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Lake Effects

With its lush mountain valleys and pristine scenery, Lake Louise in western Canada is an outdoorsman's paradise
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

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.

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