Tucked deep in the Canadian Rockies, the town is a symphony of staggering glaciers, majestic mountains and aquamarine lakes
I wriggle my toe, and dip it cautiously in the simmering, mineral-rich water. Joseph, who has taken me around the historic Banff Upper Hot Springs, a spa and bath house in Banff National Park, warns that the temperature will be a torrid 40 degrees Celsius. I plunge into a pool of roaring mist and steam, and emerge only to open my eyes to a canopy of lofty, emerald-hued conifers. Mottled sunlight cascades though the needles. Floating dreamily, I think about Banff's discovery in the 18th Century.
The Canadian railroad was laid to connect the East to the untamed West. In the state of Alberta, railway workers stumbled onto a natural hot spring, concealed in the depths of a cave in the Rocky Mountains. The region, christened Banff, was soon designated as Canada's first national park, and today's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This sunny afternoon, I'm just one of the privileged millions who'd, over a century, dipped a toe and more into Banff's magical Adam's Ale.
I can understand the region's tenacious pull. Soon after my soak, I soar up the curiously-named Sulphur Mountain. In the gondola, we climb nearly 7,500 ft. above sea level. Standing on a deck, rimmed by six towering mountain ranges, my eyes sweep the horizon to settle on a dignified, green-roofed palatial chalet, the quietly luxurious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It was built by the same railroad company, at the confluence of the Bow and Spray Rivers, shortly after Banff was discovered. The railroads and iconic hotels brought in the first trickle of tourists. And the traveller, lured in by Banff's iridescent beauty, could barely stay away!
The legend of the fall
Early in the morning, I had left sleepy Calgary, a city of yodelling cowboys and immense wealth, thanks to its rich oil patches, for Banff. This westerly prairie outpost is a gateway to the Rockies, the guide-cum-driver Peter tells us. The Rockies, a sequential range of stunning peaks and valleys, meander from Canada, deep into the belly of New Mexico. Snaking through the Trans-Canada Highway, an endless roadway connecting the west to the eastern edge, I see the landscape transform before my eyes. From fawn-coloured flatlands, we move towards shadowy hills glowing with crimson trees. Soon enough, we're surrounded by icy, towering peaks swathed in glaciers.
This shape-shifting montage pays homage to the First Nation's people, the Native Americans, who ruled and hunted in this rugged landscape for centuries. Peter speaks of the valour and tragedy that befell Blackfoot Confederacy's legendary chieftain, Crowfoot, a peaceable conciliator between the Europeans and the tribes.
We pass a tri-pronged glacier named Crowfoot in the chief's honour. I'm riveted.
We speed towards the Icefields Parkway that rests on a continental divide. It's pouring incessantly, by the time we reach. Diving into a gargantuan six-wheeled drive ice explorer, we're steered into the heart of the Athabasca Glacier, a mass of ice riddled with bottomless crevasses. Sliding over slippery ice, I dip my numb hands into a ribbon-like rivulet of pure glacial water and take a sip. Just then a rainbow appears yonder — a technicolor mirage in a stark, ivory landscape.
Jewel in the rock
Chilled to the bone in this icy sojourn, I take refuge at Lake Louise, a veritable jewel in the Rockies. An intensely hypnotic glacial blue, it sparkles like an otherworldly cyan-flecked diamond. Sporadic red canoes break its infinite lucidity. It's breathtaking. But naturally, the epitome of loveliness, Marilyn Monroe, fell in love with Banff's immense beauty.
The lake's nestled right next to another Fairmont, the Chateau Lake Louise, a formidable Swiss dwelling. I wallow in the warmth of luxury. Sipping chilled ice wine and feasting on perch, I feel quite a starry-eyed ingénue myself. And, from the arched dining room window, I see the lake engulfed in candyfloss pink hues, and soon, a bewitching sooty darkness descends.
I leave the next day with a heavy heart. As we drive down, far in the distance I espy the receding Crowfoot glacier, perched precariously on a craggy mountain top. The legacy of the region, much like this three-toed mass, clings to the mighty Rockies for life. Yet, unlike the melting berg, Banff's rich past shall survive.
Getting to Banff — Major airlines fly from metro cities in India to Vancouver, which is well connected to Banff. If you fancy a railroad journey to Banff, take the VIA Rail from Vancouver (www.viarail.ca) or opt for the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer (www.rockymountaineer.com). Else, Calgary is a brief plane ride from Vancouver; take a short road trip from there to Banff. For more information, visit www.travelalberta.com.