The wild ranges of ice-mantled peaks along Canada's Continental Divide have lured fair-weather travelers for more than a century. But it's only in the last three decades that the major resorts have stayed open year-round, and gradually the wintertime secrets of the Canadian Rockies have been revealed. The uncrowded downhill ski areas combine deep powder and near-wilderness scenery. You can ski-tour on acres of untouched terrain, sleigh-ride into dark evergreen woods, and (the latest rage) go dogsledding through alpine valleys. These select mountain hideaways range from historic resort hotels to exclusive country inns and rustic backcountry lodges, but they all share three characteristics: recent renovations, lots of western Canadian hospitality, no glitz or pretension.
Banff Springs Hotel
Banff National Park, Alberta
An enduring symbol of the Canadian Rockies, this French château-cum-Scottish castle rises above the spruce trees in a cluster of fairy-tale towers and turrets. Of the first of my many visits to the Banff Springs Hotel, I don't remember much—I was in utero. But on every return trip, it has always been a thrill to drive up to such an improbable outpost of opulence at the edge of the wilds.
For years, though, the Canadian Pacific Railway's "Castle of the Rockies" was more fun to look at than to stay in. Dark rooms outfitted with battle-scarred furniture seemed to reflect the opinion of legendary CP general manager William Cornelius Van Horne, who considered sleeping "a waste of time." ("Besides," he would add, "you don't know what's going on.") The railroad originally built chalets in the area as places to feed train passengers, and these grew into great stone castles that were destinations, not just way stations.
In the last seven years CP has spent more than $80 million (amounts throughout are given in U.S. dollars) polishing the Banff Springs, most of which dates from the 1920's. All 770 rooms and suites were renovated, and the wonderfully idiosyncratic public areas were restored. Nothing was done about the staff. Cheerful and tartaned, they seem to have internalized the Latin motto on their blazer crests, Nobile Servitus (Noble Service).
The hotel tries to keep paying customers on the premises with dozens of shops, 17 restaurants, and lots of activities. The largest restaurant, the Rob Roy Dining Room, looks like a medieval hall and serves markedly uneven food. A salmon fillet marinated in soy sauce and whisky and perfectly baked on a cedar plank may come with cold side dishes of rice and vegetables. You'll have better luck with the raw fish at the Samurai, whose name conjures up images of Belushi Sushi.
On my visit last winter, my standard room wasn't huge, but it was large enough for a king-size bed, a sofa with end tables, a coffee table, a desk, and an oak armoire. You'd think the 1920's building code would have required bunker-thick walls, but I could distinctly hear my neighbors' hangers jangling in the closet.
The real glory of the Banff Springs remains its public spaces, especially Mount Stephen Hall, a baronial reception room with carved-oak ceiling beams, faux balconies, a cloister walk, a flagstone floor, and huge arched windows of leaded glass looking up the Spray River valley.
Solace, the hotel's new $12 million spa, was an immediate hit with guests and locals, who drive up from Calgary on day trips and for weekend packages. Who knew those friendly Albertans were so tense?The 24 massage therapists are usually fully booked from Thursday to Sunday. The spa's centerpiece is a 98-degree indoor Hungarian-style mineral pool with a skylit dome. A door leads to an outside deck where a whirlpool bath steams amid the snowbanks. It's such a relaxing way to end the day that at closing time staffers practically have to drag skiers out of the bubbling cauldron beneath the dark stone castle walls.
405 Spray Ave., Banff, Alberta; 800/441-1414 or 403/762-2211, fax 403/762-5730; $196 per person, based on double occupancy, all-inclusive.
Rimrock Resort Hotel
Banff National Park, Alberta
In the past few years visitors to Banff have been presented with a pleasant dilemma. Should they forgo the nostalgic charms of the Banff Springs for the more sophisticated Rimrock, which opened in 1993 with 345 rooms and 21 suites?It's a tough call, but my answer is a reluctant yes, because of larger rooms (by about a third), superior food, and even loftier views.
The hotel is 700 feet upslope, half a mile from Van Horne's castle. From my room, I could look out at the Bow River shooting the gap between Tunnel Mountain and Mount Rundle's great slab of tilted limestone. Across the Bow Valley a snowy range glittered in the sun. I imagined bears hibernating in the woods that extend below the Rimrock to the Spray River valley, where wolves whelp in the spring. At its entrance, the Rimrock is unprepossessing, a three-story structure clad in broken-face limestone and forest-green stucco, roofed in green tin. Once inside, you realize that you've entered the upper floors of a nine-story horseshoe-shaped building; most of the hotel extends below, stepped down the mountainside.
Straight ahead is the Grand Lobby, with an immense white-marble fireplace that is in elegant contrast to the usual Canadian Rockies stone fireplaces. Mahogany paneling and hand-tufted carpets over hardwood floors contribute to the clubby atmosphere. A fantastical chandelier is a wild tangle of leafy metal branches in mottled pale gold.
Though the Rimrock bills itself as a resort hotel, most of the action is off-site. Banff, a community of 7,000, is a mile away. Buses shuttle skiers up to Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise, and down to the shops and museums in town. On the grounds, you can skate on a crescent-shaped outdoor rink or work out in a spacious fitness center.
Classico, the Rimrock's dinner restaurant, fits neatly into the Canadian mosaic. A Japanese-trained Swiss chef acquits himself admirably with such traditional northern Italian dishes as (are you ready?) caribou loin rubbed with almond tea. An odd meeting of ethnic influences, but somehow it works.
100 Mountain Ave., Banff, Alberta; 800/ 661-1587 or 403/762-3356, fax 403/762-1850; doubles from $95.
Chateau Lake Louise
Banff National Park, Alberta
In 1990, Canadian Pacific completed a $65 million expansion and overhaul of this historic 511-room property. Frankly, the Swiss Alpine resort hotel needed it. Like the Banff Springs, it had been living on fraying glory. Now, once again, the Chateau is worthy of its celebrated setting, looking across Banff's most famous mountain lake to the snow-crowned massif of Mount Victoria.