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The Finest Hotels in the Canadian Rockies

With a new lodge-to-lift ski shuttle, downhillers have an easy commute to the slopes of Lake Louise, just 25 miles west. Most guests, however, are content to explore the local scenery. Cross-country skiers glide around a shoreline trail and head up into Emerald Basin for spectacular views of the Presidential Range, or out to Field for a lunch of buffalo burgers at the Yoho Brothers diner.

Come cocktail hour, guests in sweaters Bill Cosby would covet drift into the main lodge (the place is so remote, there are few drop-ins). In the Kicking Horse saloon, Big Rock and Kootenay beer are on tap at an oak bar rescued from a Yukon roadhouse, while a huge fireplace radiates toe-toasting heat. If you feel an urge to start reciting "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," it's probably time to go in for dinner.

You'll be eating something called Rocky Mountain cuisine—classic French and innovative Californian done up with regional ingredients. A game-platter appetizer includes air-dried buffalo strips and boar pâté. Venison loin is marinated in soy sauce and olive oil and covered with fresh- and sun-dried-cranberry sauce. The Golden State checks in with pork tenderloin medallions marinated in chili-flecked olive oil and served with chayote, a pear-shaped squash.

Later, you can shoot billiards on an antique table in the upstairs lounge, then head into the clear mountain night to sip mulled wine and hot cider by a roaring fire in a shoreline pit. Invigorated by the alpine air, some guests put on skis and push across Emerald Lake in the star-spangled darkness.

Field, Yoho National Park, British Columbia; 800/663-6336 or 250/343-6321, fax 250/343-6724; doubles from $96.

Lake O'Hara Lodge
Yoho National Park, British Columbia

If you don't mind exchanging a few trifling conveniences like automobile access and private baths for some of the most glorious scenery in the Canadian Rockies, then Lake O'Hara is for you. The Canadian Pacific Railway built this rustic retreat just over Mount Victoria from Chateau Lake Louise in 1926 as a backcountry base for hikers, climbers, and ski-touring mountaineers. Its inaccessibility preserves the grand but fragile environment surrounding the eight-room lodge, as well as the quality of the O'Hara experience. Compared with the Banff Springs or the Chateau, Lake O'Hara is virtually unknown. That's just fine by its passionately loyal customers.

Leaving their cars in a parking lot off the Trans-Canada Highway, most guests ski 2 1/2 hours south on a gradually rising fire road, packing their gear or pulling it behind them on sleds like refugees. Too rigorous?You could always let spirited, squabbling huskies do the work and arrive at the lodge in the stretch limo of the Canadian hinterland—the dogsled.

The lake itself is a snowy oval less than a mile wide in a cul-de-sac formed by a trio of crenellated, glacier-draped mountains. Stands of evergreen frame subalpine meadows laced with streams rushing beneath crystalline shelves of ice. The beauty of this intimate amphitheater has long inspired photographers, writers, and painters, among them John Singer Sargent.

O'Hara pampers its privileged few with electricity, indoor plumbing, and a level of comfort beyond that of most properties not reachable by car. (Eleven lakeshore cabins and four hilltop cottages are shuttered in winter.) The ground floor of the main lodge is open to the raftered ceiling. Upstairs, eight small rooms—seven with twin beds, one with a double—line a balcony that overlooks the lounge and dining room below.

Each morning at breakfast two guides review the day's ski-touring options. One group may decide to cross Biddle Glacier; the second might choose to telemark on the Opabin Glacier or Odaray Plateau. After their outings, leg-weary skiers troop down to the sauna shack and nab a beer from a bucket stuck in a snowbank before ducking inside. Some steamers, overcome by the heat, burst out of their cedar inferno, sprint across the snow, and leap into a wooden tub of ice water.

After a dinner of, say, chanterelle and oyster mushroom terrine and duck breast in Armagnac sauce, guests retire to their rooms or read by the huge fieldstone fireplace. By 11 o'clock, when the Chateau's Glacier Saloon starts jumping on the other side of Mount Victoria, the lights go off at this civilized outpost.

Yoho National Park, British Columbia; 403/678-4110 in winter, 250/343-6418 in summer; doubles $240 with meals; dogsled transportation for one or two, about $150 round-trip.

Purcell Lodge
Bald Mountain, British Columbia

It's a 12-minute, cliff-dodging, ridge-skimming flight from the town of Golden at the bottom of the Rocky Mountain Trench to this 10-room retreat atop Bald Mountain in the Purcells, a range that parallels the Rockies. Once the helicopter fleet has finished shuttling guests, stillness descends again on top of old Baldy. You're at an elevation of 7,200 feet, nine miles from the nearest road. No TV, no phones, just radio contact with the airport in Golden. You hope you're going to be happy. What's not to like?A modern three-story post-and-beam structure, Purcell Lodge is the lap of luxury for those who enjoy creature comforts after a day of exploring some of North America's finest wilderness ski-touring and telemarking terrain. With its varnished fir and thrifty use of space, my third-floor room looked like a midshipman's cabin designed by an upmarket version of IKEA. Windows faced west toward the heavily glaciated Selkirk Mountains, which serrate the horizon with pyramidal peaks more than 10,000 feet high.

The food, served family-style, is simple and well prepared but not as sophisticated as O'Hara's. In the second-floor lounge, ravenous skiers start by devouring salmon mousse on lodge-made crackers and other hors d'oeuvres. Then, a winning, oddly formal touch: one of the chefs, either Adrienne Dacosta or James Freir, comes out from the kitchen wearing a starched white jacket to announce the menu—split-pea soup, perhaps, then roast lamb au jus or poached salmon in a shrimp sauce—and to recommend a wine, usually a British Columbia varietal.


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