Canada's Grand Railway Hotels

What comes first when building a nation? The people or the railway? Apparently it’s the railway.

Canada officially became a nation on July 1, 1867, with four provinces in the east coast. By 1871 British Columbia in the west, joined confederation. Now, a transportation system was needed linking the Atlantic to the Pacific.  The year was 1881 and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was established to complete the task. In 1886 the last railway spike was added. Now the country was on the move.

As people began travelling for either pleasure or work, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it became clear they needed a place to eat and stay.  The solution, was to build hotels near the train stations, making it convenient for travelers to have hot meals and overnight accommodations. It was a clever way for CPR to secure further profits from customers they already had.

Initially centered around major urban routes, as the railway grew and expanded beyond the east-west line, magnificent hotels were built in pristine and remote areas. W.C. Van Horne, CPR’s President, had grand visions of attracting tourists to the Canadian Rockies. Resorts were built in remote Banff and Lake Louise, and well-healed tourists from around the world desperate to explore the remoteness of the Rockies arrived, and to this day, they keep coming.

The Canadian railway hotels of today offer all the modern conveniences and features discerning travelers have come to expect. Managed by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, these opulent hotels are Five-star accommodations, providing outstanding service in unsurpassed surroundings. On the outside, they look very much as they did when they were originally built. Walk inside and you are instantly transported back to a time of grandeur, luxury and glamour. Shimmering chandeliers hang over large open foyers. Deep rich-colored wood crosses through hallways and doorways. Grand staircases float elegantly from floor to floor.  It’s sumptuous elegance.

Staying in one of these grand historical hotels is sought after by many world-travelers. Indeed for some, the hotel itself is the destination. Here are six properties to get you planning.

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6 Hotel Vancouver

With the completion of the railway, Vancouver boomed overnight and accommodations for weary travelers, tourists, businessmen and tradespeople alike, were quickly needed. The Hotel Vancouver (the first of three) opened its doors in 1887. With the look and feel of a farmhouse, the original five-story structure was hardly attractive, but it met the immediate need and business was good. In 1916, after four years of construction, the second Hotel Vancouver opened, and became the meeting place for Vancouver’s elite society.

With grand ballrooms, lounges and bathrooms that included marble sinks and gold-plated faucets, the Hotel Vancouver was the place to be seen in the 20s. Guests included Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth.  This structure would also eventually be demolished to make way for the third hotel. The current Hotel Vancouver, took 11 years to build and opened just in time for King George and Queen Elizabeth’s Canadian visit, in May of 1939. Its architectural design is that of a 16th century French Chateau, a popular option with railway companies at the time. Today it is known as Vancouver’s Castle in the City, filled with all the elegance and grandeur one would expect from a Five-Star property.

5 The Banff Springs Hotel

Situated in the spectacular setting of Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the green-icy waters of the Bow River at its base, and snow-caped Rocky Mountain peaks surrounding it, The Banff Springs Hotel is Canada’s Castle in the Mountains. It was the first hotel in the chain designed and built specifically to cater to the whims of wealthy travelers from around the world.  Opened on June 1, 1888, the Banff Springs Hotel was an instant hit with travelers looking for outdoor adventure, fine dining and luxurious accommodations.  Guests from eastern Canada and the United States wanting to experience the mountains and local culture made the journey. Soon wealthy Europeans began arriving, some staying as long as a month. By the 1950s however, the hotel was in a state of shambles and there was talk of knocking it down. One movie star changed all that. Marilyn Munroe stayed at the hotel in 1953 while filming A River of No Return. Other stars and dignitaries followed, and as they say, the rest is history. Today, The Banff Springs Hotel is a National Historic Site, with all the grace and opulence of an era long gone.

4 Le Chateau Frontenac

Perched high on a hill overlooking the vastness of the Saint Lawrence River, and inside the walls of old Quebec, sits the majestic Le Chateau Frontenac.  During an era where promoting luxury tourism to wealthy travelers was the in thing for CPR, the hotel was built as a stop-over for rail travelers, offering luxury accommodations and ultra-pampering.  It opened its doors in Quebec City in 1893. Throughout the course of its history, it has hosted not only many famous people, including Ronald Reagan, Princess Grace of Monaco, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, but also famous events. The Quebec Conference of 1943, saw British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William Lloyd Mackenzie King, gather to discuss strategy for World War II. Today, Le Chateau remains the most recognizable architectural structure in the Quebec City skyline.

3 The Royal York

Situated in the heart of city and directly across the street from the rail station, The Royal York, was built to take advantage of rail travelers arriving in Toronto. Surprisingly, Toronto was one of the last places to have a railway hotel built. However, when CPR did finally open its doors in 1929, The Royal York was the largest hotels in The British Empire. With 28 floors, the hotel was also the tallest structure in the country. Its features and amenities were state-of-the-art, with 10 elevators to deliver guests to their floors, radios in every room and, unheard of at the time, a private bathroom in each room. The city has literally grown around the hotel. With the financial district to one side, and the entertainment district on the other, The Royal York remains a Toronto landmark, and continues to cater to the rich and famous of today.

2 The Empress

Opened on January 8, 1908, The Empress is Victoria’s most famous landmark. It sits regally over Victoria’s harbor with lush green ivy climbing tightly up the hotel’s facade. Once inside The Empress, the majestic feel continues with The Bengal Lounge, decorated in Victorian-era, Indian style, a tribute to when Queen Victoria was Empress of India. Many famous guests have passed through its doors, including Shirley Temple who arrived with her parents and body guards amid rumors of kidnapping threads in California. Afternoon tea has been served at the hotel since it first opened, and a visit to Victoria is not complete without indulging in this oh-so-British tradition. During the summer months, the hotel serves tea to more than 800 guests and tourists daily. Afternoon tea is approximately $60 per person, and reservations are often required one or two weeks in advance. For many years the hotel went without a sign at its front entrance. When one was finally installed, an irate gentleman stated, “Anyone who doesn't know this is The Empress shouldn't be staying here.” Enough said.

1 Chateau Lake Louise

What started off as a small log cabin overlooking the recently discovered Lake Louise, is today a magnificent, grand-luxury style hotel, in arguably, one of the most photographed spots in Canada. The Chateau served visitors from various stations along the railway line, as well as visitors dropping in for the day from the more elegant Banff Springs Hotel, just south of Lake Louise. However, when the hotel was constructed in 1890, the original vision by Van Horne, was for, ''A hotel for outdoor adventurer and alpinist.” His vision was followed as thousands of mountaineers from all over the world arrived to climb area mountains. Professional Swiss guides were hired to safely guide guests to summits. The same guides also introduced guests and locals to skiing. To this day, the Swiss influence can still be felt at the hotel from fondues to hikes to guided programs. The hotel takes great caution to protect individual privacy, but guests have included Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Munroe, John Travolta and the Rolling Stones.

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