As the airplane begins its descent, the city of Calgary appears in the distance like a space station floating in fields of green. Soon we will be heading north to Red Deer under the 'Big Sky' of the Prairies. On the way we will pass neither town nor city, only endless fields of grain, for it is not only oil that makes Alberta Canada's wealthiest province.
The two-hour journey to Red Deer from Calgary is one of my favourite drives anywhere in the world. The overarching sky is immense - and yet seems within reach, as it shelters uninterrupted fields of lush green wheat and bright yellow canola. The luxury of land, beautiful and bountiful, as far as can be seen in any direction, speaks of boundless freedom.
Canada is a nation forged out of the wilderness. When the first European settlers arrived in the early sixteenth century, there were some 500,000 aboriginal inhabitants scattered across infinite lands that would one day become the second largest country in the world.
Canada's aboriginal people lived in harmony with the environment, leaving it virtually untouched. And so today's population - a mere thirty-five million people - are blessed to live on the borders of vast tracts of untamed land.
The nation's bountiful wilderness is being strategically conserved through a system of thirty-eight national parks and countless provincial parks. And so the Canadian passion for the wilds is not to be endangered.
Alberta's UNESCO World Heritage Parks
A century and a quarter ago, Banff, Canada's first national park, was established in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Banff is renowned for its breath-taking beauty in soaring mountain peaks, pristine lakes, spectacular canyons and luxurious hot springs. It is one of the world's most visited parks, the main attraction being Lake Louise, a glacial lake that is pure turquoise in colour. In a scene straight from a dream, the Lake's jewelled waters are edged with green trees and framed by snow capped mountains.
Banff's fabled turquoise lake was named for a Princess - HRH Louise Caroline Alberta (1848-1939), daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the Governor Gene Princess whose sojourn in the comparatively rough conditions of nineteenth-century Canada was unusually successful. Not an ordinary princess, Louise was a feminist as well as a talented artist who appreciated the great outdoors; and, contrary to royal convention, married for love.
Jasper National Park also belongs to the Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage reserve. This magnificent alpine park is a place of emerald lakes, sparkling waterfalls, and untouched wilderness. The Jasper Park Lodge has long been a favourite destination for luxury travellers, but I prefer a more direct experience of the sublime peace that only nature bestows. And so I set up camp on the silent shores of an alpine lake and glide in a canoe over its shimmering surface, hearing only the swish of the paddle and the occasional cry of a distant bird.
There are four more parks in Alberta that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites - The Dinosaur Provincial Park, The Wood Buffalo National Park, the Waterton Lakes National Park, and the Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump.
Badlands, dinosaurs and the head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump
Alberta's Dinosaur Park is in the Badlands of the south, a dry volcanic terrain with fantastic wind-blasted land formations known as hoodoos, and steep canyons cut from the rock long ago by rushing rivers. The naked bedding layers are clad in a spectacular array of colours - rust red, mustard yellow, black, viridian, and white. In the nineteenth century, the Badlands further east were a hangout for notorious outlaws, including the legendary bandits, Butch Cassid
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