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 ĎLake of the little fishesí by some Stoney Indians. He later wrote, ďAs God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene.Ē 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, itís still the awe-inspiring setting which 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. Itís 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; this 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.
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, and 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 pays tributes 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 tidbits and stories and shows us old photographs from his bag like a magician drawing a rabbit out of his hat. There is the Painterís 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 the success of Canada in preserving their 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. The hotel is a popular venue for weddings and 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 programs. Awarded five green keys by the Hotel Association of Canada, it purchases green power for about 40% of its electricity needs, recycles kitchen oils, even converts leftover toilet soaps in to laundry detergents. The hotel is also dog-friendly and even has a resident lab retriever dog which is the hotelís mascot! 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 enthralls 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 the year 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 the lake. In the winter there are activities ranging 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 twenty 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 ten peaks to the Mount White horn panoramic view point 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!
Published in The Hindu Sunday magazine 2011