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North America

The Great Ladies of Canada

Jonathan van Bilsen



April 14, 2019

The Great Ladies of Canada

Canada has so much to offer, be it experiencing culture, adventure travel, urban immersion or just plain relaxing by a lake or ocean. I have visited hundreds of towns and cities in every province and territory, but one of the fond memories I have is, the accommodation in larger cities. I have had the pleasure of photographing every railroad hotel in the country, and although not all are still standing, the majesty of these amazing structures will be forever embedded in my mind.

When Canada built the railway in 1885, it quickly became apparent that in order to attract passengers, they had to construct places for people to stay on their adventure across this great country. They also realized that luxury was a must, as their intent was to attract wealthy travellers, who could afford to trek through the vast wilderness in a style, to which they were accustomed in Toronto and Montreal.

The hotels were built for Grand Trunk, CN and various smaller railway companies. Most were later taken over by Canadian Pacific and then sold off in the eighties and nineties. The first of these grand hotels was the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. Commissioned by the railway, this property was adjacent to the train station. It was ravaged by fire in 1906, but parts remained until it was replaced by the Queen Elizabeth in the late 1950’s, which has all the splendour of days gone by. Today it is managed by the Fairmont chain, and has the reputation of being the ‘last railway hotel’ built.

Far west, in Victoria, B.C., I stayed at the Empress Hotel, which is certainly one of the grandest, if not the most imposing properties of the chain. The basement is home to a miniature world, which depicts historic scenes and fairytales, complete with dragons. Of course, no visit is complete without afternoon tea. The experience is memorable and whisks you back to the grandeur of the late 1800s. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance, and be prepared to spend $75 per person.

Travelling east, the Hotel Vancouver is another grand lady from the past. Now operated by Fairmont, it is often overshadowed by the Banff Springs and the Château Lake Louise. Both are amazing properties, with only one flaw, and that is crowds. It is hard to immerse oneself in the beauty of the surroundings when there are hundreds of people near you. The first time I visited both properties was in the early eighties, and things were much quieter. Lake Louise has now created a separate parking lot for non-guests, and visits to the hotel itself are restricted to registered guests.

Another luxurious property out west is the Jasper Park Lodge. I was last there about 10 years ago and found it different from the other railroad hotels, in that it is built of large timbers and stones. It is a splendid property with stately rooms and lots of amenities. The grounds are frequented by mule deer and elk. In fact, the town of Jasper has no shortage of wildlife, and people complain about shrubs and small trees constantly being nibbled away.

Travelling further east, are the MacDonald in Edmonton and the Palliser in Calgary, both which received the first liquor license after prohibition (1924). The Hotel Saskatchewan, in Regina and the and the Fort Garry in Winnipeg, are also breathtaking and both transport you back to the days of Van Horne and the first railway travellers across the vastness of this country. The Fort Garry was built by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1913 and the Hotel Saskatchewan, a CP hotel, was opened in 1926. It is now managed by Marriott, whereas the Garry is privately owned.

Toronto of course, boasts the Royal York, which most of us are familiar with. I won’t dwell on it, other than to say that the library bar offers the best clam chowder in the city (my opinion only). Coupled with a glass of wine, it makes for an enjoyable lunch, surrounded by oak paneling and Toronto’s ‘suit’ community. Ottawa has the gracious Chateau Laurier, and I recall my first visit there, and how mesmerized I was by the view of the Parliament buildings through my window.

Quebec offers, what is probably the most well know CP hotel, the Château Frontenac. This iconic building is featured on more postcards and guidebooks than any other. Opened in 1893, the 18 floors are home to over 600 rooms. Located on the St. Lawrence, it is still a favourite for visitors and tourists alike.

350 km from the Frontenac is the Château Montebello, nestled deep in the Quebec forests near Montebello, Quebec. It is less than an hour from Ottawa, and is frequently used by our government for official meetings and events. Built in the 1930s as a recession work project, it is now the largest log building in the world (over 4 million cubic feet).

Heading further east we pass the Manoir Richelieu, owned by Fairmont and the Nova Scotian, in Halifax, another grand property, which is now operated by Westin. My favourite of all would be the Algonquin located near St. Andrews by the Sea, in southern New Brunswick. Built in a Tudor style, with white stucco and wooden beams, the complex of only 80 rooms was constructed in 1893, and is now operated by Marriott. It has a small, cozy aura where one can easily become lost in history.

Lastly, and one of the newer ones, is the Hotel Newfoundland, which overlooks beautiful St. John’s harbour, where I saw my first iceberg, many years ago. I understand it no longer has the majesty it imposed in the eighties. It has gone the way of the Prince Edward in Charlottetown, sad, but I suppose that is progress… or not.

Travelling closer to home this summer and experiencing some of Canada’s history, is a great way to bond with your family and your country.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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