The Canadian Rockies are a lot like Charlize Theron: pretty in pictures but mind-blowing in person. An hour's drive west of Calgary, Banff is easier to reach than you think and provides as dramatic a backdrop for golf as exists on the planet. Not to be overlooked is the fact that the weak U.S. dollar goes further north of the border, ensuring that a golf trip to Banff will be as affordable as it is memorable. Now, that's a real Rocky Mountain high.
Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course
7,083 yards; par 71; $145; 403-762-6801
This was the first course in the world to cost more than $1 million when designer Stanley Thompson unveiled it in 1928. The investment has paid off handsomely. Fused with the surrounding terrain rather than imposed upon it, the course can be resort-friendly for casual duffers or downright wicked for the more competitive player. Every hole is picturesque, but No. 4, a 199-yard downhill par 3 with a greenside glacier pool, is downright dazzling. The tee shot over the Bow River at the 480-yard par-4 15th is also unforgettable. The Fairmont also boasts a 3,357-yard, par-36 nine-hole course.
SilverTip Golf Resort
7,173 yards, par 72; $115 - $130; 877-877-5444
Fifteen minutes east of Banff, the Les Furber-designed course is an eight-year-old wild child. Golfers have their hands full trying to keep control over 7,173 rollicking yards characterized by uneven lies, humpy-lumpy greens and climate-changing elevation swings--it's a six-hundred-foot drop from the highest point at the ninth tee to the lowest at the 13th green. The fun starts at the first hole, a roiling, 559-yard par-5 dogleg right with a forced carry over water. There is little let up leading up to the home hole, a 444-yard par-4 that rates the No. 2 handicap, though a creek and fairway bunker are all but unreachable off the tee.
Stewart Creek Golf Club
7,195 yards, par 72; $115 - $135; 877-993-4653
More forgiving than SilverTip but no less fun, Stewart Creek opened in 2000 and is the first of two planned courses at Three Sisters Mountain Village. The Three Sisters mountain range overlooks the golf course and offers enchanting target lines along the way, but hookers and slicers need not fear: there is barely a man-made mound anywhere on the course, and the fairways are mercifully wide, most notably on the opening holes. All bets are off when you step onto the tee at No. 18, a altitude-aided 530-yard par 5 that is reachable.
The card wrecker
Fairmont Banff Springs Course
No. 10; 220 yards, Par 3
This hole only ranks as the 14th most difficult on the course, but trust us--its bite is much worse than its bark. The bunkers flanking the left of the green are punishing while water runs all the way up the front and to the right. The only consolation is that the green is relatively flat.
How to play it
Doug Wood, the Director of Golf at the Fairmont Banff Springs, has a plan to survive the potential horrors of No. 10. "The key to playing "Little Bow" is to hit enough club. The hole requires a carry of 200 yards, usually into a cross wind. Any shot short of the green will find the water. The perfect shot would be a fade aimed at the left bunker, which takes the water out of play."
Where to stay
Fairmont Banff Springs
Built in 1888 as a retreat for Canadian Pacific Railway passengers, the Euro-inspired baronial castle is at once a landmark and an experience. While it's hard to fathom a 770-room hotel exuding intimacy, the Fairmont Banff Springs's coziness belies its mammoth size. The quaint town of Banff is an easy walk or quick trolley ride from the hotel, although the resort has it all, from a world-class spa to 12 restaurants and lounges. Sunsets are best enjoyed from the terrace with a camera in one hand and a cocktail in the other. Just as you wouldn't go to Paris without checking out the Eiffel Tower, you can't go Banff without checking into the Fairmont.
Rooms: Spring: $319 - $459 CDN ($265 - $382 US$; Summer: $459 - $659 ($265 - $549 US$); fairmont.com/banffsprings, 800-257-7544
Where to Eat
Highlights of the Fairmont's many food offerings include the gluttonous lunch buffet in the Bow Valley Grill, where the dessert case is a meal unto itself. Secluded in the woods is the Hansel & Gretel - esque Waldhaus Cottage, with a formal dining room upstairs and the more relaxed and family-friendly Pub below serving authentic Bavarian fare like venison ragout, wiener schnitzel and assorted fondues. Don't miss the Toblerone chocolate fondue.
In town, Melissa's (melissasrestaurant.com) is a breakfast favorite famous for its Eggs Benedict with Canadian Back Bacon, while Earls (earls.ca) is an upscale epicurean institution in Canada's Western provinces and is now making inroads in the U.S. Go early: not only is it very popular, everything on the menu is so tantalizing you'll need the extra time to decide.
Ten percent solution
Do the math: The ball flies 10 percent farther in the thin air of the Canadian Rockies, so flatlanders should adjust accordingly. Your 150-yard club will fly closer to 165 yards. More good news: shave 20 percent off Canadian prices to get the cost in U.S. dollars. That $180 greens fee sounds a little better when you realize it's really $145 in Uncle Sam's greenbacks.
Worth the drive
Jasper Park Lodge is about a four-hour drive from Banff along a highway that redefines the word scenic. The resort is the sister property of Banff Springs and home to another Stanley Thompson-designed gem. The 903-acre resort feels like a laid-back luxury summer camp with its log cabins and cedar chalets dotting the banks of Lac Beauvert. The 6,663-yard Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club is a par 71, but you should be happy if you can shoot its age: it celebrates its 80th birthday this year.
Rooms from $449 CDN; resort guest green fees: $149 CDN; fairmont.com/jasper, 800-257-7544
Knock 'em dead in the resort's Canadian five-pin bowling alley. You get three flings with a ball the size of a large coconut to topple five pins arranged in a "V," with scoring based on which pins fall, not the total number. It's a hoot, especially after a few Labatts.
Hoof it up to scenic Lake Louise. Thirty-seven miles up the highway from Banff, the limpid emerald water backed by towering Victoria Glacier resembles a Hollywood movie set and is an idyllic spot to enjoy a hike, canoe trip, horseback ride or picnic.
Rocky Mountain Raft Tours offers one and two-hour trips rafting down the Bow River and shoves off right below the Banff Springs hotel. No roiling whitewater, just a leisurely bob alongside Tunnel Mountain, the Hoodoos and majestic Mount Rundle.
A two-hour drive--but a world away--is the Columbia Icefield on the boundary of Banff and Jasper National Parks. Hop a ride (in shirtsleeves in the summer!) on an all-terrain SnoCoach for a fun and informative 90-minute spin on a glacier that is five times the size of Manhattan.
Bikers can choose from four guided rides ranging from easy to aggressive, with the entry-level one-hour tour covering three miles out and back along the Vermillion Lakes.