[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_single_image image=”5568″ img_size=”full”][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]story and photos by Ann Wallace
When I was a child growing up in England, my well-travelled grandmother told me about a certain train journey in Canada. She tried to explain that the train entered two spiral tunnels in the Rocky Mountains and that when the engine emerged from the tunnel, it passed under the rear section of its own train and that if you were sitting near the front you could see the end of your train – going in the opposite direction! I didn’t believe her!
But, of course, we all know that it’s true. This engineering feat is one of the wonders of Canada and its setting – Cathedral Mountain, Mount Ogden and the Kicking Horse River – is one of Canada’s most spectacular. Little did I know, all those years ago, that I would one day live in Canada and now I’ve been on a Rocky Mountaineer, daylight-only trip from Vancouver to Banff and seen those spiral tunnels for myself, both on the train and from the valley vantage point on a day trip out of Banff.
Rocky Mountaineer’s slogan is “The Most Spectacular Train Trip(s) in the World” and they certainly help their passengers enjoy these train excursions in style, especially in their Gold Leaf Service. We’ve mentioned the company many times in these pages, and last summer I had the opportunity to experience it for myself, together with a little exploration time in Vancouver, Banff and Lake Louise.
The Vancouver departure for my Rocky Mountaineer journey was 7:30 a.m. Check-in was like air travel used to be … quiet and stress free. It was explained to us that our luggage would travel on to our overnight stop in Kamloops by road, so access to luggage while aboard the train during the day would not be possible. Soon everyone was organized and taking their seats on the spotless train and waving to all the terminal staff as they lined up in their smart uniforms to send us off and wish us bon voyage. The Gold Leaf Service passengers sit upstairs in a domed car for the duration of the journey, descending to the dining car beneath for breakfast and lunch. (There is an elevator for wheelchair users or those who do not wish to navigate the curved stairs, together with a spacious handicapped-accessible washroom.) The meals are offered in two sittings which are switched on alternate days, but if the aroma of others enjoying breakfast is almost too much to bear there’s no need to worry, for coffee and a selection of baked goods are offered in your seat to tide you over. (Red Leaf Service passengers are served meals in their seats, airline style … although the food looks a great deal better. Both services are clearly described – and illustrated – in RMR’s brochure and on line.) Also offered in the dome car are drinks throughout the day, served without any sense of censure if you fancy a bloody Caesar or mimosa early in the morning!
Now a word about the Gold Leaf meals themselves, for there’s no doubt they compete with the scenery to make this trip memorable. After a stellar career which included competing with Team Canada and with hotel groups such as Fairmont, Mark Jorundson combined his love of food with his love of trains to become RMR’s Executive Chef in 2002, whereupon he was given the mandate of creating exclusive Western Canadian cuisine for the train passengers, many of whom have come from afar to experience this trip. No surprise, therefore, to find BC smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, or turkey and cranberry sausages on the breakfast menu. And then, after cocktails, comes lunch! Alberta beef, wild BC salmon, free-range chicken breasts and more, all paired with award-winning wines from BC’s Okanagan Valley. The tables-for-four mean unexpected conversations and new friends. I talked with people from all over Britain, from Australia and New Zealand and from Canada. Canadians who were with friends or family from overseas were looking as proud as could be, and so they should for everyone was impressed with the trip, with the food and service and, of course, with the scenery. I especially enjoyed talking with a German travelling with his young son who wished to be a railway architect one day. What this young fellow knew about trains and their routes around the world was astounding!
Of course all the passengers learned things on this route, as we journeyed from lush forests into deserts, beside tumbling rivers, through valleys narrow or broad, beneath towering mountains or beside glittering turquoise lakes while we listened to the commentary. Many of the names were familiar to us, even if we hadn’t travelled this way before: the Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon, Hells Gate and the South Thompson River. Expert wildlife spotters were popular as they shouted “bald eagle” or “osprey” or “deer” or “bear”, whereupon everyone leaped to their feet, cameras in hand. We learned about spawning salmon; a little of the history of the railroad in Canada; about the ‘owners’ of the lines today and their conductors and engineers and the fascinating fact that all train movement throughout western Canada is watched over by rail-traffic controllers in Edmonton. We were intrigued that someone sitting before a console so far away could see us waiting in a siding for another train to pass.
