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By Kim Gray
It’s not every day that you return from a trip feeling like your younger self.
But this is exactly what runs through my mind on the heels of a recent week-long tour through Western Canada’s Kootenay Mountains, thanks to an invite from Toque & Canoe’s friends in tourism.
I’ve been visiting the region for almost 25 years now, given that it’s a comfortable drive from my Calgary home. And I loved having the opportunity to play tourist in my own backyard.
Be forewarned though, my itinerary is extensive, chock-a-block full of stops, adventures and distractions curated by people with an intimate knowledge of the Kootenays.
Truth be told, I managed to burn through two travel companions (one after the other) during this assignment!
What’s more, who knew there would be so many surprises along the way?
I, for one, wasn’t expecting to meet a friendly African spurred tortoise named Avery during my visit to Radium, B.C.
After a three-and-a-half hour drive from Calgary via the picturesque Cowboy Trail, we’re excited to arrive at our first destination — the storied mountain town of Fernie, B.C.
We’re just in time for lunch, so it makes sense to head straight to Lunchbox, a favourite with the locals given its yummy smoothies and savoury wraps.
Fuelled up, we’re off — because there’s no slowing down once we hit the ground — to the Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery, which features Canadiana prints and custom posters. At the time of our visit, the gallery is also home to a shared space where we meet the delightful, internationally-renowned artist Angela Morgan.
We could chat for hours but Fernie Distillers is standing by. The new company, specializing in fine spirits and liqueurs, is behind the delicious looking cocktail featured in this story’s lead image.
Called “Socher’s Secret,” the drink is named for the late Heiko Socher — an ambitious businessman credited with building Fernie into an internationally-renowned ski destination. (Featuring the Earl Grey tea-infused liqueur Fernie Fog, “Socher’s Secret” is as tasty as it looks thanks to bartender Bradley Naylor and his smoking sprig of rosemary technique.)
Next up? A Wild Nature Tours experience with professional naturalist Lee-Anne Walker. No matter what your age, she’ll make you a curious student of nature and, if you’re lucky like we are, she’ll escort you to Fernie’s hidden urban wetlands which house a heronry, a refuge where great blue herons come to roost and raise their young.
Our lively tour with Walker wraps up late afternoon and it’s time to check into Fernie 901 — a spacious condominium complex located downtown with ceilings so high we feel like we’re camping out in a trendy, New York City warehouse apartment.
After a quick break, we’re off to a champagne and shopping session at Freyja Lifestyle Fashion, a fantastic little clothing boutique where, for good reason, the women of Fernie like to hang out on Friday nights.
With a new summer dress tucked into my backpack and our stomachs rumbling for dinner, we’re off to enjoy the deliciousness of what is arguably one of Western Canada’s best sushi establishments at Yamagoya.
We call it a night, fall into bed and wake up refreshed and ready for a short walk in the morning light to The Loaf for breakfast.
Our final Fernie adventure? Given where we are, a history tour, of course. We team up with natural born storyteller Ron Ulrich from the Fernie Museum, a tiny but mighty operation that boasts 9,000 unique artifacts reflecting Fernie’s story.
Together, we walk the streets as Ulrich regales us with tales of a town, founded in 1898, that has survived brutal fires, floods, mine disasters and even a curse.
We pack our bags for the next leg of our adventure with a pledge to return to peruse local shops such as Eye of the Needle and Coal Town Goods, as well as explore the region’s epic hiking trails.
If this assignment is about unique ways to experience the Kootenays, it’s equally about the people we meet as we go.
Our second stop, Cranbrook — only an hour’s drive from Fernie and flanked by the breath-catching Rocky Mountains on one side and the Purcell Mountains on the other — is a case in point.
We’re greeted by gracious, smiling staff when we check into the Prestige Rocky Mountain Resort, which is also home to a pair of on-site train car suites teed up as playful, luxury lodging options.
Dinner follows at the family-friendly Heid Out Restaurant & Brewhouse where we’re escorted around the operation by owner Heidi Romich.
