The Pursuit of Fun – The Banff Gondola

Brewster Travel Canada, the company that 125 years ago began offering sightseeing excursions to tourists in Banff, Jasper and Glacier National Parks, recently joined forces with its sibling companies in BC and Alaska. Bolstered and polished, they rebranded and emerged as Pursuit

The company now owns hotels and attractions in Canada, the USA and is in the process of building a flyover experience in Reykavik, Iceland. 

What this means to consumers is a transition into modern, experiential travel. Yes, it is all about the experience, these days. People want to be wowed. 

I accepted Pursuit’s invitation to stay at their newly acquired and renovated Mount Royal Hotel. The hotel is perfectly situated on Banff Avenue. Everything you need is moments away from your doorstep. 

Newly renovated Mount Royal room. 

View from the Mount Royal. 

My weekend would also see me take the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain to attend a Harry McWatters Winemaker Dinner at the Sky Bistro, and do some exploring on the side. 

The winemaker’s dinner was incredible. You can read all about it here

I was so intrigued by the renovated summit building and impressed with Chef Scott Hergott (in charge of the Sky Bistro and the Northern Lights buffet bistro), that I rode the gondola up the next day to have lunch. 

Truth be told, I love things like gondolas, funiculars, trams, Ferris wheels and the like. I love how humbling it feels to look at natural wonders like valleys and mountains and wide expanses and realize that we are just a small part of this world.  

Banff townsite and Tunnel Mountain. 

I also love really good food. And judging from what Hergott fed us the night before, I had a feeling that the lunch experience would be just as enjoyable. 

It was. 

Taking the gondola during the day makes you wish the ride was longer than eight minutes. The ride is smooth and comfortable and the scenery is truly breathtaking. 

When you enter the building, either the elevator or the stairs will take you up to the third floor where you are met with a spectacular sight. The dining room that was lit with candles and soft lighting from the antler chandeliers the night before, was flooded with sunlight streaming through floor-to ceiling windows. From anywhere in the room, diners have one heck of a breathtaking view. 

The lunch menu was concise and thoughtful. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s obvious this chef knows to focus on quality and not quantity—always a good approach. 

Sky Bistro lunch menu.

I waffled between the burger and the beef dip. To be honest, I was tired of being disappointed by burgers lately, so I went with the dip. My friend, Carmen, had the burger after I was there…the picture she posted on Instagram  tells me I wouldn’t have been disappointed. 

But, the prime rib sandwich was an excellent choice. 

Alberta prime rib beef dip.

Layers of tender braised AAA beef was sliced thin and stacked high along with onion rings and aoili inside a chewy baguette and served with an intense jus for dipping.  The accompanying Caesar salad had just the right ratio of lemon to anchovy in the dressing and I would’ve loved to have seen more greens in that bowl. The$20 price tag was still fair considering the quality of ingredients and that it was served in a gorgeous restaurant on the top of a mountain in a national park. 

The price of the gondola ticket one pays to get to that sandwich though has many tongues wagging.

Here is how I look at the issue: 

You have chosen to visit a world-class destination because it is well, world class. Banff is special and amazing and you have come because there are many things to do and spectacular things to see. This is a National Park, a tourist destination; a bucket list adventure for people around the world. If you want to cheap out, you can. You can get around by foot and eat at fast-food chains (ugh) but if you want to do cool things, you’re going to have to pay for the experience. 

The parking lot at the base of the gondola says “Maximum parking, 4 hours.” You could very well spend 4 hours at the top of that mountain. At first I scoffed at that sign, but ended up staying up there for 2.5 hours. 

Locals are eligible for a discounted rate, and you can save 10% by booking online, but all other adults at the gate are going to pay $64. Kids pay less, of course, and there are other incentives and packages. Check online for more info, but, here’s why I think the rate is justifie: 

  • Pursuit recently spent 26 million dollars on renovating the property and it is beautiful. Actually, more than beautiful. If you’re looking for photo ops, you’re going to wear your camera out up there. You get to explore everything inside the summit building as well as outside and you will be there for longer than you think. You will flood your social media accounts with unbelievably beautiful pictures. Honestly. Check out Pursuit’s Instagram account. 
  • December is full of Christmas events: Santa is up there, so take the kids—there are lots of things to keep them happy and occupied: they can make caramel apples, cookies or participate in crafts like making picture frames. Other months also feature special events. 
  • A small movie theatre shows a variety of short films. It’s a lovely space and super comfortable. 
  • You can stargaze – either through high powered pro telescopes or just with your own eyes. And you can do so under warm blankets while sitting on comfy Adirondack chairs beside roaring fires on the rooftop observation deck. 
  • Need to do some shopping? The gift shop has really gorgeous keepsakes and clothing. 
  • The interactive displays will have you crawling into tents, learning about wildlife, the history of Banff, and the alpine ecosystems. 
  • The summit also features a 1 km boardwalk that leads Sanson’s Peak, so go for a walk. Make sure to wear warm clothing!
  • Grab a mulled wine or a coffee and take in the grandeur of the valley from inside or outside. Relax. Write a poem. Propose to your true love. Sing. Be mesmerized. 
  • Eat – at either Northern Lights buffet (this is no blasé buffet) or at Sky Bistro. The views are jaw-dropping, and the food, amazingly, is very, very good. 
Northern Lights Buffet
  • For a reasonable upcharge, you can get an appetizer and a main at Sky Bistro, or the lunch buffet at Northern Lights. For example: $89 includes the gondola ride, an appetizer AND a main at Sky Bistro and a good portion of the activities I listed above. 

For exact costs and what’s happening at the Banff Gondola and Summit make sure to check out Pursuit’s website first, but by all means, put it on your list of Alberta destinations to seek out in the near future. 

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Author: Twyla Campbell

World-wide wanderer, CBC Edmonton AM Restaurant Reviewer, Member of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, oenophile, epicurean explorer and a freelance writer whose works have appeared in several magazines and newspapers including More, Above & Beyond, Avenue (Edmonton), Up Here, Northern Flyer, Opulence, City Palate, the Edible Prairie Journal, The Edmonton Journal, Slow Food Canada, Lifestyle Alberta, and on Slow Food Edmonton’s website. Grant MacEwan University (Professional Writing Program) Bachelor of Applied Communications Degree (in progress). I’m a Tweeter @wanderwoman10