Peak Interest

Breath-taking scenery and lavish hotels draw visitors to the Canadian Rockies

By: Janice Mucalov

“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” It was the late 1800s, and William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was referring to the splendor of the snow-capped peaks, pristine lakes, emerald forests and rushing rivers of Banff in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. A visionary, Van Horne dreamed of building lavish rest stops along the newly constructed rail line running through the vast wilderness mountains that straddle the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia.

And he did just that. Billed as the “finest hotel on the North American continent” it was certainly the largest the Banff Springs Hotel, styled on the baronial castles of Scotland, opened in 1888. The Chateau Lake Louise followed in 1890. Over the next century, the Canadian Pacific hotel chain continued to expand, acquiring another historic Rockies railway property in 1988, the Jasper Park Lodge (the chain is now Fairmont Hotels and Resorts).

Today, with their history intimately linked to that of Canada’s railway and the creation of the country’s first national parks, the three grand dames the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise and Jasper Park Lodge offer the ultimate year-round Rocky Mountain high.

Banff
Checking into the Banff Springs Hotel, we’re immediately impressed. Magnificent foyers and arches, stone columns as thick as centuries-old cedars and immense chandeliers everything is built on a grand scale here, matching the grandeur of the mountain scenery outside. It’s hard to imagine ole Cornelius creating this massive castle almost 120 years ago in such remote wilderness and wooing hordes of guests too.

There are 770 guestrooms and suites. The hotel has recently undergone a $75 million face-lift, but old black-and-white photographs on the walls still convey its rich history; images of “ladies camping” (circa 1934) and a 1937 trail ride decorate our room.

Our first day, we enjoy the facilities of the 38,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa. I indulge in a stress-relief massage; my husband gets the kinks worked out with a sports massage. Relaxed and wobbly, we meet afterward in the indoor Romanesque spa pool, where warm mineral waters reputed to have therapeutic health benefits sparkle underneath a skylight above. Pulsating waterfalls splash into three adjacent smaller pools. A cup of herbal tea, complimentary low-fat muffin and a snooze in the spa lounge later, and we’re good to go for the afternoon.

Top on our list is the Banff Gondola. We’re whisked some 2,300 feet up to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, where decks provide awesome 360-degree views of the mountains and valleys below. In summer, it’s not uncommon to see bighorn sheep grazing beyond the decks. A half-mile boardwalk leads to a 1903 weather observatory and another viewing area.

Tearing ourselves away, we descend back down and make our way to the charming postage-stamp-sized town of Banff. Its ski shops, sculpture galleries and jewelry and clothing stores make for pleasant window shopping (but the prices are as eye-popping as those in the hotel’s shops).

The next day begins with the most extensive buffet breakfast I’ve ever tucked into from mushrooms in cream sauce (sinfully yummy), to crepes with berries, to three choices of cheese for your made-to-order omelette. Service is excellent, and our server addresses us personally by name.

After breakfast, we pass skiers clomping out of the Banff Springs Hotel to schuss the nearby slopes of Sunshine Village. It’s a warm spring day, and we prefer to stroll through the forest to Bow Falls. Everyone is out enjoying the weather children throw stones into the water while their parents snap pictures of the happy scenes. Before long, though, it’s time for us to continue on to Lake Louise.

Lake Louise
A hotel for the outdoor adventurer and alpinist,” was the role Van Horne had in mind for the original chalet at Lake Louise. Now, the Chateau Lake Louise encompasses 550 rooms and suites, with towers, terraces and detailing influenced by Palladian villa designs of the Italian Renaissance period. It’s not quite as grand as the Banff Springs Hotel, and the indoor swimming pool and spa area could benefit from refurbishing, but nestled as it is on the shores of postcard-perfect Lake Louise, its location can’t be beat. And true to Cornelius’ dream, the Chateau offers a trove of treasured outdoor adventures.

Signing up for the Mountain Heritage Program, we meet our guide Bruce Bembridge.

“The first Swiss mountain guides were brought to the Rockies by the railway in 1899 after a lawyer leading an American mountaineering party fell to his death on Mt. Lefroy over there,” he points to a jagged peak in the distance. “The hotel restarted these mountain guiding tours in 1997.”

No mountaineering is involved these days. But in summer, guided hikes are offered up the mountains to historic backcountry teahouses (you can also safely hike without a guide). I recall a lovely switchback walk on a previous trip up to the Lake Agnes Tea House, which served scrumptious chocolate cake, freshly baked in a wood-burning oven.

“Yep, they still make it,” confirms Bruce, only now the cake is baked in a propane oven (the propane is helicoptered in once a year).

