With its lush mountain valleys and pristine scenery, Lake Louise in western Canada is an outdoorsman's paradise
Experienced travelers know the feeling. You arrive at a new destination and find yourself wrapped in the unmistakable aura of home, as if you've been there before. No need exists to look further for comfort and succor. Albert Camus, the great French writer, once said there is at least one place on earth like this for everyone.
In a lifetime of travel, I've found that mysterious mix of passionate attraction and uncanny familiarity in several places: Machu Picchu, the Incan ruin high in the Peruvian Andes; a quaint Indian village in central Mexico called Tepotzlan; and a small hilltop town in France's southern Dordogne region known as Cordes. Last year, another spot captured a small part of me -- the Lake Louise region of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
That's a bit like saying you liked France. It's difficult, however, to narrow the scope too much in this vast stretch of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia. After all, this is mountain country, and a trip here means hiking and exploring deep into the valleys and following trails where bears and wildlife compete with human interlopers.
The perfect jumping-off point is one small hotel in Lake Louise village that offers the best of luxury accommodations -- the Post Hotel. Andre and George Schwarz operate the hotel, situated almost at the union of the Pipestone and Bow rivers. The brothers came to the Canadian Rockies on a ski adventure nearly 30 years ago and never left.
"I just discovered how beautiful it was here, and how beautiful the people were. I only meant to stay for a year, but I never left," Andre says.
After working in ski schools in the area, the brothers, originally from Switzerland, acquired the hotel in 1978 when Sir Norman Watson, an English nobleman, decided to sell what was then a very plain, small inn just outside Lake Louise village. Today, the hotel consists of 96 rooms, including suites and three riverside cabins, in part to maintain its standing as a Relais & Chateaux member (all Relais & Chateaux lodgings must have less than 100 rooms).
Since 1986, in a partnership with the Husky Oil Corp., the hotel has been renovated and expanded. The buildings evoke the simple rustic charm of a Swiss chalet, and the rooms and public areas are decorated in harmony with their mountain setting. But no expense has been spared in modernizing the hotel. Most rooms have whirlpool baths and heated slate floors, and many have fireplaces. The suites are restful, with sitting areas and balconies that boast views of the mountains or the Pipestone River. The river rushes by with its milky green, glacial waters, and on warm summer evenings, has a soporific effect on sleeping guests.
The setting is just one part of the Post Hotel's charm. The restaurant serves up some of the finest cuisine in Canada. Chef Wolfgang Vogt has been at the head of the Schwarzes' stoves since 1994, and has worked with them off and on for more than 20 years. A meal consists of a wide range of local specialties. The stuffed partridge with a currant sauce was simply spectacular. Most menus include wild game selections from the area, and the staff goes to great pains to have the best produce available. George, who oversees the food and beverage operation, says that Vogt recently added a six-course tasting menu.
The wine list is a Best of Award of Excellence winner from Wine Spectator, and includes top producers and vintages from Italy, France and the United States. A small selection of Canadian wines will also tempt you, including the outstanding Inniskillan. The Schwarzes continue to build the cellar's selection, and it now has nearly 1,200 wines and 25,000 bottles. On top of it all, there's a cigar room with overstuffed leather couches and chairs, and a humidor filled with top Cuban brands, including Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Bolivar. You can also choose from a full selection of single-malt Scotch, Port and Bourbon.
In the winter, the hotel serves as the ideal outpost for a skiing vacation. The Lake Louise ski area remains one of the largest in Canada, even though it is only served by 10 lifts. The Schwarz brothers, both avid skiers, say that you never get tired of the variety on the slopes around Lake Louise. The main lift to the area is only a five-minute drive on the hotel's shuttle. "You can be on the lift in 10 minutes after closing the door to your room," says George. In the springtime, they also recommend checking out the Sunshine ski area, which is just a short drive down the Trans-Canadian highway.
"We have one of the best ski areas in Canada," says Andre. "The only weakness is that we don't have a big nightlife here in Lake Louise." George adds that "the real attraction of Lake Louise is its proximity to nature. We're in the [Banff] National Park, and that makes it so quiet and pristine here. People come from all over the world just to look at the Canadian Rockies, but you can ski it, too." George says that there are rarely lift lines, except during the peak Christmas and New Year's holidays.
I've only been to this region once, and that was in the summer. But it is equally compelling at that time of year, and for the outdoor enthusiast, there may be no better place in North America. Because I'm a novice to the area, much of what I'm going to recommend has to do with my wish list for next year's visit as well as the combined wisdom of local hiking diehards.
