Canadian Pacific Railway executives breathed a sigh of relief when they completed the first railroad linking eastern and western Canada in 1885. But building the line was one thing; getting people to use it was another. Although quickly popular with migrants settling throughout the country, high-paying luxury passengers were also needed to maximise profits.
Sumptuous first-class carriages were built, and a network of spectacular resort hotels was planned to give the rich a reason to hop on board. Fast-forward to today and although the deluxe cars have faded into history, the grand railway hotels – constructed from the 1880s onwards – remain.
Built to echo the romance of European citadels, these turreted stone chateaus and giant gable-roofed lodges were quickly nicknamed the “Castles of the North”. Situated either in breathtaking wilderness locations or in the centre of large cities, they still dominate Canadian skylines.
These days, the properties – now under the Fairmont marque – include modern “essentials” such as spas, wi-fi and fancy fusion restaurants. But their allure is in recalling a time when packing dozens of trunks and a butler or two was the only way to travel.
Castles in the Rockies
The monumental peaks and vividly hued lakes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains act as the backdrop for three of Canada’s original railroad resorts.
Marking its 125th birthday in 2013, the Scottish baronial-style Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Parkwas built to give travellers a taste of the wilderness without needing to sacrifice their afternoon tea. Tucked among the trees, it was originally built from wood – and inevitably burned to the ground in 1926.
Rebuilt two years later – this time in stone – the 770-room hotel was grander than ever. Guests Marilyn Monroe and Benny Goodman added glamour in the 1950s, while a golf course kept visitors occupied when they were not busy spotting local grizzly bears and bighorn sheep.
Gearing up for its anniversary with heritage tours, nature walks and an artist-in-residence programme, the hotel is still a top-end property – although, like all the Castles of the North, there are packages to attract mid-range and special occasion travellers. And, these days, there is no need to bring a butler.
Opened in 1890, just two years after the Banff Springs Hotel and just 50km to the northwest, Chateau Lake Louise occupies an equally scenic spot. Originally a one-storey log chalet, its location alongside the emerald-coloured lake triggered swift expansion to meet demand from visitors. The current stone edifice was built in 1911, with guests now typically coming for hiking or skiing in the area.
Interacting with nature rather than viewing it from afar – as many Victorian and Edwardian travellers were content to do – is also part of the charm of mountain-framed Jasper Park Lodge. More than 200km north of Lake Louise in Jasper National Park, it has a very different look to its castellated siblings. Here, dozens of lakefront log cabins radiate from a handsome wood-built lodge, recalling a golden age of retreats when walls were lined with moose heads and First Nations artworks. But it is not exactly rustic: Queen Elizabeth II stayed in the lavish Outlook Cabin in 2005. She likely spotted a few beady-eyed elk during her visit – they have the run of the property.
Way out west
The ivy-clad Empress Hotel was built in 1908 in the British Columbia city of Victoria by architect Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the nearby Parliament Buildings. Dominating local postcards, it is one of British Columbia’s most beloved landmarks.
But that was not always the case. Like many of Canada’s grand hotels, the Empress fell on hard times after World War II. Service levels dropped and the ritzy afternoon tea that echoed old England became a cheap ritual. When 1960s plans emerged to replace it with a high-rise, though, locals protested and large-scale restoration began.
Now mirroring its Edwardian glory days – check out the downstairs museum annex for yesteryear photos – today’s posh afternoon tea has never been more popular. Snag a table with an Inner Harbour view and order the hotel’s rich Empress Blend tea with a triple-decker platter piled high with delicate cucumber sandwiches, dainty Parisian macaroons and fresh-baked scones with jam and cream.