Other summer activities include paddling a canoe in the turquoise waters of Lake Louise, whitewater or scenic rafting, horsebacking riding, trout fishing and mountain biking.

For now, though, we’re in between winter and summer. It’s too late in the year to don ice cleats and clomp up nearby Johnston Canyon to marvel at dazzling pillars of blue ice, or to go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or dog-sledding in an authentic Inuit sled pulled by Alaskan Huskies.

But there’s still plenty of snow for a sleigh ride around the lake. We clamber up into a traditionally styled wooden sleigh pulled by two Percheron horses, Moe and Joe. As they clop along the snowy path, their bells jingle merrily, and we thoroughly enjoy the whole experience.

Alberta is renowned for its high-quality beef, so that evening we hit the hotel’s trendy new Tom Wilson Steak House. First comes a sampling of pumpkin risotto and other tapas, then a strip loin for me and bison tenderloin for my husband. Washed down with a cabernet, it’s a fine way to finish off our Lake Louise visit.

Jasper
The 144-mile stretch of highway from Lake Louise to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s most stunning mountain drives. The unsurpassed scenery showcases forests, alpine meadows, canyons, the roaring Athabasca Falls and so much more. Driving along, there’s a good chance of spotting moose, black and grizzly bears, shaggy white mountain goats, bighorn sheep and elk. But perhaps the most famous attraction is the Columbia Icefield.

Covering 130 square miles, the icefield is the largest sub-polar body of ice in North America, feeding eight major glaciers. From the Columbia Icefield visitor center, you can tour the icy slopes of the Athabasca Glacier in a big red “ice explorer.” Your driver/guide explains how glaciers are formed and you get to step out and walk on the ice.

Arriving at Jasper Park Lodge, you immediately notice how different it is from the Banff and Lake Louise castles. This is a rustic wilderness retreat (albeit an elegant one), where many of the 446 rooms and suites are housed in log cabins. There’s even a 6,000-square-foot, six-bedroom cabin with full kitchen, which has welcomed Queen Elizabeth.

Golfers gravitate to the lodge’s acclaimed 18-hole course. Ever since 50 teams of horses and 200 men carved out its fairways in 1925, the lodge’s golf club has excited thousands who love the game. Creator Stanley Thompson, considered Canada’s greatest golf architect, also built the championship 18-hole course at the Banff Springs Hotel the first in the world to cost over $1 million to build.

Flying home, I recall our mountain guide Bruce cautioning us: “There’s a condition called Rocky Mountain Fever which develops about eight months after you’ve visited the Rockies. The only medicine to take away that heartache is to come back here again.”

It’s only been a few hours since we left, and already I’m sorely missing those mountains. Guess I better start planning my return trip.

RAILWAY TOURS:

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations:
“All aboard!” shouts the conductor before the Rocky Mountaineer train clackety-clacks its way on three spectacular, two-day, all-daylight Rockies routes. The Kicking Horse route traces the historic rail line between Vancouver and Banff, including snaking its way through the breathtaking 1907 Spiral Tunnels in the Rockies’ Yoho National Park. Passengers overnight in a Kamloops, B.C., hotel. Routes from Vancouver to Jasper, and from Whistler to Jasper, are also offered. Dozens of multi-day vacation packages can be offered too. Book GoldLeaf Service for serious client pampering, including silver service meals with wine in glass-domed viewing coaches. The Rocky Mountaineer operates from mid-April to mid-October. Two-day ReadLeaf Service in reclining seats starts at $539 per person; a seven-night GoldLeaf Service “Canadian Rockies Escape” with deluxe hotels starts at $3,999 a person.
877-460-3200;
www.rockymountaineer.com

Royal Canadian Pacific:
Imagine sleeping in a restored vintage train that once hosted Sir Winston Churchill and other famous guests. Gaze around the luxurious carriages, built between 1916 and 1931, and you see Russian oak paneling, Turkish drapes and scalloped lamp fixtures. Billed as “the most lavish and exclusive rail trips in North America,” excursions on the Royal Canadian Pacific are limited to 32 guests. The five-night “Royal Canadian Rockies Experience” ($5,900 per person), with three nights onboard, takes in Banff and Lake Louise. The return journey winds through Alberta’s prairies and includes horseback riding at a ranch. Golf-themed, fly-fishing and wine-and-music trips are also offered. Dress for evening is semi-formal. All are roundtrip from Calgary, available through September.
877-665-3044;
www.royalcanadianpacific.com

