A winter road trip to one of our Canadian happy places.
Story and photos by Tom Sedens
Click on any picture to see a larger version.
After the Christmas presents were opened, and the fervour of the season ebbed out of our house, the euphoria swept away by too-many-new-things-to-play-with drunkenness, we set about packing. The packing was initiated by me, the mean dad who knows that his family will a) pack the morning of our trip and b) take until 11:00 AM to be done packing and c) force him to leave hours after the planned departure time. Trip, you ask? Yes, our annual winter road trip was upon us and we were headed to one of our Canadian happy places.
The packing was enforced and completed in time, which left our family with no excuses for leaving late. My goal was to have everyone packed and the vehicle loaded the night before. Utopian, yes, but imagine the possibilities! We got half-way to Utopia. Everyone was packed, but I didn’t manage to get everything into the vehicle that would ferry us on our trip – a 2016 Ford Explorer Limited.
In Limited trim , the Explorer is a roomy 6-seater with two captain’s chairs in the second row. To be honest, this configuration is ideal for our family’s long hauls because it separates the kids but also makes it easy for them to get in and out of the third row. The aisle negates the need to flip the second row seating down to get to the back, and that makes for much more peaceful ingress and egress every time we get in or stop and everyone gets out. The heated second row seats have plenty of head and leg room and they slide fore and aft and recline. The back of centre console has a dual cupholder, a climate control system as well as two USB plugs and a 110V household plug for charging devices. For the record, there are additional USB plugs under the front armrest lid and at the front of the centre console along with a 12V charging plug – thank you Ford for getting this right!
Before we started ingressing (I have deemed this an acceptable word for 2016 since Webster’s has deemed the same for words like “WTF” and “eggcorn”), we had to load up and so I got up early the day of our trip and set about making the most of the space we had to work with. I have a wife and two daughters that each pack five times as much as my son and I do together. We stowed away one of the rear seats (it folds itself backwards into the deep trunk well, making for a nice flat half-trunk) and one of my kids sat in the other rearmost seat. The Explorer offers up a reasonable 595L cargo space behind the third row, which grows to 1115L when you fold the third row down. With one of the third-row seats down, we found plenty of room for all our stuff.
And we were off. Inside, the Explorer features a nice (but dark) cabin with some sweet touches like open-pore wood trim, a dual-pane moonroof overhead and heated and cooled perforated leather seats which we found very comfortable. They also have massaging functions that left my lower back and my butt feeling relaxed after hours on the open road. Our destination was Fairmont Hot Springs, B.C. The trip from Edmonton to Fairmont is a 585 km cruise, which means we had plenty of time to get to know each other as a family again. For better or worse. Our journey started with series of fights over who would get the single rear seat – in a move of brilliant parenthood, I told the kids to work it out on their own. Clearly the third row was popular. By the way, the two third row seats are reasonably comfortable and can accommodate adults including plenty of head room – though at 5’10”, I found leg room to be at a premium. Each passenger has an organizer tray and a cupholder on the side, which was very handy for our kids – and an absolute delight to clean after the trip. Ugh.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the very comfortable Explorer is at home on the highway. The ride is extraordinarily quiet – road, engine and wind noise are all well suppressed. Visibility out of the vehicle is excellent and the brakes are strong. While on the highway, we also noted that Ford includes a lot of driver assistance technology in the Limited trim. I found the adaptive cruise control effective and it worked smoothly for us throughout our trip. The otherwise unobtrusive selection of technology was marred somewhat by the strange a-ghost-is-holding-onto-your-steering-wheel sensation when the lane keep assist would kick in – it is quite sensitive and often “assisted” me, and it makes it feel as though the Explorer’s alignment is suddenly out of whack until you realize the vehicle itself is taking the wheel a bit to ease you into the centre of the lane. I found it unnerving and turned it off. Another nitpick – the dead pedal space is ridiculously tiny. My foot, a size 13 admittedly, didn’t fit on it thanks to a couple of tumors growing out of the footwell right above it.
Before we hit our first traditional road trip stop, the Donut Mill in Red Deer, we had solved the seating schedule and had a moment’s peace. After a delicious donut, we headed for Calgary. We are always grateful for Calgary’s terrific ring road, Stoney Trail, which allows us to bypass the entire city and join the TransCanada Highway that leads to Banff, our next stop.
We needed coffee, and badly. Every time we’re in Banff we make sure to stop at Evelyn’s Coffee Bar, an establishment that has been nursing road-weary travellers and Banff Ave. hangovers alike for decades. It’s always busy and it’s always awesome. And we were on our way again, headed down the highway toward the Castle Mountain junction. This is where we jumped onto Highway 93 which leads through some scary but beautiful mountain passes. It’s better to take it easy along this stretch, as the roads are often icy and treacherous, the cliffs are sheer, and a drop over the side could really ruin your whole day. We prefer to enjoy our drive here instead of hurrying – the scenery is amazing and worth taking in. With that said, the Explorer’s handling is impressive for a large SUV and the all-wheel drive system is excellent – the vehicle felt competent and secure on these roads.
