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Banff, Alberta, Canada

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The Scots get everywhere. Not content with their highland home, they were at the leading edge of the British Empire. In fact, if you look at the history of that Empire, more of its leaders and administrators were Scots than English. Wherever these people went, they took their homeland with them. There are places all over the world named after bits of Scotland. Canada has a particularly rich Scots heritage – the Canadian army has even traditionally had Scots ‘Highland’ regiments that wear kilts and tartan and march to pipe bands.

Banff Townsite

Banff, Alberta, is about as Scots a place as you can get outside the native land. It’s named after a small town in Aberdeenshire. But there’s nothing small at all about Canada’s Banff. Although it’s not a particularly huge city, it’s the gateway to the spectacular Banff National Park in the northern Rockies – one of the most rugged and beautiful places in the world.

Banff Springs Hotel The city itself is a great place from which to explore the Park. There are plenty of things to do, and lots of places to stay. If you’re feeling particularly rich, you could even book a few nights at the Banff Springs Hotel – a huge establishment built around a hundred years ago in (predictably) the Scottish Baronial style, the Hotel in many ways dominates the town below, perched as it is above the spectacular Bow Falls. Although it features all kinds of modern amenities, including a golf course which weaves in and out of the local pine forests, two things drove the hotel’s construction: hot water and railways.

The hot water comes from the nearby Banff hot springs that give the hotel its name. For many years the hotel was halfway to being a sanatorium as people came from all over North America to bathe in the warm, sulphurous waters in the hope of curing various ailments. The railways aided this: Banff lies along the main east-west route that traverses continental Canada, making it the ideal place for a stop-off, and, therefore, some luxury hotel accommodation.

Valley of the Ten Picks Beyond Banff itself the National Park is quite amazing to behold – the natural world doesn’t get much more dramatic, or intimidating, than this. There are several sights that you should make an effort to take in. First, however, you should bear in mind that you are only allowed inside the Park if you have bought a permit. These aren’t expensive, and their chief purpose is to keep track of who is inside the Park for safety reasons rather than to fleece you of your hard-earned cash. Don’t be tempted to skimp on buying one: possession is required by law, and Park Rangers make very regular checks, especially during high season.

Morraine Lake Pass purchased, possibly the first place you will want to visit will be Lake Louise. This huge body of water has a beautiful and distinctive emerald green/blue shade, the result of a strange mix of minerals in the bedrock. Lake Louise is also the name of the small village that sits by the lake. There’s not a great deal to do in the village, though there is a shopping mall where you can buy souvenirs and supplies. The village’s economy is more or less based on being the starting point for a number of major hiking trails to some of the large mountains that surround the lake. You might like to spend a day or two exploring these trails – however, make sure you’re properly equipped and experienced, as even some of the more basic trails lead to remote areas where even a relatively minor accident such as a twisted ankle could result in benightment.

Canadian Rockies If you prefer to see the amazing beauty of Banff National Park from the reassuring comfort of a car, you should drive the Icefields Parkway, which actually crosses the Great Divide itself. The Parkway – which is a simple two lane highway, closed to anything larger than a car – offers some fantastic views of the mountainous terrain, including close-ups of some of the biggest northern hemisphere glaciers south of the Arctic Circle. Particularly worth looking at are the Athabasca Glacier and Falls. The highest point of the route, Bow Summit, is over two thousand meters high. It’s a good idea to start early, and try to complete the route in a day – there aren’t many places to stay! Bear in mind that you should be sure to fill up, too. The only gasoline on the route is available at Saskatchewan Crossing.

Banff and its National Park are great places to visit. Although it can be a little tough to get around with a car, it’s worth making the effort to visit this amazing part of the world at least once in your life – to see what ‘the big country’ really means!

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