Canada – Banff to Vancouver
The welcoming committee at Vancouver’s Rocky Mountaineer terminus had been waiting a long time. They’d expected to greet us at the end of one of Canada’s most illustrious travel experiences seven hours earlier, but somewhere past the thundering Hell’s Gate waterfall we had come to a standstill.
I feel almost treacherous for mentioning it. Breakdowns on the Rocky Mountaineer occur so rarely, and in the company’s 20-year history the problem that had immobilised our train – a faulty sensor on the track that had interfered with the locomotive’s reset switch – had never happened before. But happen it did and I mention it partly due to the way the company dealt with what could so easily have turned into a crisis and partly because of the response of their passengers. It’s fair to say that the Rocky Mountaineer attracts a lot of customers of advanced years, the kind of people not shy in coming forward to register their complaints. Yet, despite being trapped in an Alpine wilderness for close to a full working day – and despite rumours that the company’s CEO was on board, available to take the full brunt of any discontent – I’d barely heard a squeak of discord. In fact, when the train’s manager came round offering compensation, the majority turned it down, expressing complete satisfaction.
We’d been kept preoccupied by an army of onboard attendants providing a stream of witty banter, party games and an endless supply of refreshments. The kitchen below our GoldLeaf Dome Coach had mustered up a delicious emergency meal and brought it to our seats. Outside was a grandiose landscape that, if you were going to pick a place to get stranded, would be at the top of many a place-to-get-stranded list.
It had started two days earlier, back across the Continental Divide at Banff, staying at Fairmont’s Chateau Lake Louise hotel. Banff is the first place I ever travelled to independently as a teenager. Back then, on a more restricted budget, I had camped in the woods of the Banff National Park and drove a battered Honda Civic along the Icefields Parkway, not immodestly promoted as “the most beautiful road in the world”. I had cooked beans over a campfire, instead of having bison tenderloin cooked for me in the gentleman’s club-like atmosphere of the Chateau’s wood-panelled Walliser Stube restaurant. And I had eyed the campground’s “Beware of Bears” sign as more of a promise than a warning.
It was a promise unfulfilled. Today, I am wiser. I have been on safaris and scuba dives and know that wildlife doesn’t always oblige; that you can hang around acacia trees, knowing them to be the preferred diet of giraffes, and never get a glimpse; or slink around the Great Barrier Reef hoping to spot a clownfish only to discover that its animated cousin Nemo is, well, a bit more animated. When it came to grizzlies and black bears I didn’t need to be told by a Mountain Heritage Guide that I’d be lucky to see one; I didn’t need the Rocky Mountaineer attendant to reiterate that they are solitary animals who prefer the depth of the forest and rarely come out for their close-up. “But if you do see one – or any animal – shout, so we can all get a photograph,” he said, adding (hopefully) that several bears had been spotted close to the track a few days earlier.
The glass-roof GoldLeaf Dome coaches of the Rocky Mountaineer are designed to maximise potential wildlife-spotting, offering panoramic views. They were first introduced to the trains in 1995, and whether they are plying the three-hour Whistler Sea to Sky Climb or the two-day Journey through the Clouds route to the highest point of the Canadian Rockies at Mount Robson, they don’t disappoint. Less than an hour out of Banff and I had spotted my first elk. It was standing so still it could have been a cut-out, like those towering wooden Osborne Bulls you see at the sides of roads in Spain. We had yet to reach the scarp of the Rockies where snow-capped mountains cloaked in Alpine flowers soar to heights normally reserved for eagles. Ahead of us, on the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West journey lay almost 1,000km of rail track, twisting past mountain ranges, through deep-cut tunnels and along the side of glacier-fed, turquoise lakes.
At this point our locomotive was gliding happily at speeds of up to 90kph. At the more scenic areas it slows to what it calls “Kodak® Speed”. Needless to say, those areas are so abundant it averages a stately 50kph (30mph) across the entire trip. The first leg of the First Passage travels from Banff to Kamloops, retracing the steps of 19th century explorers who, between 1881 and 1885, had pickaxed and dynamited their way through the mountains building the last section of the Canadian Pacific Railway that helped build modern Canada. It wasn’t always a happy history, utilising over 15,000 Chinese labourers. Many of them had died along the way, from scurvy, explosions and rock falls, their names unrecorded.
As a feat of engineering it surely rivals the Great Wall of China. It’s a wonder it didn’t make it onto the New Seven Wonders of the World list. The most impressive section, however, was built some years later, in 1909, just west of Kicking Horse Pass at Big Hill. As monikers go Big Hill is fatally understated, a jagged switchblade of spurs and towering peaks that proved prone to runaway trains. It was once one of the steepest railway lines in the world. The two spiral tunnels, built at considerable expense, reduced the gradient considerably, allowing trains to double-back and below themselves to negotiate the perilous descent from Wapta Lake to the foothills of Mount Stephen with minimal fear of running loose.
