Canada's Palatial Railroad Hotels

Built for grand travel, they are a bargain today

The first time I visited Canada, staying at a grand hotel was not an option. The best I could negotiate with my husband was one night with a bed and hot shower for every night spent stuffed in a sleeping bag on the ground. I still remember the sight of the 487-room Château Lake Louise as it beckoned like a fairy castle, the Canadian Rockies and Victoria Glacier rising in the distance behind. A modern-day Scarlett O'Hara, I pledged as I shivered in my tent: "I'll never be roomless again." Or something like that.

Since then, I have returned to Canada several times, staying in some magnificent hotels and dining in others. I was lured, in part, by a plunging Canadian dollar: At a recent value of about 63 cents, it put a room at the Lake Louise as low as $180 U.S. (table).

On that first trip more than a decade ago, I didn't know that many of these outposts of luxury were the product of the railroads. After steaming across the continent in the late 1800s, the Canadian Pacific Railway came up with its version of synergy: Its trains would bring the tourists, and its hotels would give them places to stay. William Cornelius Van Horne, a Canadian Pacific executive who lobbied for Canada's first national park, oversaw their construction.

One of the earliest hotels, the Banff Springs, sits in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It opened in 1888, and grew into what the railway describes as a baronial château style, full of dormered windows and fossil stone floors. Château Lake Louise followed in 1890, and gradually expanded into a sprawling hotel with 12-foot-tall Palladian windows framing mountain views.

As additional railroad lodges sprang up across the continent, Bruce Price, a student of the Richardsonian Romanesque style popularized by such buildings as Boston's Trinity Church, was brought in to design what would become one of the most recognizable icons of lovely old Quebec City: Le Château Frontenac. Perched high above the St. Lawrence River, with the French-speaking town at its feet, the hotel opened in 1893. It quickly became a stopover for celebrities and royalty. During World War II, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met here to discuss strategy.

This past holiday season, my husband and I, now a bit older and flusher, shared glasses of Canadian ice wine in the circular, wood-paneled bar located in one of the hotel's turrets, looking down on the river and the twinkling lights beyond. The next day, our brunch in the Le Champlain restaurant included rabbit in sorrel sauce and walleye pike with shrimp.

My first stay in one of the railway hotels came four Decembers ago, when we spent two nights at the Jasper Park Lodge in Jasper National Park. Developed by the Canadian National Railway, the hotel was acquired by Canadian Pacific in 1988. (Fairmont Hotels & Resorts now owns 13 of the historic railway hotels.) The man behind the National's chain was Charles Melville Hays, general manager of what was then the Grand Trunk Railway. Hays went down with the Titanic in 1912, along with furniture headed for his maiden hotel, the Château Laurier in Ottawa. But his vision survived.

As at Le Château Frontenac, the Jasper Park's guest rooms are tastefully decorated and vary in size and view. The real show, however, is the public rooms, with their soaring ceilings, polished wood, and stunning vistas. Even a restaurant as simple as the Moose's Nook, where we had supper in the warmth of a great stone fireplace, seemed special.

As for my first love, Château Lake Louise, I'm still waiting for my room.

By Carol Marie Cropper

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