We spend the first and last couple days of our visit to the Canadian Rockies exploring Banff. We feel lucky that our first day ends up being the last day of straight months of rain. Everyone we pass for the rest of the trip are in such high spirits that summer has finally arrived. That said, our first, rainy day is spent exploring nearby towns, window shopping, brewery touring, ice cream eating, and taking a short hike up Tunnel Mountain when the weather breaks.
Banff is a little oasis nestled between tremendous peaks. Along with beautiful views, strenuous hikes, manicured gardens and river sport options a plenty, there’s also surprisingly good food, historic hotels and cute little coffee shops. We feel right at home. In many ways, it feels reminiscent of early weekends we spent exploring small towns in New England.
If you happen to find yourself in Banff, we loved our meals at Eden and Sky Bistro.
The Icefields Parkway, a.k.a. Highway 93, is heralded as a top drive of a lifetime. National Geographic rates it as one of the top drives in the world.
This road is well-traveled, especially when nearing a magnificent view point like Lake Louise or Moraine. Getting to experience each lake late at night, then early in the morning, and getting to approach each vista by bicycle is now the only way we could ever imagine doing it. All vistas require a climb, and biking that climb makes the view all the more beautiful. We crest a hill, we pause, we photograph, we snack (a lot!), we hydrate, and we marvel. The longest day we ride is 110 km, the shortest is 50 km, and the climbing never stops.
We bike from hotel to hotel, and the views from our rooms don’t disappoint either.
The lakes of the Canadian Rockies come in every shade from light teal to dark blue, they’re all mirrors to their surrounding mountain peaks, and they’re around every corner of the parkway. The science of why these lakes do what they do doesn’t ruin any of the magic. The glacier melt, which feeds the lakes, carries something called glacier silt or rock flour. This sunlight-reflecting silt comes from the glacier grinding along the rock underneath. And not only does this silt reflect the sun, it also stays suspended in the water giving the lakes that spectacular uniform, full look that reflects anything it can. From Lake Moraine to Lake Louise to Bow Lake to so many others that we passed each day on our bicycles, the surprise of their color never gets old.
Like a fairytale complete with tree-lined rolling hills and train whistles on the regular, the highway is our thoroughfare as we bike through Banff’s famous Bow Valley Parkway. The snow-capped mountains surrounding us tower towards blue skies, and the color of the river running next to us is that same surreal teal that fills the lakes. We own the uphills, we relish the downhills, there are no flats. There’s no better way to explore the Canadian Rockies.
“If you want, we can lend you some bear spray” is a helpful tip we receive upon asking for hike suggestions around Banff.
Lindsey doesn’t flinch, so I’m not sure whether I should be making it a bigger deal or not. I look at her for a cue, and then realize. “Hun, I don’t think they’re warning us about mosquito bites, I think they’re protecting us from grizzly and black bears.”
For someone who I know is so afraid of bats, I can’t imagine such comfort with the idea of crossing a giant bear on the trail.
“Oh! Oh wow! Ya – I didn’t get that at all.” Lindsey continues to think through some of the implications. “If we see one, we spray it? Do we run, act big, roll over?” Okay – maybe she didn’t say the roll over part, but that’s for dramatic effect in the retellings of the story.
“If you encounter a bear, the first thing you should do is…” There’s a short pause, but long enough for someone else behind the counter to chime in. At the same time, we hear, “run” and “definitely don’t run”. It’s conflicting advice, but at least now we’re armed with the most intense pepper spray (a.k.a. bear spray) we’ve ever had.
The level of fear from everyone we ask about bears is cautious but not scared, and so over a couple days, we also try to develop a similar attitude.
During the orientation of our bike tour, we’re presented with some more information on bear safety. Stay 100 meters away if you see a bear, unless it’s right on the side of the road, and then just don’t stop. And if a bear starts chasing you, hope you’re not the slowest cyclist – bears are fast!
On day 2 of our ride through the Canadian Rockies, we pass a black bear cub within feet of the side of the road. A couple cars are stopped to witness this adorable cub without mama bear anywhere in sight, or so we think. Per our directions, we keep moving. Definitely gets our heart rates up, but it’s all part of the adventure!
