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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
King George VI and
Queen Elizabeth likely enjoyed a cuppa or two when staying at the Empress in
1939. But they also checked into the Hotel Vancouver in the heart
of the city’s downtown neighbourhood during their month-long cross-Canada
jaunt. The copper-roofed, gryphon-accented property was actually the third
version of the hotel to carry the name. And this latest one had only just opened.
A swinging nightlife
hotspot from day one, the Hotel Vancouver’s Panorama Roof Ballroom was soon the
city’s coolest place to be seen. In 1940, young bandleader Dal Richards played
his first gig here – and he returned to perform for his 95th birthday concert
in early 2013.
resorts like Manoir
Richelieu in Quebec’s Charlevoix region and the fort-like Chateau Montebello in western
Quebec, Quebec province is also home to arguably Canada’s most-photographed
overlooking the St Lawrence River, the turreted Chateau Frontenac dominates Quebec City’s cobbled old town.
Drawing on Renaissance architecture, the fortress-like 1893 property was named
after the Count of Frontenac, who led New France here in the 1700s; look out
for his coat of arms above the entry arch.
As the venue for a top
secret 1943 wartime strategy conference between then British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill, US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister
Mackenzie King, most latter-day Frontenac rendezvous are a little more romantic
– the hotel even offers an “elopements package” if you want to run away and get
But you might want to
save the honeymoon for Ottawa. The Canadian capital has its own elegant
sleepover, just along the street from the nation’s Parliament.
Chateau Laurier was a pet
project of railway mogul Charles Melville Hays who insisted on the finest
Italian marble, Indiana limestone and European crystal. But Hays never saw the
realisation of his dream hotel; he went down with the Titanic in 1912, when he
was rumoured to be bringing even more treasures to line the Laurier.
Delaying its opening,
the hotel launched a few weeks later. Now a popular city centre sleepover, there
is a downloadable heritage-themed walking
tour app for those visiting the property. Like all Canada’s grand railway
hotels, history here is just around the next corner.
previous version of this article incorrectly located Chateau Lake Louise as southeast of Banff Springs Hotel. This has been fixed.