After 90 years, the Prince of Wales Hotel in the heart of Waterton Lakes National Park remains an iconic North American landmark
Story by Dillon Tabish | Photography by Greg LindstromOn any given morning, but especially during the transition from late summer to early autumn, sunlight appears to descend the high craggy peaks encircling Upper Waterton Lake and pause for a moment of reverence, illuminating the emerald green waters and majesty of the surrounding mountains. Inevitably and unmistakably, amid this solemn procession, the golden glow settles its gaze on the Prince of Wales Hotel, accentuating the historic landmark perched alone on a bluff overlooking the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies.
If man could ever match Mother Nature’s exquisite design, this prestigious edifice in Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta is a valiant attempt.
Standing seven stories with a steeply pitched roof, “The Prince” still commands love and attention after 90 years. Opened in 1927 and designed like a classic Swiss chalet similar to lodges in Glacier National Park, the grand structure is a living relic that bucks many trends of modern lodging. The 86 guest rooms are cozy and offer solitude from televisions while still providing wireless internet. The staff all don royal tartans, or kilts, in homage to the hotel’s British namesake, Prince Edward. In the lobby, where classical piano echoes throughout the high rafters, guests can enjoy “Afternoon Tea,” sipping Earl Grey and enjoying scones while gazing out the tall windows onto the majestic lake and into Montana on the horizon. Mighty wood beams furnish and fortify the mammoth structure, holding sturdy against the constant barrage of wind flying in from the lake.
For many, the experience of walking inside the hotel inspires wonder each and every visit.
“I love the big windows at the front of the hotel,” said Canadian historian and author Ray Djuff, who worked at the hotel for four seasons as a young man and has penned several books about Glacier and Waterton parks, including High on a Windy Hill: The Story of the Prince of Wales.
“You walk in the door through the lobby and that’s the first view you get. It’s incredible. It’s like looking at a framed picture, showing the lake. And as you walk to the windows, the view just gets bigger and bigger and dominates.”
Alongside Banff Springs Hotel to the north, the Prince of Wales is truly an icon among Canada’s national parks, in the same revered company as Many Glacier Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park and Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1992.
Last year, the busiest ever in terms of guests and visitors, the hotel received the distinct honor of being featured on Canada’s international stamp.
“There are not many other iconic Canadian properties that can actually justify being put on the nation’s stamp,” Chris Caulfield, manager of the hotel, said.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind hotel and a one-of-a-kind place,” said Chris Morrison, another Canadian historian and author who has worked with Djuff on several books, including High on a Windy Hill.
“Ray and I have worked on stories about the Prince of Wales for a long time and we always agree that it defies description.”
Another busy summer season is coming to a close in Waterton, with annual visitation expected to surpass half a million for the first time ever, which would set a new attendance mark for the second year in a row.
The arrival of autumn also closes another seasonal chapter for the Prince of Wales and much of the park’s townsite.
The hotel operates from late May through the end of September before hibernating through winter in preparation for another bustling summer. In preparation for next year’s official 90th anniversary, the hotel is undergoing several renovations this winter with plans to continue restoring each and every detail back to its original identity.
“Our guests want that traditional experience,” Caulfield said.
Next year, Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and residents will be able to visit any national park for free, which is leading hotel staff to already prepare for a busy year.
While Canada’s recent economic woes have slowed the country’s tourism in some ways, this past year saw heavy crowds of American visitors taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate. From Kalispell, the scenic drive is only four hours, up and over Logan Pass in Glacier National Park through St. Mary and across Chief Mountain International Highway into Alberta and Waterton Lakes National Park.
“We’re seeing a lot of families rolling up from Montana,” Caulfield said.
Indeed, the hotel’s reputation spans the entire globe. In late 2014 and early 2015, the Bollywood film “Sanam Re” was filmed in Waterton and at the Prince of Wales.
The movie was a major hit in India, leading to a noticeable influx of international travelers. It’s a trend that has carried on for generations of new and old families who make the trek to Waterton a tradition.
“We have people traveling here from everywhere, even from far away,” Caulfield said. “This is a bucket list item for a lot of people. We constantly have those people roll in and say, ‘I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life.’”
Montana, in particular, has a unique relationship with The Prince and Waterton Lakes National Park dating back nearly a century.
In the early 20th century, Great Northern Railway tycoon Louis W. Hill was busy promoting tourism and spearheading development in Northwest Montana’s wild interior, particularly the nascent Glacier National Park, which was established in 1910. Hill considered this sylvan region to be “The Switzerland of North America,” and what better way to visit than via rail? As a way to encourage travel, Hill funded the construction of Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier and all of the chalets throughout the park, among other infrastructure.
Yet in 1920, the U.S. government enacted prohibition, which made it illegal to consume alcohol in all forms and put a damper on vacation plans. Not to be discouraged, Hill envisioned an escape for Americans to enjoy libations in the great outdoors, so he began planning a hotel across the border from Glacier Park in Waterton, which comes together at the transboundary point midway through Upper Waterton Lake.
It took 14 years for Hill’s vision of an American destination in Waterton to be realized. Originally, the hotel was to be three stories with a low roof and about 200 guest rooms. As development progressed, Hill changed his mind several times, which led to several remodels. Twice during construction, the high winds that are familiar in the area stifled progress and led to stoppages.
The building was completed in 1927, and its arrival spurred further development in the relatively quiet townsite of Waterton and the surrounding national park.
“(Louis Hill) really liked the view and everything about the place,” Morrison said. “The thing that is important to the history of Waterton is that, had it not been for the building of the Prince of Wales Hotel, the town may not have developed the way it had. It was a real stimulus. Once the hotel was built, the Great Northern did a lot of advertising, and that helped a great deal.”
The hotel also increased the reputation and role of Waterton as a destination park, and in 1932, while European countries simmered on the brink of war, the U.S. and Canada reached an unprecedented agreement in the name of peace and goodwill.
The two neighboring nations, led by Rotary Clubs in each country, banded together to create the world’s first international peace park in the towering Rockies of Northwest Montana and southern Alberta. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park encompasses a combined 1,720 square miles of Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. As stated in the original legislation authorized by both the U.S. and Canadian governments, the goal was to form “an enduring monument of nature to the long-existing relationship of peace and goodwill” between the two countries.
The 1931 conference that brought the countries together was held, appropriately, at the Prince of Wales.
“It’s a landmark,” Morrison said of the Prince of Wales Hotel. “There’s no question about it.”
For more information about the Prince of Wales Hotel, visit www.glacierparkinc.com.