Experiencing the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel – Canada’s Castle in the Rockies

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB

All photos © Robin & Arlene Karpan, except where noted.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

The Fairmont Banff Springs isn’t simply a hotel, but more of a Canadian icon. They call it the “Castle in the Rockies” for good reason. The luxury Alberta mountain resort with its castle-like spires in Banff National Park townsite has been a landmark for over 130 years, drawing guests who come to enjoy the hot springs and spa, a championship golf course, exclusive shops, and fine dining. The scenery ain’t too bad either.

Banff excels in stunning landscapes and we thought that we had seen most of the best views in our travels around the park. But it wasn’t until we gazed out from the hotel’s top floors that we found the best breathtaking vistas. After all, that’s why this spot was chosen for the hotel.

Suite view, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Mountain view from one of the suites.

We recently had the chance to stay at the storied Fairmont Banff Springs while attending a conference in Banff. Turns out that we were in good company. Over the years, the hotel has hosted an impressive array of celebrities including prime ministers, royalty, sports heroes, and a long list of movie stars – Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Joe DiMaggio, Fred Astaire, Lee Marvin, and Marilyn Munroe to name a few.

Popular History Tour

To find out more about the fascinating story behind the hotel, we signed up for the free history tour. We met our guide Andrew in Heritage Hall, one floor above the lobby. The hall is lined with vintage photographs showing the various stages of construction, special events, and guests enjoying the opulent surroundings.

Andrew explained that it was the hot springs that first enticed visitors to come to the area, looking for a unique spa experience. The popularity soon attracted the attention of the national government which declared the area a national reserve. In 1885, Banff became a national park, the first in Canada.

Tour Guide, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Tour Guide Andrew talks about early photos at the beginning of the History Tour.

A Vision of Luxury

The hotel was the dream of Sir William van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Van Horne envisioned a string of luxury hotels that would bring wealthy tourists to the mountains along his beloved railway, offering them the chance to enjoy the wilderness while staying in lodgings that befitted their elegant lifestyle. As Van Horne declared, “If we can’t export the scenery, we will import the tourists.”

The setting in Banff near the hot springs, sitting on a promontory, and framed by the Bow River and spectacular mountain backdrop was the perfect place to build.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel nestled in the mountains. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

After he obtained permission from the federal government to build in a national park, van Horne drew up architectural sketches for an exclusive chateau-style hotel in Banff. He hired architect Bruce Price to make the dream a reality, then went on with railway building.

In 1887, van Horne returned to Banff to find his cherished hotel turned 180 degrees to the way he had envisioned it. The staff had the million-dollar views, while guests looked over Sulphur Mountain. Nevertheless, the hotel with its dormer rooms, turrets, and lavish décor opened in 1888 and quickly attained status as one of the three top hotels in North America.

As the hotel’s popularity grew, it became clear that more rooms were needed to accommodate more guests. So architect Walter Painter was hired to build a new tower, using Rundle stone (limestone) from a quarry near Rundle Mountain.

Tragedy struck in 1926 when a fire destroyed most of the original 1888 structure, however the Painter tower and wings survived because they were built of stone. Two years later, the hotel was rebuilt and was again welcoming guests.

Summertime Home

Andrew described what life was like at the Banff Springs in the 1930s. Guests didn’t just come for a few days or a couple of weeks. Rather, they spent the entire summer at the hotel, providing that they could guarantee that they had at least $50,000, which equates to about $1.4 million today. They enjoyed exploring the mountains on hiking excursions and horseback riding trips, along with canoeing, rafting, golfing, and more. Special programs and performances, teas, and other events added to the activities.

Golf course, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
5th hole, Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

Little by little, roads were built through the mountains, making it easier to get to the hotel by car in addition to the railway. However, the roads weren’t good enough for Benny Goodman and his band who were invited to perform at the Banff Springs. When Goodman found out that the nearest airport was in Calgary, he lost interest in Banff. The story goes that the runway just across the highway from Banff townsite was built in large part so that Goodman’s private plane could land nearby. The landing strip is still there, though today it is only used for emergencies.

A Walk Through the Ballrooms, Lounges, and Bar

Andrew then led us on a tour around parts of the hotel. The first stop is what is now known as the Rundle Bar. This was the original hotel lobby before extensive renovations created the new lobby in 2001.

