Robin Williams once described Canada as a luxury loft apartment that sits above a really great party. The comparison flattered the United States (presumably the fun place underneath), but you can see what he meant. Canada is a soothing oasis that has space and tranquillity. It’s a destination that is … well it’s lofty. And given that Canadians are this year celebrating their homeland’s 150th birthday, it should be a priority in any self-respecting traveller’s bucket list.
And to be specific about its attractions, there is nothing to beat the Rockies, one of the planet’s greatest mountain ranges: a wilderness of glittering white peaks, hidden valleys, vast forests, very few people and a smattering of wonderful animals that include wolves, elks and bears. All you have to do is to find a way to see these wonders.
The solution is straightforward: take the train. The Rockies have some truly spectacular rail routes that were carved into mountain sides and cliffs, and over alarmingly narrow ledges, in the late 19th century as Canada opened up its western reaches. Vast freight trains, some with more than 100 wagons, still trundle over them – though today these are interspersed with the elegant, double-decker Rocky Mountaineer trains which have been transporting visitors for more than 25 years through western Canada. This is the stylish way to see the mountains.
The Rocky Mountaineer formula is simple. There are no connections or changes to be made. You sit in observation decks during the day and soak in the wonders around you. At sunset you disembark for a bed in a nearby hotel. There is no night travel – so you don’t miss any scenery during darkness. Both mornings were a relaxed start at 8am. It is an effective way to travel – though it lacks the total immersive romance of a long-distance rail trip. Nevertheless, this is a deeply relaxing experience.
We started our two-day trip in Vancouver. Its fine beaches, good restaurants and a gentle climate, combine to give the place a relaxed European feeling. There is no threat and no hustle – apart from our raucous send-off. This included a bagpiper and what seemed to be several hundred cheering Mountaineer staff.
Much of the track that takes you east from Vancouver follows the Fraser river and then the Thompson. Log booms pepper the waterways. On the banks there are dairy and blueberry farms. As the train trundles upwards, the trackside vegetation thins and there are clearer views of the passing landscape which becomes more austere and grand as you head east. The rivers narrow and are bisected by waterfalls and gorges, including Hell’s Gate on the Fraser where more than 200m gallons of water a minute froth and surge through a narrow channel.
Our trip had an added mystique of a mist that pervaded the hillsides. Turned tinder-dry by the sweltering early summer, swathes of British Columbia’s forests had caught fire and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. The blazes created a white miasma that settled over the mountains, blotting out some of the distant, dramatic peaks but adding a mysterious, slightly sinister quality to the landscape.
The wildlife is also striking: nests of bald eagles and ospreys line the riverbanks and there are occasional sightings of big-horn sheep, elk, moose and bears – though photographing these moving targets is not easy. I managed some decent shots of ospreys – and a moose that was trying to outrun our train. Let’s face it, you don’t see that from the 8.32 to Waterloo.
However, I should sound a word of warning. A Rocky Mountaineer trip is an emphatically sybaritic operation and is certainly not the occasion to start a diet. Apart from sitting in luxurious seats, virtually the only other thing to do is eat.
Meals are provided in two different classes of service: Gold Leaf, in which you sit on the top of a two-storey train and take meals in the lower deck, and Silver Leaf in which you sit and eat in a single storey carriage. Both are excellent. In Gold, there is a double breakfast rota: an opener with coffee and muffins, then a full meal that includes fruit cocktails, hot toast, eggs Benedict or smoked salmon with scrambled egg. Or you can have the blow out first and the muffins later.
Lunches follow on, with straightforward grilled salmon or roast pork loin in Silver Leaf, to dishes like farmers market risotto or smoky mushroom burger in Gold – with very decent chardonnays and merlots to wash them down. Then, for the rest of the day, you are plied with a drip feed of drink and snacks at your seat.
Relaxing is certainly easy. Fighting the flab is not. You cannot even expend compensatory energy dragging your luggage about. On the Rocky Mountaineer, cases travel separately and are waiting for you in your hotel room every evening. There is only space for a small hold-all and none for a coat or jacket – for the simple reason there was no overhead rack, just domed windows through which the Rockies loom higher and higher as you head east.
We stopped for one night at Kamloops and for the next at Jasper where our train journey ended. Both towns are small and welcoming – but then that is the Canadian way for you: “Unarmed Americans with health care,” as one T-shirt described them.
We continued southeast by Ice Explorer coach to the Athabasca glacier and then to Banff. It was entertaining and enlightening – but not quite the lofty experience of the Rocky Mountaineer.
Way to go
Robin McKie travelled on a two-day Journey Through the Clouds trip on Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Jasper. Prices start at £1,007 for Sliver Leaf and £1,377 for Gold Leaf; air fares not included. For more details visit rockymountaineer.com. A cheaper way to do the trip is to travel on Via Rail Canada where the round-trip from Vancouver to Jasper costs C$308.70 (£183.79).
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