When totting up the what-binds-Canada list, we have the usual staples: hockey, maple syrup, doughnut holes, mounted law enforcers, the “eh-to-zed” alphabet. Oh, and a few hosers, bucktoothed rodents and terrifying wind-chill factors.
But did you know we established the global template for railway hotels, a grandiose architectural form unique to our shores?
Given that construction of a transcontinental railway was instrumental in cobbling together the young Dominion in the first place, this is perhaps not a great revelation. And once that steel ribbon had been laid, railway barons needed to fill those empty cars with freight and passengers, the more well-heeled the better.
To entice the passengers, and inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley in France, those locomotive visionaries set about building a series of château-style resorts to replace the drab roadhouses and urban hotels that had preceded the railway age.
Located conveniently near train stations and often perched in dramatic settings, they melded Scottish baronial and other fanciful influences, setting a new standard in hospitality. From the Maritimes to Vancouver Island, this “powerful visual expression” of national unity soon became the byword for luxury accommodation, paving the way for all-inclusive vacations we know today.
Here are five examples to get you on track:
Opened in 1908 by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the Empress Hotel in Victoria is one of the most popular attractions in the B.C. capital. Noted for its decadent interiors, lush lawns and signature ivy-covered facade, it was designed to complement the authority of the neighbouring legislature and to send a message: British Columbia has arrived.
English architect Francis M. Rattenbury threw in Edwardian, Tudor, Gothic and Baronial flourishes, fixing in travellers’ minds the fairy-tale image of the Canadian railway hotel in the early 20th century. Rattenbury, perhaps not fully satisfied with his work, is said to haunt a wing of the hotel after being beaten to death by his second wife’s lover in England in 1935. It’s one of many ghost stories swirling about the grand dame.
A national historic site now owned by the Fairmont chain, the 460-room inner harbour gem is renowned for its afternoon tea in the Lobby Lounge, where a custom-made cuppa is dished up with honey produced in the hotel’s own apiary. (fairmont.com/empress-victoria/)
William Cornelius Van Horne, who became president of CPR in 1888, was instrumental in creating Canada’s cross-country rail network, but he also had a keen eye for the burgeoning tourism industry. When opening the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta that year, he declared: “Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”
As much a postcard icon as ever, the “Castle in the Rockies” rises majestically at the heart of Banff National Park, offering 764 guest rooms, a spa, a golf course and two ballrooms graced by the likes of dancer Fred Astaire, actress Marilyn Monroe and band leader Benny Goodman. It’s wilderness meets pampering — as potent a lure now as it was in Van Horne’s time. As with many landmark railway hotels, it is now operated by the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts chain. (fairmont.com/banff-springs/)
In the nation’s capital, it was an ambitious U.S. citizen we must thank. As president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, Charles Melville Hays spared no expense in erecting the finest hotel in Ottawa, the Château Laurier. Inspired by French Renaissance and Gothic revival motifs, its rooms were the first to feature indoor plumbing.
Canada’s seventh prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, officially opened his namesake hotel in June 1912, but sadly Hays never lived to see his $50-million baby — he was one of the victims of the Titanic disaster that year. Later expanded under new owners Canadian National (CN), its esthetic influence extended to all federal buildings in the capital, which were required to incorporate aspects of the hotel’s design until as late as the 1950s.
Not surprisingly, it has attracted no shortage of politicians and royalty, with former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and R.B. Bennett both calling it home over the years. Indeed, the “third chamber of Parliament” has seen almost as much horse-trading within its limestone walls — not to mention careers made and destroyed — as that of Parliament Hill. A total of 429 rooms are available. (fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa/)
Across the border into Quebec, the CPR began building in 1892 what would become one of the most prestigious properties in its portfolio: the Château Frontenac. Taking its name from a key figure in New France history, this imposing fortress overlooking the St. Lawrence River dominates the skyline of Quebec City, which draws on 400 years of history to beguile visitors.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh, French president Charles de Gaulle and film director Alfred Hitchcock — who shot portions of his 1953 thriller I Confess at the hotel — are among the A-list former residents. The UNESCO World Heritage Site also played a starring role in the strategic Quebec Conferences of the Second World War.
Billed as the world’s most photographed inn, it is considered the prototype for the Château-style railway hotels that followed and the “purest expression” of the form — a romantic take on Quebec as a French medieval city. It has 611 rooms (fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/)
Our tour terminates on the East Coast, in Halifax, at the Westin Nova Scotian. Opened in 1930, the Nova Scotian was notable for the extraordinary size of its kitchen, which fed not only overnighters but train passengers boarding services at the CN station next door. As a supply base for trains linking Halifax with the rest of Canada, the hotel also laundered railway bedding and linen.
Less prestigious perhaps than many western railway inns, the Nova Scotian nevertheless survived declining fortunes — including the threat of demolition in the mid-1990s — to become a centrepiece of Halifax’s revived waterfront and the nearby Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, where thousands of migrants began new lives in a vast country.
Now offering 310 rooms, including 10 suites, the management at Westin say leisure travellers “will find no better location for an authentic Haligonian experience.” (marriott.com/hotels/)
— Andre Ramshaw