The Website ad looked enticing. But then the ads always look enticing. Afternoon tea in the lobby, with the lake in the background, and classical favourites played on the grand piano. Who could resist that? “A visit to the Prince of Wales Hotel is like taking a vacation at a European resort of old,” said the ad.
European resort of old, you say? Now, there’s a concept I could embrace. I close my eyes and think of the Villa d’Este at Lake Como, where the staff serve champagne by the pool and the guest rooms are redolent of what a visitor once described as “gentle breezes, cool linen sheets, satin, silk, and silence.”
I should have read the reviews rather than the ad. “Hated this hotel, not worth the money,” said one. “Visit, but don’t eat or stay,” said another. The Prince of Wales does have the breezes —call them high winds, if you will —and the rustic silence. But for $299 a night plus taxes, you get little more than an eight-by-twelve four-bit room with wafer-thin walls, space for just a single and double bed, and a porthole view of postcard-pretty Waterton Lake. I could have gone for the slightly cheaper room with the mountain view, I suppose. But the hotel ad’s surprisingly candid description of this room as “run-of-the-mill accommodation” didn’t sound particularly inviting. No spa, no pool, no pets. I ain’t got no cigarettes.
No television, no clothes closet, no mini-bar, no Internet connection. Instead, you get what the hotel ad describes as a “quaint” wash basin affixed to the wall at the foot of one bed because there’s clearly no place for a basin in the poky little bathroom between the tub and the toilet. I felt like the guy in that television ad for Canadian Direct Insurance who says, “I can’t believe this, why does my insurance cost so much?” The red-haired woman shouts back, “WHY? You don’t ask WHY! WHY is not something you ask. Hey, Perry, this guy just asked WHY his insurance costs so much. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” I can’t believe this, why does this mediocre hotel room cost so much? You get my drift.
Did I tell you about the stain on the bedspread, or the scorch mark on the dresser, or the interesting paint job on the washbasin mirror? Don’t ask. Or how about the antique elevator that could barely hold two people with luggage, and had to be operated by a member of the hotel staff—if you could actually find one?
The staff were mostly students, pleasant enough when spoken to, but clearly green behind the ears. If you had started to hum Wagner while waiting for a table in the half-empty dining room at breakfast-time, you’d have gone through the entire Ring Cycle before one of these fresh-faced kilted staff would have come over and asked if you were being served yet. Our server at dinner was a young woman from Portland who told us how happy she was to be working “abroad” for the summer. Go figure.
And therein lies the problem with the Prince of Wales, which they say the last prince chose not to stay in when he visited Waterton in 1927. It is nothing more than an overpriced summer lodge, open from early June to mid-September, without any sign of it ever becoming the European-style resort that it purports to be. “They do have a tendency to cut corners,” acknowledged a former staffer who served us at Bel Lago Ristorante, one of the better-value restaurants in Waterton. When the Chateau Lake Louise was open only in the summertime, the level of professionalism and quality there was comparable to what you would have found at such great old CP hotels as the Banff Springs, the Royal York in Toronto, or the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. At the Prince of Wales, you get a bunch of inexperienced kids whose idea of customer service is to keep you waiting forever and then asking you, “How’s your day going so far?” When you tell them that the guest rooms could have a few more basic amenities or that a modicum of efficiency could be brought to the running of the dining room, they simply shrug and ask what part of the States you’re from.
It’s been more than thirty years since I last spent time at the Prince of Wales. It will be at least another thirty before I go back.