Winter Break in Canada // Lake Louise + Banff
On Black Friday, I saw The Points Guy post about airfare deals available through Cyber Monday and a lightbulb went off. Let's go somewhere! By the way, you should be following The Points Guy on Facebook. He has a wealth of travel knowledge, which is honestly how we've been able to travel frequently. Anyway, I kept my eyes peeled and an open mind on where to travel next. Where we were going to end up depended on flight and hotel price. It was actually fun to go where the wind blew us. OH CANADA!
We traveled the week after Christmas, which can be one of the most expensive times of year to be on the move - kids are out of school and many people take the week off. There were a few places in the states we could have gone for slightly cheaper, but Lake Louise in the dead of Winter??? We HAD to do it and the prices were surprisingly decent for the time of year.
So off we went, parkas, gloves, and beanies in tote. We flew out on Christmas Day evening, which was kind of greatness. The airport was empty and the flight was only about a quarter full. Flying on Christmas Day was the cheapest option so we took a 6pm nonstop flight, landed in Calgary at 9:30pm and stayed at The Radisson Airport Hotel since it was late and the drive to Lake Louise is a little over 2 hours. This saved us hundreds between the hotel and flight.
I booked the room on Expedia with 4900 points + $17. The hotel is super affordable in general at about $82 a night and, BONUS, it's very modern with heated floors in the bathroom. That came in handy in the -14 degree weather. I personally love booking hotels on Expedia because the points add up fast and they offer exclusive, cheaper rates for members.
The next morning, we grabbed breakfast in the hotel restaurant then had the hotel shuttle drop us off at the airport to catch our bus to Lake Louise.
TAKE THE BUS or RENT A CAR?
I would HIGHLY recommend renting a car. Because we booked everything so last minute, literally every car in Calgary, Banff and Lake Louise were rented. If renting a car isn't an option for you, Brewster Express offers a great shuttle service. The buses hold about 60 people and are clean, modern, and have a restroom on board. The reason I recommend renting a car is because a) the drive is really easy (even in the snowy winter) comprising of mostly highway and b) the shuttle stops a lot along the way to drop off and pick up passengers. From the airport, you'll stop in Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise Village, and then The Fairmont Chateau Hotel is the end of the line. The drive from the airport to The Fairmont is 2 hours and 10 minutes but the bus took close to 4 hours. We scheduled another pick up at The Fairmont to take us into Banff one day and while we were in Banff, we decided to stay longer so I got online and easily changed our reservation for no cost. They allow unlimited modifications to your reservation for free up until 90 minutes before pick up. Overall, it was more expensive than renting a car but I was thankful for the service in our situation.
WHERE TO STAY
Canmore is about an hour southeast from Lake Louise. We drove through on the bus and it looked cute. We considered staying there because hotel prices were the lowest of the 3 cities, but opted not to since it was an hour from Lake Louise.
Banff is next on the journey to Lake Louise at about 45 minutes southeast. The town is lively with numerous restaurants, bars, and shopping options. We had Brewster drop us off at Elk + Avenue Hotel. It was very nice and modern, yet felt like a mountain lodge. There was a restaurant in the lobby that was packed and the hotel is centrally located. To be honest, the main street was loaded with cute boutique mountain lodges. We could have stayed at any of them and been so happy.
During our Banff exploration day, we noticed a few hotels had outdoor thermal pools. The Fox Hotel even has an underground heated cave pool. It may be a little kitsch but, on a subzero day, I would have been stoked to soak. You have to be a guest at the hotel to take advantage of this amenity, though. I called a few other hotels, as well, and they all said their amenities are for guests only. However, the area has several hot springs open to the public. Banff Upper Hot Springs, Radium Hot Springs and Miette Hot Springs are just to name a few. If you forget your swimsuit, don't fret, you can rent a retro suit. I really wanted to do this (maybe just to have a picture in a retro rented swimsuit) but we called and were informed it was crowded. That's what we get for traveling during the holidays. The employee suggested visiting first thing in the morning.
