In Canada's first national park, Stephen Wood is beguiled by stories of a railway pioneer who also founded one of the grandes dames of ski-resort hotels, the Banff Springs

There are a number of distractions for drivers heading south out of the small town of Banff, in the Canadian province of Alberta. Just beyond the Bow River bridge a Tudor Revival folly blocks their path: the road has to veer left to avoid the building, which houses the administrative offices of Banff National Park. On either side of the valley, demanding attention, are the mountains whose beauty (combined with a sulphurous stream and the efforts of a 19th-century railwayman) won the park its special status. Then, directly ahead, a bizarre building rears up out of the trees, immediately bringing to mind the words "mock", "gothic" and "pile".

Rooms do seem to have been shovelled up into the building's heights, to judge from the dormer windows poking out of the steeply pitched roofs; so "pile" seems fair enough. But on closer inspection - and notwithstanding the roof-line - the "mock gothic" isn't right. Rather, the building is in Scottish Baronial style, seemingly modelled on the stately homes north of the border which look as if they could withstand armed attack. What is this place? It is one of the great, grandes dames of ski-resort hotels, the Banff Springs.

The hotel's curiosities are not merely architectural. Although its foundation dates back to 1888, the first winter guests didn't arrive until 81 years later; among those who have graced its premises are King George VI and Marilyn Monroe, the Queen Mother and Lassie, Benny Goodman and the Maharajah of Baroda; and, the biggest building for miles around, it owes its existence to the same railwayman who persuaded the Canadian government to preserve the natural beauty of the area.

Have you heard the story about the young telegraph operator who learned how to "read" a telegraphic message before it was printed, merely by listening to the clicking noises the machine made? Or the one about the railway superintendent who in the mid-1870s imposed himself upon four young men behaving badly in a carriage, men who turned out to be Jesse James and other members of the notorious train-robbing gang? Probably not: a Canadian-railway pioneer such as William Cornelius Van Horne - about whom these and myriad other tales have been told - can't really compete in Britain with local heroes such as Stephenson, Brunel and Gresley.

Until last week I also was ignorant of all the lore surrounding Van Horne but then, on a skiing trip to Banff, I heard the stories and became mildly obsessed with him learning what a huge figure this man was in late 19th-century Canada. (And when I say huge I don't just mean in size although the statue that greets arrivals to the Banff Springs hotel apparently does him a favour, since he is portrayed as merely portly.) The building of Canada's transcontinental rail link - for which Van Horne is commonly credited - was an achievement that had as much to do with nationhood as with running trains.

With the Canadian Pacific railway completed, Van Horne's next task come 1885 was to fill the trains. Which is where the Banff Springs hotel came in.

Plans had already been made for refreshment stops where passengers could break their journeys for food and lodging. Van Horne went a step further, by commissioning a hotel that would be a destination in itself. The site at Siding 29, later renamed "Banff" in honour of the Scottish origins of Van Horne's predecessor as president of the railway, provided the ideal setting. It had stunning scenery, which Van Horne protected by lobbying for what was to be Canada's first national park; it was accessible only by rail; and it was blessed with a natural hot spring - a near-essential for a 19th-century resort - discovered by a group of railway navvies on what is now called Sulphur Mountain.

The spring still pumps out warm, smelly water; it is fed at 40C into a public, open-air bath but no longer bottled and sold as "Banff Lithia Water", nor claimed to be "beneficial for some women's diseases". The scenery remains stunning, and the railway operational (though thanks to the Trans-Canada Highway it now carries only freight and tourists, the latter on Rocky Mountaineer Railtours). And the extraordinary hotel that Van Horne commissioned and helped to design survives.

The existing Fairmont Banff Springs was only set in stone in 1928, and is substantially different from the original, largely wooden structure. It is a huge hotel, with 770 rooms, up to 1,200 staff (in high season), and a catering department capable of serving 6,000 meals per day. Just walking around the outside of the main building took me 20 minutes, although I did stop to stare up at the slit-like windows of the rooms in tower-top spires, wondering how wide they were. (After a long climb I subsequently discovered the answer: less than six inches.) Had the management not thought to provide a map of the public areas, walking around the interior could take forever; but it would be time well spent, so rich and eclectic is the interior. Among the styles I spotted were Gothic, Edwardian country-house, Medieval, Art Deco, Ballroom, even (admittedly after a drink) Spanish Colonial.

Until 1969, the Banff Springs was only a summer resort; since then it has been open for the winter season, giving easy access to three ski areas. The nearest, Mount Norquay, is only a few minutes away: it is small, by reputation tough, and opened only yesterday - so I can't tell you much more about it. Last week I skied at Sunshine Village, which is about 20km from Banff; set right on Canada's continental divide it gets enough snow not to bother with snow-making, spending its money instead on high-speed lifts. But despite some excellent wooded runs and the fearsome-looking Delirium Dive bowl, Sunshine's terrain suffers by comparison with that of the Lake Louise area, 45 minutes away from Banff along the Trans-Canada Highway. Lake Louise offers three different mountain faces with a wide range of skiing, a massive back bowl off the 2,672m Mount Whitehorn, and a fantastic, neck-twisting panorama of the surrounding, 3,000m peaks.

Lake Louise also has another of Fairmont's former Canadian Pacific railway hotels - The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Its setting on the lake is exquisite, but its connections with William Cornelius Van Horne have loosened. And it can't compete aesthetically with Banff Springs. Few hotels can.

Almost two dozen UK ski operators offer the Fairmont Banff Springs (reservations: 020-7025 1625; www.fairmont.com) in their programme; with Ski Independence (0870 555 0 555; www.ski-i.com), for example, a one-week package costs from £861 including flights, based on two sharing. Stephen Wood flew with Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca). Return flights to Calgary cost from £535

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