Splendour in the wilderness

Nature, beauty and luxury make for an incredibly heady combination at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Canada.

Updated - July 16, 2011 04:24 pm IST

Published - July 16, 2011 04:23 pm IST

Blue roofed and turreted: The luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Blue roofed and turreted: The luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

It was a cold wet day in 1882 with the sound of avalanches in the air. Tom Wilson, a horse packer for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was shown a hanging valley and a glassy lake called the ‘Lake of the little fishes' by some Stoney Indians.

He later wrote, “As God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene.” He called it Emerald Lake because of its unearthly green colour, which was later changed to Lake Louise after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria.

More than a century later, it's still the awe-inspiring setting that makes the place so special. From my windows I see the surreal view of the milky jade lake frozen in parts, framed by the Victoria glacier and the serrated peaks covered with spruce forests. It's the sort of view that sends a shiver down your spine and launches a thousand postcards.

The unique colour of the lake is due to the presence of rock flour, the material that is formed when a glacier grinds the rocks; it remains suspended in the water and scatters the sunlight to an impossibly wondrous colour. I am at the blue roofed and turreted luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, situated in the centre of the Banff National Park in Canada.

Simple beginnings

The hotel had its beginnings as a simple one-storey log cabin, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, to lure moneyed travellers to visit the Wild West. Fire destroyed this structure twice. It was re-built, rooms being added successively. Today it has 548 rooms in three wings.

My room has feather duvets, pine furniture, heritage photographs of local pioneers and botany sketches and a luxurious nightly turndown service. As we walk through the hotel we notice towering columns, tapestries with an Italian Renaissance influence and wood accents. The ornate chandeliers in the main lobby pay tribute to the wives of Swiss guides who would stand with lanterns at the windows to light the way home for returning mountaineers!

We take a historical tour of the hotel with Jeff Douglas, a Mountain Heritage guide who intersperses the tour with humorous titbits and stories and shows us old photographs from his bag like a magician drawing a rabbit out of his hat.

There is the Painter's wing built in 1913 - an engineering marvel of its day - which is the oldest surviving structure in this hotel and now the Victoria Ballroom. It has hand painted murals on arches, large windows, and a wood beam ceiling. Jeff talks about Canada's success in preserving its mountains and eco-systems compared to countries like Switzerland.

In the early 1900s Lake Louise attracted Swiss guides and mountaineers who influenced the architecture, food and ambience of the hotel. The hotel seems to be a successful combination of old world rustic charm and European opulence. It has attracted celebrities from Queen Elizabeth and Cary Grant to Alfred Hitchcock and is a popular venue for weddings. Jeff even claims to have had big fat Indian weddings here!

What the hotel is also known for, other than its opulence and wondrous views, are its environmental-friendly programmes. Awarded five green keys by the Hotel Association of Canada, it purchases green power for about 40 per cent of its electricity needs, recycles kitchen oils, even converts leftover toilet soaps into laundry detergents. The hotel is also dog-friendly and even has a resident lab retriever dog; the hotel's mascot!

New wing

Jeff takes us to the newly built Mount Temple Wing, which has cathedral-like spaces and modernistic interiors. The highlight is the five large arched windows with hand-made stained glass that showcase not divine beings but the key wildlife of Lake Louise: the eagle, bear, Mountain goat, fish and wolf. Jeff enthrals us with his knowledge of wildlife ranging from the talons of the golden eagle that he calls an incredible predator to the diminished population of black bears, which were hunted until 2010!

The Chateau was only a summer resort until the early 1980s when it became an all season resort. In the summer you can hike up the 4.4 mile trail to Lake Agnes and the tea-house on the way. The frigid temperatures of the lake make swimming impossible but you can rent a canoe and paddle. In the winter, activities range from snow shoeing and skiing to ice hockey on the lake and dog sledding. In January, the hotel is the venue of an Ice Magic Festival with professional ice carvers, who use chainsaws to create ornate ice sculptures, which are judged; the best part is that the exhibits remain on show till warm weather melts them.

Each public room in the Chateau is different: the Lakeview Lounge is a great place to sip on some sweet ice-wine and catch the glorious views through the tall arched windows. Warm candlelight and wooden walls make the evenings incredibly romantic as we soak in the views of the lake and mountains in the falling light.

Breakfasts at the Poppy Brasserie are fortifying with a wide range of local breads, fruits, waffles, pancakes and cereal. The emphasis is on local produce, be it Alberta beef, or wines and fruits from Okanagan. If its retail therapy that you crave for, there are more than 20 shops selling everything ranging from Native American art , ammonite jewellery to wood and antler carvings and vintage postcards. We take a chairlift gondola from the Lodge of the 10 peaks to the Mount White Horn panoramic viewpoint with a Wildlife Interpretation Centre. This is grizzly country and we hear that the last sighting was just five days ago, close to where we are standing today. Much later, a picture of Lake Louise becomes my screen saver: nature, beauty and luxury make an incredibly heady combination! The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.

Quick facts

How to get there: Fly to Calgary and drive to Lake Louise from there.

What to do: Visit the Columbia ice fields, take a gondola ride to Mount Whitehorn, and visit Banff town. You can hike or canoe in the summer and ski, snowboard and play hockey in the winter.

Stay: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has rooms with Alpine décor and high speed internet.

For more details visit >http://www.fairmont.com/lakelouise

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