The Finest Hotels in the Canadian Rockies

The Finest Hotels in the Canadian Rockies

These eight hotels and lodges are making the Great White North great again

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.

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.

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.

The knolls and basins on Baldy's summit plateau, which is 12 miles long and three miles wide, provide local relief. The slopes, with verticals of 500 to 600 feet, are ideal for teaching that graceful genuflection called the telemark turn. Under the tutelage of staffers, you can graduate from writing figure 11's in the snow (parallel skis going straight down a hillside) to carving elegant S's, the calligraphy of a telemarker.

There are no formal groomed trails, just a dozen or so unmarked ski-touring routes. Of the skiable peaks in the area the favorite is 8,700-foot Mount Copperstain for its bowls of pristine powder. The countryside around Purcell is so wild that you won't cross another set of tracks all day long.

Bald Mountain, British Columbia; 250/344-2639, fax 250/344-5520; from $90 per person, all-inclusive; helicopter transportation from Golden, B.C., $130 round-trip per person. No guests under 14.

Jasper Park Lodge
Jasper, Alberta

The most remote of Canadian Pacific's grand mountain hotels seems even farther off the beaten path if you come via the Icefields Parkway, which heads north from the Trans-Canada Highway at Lake Louise. In winter, you'll share 143 miles with a few dozen motorists braving mountain passes and wilderness valleys to see some of the most formidable alpine scenery on the continent.

The parkway's terminus is a quiet railroad town three streets wide in the broad valley of the Athabasca River. Jasper's relative inaccessibility shuts the town out of the international-destination market. You'll search in vain for a Gucci boutique, but you can still shop at the same drugstore that was in business when I was a boy.

What began in 1915 as the modest "Tent City" three miles east of town on the shores of Lake Beauvert is now practically its own village, with 442 guest rooms and suites in the main lodge, log cabins, and cedar cottagesãmore than 100 buildings in all. Herds of elk roam the wooded property, an infusion of the wild in a resort with suburban density along its "streets."

My large room, one of four in a lakeside chalet, was more country inn than mega-resort. Sliding louvered wooden panels separated a living room furnished with solid pine pieces from a bedroom with a king-size brass bed, an armoire, and a bentwood armchair. The bathroom was small, though, with a truncated tub; a stencil of pinecones and branches circled the walls.

The suites and the fancier chalet rooms come with sitting rooms and fireplaces; some have whirlpool baths. Lakefront cabins range from four-bedroom, four-bath retreats to eight-bedroom Milligan Manor, what they call the "Grand Canadian Lodge Experience," at $1,130 a night.

The main lodge, a huge Eisenhower-era structure with a cathedral ceiling, overlooks Lake Beauvert. The vast interior is broken up by cedar columns and potted trees strung with tiny lights. Tapestry sofas and spoke-back willow rockers with striped cotton pillows cluster around granite-topped coffee tables. On natural-bark end tables are prints of archival photos in tiny twig frames.

The small, clubby Edith Cavell Dining Room is leagues ahead of anything at the Banff Springs or Chateau Lake Louise. Like other ambitious restaurants in the Canadian Rockies, Edith Cavell (its name is that of an English nurse shot by the Germans during the First World Warãbon appétit!) emphasizes regional ingredients and does it very well. A perennial favorite is wild Alberta mushroom chowder sweetened with fireweed honey and thickened with enough navy and kidney beans to bog down a charging elk. Charbroiled beef tenderloin, an Alberta staple, gains new interest with zingy chive oil and ratatouille. When it comes to after-dinner entertainment, there's no mistaking Jasper Park Lodge for Vegas. So come morning, guests are eager to cross-country ski, snowshoe, or go for a sleigh ride. Downhillers head 12 miles southwest to Marmot Basin, where anything over a two-minute wait for the quad chair is considered interminable.

The lodge's health club, although no fluffy-towel threat to the Solace spa at the Banff Springs, is busy all day with kids playing pool, Ping-Pong, and shuffleboard. An indoor plunge pool leads to an outdoor pool where you can poach from the neck down, while your wet hair freezes into intriguing designs.

One evening I skated the half-mile oval on tiny Lake Mildred past kids playing a game of pickup hockey. The shouts, the slap of sticks on the puck, and the creaking of my blades took me back to my pond-hockey days on the Canadian prairies. Darkness soon sent the boys home, but I skated on, circling the lake alone while the evening star winked at a gibbous moon.

Jasper, Jasper National Park, Alberta; 800/441-1414 or 403/852-3301, fax 403/852-5107; doubles from $85.

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