Friday, February 19, 2016

The grand railway hotels of Canada

The Banff Springs Hotel on Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains is world famous for its scenery  (wikipedia)

 CANADA The story of the trans-Canada railway is more than a tale about the monumental task of building a railway across the upper regions of North America. It is also about the visionary enterprise of creating world class hotels for rail travelers. Every one of Canada’s railway hotels is a national landmark that have become symbols of the country’s history and architecture.

Each of these grand hotels is designed with its own personality and character.

Entrance to Chateau Laurier  (wikipedia)
At one time or another, we have all seen pictures of these magnificent “chateau style” structures but probably are unaware of the story behind them. Incorporating towers and turrets along with other elements of French and Scottish architecture, the railway hotels of Canada evolved into a form that is distinctly Canadian. The result is incomparable elegance and sophistication.

Though the properties themselves retain a singular theme, over time, with multiple companies involved and numerous competitive challenges, the complete history is a complex muddle. In the end however, the final result is pure pleasure for visitors.

This artist's rendering of Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City is typical of the grand hotel style  (wikipedia)

The first grand railway hotel opened in 1878 in Montreal. The Windsor Hotel, however, was not owned by a railway company. Instead it was built to host visitors from the nearby Windsor Station.

Construction on the transcontinental railway began in 1881 as part of a promise by Canada to British Columbia to join the Canadian Confederation ten years earlier.

Banff Springs Hotel as it looked in 1929  (wikipedia)
The Canadian Pacific Railway opened the first grand hotel built by a railway company in the spring of 1888 in Vancouver. Just two weeks later, CPR officially inaugurated what is arguably the most recognizable of Canada’s grand hotels in Banff.

William Cornelius Van Horne, then president of Canadian Pacific, personally chose the site of the Banff Springs Hotel in the Rocky Mountains saying, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

The original hotel burned in 1926 and was replaced with the famed hotel we know today.

Soon after came the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City with its elevated site that overlooks the city as well as the Saint Lawrence River.

Interior of the Empress Hotel in Victoria (wikipedia)

In Victoria, British Columbia, the Empress Hotel followed. Today, visitors traveling to Vancouver and/or Victoria frequently treat themselves to high tea at the Empress, even if they do not spend a night at the property. High tea at the Empress is an international institution.

Eventually, the Grand Trunk Railway, the primary competitor of Canadian Pacific, entered the “war of grand hotels” and opened Chateau Laurier in Ottawa along with the Fort Garry Hotel and Macdonald Hotels in Edmonton. Much like Chateau Frontenac, the Macdonald’s elevated location offers magnificent views that further enhance the hotel’s grandeur.
Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton sits on a hill overlooking the river  (wikipedia)

By 1920, the Grand Trunk Railway merged into the Canadian National Railway, but the competition continued until 1958 when the Queen Elizabeth Hotel opened in Montreal over the Central Station. The Queen Elizabeth is regarded as the last true railway hotel in the country. Though both companies continued to open other properties in Canada, they had no ties to the trains.

Many of Canada’s railway hotels were owned and operated by the same company for the first time when Canadian Pacific acquired Canadian National.

The Empress Hotel at night where High Tea is a legendary experience  (wikipedia)
 Slightly more than a decade later, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts took over many of the landmark properties in 1999, though several are still managed by other chains today.

No matter. For travelers, it merely translates into the highest quality of accommodations with standards that are second to none.

Canada’s historic grand railway hotels whisk you back in time to the golden age of travel. It was an era when travelers explored the world for “travel’s sake.” A gentler time with an air of sophistication that is frequently lost in today’s contemporary rush of “checklist” tourism.

The Golden Age of travel still thrives within the grand Canadian Railway hotels.