We learn that Romich has not one but several Red Seal chefs in her kitchen, and that locals and travellers alike flock to enjoy her executive chef’s menu, which includes an impressive Tomahawk steak and prawns. (To be a Red Seal chef, fyi, is to have earned a prestigious, universally recognized certification of apprenticeship in Canada.)
Meanwhile, the onsite Fisher Peak Brewing Company produces artisanal ales, including a creamy smooth IPA called Elephant Run. The IPA is a shout-out to an incident that took place in 1926, catapulting Cranbrook onto the world stage, when elephants escaped from a travelling circus and ran wild through the town and into the countryside.
Our second full day behind us, we retire for the night with a breakfast date the following morning at Soulfood. Here, we listen to live guitar music and enjoy the luxury of having one of the owners, Caitlin Berkheim, prepare a “pour over” coffee for us at our table.
Given the fresh, appetizing fare and exceptional service, Soulfood should be on everyone’s hitlist for breakfast or lunch if they’re visiting or passing through Cranbrook.
And then we’re off, again, this time driving 15 minutes from Cranbrook to Fort Steele Heritage Town for a relaxing afternoon, wandering between exhibits and visiting resident farm animals, from massive Clydesdale horses and a lone donkey to a gang of feisty lambs.
We’re especially taken with Chase Roshau (seen above), who takes us back in time to the days when blacksmiths played a critical role in daily life. And we observe closely as a young man uses traditional tools to create quality leather goods.
After purchasing a few souvenirs, including a railway nail that has been shaped into a bottle opener for my son and a leather collar for my springer spaniel back home, we jump back in our car and drive 15 minutes further to arrive at the third overnight stop on our adventure, St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino.
I’ve been hearing about this former residential school-turned resort for some time now and I’m genuinely curious to see what it’s about. From the moment we approach the property — owned by the Ktunaxa Nation which has inhabited this region for millennia — we’re impressed.
We feast our eyes on beautiful gardens, a hotel covered in greenery, reminiscent of Victoria’s Fairmont Empress, and after registering as guests at the front desk, we’re offered lovely rooms that feel fresh and welcoming.
Former Ktunaxa Chief Sophie Pierre — referencing the property’s difficult history and her support for morphing it into what is now a world-class entertainment destination — once said:
“We’re selling an opportunity to understand our history, to know our people and to share our vision of turning a 60-year nightmare around. We’re creating new memories for our children.”
Turns out the Ktunaxa are creating new memories for visitors like us, as well, with the resort’s new Speaking Earth program.
We take an interpretive tour with local historian Margaret Teneese who teaches us about early traditions and ways of life that include the unique sturgeon-nosed canoe, made of white pine bark on a cedar frame and used to navigate the wetlands of the Kootenays by Ktunaxa paddlers.
Before we know it, dinner down by the St. Mary’s River beckons. Perched in chairs and wrapped in blankets, we sit before a crackling, well-tended fire, devour a flavourful meal of bison stew and bannock followed by berry pie, then listen intently as the current chief — Joe Pierre Jr. (Sophie Pierre’s son) — generously shares Ktunaxa legends with us.
“Our story is in the rocks, in the petroglyphs and the pictographs,” says Chief Pierre. “We are the people of this part of North America. We have been for at least 10,000 years.”
As the sun sets and the giant teepees standing tall next to us turn a shimmering pale pink, we feel it’s a privilege to be here. We sleep soundly that night, and the next morning we enjoy a breakfast of eggs and roasted vegetables at the resort’s Smokehouse restaurant.
The fourth stop on our mountain road trip itinerary? Nearby Kimberley, where we head straight to Over Time Beer Works for a welcome sampler tray of cold beer.
The brewery is cleverly designed, using re-purposed materials, and it’s intimate, with a relaxed vibe. We’re happy to meet and talk with owner Kenny Dodd, whose brother is also involved in the small business.
Dodd is a former oil patch worker who says the name “Over Time Beer Works” was chosen because of its multiple connotations. “There’s the suggestion of over time in sports. Beer ages over time. And we worked over time to build this place,” says Dodd, with a smile.