With the backdrop of the Tour de France happening in a fellow European nation not too far away, we spend our first morning in the Douro cycling through the vineyards.Moving between vines, we appreciate that not all wine regions are the same.The terraced Douro valley is particularly steep and manual.The only way to strip the vines of their grapes is by hand – no machine can traverse these terraces.We learn stories of people carrying incredibly heavy baskets up and down these hills.We first imagine a peaceful ride through the area, but we soon learn that the slopes and the loose gravel make this morning more of an adventure and less of a stroll.Luckily, the views have us stopping often to rest and take photos.
We seek adventure; however, we don’t always appreciate how much adventure we’re getting ourselves into.We sign up for a three-quarter day canyoning trip near the Douro.We’re picked up from the hotel after breakfast and driven through much of the countryside of Portugal.We arrive at the side of the river and change into our wetsuits, harnesses and helmets, which we believe is more for form than function.However, after only a couple meters into our excursion, we jump off a small cliff into the water.Given my healthy fear of heights, the adrenaline high begins here and doesn’t stop until we arrive back at our car four hours later.In-between, we repel down waterfalls, climb up waterfalls, scramble around rocks, cliff jump into river pools, and use moss-covered rocks as slides.Not for the faint of heart.
As our reward, our guide brings with him a homemade, traditional Portuguese picnic with corn bread, cheese, sausage, and homemade wine, port and grappa.Once we relax, we realize that we are very hungry, and truly enjoy our late afternoon picnic.
There is little more quaint than an unassuming fruit stand along a rarely travelled, one-lane road. Our ride through Ulvik was dotted with them. Farm after farm had set out their early harvest of cherries and strawberries, accompanied by an unlocked box for payment. We stopped for cherries just after a long downhill. As we stood by our bicycles plucking the cherries from their stems, the farmer from across the street asked in the little English he knew, “Very good?” And that summed up the whole moment.
As we bike from small town to small town along the Hardangerfjord, our expectations for our accommodations and meals are modest.Most towns have one large hotel with a lot of character, and the meals typically consist of salmon prepared in 3 to 7 different ways.When we arrive in Utne, our expectations are blown away.The Utne hotel we stay in was first established back in 1722, no two rooms are the same, the hotel managers are most hospitable, and the food is a real treat.
We arrive, quickly shower and change, and head downstairs for a local cider tasting.Apparently, cider in the Hardangerfjord is a thing.Apples are grown throughout and cider production has been happening dating back to the 11th century.The hotel owner leads the tasting and walks us through 5 different ciders.Some were dry, some sweet, some very sweet.Each was made with a different combination of apples – all grown in Hardangerfjord – and each came with a story of who the producer was and their philosophy of cider production.The hotel owner went to school with a couple of the producers, and we learned that one now has a doctorate in chemistry and makes very consistent cider, while another like to use more love than science when preparing his ciders. We enjoyed ciders from Alde, Hakastad, and Edel among others.
We love the whole experience complete with lit candelabra, a different wine glass charmingly of random sizes for each taste, and of course the local cider itself.
We arrive in Voss from Bergen via train with a lot of daylight left, especially with sunset around 11pm.We explore the town for a bit and caffeinate ourselves to fight the jetlag at a nice local coffee shop.With coffee now in our system, we can start to figure out what the rest of the day should bring – some combination of trying out our new rental bikes that we’ll be using as our main transportation over the next week, taking a quick hike, and finding food for dinner.
We research some nearby ride routes, and find one that circumnavigates the lake right in front of the hotel.The distance is modest, the elevation reasonable, and the temperature perfect, so we set off in a counter-clockwise direction.We quickly learn of some unexpected challenges, so good thing for the test ride so we can be better mentally prepared for tomorrow.
The main challenge is the weight of the clunker – I mean bicycle.Without exaggeration the bike weighs 50+ pounds without any additional snacks, jackets or cameras.Turns out that cycling up hills with an extra 50 (maybe 60 or 70) pounds isn’t so nice on our muscles and our knees.The road is beautiful and the views even more so, but my right knee is already quite soar and our muscles tired.Luckily, I can raise the bike seat more and buy myself a simple brace in town – two easy, quick fixes.
Although it’s clear that we’ve been spoiled by nice, light road bikes with clip-in pedals and seamless gear shifting back home, these bikes won’t stop us.The distances are all manageable and more importantly, the landscape is wonderfully distracting.We are looking forward to getting back on the road in the morning.