Courses & Travel Editor Kevin Brown hopped aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train to play some truly sensational golf courses.
It may not be the first country you think of when planning an overseas golf trip, but with over 2,600 courses, Canada is actually the second largest golfing nation in the world.
And, when normal service has been resumed, everything is back up and running again and the Coronavirus pandemic is a distant dark memory (you’ve got to be positive, haven’t you?), you just might want to consider this incredible golfing sojourn and place a golf trip to Canada into your diary for 2021 or beyond...
I undertook the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ adventure at the back end of 2019 before Covid-19 reared its ugly head and wreaked havoc across the globe. It was a memorable taste and experience of golf in the Big Country, the Great Outdoors… a walk on the wildest of sides.
In truth though, I was always going to be on the right track, excuse the pun, to the golfing adventure of a lifetime having re-traced a golfing encounter undertaken 20 years previously, revelling in the golfing highs provided by western Canada’s neighbouring provinces Alberta and British Columbia. The only difference was that this time the border was crossed aboard the world-famous Rocky Mountaineer train.
After the USA, Canada has the most golf courses on Planet Golf with Alberta and British Columbia responsible for many of the best…. and the good news is that most are open for play again.
After the nine-hour flight into Calgary and driving into the breathtaking Banff National Park, the first stopping-off point was Kananaskis on the edge of the Rockies. Following a short but sweet stay at the lovely, restful Kananaskis Lodge, surrounded by towering peaks, it was time for the first golfing encounter…Kananaskis GC, home of the outstanding Lorette and Kidd courses.
Against all the odds, the two majestic layouts, originally the handiwork of legendary US architect Robert Trent Jones Snr, are both up and running after being devastated by severe floods in 2013 - all but four holes suffered substantial damage.
It was terrific to play alongside long-time head pro Bob Paley and his two sons Matt and Sam who formed part of the huge restoration team which helped put Kananaskis back on the golfing map when, at more than one point, all seemed lost…
Admitted Bob: “It was devastating how quickly something so beautiful can be ravaged.”
Both courses are an absolute joy to play and with six tees to play from, can be played and enjoyed by players of all abilities. For me, the slightly shorter but challenging - and more undulating – Kidd is the pick and memorably signs off with the longest hole, a 640-yards par-5.
But remember this is mountain golf and because of altitude the ball flies up to 10% further…so check those club selections!
Next up was Banff Springs, home of the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel which lords it over the magnificent Stanley Thompson course. It truly is a partnership made in heaven.
The historic layout is one of the oldest in Canada and majestically meanders beside the Bow river and is overlooked by the legendary hotel known as the ‘Castle in the Rockies,’ the place to stay in Banff. Our room provided us with a birds-eye view of the course and scintillating surrounding scenery…
The course itself is a beast as well as a beauty; the river threatens on several holes, the gusts billowing through the valleys are a major factor as are the big mounded bunkers defending many greens.
Signature hole is the dreamy par-3 4th backdropped by Mount Rundle and played from a sky high tee to a drop green precariously perched beyond a turquoise lake. Simply sensational as are the inevitable wildlife interruptions – we received our first elk warning straight after playing the 4th.
Banff Springs is not a place you want to leave in a hurry, if at all, but we had plenty other beauty spots and top courses to explore. So we hopped aboard the Brewster express bus to Jasper via the breathtaking Columbia Icefields Parkway and nature at its most dramatic, spending a couple of nights at the joyous Jasper Park Lodge, home of another classic Stanley Thompson layout.
Like its sister course nearly 200 miles away, its mountain golf at its captivating with towering panoramic backdrops though the back nine definitely grabs the limelight with one stunning hole following another and the exquisite Lake Beauvert regularly featuring – you drive over it at the left dogleg par-4 14th and two holes later you’re nervously trying to find a downhill green over the corner of it!
Up next was the eagerly-anticipated trip aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train which would take us on a two-day 'Journey Through the Clouds' from Jasper, through the heart of the Rockies – and an overnight stopover at midway point Kamloops – to British Columbia capital Vancouver.
From the ultra-comfy seats in the top tier of the domed carriages (the restaurant was downstairs), you’re regularly treated to snacks, drinks and first-class service though the main attraction was the awesome Rockies scenery and spotting all kinds of wonderful wildlife… black bear, coyote, bighorn sheep, bald eagles and osprey were among those ticked off the list.
2020 is the Rocky Mountaineer’s 30th anniversary year with the world’s most famous train welcoming its two millionth guest last year.
Train manager Sean sums up: “It’s an experience like no other with ever-changing scenery, and different dining experiences…we’re really trying to build a Canadian cultural experience. Giving the passengers knowledge and history of the railway is also a big part of the journey
“Each journey is different and has its own highlights but, for me, there’s nothing quite like seeing the highest peak Mount Robson (3,954m/12,972ft) on a clear day.”