Although driving here provides enough stress for the average person, I have also been entrusted with the lives of three children, and I was blessed with a symphony (actually more a repeating chorus) of “Don’t touch me! Dad, she’s touching me! STOP TOUCHING ME. YOUR FOOT IS STILL TOUCHING ME!!!”, interspersed with my 5 year-old son practicing his newly-discovered whistling skills (which is, roughly speaking, the equivalent of 10-grit sandpaper on my soul) and frequent reports of Andon’s dinosaur biting his sisters, followed by his maniacal laughter. Good times.
Luckily, I was able to drown it out with the excellent Sony sound system. There were no surprises with the end-of-its-life-cycle MyFordTouch system that also handles the Explorer’s navigation, phone functions, climate control.
The newly-available optional 2.3L EcoBoost 4-cylinder provided ample, effortless power for driving around town as well as for getting up to highway speeds. It has good passing power too, but takes a couple of seconds to downshift and build up momentum. It’s more than adequate, but definitely not like the monster 3.5L EcoBoost in the Sport or the Platinum. Ford’s 6-speed automatic is smooth and I appreciated its intelligence, particularly when it came to what appeared to be grade-sensing technology. It downshifted one or two gears while on 8% downhill grades to engage engine braking. Nice!
Soon we arrived in Radium Hot Springs. I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid. Even though the sleepy little resort town is pretty and the hot springs are spectacular, the real treasure in this valley is just down Highway 95. In the middle of Radium, you come to a T-intersection and hang a left. And then you’re on the home stretch. Not a minute too soon, as the “Are we there yet?”s, the “How long until we’re there, Dad?”s and the “Is this the road it’s on?”s started about 3 minutes after we left home.
Less than an hour away waits Fairmont Hot Springs. It is also a resort town, boasting skiing in the winter and endless golf opportunities in the summer – and hot-springs-fed pools surrounded by endless mountain vistas all year long. It’s one of our favourite family spots and highly recommended.
We stay at the Lodge, which is the epicentre of the hot springs resort and associated properties including skiing and golfing. There are incredible opportunities for hiking all year long too. When in Fairmont Hot Springs, our kids would be happy with spending all day, every day in the pools. While we wouldn’t mind that, we always have a few traditions that need to take place.
One of these traditions always has us getting up early one morning and visiting the town of Invermere, which is roughly half-way between Radium and Fairmont. The Explorer’s remote starter and heated steering wheel were a boon for getting things warmed up from our hotel room on the frigid mountain mornings. It’s a quick jaunt down the highway to Invermere to get to two awesome places that we love visiting. One of them is the famous Invermere Bakery. Our kids love this place and so do we. Prepare to jostle with locals to find a spot in line, but it’s worth the wait. My wife and I always share the Copenhagen – puff pastry filled with custard, with a danish on top, loaded with icing. It’s for your heart! Our kids’ choices range from maple long johns to apple-filled sugar donuts.
Invermere also offers some great shopping, which makes my wife happy because who needs a break from their daily shopping habit? And at the end of the day, we like to stop at Strand’s Old House Restaurant – a fine dining fixture in Invermere since 1980. Wondering why it’s called the Old House Restaurant? It’s because it is in a 1912 vintage home! And because it’s a restaurant.
Back in Fairmont, we head to our accommodations in the Juniper Lodge. These are suites with kitchenettes. They haven’t been renovated (or even updated, as far as we can tell) in probably 40 years. But their proximity to the pools (perhaps a 2 minute stroll) and the inclusion of free swimming (saving our family about $50 each time) makes it worth it for us. We were there with friends and our families headed to the hot springs for New Years Eve. A family-friendly New Years Eve sitting in 38 degree hot pool awaited us, with a great fireworks display at 10 PM. The nice thing was we could pack it up – the kids were wiped out – and move the party to our rooms. We loved it!
After four days, it was time to head back home. We stopped in Radium Hot Springs for a brew at Meet On Higher Ground – they make outstanding coffees and it’s a fun, relaxing bohemian atmosphere where smiling locals come and go. Turning back onto the highway, we were thankful that our exhausted kids gave us a break. There was minimal fighting, and only a few dozen “How long till we get home?” questions and it was but a few hours of mostly quiet travel back to Edmonton to start off 2016.
In the end, we found the Ford Explorer to be an outstanding road trip vehicle. For the record, we averaged a respectable 11.1 L/100 km (21 US mpg) over 1600 km. That included a few days of city driving and 1350 km of 115-125 km/h highway driving, with half of that taking place in the mountains loaded up with 5 people and their luggage.
Happy New Year and all the best for 2016, everyone!
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Ford Canada.
If you enjoyed this story, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.
Pricing: 2016 Ford Explorer
Base price (Limited trim): $47,899
Options: $450 Ruby Red metallic paint; $2250 Equipment Group (active park assist, lane depart and lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rain-sensing wipers, auto high beam headlights, rear inflatable seatbelts); $1000 2.3L EcoBoost engine; $150 floor mats; $500 2nd row captain chairs; $1750 dual-panel moonroof; $1500 adaptive cruise control/collision warning; $500 Class II trailer tow pkg;
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $57,789