From as early as 1878 to the late 1950s, rival railway companies competed to attract business and tourists to their newly-laid tracks spanning Canada. Employing top architects of their day, their strategy was to construct palatial luxury hotels, drawing global interest to Canada’s growing cities, as well as wilderness escapes like the Rockies, Bay of Fundy, and St. Lawrence River. Evoking Scottish castles, Bavarian fairy-tales and the opulent French chateaux, these grand railway hotels kicked Canada’s tourism industry into gear, although not all have survived. Some became treasured national landmarks and global bucket list destinations; others burned down, fell apart, or were later demolished. Travelling east from Victoria, below are some of the iconic survivors that welcome visitors to this day.
The Empress: Opened in 1908 and overlooking Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour, the ivy-clad Empress has welcomed royalty, heads of state, glamorous film stars and anyone in search of a little old-world charm. It received a CAD$60 million refurbishment in 2014, and its daily high-tea is a Victorian cultural event.
The Hotel Vancouver: Since its founding in 1888, Canadian Pacific Railway’s downtown Vancouver landmark has been rebuilt several times, settling on its iconic 16th century French chateau design in 1939. Enjoy cocktails and people-watching in the piano bar, and remember, if that looks like a movie star, it probably is.
The Banff Springs: Sitting at the foot of Banff’s soaring mountains, this fairy-tale castle hotel has been dropping jaws since it opened for business in 1888. Restorations and upgrades over the years have maintained the iconic copper roofs, gables and turrets. Guests can book a spa treatment, take part in guided hikes and cultural activities, or simply take in the scenic splendour.
The Château Lake Louise: When the winter ice melts, the waters of Lake Louise turn gemstone blue against a magical mountain backdrop. CPR boss Cornelius van Horne’s original log cabin made way for a 500-plus room lakeside palace, but the view has never quit. Hike around the lake or up to Lake Agnes, and then toast the Lake Louise tradition of Afternoon Tea.
The Jasper Park Lodge: It might lack the turrets and gables, but Jasper Park Lodge is just as iconic, hosting royalty, celebrities and outdoor enthusiasts since 1922. You can stay in the main hotel or in a cabin alongside Lac Beauvert, and choose to spa, ride on horseback, hike, or tackle the legendary on-site 18-hole golf course.
The Palliser: The oldest hotel in Calgary opened its doors in 1914, with three imposing buildings modelled off the Chicago School. Known for its luxury, it was Calgary’s tallest building until 1958, and is named after the explorer John Palliser. Its central location makes it popular for conferences and a sweet spot to watch the annual Stampede Parade.
The Hotel Macdonald: Opened in Edmonton in 1915 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (a precursor to the nationalized CPR) and overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, the Macdonald was inspired by 16th century French castles. By the 1980s, it had fallen on hard times and was almost up for demolition, but it was rescued and restored into the downtown destination it remains today.
The Bessborough: Saskatoon’s landmark hotel adds much of the Paris to the “Paris of the Prairies.” Situated on parkland overlooking downtown and the South Saskatchewan River, the 10-story Bess features rounded turrets, gothic touches, oriel windows, and 225 guest rooms. Named after the 9th Earl of Bessborough, the hotel has undergone major renovations since opening its doors in 1935.
The Hotel Saskatchewan: The 14th luxury CPR hotel opened in 1927 with a less flamboyant design that reflected more modern tastes. It has seen its fate swing between owners, legal disputes and a wrecking ball. Fortunately, the hotel has been restored to its former glory as the Regina’s most illustrious hotel, overlooking Victoria Park as part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.
The Fort Garry Hotel: The chateau-influenced Fort Garry Hotel was Winnipeg’s stake on the CPR luxury hotel track. Over the years, it has hosted stars like Lawrence Olivier, Louis Armstrong, visiting royalty and world leaders. The heritage building is a popular destination for weddings, and is privately owned and operated.
The Royal York: Overlooking Union Station, the waterfront and downtown, you can’t fault the location of Toronto’s iconic railway hotel. Opened in 1929 and with over 1,300 rooms, the Edwardian-styled Royal York has seen its fair share of world leaders and movie stars, serving as a host hotel for 2010 G20 Summit and the Toronto International Film Festival.
The Château Laurier: Fairmont once sponsored one of my national book tours, which included my wife and 6-month-old daughter. Having driven from Vancouver to Ottawa, we were exhausted and crushed under the weight of new parenthood. Fairmont kindly upgraded us to the Prime Minister’s Suite. My daughter peed on the master bed, within view of Parliament and the Rideau Canal. That’s my unusual, if stirring memory of this iconic hotel.
Le Château Montebello: Hike old growth forest on the Canadian Shield, spa, golf, and soak in the largest indoor hotel pool in Canada. Unlike the stone masonry wonders of other railway hotels, the more rustic Montebello claims to be the largest log building in the world. It sits on the shores of the Ottawa River, about an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital.
Le Château Frontenac: Dominating the skyline of Quebec City, this is my personal favourite of all the grand railway hotels. Opened in 1893 with gorgeous views of the St. Lawrence River and Dufferin Terrace, the towers, pitched roofs, and layered wings make it look less like a hotel and more like a fairytale palace.
The Algonquin Resort: This Tudor-style, castle-like resort, located in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick, has welcomed illustrious guests since opening in 1889. Constantly refurbished throughout its history, it has the rather unique offering of 117 different room types and configurations.
The Nova Scotian: The ‘Grand Dame’ of Halifax opened in 1930 as CNR’s answer to rival CPR’s Lord Nelson Hotel. Having hosted visiting royalty and dignitaries, the Nova Scotian went through various iterations, including student residence, before being saved from the wrecking ball by a U.S.-based hotel group in the mid-1990s. It continues to welcome rail visitors as well as cruise ships, which dock alongside the hotel.
The Lord Nelson Hotel: The first modern hotel in Halifax opened in 1928, narrowly beating out its railway rival the Nova Scotian to completion. Overlooking the Citadel and Halifax Public Gardens, the 262-room downtown landmark hosts touring rock stars and visiting dignitaries. It is independently owned and operated.