Is this the perfect time to visit the Castle? Meticulous protocols and extra room to roam might make the Fairmont Banff Springs the best place to be right now.

The Castle, seen from nearby Bow Falls – photo Debra Smith

Disclaimer: Hoping for a summer getaway? Albertans can travel anywhere within the province under Stage 2 of Alberta’s relaunch strategy. This is an excellent opportunity to relieve some pent-up pandemic energy by getting out and enjoying the incredible natural beauty of our provincial and national parks. Before travelling anywhere in the province though, check out the Alberta government’s website page on Coronavirus info for Albertans and the Alberta Health Services website. And don’t drop your guard against Covid-19. Continue to observe social distancing, even on the trail, wash your hands frequently, and wear a mask to protect yourself and others.

Everyone, Everywhere, Staying Safe

So many events have been put on hold this year that the chance to celebrate my birthday at the Fairmont Banff Springs was very tempting. That’s not to say that I didn’t have reservations about my reservation. Fear of coronavirus seems to hover over every travel decision these days, whether it’s a trip to the mountains or a trip to the grocery store. However, the Town of Banff website reported zero cases and four recovered cases on the day we were arriving, so I felt reassured. It also helped that I’d had an in-depth discussion with David Garcelon, hotel manager at the Banff Springs and the man in charge of implementing the international standards of the Accor ALL Stay Well program.

Bubbly and birthday cake can be requested from room service – photo Debra Smith

“We’re very protective of our little bubble here, so we were very cautious when we opened up. We want to keep everybody safe”, he told me. This includes over 500 employees who live on-site. Everyone who enters the hotel, guests and staff, have their temperature taken and must answer a series of questions about any Covid-19 symptoms and any recent travel each time they enter. During the week, the hotel operates at about half its capacity, with 350 rooms booked and the others left to rest for 48 hours before staff go in to clean and sanitize. “There’s an emphasis on high touchpoints”, says Garcelon, “so things like the thermostat, light switches, doorknobs and just things that you wouldn’t think of like telephones and the remote control. We put a plastic cover over that, so you can still use it and then that’s changed out every day. Of course, the linens are changed every day. We’re really trying to make it as safe as possible, both for the guests and for our employees.”

Crossing the Line – Or Not

Our introduction to the safety protocols began at the sole entry door that funnels guests into the expansive rock-lined lobby. An attendant made a quick check with a contactless temperature reader at our wrists and inquired about any symptoms and where we were coming from. That’s an important point, as many people are concerned about international visitors in Banff. Garcelon had this to say about visitors from the US in particular. “One of the most important things we’re doing is screening for (them). And we’ve had a small number that have been flagged, usually due to their license plate, and some have perfectly legitimate reasons. They’ve been in the country for a month or so, and that’s fine. But if they’ve not been in the country for more than 14 days, we will not let them stay here. We’re just not interested in letting anyone quarantine here, even if they want to.”

Feeling reassured, and ready to explore the Castle, we made our way to reception where we signed up for Kipsu, the hotel’s new online text messaging service for room service, restaurant reservations, towels, and general contactless wish fulfilment. Masks are required in all public areas of the hotel, and a wellness kit with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer is provided in every room.

Pool Time

After a short wait, a text arrived to tell us our room was ready. We dashed upstairs to find a cosy suite tucked under the eaves with stunning views of both the Bow and Spray Valleys. To top it off, a bottle of bubbly was chilling next to the most delicious looking chocolate cake I have ever seen. That would have to wait until later though, because we were off for a tour of the Willow Stream Spa, courtesy of Paul Dixon, a therapist who has been with the spa since it opened, 23 years ago.

Talk about a room with a view, of the Bow Valley – photo Debra Smith

“This was the first European style spa in North America, and we had people coming from all over to study it”, Dixon told us. A recent $3.5 million renovation has created three new treatment rooms including a Deluxe Couples Suite, complete with personal Jacuzzi, a new reception area, salon, and a meditation lounge. As we toured the facilities, Dixon explained that the spa pool, steam rooms and hydrotherapy waterfalls would open during Stage 3 of Alberta’s relaunch. Massages and salon services are available now. Although a deep tissue massage beside a flickering fireplace sounds like heavenly bliss, spa therapists make guest safety their top priority. Therapists and guests have temperature checks, answer medical questions, and wear masks before and during treatments. Soothing mud baths and the Jacuzzi will have to wait a little while longer.

The Willow Stream Spa Deluxe Couples Treatment Room comes complete with fireplace and Jacuzzi – photo Fairmont

After a quick dip in the outdoor heated pool (socially distanced and monitored by staff), we headed for the newly renovated Rundle Bar. A guitarist was playing on the second level when we came in, and for those of us who remember when this was the original lobby, it was flashback time. The inviting art deco themed space (complete with hidden room) is by Calgary’s Frank Design, and there’s a spacious outdoor patio with a view of Mount Rundle. We toasted the view with a signature cocktail of Wild Life Rundle Bar Gin, made by Canmore’s Wild Life Distillery. If Rundle Mountain at twilight could be captured in a cocktail, this would be it.

The Eat Goes On

As night fell, we found our way to the Vermillion Room, one of six restaurants that are operating during this quieter time at the Banff Springs. It looks a bit different at the moment. The tableware has been pared down. There are no tablecloths, table décor or linen napkins, but the food is as superb as always. Social distancing is maintained, and the menu is available via QR code or disposable paper menus. Room service is also an option if you prefer to keep interactions to a minimum.

The Vermillion Room dining is as delicious as ever, while in your socially distanced bubble – photo Debra Smith

There is so much to do at the Banff Springs that an overnight stay flies by quickly. The concierge has a 26-page summer activity guide (downloadable) that highlights in-house free guided bike tours, wilderness walks, bear walks, and hikes, not to mention two golf courses, tennis, and bowling for a fee. Off-site activities like horseback riding, boat tours, and much more can be arranged through the hotel. Alberta residents are eligible for a 30% discount on best available rates, making a staycation all the more affordable, especially mid-week. For those of us from Calgary and surrounding areas, who are used to jockeying for space to walk along Banff Avenue, this is a fantastic time to visit the new pedestrian mall or to take a hike on any of the trails around the Fairmont. Wildlife is thriving in this quieter time, and with proper precautions, this could be a perfect staycation. This was definitely one birthday I’ll never forget.

The writer was a guest of the Fairmont Banff Springs. As always, her opinions are her own. For more photos of the Castle and Banff, follow her on Instagram @Where.To.Lady