Wandering the West
November 30, 2010
There are times on the road when all you want is a comfortable room and bed for the night for not much money. You arrive late, settle in, take off before breakfast and leave as little cash behind as possible. And then there are places where the hotel stay is half the reason for the trip in the first place.
The railroads of the 1880s were spreading their tracks far and wide, into previously unknown country for most citizens. The railroads reasoned that people would not buy tickets on their lines to come to these places unless there was a nice place for them to stay once they arrived.
All over the western U.S. and Canada, the railroads built the grand hotels, like Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone and Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park, and scores more. In Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railroad took the concept of grand resort hotels in spectacular, remote lands to a whole new level, constructing tall fortress-looking towers in some of the grandest scenery on the continent. These are the places where the hotel is nearly as interesting as the destination.
Starting with family road trips in the ’60s, I’ve been fortunate to stay at a number of the grand railroad hotels in both the U.S. and Canada. There are so many, so let me talk about some Canadian favorites this week.
When the railroads pushed west in Canada, they opened the Canadian Rockies to accessible travel for the first time. (For some railroad history, cue up Gordon Lightfoot’s "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" as you read along.) In the Banff area, with soaring peaks, glacial valleys still glaciated, hot springs, forests, rivers and lakes, the Canadian Pacific built its first resort hotel in 1888. It was an immediate hit, but like many early wooden structures, it soon burned, eventually to be replaced by today’s Banff Springs Hotel, a genteel oasis of good manners and fine dining after a day spent in some pretty raw natural scenes.
Banff Springs, like many hotels of the period, looks like a fortress and a castle, with multiple levels and wings sprouting out in various directions, different rooflines and pitches. It looks like it was designed by a committee rather than a single architect, but the overall effect of varying architectural styles and building surfaces break its considerable mass.
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Not far away, on Lake Louise, Chateau Lake Louise stretches along the shoreline, directly opposite Victoria Glacier, whose melt water gives the lake an emerald green sheen. From either Chateau Lake Louise or Banff Springs Hotel you can spend days exploring Banff and Jasper national parks, and the Icefields Parkway that connects them.
Farther south, at Waterton Lakes National Park, an American railroad, the Great Northern, built the Prince of Wales Hotel on a high bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, ringed by mountains carved by and partially covered with glaciers. The Prince of Wales looks like a Swiss chateau there on the hilltop. It’s less elegant than its Canadian railroad cousins, but belongs on any itinerary for a trip to Waterton Park and adjoining Glacier National Park on the other side of the border.
In Canada, one hotel company, Fairmont, owns nine of the grand railroad hotels. Others have been sold to different hotel chains or individual investors, burned, or have been demolished or converted to non-hotel uses.
Not all of Canada’s grand railroad hotels are in the West. They’re also in Toronto and the northeastern Maritime Provinces. On one memorable news assignment I stayed at Chateau Frontenac high atop a hill overlooking the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec City. The Frontenac is a multi-turreted castle-like fortress in the heart of the old walled city of Quebec, right next to the Plains of Abraham, a famed battlefield of the French and Indian War of 1759. Remnants of an old fort guarding the city remain there. Like its western cousins, Frontenac features dark paneling, grand parlors, lounges and dining spaces, and rich furniture. The Canadians also knew how to build railroads through wilderness, and then construct the palaces that made wilderness seem far, far way.
You can find several more of the grand railroad hotels like Chateau Frontenac in eastern Canada. All stand as proud icons of Canada, its pioneering ambitions and its realized dreams.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.