“Notice the deep arches in the windows, the fireplace where the bell desk and concierge areas once stood, and the grand staircase connecting the two levels,” explained Andrew. Then he pointed to one side made to look like a huge library lined with books. It had a hidden door that opened to a small private room inside, reminiscent of a speak-easy.

Rundle Bar, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
The Rundle Bar was originally built as the hotel’s lobby.
Rundle Bar, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff AB
A door on the “library” wall of the Rundle Bar opens to a private room inside.

With its arched windows offering sweeping views over the Rockies, Riverview Lounge extends down a long hallway. Andrew told us that the windows, each weighing 300 pounds, were made in Czechoslovakia and brought here using custom-designed railcars. You might think that windows that heavy can’t be broken. Not so. We learned that during a heated argument one evening, a woman picked up a chair from the lounge and threw it at her husband. She missed, and the chair went right through the window.

“Since then, all the furniture in this lounge is too big to throw,” quipped Andrew.

Riverview lounge window, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
View from one of the curved windows in the Riverview Lounge.
Riverview lounge, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Riverview Lounge.

Of all the ballrooms in the hotel, the Cascade takes the cake as the most beautiful, and is popular with the wedding crowd, special conferences, and performances. Its Roaring Twenties atmosphere remains, along with hardwood floors for dances.

The Cascade Ballroom is associated with a haunting tale of the Ghost Bride, who died on the curved staircase near the ballroom on her wedding day in the 1920s. The story goes that her dress caught fire from candles lining the staircase. Trying to put out the flames, she fell down the stairs, breaking her neck. Since then, guests and staff have reported seeing her apparition dressed in a wedding gown, usually near the staircase and ballroom. The incident was celebrated by the Royal Canadian Mint and Canada Post who created a coin and commemorative stamp in 1914.

Winding staircase, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Ghost Bride Staircase.

A hallway near the ballroom leads to the Conservatory that overlooks the Bow Valley. Its 180 degrees of windows and glass ceilings give everyone an unforgettable Rocky Mountain view.

From here Andrew led us toward Mount Stephen Hall. Lining the walls along the hallway are pieces of artwork depicting the Canadian west including animals, rivers, and mountain scenery. This was originally van Horne’s idea, to create an artist in residence program to promote artwork. It is still going on today.

Eventually reaching spacious Mount Stephen Hall, Andrew pointed out the hand-carved angels lining two sides of the room. Each angel carries the crest of a Canadian province. However Newfoundland is missing since it was not part of Confederation when the wing was built in 1914.

Mount Stephen Hall, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Mount Stephen Hall.

Next, we followed Andrew along the Spanish walkway to the Alhambra room, with many details and decorations reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Spain. At the entrance are solid brass doors, each weighing half a ton; they’re so heavy that they need ground tracks to open them.

From here we walked down the Spanish staircase, made of Tyndall stone that is known for the fossils embedded in the deposits. Tyndall stone was used after the original quarry near Rundle Mountain was closed.

On our way back towards the entrance, Andrew paused near the elevator to point out the antique mailbox; there’s one on each floor. In the early days, guests would write letters and send postcards to family and friends. Having an internal mail collection system was an added convenience for guests. Letters deposited through the slot travelled down a chute and were collected at a depot below, then taken to the post office. The system still works today.

Mail chute, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Brass mail box.

Today’s Surroundings

Today the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel has over 700 guest rooms and more than 76,000 square feet of space for events, exhibits, and meetings. The hotel is so big and rambling that guests are given a floor plan when checking in. It has a world-class spa and restaurants, and a golf course designed by golf architect Stanley Thomson.

Willow Stream Spa, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Mineral pool at Willow Stream Spa. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Crown Suite, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Just one small part of the Crown Suite. Photographer: Goran Kosanovic Photo courtesy of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

Got an extra $3,000 or so burning a hole in your pocket? You too can book a night in one of the top of the line digs such as the recently renovated Crown Suite, with windows facing in every direction. Another choice is the Fairmont Gold floor which has its own concierge, food services, and other special perks.

If you’re looking to sample one of the Banff Springs’ famous cocktails, head to the Rundle Bar and try the Wild Flower, made with Rundle Bar gin made in nearby Canmore, elderflower liqueur, sweet vermouth and plum bitters.

Gin cocktail, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB
Wild Flower cocktail, Rundle Bar.

William van Horne still looms large in connection with his beloved hotel. Outside near the main walkway to the entrance stands a statue of van Horne pointing to the classic mountain view and hotel that he so wanted guests to enjoy.


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