Text and photography by Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
Settings for afternoon tea don’t get much more spectacular than the snowcapped vistas outside the tearoom windows of Canada’s pristine Banff National Park.
Tea has been an important part of the daily ritual in this mountaintop wonderland since 1883, when the transcontinental railway reached the formidable Rocky Mountains. The discovery of natural hot springs bubbling from the base of Sulphur Mountain led to the establishment of Canada's first national park, Rocky Mountain Park. Early park rangers stashed their tea and equipage in bear-proof tins along the rugged trails so they could enjoy a hot cup of tea when working on the coldest of days.
Today, Banff National Park is one of four adjoining mountain parks comprising more than 5,200 square miles of spectacular Canadian Rocky Mountain landscape. Each year, 4 million international visitors soak in the warm water of the springs and soak up the uninterrupted natural beauty of this world heritage site.
Two crown jewels of the park are The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and The Fairmont Banff Springs. Both were constructed over a century ago as part of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s “ribbon of steel,” built to link Canada's populated centers with the vast potential of its relatively unpopulated West. William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway, was often quoted as saying, “Since we can't export the scenery, we'll have to import the tourists.” Sixteen fantastic European-inspired palaces attracted countless well-to-do tourists who traveled in plush railway coaches from one beautiful chateau to another until they finally reached the grand Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia.
The largest community within Banff National Park is the town of Banff, 90 minutes west of Calgary via the Trans Canada Highway. The community shares its space with the wildlife—elk, sheep, and bear sightings are common here. The streets of Banff are filled with small shops that offer a mosaic of uniquely Canadian shopping opportunities. Several highlight the work of native artists and artisans, an integral part of Banff's Rocky Mountain heritage. Similarly, the many art galleries in the area celebrate the mountain artwork of local and Canadian artists.
One of the most aromatic indulgences along Banff Avenue is Natur’el. This teahouse, spa, and boutique, founded by Jolene Brewster, blends and packages more than 50 mostly organic teas and tea blends, carefully selected from the best tea plantations in the world. Jolene’s forte is her ability to formulate soothing herbal infusions with interesting titles such as Women’s Health, Digestive Health, and The Common Cold. Step up to her tea bar, and choose your own teacup. A selection of fine china and mugs is available for use while warming up or chilling out in the relaxed tearoom, which opens onto Banff’s main street. Don’t leave without sniffing your way through the enticing samples throughout the store.
The Fairmont Chateau Banff Springs
The 800-room Fairmont Banff Springs sits like a Bavarian castle nestled on a pine-covered mountainside above the town of Banff. It has hosted such legendary dignitaries as Helen Keller, Queen Elizabeth II, and Benny Goodman. The mountain hideaway is filled with a labyrinth of hallways, ballrooms, lounges, gift shops, fitness centers, and restaurants. The hotel’s world-class golf course and nearby ski slopes make this retreat an ideal getaway any season of the year.
The historic hotel has recently added the 38,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa that includes cascading water pools, inhalation rooms, massage, indoor/outdoor pools, and a fireplace. It offers never-ending cups of Fairmont Willow Spa teas. It’s not surprising that this tranquil oasis has been named one of the top 10 spas in the world.
Afternoon tea has long been a tradition in this Scottish baronial castle. Served in the Rundel Lounge with its full-window views of the golf course and the Rundel Mountain range, tea here can be as simple or as sophisticated as you wish. You may want to simply enjoy a selection of scones with jam and a pot of Fairmont Banff Springs tea while watching the clouds roll across the mountain peaks or to spend the afternoon working your way through the complete afternoon tea that includes all the usual sandwiches and sweets. If you linger long, you might just spy the herd of elk that make their way across the golf course every afternoon as the sun begins to sink behind the snowcapped mountains.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits on the shore of the azure-blue Lake Louise, only 50 minutes from Banff. The postcard setting is perfectly framed with emerald green forests and snowcapped mountains that glisten under a dramatic Canadian sky. The villa designs of the Italian Renaissance influenced the architecture of this château that once served as a hideaway for Fairbanks and Barrymore, Monroe and Hitchcock. Residents can spend the day skiing, fly-fishing, hiking, canoeing, or simply reading a book while tucked away in one of the second-floor alcoves.
The highlight of the day for tea lovers is afternoon tea in the Lakeview Lounge. The preferred tables for two each sit by a Palladian window allowing an uninterrupted alpinelike view of the lake and mountains. The only temptations that draw your attention from this stunning natural vista are the beautiful savories and sweets designed by the hotel’s chefs.
Afternoon tea begins with a compote of fresh fruit. The tiered server is soon presented, bearing a colorful array of tea sandwiches—cucumber, smoked salmon, egg on wheat, and chicken with mango pinwheels. Perfect English scones are served with a generous supply of clotted cream and preserves. The tantalizing sweets include miniature éclairs, custard tarts, handmade chocolates, and shortbreads crowned with whole strawberries.
Highlighting the selection of teas is the Fairmont Blend and other traditional teas blended by Canada’s Metropolitan Tea Company. An optional flute of Champagne tops off the afternoon with one more bit of sparkle. There is just one problem: you won’t want to leave this sunny setting where staring out the window is relaxing and encouraged.
Lake Agnes Teahouse
The mountains framing Lake Louise are crisscrossed with hiking trails. One of the favorite routes is the Lake Agnes Trail that begins at the rear of the hotel and climbs 1,000 feet to glacier-fed Lake Agnes. A 90-minute walk will bring you to a glorious tea respite, probably unlike any you have seen.
The Lake Agnes log chalet teahouse, circa 1900, hugs the shore of this emerald lake. But be warned. This is not a tearoom for hats and lace gloves. There is no electricity. The chalet is warmed by a wood stove and lit by kerosene lamps. In fact, this may be the only tearoom you have visited that has an outhouse.
Owner Cynthia Magee rebuilt the teahouse after purchasing it from the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1981. It is so remote that supplies are brought in by helicopters or horseback, and her hardworking staff lives onsite in another small cabin.
The simple menu includes soup, sandwiches, tea biscuits, and homemade pastries. Most amazing about this sanctuary is its assortment of fifty loose teas from all over the world. Tea water is heated in six huge kettles that continually simmer on a mammoth gas stove in the kitchen. (It takes a lot of heat to boil water at an elevation of 8,000 feet.) Tea tastes especially good when drunk here on a cold and snowy day.
The trek to Lake Agnes can be exhausting, and more than a few out-of-breath adventurers turn back to the comfort of their hotel rooms. But they miss the reward that lies at the end of the journey. Those who persevere will have an incredible story—and photographs—to share with tea friends back home.
To view a slide show of images, click here.
Bruce Richardson's latest book is The Book of Tea (Benjamin Press 2011). Read his blog at theteamaestro.blogspot.com.
Editor's Note: At the time of publication, the information listed above was correct. However, please be sure to verify this information before making plans to ensure that it is correct.