There was a couple of days to explore colourful, cosmopolitan Vancouver (www.tourismvancouver.com), one of the most fascinating cities in North America if not the world. It has so much to offer there wasn’t sufficient time to encounter its 40 golf courses with at least half being top drawer material.
The 48hours in Vancouver was well spent though on must-see, must-do attractions such as the awesome Capilano Suspension Bridge, the historic Gastown area, Grouse Mountain which spectacularly overlooks the city, Fly Over Canada, a pulsating 4D virtual flight ride, a gentle stroll around the 1,000-acre Stanley Park and a harbour cruise.
It was then on to the final stop, a relatively short but nevertheless ultra-scenic journey to Whistler (www.whistler.com) – best known as a world-class ski resort (it hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics) though in the summer months plenty of quality golf is on offer in the form of a handful of superb layouts.
TG played two of the best in Robert Trent Jones II masterpiece Fairmont Chateau Whistler, also a luxury resort at the base of Blackcomb Mountain and arguably the coolest place to stay in town, and Jack Nicklaus signature course Nicklaus North.
Chateau Whistler, with elevation changes of more than 400ft, is teeming with drama…and wildlife. The latter doesn’t get much wilder than seeing a sizeable black bear roaming around in front of the 12th tee! Stay calm and quiet is the name of the game – this is the bear’s territory after all – and you quietly move on once the furry fella had done likewise. A magical sighting and worth the green fee alone…
You’ll never forget a round here anyway: time and again you’re hitting from spectacular elevated tees to fairways way down below while trying to avoid creeks and chasms closely guarding fairways and greens. One of umpteen stand-out holes is the downhill par-3 8th played to a green beyond a lake, all framed by a gorgeous mountain backdrop.
Nicklaus North proved a fitting finale despite an 8am frost delay tee-time! Lush green and magnificently plotted on the valley floor and comfortably walkable, it boasts a terrific variety of holes, wide fairways and smooth-as-silk greens with subtle slopes and undulations. And a superb finish…
A creek guards the greens of the par-4 16th and 18th holes while the penultimate green sits on the edge of a lake and is overlooked by stunning peaks. Both your nerve and concentration will be fully tested here while a gondola trip up Blackcomb Mountain was the parting shot, the icing on the cake…
All things considered on and off the course, this was undoubtedly the greatest of golfing escapes.
Planes: We flew with Air Canada from Heathrow to Calgary and Vancouver – Heathrow return. Air Canada offers more daily flights from the UK to Canada than any other airline. Economy fares start from £567.42 to Vancouver and £458.82 to Calgary, inclusive of all taxes and one checked bag (subject to change). Visit www.aircanada.com or call Reservations on 00 800 6699 2222.
Trains: The Rocky Mountaineer’s two-day ‘Journey through the Clouds,’ Jasper to Vancouver in SilverLeaf Service starts from £1,095 per person while the GoldLeaf price starts from £1,498pp. This includes two days on board the Rocky Mountaineer, some meals and one night hotel in Kamloops. Visit www.rockymountaineer.com
Automobiles: We travelled from Calgary airport to Kananaskis and Banff via car, booking through www.rhinocarhire.com (cost approx. £85, two days) before catching the Brewster express coach (www.banffjaspercollection.com) from Banff to Jasper (costs around $60 one-way).
Kananaskis – Green fees: $118-$125. www.kananaskisgolf.com
Banff Springs – $259. https://banffspringsgolfclub.com/
Jasper Park Lodge – From $119.
Chateau Whistler – From $139 twilight.
Nicklaus North – From $119. www.nicklausnorth.com
Kananaskis Lodge – www.lodgeatkananaskis.com
Fairmont Banff Springs - Starting at $369 - 20% off accommodation (2 nights min) and additional 20% discounts on hotel restaurants, green fees, Spa treatments and in-house Tours through Resort Activity Programming. www.banffmountaingolf.com
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge - Golf For Free package, starting from $389 and including two nights’ accommodation in a Fairmont Room, two rounds of golf per room per room/per stay and complimentary golf buggy and range balls. www.jaspermountaingolf.com
Hotel Vancouver - www.fairmont.com/hotel-vancouver/
Waterfront Vancouver - www.fairmont.com/waterfront-vancouver/
Fairmont Chateau Whistler - Whistler Golf Resort offer, starting from $236pp per night (double occupancy) including one night’s accommodation, one round of golf, complimentary club rentals, access to the practice facility and shuttle to/from the course. www.fairmont.com/whistler