Say the words "get back to nature" in conjunction with your vacation, and most people probably flash on a mental image of campfires, sleeping bags, and hordes of mosquitoes. Thousands of people every year, however, get clued in on a wonderful little secretÃ¢ÂÂthere's a way to admire even the most rugged scenery in North America in perfect comfort, sometimes in grand, five-star style.
Across the western half of Canada and the United States, amid the towering mountains and endless green silences, lies a network of hotels and lodges dedicated to bringing people back to nature without destroying it. From the extremely eco-friendly and incredibly luxurious King Pacific Lodge floating off Canada's Great Bear Rainforest, to the high and haunted Stanley Hotel in Colorado, visionaries, dreamers and enlightened entrepreneurs have established havens of comfort designed to bring people to the wilderness who would never have set foot there otherwise.
Though different in design, comfort level, and location, every one of these places has two things in commonÃ¢ÂÂa love of beauty and a deep respect for the natural setting that drew their founders to build there in the first place. One and all, they are located amid some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. You will find a whole cluster of them in Canada's Banff National Park, which was first opened up by the Canadian Pacific railroad. Stuck for ridership, the company came up with a series of lodges and hotels along the line to entice city folk out to view the "million dollar views" in Alberta and British Columbia. For nearly a century they have hosted hundreds of thousands of people, and some of them ar
For the eco-traveler, the likes of the Lake O'Hara Lodge in Canada or the King Pacific actively challenge guests to help reduce the hotel's carbon footprint. Other hotels, like the lodge at Lake Moraine outside Lake Louise or the Glacier Bay Lodge, both in Canada, restrict access, ensuring that visitors have an unparalleled chance to experience nature at its finest without having to rough it. Freed from hordes of tourists and cars belching exhaust fumes, these small and very environmentally-aware mountain lodges are unique in their ability to simply be part of the landscape without overwhelming it.
For the trendier traveler, the likes of the Chateau Fairmont Lake Louise or the Stanley Hotel offer the sort of upscale luxury you would expect to find in a big city like New York or London, yet both of these sprawling hotels, with their exquisite design, grace tiny towns surrounded by wilderness. For all their size, they are dwarfed by the mountains around them, a reminder to all who see them that there are things and places not designed to be conquered, only appreciated. They are the gift of big dreamers motivated to make a buck, yes, but also to share the breathtaking beauty they had found with the rest of the world.
While many of these mountain or lake lodges and hotels cater to the outdoorsy crowdÃ¢ÂÂhikers, skiers, climbers, and fishermenÃ¢ÂÂthere is something for just about everyone in a place surrounded by such beauty. There are amenities that don't come out of a store, like pristine air and quiet untroubled by machine noise. In the privacy at the end of the road, the stars come out, undimmed by city lights, and the wildlife, too. You will find everything from whales to eagles to solitary white bears in these places. You might sight an elk out your front window, or a passing moose or a band of ducks floating peacefully in the misty dawn. The romantic, the newlywed, and the harried executive alike will discover a whole new world out here beyond the reach of cell phones, television, and fax machines.
A good many of these places are located in protected areas, national or state parks on both sides of the border. Some started as private clubs, like La Seigneurie du Triton in Quebec. Some have hosted crowned heads, like the Banff Springs Hotel; others may be seen in scores of movies. Some have inspired movies. Stephen King's "The Shining" is said to have been born in room 217 of the Stanley Hotel with the snowy heads of the Rocky Mountains looking on. Others just seemed like a good idea at the time, like the Crater Lake Lodge, which had to fight its way through the builder's ignorance, budget shortfalls, and incredible snowfalls to emerge triumphant above the deepest lake in North America. Built inside the parks, these places have helped raise awareness of the parks and their matchless beauty. Some have also helped to curb the rampant development that might otherwise have put unsustainable pressure on the wilderness around them, by becoming authorized parts of the park system.
Anyone looking for the truly different sort of vacation, the kind where you cannot help but unwind, de-stress, and stop to smell the wildflowers, may find it in a mountain lodge. For those who cannot bear to rough it in a small cabin without maid service, 19th century grandeur may ease the pangs of withdrawal from civilization. You will find everything from a rustic lodge atmosphere with a roaring fire blazing in a stone fireplace to crystal chandeliers, curving, hand-carved staircases, and deluxe king-sized accommodations priced for, er, kings.
One thing all of these places have in common is the number of people who want to go there. You may have to wait for reservations, so plan your trip well in advance to be one of the limited number of people who can pass through the doors of the smaller ones each year.
From little Wallowa Lake Lodge, born amid heartbreak, to the "Castle in the Rockies" in Banff, conceived in ambition and raised in grandeur, the mountain lodges and hotels of North America will make you gasp with delight, stare in awe, or just chuckle over the conceit that put them where they are. One thing is certain: if you visit any one of them, you will never forget the experience.