BANFF : Nestled at the base of the Canadian Rockies, this mountain jewel is surrounded by breathtaking scenery.

Times Staff Writer

Ivor Petrak gazed out the window of his storied, century-old house and flashed a contented smile.

What he saw was his front yard--the forested Bow River Valley, tucked snugly against the snowcapped vistas of the surrounding Canadian Rockies. The air was clean and invigorating, the sky a pallid blue.

It's that way most of the time around here, according to Petrak, often prompting even longtime residents to step back and embrace the majesty of the moment with childlike wonder.

"I always tell people that if you are driving to Banff at night, wait till morning instead," says Petrak, who has been here the last 17 years. "It's still a thrill to see the sun shining on the mountains. It gives me goose pimples."

That's exactly what this picturesque hamlet of 5,500 does to a lot of folks, whether they come to ski, play golf, soak in the hot springs or merely to look and listen and touch nature.

Banff, at an elevation of 4,500 feet, is an 81-mile drive west of Calgary along the scenic Trans-Canada Highway, where the only clues to your impending approach are the foothills looming ever larger in the foreground and, occasionally, an elk or caribou wandering curiously across the road.

They'll be arriving in greater numbers throughout this year as Petrak's "house"--the landmark Banff Springs Hotel--celebrates its centennial year of operation with a voluminous array of activity.

It was in 1888 that W. C. Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway, christened the Banff Springs Hotel "the finest hotel on the North American continent." Frustrated at not being able to draw visitors to the bold, stunning beauty of the Canadian Rockies, Van Horne announced: "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists."

They did, too, with such success that a major expansion of the hotel began 10 years later. By 1928, the hotel's distinct identity was forged--a magnificent structure of Scottish baronial and French chateau styles had emerged from the timberland that is now part of Banff National Park. It's a stunning sight, especially when viewed from any of the surrounding foothills or hiking trails, reminiscent of Neuschwanstein, the spectacular castle on Bavaria's Romantic Road that was created for King Ludwig II.

Over the years, the hotel has been a popular home for royalty and less noble regulars. Recent guests have included Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, King Olaf of Norway and Japan's Prince Mikasa.

When Prince Philip complained about his view from the Vice Regal Suite last spring ("I suppose you reserve your best rooms for your better-paying customers," said the Prince), Petrak responded by putting in the eight-bedroom President's Suite. For a regal $3,000 a night, you get your own private elevator and concierge, a Steinway grand piano, library, Jacuzzi and lap pool, which measures about 10 feet long and 3 feet wide. No complaints from the jet set since.

The hotel's centennial comes at a propitious time, what with the torch of the XV Winter Olympic Games being lit in nearby Calgary beginning next month (Feb. 13-28).

Petrak, for one, can't wait. The way he sees it, what happened in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984 revitalized the Olympic spirit forever.

"Nothing was more important to the Olympic Games than the Olympics of Los Angeles," says Petrak, who oversees operation of the Banff Springs Hotel as a regional vice president for the Canadian Pacific Hotels chain.

There was a time when a much younger Petrak was considered an athlete of Olympic promise. He was set to be part of Czechoslovakia's four-man bobsled team in St. Moritz in the winter of 1948 when a political uprising on the home front, just prior to the start of the Games, squelched his country's participation--for manpower reasons--in several events, including the bobsled.

A determined Petrak chose to continue his training at the highly regarded hotel school in Lausanne. His litany of jobs could fill three resumes--from busboy at the Souvretta House in St. Moritz and all-night bartender in a Lausanne cabaret, to chef trancheur (head carver) at the Palace Hotel in Scheveningen, Holland, and front-desk manager of the Hotel Brighton in Paris.

A bear of a man with huge hands, an ample waistline and a florid countenance, Petrak spends a good deal of time nowadays supervising seven other CP properties. But his home is the Banff Springs Hotel, and he rules it with an unmistakable presence--like a king in his castle.

He's legendary among colleagues, friends and the Banff Springs' distinguished clientele. Hotel employees refer to him simply as "Mr. P."

Said an acquaintance: "If he likes you, he likes you. If he doesn't like you, he'll throw you out of his park."

Says another: "He put Banff on the map 20 years before its time."

Contract Extended

"Work is a pleasure," says Petrak, who signed a five-year contract extension last fall. He'll be 66 in February.

At his hotel, guests can be as active or inactive as they wish. There's an 18-hole golf course in a splendid setting next to the gently flowing Bow River, numerous hiking and walking paths, mountain biking trails, plus indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a video arcade, weight room and sauna. Nearby there's also heli-skiing and heli-hiking.

If your room is equipped with a Jacuzzi, as many are (usually $40 to $60 Canadian extra), you may not feel compelled to even leave the grounds.

