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

January 31, 1988|JEFF FELLENZER | Times Staff Writer

BANFF, Canada — 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.

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