Our family stayed for the first time with the Fairmont chain at the Banff Springs Hotel this summer. We were so delighted with the hotel, its environs, the staff and more importantly, its history. I thought a post on this iconic hotel would be appropriate.
In November 1883, mineral hot springs were discovered in the Banff area at a time when such baths and hot springs were held in high favor by the rich and well-traveled, for various health benefits. The then general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), William Cornelius Van Horne, had the vision of building luxury resorts in Banff and similar areas along the CPR route, thus attracting rich travelers and enriching the CPR coffers.
Thus, armed with good intentions and a budget of 250,000 CAD, he chose a location at the juncture of Bow and Spray Rivers for this one-of-a-kind hotel. Originally built of wood, it stood five stories high and housed 250 beds and opened to the public on June 1, 1888.
Van Horne envisioned an entryway across the Bow River with magnificent views of the scenery from every room., and Mt. Rundle to the back. (the way the design stands today). Little is known how this was misunderstood, for the original hotel stood with its entrance all the way to the back, facing Mt. Rundle, with the staff and crew of the hotel getting the best views of the area from their workplace!
Despite this, the hotel remained attractive to its clients, providing a home away from home for the length of their stay, usually about 3-4 months at a time. Its said that many a guest family would spend about 50K at a time on a stay at the hotel!
As the popularity increased, the hotel underwent many renovations, to keep up with the demands and changing needs of guests. In 1914, the Painter center wing was opened. The hotel survived a fire in 1926 but lost the original wooden portion. But by 1928, construction was complete on a newer Scottish baronial style hotel, built of stone and steel, at a cost of 9 million dollars.
From 1888 to 1969, the hotel remained open only seasonally from May to September. Once the skiing in the area became fully functional, in 1970, the hotel started hosting guests all year-long.
The motto of the hotel, Semper Eadem, “always the same”, ties together the history of the hotel and its transformation through the ages. The new lobby looks so old and distressed that I would not have thought it recently done. The lobby has gone through only its second set of carpets. The multiple hallways with their castle style lanterns, sconces and dim lighting lend a certain medieval charm to the entire hotel.
The Mt. Stephen Hall, which is one of the main stops on the tour, is quite fantastic with its monastic look. The floor is aged limestone from Indiana. The archangels all across the room bear the symbols of the Canadian provinces except Newfoundland (not part of the confederation in 1928). The coat of arms on the window are flowers belonging to countries from which the CPR’s presidents and general managers during the construction came from.
Many different events are celebrated at Mt. Stephen Hall, most prominently, weddings. The hotel hosts about 265 per year, mostly in the popular summer months, a stunning 6-10 per weekend!
The stone on the spiral staircase to the second floor is called Tyndall stone and originates in Manitoba. This area was once home to a deep lake and hence the quarried stone shows fossils of creatures many millions of old!
On the second floor, I was completely captivated by the Alhambra which functioned as a dining room and ballroom. The room still remains richly and tastefully decorated. The cast relief of the Santa Maria above the fireplace and the intricate and heavy doors (reminiscent of the ones at the Alhambra Palace) are remarkable and worth a look.
I was intrigued to learn that this painting of a Ontario landscape signed “Enroh Nav” on the right hand bottom corner, was of van Horne’s making. Some say he chose to sign his name in the opposite corner and reverse his name to express his displeasure at the flipped model of the original hotel!
The original mail chute, elevators, and writing room (now the Grapes Wine Bar), all serve to recreate a magical past when handsomely dressed men and beautifully dressed women met in dining rooms and ballrooms and wined, dined, conversed and danced their way through the day. A slow and ephemeral kind of lifestyle, gradually vanishing.
The Riverview Lounge, where the old hotel stood, is simply stunning in its depth, ambience and elegance. One is beguiled, standing here and looking at the great outdoors, through the large windows, only to find that neither one would be any less charming in its raw beauty, one man-made, the other organic.
The Cascade Ballroom, the original hotel ballroom, is yet another delight. The shimmering chandelier, the tantalising decor, the airy stylishness, all bring to mind a tapestry of power, wealth and sophistication.
Shortly before we left on the trip, Mr. JJ told me that ghost stories abound about the hotel. The only story of any significance that the guide alluded to was the one of the ghost bride who was lost in a fire on her wedding day. A framed script refers to this legend in a simple and straightforward manner.
I enjoyed exploring this hotel on several occasions. The corridors felt a bit cold at times and like I said, the lighting was low in many areas. But to my mind, this was as it should be for the “Castle of the Rockies”. I felt, by the end of our stay, that I had not explored the entirety of the hotel, that’s how large it is.
The Fairmont Banff Springs now has 757 rooms. Its operations depend on the 850 to 900 full-time staff. Seasonally it employs another 500-550 people more. What I truly liked was that the staff went about their work with a friendly demeanor. There was no expectation of any tips as gratuities are already included. Whatever we requested, no matter how insignificant, was handled with efficiency and speed. Knowing the hotel was full to its rafters during our visit and the vastness of the hotel, that is no small achievement.
The only annoyance with staff occurred when I requested a small cake be sent up for Mr. JJ’s birthday, as a surprise, while we were out. The concierge failed to do that. Missy JJ had to slip out and make another request before it was addressed, this time with great expediency.
While our bathroom was small, the room itself was bright with sunlight and adequate enough to feel comfortable for a family of four. We ate breakfast at the Vermilion Room and caught light meals and coffee at the Stock. There are at least a dozen other dining options that we did not explore.
In the end, the Banff Springs Hotel lived up to its reputation. I would definitely consider making a stop here, if we return to this area in the future.