Within minutes, we run into locals we know and they like it here, they tell us, for two reasons especially.
They can order in pizza while they’re enjoying a beer (there’s no food menu at the establishment) and the pub doesn’t get too noisy so it’s possible to have real conversations among friends.
From Over Time Beer Works, we travel to our accommodations at Northstar Mountain Village, a condominium complex located at the top of Kimberley Alpine Resort, just down the road from the Kimberley Nordic Centre.
We feel lucky to tuck into here for a night, though it doesn’t feel long enough. We barely have time to enjoy our hot tub with-a-view located outside the kitchen door, facing an Alpine flower-filled meadow.
Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to dinner because for years, en route to the ski hill during winter, we’ve been driving past the intriguing building that is The Old Bauernhaus Restaurant, but we’ve never eaten here. (This is where it becomes fun to play tourist in our own backyard.)
I say “intriguing” because the structure itself looks like it’s straight from a European village — and it is!
The original owners, Tony Schwarzenberger, and his wife Ingrid, brought the building from Germany in four massive containers and re-built it at this location when they emigrated to Canada.
The Old Bauernhaus, currently owned by Chefs Michelle and Nils Fuhge, is definitely the go-to restaurant for locals looking for a special night out. No surprise, it’s also huge with visiting golfers and skiers looking to wrap up their day with a hearty meal of schnitzel and European sausages.
We dive into the satisfying Bavarian Feast sharing platter and marvel at the fact that this beloved historic building — an old Alpine log house and cider barn dating back to 1640 — is even here at all.
It’s pouring rain the next morning so we take a pass on a bike tour that would have taken us along the community’s popular Rails to Trails cycling network. Had we gone, however, we would have rented bikes from either Kootenay Mountain Works or the Bootleg Bike Co.
We opt instead to meet with friends and family at Bean Tree Café for an excellent, affordable breakfast of strong coffee and smoked salmon on a fresh bagel. (Full disclosure: My brother-in-law and a few of his pals own Kimberley’s Spirit Rock Climbing Wall and the Bean Tree is one of their favourite breakfast spots.)
Fifteen minutes by foot later, we’re exploring the historic Sullivan Mine with Kimberley’s Underground Mining Rail Tour where we spend a few hours with tour guide Gordon Olsen, a former employee who loves telling jokes and who is well suited to the job given his decades underground.
The mine, which closed in 2001, produced over 20 billion dollars worth of lead, zinc and silver over the course of its 92-year lifespan.
As we drive north from Kimberley to our fifth overnight destination, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, we pass the ski forest on the left — a roadside attraction where locals plant old skis alongside the highway, reinforcing the region’s status as a skier’s paradise regardless of the season.
We’ve never stayed at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort before but, like so many other stops in this familiar territory, we’ve driven past umpteen times.
We’re grateful for our comfortable room and, given the pace of our adventure, we’re especially thrilled to visit the resort’s Natural Springs Spa for a pampering session. A mineral soak, mini-facial and massage later and we’re poised for a hearty dinner and a beer at the Bear’s Paw Bar & Grill.
The property is buzzing with loyal guests, families and couples from all over Western Canada who have been visiting the resort for years. And why wouldn’t they return? It’s a genuinely comfortable, relaxing place to be.
We finish our stay at the popular Fairmont Hot Springs Resort with 18 holes on the Mountainside Golf Course, which features stellar views of the surrounding valley and the bone-ribbed hoodoos that line the river below.
Moving along, we’re off to Invermere (20 minutes north up the highway) for lunch at The Station Pub followed by a quick taster at Taynton Bay Spirits (located just below the restaurant).
Up next? A wild ride down the glacier-fed turquoise waters of Toby Creek with Kootenay River Runners, an adventure we savour for so many reasons.
For the great blue heron (all the way from Fernie we wonder?) that flies just ahead of our raft, swooping close to the water and occasionally, like a fearless leader, peering over its shoulder as if to ensure we’re keeping up.
For the giant grins on the faces of others travelling with us, like the old friends from Syria rallying in Canada from different locations around the world on a boys-only adventure.
