Shining Happy People: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.
Like admiring David Cameron for his attempts to bring Etonian, bloody-good-chap decency to the pragmatic horrors of governing in a coalition, yet suspecting him of being nefariously on the side of the privileged and ancestrally elite. Tricky.
Pop music is often like that. You’ll be happily singing along to, say, a brilliant crafted slice of Los Angeles session-musician wrought confectionery, lost in the moment and feeling every teardrop trigger placed in it. And then, you’ll think about what you’re singing and think to yourself, ‘these lyrics are gold-plated gibberish’. Guilty pleasures, indeed.
I suffer my own such mild moment of discombobulation, standing in the grand ballroom of the magnificent Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. In front of myself and some 150 very wealthy un-ironic music lovers – non-guilty pleasures, if you will – Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald are running through their 1980 smooth pop hit, What a Fool Believes. The knotty lyrics still don’t make much sense – “Tryin hard to recreate what had yet to be created once in her life.” Uh huh? However, our gentlemen entertainers are effortless in voice but showing the signs of extreme physical exertion – perspiration in McDonald’s case, a slight facial tautness in Loggins’. Then, straining against his own reconstruction, Loggins winks at me. Wow. I feel anointed in cheese.
This – and other happy signature moments – have been brought to me thanks to Robert F Kennedy Jr and his charity, The Waterkeepers Alliance. The son of Bobby Kennedy, our host is passionate about patrolling the world’s threatened natural waterways across North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. By all accounts, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and get locked up for taking on governments and industry. He’s doing worthwhile work for the benefit of future generations and he could use some wonga.
So, every year, he holds a charitable celebrity ski weekend, here in the Canadian Rockies. What’s not to like?
And his pull attracts some pretty famous faces – Alec Baldwin hosts the weekend and this year’s guest list promised – alongside the 80’s soft rockers – William Shatner, Buzz Aldrin and a host of very attractive people from American TV shows I’ve never seen. Oh, there’s Edward James Olmos, the scary one from Blade Runner and Miami Vice. And Mimi Rogers, who was married to Tom Cruise once and is now representing the Hot Cougars, immaculately. Witnessed in the outdoor hot tub, her stomach would make a delightful skiffle instrument. Yes, that’s a compliment.
The event is based around the Banff Springs and the fabulous ski resorts it services.
An hours drive across the dead flat plains north from Calgary, the peaks begin to emerge and soon you begin to climb. Banff itself sits in a UNESCO World Heritage site. The north/south ridge of the Canadian Rockies represent the continental divide between the Pacific land mass and the Atlantic. Hence, the Bow River, which runs through the town on the eastern side, flows out into the Hudson Bay, some 400 miles away. No new construction is allowed here, preserving the atmosphere and keeping property and accommodation rates at a premium. The hotel itself is a 122-year old historical landmark. Built over 18 years after baronial castles of Scotland, it was originally a Canadian Railways property. And it’s magnificent. The high ceilings and sweeping arches are classically palatial. I promised not to mention the Shining. But the ballrooms and solid beam banqueting halls bring to mind a scope and lost glamour, without any indication of maze-based unpleasantness. It is, as accurately described in the literature, a Castle in the Snow. There’s something deeply satisfying about spending a day in sub-zero cold, climbing up through the blue ice walls of the Johnston Ice Canyon and returning to the Firebird yellow glow of windows, the dark spires set against the Magic Hour’s pink and topaz sky. A genuine luxury fortress and a children’s book backdrop come to life.
The lack of pretension is a welcome surprise. There is a grounded openness to the service and the guests that is at odds with the scale of the property. Every night, the Rundle Lounge fills up with guests, celebs and locals, who gather around as a piano player breaks out sing-a-long hits and the cocktails sink quick. My revelation – the Caesar. Canada’s contribution to liquid leisure. A Bloody Mary variant, made with Clamato juice – an umami-rich concoction of both clam and tomato juice that is exactly 20 times nicer than it sounds. I drink a lot of Caesars.
My days are spent outside. The landscape is breathtaking. On my ice hike, I meet an English couple who ski here every year. They make the point that whilst fresh snowfall cannot be guaranteed in Europe, there is always fresh powder to be found here. Activities that utilise it include – snow biking, helicoptering on to frozen lakes to wade in snow shoes or heli-skiing, hiking, sleigh riding with a barbecue thrown in, a choice of three world-class ski resorts and, my favourite, dog sledding.
This was something I had always wanted to do and not being a skier (what can I say, elegance on two legs was never my gift) sitting down to let our canine friends take the load seemed the civilised option. Word of advice: Dog sledding on a hangover is not civilised. Bracing, adrenalin-inducing, jaw dropping. But not civilised.
If I’ve ever craved an injection of morphine or other opiate-based painkiller more, I can’t remember it. Firstly, the noise. The dogs are a mix of Siberian Husky and half-husky/greyhound.
Since they’re still at least a third wolf, they howl. And when they’re about to kick off, they really howl. Damn you, clam juice and vodka! At least the minus -20 C temperature is helping.
Then, there’s the sled. Don’t expect suspension. You’re lying on wooden slats, being dragged at speed across very bumpy snow-covered wilderness. My headache is not merely amplified, it is being played through AC/DC’s front of house PA. Damn you, premium whisky-based cocktails.