Magnificent piece of engineering it may be, but it is matched by the efforts of Mother Nature. We had been blessed with perfect weather, the kind travel photographers pray for. The sky was as clear as polished glass; so cerulean that were it a colour on a Dulux swatch card it would probably be called Blissful Blue. The sun was beating down as if we were in Mexico. Every Rocky Mountaineer coach has an outdoor viewing deck where you can feel, as well as see, the scenery whisk by. And it was there, drinking in the air, after we’d tiptoed through the spiral tunnels, that I saw them.
Oh, Mountain Heritage Guide of little faith; how about a mother bear and her cub? “Shout,” the onboard attendant had said; so I shouted, harder than I’d ever shouted before, so loud I feared they’d take fright and run for the hills. But they stayed, in a clearing, tenderly sniffing the air for salmon – mighty; monstrous; grizzled. I had never seen a bear in the wild before, but as life’s moments go it ranks alongside the two leopard cubs who’d once stared me down in the African bush or the herd of guanaco that had passed like a ghostly cloud on the slopes of the Andes’ foothills. Memories that will probably last as long as life itself, or were certainly enough to guarantee I’d go to bed contented.
There are no sleeping berths on board the Rocky Mountaineer so we spent the night at a hotel in Kamloops, a one-horse town where the main event appeared to be an annual motobility scooter marathon. The Canadian Rockies are so vast and sparsely populated that huge distances separate towns of even a modest size. To put it into context, imagine the next nearest urban development to Edinburgh is Derby, or that nothing lies between Manchester and Paris except wilderness.
Early next morning, Kamloops still like tumbleweed, we were back on the train for more inspiring landscapes; the roaring waters of the Thompson River, the desert-like Thompson Canyon where white-water rafters – a rare glimpse of human activity – whooped with glee, the oxbow lakes and fertile floodplains of Fraser Valley, the Great Bear Rainforest, thick with 1,000-year old cedars and 100-metre tall Sitka spruce trees.
Ironically, it was outside a village called Hope, 150km short of our final destination, that it all came to an end and our regal locomotive stuttered to its halt. I had just finished lunch in the dining car where quality meals of wild salmon, prime beef and local game are served in two sittings twice a day. There was no sense of panic, and mild frustration only kicked-in after several hours when it was determined our only option was to wait for a passing freight train that could lend us an engine to complete our journey. And so, in the dead of night, we’d limped into Vancouver, a little weary, but more than sated on magnificent scenery.
Of course, many Rocky Mountaineer guests choose to extend their visit, even joining a cruise to Alaska. You can travel the First Passage trip in either direction; west to east (ending in the uninspiring oil city of Calgary) or vice versa. I’d recommend the east to west route with several days’ extension in Vancouver. I’d travelled with Canadian Affair who had booked me into the large, modern Fairmont Pacific Rim. The Fairmont’s rooms afford unobstructed views of Coal Harbour, where a couple of days later I’d land in a seaplane travelling back from a successful whale-watching expedition to Vancouver Island (I’d seen whales before, but you can never see enough whales – or dolphins – in your life). A half hour walk across town from the hotel takes you to the floating houses of Granville Island – where I would kayak among lolloping seals – and a short stroll leads to Robson Street and Alberni, dubbed “Affluent Alley”, where shops like Hermès and Tiffany taunt credit cards. But mostly, despite its business credentials, the Fairmont is a great place to hang; in the casual, buzzing bar or extraordinary pan-Asian restaurant, easing you back into civilisation.
Drizzle had settled over Vancouver and the sky had turned the colour of frosted glass the day of my flight back to London. Below lay the immense Canadian Rockies, and twisting through its canvas of mountains, forests and rivers were the four routes of the Rocky Mountaineer, locomotives full of guests. Perhaps they were shouting at bears; perhaps sipping wines from the Fraser Valley. Even in the unlikely event they had broken down, I thought, they would surely be enjoying one of the greatest journeys of their lives. n
Canadian Affair offers a range of flights and holidays to Canada. An Economy Class flight from Gatwick, Manchester or Glasgow non-stop to Calgary, returning from Vancouver, costs from £413 per person based on travel in May 2011. Stays at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise cost from £108 per person per night and the Fairmont Pacific Rim from £118 per person per night, both based on two people sharing. A trip on the Rocky Mountaineer from Banff to Vancouver costs £489 per person, with upgrades to Gold Leaf from £500 per person. For information and reservations, contact Canadian Affair on 020 7616 9933 / 0141 223 7515 or visitcanadianaffair.com. For more details about Fairmont Hotels log on to fairmont.com and for Vancouver and British Columbia log on to Britishcolumbia.travel.
Words: Andrew Copestake