George and André Schwarz, owners of Post Hotel in Lake Louise, are redefining rustic luxury

Turning off the Trans Canada highway, toward the famous turquoise waters of Lake Louise, you may not notice the collection of amber log buildings that comprise the posh Post Hotel. Nestled alongside the Pipestone River, it’s a little hideaway in the Bow Valley — not as flashy as the historic Chateau at the top of the mountain — but away from the busloads of tourists who come to view the glaciers and rugged peaks of Banff National Park.

With its Ralph Lauren good looks and understated outdoorsy panache, The Post is the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of its longtime owners. Over the past 32 years, the personable Schwarz brothers, a couple of ski instructors from Zurich, made the resort one of the country’s most celebrated getaways, literally defining rustic luxury in the Canadian Rockies in their own energetic and tasteful image.

“We were ski bums”

“We were ski bums,” George Schwarz chuckles, describing the long partnership with his brother André that began when they arrived to teach at the nearby Lake Louise ski school in the early 1970s. “We’re lucky that we get along, and we were lucky in other ways, too.” But it’s more than luck that turns an old log lodge and motel into a world-class property that routinely hits the top of the ‘best of ’ lists of Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure magazines.

The Post Hotel is one of those rare anomalies in the hotel business, an independent small hotel with the appeal of a big-city property.

Luxuriously secluded, it’s the kind of lodge well-heeled outdoorsy types and celebrity skiers crave and name as their favourite ski hotel in North America. And it has the chops to host a yearly international wine summit, attracting the world’s top winemakers, and their wealthy oenophile patrons, for a wine and food weekend.

And it’s all thanks to the Schwarz brothers who set the bar high for hospitality and service, never compromising their European sensibilities and quest for quality.

“I travel with my wealthy guests and stay in the best hotels in the world, and many are regular customers at the Post,” says Peter Blattmann, former Food and Beverage manager at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, who now leads gourmet travelers through wine regions of the world. “What they most appreciate is George and André’s personal attention. They keep records of every repeat customer and their favourite wines or special dishes — you cannot find this in any other hotel.”

“When we bought the hotel, we instantly became hoteliers, André quit the ski hill, I sold my restaurant, and we started running the hotel”

It’s hard to imagine when George and André purchased The Post Hotel in 1978, only four of the
14 rooms had bathtubs, the average room rate was $22, and “foodservice” was provided by a coffee shop. Indeed, the historic property, built in 1942 by local guide Jim Boyce, was little more than a rustic chalet, known as the Lake Louise Ski Lodge, a real everyman’s answer to the luxurious Chateau Lake Louise just up the road. In 1947, British sportsman Sir Norman Watson purchased the lodge.

Set in the heart of the village of Lake Louise — still little more than a former passenger rail stop with a few shops — The Post Hotel was perfectly positioned to host those early skiers. Watson returned to Britain and hired operators to run his Canadian hotel until 1978 when he sold it to the Schwarzs, in part because they shared his commitment to ski tourism in the Canadian Rockies.

Surprisingly, the brothers had no formal training or experience in hotels when they took over the business. André ran the ski school at the Lake Louise ski hill and George, also a ski instructor, worked in Banff restaurants, eventually opening his own Swiss-Italian restaurant, Ticino. “When we bought the hotel, we instantly became hoteliers,” he says. “André quit the ski hill, I sold my restaurant, and we started running the hotel.”

Over the years, thanks to timely investments and partnerships, the brothers have grown their modest acquisition into an impressive destination resort, becoming leaders in the local tourism industry and raising the bar for both food and lodging in the Rockies. In 1987, they replaced the old motel with a new main building, expanded the restaurant into the historic lodge and re-opened with 100 rooms in time for the 1988 Winter Olympics. A partnership with Husky Oil helped fund the first expansion, and later, when Husky was sold to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, he became their partner. “Mr. Li has been here a few times,” says Schwarz. “It’s one of the special investments he cherishes.”

The wine cellar, showcases more than 25,000 bottles and has garnered Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for eight consecutive years.

Today the Post Hotel is among a handful of Relais & Châteaux properties in Western Canada (others include Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn and Vancouver’s Wedgewood Hotel), boasting a guarantee of “character, calm, charm, courtesy and cuisine,” with a restaurant Gourmet magazine once deemed the best in Canada. Blattmann says it’s the brothers’ European style, focused on customer service and small details that makes the hotel special.

There are now 94 suites — from the most basic room with two single beds for $250 a night in low season, to the two-bedroom loft suite, which fetches $700 per night. The luxurious Pipestone Cabin sleeps four for $1,400 and the private 3,000-square-foot Watson House, rents for $3,000 a night.

The wine cellar, showcasing more than 25,000 bottles, has garnered Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for eight consecutive years. It’s celebrated as one of the finest in the country, and there is a 3,200-square-foot Temple Mountain Spa that pampers the rich and famous with après-ski swims, steam massages and beauty treatments.

How did it start?

But it all started with George’s true passion, food and wine. Active in the Banff restaurant scene, he opened Le Beaujolais in 1980, followed by Giorgio’s in 1982. He hired top chefs for the Post Hotel kitchen and the accolades started pouring in, thanks to the cuisine of Wolfgang Vogt, Kenneth Titcomb and Swiss-trained Hans Sauter — only the fourth executive chef in more than 30 years.

In short order, the hotel has become a culinary destination. The dining room is rustic but the service is impeccable. The menu runs from fresh grainy breads and its famous Swiss mountain muesli to multi-course tasting menus featuring squab, salmon, venison, bison and, of course, Alberta beef.

Still, George points to his longtime staff for the boutique hotel’s true success, the people who provide the kind of small personal touches that make the experience special.

A waiter offers to organize a picnic lunch for a guest heading off for a day to explore the Icefields Parkway (a visual feast but culinary desert); a bride can’t find the perfect rustic cupcake stand for her dessert table so the chef constructs one himself. “We’re very lucky, we have a great staff,” says George, noting manager, Geoffrey Booth, has been with them since 1986, and there are waiters, maintenance staff and others with more than 20 years.

That’s quite the feat in the national park, where attracting and retaining quality staff is notoriously tough. The Schwarzs have done it by investing in their employees, training young apprentices and new immigrants and providing some of the best staff housing. “We have great staff accommodations.

The duo have sponsored Vietnamese refugees, trained apprentice chefs from Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and organized exchange programs with properties in Switzerland for young cooks.

We’ve invested $7 million over the years with housing for everyone from entry-level people to families,” says George. The duo have sponsored Vietnamese refugees, trained apprentice chefs from Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and organized exchange programs with properties in Switzerland for young cooks.

“We enjoy teaching young people in the kitchen,” says George. “We work with a lot of people with temporary visas, people from Europe who want to apprentice in the hotel. We attract wonderful young people with knowledge and experience.”

And, the cream of the crop makes it to their door. While Will and Kate flew into nearby Skoki Lodge (another of Sir Norman Watson’s original properties) on the Alberta leg of their Canadian honeymoon, Prince Edward has stayed in the Watson House and undoubtedly there have been others. (Though, like good hoteliers, the owners are discreet.)

Always community-minded, the Schwarzs donate thousands in cash and in kind to charities, from the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital to the local Rotary Club. But their pet project is the Kids’ Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta where funds raised at the silent auction at their annual Wine Summit — $370,000 to date — are destined each year. “My wife and I went to see the camp this summer to present the cheque, and it was incredible,” says George. “They host up to 100 kids each week. It’s a class act.”

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