Joggers take a morning run along the river's edge and around the rolling green turf of the golf course. Even the smack of club on ball is fairly obscured once you pass the starter's window. And watch out for chipmunks that may come darting across your path at any moment. The freshness and purity of it all will dazzle you.

There are exquisite views from throughout the hotel, especially in the Riverview Room, where a dose of serenity always comes free of charge. Enjoy the quiet with a book or, perhaps, a pen and paper so you can finally write that letter to a dear friend. If this setting doesn't inspire you, it may be hopeless.

You might even pick up a malady known as "Banff fever." For the first-time visitor, it's easier to catch than the common cold.

Mt. Norquay Ski Area

Take a stroll down busy Banff Avenue, which runs through the heart of town and affords a terrific view of Mt. Norquay, a popular ski area 10 minutes from downtown. You'll get some good photo opportunities while you walk.

Norquay has 17 runs spread over 123 acres, plenty of space for beginners and experts alike. It's also the only place in the area that offers night skiing (open until 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday).

Mt. Norquay is one jewel of Banff's "Big 3" ski resorts. The others are Sunshine Village, about 15 miles southwest of Banff along the Trans Canada Highway, and world-famous Lake Louise, well worth the 40-minute drive west, whether you ski or not.

It's hard to imagine a journey to Banff not including a stop at Lake Louise, where they filmed parts of "Doctor Zhivago." Admire the emerald lake from the back steps of the elegant Chateau Lake Louise, with Victoria Glacier spanning its powerful, snow-white presence directly across the water. It's a sight to be shared with someone special, a place to fall in love.

Like the Banff Springs Hotel, the Chateau, which will celebrate its own centennial in two years, has also undergone a prominent face lift recently, having added a new wing with 140 rooms. In general, rooms at the Chateau are modestly appointed (TV sets are just being added to each room for the Olympics), but it's what you find outside the hotel that leaves an imprint like few other destinations will. Best advice for a visit to Lake Louise: Bring plenty of film.

It's 1 1/2 miles along a paved path from the hotel around the west side of the lake, to the base of Victoria. Another splendid morning run or walk, with breathtaking views looking back at the hotel. But, first, request a wake-up call so you won't miss the sun peeking over the mountains and reflecting on the lake as it rises dramatically through the sky.

Lake Activities

There is a veritable winter fest of activity on the frozen lake: cross-country skiing, horse-drawn sleigh rides, ice skating, hockey and Bavarian curling. You can also go dog sledding on grounds just outside the hotel. There are about 100 kilometers of cross-country trails in the area, plus some great hikes in the mountains surrounding Lake Louise. The best is a 2 1/2-mile trek (about 50 minutes, with plenty of resting places along the way) to Lake Agnes, with a mandatory stop at the charming Lake Agnes Teahouse, a little log cabin that sits on a waterfall and offers freshly baked breads for refreshment.

Sunshine, which gets about 400 inches of snowfall annually from its perch atop a high meadow basin, is open longer than the other Banff ski areas, from November till the first week of June.

Some attractive ski packages are available to the Banff area through Banff Club Ski, whose general manager is fittingly named Ladd Snowsell. There are weeklong packages to both the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise starting at $302 Canadian (about $245 U.S.), depending on when you come. For more information, contact Banff Club Ski, Box 1085, Banff, Alberta, Canada TOL OCO, phone (403) 762-4561.

You needn't be a skier to enjoy the eight-minute Sulphur Mountain Gondola ride, which is minutes from downtown Banff and open year-round ($7 round trip for adults, $3 for children ages 5 through 11). Hardier souls climb the mountain; the summit is almost 7,500 feet. There's a prime viewing area there, along with a restaurant.

Adjacent to the gondola's lower terminal and parking lot is welcome relief--the Upper Hot Springs Pool, where the average water temperature is a pain-relieving 89 degrees Fahrenheit. It's open year-round. Winter hours: 2 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Adults: $1.75, children $1.

Banff has a nice mix of eateries, ranging from Le Beaujolais--the consensus choice as the best in town--to Joe's Btfsplk's Diner, which is proof that even our neighbors to the north have picked up on diner hysteria.

Poached Salmon

Le Beaujolais (212 Buffalo St., just off Banff Avenue) proved as good as its billing. The poached salmon from British Columbia, with a light dill sauce, was superb. So was the setting--a rustic, second-floor room with low lighting and a river view. Ask for a window seat. Dinner for two, with wine, will be about $85 Canadian ($60 U.S.). Reservations: (403) 762-2712 or (403) 762-5365.

