Canada’s spectacular ‘Castles of the North’

Built to echo the romance of European citadels, these historic railway hotels recall a time when packing dozens of trunks and a butler or two was the only way to travel.

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.

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.

Eastern treats
Alongside forest-framed 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 grand hotel.

Dramatically 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 hitched.

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.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly located Chateau Lake Louise as southeast of Banff Springs Hotel. This has been fixed.