Great Green North: The Joys of Western Canada
As golf destinations go, Canada flies somewhat under the radar. Yet for quality, scenery and value in a golf vacation, it soars. My advice is to zero in on the Rocky Mountain splendor of the western provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, for the nation’s most spectacular golf. Given its roster of magnificent courses and an exchange rate that yields plenty of bang for the buck, set your sights on the Great Green North.
For more than 90 years, Alberta has been home to the most dazzling collection of public-access tracks in Canada. Birdies and eagles are only part of the story. Frequently, they’re accompanied by moose, bear, elk and wolves. Not every round involves a trip to the zoo, but what a visiting golfer will encounter every time out is classic design and the most dazzling mountain scenery this side of the Swiss Alps.
▸ PLAY: In the shadows of the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel sits the Stanley Thompson Banff Springs GC, a 1928 creation at 4,639 feet that astounds with sensory overload. Mountain scenery practically overwhelms the golfer, creating optical illusions throughout, notably at the 192-yard, par-3 4th, “Devil’s Cauldron,” where Gene Sarazen once quarreled with his caddie over club selection. Amid fairways filled with rutting elk in the fall, mounds and bunkers that mimic the mountain shapes and greens that edge the Bow and Spray Rivers, you have Canada’s must-play resort course.
Every bit the equal to Banff is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a delightful 1925 Stanley Thompson design that engages with mountain backdrops, an imaginative routing and waves of serpentine bunkers etched into slopes and mounds. Not long at 6,633 yards and an elevation of 3,300 feet, Jasper mesmerizes with a back nine that skirts the blue-green waters of Lac Beauvert, and closes with a 463-yard par-4 that races downhill through bunkers and pines.
Kananaskis Country Golf Course is actually two courses, Mt. Lorette and Mt. Kidd, each of which bears the 1984 design imprint
of Robert Trent Jones Sr. Jones famously praised the site as “the finest location I have ever seen for a golf course.” Rivers, pine forests, mountains and huge bunkers spice the proceedings and the modest green fees (prime weekend rates are under $100 U.S.) will let you enjoy a double dose. Following a devastating flood in 2013, architect Gary Browning brought back both courses in 2018, more playable and every bit as handsome.
▸ STAY: Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel; Post Hotel; Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
▸ DINE: Waldhaus at Fairmont Banff Springs, plus more casual fare below at Waldhaus Pub & Biergarten; The Lake Louise Railway Station; The Nook Chophouse at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
▸ SIDE TRIP: Drive the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper and detour for a Snowcoach and ice-walk adventure atop the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefields. Another can’t-miss is the mountain-ringed, turquoise-hued Lake Louise, perhaps the most stunning inland vista I’ve ever experienced.
Two hours north of Vancouver is remarkable Whistler — remarkable because it has earned accolades as North America’s top vacation destination for both winter and summer. Whistler’s snow season credentials are impeccable: It played host to alpine, Nordic and sliding events in the 2010 Winter Olympics. In summer, Whistler’s family attractions are so voluminous, it’s easy to forget that the region is also a stellar buddies trip venue. Toss in the charms of Whistler Village, nestled at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, complete with cafes, shops and superb nightlife, and you’ve got an ideal getaway.
▸ PLAY: Sculpted from the side of Blackcomb Mountain, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.–designed Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club rises and falls 400 feet in its 18-hole journey. Highlights are two signature par 3s, the 212-yard 8th and the 131-yard 10th that embrace the creeks, ponds and exposed granite rock faces that characterize the course.
Twenty-five minutes north of Whistler, the aptly named Big Sky Golf Club soars with a 1994 Bob Cupp design in the Pemberton Valley. There’s no hill climbing here, just one solid hole after another laced with lakes and bunkers. Yet Big Sky definitely sports an alpine feel, notably at the 454-yard, par-4 14th, called “Hang Time,” that boasts a staggering backdrop of snowcapped 8,500-foot Mount Currie.
I saw my first golf course black bear at the Arnold Palmer–designed Whistler Golf Club back in 2014. However, there’s another design in the area, crafted by Arnie’s rival, Jack Nicklaus, a.k.a. The Bear Course, that offers a stronger test. Nicklaus North features a rugged, gorgeous quintet of watery par 3s and views of Green Lake.
▸ STAY: Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
▸ DINE: Bearfoot Bistro (don’t miss the Ketel One Ice Room for a vodka tasting); Sushi Village; The Wildflower at Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
▸ SIDE TRIP: Ziplining, whitewater rafting, mountain biking — check. Still, my favorite excursion for relaxing thrills is the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola ride that whisks you between Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains. Suspended high above the valley, you’re afforded unforgettable 360-degree panoramas of mountain peaks, lakes, glaciers and forests.
