One of the great destinations in the world, Banff National Park offers you magnificent mountain scenery, lush wilderness, awesome lakes, and by contrast, world-class dining and entertainment experiences. Yes, you come to Banff to experience the marvelous scenery -- after all, you are in the middle of Banff National Park, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But on rainy days, or when you're plumb worn out from all that outdoor experience, consider one or more of Banff's splendid museums, of which I think there are three winners in the bunch.
The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum
Originated by a very active fellow named Norman Luxton, Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum (tel. 403/762-2388; www.buffalonationsmuseum.ca; adults C$8) began in his curio shop with a collection of oddball items, including a purported merman, but in 1950 the current collection was begun with the help of the founder of Calgary's famed Glenbow Museum. Since 1992, it has been owned by the Buffalo Nations Cultural Society, a group consisting of several First Nations (as the Canadians call what the U.S. terms "Native Americans") peoples, including the Blackfoot, Cree, Stoney, and Tsuu T'ina.
It tells the story of these peoples of the plains through displays of artifacts, dioramas and interpretive exhibitions. There are also occasional live performances and demonstrations with musicians, craft workers and artisans, and other forms of cultural exchange. The museum's emblem is, they say, a "sacred medicine wheel representing fire, earth, air and water." Most of the items here depict ordinary daily activities and memorabilia, such as pack saddles, dresses made of buckskin and the like. A sign says that after introduction of the horse, there was "more leisure time for war, religion and craftsmanship."
I especially liked Rooms 1 and 2 of the four rooms here, and was interested in the description of the glass beads, first introduced from traders around 1840, and made in Italy. Look also for the eagle feather bustle, worn by men on their backs as they dance in imitation of the eagle itself.
The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Although the Whyte Museum (111 Bear Street, Banff; tel. 403/762-2291; www.whyte.org; adults C$7) has several themes, including modern art and that by locals, I enjoyed their exhibit on the famous Luxton family (see above). Husband Norman was quite a character, having attempted to sail around the world (unsuccessfully) before he moved here and became a friend to the Shoney and Blackfoot Indians, among other tribes. The exhibit, which lasts through October 31, 2009, includes memorabilia from his home. You'll love the accomplishments of wife Eleanor, even thought one memento here is her unimaginative garden gnome.
The Banff Park Museum
The Banff Park Museum (91 Banff Avenue; tel. 403/762-1558; www.banfflakelouise.com; adults C$8) is a National Historic Site, as well as a showpiece of architecture from the early 1900s. It's Western Canada's oldest natural history museum, with a great collection of local wildlife (stuffed, of course), a reading room with magazines and reference books, and hands-on displays. Open year round.
To get the feel of the woods yet be just five minutes' drive from downtown Banff, consider the Juniper Hotel & Bistro (1 Juniper Way, Banff; tel. 403/763-7811; www.thejuniper.com; rooms from C$190), an utterly charming spot just at the outskirts, overlooking Highway One, Canada's major east-west thoroughfare. The property, located within the Cascade Wildlife Corridor in the park, was completely redesigned in 2004. All the rooms have delightful views. Nestled in the slope side of Mount Norquay, the Juniper is a favorite spot for skiers, and during summer hikers from the property along the hotel's own Discovery Trail can often see many varieties of wildlife. The manager told me that a cougar had killed "a medium-sized elk" in the vicinity just two days before my visit. There's a neat outdoor hot tub on the first floor, and the entire hotel is smoke free. They also ask guests to observe a quiet time (11pm-8am), something I wish all hotels would do. Lovely views from the restaurant, too. So you won't miss being in the center of town, the hotel provides free taxi service at any time to and from the hotel into Banff, a neat gesture, I think.
I fell in love with the Maple Leaf Restaurant (137 Banff Avenue; tel. 403/760-7680; www.banffmapleleaf.com) in the old King Edward Hotel on Banff Avenue the minute I looked at their menu and saw "bison Stroganoff" there. In an old-fashioned ambience, they serve very modern cuisine, with the emphasis on local delicacies, such as elk and trout. The service was impeccable, the bison Stroganoff (C$19) exceptional.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers in our Alberta and the Canadian Rockies forum today.