The Klondike Gold Rush, Prohibition and the Canadian Pacific Railway — these are just a few of the historical milestones intricately woven into the fabric of British Columbia’s hotel landscape. According to Will Woods, founder and chief storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours (FVWT), there are a number of hotels in B.C. that are significant from a local-history perspective. Hotelier looks at five iconic properties that have helped shape the hotel industry in Western Canada and shines the spotlight on hotel pioneers who have left their mark.
GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
Built in 1898 at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush, the 47-room Victorian Hotel on Homer St. is the oldest and longest-running hotel in Vancouver. “The Klondike is a long way from here, but goldminers (or ‘sourdoughs’ as they were known), poured through Vancouver on their way north,” says Woods. “They’d hop steam ships from here up the coast to Alaska and then hike or canoe to Dawson City. The RCMP had a rule that if you were going to go to the Klondike, you had to bring a ton of equipment and provisions — it was a very descripted list of what you needed — because they got sick of rescuing poorly equipped gold miners from the harsh conditions.” Prospectors from across North America and abroad came to Vancouver to buy these provisions from the outfitters that popped up along Cordova St. “The outfitters carried everything [the prospectors] needed so this was a massive boom for the city,” says Woods. “Not only were people staying here, they were spending a ton of money on equipment and in the salons.”
The Victorian, which was built specifically to meet the demand of the gold rush, featured grand rooms on the ground floor and much more modest rooms on the upper levels. “There were no elevators at that time, so if you were a more affluent guest, you could afford to stay on the ground floor and avoid the stairs,” Woods explains. Described as the city’s greatest relic from that era, The Victorian still boasts much of its original decor and moldings, as well as the original brick courtyard behind the hotel. “For a step back into the past, they always recommend The Victorian,” says Woods.
Built in 1908, The Fairmont Empress holds court over Victoria’s inner harbour. “Architecturally, it’s stunning, the way it sits on the harbour,” says Indu Brar, GM of the majestic hotel that takes up an entire city block. “There’s a real sense of awe when you see it and as you come in the doors, you can feel the history in this building.” Boasting 464 guestrooms, the property has been a key figure in the city’s fabric and history —playing host to its share of royalty and Hollywood celebrities from Rita Hayworth and John Wayne to Harrison Ford.
“This hotel has had such a grand sense of place since the beginning of time,” says Brar. “When you think of Victorians and the milestones they’ve had in their lives, so many of them have been celebrated here at the hotel and that adds to the grandeur.” Like many Western Canadian hotels, the Empress was built in a château-style that resembled a mix of Scottish and French castles. But, says Brar, the property — which recently underwent a massive restoration project — also benefitted from the influences of its Canadian home. “The hotel is a nod to Queen Victoria and gives you a taste of that era,” she says. “But the cuisine and colour palettes celebrate the Pacific Northwest — the tranquility of the harbour and the influences of our geography.”
The hotel’s cuisine is also influenced by the local environment with its focus on the Pacific Northwest, while its world-famous afternoon tea — a nod to its English ties — is a bucket-list item for many people.
While The Empress has drawn heavily from B.C.’s culture, so too has the jewel in Fairmont’s crown had an influence on the community it calls home. The hotel lies at the centre of the city, so it’s surrounded by unique shops and restaurants — all of which benefit from the hotel’s presence. “[The Empress] has a huge impact on local economy in terms of staff and suppliers,” says Brar. “Our community is very important and we buy local and support the economy of Victoria. Many of the decisions we make benefit Vancouver Island.”
She says there is a real passion for The Empress and “it’s in the hearts and minds of so many. Being in Victoria is a big part of our success. This little island and this little nook we have is stunning and the hotel was designed to fit here. Architecturally, could the hotel be picked up and put in another city? Yes. Would it have the same soul? Probably not.”
RAISE A GLASS
While Prohibition in B.C. was short-lived and ended in 1921, post-prohibition licensing laws in Vancouver meant bootlegging and speakeasies carried on well into the 1950s. “There were very strict liquor laws here for many years and basically the only place you could drink publically was in a beer parlour,” says FVWT’s Woods, who points out that bans on dancing, cards and women made for a very sterile environment. “Eventually, the city loosened up and allowed cocktails to be sold in more fancy lounges.”
Our next hotel holds the distinction of being one of the first to receive a license to sell cocktails. The Sylvia Hotel, built in 1912, was originally designed as an apartment building by Seattle architect, W.P. White and named after the daughter of the owner — Mr. Goldstein. When the Great Depression hit, the Sylvia Court Apartments fell on hard times and in 1936 the building became an apartment hotel. During World War II, many of the suites were converted to rooms, in order to provide accommodation for the merchant-marine crews. By the ’60s, the Sylvia had become a completely transient, full-service hotel. The landmark property, designated in 1975 as a heritage building, is easily identified by the Virginia creeper that completely covers the Gilford Street side of the hotel. “It’s in the west end, one of the most historic parts of town — the well-to-do area when the city was first established — and where all the wealthy businessmen built their homes,” explains Woods.
