This is the place that created Banff. Well, this and the railway, and the railway made this place. After the Hot Springs were discovered in 1883, the Canadian Pacific began planning to create a reason for passengers to ride its new trains. "Since we can’t bring the mountains to the people", reasoned President Cornelius Van Horne, "we’ll bring the people to the mountains."
At first thought, it seems that they chose an unusual location for this huge brick castle. It’s not close to the railway, the hot springs, the Bow River, or Lake Minnewanka, or even (for the first few decades) ‘downtown’ Banff. But it is perfectly nestled in among the mountains, at the intersection of the valleys, with beautiful vistas in nearly every direction. Carriages brought passengers to and from the station, and for decades, pipes brought the water from the hot springs.
Like many remote mountain hotels, the current hotel is not the original, with fire and expansion leading to today’s massive structure. The most recent additions were a new entrance a few years ago, needed to accommodate today’s larger vehicles, and a new convention center. Done in dark brick, the entire 800-room structure still looks like a Victorian era castle. Once it sat nearly alone in these beautiful mountains; despite the tremendous growth in Banff’s popularity, it still maintains its appeal and reputation.
For years, this was one of the crown jewels in Canadian Pacific’s string of western hotels. But along with its sister property at Lake Louise, they were most recently acquired by the Fairmont chain early this decade. Despite the smallish rooms (175 square feet for some), the increased competition in the area, and the high prices ($450/night for Christmas/New Years when we looked), it remains a prestigious and popular place to stay. Even amid the tougher financial times of this year’s holiday period, the Springs was full during our stay in Banff.
The hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmas. As we conducted our own tour in place of the hotel’s guided visit (free to guests, $15 for others), we sipped the complimentary hot chocolate provided at several locations in the lobby and registration area. Despite the exclusive air that such places sometimes seek to project, I love these large, old hotels, with their numerous restaurants, public spaces, shops, and amenities. "It’s like staying at a cruise ship," my wife said, and she nailed it perfectly, just as we passed a trio of guests in white robes and slippers returning from the spa.
We made our way through the hallways to the outdoor patio, chatting along the way with a flower girl and ring bearer from a recent wedding, headed to the reception in one of the many ballrooms. Just outside the dining room lay the ice rink, perfectly positioned between two mountain ridges, with Christmas lights supplementing the deepening purple skies. I looked back through the glass at the numerous staff setting tables for the upcoming dinner hour, then turned to watch the last glimmer of daylight leave the mountain landscape.
It was easy to imagine staying here. Spend a few days in the mountains, then return to civilization here for a few nights? Sounds perfect. Even though we didn’t see Lake Louise at its best, for a splurge, I think I’d choose Banff Springs over its sister property Chateau Lake Louise, since the Springs seemed to retain more of its own history, architecture, and mountain feel despite the town setting. But I’ll have to save up for a while.