The end of the line, top of the mountain, crème de la crème - Lake Louise.
The village of Lake Louise is quite sleepy. There are a few lodges and I believe only one or two shopping centers/restaurants but it's extremely close to The Fairmont Chateau. When I was booking hotels, the inns and lodges here were more expensive than Banff and much more expensive than Canmore. We ended up booking 1 night at The Fairmont Chateau and 2 nights in Banff at The Juniper Hotel but since we didn't have a car it would have been too challenging to stay at The Juniper. Though it's really cute and extremely affordable, it's not in the center of town and we didn't have an affordable way to get everywhere. If you have a car, this hotel would be an excellent option.
I cancelled our stay at The Juniper and added two nights to our stay at The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Now if you've read some of my other travel posts, you know I'm a big fan of AirBnBs and boutique hotels for the low prices but there's always a BUT right?
The FAIRMONT CHATEAU LAKE LOUISE
There's no doubt about it, this hotel is expensive. I've complained in the past about hotels charging the equivalent to a life's savings and not delivering, but this hotel delivers. First of all, the scenery alone will take your breath away. Every trip, I have a moment of utter appreciation (which always involves tears) and Lake Louise was one of the most overwhelming.
I think we were upgraded to a room with a lake view, because I believe these rooms are more expensive and I definitely booked the cheapest room. The room was VERY tiny and the bathroom couldn't hold two people at once but I wasn't mad for a second. This view was everything. After all, if you're at Lake Louise, why would you spend any time in your room?!
WHAT TO DO
The hotel is huge. There are numerous restaurants and several fun shops. I may have purchased a flannel shirt, scarf and beanie - obviously. The main floor has a lounge and restaurant with the most spectacular views of the lake. We popped in for Glühwein (spiced mulled wine) several times to escape the unseasonably cold weather.
You could stay inside sipping hot cocoa or you could GO OUTSIDE! Even if it is -7 degrees, the shops have plenty of hand warmers. You can ice skate, cross country ski, walk through the wintery forest, go for a snowshoe walk across the entirely frozen lake, hike to Fairview lookout for spectacular views of the hotel and lake, play hockey, snow sled, go dog sledding, or have a drink at the Ice Bar. The hotel rents pretty much any equipment you could possibly need and rentals are fairly cheap. We rented skates for $15 an hour and it was so cold, that's all we needed. In the summer, they rent canoes, walking sticks, etc.
Throughout our stay, we noticed the hotel was packed during the day and quiet at night. Because Brewster Express offers a shuttle to the hotel, there were a lot of outside guests but I didn't even mind. I was having too much fun in the snow. If you choose not to stay at The Fairmont, staying in Banff would be a more affordable option with a day trip (or two!) to The Chateau.
WHERE TO EAT
At The Fairmont, we ate at The Alpine Social several times. It's chic, cozy, and has amazing food and bar. As you might know, Matt and I are gluten and dairy free. Every restaurant at The Fairmont was able to accommodate our restrictions. If you're vegan, I recommend the sweet potato & quinoa burger. OH MY.
Lakeview Lounge provides sweeping views of the lake so lunch there is a must. I ordered a $24 glass of champagne because it felt appropriate.
Walliser Stube restaurant and wine bar offers European cuisine with a variety of classic Swiss, German and Alpine dishes. The atmosphere felt so European.
The hotel also has an Italian, French, and farm to table restaurant. We had dinner at the farm to table, Fairview, and were underwhelmed mostly due to the hefty price tag. I'd prefer to hang out at Alpine Social.
For pizza, head to The Bear Street Tavern. It's quaint, lively, and in the center of town. They even have gluten free crust.
Also on Bear Street is Nourish. It's a vegan restaurant that took my breath away. Get the mac n' cheese and order dessert!
If you can believe, this long post is only a taste of what you can do in Banff // Lake Louise. If you ever have the opportunity to make the trip, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. I don't often say this, but we'll make it back. It's just one of those places you make an effort to visit more than once.
Until next time Canada!