I’d like to sheepishly admit that although I grew up here, I’ve never really been to Waterton, save for a trip to a bison ranch ten years ago that no longer exists. I feel like a bad Albertan, but I know many Calgarians have never ventured this way, opting instead for the almost instant gratification of a drive to Banff or Canmore. The town of Waterton, in Waterton National Park, is tiny – with a population of 105, it virtually closes down in the winter, opening up again in May for the summer season. The place is somewhat of an enigma, without any chains (hotels and otherwise, with the exception of a small Subway), no cable TV and currently absolutely zero real estate for sale (we checked within 24 hours there) – it has a completely different flavour than Banff/Canmore/Jasper, focused on the lake but still surrounded by mountains. Touristy but not annoyingly so, nor overrun with people.
One of the best things about a trip from Calgary to Waterton is the drive — through farmland instead of foothills, on not-too-busy highways through towns like High River, Claresholm and Nanton (and Fort McLeod for a three minute detour), or on the Cowboy Trail (which adds an extra 10 minutes to your drive) past Millarville, turner Valley and Black Diamond. I love the wind farms as you get close to Pincher Creek, and the way the rolling green fields suddenly give way to massive Rockies, with no in between. It feels somehow like being in Europe, and then rolling into a little beach town.
We stayed at the Bayshore Inn – the only hotel to stay open year-round, and all the hotels are independently owned – there no chains. None is higher than two stories, with the exception of the very Wes Anderson-ish Prince of Wales Hotel up on the bluff. The Bayshore is right in the middle of town, and backs onto the lake. The motel-style rooms have a cabin-y feel, with wood panelling and sliding glass doors onto patios with solid wood chairs. Each morning we woke up to a deer or two, and we kept a window open to listen to the sound of the lake. A note about internet: the town has its own, which you can sometimes pick up and sometimes not. W was horrified that we couldn’t get internet in our hotel room, and on top of it there were only 7 channels on TV (!!) which provided a valuable lesson on how we grew up, and once I got over the initial shock of not having internet each time I pulled my phone from my pocket, I loved the nostalgia of it – W quickly (grumbily) got used to it, and it was nice to semi-unplug and pick up some wireless here and there around town, but not be tethered to it.
Next time we’re going to try the Prince of Wales Hotel, which was built in 1927 and became a National Historic Site in 1992 (!!!), and when you see it you’ll understand why I’ve declared it my life’s mission to bring Wes Anderson to film a movie here. Amiright?
The lake is the deepest in the Rockies — swimmable for a short window in late summer, but better suited to boating, kayaking and canoeing, picnicking and skipping the smooth stones around its shore. It’s absolutely pristine – clear and blue, no weeds or mud or leeches. Fed by this waterfall, also on the edge of town.
There’s a gorgeous campground (that seems to be regularly occupied by masses of mountain sheep) at the end of town right on the lake, I’m standing in it to take this photo, and it’s close to the playground and tennis courts (everything is), and full of these green community-use buildings with tables and wood-fired ovens for larger gatherings. A friend and I rented bikes to check out the place, stopping to chat and smell the delicious things each family was cooking in the little buildings. Look at this! It’s lake perfection, really.
The entire town is walkable — once we parked at the hotel, we didn’t get back in the car until it was time to leave. Coffee was half a block down the street — the Larkspur coffee house just opened on Mothers’ Day weekend, and brews Fratello Coffee. They also do some pretty fab muffins, and the most perfect grilled cheese and tomato-roasted red pepper soup I believe I have ever had in my life. (And it’s always better when someone makes soup and grilled cheese for you.) It’s the kind of place you want to come hang out and have (superb) coffee, tap into the internet and chat about what’s what.
The two worked together here back when it was the Tourist Cafe back in 1991, and Cathy jumped on the opportunity to come back when she heard the space was vacant again. Lara made a super deep-dish chocolate pie with a brownie layer topped with chocolate mousse for the pie cruise – made with her kids’ leftover Easter chocolate.
Yes! THE PIE CRUISE.
It’s a pie cruise. You cruise around the lake and eat pie. I suggested it in a casual coffee/brainstorming session last year when the organizers of their annual Waterton Food Festival – the third is on now, and wraps up June 4 – asked for ideas. I love ideas. I love pie. And when they told me how many locals have it on the menu, I suggested they pair it with one of their cruises – arguably the most popular activity for visitors besides hiking – in the way that I do: “hey, you know what you should do? Have a PIE CRUISE!” And they went and did it! Everyone in town bakes a pie or two, and the boat fills up, and everyone just peruses the pie buffet and eats a few slices during a leisurely cruise down the lake to the US border and back. Honestly, this is my new favourite thing to ring in the start of summer.
There’s another pie cruise this weekend – on June 3! And then you’ll have to wait until next year’s food festival.
Of course I have to mention Wieners of Waterton and their next door neighbours Waffleton – this is the 8th season of wieners, an awesome little hot dog shop where they serve up locally made smokies on buns they bake all day long, with homemade sauerkraut and other toppings (here: gingered carrots and pickled onions), fries with flavoured aiolis (rosemary Parmesan!) and sticky cinnamon knots made with a recipe from one of the co-owner’s grandmas – apparently they were legendary in Fort Mac.
And the waffles! Be still, my Belgian heart. True Liège waffles, made with dense brioche dough and caramelized pearl sugar. And soft buttermilk waffles, made with an overnight dough with a bit of yeast. This one has a thin layer of bacon in the middle – somehow it’s delicate and not too chewy, and then doused in maple syrup.
Have I mentioned that being a summer locale, almost every place has a patio? It’s impossible to not just hop from patio to patio when it’s sunny out and everything is so clustered together. The tiny gas station (with pumps smaller than W) rents bikes, and you can borrow a free kite from the Waterton Natural History Association. We never even got around to that part.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my case for Waterton as a regular holiday destination – it’s well worth exploring. The surrounding area is known for its gorgeous hikes, ranging from easy to advanced, with plenty of leisurely walks, scrambles and places to climb. It’s a perfect balance of eating, relaxing, walking it off, paddling around in a boat and starting all over again. On the drive home, we were already plotting our trip back.
Also! A huge thanks to Lincoln for loaning us a fancier ride than I think I’ve ever driven (or been a passenger in) to get us to Waterton in style – the Lincoln MKC was a total blast. It was ridiculously comfortable and beautiful to drive, we quickly became totally dependant on the 3D GPS navigation system (what did we do back when there were paper maps?!), and it was tough to leave that audio system. And I loved that with the key fob in your pocket, you just kick your foot under the rear bumper to open the back.
A yellow indicator light in the rear view mirrors indicated if there was a vehicle in your blind spot, and the lane-keeping system prevents you from accidentally drifting out of your lane. Even the cruise control is smart enough to know when the vehicle ahead of you is slowing down. It was truly a divine drive, and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves road trips.