Saturday, April 4, 2015

Mountain Castle Getaway

Somehow my intermittently frugal nature and inability to resist a bargain has brought our middle-class household to the lap of luxury.

We had decided early in the year that we would take a vacation during spring break, the first time we have ever done so. We didn't really have the wherewithal to fly anyplace, so Audrey and I began looking at drivable alternatives. Our recent stay in Calgary was nice, but there is more for us to do there in the summer, and besides, we had just been there. The same could be said of Drumheller, and the warm winter left us apprehensive about snowmobiling around Revelstoke.

The two of us had talked for years about staying in one of the theme rooms at West Edmonton Mall, and taking in the waterpark, GalaxyLand, mini golf and the other attractions, but there was a concern that the girls might find it a little too 'cheesy'.

I don't know how we got onto thinking about the Banff Springs; we had spent our second anniversary there two decades ago during a 'bed & breakfast' sale and loved it, but the handful of times we had looked in the intervening years it had become unfeasible, possibly due to its purchase by the Fairmont hotel group from Canadian Pacific. Surprisingly, however, when I checked their special offers page, it looked like we perhaps could pull it off, so we immediately conspired to do so.

We elected to keep our destination a secret from the girls, partially out of our delight at surprises and also as a means of managing expectations. They knew only that we were leaving Monday and returning Thursday, and that we were driving, and to bring a swimsuit.

After dropping Nitti off with friends, we got on the road mid-morning, grabbed a bite at Peter's drive-in for a late lunch, and turned west on the Trans-Canada Highway. Audrey had told the girls we weren't leaving the province, and they aren't terribly familiar with the highways in the region, so speculation as to our destination ranged from Canmore to Lake Louise to Crowsnest Pass.

Once we passed Canmore, I told them that our first stop was the Upper Hot Springs in Banff, which is why we had told them to bring their swimsuits and leave them accessible. Pulling off the highway into Banff, I confessed we would be staying there as well, but evaded Fenya's inquiry as to precisely where.

Given my reputation as a deal-seeker, it's possible they were expecting to stay in a budget motel or even a hostel, but after our dip in the hot springs, as we drove down Spray Avenue and the towering Banff Springs Hotel began to loom over us, Fenya asked, "Is this one of the same chain as the Hotel MacDonald?" and I replied that indeed it was.

After a brief pause, Glory said, "But that's not where we're staying, right?"

"Actually," I said, "it is."

I'm profoundly grateful at how excited they became once I confirmed we would be lodging in what effectively amounts to a mountain castle. Both girls are keenly interested in the past, in a way that I never was as a child, and all of us have a tremendous appreciation for the mountains. I don't think either of them had any notion about what differentiates a luxury hotel (having had zero exposure to them!) and in truth, I only had the foggiest idea myself.

Thankfully I had joined the Fairmont President's Club (free) which meant they were expecting us at the curb with our keys and room number already sorted out. I had fully intended to drop off the ladies and then go park the Flex, but the valet option was only a little more than self-parking, and I didn't want to postpone our arrival any more than absolutely necessary, so I opted in for the additional service, and a polite young man whisked our ride off to the parkade.

In booking our room, there was nothing available in the original building that had two Queen-sized beds, so I had resigned myself to staying in the Stanley Thompson wing, an annex that used to house the hotel staff and was once called the Manor Wing. The default option offered no view, but for another $25 per night we could upgrade to a suite that did, so that was an easy enough choice to justify; after all, when could we expect to be back here again?

In most instances I am of the mind that the size and quality of the room is only of minor importance, since, ideally, all you would be doing is sleeping there. However, on this vacation, the accommodation was also the destination, so a slightly larger room, divided into living and sleeping areas, was ideal.

With our luggage in tow, we made our way from the traffic circle to the Stanley Thompson wing, bypassing the lobby entirely, and descended three floors to room 1107. We entered into a tidy suite, with two queen beds behind a sliding door, a decent sized washroom with two sinks, and a living area furnished with a couch, two comfy chairs, a desk and an office chair. Four bathrobes monogrammed with the Fairmont "F", an initial very suitable for our family and doubly so for Fenya, hung in the closet.

We didn't spend too much time in the room initially though, as we immediately wanted to get the lay of the land. After exploring our wing of the hotel and its attendant lobby and common area (with two billiard tables, a number of sitting arrangements and an immense oaken table), we got directions to the conference centre so the girls and I could do some 5-pin black-light bowling while Audrey took a shower and got a little reading in.