At around 5:30 p.m. the train pulled into Kamloops Station and we transferred to our motorcoach for the short trip to our hotel. Accommodation here varies from trip to trip, and if RMR passengers choose this route they should be aware that there are no truly luxurious hotels in Kamloops. However, we were booked into the Plaza Heritage Hotel, located right downtown, and it was just fine: I was assigned a quaint single room decorated in what I can only describe as Grannie-style with floral wallpaper and bedspread, a tiny bathroom and a tray complete with tea pot and all the fixings. And there was my suitcase waiting for me! The dining room here looked inviting and popular and oh how I wished I had stayed. But one of the extras offered by RMR is an evening outing to see Kamloops’ Great Canadian Lumberjack Dinner Show. Don’t go … it is truly dreadful. The performers are enthusiastic and do their very best to entertain, poor dears, and the buffet is passable with good salads. But the theatre is enormous, on our evening in July the audience was sparse and the whole thing was a bit embarrassing. How I wished I’d spent my evening exploring Kamloops. However, we stuck it out with help from a bottle of wine and applauded politely before returning to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Our train pulled out of Kamloops at 6:30 the following morning with everyone looking forward to their breakfast on the rails. Today’s scenery was even more spectacular than yesterday’s as we travelled through fertile ranchlands, past Shuswap Lake and then to Craigellachie where the ‘last spike’ was driven in 1885 to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway. The train slowed as we passed and all the people milling around the Visitor Centre there waved and took photographs of our train passing. The grade gets steeper now, as we travel into Rogers Pass and the views of glistening glaciers and snow capped mountains are sometimes interrupted as we plunge into the darkness of a series of tunnels and wait with baited breath for the new views as we emerge. Many people crowd onto the open-air car to take photographs, where everyone is so polite, allowing short people to stand in front or dipping out of the way so others can get good shots. The Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park are a highlight among so many and, of course, I thought of my grandmother! The Continental Divide is announced and soon we’re in Banff National Park and approaching our destination – Banff.
All too soon our two-day train journey is over. We gather our belongings, thank (and tip) the wonderful staff and call “good bye” to those passengers who are travelling on to Calgary. But I haven’t been to Banff for many years so I, and many others, disembark here, where we are taken to the hotel of RMR’s choosing – the Brewster Mountain Lodge. As the property is located just a short block from Banff’s famous main street in the heart of downtown I decide the words “mountain lodge” must refer to the décor: beamed ceilings, log furniture, historic photos and cowboy art. My spacious corner room is fabulous (though a little noisy, I am to discover later, as this is definitely a party town!).
Unfortunately the summer of 2007 was not the time to visit Banff. That famous wide main street – Banff Avenue to be accurate – with its spectacular views of mountains at both ends was a hot and dusty construction site as the whole road had been torn up for new underground services: sewage, water and electricity, all – apparently – necessary due to Banff’s growth over the years. Heavy equipment was lumbering up and down and huge pipes double the height of a man lay about. The sidewalks were fenced from the construction and crowded with hot-and-bothered people shopping or deciding where to eat among Banff’s many offerings. I talked at length with a friendly construction guy who told me what was happening and described the street of the future: wide sidewalks with trees and planters and restaurant patios. He said there had been many frustrations with the local shopkeepers and restaurants, what with the noise, dust and access restrictions, but all agreed that it had to be done and were looking forward to the future. I was sorry I’d chosen the wrong year for a visit but it sounds as though it’s all going to be very nice in the future.
I had a full day to explore here, and explore I did, striking out for a riverside walk (well away from the construction) after the continental breakfast offered at my hotel. This town is a centre for myriad sporting activities, both summer and winter, but there’s also lots to interest folks who’d like to discover some of the area’s rich history or those who may be kept in town on a rainy day. The Whyte Museum was my first destination, within easy walking distance from the town centre. This gallery has permanent and temporary art exhibitions, most devoted to the cultural history of the Canadian Rocky mountains through paintings, sculpture, photographs, First Nations artists and more.
