Icon of Canada: the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

(Published in The West Australian, 29 July 2010)

It was a right royal experience driving along the grand boulevard leading to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

One of the most recognised hotels in the world, it has hosted the King and Queen of England, Sir Winston Churchill, the Crown Prince of Japan, and Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

Now it was our turn, and I felt like giving a little wave to the occasional peasant on the footpath.

We passed through a security check where I half expected Mr Muscle to turn us around with the comment: “What a nerve!”

But politeness is the go in Canada, and we were ushered up to the entrance of a building that is as much a national icon of its country as are the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower of theirs.

The great castle that is the Banff Springs Hotel is built in a Scottish style with influences of a French chateau.

As we entered the giant whirly-gig doors, we discovered that the cavernous foyer doubled as a venue for almost as much entertainment as the Olympic opening ceremony in Vancouver.

First there were some unusual national costumes. A dignified group of guests from the First Nations looked impressive in their modern version of traditional clothing. Then I  did a double take at a large African-Canadian staff member who was sporting a tartan kilt. He could have told a local version of the old joke: “Q. What does a Canadian wear under his Kilt? A. Socks.”

Then, as if performing an impromptu floor show, a woman with four whippets on the leash descended an opulent staircase down to the foyer as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

We inquired and, yes, the hotel welcomes owners with their dogs. I looked for evidence of a canine indiscretion but even the dogs are polite in Canada.

As I checked in, I was almost insulted that a place which has  welcomed so many of the rich and famous doors would accept somebody lowly like me.

The truth is that these days the hotel has 768 rooms and accepts a mixture of upmarket guests and  conventioneers as well as opportunists like us, who found a bargain rate on the Internet.

Our corner room was combination of comfortable yet with some clunky and old-fashioned elements, and a tiny bathroom. Just what you might expect in a refurbished castle rather than a super-modern luxury hotel.

We prowled along the long, wide, dimly lit corridors, decorated with Scottish tapestries. There was a feeling that Macbeth could leap out at any moment. What we eventually discovered were restaurants, banquet halls and luxury shops.


Later, on a tour with veteran staff member Dave Moberg, we ascended via private lift to the VIP suite in a Rapunzel-like tower, which has  views of the impressive mountains that embrace the town of Banff way down below.

“Wayne Gretzky stayed here,” said Dave. We were slow to recognise the name of the Don Bradman of Canadian ice hockey. Then he said, “Russell Crowe also stayed here”. We gave a loud cheer for Australia.

Dave recited a litany of famous hotel guests, and flashed their photos: “Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Fred Astaire, Margaret Thatcher, Neil Young, Bobby Kennedy, Robin Williams, Alec Baldwin…..”

He whispered that the handsome Pierre Trudeau, a former Prime Minister of Canada,  attended  the hotel’s New Year ’s Eve party where he “kissed at least 20 per cent of the ladies”.

Dave tells the story of how a couple of dodgy brothers built the Banff Springs hotel in the 19th century, negligently reversing the architect’s plan by putting the front at the back and vice-versa.  “Who was the idiot who gave a million dollar view to the kitchen staff?” thundered the first owner, one William Van Horne.

The hotel has long since fixed the front up by, for example,  installing dining places like the Rundle Room, a restaurant where we licked the cream off the hot chocolate as if it were the snow on the mountains outside.

But to my mind the best addition was the Willow Stream spa complex , which cost millions to install.

The Willow Spa

I made sure that just my eyes were above the water level of the outdoor spa but so I could enjoy the snow without losing any important appendage.

Retreating inside to the heated mineral pool with its hypnotic underwater music, I later moved under the warm waterfalls nearby.

New-fangled options like a maple sugar body scrub and an executive foot grooming were not for me. Instead, I relaxed on a leather armchair in the gentlemen’s retreat, complete with old fashioned paintings of fly-fishermen, an antique clock, and a warm fire.

It was a place fit for royalty and I felt like the emperor of all I surveyed.