It's a somewhat convoluted route to get from the Stanley Thompson wing to the pedway, but as expeditious as it might have been to simply step outside and cut across the traffic circle, who could pass up a chance to meander the storied halls of such a legendary edifice?

The next day we spent a fair bit of time exploring the hotel, from the Alhambra room and it's expensive bronze gates, to the fossiled stone stairway outside it.

Also a good spot for a Lumiere impression, if you are so inclined.

Then we went through the baronial elegance of Mt. Stephen Hall.

Reproductions of armour and weapons abound, making it a wonderful venue for history nerds like ourselves. It could be a great place to hold a gaming convention...

A story persists that a bride's dress brushed a candle way back in the day, and in stamping out the flames, she plummeted down a stone staircase in the lobby to her death. Her ghost is rumoured to dwell there still, so it was decided we needed to get a picture of the 'Bride's Staircase', even though neither of the girls was comfortable miming out a falling pose.

There had been some sort of event the night before in the ballroom that had not yet been cleaned up, so the doors to it were closed. Our thinking was, though, that if they truly wanted to keep people out, they would have locked those doors, and since they hadn't, we entered to explore it and the attached conservatory.

I'm very glad we did, as I had never set foot in those rooms before, and they offered a spectacular panorama of the surrounding mountains as well as a period elegance in the decor. It was easy to imagine listening to a live orchestra in the ballroom like they had in the 1950s, or an elegant tea in the conservatory.

Riverside Hall is still one of my favourite parts of the Banff Springs Hotel; spacious, brightly lit and offering an immense view of the Bow Valley.

A wonderful place to sit and take in the view, but also suitable for dancing.

The castle theme extends to many of the appointments and decorations, such as the tapestries that decorate most of the halls. Audrey felt compelled to open most of the cupboards and armoires we encountered in our wanderings, and many of the furnishings are reproductions of items from European monasteries.

We only ate two meals in the hotel itself, partially to stay on budget and also to make the best use of our time. For breakfast on the first morning, we partook of the buffet in the Bow Valley Grill, which may be the best breakfast smorgasbord I have ever encountered; Full continental with bagels, pastries, porridges, hot fruit compote and cold cereal, but also a full omelette bar, trays of eggs Benedict, two types of sausages and bacon, pancakes, waffles, hot and cold smoked salmon, etc.

For supper on our last night we ate in The Waldhaus, built out of the former golf clubhouse and styled like a Bavarian hunting lodge. Venison, schnitzels, spaetzle, and an enormous appetizer tray of sausages and cheeses were chased down with huge steins of German Dunkel and cider. Having given up sweets for Lent, I elected instead to finish things off with a glass boot filled with Big Rock's Oatmeal Raisin Stout.

For me, it doesn't really get much better than drinkable souvenirs and our waiter complimented me on my choice of dessert.

We had brought along a fair amount of dried fruit and jerkies and the like, and the day we went to visit the Cave and Basin, the historic site that really kicked off National Parks in Canada, our simple, in-room breakfast was more than sufficient to our needs, and helped offset the decadence of some of our other meals.

We spent a fair bit of time exploring the luxurious shops on the lobby level, found a few things on sale and discovered that the President's Club membership also entitled us to a15% discount on most items, and netted a few souvenirs there as a result, including a book detailing the hotel's history. A new shop, L'Occitane en Provence, had their grand opening that Wednesday, and not only were the girls one of the first customers (which entitled them to a nifty little bag full of expensive lotions and...I dunno, skin maintenance items?), but Fenya got to participate in the ribbon cutting.

It was a bittersweet excursion in some ways; keenly aware of being middle-class in an upper class establishment, and bidding farewell to childhood, as Glory's 13th birthday loomed at the end of the week. Also, with Fenya entering grade 12 next year, we may only have one more spring break left to us as a family, which is, frankly, a somewhat daunting prospect to consider!

Still, we enjoyed ourselves immensely, whether walking through the elegant halls in our borrowed bathrobes and then swimming in the outdoor heated pool as snow fell upon our heads...

Or simply catching up on some reading in a tranquil spot...

Or trying our hand at some pool in the Stanley Thompson lobby area...
We made the most of our temporary exposure to "the good life", fully recognizing that, in our case, that good life is due to our ability to truly enjoy each other as a family, wherever we might happen to find ourselves. If we are careful, there is no reason for this to ever change, which hearkens back to the hotel's motto, Semper Eadem, which translates as 'Always the same', because some things should never change, no matter how they might grow.

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