Monthly Archives: January 2019

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.

 

 

 

A Very Happy New Year… filling, and cherishing the chest of memories

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Could there have been more of a contrast? Last New Year’s Eve found us in Delhi,  celebrating under an outdoor, chandelier-lit cabana. It was a warm, balmy evening and we had only just made it into the city for our reservation; eight-hour train delays from Agra will do that!

All seven of us (two girlfriends are part of our family) had donned our evening clothes, packed away the dusty traveller’s duds in which we had just toured Northern India, and appeared sparkling and ebullient for the New Year’s Eve dinner and dance. Throughout the evening, we reminisced over the wonders and the often troubling sights and encounters we had experienced together. It was a family adventure never to be forgotten, nor perhaps repeated.

This year was entirely different. Without Luke and Trixie, we were only five in this winter wonderland in Kimberley, British Columbia. We exchanged our ski gear, toques and warm gloves for smart-casual as we prepared our mountain home for the evening. To complete this festive gathering, we had welcomed family from Holland, along with my mom and dad. Neighbours dropped by for happy-hour and close friends stayed for the late dinner. There was Pictionary, crazy hats, impressive moonwalking and my husband, as ever, led us in Auld Lang Syne to formerly ring in the New Year. I was filled with the profound feeling that we were creating another cherished page for our family memory book.

As the years drift along, I’m reminded more and more that much of life is defined by how we gather and treasure memories. Something I read recently struck me as wisdom and truth. A woman in her nineties had poignantly professed:

“Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open, I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life. Old age is like a bank account, you withdraw from what you’ve put in.”

This has resonated deeply with me on the threshold of 2019. I saw firsthand how true this is; for even as we celebrated and revelled in the beautiful snowy surroundings, we seven (including our two in Slovenia) reminisced time and again over our Indian adventure. Perhaps it was partly because that was the last time all seven of us were together as one.

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“Thinking about all the memories of last year and looking forward to the next time we get to share together,” Ayla wrote just before she and our son Andrew arrived home on the 27th.

“Love you guys! Sending big hugs,” Trixie added from Slovenia. On New Years’s Day, Luke chimed in with, “Dad, hope you sang Auld Lang Syne at the top of your lungs to ring in the new year, though it would be hard to beat last year’s performance.”

Yes, last year’s rendition had been during that celebration in Dehli when Bruce had joined the band to sing his treasured version of Robbie Burns classic words – as perhaps only a true Scots-Canadian can.

So despite the superb ski days, impromptu snow angels, terrific tobagganning, woodsy trampings and fireside chats, memories of last year were never far from our minds.

Since that eventful Indian journey, this past year we have come together in various countries, yet never all at once. It was an often challenging and difficult year, yet eventful, exciting and also truly joyous in which we were privileged to live and share on three different continents. Now, as we transition, in the short-term at least, from our global life, we look forward to more simple times in our Canadian home base. We’re excited for the new year, but unsure where it will lead as we open doors to new opportunities and adventures – and yes, perhaps another country.

So this year’s family photo doesn’t picture all of us in front of an iconic landmark such as the Taj Mahal. No, we’re more incognito in our ski helmets, or informal and relaxed over apres-ski drinks. Come to think of it, despite our best intensions to take a ‘nice family photo’, we somehow didn’t manage it. Was it perhaps subconscious as two of us were missing? I have a feeling it was.

With further words of wisdom from that cherished ninety-two year old woman, she counselled:

“So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories.”

Let’s make 2019 a year to be mindful of memories, to be truly present and appreciative of each experience as it happens. This is the material from which our memories are carved, no matter how seemingly simple or extravagant they may be.

And so, as we celebrated on New Year’s Eve with those who were near, I messaged those far away; “I too have been thinking of last year. We’ll set a reunion for us all as soon as we can; this mother’s heart is yearning for that time.”

For now, I have a treasure chest of beautiful memories and the anticipation of creating many more. May we all be blessed to have the same.

A very Happy New Year Dear Readers!

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Luke and Trixie blog from Slovenia, and other points known at: https://www.howlblog.ca