Joe's Btfsplk's Diner offers good burgers on whole wheat buns, homemade ice cream and a bakery with some of the biggest and stickiest cinnamon buns you'll ever find. For $6 you can try to break the diner's biscuit-eating record. As of last week it was 12, by a visitor from London. If you succeed, you'll get your money back plus a T-shirt. Pass the butter.

Greek fare is offered at the Balkan Restaurant (120 Banff Ave.; try the moussaka), while the Grizzly House (207 Banff Ave.) specializes in fondue dining. If you've somehow managed to avoid buffalo or caribou or chocolate fondue over the years, don't fret; you can get it there, along with 11 other kinds of fondue.

If you have time, stop at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (111 Bear St.), which chronicles the cultural history of Banff and the mountains of western Canada. Winter hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (open till 9 p.m. Thursday). Admission: $2, students and seniors $1, children under 12 free.

Banff Centre

Another cultural highlight of this area is the prestigious Banff Centre, which opened in 1933 and is considered one of the major fine arts training grounds in North America. It's considered a Canadian version of the Juilliard School, only a better-kept secret. Students come here to study drama, music, ballet and voice/opera. Notable is the annual Banff Summer Showcase (June through August) and the Banff Festival of the Arts. For scheduling information: Banff Centre, Box 1020, Banff, Alberta, Canada TOL OCO, phone (403) 762-6100.

For those who prefer leaving the driving to others, Brewster Transportation & Tours offers a five-hour bus tour of the Banff area for $22, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at the downtown bus depot.

Banff offers a number of moderately priced accommodations. Most are in the $75 range (Canadian). With the still-favorable exchange rate of 1.23 Canadian dollars for each American dollar, good deals abound.

Among those recommended: the Aspen Lodge, Cascade Inn, Pinewoods Motel & Chalets and Traveller's Inn. All are centrally located on Banff Avenue. The Banff Rocky Mountain Resort (also on Banff Avenue) offers condominiums for rent. In addition, private homes have available room rentals at different times of the year.

Room Information

For more information on accommodations, contact Banff/Lake Louise Central Reservations, Box 1628, Banff, Alberta, Canada TOL OCO, phone (403) 762-5561, or the Banff Bed & Breakfast Bureau at Box 369. Call (403) 762-5070.

Still, if you can manage it, try Ivor Petrak's "house" this year to help celebrate the grand lady's centennial. They've built a 246-room structure adjacent to the hotel, the Banff Springs Manor, that is near completion. Eventually, a walkway will connect the Manor to the hotel proper.

Who knows, you may even get to meet Mr. P himself--he'll be the pleasant chap with the firm handshake, spirited laugh and disarming smile.

Then again, who wouldn't smile if they lived here all the time?

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Banff Springs Hotel, Box 960, Banff, Alberta, Canada TOL OCO, telephone (403) 762-2211. Rates (double occupancy, Canadian dollars): February, $154 or $186 (depending on view), with Jacuzzi $205 or $225; March through mid-May (low season), $95 or $115, with Jacuzzi $165 or $180; mid-May through September (high season), $160 or $195, with Jacuzzi $215 or $235.

Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada TOL 1EO, telephone (403) 522-3511. Rates (double occupancy): Feb. 6-29, $154 (mountain view) or $186 (lake view); March through June 2, Oct. 10 to Dec. 23 (low season), $95 or $115; June 3 to Oct. 9, $160 or $195.

Note: Both the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise still have some rooms available during the Olympics. In addition, there are an estimated 700 rooms still unreserved in other hotels and motels throughout the Banff area.

Round-trip bus transportation from both Banff and Lake Louise to Calgary is available daily. Direct service from Banff to Calgary and back costs $30 on Brewster Transportation & Tours and $32 on Pacific Western Transportation (both include stops at Calgary International Airport). It's $18.40 on Greyhound, but has numerous stops along the way. For more information, call Brewster Transportation at (403) 762-2241, Pacific Western at (403) 762-4558, Greyhound at (403) 762-2286.

VIA Rail offers a pleasant train ride between Banff and Calgary as part of its transcontinental system, though don't plan on using the system as a commuter service during the Games. The train leaves Banff daily at 12:15 p.m. and arrives in Calgary at 2:25. From Calgary, departure for Banff is 2:05 p.m., arriving 4:15. Rates: $14 one way, $28 round trip.

For scheduling information from the United States, you'll have to call VIA Rail's main office in Winnipeg at (204) 949-1830. Or write to VIA Rail Canada, P.O. Box 8116, Station A, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3C 3N3.

For more information on travel to the province of Alberta, contact the Government of Alberta, 333 S. Grand Ave., Suite 3535, Los Angeles 90071, (213) 625-1256.

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