Where would two golf fanatics go to celebrate their “significant” birthdays? Dubbing ourselves “chicks with sticks,” my oldest and best friend, Shirley, and I decided to head west for a swinging Rocky Mountain getaway.
Women may be latecomers to the sport of kings, but we have high standards. A no-frills condo, a fridge full of beer and a Big Mac for dinner are not for us. Along with remarkable golf, we want stylish digs, gourmet meals, spas and maybe a martini or two. Our unanimous choices were The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, that legendary Canadian castle in the mountains of Banff National Park and equally awesome Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
“Finest hotel on the North American Continent,” was how the Banff Springs was advertised when its doors first opened in 1888. Awe-struck by the majestic mountains, William Van Horne, vice-president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, announced, “If we can’t export the scenery, we will import the tourists.” His hotel, modeled after a baronial Scottish castle, was a bastion of luxury for its Victorian guests. When horse packers and surveyors stumbling out of the forest came upon this vision in the wilderness many thought they were hallucinating.
The awe-factor lives on, especially on the golf course. Banff holds the distinction of being the first track in the world to cost more than one million dollars to construct. Designed in 1928 by Canada’s foremost architect, the late Stanley Thompson, it has received numerous accolades, including one of the 10 best in the world to play. When you play the Banff Springs course you’ll be following in the footsteps of celebrities: Marilyn Monroe took golf lessons while filming The River of No Return with Robert Mitchum; Bob Hope and Bing Crosby have also taken a swing here.
Thompson’s genius was in refusing to impose a course on its setting. Indeed, it’s hard to concentrate on your swing with snow-frosted mountain peaks, azure glacier lakes and elk, bear and geese that have the right of way.
The first couple of fairways present a gentle handshake to Mr. Thompson’s 18-hole odyssey. It doesn’t matter if you hit a lousy shot, just look up and take solace in the scenery. Devil’s Cauldron, the par-three fourth hole best exemplifies Thompson’s mastery of design. Emerging from a pine forest onto elevated tees, one must carry the ball over a boulder-filled glacial lake against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.
Number 15, The Spray, originally the first fairway, is another memorable sight. You tee off just in front of the patio of the Waldhaus pub, over the gushing Bow River.
By the time we had sunk our putts on “Windy,” the aptly named 18th, Shirley and I were ravenous. At Stanley’s Smokehouse in the teepee-shaped clubhouse we tucked into a platter of house-smoked favourites including ribs, brisket, chicken and some stellar sides of crispy onion rings, mac & cheese and baked beans.
Banff Springs actually boasts two golf courses, the championship 7,083-yard Stanley Thompson course and his nine-hole Tunnel Mountain course. We were fortunate to time our visit to coincide with Women’s Golf Day at the Fairmont. We joined about 40 other female golfers in a scramble format on the Tunnel, followed by a celebration in the clubhouse with lots of bubbles, snacks and prizes. All proceeds from the event were donated to the YWCA.
One of the prerequisites for a “chicks with sticks” getaway is serious pampering. After 27 holes, it’s spa time. Reminiscent of the hot springs that beckoned travellers more than 100 years ago, the pulsating waterfalls and the mineral pool in the heart of the Banff Willow Stream Spa are just what the swing doctor ordered.
As long as you’re in this neck of the woods, you’ll want to take the three and a half-hour drive north along the Icefields Parkway to the Banff Springs’ sister property, The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Mountain goats, elk, ravens, glacier lakes, waterfalls and The Columbia Ice fields are all part of the ride.
Probably nowhere else in this land is the classic Hollywood image of the great Canadian west better portrayed than at Jasper Park Lodge, the 1,000-acre resort on the edge of Lac Beauvert. You can almost picture a Mountie emerging from the forest with a distressed damsel in his arms. Shirley and I checked into a log cabin suite overlooking the gorgeous green Lac Beauvert.
The next morning after a hearty buffet breakfast, including some of the world’s best eggs Bennie, we were primed for the Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club, another Stanley Thompson creation, named Best Golf Resort in Canada by SCOREGolf Magazine and recipient of 4.5 stars from Golf Digest.
In the summer of 1924, it took 200 men and 50 teams of horses to clear timber and rocks from the golf course site. Thompson’s wit and genius shine from the first tees to the 18th green. Thompson, who reputedly had a weakness for whiskey and women, named the par-three 9th hole Cleopatra and modeled its greenside bunkers in the form of the voluptuous Egyptian queen. Every Jasper Park fairway is aligned to frame the Rocky Mountain setting. By the 14th hole we were wondering just how much better it could get when we found ourselves teeing off alongside aquamarine Lac Beauvert that takes its amazing hue from glacial silt deposits.
For our last night, we “chicks” booked a table at Orso, Jasper’s fine Italian dining room overlooking Lac Beauvert. From the inventive cocktail menu we sampled martinis made with Park gin from Banff and began plotting our next getaway. What makes a great golf vacation is not so much your score but the total experience. When you combine scenery that Teddy Roosevelt commented “would bankrupt the English language” with a couple of the world’s finest golf courses and the company of your best friend, it’s going to be tough to top this one.