fireplace from 1914 and a colourful cowboy mural painted in 1966. While the setting is classic and comfortable, the food and cocktails are what truly elevates the restaurant. The first indication you are about to enjoy a special meal is the home-baked sourdough bread, something you shouldn’t skip. I ordered a melt in your mouth steelhead salmon dish with fingerling potatoes and asparagus and a romaine salad with pistachio dressing, making this meal one of my favourites in Alberta.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Travel Alberta and Pursuit.

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