Vancouver Island, B.C.
Situated 75 air miles north of Seattle, Vancouver Island is a short plane or ferry ride across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver. You can tackle all 14 courses of the Vancouver Island Golf Trail, but if you’re not quite that ambitious, play the best of the best and make time to explore the visual and cultural treasures of the region. Start with the Inner Harbour of Victoria (B.C.’s capital) and head 150 miles northwest to Campbell River. Along the way, you’ll encounter glacier-topped mountains, old-growth rainforests, sublime sea views and a bevy of bargain-priced courses.
▸ PLAY: No longer the fright-fest it was a decade ago, Bear Mountain Mountain course will still slap you silly if you’re hitting it crooked. This co-design from Jack and Steve Nicklaus serves up massive elevation changes, dense forests, rock outcroppings and water hazards throughout. Most memorable is the cliff-top par-3 14th that peers out at Victoria Harbour. More soothing tee to green, but equipped with diabolically contoured putting surfaces is Bear Mountain’s Valley course, another creation from the Nicklaus father and son team.
Located two hours’ drive north of Victoria in the seaside town of Parksville, Morningstar GC is bereft of water views, but offers plenty of wetlands amid a mix of boldly bunkered, flattish holes and narrow, wooded, hilly tests. The reverse cambered, 404-yard, par-4 12th slopes right to left but bends left to right and flirts with water at the green. It will eat your lunch and ask for seconds.
Picture the quintessential Pacific Northwest course — fairways ribboning through massive firs, snowcapped mountains beckoning in the background — and you have Olympic View GC in Victoria. Scenery and shotmaking merge in unforgettable fashion at the 417-yard, par-4 17th, which houses a Japanese garden and a 60-foot waterfall behind the green.
▸ STAY: The Westin Bear Mountain Resort & Spa; Fairmont Empress (afternoon tea at the Empress in Victoria has set a standard of civility since 1908); Hotel Grand Pacific.
▸ DINE: Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub; Bella at The Westin Bear Mountain Resort; Red Fish Blue Fish.
▸ SIDE TRIP: Cruise Victoria’s Inner Harbour or take in whale-watching on a three-hour sunset tour. On dry land, visit Butchart Gardens, which has astounded visitors for more than 100 years with its 55 acres of flowers, trees and shrubbery.
Okanagan Valley, B.C.
Western Canada’s hidden golf jewel is the Okanagan Valley. Its menu of affordable, attractive courses, high desert climate and impressive roster of wineries makes it ideal for those who like to grip it and sip it. Headquarters for an Okanagan golf holiday is Kelowna, a dynamic lakeside city of 140,000, which rolls out a modern small airport that’s a one-hour flight from Seattle and a mere 15 minutes from four of the region’s top courses. Summer is wonderful in the Okanagan, but autumn is special, when the entire region yields the scent of fruit orchards and vineyards.
▸ PLAY: The region’s premier layout, Tobiano, calls for a two-hour drive west from Kelowna to Kamloops. It’s worth the journey. One of Canada’s top 25 courses, Tobiano GC is a 2007 Thomas McBroom creation that tumbles across fescue-framed desert bluffs overlooking Kamloops Lake. Deep gulches, sagebrush roughs and imposing mountain vistas make for one of Canada’s most distinctive tracks.
Les Furber’s original 18 at Predator Ridge Resort whisks you through links-like wheatgrass meadows and pine-infused valleys and features wildly undulating greens. Doug Carrick redesigned Furber’s third nine and added nine original holes in 2010 to form the slightly superior Ridge course. Exposed rock outcroppings, mature forest and holes atop the ridge that gives the newer course its name pair with views of Okanagan Lake and a collection of more gently contoured, more accessible greens.
▸ STAY: Manteo Resort Waterfront Hotel and Villas; Predator Ridge Resort; Delta Hotels by Marriott Grand Okanagan Resort.
▸ DINE: Old Vines Restaurant at Quails Gate Estate Winery; Waterfront Wines; Terrace Restaurant at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery.
▸ SIDE TRIP: You’re deep in the heart of Canada’s wine country, so indulge in a tour and tasting. Start with Summerhill Pyramid Winery, which ages its organic wines in a four-story replica of Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Mission Hill Family Estate Winery with its 12-story bell tower and Quails Gate Estate Winery with a tasting room that overlooks Okanagan Lake are two more savory options.