A resort set within a former residential school may not be top of mind for folks looking for a weekend getaway, but I’ve heard such good things about St. Eugene Resort, I’m keen to find out what all the fuss is about. Set upon the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation, just outside of Cranbrook, St. Eugene is one of those stunning historic properties with a century-old stone facade and enviable position swaddled by hoodoos, mountains and meadows.
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Skinkuc Treasures and Interpretive Centre
To better understand how a former residential school morphs into a resort, I make a beeline for the Skinkuc Treasures and Interpretive Centre after checking in. Here, tours with a Ktunaxa Elder delve not only into the history of the mission school, but the Ktunaxa Nation, their history and promising economic development.
It’s here I learn that the Kootenay Indian and Residential School (as it was known then) ran from 1912-1970. Margaret Teneese, a former residential school survivor and archivist takes us through the history of the British North American Act and the Indian Act of 1876, and their impact on Indigenous Peoples.
In a brief and oversimplified nutshell, it entailed people being forcibly assimilated into a EuroCanadian way of life at the expense of the only one they ever knew. It meant the loss of ceremonial practices, restrictions on hunting and fishing and the establishment of residential schools.
Stripping families of their language and culture, residential school attendance became mandatory across Canada by 1920. In this region of Southern BC, all Indigenous children were taken away from their reserves and made to attend Kootenay Indian School.
The conditions were horrific as the children suffered abuse at the hands of the nuns and priests running the school. Stepping into former classrooms, it’s sobering to imagine what it would’ve been like to be so dehumanized, following cultural practices you don’t understand, all in the name of a god you don’t worship.
How this property went from that terrible history to a 3-Diamond Star resort is an inspiring, if winding story. When the school closed in 1970, the government took it over with the intent of turning it into a psychiatric facility. The project became a money pit and was abandoned for the next 20-years. With incredible grace and foresight, four Ktunaxa Nation communities and the Shuswap Indian Band formed a partnership to revive the property.
Unsurprisingly, some tribal members wanted to burn the building down to destroy it and its memories. After both sides had been heard, a referendum was held, and it was agreed to turn St. Eugene into a resort. As residential school survivor Margaret Teneese shared with me, “Getting rid of a building doesn’t take away the pain. This is a place to tell our story. It’s ours now. We wanted to take something horrible and painful and turn it into something wonderful.” And so they have.
St. Eugene Resort
St. Eugene Resort had an early affiliation with the Delta brand, which is apparent in the design scheme – a mix of comfort and character with generous bathrooms, quality mattresses and puffy armchairs for reading. Or in my case, gazing out of the dome-shaped windows onto lush grounds.
With exposed brickwork, vaulted ceilings and hand-hewn timbers, an elegant yet relaxed feel is carried throughout the entire 125-room property. But this transformation hasn’t come at the expense of forgetting their past.
Hallways are dotted with Indigenous artwork. Black and white photography from the 1920s showcase the Mission, surrounding village and Indigenous families. Time has lent character and charm to the former Mission, where a calm, healing energy now permeates the space.
You can camp, too!
If the rooms at St. Eugene are lovely (and they are), it’s the campground that really stands out. (Never did I imagine ever writing such a sentence!). But where else can you reap all the benefits of nature while also being privy to resort amenities?
Room service delivered straight to your campsite? Yes, ma’am! Access to the casino, golf course and spa? Step right up!
KOA St. Eugene is situated right on the grounds of St. Eugene Resort. This RV Park (which welcomes tents!) offers riverside sites, mountain views and loads of amenities.
Each of the 114 sites comes with a fire pit, picnic table and full hook ups, including satellite and WiFi.
Firewood is available for sale, there’s a general store, plus coin operated laundry facilities. Most impressive are the family size washrooms with tile showers. Yes, private hot showers are included in your camping fee!
For families and active campers, there’s a splash pad, newly built playground, a half basketball court, a badminton and volleyball area. And if it rains? Steal yourself away to the games room with its multiple TVs, library and computer desks.
If you’re hosting a celebration, consider renting out the gazebo area, complete with a gas BBQ.
What are the wellness offerings?
Delivering a boutique beachy vibe, Blush MediSpa has an outpost here, in addition to their larger facility in downtown Cranbrook. At St. Eugene Resort, they offer massages, mani – pedis, facials and spa packages. Expect to drool over the luxe Eminence skincare products they use.
The wellness wing at St. Eugene also sports a steam room and sauna that may or may not be open depending on COVID protocols and staff levels. Inside the fitness centre, you’ll find a treadmill, stairclimber, bike and elliptical equipment, plus free weights and a few stationary weight machines.
Is there a pool?
Not only is there a large outdoor pool, it’s heated! (Heated pools aren’t as prevalent as they should be at Canadian resorts, trust me on this.) Additionally, there are two outdoor hot tubs and plenty of deck chairs to catch a golden glow.
Golf is a huge draw
Shy deer graze at the edge of the greens, while ducks waddle along the banks of the St. Mary’s River. This is what captures my attention on the St. Eugene Golf Course. Yep, you guessed it. This gal is not a golfer. Still, it’s easy enough to pass a pleasant afternoon swinging away at a few balls when you’re on a course as stunning as this.
Wherever you are on the green, you’ll be framed by the jagged peaks of the Kootenay Rockies in one direction and the Purcell Mountain range on another. Don’t be surprised if the awe-inspiring setting, coupled with spruce scented breezes encourages you to play your best game ever.
St. Eugene Golf Course is a par 72 championship, Les Furber designed course with all the bells and whistles. A nod to the land its sitting upon, each hole is named in the Ktunaxa language with translation and phonetic spelling laid out on each sign.
There’s unlimited driving range access, a GPS-accessed course layout and most importantly for me, a full-service halfway house you’ll pass by 3 times in 18 holes. The 19th Hole Restaurant is where you’ll want to kick back with a mighty fine Caesar or generous glass of wine.
I hear there’s gambling…
Open year-round, the Casino of the Rockies is where much of Cranbrook’s nightlife action takes place. When we visited no table games were open, but pre-COVID you could try your hand at roulette, poker and blackjack. Currently, there’s 210 slot machines, including E-Roulette, E-Baccarat and E-Blackjack, plus a full-service lottery centre.
With high ceilings and a bright, nature-based design, the casino feels modern and open. When I saddled up to the bar for dinner at Kiʔsuʔk k̓ikiⱡ restaurant, I completely forgot I was in a casino.
Where is St. Eugene Resort?
Set up on the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation, St. Eugene Resort is less than a 10-minute drive from the town of Cranbrook, in the Kootenay Rockies region of British Columbia. It’s approximately a 4-hour drive from Calgary and an hour from Fernie, BC.
For those visiting from further afield, consider flying into the Cranbrook Airport, where direct flights from Vancouver and Calgary arrive daily. The airport is only a 10-minute drive from the resort.
Though I arrived at St. Eugene hesitant, that feeling quickly eroded. Not only is it a salubrious spot to unwind, but also to learn and unlearn should you wish to. There are plenty of stunning spots around the world to kick back at, but if you’re looking for one with a deeper connection, you’ll find that here. All are welcome.
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