Apart from a couple of nights at the Post Hotel, my wife and I are already reserved at Lake O'Hara Lodge. This pristine, and isolated, lodge has eight rooms and 15 cabins, and as a newcomer, you almost always end up on a waiting list, or with nights very early or very late in the season. But with less than 50 guests, and a location in the middle of Yoho National Park, this is a hiker's paradise. The lodge is part-owned and managed by Bruce and Alison Millar. While the lodge is quite simple, its prime attraction is its isolation from the modern world and its setting on the edge of the high mountain lake. The kitchen is superb, and the Millars particularly fancy only serving wines from the Okanagan Valley region of British Columbia.
From firsthand experience, making the necessary arrangements to get into Yoho National Park, home of Lake O'Hara Lodge, is worth the effort. Parks Canada, the national park service, requires reservations at its campsites, and reserves a handful of day passes, but you must get in line early to get a pass. Campsite reservations are as scarce as the rooms in the lodge.
Once at Lake O'Hara, two hikes are easy for the day-tripper. One is up to the Oesa Plateau, ending at a high mountain lake that into July often remains ice covered. There are views of the Victoria Glacier. A path runs steeply up from the lake to the Abbott Pass Hut, which is one of the highest structures in the Canadian Rockies. From there, you can also proceed down the far side to Lake Louise. The other hike is to Cathedral Mountain, the furthest point from the campground, a solid five-hour round trip. This hike also skirts a prime bear-transit route, so you should be on high alert for any sign of bears. One tip: plan your route so that you're back to Lake O'Hara Lodge by 3:30 and partake in its afternoon tea before taking the bus back to Lake Louise.
Although most people who vacation in this area are avid hikers to begin with, it's worth noting that no hike should be undertaken without adequate preparations for all kinds of weather. Last summer, my wife and I started out on an overcast 45-degree day; by the time we returned to the lodge, nearly four inches of snow had fallen and the temperature had dipped toward freezing. We had layers of clothes, including a full Gore-Tex waterproof jacket, but it was a benevolent warning about what can happen if you're exposed on a high mountain pass and such weather hits. We did not see any bears, but we turned back on one trail after meeting up with two extremely frightened young women who had just seen, and been followed by, two grizzly bears, less than a quarter-mile up the trail. We didn't venture any farther, and kept pace with their rapid retreat.
From the Post Hotel in Lake Louise, there are more than 75 hiking routes, detailed in a wonderful book called Hiking Lake Louise by Mike Potter. A fine bookstore with plenty of maps and books about the area can be found in Lake Louise village, just 150 yards from the hotel. The trails cover about 165 miles just within a 10-mile radius of the village, more than you could possibly hope to explore in a one-week vacation. If you're using the Post Hotel as your base, ask Andre and George. They are avid outdoorsmen, as anyone in the region should be, and have lots of suggestions about which trails to tackle, and about the interesting things along the way.
Andre says there are three popular hikes, at least one of them more a walk than a true mountain hike. The easier one circles Lake Louise, a beautiful alpine-like body of water ringed by mountains. To make it a bit more difficult, Andre recommends heading toward the Teahouse route, climbing into the Plain of Six Glaciers to reach the first hut there. Then, he suggests taking the Highline trail back, which passes the second hut at Lake Agnes, before descending back to Lake Louise. The round trip takes about three and a half hours.
Sentinel Pass is another destination that Andre recommends. He suggests starting out from Moraine Lake and heading through the Larch Valley. After passing the summit of Sentinel Pass, head down into Paradise Valley, which eventually connects with the Moraine Lake Road. It's advisable to arrange for someone to pick you up at the end of the daylong hike and take you back to your car at Moraine Lake, or have someone take you to the trailhead and pick you up later.
The Eiffel Lake and Eiffel Peak hike includes an open traverse over scree (loose rock) to get to the summit. But it has marvelous views of the peaks just to the south and west of Lake Louise, and you also will have views across the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
These hikes are just a few of the outdoor treks available with the Post Hotel as a base. Andre says that naturalists from Parks Canada visit the hotel twice a week to give presentations about the area's flora and fauna. They can be good resources about what trails are the clearest and whether bears have been reported in the area.
Another good option for lodging in Lake Louise is the 487-room Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, it is a grand old hotel. The locals say that it's more comfortable in the winter because the hotel is not besieged by bus tours. In the summer, the hotel feels more like a big tourist spot; still beautiful but not as quiet.
Whatever your pleasure, or the time of year you settle into a vacation in Lake Louise, the day should end at the Post Hotel. The dining room is wonderful and cozy, in a log-cabin style, and buzzes with people hungry from a day of hiking or skiing. After the meal, stroll into the cozy cigar room and order an after-dinner drink.
It's a heavenly retreat in one of the world's most beautiful spots.
Post Hotel Lake Louise, Alberta
Tel.: 403/522-3989; Fax: 403/522-3966
Lake O'Hara Lodge Lake Louise, Alberta
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Lake Louise, Alberta
Tel.: 403/522-3511; Fax: 403/522-3834