Above us an enormous snowflake hovers in the vibrant air of the Canadian Rockies.
The snowflake, Sputnik-sized, is a white octagon — supported by eight pillars encircling a shimmering pool.
As my wife, Kate, and I float in the pool, we hear relaxing harmonies as though Tibetan monks are creating music underwater. Surprise. No saffron-clad bathers or brothers, it’s a CD featuring submerged subwoofers. All part of fine-tuning one’s body and soul in the Willow Stream Spa, a spectacular addition to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
The warm pool brims with what some claim is magical water. That water bubbles up through eons of limestone, quartz and dolomite that the massive Rocky Mountains rest upon.
At the base of these mountains is Banff, Alberta, population 7,700. According to legend, the town site is a confluence of such positive natural energy that the ancients who walked upon this land dared not live here. The medicine of nature was too potent.
Those first people (far more concerned with bison than bilingualism) stayed only long enough to heal themselves and, in what is now Canada’s highest town (4540 feet), those ancients buried their dead. I had often heard the native expression, “it is a good day to die,” but this may have been the first time I could appreciate that curious point of view. The beauty is that serene, that powerful. That overwhelming. Died and gone to heaven finally has meaning for me.
Perhaps the Canadian Pacific Railway understood these legends. Perhaps not.
One thing that the CPR understood was that Banff was the perfect site to launch an iron road that would pierce the towering Rockies, linking British Columbia with the rest of what was to become Canada with not five, but five and a half time zones.
Banff and the park itself was named after the Scottish town of Banffshire, the home of two CPR directors. A trio of CPR railway workers first “claimed” Banff’s famous natural sulfur springs, but they were bought out for less than a thousand dollars and by 1885, the area became Canada’s first national park, and the third oldest national park in the world.
From a sleepy little hamlet getaway with several sulfur pools, Banff is now a must see destination for tourists. The town is one of Banff National Park’s crown jewels, albeit a bit tarnished from too many souvenir dives hawking recycled Chinese panda bears that appear to be suffering from Kyphosis. Someone’s notion of a grizzly.
Getting back to that Sputnik-sized snowflake above those eight pillars. The snowflake is a translucent skylight over the mineral bath.
Years ago the hotel’s large and malodorous sulfur swimming pool was shut down and replaced by heated fresh water. That pool is free for hotel guests. (Those who hanker for sulfur baths can visit the public sulfur pools several blocks up — you guessed it — Sulfur Mountain.)
The Willow Stream Spa has 76 “colleagues” who pamper and cater to the guests, and offer treatments that boggle and soothe mind and body.
The cost of an all-day pass is $59. You don’t have to be registered at the hotel, and in my estimation, it’s the deal (and experience) of the millennium for less than U.S. $45. For that you can luxuriate in the huge mineral pool, experience plunges in three waterfall pools with varying degrees of heat from fricassee to frigid.
Top travel and spa magazines are touting Willow Stream at Banff as world class. It won’t be long before that U.S. $45 entry fee is going to skyrocket, and I’ll bet that soon you’ll have to be a registered hotel guest to use the spa.
You can choose from a $279 ninety minute Ultimate Ascent to a $10 all-day-pass to the superb exercise room. Between those two extremes, guests can purchase massages from shiatsu to mountain stones.
Jennifer MacInnis, Assistant Spa Director, explained that the most popular package is Take a Break. It includes a 60-minute Relaxation Massage, Traditional Facial, a Classic Manicure and Pedicure and a Spa lunch. Total cost: CAN $475, but you’ll remember the all-day affair for the rest of your life.
All clients get a private oak locker with brass fittings that shine like gold. You’ll have access to the outdoor Jacuzzi where you can observe moose and other wild things sauntering by. Look carefully and you’ll see a coyote fade into the lodge pole pines. Blink and it’s gone and there’s a half ton pound elk, one of thousands in the park.
By the way, elk can charge with the impact of a freight train and have injured far more people than the sixty grizzlies that roam the park.
How do you stop an elk from charging, eight-year-old Amanda Lopushinsky from Edmonton asked me. Cancel its VISA. Giggle-giggle.
