On Lakes and Glaciers
In Banff we stay at one of North America's best-known lodging icons. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel has been open since 1888, when rooms went for $3.50 per night. The panoramic view of the Canadian Rocky Mountains was and is something that will wow even the most jaded travelers. We draw the curtains in the morning and our jaws drop. "Look at this view!" I say excitedly to my daughter.
"Um-hmm," she says after looking out the window for a nanosecond. "Can we go swimming today?"
So, one parent hangs by the indoor and outdoor pool for an hour watching children dip and dive with kickboards and swim noodles. The other enjoys the lures of the adults-only spa: pools of varying temperatures, steam room, sauna, and outdoor hot tub where we can soak in the bubbles while looking out at snowy peaks. Then we switch.
We feel we should do more than just lie around the hotel though in unbelievably beautiful Banff. So we hit the Banff Park Museum. Established in 1903, it's worth visiting for the decorative cross-log wood building itself as much as what's inside. We assume it'll be fun for two, a bore for the youngest, but as so often happens, our predictions are off. She loves looking at the stuffed animals in this taxidermist's delight, until we get to the butterfly collection. Almost to the point of crying, she asks, "Why did they have to kill all these butterflies? That's so mean!"
We drive north to Moraine Lake Lodge, perched on a glacier lake so beautiful that it looks like it could only appear on a Photoshopped postcard. "I've taken 500 photos of the same mountains, but I can't bear to delete any of them," a man next to me says as we survey the landscape from the shore. The little one is thrilled too, but by different things: the cozy fireplace in our cabin, the marmot we spot while hiking, and the chipmunk-looking squirrels scampering about-especially one that thinks my camera bag is a salt lick and leaves a corner of it wet with squirrel drool. Scampering over the rocks at Consolation Lake is as fun as a playground and all three of us do agree on one thing: the canoe ride around the lake is wonderful.
The gondola ride near Lake Louise is also a big hit, but for the ride rather than the view from the top. It generates the same excitement as an amusement park ride when we switch to a regular chairlift going down.
The Icefields Parkway ride up toward Jasper is even more stunning than promised, peaks and glaciers rolling by as Ryan Adams and the Jayhawks provide our soundtrack. Our destination is the Columbia Icefield, where a massive vehicle climbs up the side of the mountain and deposits us on a glacier. "This is fun!" Alina says as she looks out the window on the way up. Then "This is so cool!" as we walk on the ice in mid-June. Mom and Dad agree-another threefer.
Lesson five: better to be scared than to be bored.
Whirlwind on the Big Island
Eventually we fly back to Vancouver and then catch a Harbour Air seaplane over to the Vancouver Island town of Nanaimo. I'm expecting the strangeness of the seaplane to be extra memorable. After all, it's the first time any of us has been in a contraption that lands on the water. "What did you think of that?" I ask as we deplane.
"Fun, but it smells like gas inside," Alina says. But then her eyes get big as she points to one of the plane's pontoons on the water, where a man has just opened a hatch and pulled out a pink bag. "Cool! My suitcase was in there!"
In Nanaimo we take a ride on one of the small "pickle boats," which seems like more of a kid thrill in advance than it turns out to be. There's a park with a huge playground right next to where you board the boats. How can a sightseeing tour compete with that?
We head south the next day, visiting a cranberry farm, take a ride on the steam train in the BC Forest Discovery Centre, and dodge the town drunks in Duncan to see more totem poles. For the girl in the back seat, the highlight of the day is getting ice cream in Cowichan Bay at The Udder Guys. "There's a jelly bean in the bottom of the cone!"
We spend the last two nights in Victoria, with a whirlwind of activities akin to the finale at a fireworks display. There's an IMAX film, the Royal British Columbia Museum, a ride around town on an open bus, another harbor tour by small boat, and the topper: a Prince of Whales trip out to see some Orcas. The whales cooperate nicely and that activity makes the overall top-five list later. After whales, bears, caribou, rams, and a marmot, I'm finally seeing a pattern.
Lesson six: animals are always fun.
At the beginning of this trip we had stayed with friends in Portland and Seattle, another child to play with in each location. For the Canada part, Alina is shushed a hundred times, forced to suppress her boisterous nature in nice restaurants and while guides are speaking to the adults.
Eleven days later, this struggle is taking its toll on the mother-daughter relationship and I'm anticipating disaster as we sit down for high tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. I'm relieved to see other children in the tea room and even more relieved when a third tea tray comes out with kid-friendly finger sandwiches and some kind of bubblegum-flavored tea concoction instead of Assam or Earl Gray. As if on cue, our little girl turns into the perfect princess. She has seen this scene enough times through the behavior-shaping forces of Walt Disney and Angelina Ballerina. Even a girl who is really tired of acting like an adult knows you must act properly at a tea party. It goes great except when a spoon goes flying through the air and lands under the brocade sofa. The kind waitress retrieves it without any stern glances.
We have a grand send-off meal at Spinnakers, the oldest brewpub in Canada and one known as a slow food "gastropub." The sommelier knows I am coming and wants to provide a real experience, so each dish arrives with both a wine pairing and a beer pairing. The decadent waves start with Whaletown oysters with in-house malt vinegar and yellow beet mignonette, paired with a local mead and a Hefeweizen. It ends with local cheeses and decadent truffles paired with a Belgian Ale and a complex red cuvee. In between these brackets the heavenly bites and sips keep coming. While all this is going on, Alina enjoys mozzarella made on a nearby dairy farm, organic tomato paste sourced on the island, and crust made from British Colombia wheat. Yes, a cheese pizza.
Family travel is a constant struggle to compromise. Even when we think we've got the perfect itinerary planned, we're wrong at least half the time. Some parents decide to just kowtow to the kids completely and spend thousands of dollars at Disney World. Others take the opposite approach and drop the youngsters off with Grandma before jetting off to Paris or Tuscany.
Those of us who try to take the middle ground will probably never get it right, though maybe the ones who just spend a week on a beach or by a pool have the right idea. As the first friend we had stayed with on this trip tells me, "The vacation times I remember enjoying the most from childhood are when my parents gave up. When we got to just sit in a hotel room eating crap from the vending machine and watching anything we wanted on TV. That was the best!"
Editor Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations. His newest book, co-written with Rob Sangster, is Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.
All photos © Tim Leffel and Donna Leffel. See the right column for links to places mentioned in this story.
Travel with Children - Go Figure by Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco
Fear on the Menu by Tim Leffel
Ten Years to Tequila: On the Agave Trail in Mexico by Tim Leffel
Meat and Malbec at Midnight by Tim Leffel
Books from the Author:
Buy Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Links to attractions:
Banff and Lake Louise Tourism
Banff Park Museum
Moraine Lake Lodge
BC Forestry Discovery Centre
Prince of Whales whale watching
Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub