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The Finest Hotels in the Canadian Rockies

The most obvious change is in the lobby, now at last suitably grand for a landmark hotel. (In years past you always felt as though you were using the service entrance.) Your eye is immediately drawn to the powder-blue ceiling, three stories up, from which hangs a wheel-like chandelier about 15 feet wide, adorned by a quartet of carved-wood milkmaids holding electric torches.

All the rooms were renovated in the big upgrade, and approximately half overlook the lake; staying in one of these is a privilege that costs 20 percent more—well worth it unless your idea of a room with a view means watching television from bed. Duplex suites make for a satisfying splurge, with two bathrooms, a dining area for four, and a balcony off the upstairs bedroom.

The food in the long, narrow Edelweiss dining room, alas, remains as before. The lake views couldn't be lovelier, the service friendlier, the British Columbia salmon drier, the vegetables limper. I prefer the fondues and schnitzels at the paneled Walliser Stube; having a meal there is like dining in the library of a Bavarian manor house.

The hotel's public areas—replastered, repainted, and regilded—have never looked better. Arched windows in the Lakeview Lounge invite lolling, but the Chateau's crackling energy field soon jolts all but the most sedentary guests from their reading chairs and writing desks. Outside in the great white wonderland, cross-country skiers set off to explore some of the most spectacular Nordic trails in the Rockies. Dogsled trips are booked a week in advance. Ice-skaters at the nightly parties on the cleared oval in front of the Chateau warm themselves with roasted chestnuts and hot chocolate in an ice-sculpture castle. Romantics with love in their hearts and antifreeze in their veins snuggle beneath sleigh rugs and head up-valley with other like-minded souls in a cutter pulled by Belgian Cross horses.

What makes the Chateau an international destination is the Lake Louise Ski Area, three miles north on Whitehorn Mountain. For scenery, nothing in North America tops it. From the front side of Whitehorn the trough of the Bow Valley sweeps down at your feet and rises again in a great mountain wall that forms the Continental Divide. More than 100 trails lace Whitehorn's glades, bowls, and boulevards, and Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay are just 35 miles down the Trans-Canada Highway. During the day, ruddy-cheeked skiers clomp to and fro in Frankenstein monster boots, infusing the Chateau with a cheerful buzz and a sense of purpose. In the evening, the downhill crowd turns the Glacier Saloon, on the lower level, into a polyglot party central, where international relations and "ego" snow (so forgiving that if you tumble, not even your pride is injured) are discussed over pints of local lager.

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta; 800/441-1414 or 403/522-3511; fax 403/522-3834; doubles from $80.

Post Hotel
Lake Louise, Alberta

This sophisticated 98-room Relais & Châteaux property along the Pipestone River is three miles down a winding mountain road from Chateau Lake Louise. It expresses an antiseptic version of Canadian rusticity with lots of clear-stained pine in clean-lined contemporary styles, accented with regional crafts and artwork.

The simplest accommodations consist of a modest room with two single beds and a balcony or patio, perfectly adequate but standardized. From there, you can aspire to a deluxe room with a queen bed, whirlpool tub, and separate living area, or really spread out in a loft suite.

Certainly the most romantic (and private) places are a pair of one-room riverside cabins. Cotton area rugs with native motifs cover green slate floors with inlaid radiant heat (nice for cold winter mornings). In one corner stands a queen-size bed with a three-drawer pine chest at its foot. A hunter-green leather love seat faces the cabin's focal point: a fieldstone fireplace.

Chef Wolfgang Vogt, who took over the Post's kitchen in 1994, oversees what is generally regarded as the best food in the area. In the dining room, birdcage lampshades covered in striped and floral fabric dangle from an open-beam ceiling supported by rough-hewn timber pillars. On my last visit I was solo, so I was seated near a waiters' station. Lucky me! The nearby fireplace gave off wintry whiffs of woodsmoke, and the waiters were never too busy to elaborate on a menu that combines local ingredients with international ringers: an appetizer of venison terrine seasoned with peppercorns and cranberry sauce; rack of Alberta lamb with Cambozola-cheese potato cakes; duck with blackberry-vinegar and maple-syrup sauce accompanied by wild-rice pancakes. Pastry chef Robert Wenk, who used to prepare desserts for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, whips up vacherin glacé, Linzer tortes, and a selection of Swiss-style fruit pies called WŠhe. The perfect digestive: a stroll between the snowbanks back to your log cabin.

200 Pipestone Rd., Lake Louise Village, Alberta; 800/661-1586 or 403/522-3989, fax 403/522-3966; doubles from $130.

Emerald Lake Lodge
Yoho National Park, British Columbia

I first saw this historic lodge a few summers ago from the renowned Burgess Shale fossil beds, high on a mountain ridge. As our guide chattered about five-eyed Opabinias and other long-gone creatures of Cambrian seas, I gazed across Emerald Lake far below to a lodge half-hidden among shoreline trees. Its chalets were the silvery-gray color of the birches scattered amid the firs; dormered green roofs suggested the lake waters. Forget the weirdo fossils, I thought. What is that place, and how do I get there?

It turned out to be Emerald Lake Lodge, and it proved even more lovely and remote in winter. From the Trans-Canada Highway at Field, British Columbia, you drive five miles north to a parking lot at the pavement's end. A call to the lodge from the check-in cabin promptly produces a van to take you and your gear down a snowy lane, across a small wooden bridge, and onto a 13-acre peninsula where no private vehicles are allowed. Brick walkways winding between snowbanks as high as a mastodon's eye connect the main lodge, built in 1902 by the railway, with 85 guest rooms in 24 two-story chalets, their eaves fringed with icicles. The effect is of a terraced mountain village, forgotten by the world in winter.

The best rooms have views across frozen Emerald Lake. Some guests complain that the footsteps of upstairs guests can be heard in ground-floor suites, which have separate sitting rooms and porches. My second-floor room was quiet, large, and unremarkable, with taupe walls, beige carpet, cotton Navajo area rugs, and a queen-size bed with a feather duvet. My favorite features: a breakfast nook with a coffeemaker, a lake-view balcony, and a fireplace where kindling and wood were set out each morning.

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