Seriously, you should always stay at least three bus lengths from the elk. Big busses. Never feed any of the wildlife. You might end up lunch.
You’re absolutely safe in the Willow Stream Spa. Relax in the coed lounge and sip complimentary juices such as watermelon as you gaze at the massive mountains. The fruit is fresh and delicious and included in your cost.
You have entry to the cleanest steam room and sauna that Kate and I have ever seen. You get a super soft robe and complimentary flip flops to pamper your soles.
As I float in the mineral bath’s pristine water and contemplate the giant snowflake shimmering in the azure sky, I almost sense that energy of the eons rejuvenating my tired body. We require it.
Kate and I spent the morning hiking up and down Tunnel Mountain. We met Jennifer, a botanist. “In Saskatoon where I live, you have to travel 300 miles to find the variety of plant life they have here on a single mountain side.”
Banff Seen from Tunnel Mountain
Jennifer explained that it took a forest fire to free the seeds of the lodge pole pines. “A fire is part of the normal 200 year cycle of a forest,” she said.
Jennifer tired us out. We are not used to scampering up and down mountains.
Kate says she aches all over. In addition, her neck has been sore for many moons (she uses this term either out of respect for the native Canadians or to confuse me since I’m not sure if a moon is one or 30 days). Kate reports that the water of the mineral pool feels terrific and wonders if her general aches, along with her stiff neck, will vanish.
“It may take more than half an hour,” I say, always the cynic.
In addition to the water that the mountains have provided, the staff of the spa of the Banff Springs Hotel has infused the pool with Thermal Bath Crystals, a Hungarian mineral bath from Sarvar. These crystals contain trace elements that are reputed to nourish and detoxify the body.
I must tell you, I doubt that minute traces of mineral salts, calcium and metaboric acid will actually cure aches and pains. But at this moment, floating in this amorphous pool, I feel better than I have in decades. Relaxed. Warm. Buoyant. Whatever…it is, it’s working.
Earlier that day I talked to Barbara Heimlich, a vivacious employee with the PR department of the hotel. She, along with other staff members of the Fairmont chain, is proud of the famous Banff Springs Hotel and describes with great excitement the result of a twenty-five million dollar face lift that has recently been completed on the 770 room property, restoring it to its original castle-like glory of yesteryear.
One senses that most of the 1,200 employees are not only committed to customer satisfaction, but are delighted to be working in the historic hotel/castle. Many of the employees have a love affair with the mountains and those who ski think they have died and gone through the Vale (pun intended) to heaven. One has the impression that many of the Farimont employees might work for free in the Banff area.
According to Hugh Dempsey, one of Canada’s foremost historical writers, the area around Banff is called Nato-oh-sis-koom in Blackfoot, meaning “holy springs” and refers to the Cave and Basin Hot Springs.
Kate swears that her sore neck has vanished and attributes it to the mineral bath.
“Maybe it’s that huge snowflake above us,” I say.
“Your snowflake has eight sides,” says Kate. “All true snowflakes have six sides.”
“How do you know?“ I ask. “Have you looked at all the snowflakes?”
Kate rolls her eyes.
I gaze at the vast mountains. Invincible. Comforting. Revitalizing. Like some ancient Indian warrior (OK, OK — 2lst century road warrior) I realize it’s a good day to die.
But…it’s a better day to live.
Animated dollar Icon — 3D GIF animation by Media Tech Productions. SUPER SAVER TIP.
I admit it, I’m cheap. But I love to stay in ultra nice places. So does my wife. If you went online and got a super-saving discount for any of the Fairmont rooms in Banff, you could still end up paying three or four hundred dollars a night for a room, nicely appointed but probably small.
What if you had a friend at any of the Fairmont properties? (They have 30,000 employees.) That friend could get you a “friends and family” discount with guaranteed reservation.
Your room rate at the fabled Banff Springs hotel would be about US $125 a night in the high season. Why not take a Fairmont employee out for a great dinner and make a new friend?
Shh, you didn’t hear it from me.