When early outfitter Tom Wilson trailed his string of missing horses down a mountain trail and first saw Emerald Lake in 1882, he knew it was one of the most beautiful places in British Columbia.
It still is. As the road leaves the Trans-Canada Highway near Field and meanders through a narrow alley of lodge pole pines toward historic Emerald Lake Lodge, it's easy to imagine clopping down this same trail on horseback or in a horse-drawn buggy, as the first tourists did in 1902.
It took two hours to make that early trip from the railway station to the cluster of rustic log buildings on the shore of this striking blue-green lake. The original old log lodge is still there, brightly coloured canoes still bob by the boathouse, and the milky blue lake -- nested like a robin's egg among the granite peaks of Mounts Burgess, Wapta, McArthur and Carnarvon -- still makes arriving here feel like stumbling upon a hidden gem. Ambiance Emerald Lake Lodge is the ideal base for cushy nature travel -- the great outdoors is just beyond your balcony, and you're as close to a cluster of rare wild Lady Slipper orchids as you are to a well-stocked wine cellar. The look is Rocky Mountain rustic with lots of slate-grey Rundle rock, exposed log beams, and the mingling aromas of wood smoke and pine forest, giving the sprawling complex the feel of an upscale adult summer camp.
The car park is more than a kilometre away; a shuttle bus trundles guests and their luggage to the lodge. From then on, it's all foot paths. The only motorized vehicles are the staff-driven golf carts that deliver room service and firewood. It's a touch that creates a sense of solitude and sends you into slow mode. Design Built 100 years ago, Emerald Lake Chalet was the Canadian Pacific Railway's first log tourist lodge. The modest Swiss-style cabin, with its 30-centimetre-square log walls and two-tiered veranda, once housed 11 guest rooms, a kitchen, and dining and servants' quarters. Today, it is at the centre of a collection of guest cabins scattered among the trees, home to the main dining room, lounge, billiards room and hotel lobby.
While much of the century-old railway hotel has been preserved by the current owners, Pat and Connie O'Connor, much has also been lost over the years. The O'Connors bought the aging chalet and crumbling buildings in 1979 and, many headaches and $8-million later, reopened Emerald Lake Lodge in 1986. While the original lodge was meticulously restored (you can still see the axe marks in the hand-hewn hemlock logs), the old log cabins were replaced with more modern cedar chalets perched on concrete stilts along the lakeshore, their turquoise metal roofs matching the waters below. Rooms Four-suite walk-ups with private entrances and balconies dot the property. What these new structures have lost in historic ambiance, they've gained in creature comforts. The décor is pure Ralph Lauren, from the buckskin "suede" paint to the pine blanket box and cozy plaid flannel cover on the down-filled duvet. Every room has a fieldstone fireplace flanked by bent-willow armchairs, and a screen door that opens to the deck and the fresh mountain air.
There's a fair amount of privacy, but your neighbours are close -- booking a second-floor room saves you from the noise of others moving about overhead. A bonus: All rooms are smoke- and TV-free. Food and drink Even at the turn of the century, Emerald Lake Lodge was known for fine dining. Today, it's known as the birthplace of "Rocky Mountain cuisine" -- a regional style of cooking that relies on local ingredients.
The menu is pure Canadiana, from big breakfasts of elk sausage and eggs or multigrain pancakes with wild berries, to dinners that start with game platters of house-smoked salmon and peppered duck, and continue with dishes including northern caribou rack, barley risotto with truffle jus, Quebec foie gras and the lodge's famous bumbleberry pie.
The California-inspired bistro menu at Cilantro on the Lake (the casual restaurant) ranges from pasta and sandwiches to salmon and pizza from the wood-fired oven. It also has the best patio for a beer after a day of hiking.
The O'Connors own their own game farm and a private wine boutique in Calgary, which ensure award-winning wine lists to match a good supply of elk and bison at all of their mountain properties. Service As is often a reality in the mountain parks, service can be spotty, a result of a transient and temporary work force, although the lure of an outdoor lifestyle also uncovers some truly charming young travellers. Clientele While it can feel like you have the whole lake to yourself, you really don't. Emerald Lake Lodge may be the only hotel here, but it is at the centre of Yoho National Park, and the lake lures a fair number of day trippers. Technically, only paying guests are allowed up to the main lodge dining room, but you may find yourself dodging gawking bus tourists as you make your way to the outdoor hot tub.
Hotel guests are a mix of well-heeled Canadians and Europeans, German tourists, Japanese adventurers, honeymooners and couples looking for the ultimate romantic getaway. Things to do You may want to do nothing more than listen to the loons or stare at the ever-changing hues of aquamarine lake water, but there are more adventures nearby, such as an easy five-kilometre walk around the lake or a strenuous day hike from Takkakkaw Falls over Yoho Pass with a spectacular view of Emerald Lake and the Van Horne Range from above the tree line.
Nearby is the site of the Burgess Shale, fossil beds that contain the remains of some of the most bizarre life forms ever found on the planet, the earliest proto-vertebrates, about 540 million years old. Only guided tours of this remote UNESCO World Heritage site are permitted.
You can also rent a canoe or a fishing rod or ride the trails on horseback. In winter, there are excellent cross-country ski and snowshoe trails all around the lodge. Information Emerald Lake Lodge is just outside Field, B.C., on the Trans-Canada Highway (about 2½ hours west of Calgary). Standard room rates vary by season, but may range from as low as $145 a night to $430 for a deluxe suite.
As part of its centennial celebrations, the hotel is offering packages that include guided day trips (hiking, skiing or snowshoeing) with accommodation at the resort. For reservations, call (800) 663-6336 or visit the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts Web site at .
For tour information of the UNESCO-designated Burgess Shale, call (800) 343-3006.