And for the fact that a simple adventure like rafting down a rushing mountain creek makes us feel like kids again.
To quote one of the other passengers — a poet apparently? — who nails the experience in an email to me afterwards:
“To ride this torrent is like climbing on a bull, all froth and expectation. As we swing past Shark’s Tooth Rock and squeeze by Cheese Grater, for us, we are the very first, as new as the river, filled with its joyful destruction.”
One of our Kootenay road trip highlights, no question.
That night, after a glass of wine and a meal on the deck of the elegant Cliffhangar Restaurant, located at Greywolf Golf Course, we fall into bed at Panorama Mountain Resort, another full day behind us.
We retire early because, as if white-water rafting isn’t enough, we’re up early the next morning to check out Valley Zipeline Adventures, located near Radium, just a short drive from Invermere.
I confess that this activity is a little outside of my comfort zone, but the staff at this new outfit are competent and reassuring and have me convinced in no time that the experience will be safe and fun.
By the end of our guided one-and-a-half hour tour — which includes 7 separate ziplines that zig zag across Dry Gulch Valley — I’m having such a blast I’m wishing it wasn’t over so soon.
Good thing we have a canoe trip scheduled in the afternoon with one of the owners of Columbia River Paddle.
We often paddle the Invermere to Radium route along the Columbia River. But we’ve never experienced these waters as we do with our guide Max Fanderl who veers off our usual course and finds surprising new routes through lily-pad laced waters.
Fanderl, who emigrated to Canada from Bavaria in 1992, is an enthusiastic outdoor sportsman and an overall force of nature. We’re grateful to have spent the afternoon with him.
Famous for its resident bighorn sheep population (the town even celebrates rutting season with an annual fall Headbanger Festival) — Radium is our last overnight stop before heading home.
We settle into The Gateway hotel, five minutes from Kootenay National Park and Radium Hot Springs, and home to that giant African spurred tortoise we reference at the top of our story.
A former classroom pet when “Avery” was the size of a saucer, the friendly animal was adopted by former science teacher and hotel co-owner Joe Palashniuk, who runs The Gateway with his wife Erin.
Speaking of which, this charming little property offers us bright, clean rooms, a stunning view of the Columbia Valley and flowers everywhere you look, not to mention an impressive continental breakfast (including quality coffee and fresh baking) that guests enjoy in a common eating area.
Our noses sunburnt from an afternoon canoeing on the Columbia, we dine that night at the packed Horsethief Creek Pub & Eatery to live music, wrapping up our meal with their to-die-for, house-made caramel cake served up by proud restaurant owner Mike Gray. The cake recipe is one of his mom’s favourites.
It’s a cool concept. After all, who doesn’t want to sleep in a rustic little yurt warmed by a wood stove with a view of the Columbia Valley? We sure do. But alas, it’s not in the cards this time round.
After a tour through the Radium Hot Springs Visitor Centre, where guests can pick up and feel the weight of big horned sheep skulls — including their horns which the animals never shed and which grow continuously throughout their lives — it’s time to call it a wrap.
Energized from our adventure and still on a caramel cake sugar high, we add the yurt stay to our to-do list for our next visit and, after buying coffees-to-go at the Bighorn Café, we begin the always spectacular drive towards Alberta through Kootenay National Park.
A few hours in, we make a spontaneous decision to stop for dinner at Storm Mountain Lodge — a cherished and historic property located on Highway 93 (just before the road merges onto Highway 1 towards Banff.)
After a delicious meal of savoury salmon, we hit the road again and within minutes we’re delighted to spot a female moose cooling off in the river alongside the highway.
This iconic creature — a sweet Canadian finale to our most excellent Kootenay road trip — is a gentle reminder that we aren’t the only ones who appreciate our Rocky Mountain playground.
*Be sure to check out this itinerary for more detailed information — including hotlinks to everyone mentioned in our post — if you care to learn more about our rollicking road trip through Canada’s Kootenay Mountains.
Note from editor: This post was created as part of an arms length collaboration with Toque & Canoe’s partners in tourism.
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