Crafting a novel is like building a relationship, with all of the ecstasy and flaws of a human union. Some days are all swooning and rapture while others are almost abusive, delivering a crippling dose of writer’s block. For me, a snowy scene has always been the best antidote. Infusions of crisp air, remote accommodations and the mighty silence of a mountainous landscape make the words flow.
I fled to the Post Hotel & Spa in Canada’s Banff National Park earlier this year. Manuscript illuminated by the light from a blazing fire and glass of whiskey in hand, I thought: Now this is how to write a book. Turns out this hotel is a longtime alphabet aphrodisiac and I’m about 10 years late to the party.
“I keep a set of cross-country skis at the Post Hotel and a suitcase of clothes, so I just show up with my laptop and they say, ‘It’s February, Douglas is back,’ ” says Douglas Kennedy, the best-selling author of 11 novels who has been writing at the hotel every year since 2005. He worked on his upcoming novel “The Blue Hour” there as well as his “Leaving the World,” which is set partially in the Canadian Rockies.
Kennedy found the Post Hotel and what he calls the area’s “epic grandeur” somewhat by accident. On a cross-country ski vacation in a neighboring area, rain prompted him to go searching for snowy trails that hadn’t been as affected by the precipitation.
“I was immediately sort of enchanted with this splendid isolation with nothing between Banff and Lake Louise,” he says. “I thought I’d see how I got on for two weeks, and while there, I doubled my quota of words.”
A veteran world traveler, Kennedy has been to 57 countries. He is attracted to places that have a huge sense of space and emptiness, and he says one of the best cross-country skiing routes is about a five-minute drive, from the front door of the Post Hotel to the Continental Divide.
“I’ve been skiing out there for 14 years and I never tire of it — a park ranger once stopped me to say, ‘Just saw a wolf pack, might want to turn back,’ and I thanked him for his warning but kept pushing forward,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘They’ll probably have vanished by the time I show up on skis,’ which, as it turned out, was the case. The Canadian Rockies remain the true call of the wild.”
The Post Hotel sits on the banks of the picturesque Bow River. It feels miles from anywhere, but it’s actually just off the Trans Canada Highway in Banff National Park’s Lake Louise Village, a straight shot about two hours west of Calgary in Alberta, which is fast becoming my favorite part of Canada. This is one of only a few places to stay and ski in a national park.
Small pleasures like being able to walk across a charming little bridge just outside the hotel to village ski shops and eateries contribute to feeling ensconced, which is the point of a snowy writer’s retreat. The library — where the Alpine architecture is evident and bookshelves are brimming with colorful book jackets — was my favorite place to develop scenes. And how lovely to write in the laid-back lobby until time for afternoon tea and a spin on the outdoor ice skating pond just outside the front door. Something about the history of the property helped, too. It opened in 1942 as the Lake Louise Ski Lodge, was then bought by Sir Norman Watson, the English founder of the Lake Louise Ski Club, in 1947 and sold to its current owners, Swiss brothers André and George Schwarz, in 1978.
The one day I did venture off the property was for a chance to ski with André, one of the world’s great ski icons. He wrote the manual that forms the foundation of Canadian downhill ski techniques and teaching methodologies and established the Post Hotel as the hub of modern ski education. He had the misfortune of being in the Sir Norman Lounge at the same time as I was. I hadn’t planned to ski, but when I heard that he loves to ski with guests, I couldn’t resist.
“Well, let’s go hit the Hill,” he said of what locals call the Lake Louise Ski Hill, a short jaunt from the hotel. Schwarz, 70, then revealed why he is known as the godfather of modern ski education. Wreaking havoc on even the easiest beginner hills, I careened across each one in a panicked fashion followed by sitting down abruptly. Miraculously, he never lost patience, and through his coaching I learned more in one short run than in years of lessons. The best part of it was getting to watch Schwarz cruise the slopes as though he were born with those two pieces of wood fused to his feet.
Later, outside the Lake Louise Village ski shop, I happened upon some ice carvers practicing for a nearby competition. Feeling the ice spray on my face and drinking a hot chocolate with snow-covered trees all around, I listened to the locals. They were sharing stories about hiking uphill for hours to ski the wilderness by the dark of the moon. Surrounded by the sugary snow-covered forest, it was one of those travel moments in which I felt totally alive and connected. I went back to my room, built a fire and pounded out 1,000 words like it was nothing. Kennedy is right about those quotas.
Feeling exhilarated, I grabbed dinner in the main dining room. Although this serious cuisine is not inexpensive, the atmosphere was unpretentious and open-hearted. Kennedy aptly describes this intoxicating combination in his opinion of dining at the Post Hotel: “It’s a very much refined hotel but not stupidly opulent — Swiss Alps with a North Canadian feel to it so it marries those two worlds.”
