Calgary Stampede

Fairmont Banff Springs Resort


Panoramic scenery and championship golf abound in Alberta

By Scott Kramer

Stepping off the plane this July afternoon in Calgary, I hear a local band gracing the baggage claim area with its rendition of “Good Old Hockey Game.” This exact moment depicts the city during Calgary Stampede time — great music, lots of entertainment and an ever-watchful eye on hockey.

But this week for me is all about Canadian Rockies golf and exploring the region spanning Calgary to Jasper Park, which is five hours to the north. It’s my second golf trip to the area, but this one will be much more in-depth than the first. I’m here with a group of fellow golf writers — a mixture of Americans and Canadians — and we’re tooling around in a luxury bus that we’re sharing on alternate days with the Doobie Brothers, who are in town for the Stampede.

Our first stop is 90 minutes north, at the Fairmont Banff Springs and its famed 6,938-yard Stanley Thompson course that opened back in 1928. It’s an awesome course located in what I deem is one of Earth’s most beautiful settings. Imagine playing the best layout in your town, but surrounded by snowcapped mountains and having a river meandering throughout, filled with people rafting. Everything about the experience is ultimately stunning. The historical holes are still as playable and challenging today as many of the brand-new courses that I’ve played. It’s in magnificent condition. Most of the course is relatively flat, with a few elevation changes. All 18 holes are memorable and would stand out by themselves at any course in America, but two I think are visually stunning even more so than the other 16. The par-3 4th is the famed Devil’s Cauldron hole that may be one of the world’s most scenic, and the par-4 15th has a tee high up on a hill, allowing you to hit down into a valley and see your tee shot travel farther than ever. While no two holes are similar, they all flow together seamlessly. There are doglegs to the right, those to the left, and many straightaway holes. You negotiate some unique water hazards, and the bunker sand is pretty thick and soft. But nothing is unfair. Your score will very much reflect the way you shot. Lucky for me, I fire a 78. One thing to note is that because of the altitude, shots will travel nearly 10 percent longer than at sea level. That theory proved true today.

After golf, we grab a tasty BBQ lunch at Stanley’s Smokehouse inside the clubhouse. I highly recommend the pulled pork sliders and ribs. Wow! The hotel, which is on property, looks like a massive European castle buried into the mountains. It’s about a half mile from the downtown village of Banff, which is a popular ski resort destination in the wintertime. I don’t call too many places on Earth must-see destinations. But this is one of them. If you have the means, absolutely come up this way. You will not be disappointed by either the golf nor the town. And the hotel is unbelievable. A five-star resort all the way: Staff, service and food are all top notch. Dinner is at the Waldhaus Restaurant, perched adjacent to the 15th tee. It specializes in schnitzel, but I’m feeling more like chicken and bisque tonight. Turns out to be a great decision.

Silvertip Golf Course

Next morning we check out of the hotel and make the short drive to the 7,140-yard Silvertip Golf Course, a 16-year-old design by local architect Les Furber. It’s located on the sunny side of Bow Valley, and originally opened under the mantra “Extreme Mountain Golf”. The course has undergone many changes through the years, and this year features a short course version that reduces the course to 4,000 yards for juniors. It’s open during regular play and has apparently been very popular. Kids play it free with a paying adult. The normal green fee is $165. The views on this course are nothing short of spectacular and jaw-dropping — particularly the vista of downtown Canmore from the 5th fairway. That is, until we see a black bear from the 6th tee — not more than 100 yards from us. Not sure if there are any flat lies at Silvertip, but the course is very enjoyable regardless. Plus, it’s in fantastic shape. It’s such a far different experience than Banff, yet I absolutely love playing here. The finishing hole is a downhill dogleg left. If you hit the proper part of the hill, your tee shot can travel 300 yards. If you don’t, you’re in the woods. In fact, there are a lot of risk-reward situations on the course, with many favoring the reward. It’s no wonder Golf Digest gave Silvertip a 4.5-star rating. It’s a must-play on any visit to the area. For me, I shoot another 78.

After golf, we hop back on the bus and head four hours north to the massive Jasper National Park, and the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. The ride is scenic, with majestic glaciers flanking the left side of the highway. Several times we see cars pulled over, so that people can take close-ups of mountain goats or not-so-close-ups of bears.

Fairmont Jasper Park Golf Club

The hotel is a lodge surrounded by a series of luxurious cabins. They may look like summer camp-style log cabins from the outside, but are truly more like five-star condos on the interior. I share a four-bedroom, three-level cabin with some other writers. It has all the amenities of home — if your home were to have a billiards room, six flat-screen TVs, an enclosed porch with rocking chairs, and a lake view. And set in the middle of the property is another Stanley Thompson course.

We have dinner on the patio at Cavell’s in the bustling lodge. I’ve eaten a lot of grilled salmon, but this may be the best I’ve ever encountered. Succulent to a tee. It would’ve been a great sunset dinner, but the sun doesn’t really set until about 11pm up here. And then it’s up again at around 4am.

I personally arise at about 6 a.m. the next morning, ready to take on golf at the 6,633-yard Fairmont Jasper Park Golf Club that’s now in its 89th year. How to describe it: Elevated tee boxes, deep bunkers, mountain views, wide fairways, some water and immaculate conditioning. The perfect resort-style course, it’s golfer-friendly yet challenging. It was restored 20 years ago to its initial layout, using Thompson’s original blueprints from 1924 as a guide. My personal highlight is rolling in a 50-footer, which a member of our group actually Tweeted a photo of right from the green, on No. 9. Three of the par-5s are reachable in two, and the course finishes with a strong, sharp dogleg left that separates the men from, well, me. I score an 81. Awesome course. I actually think this layout might be stronger than Thompson’s Banff Springs course. But I’m going to have to rule it a draw, as the Banff views may be slightly more dramatic. Both are top playing experiences, though. Is it worth the schlep from Calgary and Banff? Absolutely, without question!

After golf, it’s time for lunch on the hotel veranda – Caesar salad with chicken and tomato bisque hit the spot. I then rent a bicycle and travel the 25 minutes into downtown Jasper. Bypassing the trails that intertwine with the golf course, I opt for a main service drive with scenery aplenty that wraps around the course perimeter. It leads into the quaint downtown area that happens to be packed with tourists this particular day. I then go for a quick run in the fitness center and spend a while in the sauna. My body is rested.

As if the course wasn’t enough of a lure, we eat dinner at Moose’s Nook, a steakhouse in the main lodge. After a couple glasses of cabernet, I opt for the shrimp cocktail to start. It comes with a hint of garlic in the cocktail sauce, which should be revered on the Food Network it’s so good. That kind of typifies the entire resort — wonderful attention to detail. Anyone can put shrimp down with a cocktail sauce, but this sauce had the entire table talking. Outstanding! Then the main course comes, Alberta tenderloin, which instantly spoiled me for all future tenderloin. And the Classic Lemon Tart for dessert was my favorite of the week.

The next morning, we get on the bus. The Doobies have been kind enough to leave us their concert song list taped to the wall. I’m a big fan of theirs, and it makes me sing the likes of “China Grove” and “Depending on You” in my head all day. An hour into the ride south, we stop at Glacier Skywalk at Jasper National Park. It’s essentially a newly completed glass-floor walkway that extends from the side of the highway, suspended 938 feet above the canyon. Glacier views go on for miles. The free audio device you hold up to your ear for information is actually very enlightening. Thankfully it’s not a windy day, so the walkway isn’t bouncing around as the attendant tells us it can during inclement weather (and from the many school kids who stop by and jump up and down in unison until it shakes).

We arrive at the 7,195-yard Stewart Creek Golf & Country Club in Canmore for an afternoon round. Every hole on this 14-year-old course is heavily lined with pine trees. There are also lots of elevation changes. On this particular day — and despite the trees that ideally block out wind — we have plenty of gusts to contend with. But it’s like Candlestick Park gusts that swirl all around. Very unpredictable. Several times I bring more than one club to the tee box, as I can’t figure out which I’m going to use until I actually step up to the tee — thanks to that wind. The first hole sets the theme, as it’s a gorgeous hole that travels straight downhill, allowing your tee shot to gain welcome yardage. You really get the feeling of isolation — the director of golf tells me the course was designed so that the only hole you see on the course is the one you’re currently playing. Other than the group in front of us, we never saw another soul out there. And the way I like it, there are no beer carts roaming around to slow up play. The 9th hole is a funky par-4 that will be modified to a par-3 come late September. Speaking of funky, the 10th hole challenges you with a wide open tee shot that’s blind and very susceptible to wind. I slightly pull a drive just off the fairway to the left, leaving me no shot to the green. Very strange hole that really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the course that otherwise flows nicely. There’s even a drivable par-4 on the back that’s a phenomenal bet-breaker.

We check into the Blackstone Mountain Lodge in downtown Canmore that night, sharing generous-sized two-bedroom condos replete with kitchen and laundry. This is part of the Clique Hotels & Resorts portfolio, which operates other properties throughout town. Essentially our place consists of condos that are rented out most of the year as hotel suites. Very nice.

The next morning, our last in town, we set out to explore Elevation Place, a massive and fairly new public facility downtown that includes a library, fitness center, coffee shop, rock climbing walls, indoor pools, meeting space, and plenty of other activities. It’s clearly a meeting spot for citizens, visitors and even world-class athletes that use it for training. Our group does some indoor rock climbing, and then we bicycle from Elevation Place, down around the river and trails, and directly to Canmore Golf & Curling Club.

Lunch on the patio before our round includes an organic salad that’s hand-grown by the staff, as well as bison pot pie with a hint of cinnamon. Genuinely outstanding. After some range time, it’s time to play. This is a flat, short, pretty and tree-lined layout that extends 6,470 yards from the tips. The course has been around since 1926 and is a community staple. It’s been modified — Furber is a member and offers his services for free — and is about to undergo yet another renovation on some of the holes. Perhaps because of its age, the course has five short par-4 holes that require 200-yard tee shots and nothing more. Golfers bringing their left-to-right tee shots will benefit — maybe that’s by design for all of the left-handed Canadians who like drawing the ball. The greens are in fantastic condition and roll very true. Three tough finishing holes include a gorgeous and long par-3 17th that frequently plays into the wind.

Dinner is a BBQ at the Grizzly Paw Brewery that includes a tour and tasting session. I’m not a beer drinker but I can give thumbs up to the homemade root beer and black cherry sodas. Speaking of food, my first stop after U.S. Customs the next morning at the Calgary airport is Tim Horton’s for an iced cappuccino. It’s the perfect end to an outstanding week in Alberta.

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