Eighty years ago, as the war clouds gathered over Europe, George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, embarked on a three-week tour of Canada.
The couple boarded a special royal train with gold-plated telephones, a lounge and bedrooms for a coast-to-coast trip designed to strengthen the bond between mother country and first Dominion at a time of growing international tension, and bolster the monarchy in the wake of the abdication crisis.
The king and queen were welcomed by flag-waving crowds wherever they went but perhaps the most memorable image of the tour was a photograph of them standing on the terrace of the Banff Springs Hotel in the Canadian Rockies, Cascade Mountain looming large behind them. Tourists have been flocking to the mountain resort ever since.
Fast forward 80 years, and Banff attracts more visitors than ever, keen to see the breathtaking scenery and the region’s wildlife, such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep and bears.
Tourist shops on Banff Avenue sell everything from jokey “Keep calm and play dead” T-shirts (good advice if you bump into a bear in the woods) to bear claw salad tossers. But none of that can detract from Banff’s wonderful location in the middle of Canada’s oldest national park, Banff National Park, a 2,500-sq-mile area of outstanding natural beauty taking in glaciers, lakes, forests and stunning alpine landscapes.
In all, the Canadian Rockies have seven national parks, not to mention a network of provincial parks like Kananaskis Country. So however busy downtown Banff can sometimes seem, you don’t have to venture far to find yourself in true wilderness country.
Bed down like a Royal
If you’ve got deep enough pockets, the only place to stay is the palatial chateau-style Banff Springs Hotel dating back to the 1920s – the “castle in the wilderness” where the King and Queen stayed all those years ago.
In a letter to Princess Elizabeth written during her visit, the Queen Mother said the hotel was “like Balmoral only much bigger, and the pine trees smelt delicious in the hot sun”; she also spoke of seeing beavers, black bears and “a moose feeding on water lily bulbs”. Deer and elk still wander onto the hotel golf course as if they have just as much right to be there as the guests.
Another, slightly more affordable option in the heart of Banff, is the lodge-style Moose Hotel (doubles from £322, room only) which has a trendy rooftop spa pool – the perfect place to unwind after a day’s sightseeing while admiring the surrounding mountain peaks.
Where to eat
Banff lies in Alberta, aka “beef country”, so you can have steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you want.
Don’t pass up the chance to have a fat juicy steak in Chuck’s Steakhouse, a traditional cowboy-style joint serving everything from tenderloin to sirloin, T-Bone to ribeye – a culinary experience a world away from the typical West End steakhouse.
Alternatively try the open-plan Park Distillery, where you can get everything from a Caesar salad to a somewhat less healthy but delicious corn dog – a sausage on a stick coated in a layer of deep fried cornmeal batter.
The mountain resort also has an impressive number of bars for a place of its size – my personal favourite was the popular Bear Street Tavern, which serves a range of local beers, on (where else?) Bear Street. Many of Banff’s streets are named after the local wildlife.
What to do
Among the must-see attractions are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake – both an hour’s drive away – with their postcard-pretty glacial blue waters and mountain backdrop.
Closer to home you’ve got to go up the Banff Gondola – the views from the Sulphur Mountain boardwalk at the top are spectacular. Although the highlight of my visit to Banff was probably heading up Tunnel Mountain, a mini-mountain on the edge of town which you can hike up in around an hour. The view from a peak always seems that much more satisfying when you’ve got up there under your own steam.
Quite what George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, would make of today’s Banff, with its grizzly bear merchandise-selling souvenir shops and steakhouses, is anyone’s guess. But the mountain scenery, turquoise lakes and wildlife that so wowed them on their royal tour of 1939 remain wonderfully, miraculously unchanged.
Air Canada flies from London to Calgary from £582 return.
Doubles at Banff Springs Hotel from £406, room only.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies