Just Like Clockwork

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1999


Just Like Clockwork

Celebrating Canada's Swiss-guide centennial with an efficient assault of your own

If you fancy yourself an old-school mountaineer, this summer is an especially good time to honor classic alpine traditions--in the Canadian Rockies.

Granted, Canada isn't the first place that leaps to mind in connection with lederhosen and whiskey-toting Saint Bernards. But at the three historic Canadian Pacific Hotels (Chateau Lake Louise, the Banff Springs Hotel, and Jasper Park Lodge), next month begins a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Swiss guiding tradition in North America. In a season-long series of events including lectures, concerts, and plays, hotel guests can bone up on the golden age of mountain exploration--and make staggeringly beautiful ascents guided by modern descendants of the original bergführers, a traditional guest perk recently reinstated by all three lodges. (To make reservations, call Canadian Pacific Hotels at 800-441-1414; doubles cost $277 and up, including meals and gratuities.)

Back in the early 1890s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway opened the first of its grandiose wilderness castles, the spin was intentionally Old World: "Fifty Switzerlands in One," read the ads. But when America's most promising mountaineer, Philip Abbot, rag-dolled to his death on Alberta's Mount Lefroy in 1896, the resulting furor caused the railroad to seek out bona fide (and guest-reassuring) Old World expertise in the form of two middle-aged guides from Interlaken, Christian Häsler and Edouard Feuz.

In the silver-print photos that line the baronial halls of the CP hotels, the invariably tweed-jacket-and-tie-clad, pipe-smoking, bearded Swiss guides hardly seem better equipped than the East Coast swells to whom they introduced the novelties of glacier-walking and light summiteering. But over the next half-century, these guides led some 250 fatality-free first ascents in the Rockies and the Columbian Range, both for enthusiastic hotel guests (many of them female) and for accomplished mountaineers, such as the 1901 group that scaled Mount Assiniboine, the 11,780-foot fang known as Canada's Matterhorn.

Although these guiding services split off from the hotels in 1954, Canadian Pacific relaunched its in-house program two summers ago, providing free equipment and fully certified guides to any interested guest. Daylong outings can be tailor-made: History buffs, for instance, may want to tackle Death Trap Col, above which Abbot met his unfortunate end. Roped-up with your trusty guide, though, you're more than likely to make it back in time for room-service fondue. --KEVIN BROOKER

Then, to Soothe Those Tired Bones...
After a long gap in the hydrophilic history of the 111-year-old Banff Springs Hotel, guests at the famously Gothic lodge are once again immersing themselves in the healing waters. Located in a handsome, limestone-pillared addition to the hotel and touted as the largest spa in Canada, the newly opened Solace spa (above) proffers remedies so potent that if you got any more rejuvenated, you'd risk returning to an embryonic state.

Since the turn of the century, taking the waters has been a big draw for Banff visitors--in fact, it was an ownership dispute over local hot springs, which were later pumped into hotel baths, that prompted Banff's establishment as Canada's first national park in 1885. By the 1920s, however, sulfur-laden vapors had fouled the hotel's every byzantine reach, and its natatorium was closed. To avoid a reprise, Solace now imports mineral salts from Hungary's famous Sárvár springs.

While the salts' curative powers are debatable, their relaxing effect is undeniable, as clients discover while floating under the skylighted canopy of the central bathing hall, listening to symphonies piped underwater and taking in views of Banff's signature peaks, Sulfur and Rundle. Massaging waterfalls tumble into peripheral pools and nearby are inhalation rooms, steam baths, lane swimming, a fitness studio, and 16 treatment rooms offering pampering's greatest hits: Turkish scrubs, sea-salt thalassotherapy, and massages from Swedish to shiatsu.

Surprisingly, this over-the-top den of tranquility is a relative bargain: Bathing costs $20 for guests, $27 for nonguests, with individual treatments starting at $40. Those who like their soaking without New Age frills, however, may want to skip Solace altogether and head two miles west of town to the trailhead for the Upper Hot Springs. Built in 1932, the rundle-rock bathing hall lies at the end of a circulation-boosting 40-minute hike and welcomes all comers for an egalitarian $7. --K.B.

Sold to the Power Mac G3!
Finding bargains on the Web's auction block

Booking travel over the internet is already big business--1998 saw more than $3 billion in sales. However, online travel auctions, whereby discounted airline tickets, hotel rooms, and outfitted trips are put on the cyberblock, remain mysterious to most. Indeed, the prospect of committing to an unretractable bid can unnerve even the more Web-travel-savvy among us. But if you arm yourself with patience and flexibility, these sites can provide real savings. Here are our favorites.