I would put Swiss-trained Executive Chef Hans Sauter’s food and George Schwarz’s 25,000-bottle wine cellar up against any Michelin-starred restaurant. Schwarz personally selects his wine and has probably forgotten more about wine than most experts know in a lifetime. He can recall accompanying his father on buying trips to Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a child.
Could I top devouring such dishes as roasted Northwest Territories caribou with Chef Sauter’s traditional schupfnudeln (rolled noodles) and possibly the best trio of tartare, Balik and maple marinated salmon I’ve ever had? But the next night was reserved for Fondue Stübli, a tiny separate dining area open for dinner only and featuring traditional Swiss-style fondues. (Make reservations for dinner here well in advance.) I ordered the cheese fondue, but next time I plan to try the bourguignon prepared with beef tenderloin cooked in hot oil. Both places were well worth the calories and expense.
Precious few snow weeks remain in Lake Louise. The final day of the 2015 winter season is Sunday, May 10. It begins anew in late November or early December.
In 16 years of culinary travel writing, I’m used to getting attached to places. But I’ve never been so forlorn about departing a place as I was the Post Hotel. Kennedy perfectly describes how it feels to bid it adieu.
“They seem happy to have me as part of their woodwork,” he says. “Next year I’m going for three weeks, and I was very sad when, after my last visit, I was saying goodbye and driving away.” Indeed. The fictitious characters that seemed to dance into my notebook in Canada ran for cover when I landed in 80-degree weather back in the Southeast with no fondue or fireplaces in sight.
The Post Hotel & Spa
200 Pipestone Rd., Lake Louise
Luxury lodging, full dining and spa. Midweek two-night ski packages per person, double occupancy (standard room about $340; deluxe room with one king bed around $370.) Package includes two nights’ accommodations and two days’ lift tickets at Lake Louise ski area.
Three-night ski packages per person, double occupancy (standard about $508 per person; deluxe around $555 per person). Three nights’ accommodation, three days’ lift tickets at Lake Louise ski area and breakfast for all three mornings.
Through March 29: Standard rooms from about $250 per night; suites from about $417 per night depending on season. Call for rates on riverside cabin rentals. Low-season winter rates March 29 to May 10 from about $213 (rooms) and $382 (suites).
The hotel has a variety of dining possibilities.
Fondue Stübli, specializing in traditional Swiss-style fondues, is open for dinner only. Entrees from $85 for cheese fondue for two. Sir Norman Lounge is a popular fireside gathering for après-ski, pre-dinner cocktails and small bites from $17.50. Live piano music Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Open from 2 p.m. daily. In the main dining room, jackets are optional; athletic attire is discouraged. Breakfasts feature a cold buffet with pastries, homemade jams, cereals, Swiss muesli, fruits, cold cuts and cheeses from $18. Guests can also order hot items a la carte, including traditional Swiss potato Rosti with bacon, gruyère cheese and two farm eggs for $17. Lunch entrees from $22.50. Dinner entrees from $42. Outpost Pub is a casual fireside setting with multiple TVs tuned to sports. Open weekdays from 4:30 p.m. and on weekends from noon, from $10.50. Afternoon tea is served in hotel lobby daily from 2-5 p.m.; tea and coffee complimentary for guests, desserts from $8.50.
At the Post Hotel
Outdoor ice skating: Just outside front lobby. Skates available at Wilson Mountain Sports just across adjacent bridge. All-day skate rental $12.
Temple Mountain Spa: Therapeutic to relaxing body and facial treatments including massage, beauty services, also with gentlemen’s spa services in the lobby. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Aquatic facility: Roman-style salt-water pool, steam room and whirlpool. Open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
At the surrounding area
Downhill skiing: Complimentary shuttle from hotel to Lake Louise Ski Hill lift base (www.skilouise.com), about a five-minute drive. Four thousand acres of ski terrain among four mountain faces including open bowls and tree-lined runs. More than one-third are expert runs, but every lift stop connects to a beginner run. Lift tickets range from $17 for children after 2 p.m. to $89 full-day adult passes.
Equipment rentals: Wilson Mountain Sports (www.wmsll.com). has boots, skis and poles for one-day rental $49, skis only, $39.
Cross-country skiing: Multitude of trails adjacent to the hotel and Lake Louise through the Canadian Rockies. Equipment rentals: Wilson Mountain Sports.
Cross-country one day rental skis, poles and boots $25.
Snowshoeing: Guided, with commentary on the history of the region and nature stories. Great Divide Nature Interpretation, 403-522-2735, www.greatdivide.ca. Group trips run on weekends, $69 per person. Private snowshoeing excursions run seven days a week for up to eight people from $250 per couple, $300 for up to four people and $64 per person for up to eight people.
Banff National Park: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/banff/index.aspx
More from Travel:
Kelly Merritt, author of “The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel,” is working on her first novel, a travel thriller.