VIA Rail’s Canadian:
Clients can also recapture the romance of rail travel through the Rockies on the 1950s-style Canadian. The year-round, cross-Canada train trip between Toronto and Vancouver takes three days and three nights. On the westbound journey, many travelers get off in Jasper for a day or two, and then hop back on board for the final leg through Banff and Lake Louise. Book Silver and Blue Class, and you get a private sleeping cabin with a washroom, down duvet, plump pillows and thick towels, with a shower just down the hall. Three meals a day (white tablecloth service) are included in the art-deco dining cars. For kids, there are movies and games, organized by an onboard activity coordinator. Many packages are available. Comfort Class fares start at $380 per person.
888-842-7245;
www.viarail.ca

OTHER CANADIAN ROCKIES TOUR OPERATORS:

Brewster Vacations:
In the late 1880s, brothers Bill and Jim Brewster (aged 12 and 10) were asked by the general manager of the Banff Springs Hotel to guide visitors on a packhorse trip in the Rocky Mountains. Today, the Brewster network encompasses a huge portfolio of vacation packages plus a fleet of over 70 luxury motorcoaches operating in the Rockies. Combinations of train, coach and self-drive vacations are offered. Also, as owner/operator of the Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience, Banff Gondola and Lake Minnewanka Boat Tours, the Brewster Attractions division offers half- and full-day sightseeing tours.
800-661-1152;
www.brewster.ca

Caravan Tours:
Escorted seven-night Canadian Rockies and Glacier Park bus tours, roundtrip from Calgary, are offered from June 9 to Sept. 23. Four nights are enjoyed in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, where activities include a Bow River rafting float-trip in Banff and the Columbia Icefield snowcoach on the Athabasca Glacier. All departures are priced at $995 per person and include meals.
800-227-2826;
www.caravantours.com

Celebrity Cruises:
Clients can extend their Alaska cruise vacation with a five-night Canadian Rockies cruise-tour. The trip includes the Rocky Mountaineer train between Vancouver and Calgary, plus a coach trip to Banff for one night (the Fairmont Banff Springs is an option), where activities take in the Banff Gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain. Trips are offered from May 22 to Sept. 2. A 12-night cruise-tour starts at $2,828 per person.
800-647-2251;
www.celebritycruises.com

Clipper Vacations:
Are your clients ready for a helicopter flight over the craggy Rocky Mountain peaks? Then book one of these five-night Canadian Rockies Highlights tours, which start with the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff, followed by a coach trip to Lake Louise for a one-night stay at the Chateau Lake Louise, then end in Calgary. Inclusive prices start at $1,236 per person, and the season runs to Oct. 10. Or clients can choose a six-night package roundtrip from Vancouver featuring Jasper, Lake Louise and a visit to Yoho National Park. Two-day express trips are also offered, starting at $580 per person.
800-888-2535;
www.clippervacations.com

Princess Cruises:
Until Sept. 10, five-night adventures are combined with Princess’ seven-night Alaska cruises on their Canadian Rockies Cruise Tours. All trips start with a coach trip from Calgary to Banff before continuing on to Lake Louise and Jasper, and include one night in each of the three Fairmont hotels. Depending on the tour, options then include the Rocky Mountaineer from Jasper to Vancouver or Kamloops to Vancouver, or clients can choose a coach trip for the last leg with a stay at a Kamloops guest ranch. The June 4 cruise-tour on the Diamond Princess starts at $2,799 per person.
800-774-6237;
www.princess.com

Royal Caribbean International:
These Canadian Rockies Cruisetours add five-night land tours to seven- and 13-night Alaska cruises onboard Serenade of the Seas. Trips between Vancouver and Calgary include the Rocky Mountaineer between Vancouver and Banff, plus a coach trip to Yoho National Park and Lake Louise (bedding down at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for a night). Dates are May 19-Sept. 22. A 12-night package starts at $3,679 per person.
800-327-2056;
www.royalcaribbean.com

Travel Impressions:
Known for offering customized FIT vacation packages to suit a variety of budgets and lifestyles, Travel Impressions is launching their Canada options this month. Clients can choose any combination of listed hotels (which include the trio of Fairmont properties), transfers, car rental and full- or half-day tours, such as an Athabasca River float-trip in Jasper or a 10-hour “Discover Grizzly Bears” tour from Banff.
800-284-0044;
www.travelimpressions.com

CONTACT

Banff Springs Hotel
June to October: $412 to $582
800-257-7544
www.fairmont.com/banffsprings

Chateau Lake Louise
June to September: From $402
800-257-7544
www.fairmont.com/lakelouise

Jasper Park Lodge
Until October 4: $268 to $537
800-257-7544
www.fairmont.com/jasper

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