He says the Sylvia has a real home in Vancouver folklore. “Many people have been charmed by it over the years — both local and tourists. It’s part of the city’s identity, the essence of Vancouver. It’s been there as part of the city’s story for more than 100 years.”
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
To understand the history of our next hotel, you must go back to 1886 and the founding of Canadian Pacific Hotels. Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, the first general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), envisioned a string of grand-looking hotels across Canada that would draw visitors from abroad to his railway. In 1887, ground was broken for the first Hotel Vancouver, which opened on May 16, 1888. The four-storey, 60-room brick structure on the corner of Georgia and Granville Streets, closed in 1916.
In 1916, the second Hotel Vancouver, also a Canadian Pacific Hotel, was built on the same site as the first. The 14-storey property — built in a grand Italianate-revival style — was considered one of the great hotels of the British Empire and quickly became the meeting place for Vancouver society. Unfortunately, the building soon began to deteriorate and was torn down in 1949.
Ground was broken for the third and current iteration of Hotel Vancouver on December 4, 1928. Built by E.J. Ryan Construction Company, the project was started by Canadian National Railway and was eventually completed in joint partnership with Canadian Pacific Railway in 1939 at a final cost of $12 million. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth opened the hotel during their visit that year.
According to Woods, the Château-style building was designed to have a mystical, fairyland feel. “[The rail company] wanted grand hotels in natural settings, not functional looking hotels, to entice guests to explore the country,” he says.
“At the time the hotel was built, Vancouver wasn’t an architecturally significant destination,” says Michael Pye, GM of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. “But with the rail line coming through, in essence, the grand style was brought here — [CPR] was the pioneer of picturesque castle-like designs in the area. You can’t build hotels like this anymore: the size of the guestrooms, height of the ceilings and grandeur of the meeting space.” CPR, now Fairmont, has three hotels in Vancouver within a short walk of one another but Pye says Hotel Vancouver stands apart due to its history and significance within the market. “This is Vancouver’s hotel — I happen to be the custodian that’s allowed to be the general manager of the building. It’s a huge honour to be in such a capacity,” he adds.
Opened in 1996 as a 46-room property in Tofino, B.C., The Wickaninnish Inn is perhaps the best example of a hotel property completely embracing its sense of place. “Having grown up in Tofino, my concept of the Inn from the beginning was to have guests wake up in the morning from their first night’s stay and know they could be nowhere else than on the west coast of Vancouver Island,” says Charles McDiarmid, managing director at Wickaninnish Inn and recipient of Hotelier’s Hotelier of the Year Award in the late ’90s.
The building boasts cedar-wood batten siding, grey exterior siding to match the bleached natural driftwood on the beach and added post-and-beam work to match traditional First Nations’ wood-carving techniques. Inside, the design incorporates wood, stone and glass as the primary elements to bring the outside in. “Overall, we are trying to provide an experience that resonates with the subconscious, as well as conscious experience using local and regional products and materials — as much as possible made by hand or featuring some elements of hand work,” the GM explains.
Since its opening, the Wickaninnish Inn “has been a constantly evolving love affair which has seen many changes driven, in large part, by guest feedback combined with our own ideas of what modern hospitality should look like,” says McDiarmid. In 1998, the Ancient Cedars Spa was opened and in 2003, the Beach Building was added — adding 30 guestrooms, including 12 suites.
The Inn employs 150 staff in winter and 160 in the summer, which, in a town of 2,000 people, is not insignificant.
The hotel’s food-and-beverage program remains true to the area’s food culture, serving authentic Canadian cuisine featuring as much local and innovative products as possible (often foraged from the land around the hotel or caught in local waters). “Keep in mind we have been doing this since 1996, which was long before this concept was popular,” adds McDiarmid.
Being so tied to its geography, the Wickaninnish Inn benefits from a generation of travellers looking to experience destinations outside of major city centres, says McDiarmid. “Our mountains, our forests and our coast lines go a long way towards defining who we are as a people and the experiences we have to offer our visitors,” he says. “We look out on the largest ocean on the planet with an ancient temperate forest as a backdrop, [the area has] an indigenous culture that goes back 5,000 years and we live in a UNESCO Biosphere reserve with a National Park and thousands of hectares of provincial park at our door step — if this does not ensure one appreciates and respects our natural bounty, what would?”