Savings: up to 50 percent
Risk: Moderate
What's on Sale: Outfitted trips

AdventureBid.com's discounted international and domestic trips go to the highest bidder at the end of a live several-day auction; results come via e-mail. You can save big: Bidding starts at $500 for a $2,200-retail, six-day rafting trip for two on Idaho's Salmon River. Or you may not save at all: Bidding starts at $2,295 for a five-day bike tour through France's Burgundy that normally goes for $2,395. Bottom line: Check prices with outfitters to ensure the deal's for real.


Savings: 30 percent
Risk: Moderate
What's on Sale: Air and hotel

You name your maximum outlay and dates for a flight route or hotel stay, and Priceline submits the offer to its affiliated airlines and hotels. Left to fate are such pesky details as departure times, layovers, specific hotel locations--and your card is automatically charged (nonrefundably) the moment your price is accepted. So use your one bid judiciously: Go too high and you'll pay. Go absurdly low--$10 for a flight to Bali, say--and you'll be rejected. Your best bet is to use Priceline for last-minute travel: Find out the lowest published fare for your route, and let that be your offer. Bottom line: If you bid, expect to buy.


Savings: 6 to 12 percent
Risk: Low
What's on Sale: Air and hotel

Your savings couldn't be sweeter: They come from airlines' and hotels' pockets. First, reserve a flight with an airline and then plop down $5 to post the fare on TravelBids. Travel agents vie for it, and the lowest bidder buys your ticket from the airline. You in turn purchase the ticket from the agent, who later kicks your savings--his commission from the airline--back to you. You're guaranteed to save at least 6 percent off your ticket price, or your $5 is returned. Bottom line: If you're buying directly from an airline anyway, what the heck? --NATE HOOGEVEEN

Rainbow Ranch
A deft-enough cast from the deck adjacent to your room in Rainbow Ranch's south wing might well plop a Madame X into a riffle of the plentiful Gallatin River. Rainbow Ranch nabbed this choice spot long ago, operating first as a cattle ranch in the early 1900s and then as the Halfway Inn by dint of Big Sky's equidistance from Bozeman and Yellowstone. Its present incarnation--21 guest rooms fanned out over two single-story wings along the river, plus a high-ceilinged main lodge--is just three years old. And the location couldn't be better: Ten miles upstream is the northern stoop of Yellowstone National Park. Ten miles downstream, you're fishing a stretch that doubled as the Blackfoot in the movie version of A River Runs Through It.

Rooms are bunkhouse-chic: rainbow trout portraits above river-rock fireplaces and lassos coiled around the lodgepole bedposts. Pull a stool up to the bar for a pint of Moose Drool--a local microbrew--before sampling the restaurant's eclectic menu, devised by a chef who came here via New Orleans and Florence.

Rainbow Ranch was my learn-to-fly-fish war room with the help of nearby Gallatin Riverguides ($275 for a full day; 888-707-1505), but I also stole away for a mountain-bike ride. (Grizzly Outfitters has $25 rentals; 406-995-2939.) On my last day I saddled up some hosses--Chuck Kendall's Diamond K Outfitters is on-site--for an excursion up to Deer Lake. There the seldom-visited, unwary Arctic grayling struck on every other cast, a triumph worthy of a Moose Drool toast back at the lodge. Summer double rates range from $160 to $230 per night. Call 800-937-4132. --ROBERT EARLE HOWELLS


Spring Reyk

Hot springs fans take note: Icelandair (800-223-5500) is currently offering deals that make visiting the geothermally blessed island quite affordable. This month, the airline is selling a $499 Adventure Package from several U.S. cities, including New York, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., that includes round-trip airfare to Reykjavík and two nights' lodging with breakfast, based on double occupancy. You can extend your trip by up to four additional days--time enough to soak in Svartsengi's famous pools (above)--for another $61 per person per night. And on its equally reasonable round-trip flights to northern Europe ($450 to London, $503 to Amsterdam), passengers can avail themselves of a three-day stopover in Reykjavík at no extra charge.

Cut-Rate Caribbean

Next month in Aruba, the winds are up, the snowbirds are long gone, and--just in time for the Hi-Winds Pro-Am Windsurfing contest (June 8­14)--lodging rates are discounted by as much as 50 percent. A $225 garden-view studio suite at La Cabana Beach Resort and Casino (800-835-7193), for example, now costs a mere $120. For hotel information, call the Aruba Tourism Authority at 800-862-7822.

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