What they never tell you about is the…ah..aroma. My handsome team is congenitally excited to explode with speed when given the word. Unfortunately, as they do, they’re congenitally inclined to explode with poop, also.
Down wind of my collective canine V8, I’m dreaming of decapitation as a blessed relief from this visceral intensity. The dogs are (sort of) controlled by a fine man called Jon. But they’re lead by a total bitch called Zsa Zsa. A gorgeous prima donna in white fur, she randomly picks on the poor male harnessed next to her. Her snarking and snapping seems to push the others harder and faster.
The ice-cold air, the perfect back drop of glaciers and peaks and the rush of speed begin to dominate my dulled senses. By the time we’ve stopped for a breather and hot chocolate, I’m feeling much improved. So much so, that I agree to get on the back and have a go at steering.
Remember I said elegance on two legs was never my thing? Well, I forgot. Firstly, there’s no firm platform on the sled. That was a fantasy. You get two inches of board and a thin metal brake rung to stand on.
Then there’s the dogs’ delight at encountering a downward incline. Unlike braking in a vehicle, as they sense the weight leave their harness, they go faster! As we approach a 60 degree right turn on a 1 in 3 slope, fretfully, I debate which way I should lean to compensate. I choose unwisely. Hanging out to the far left side, large snow walls scrapping my back, Jon pulls me back on board, by tugging on my right leg. Not bad considering said leg is pointed skyward.
It’s a brilliant rush and one way to avoid the ‘exhaust fumes’, but my stuntman days are over.
The afternoon needs to be more sedate. Much more sedate. So after a light lunch, it’s up to the actual Banff Upper Springs for a dip. Naturally hot water at a delightful 38 C, emanates from the Sulphur Mountain Thrust Fault. The outdoor pool utilises these waters, offering stirring views of Mount Rundle through the steam. It was one of the town’s original draws and, as such, still provides period full body vintage swimsuits for both men and women. I gamely wear mine, in a charming navy blue. I particularly enjoy the decency flap, an extra apron of cloth attached to the front. This vestige of Victorian probity ensures that even with heavy water drag, there are no unsightly, corrupting indications of reproductive organs.
Talking of which, the most fun place to eat in town is the Grizzly House. An eccentric hippy-meets-curios hunting lodge, it displays the legend ‘for lovers and hedonists’ above the door. A fondue restaurant for swingers, anyone? One booth has a fully closable hatch for lovers (and hedonists) that really do like cooking alone.
When you’re done dipping your lobster or buffalo into hot fat or melted raclette, you can pick up the telephone at your table and let some other diners know that whilst you may be digesting, you’re still hot to trot. The excellent wine list, including Washington state’s wonderful Charles Smith 2010 Kung Fu Girl Riesling and ‘Boom Boom’ Syrah, might help, too.
Owners Peter and Barbara Steiner have run the place since ’67. It was then Western Canada’s first disco. Eventually, they had to serve food and fondue seemed like a cuisine congruent with their, ahem, other interests. The silver-haired couple are sat in big coats in the atrium, smoking and holding court, a bearded Mountain Man and his matronly wifey gone native.
Babs pulls me tight to explain that the phones were more of a joke and that they didn’t seriously expect the clientele to pair off after dinner. She’s a charismatic looker, over 6 feet tall in her fur boots with a twinkle in her eye and a firm grip on my leg. What a gal.
The Steiners have been here for over 40 years and are very established in the cultural life of the town. Peter himself has created the Narrows Village in a nearby cove overlooking the stunning Shuswap Lake. The literature describes it as ‘an Adult ONLY smokers paradise resort, 1200 miles from Vegas…accessible only by boat and helicopter. You must also remember that the same rules that apply in Vegas also apply on the Shuswap.’ Party on, Pete, party on.
Back at the Fairmont, I take in a great (totally above-board) massage in the excellent health spa, before a dunking in the cold dip pools, just in case the Steiners rubbed off on me… so to speak.
Finally, a hot tub session outside, my exposed hair, cranial, nasal and everywhere not submerged, freezing hard. Clean of body and mind, I get lost in the 76,000 square foot of the hotel’s meeting and catering facilities. Eight restaurants – and not a famous franchise chef in sight, including a dedicated Japanese sushi restaurant and the Waldhaus, a pub serving authentic Bavarian imported beers.
The Sunday brings the morning after the night before. The previous evening’s celebrity charity auction, hosted by Baldwin, was flowing with Patron Tequila, courtesy of its founder, John Paul DeJorja, the ponytail-wearing, wrinkly, bearded face of Paul Mitchell hair products. With the pleasing throb of Loggins’ and McDonald’s yacht rock still in their ears, Alicia Silverstone and some guy off Everybody Loves Raymond, et al, head for one last ski on the perfect slopes of the Sunshine Village resort. I myself head up to Fairmont’s other property in the region, at Lake Louise. Here, I ponder the stunning vista – on the frozen lake, a palace carved from ice, framed by the mighty glacier that tops the head of the lake. As pure and inspiring as the Grizzly House is earthy and carnal. That’s Banff for you. Like the rivers that RFK Jr is trying to save, not so much a cognitive dissonance, rather a very harmonious confluence.