Fascinating among the permanent exhibitions is the story of the museum’s founders, Catharine and Peter Whyte, she a socialite from Boston who had a romance with John D. Rockefeller, he an outdoorsman and small-town artist, son of a Banff grocer, whom Catharine married and followed to Banff and the mountains. This large gallery documents the couple’s contrasting early lives, their meeting, their courtship and marriage and love of the Banff area. Here are letters, diaries, sports memorabilia, records of their travels and War experiences, a reproduction of their modest log cabin, their early and later paintings and the many tributes they received during their lives. A wonderful surprise here are the collection of artifacts acquired by Catherine’s maternal grandfather – Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925) – whose curriculum vitae includes positions as Director of the Peabody Academy of Science and Professor of Zoology at the University of Tokyo. This distinguished scientist, who travelled widely, collected many Japanese ceramics and antiquities, some of which are now in Banff. Don’t miss the late 19th century miniature lantern shop and the miniature musical instrument shop. I’d never seen anything like them.
The Whyte Museum is also the guardian of the Tarry-a-While B&B, once the home of Mary Schäffer, one of the Canadian Rockies’ most notable woman explorers. Built in 1912 in a local cottage-style belying its size, it is one of Banff’s most important heritage homes and offers a unique setting for visitors to lay their heads. (This property was recommended by a reader in TS many years ago.) All details on the Museum’s website, see below. And, while Banff itself offers many gift and souvenir shops, the Whyte Museum Shop at 101 Banff Avenue stands apart … it is the perfect place to purchase gifts or something special to remind you of this area.
Visits to the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum and ‘Cave and Basin’ National Historic Site of Canada came next, both located across the river … a very nice walk and both so very interesting. The former museum’s building resembles a trading post and contains artifacts and dioramas that reveal the history and culture of the First Nations peoples in this region. ‘Cave and Basin’ tells the story of the chance discovery of the hot springs of Banff, an event that changed the region’s fortunes. Please don’t miss either of these attractions when you are in Banff. Then it was into a taxi for the short but hilly drive to see that icon of the Rockies – the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (if you’ve never seen it, do at least stop in for a meal or a drink on their spectacular terrace) – before I proceeded farther up the hill for a ride on the Banff Gondola. The fabulous views on this ride brought my full and fascinating sightseeing hours in Banff to a close. I wished I had longer (I always do!), but was due to travel on the next day to that other famous Rocky Mountain destination – Lake Louise.
Tour buses run regularly between Banff and Lake Louise (the bus station is right behind Banff Avenue) meaning that, combined with the train, visitors can explore this region without driving themselves. (And, of course, there are many local tourism providers for day trips, hikes and so on.) On this four-hour Banff-Lake Louise bus trip, we stopped to see the Spiral Tunnels from the road which was so interesting after having been on the train. We also paid a visits to some the region’s most famous lakes, including exquisite Emerald Lake where I took some lovely photographs in perfect weather.
My accommodation in Lake Louise was at Lake Louise Inn, just a short walk from the region’s shopping centre and bus station. Again my room was very nice and the staff members here were exceptionally helpful in recommending and organizing ways to spend my afternoon and following day. I’d stayed in Château Lake Louise and seen the justly-famous lake some years before, so on this occasion decided on two quite different adventures: a white water rafting experience and a trip to the Columbia Ice Field.
Wild White Water Rafting Adventure is a well-organized outfit that takes participants on exciting journeys down the Kicking Horse River. A variety of trips are offered, including a bus from Lake Louise if you wish. I’ve experienced white water rafting in a number of locations and always get a thrill out of it and this fast-running river was no exception. We manoeuvred through 14 sets of rapids, classed from II to IV+ (you can find descriptions of the levels on Wild White’s website) with names like ‘roller coaster’ and ‘shotgun’. I was certainly getting well-acquainted with a variety of aspects of this region. No need to worry about your age … Bill at Wild White assured me that their record participant age is 86! The instructions given here were clear, safety was a priority, the leaders were excellent and the scenery great. All you need to take with you is a swimsuit and a towel. You’ll be provided with a wetsuit, helmet and life jacket plus a locker for your belongings. After the trip the participants were offered fruit, delicious cookies, juices or hot chocolate. I had great fun with a really nice group of people of all ages and was happy to add the Kicking Horse River to my list of waterways ‘conquered’ in this fashion.
Next day I took the full-day Columbia Icefield trip, offered daily during the summer months by the Brewster Company (which owns and operates many of the tourism offerings in this region) from major centres in the Rockies. The drive up along the Icefields Parkway that links Lake Louise with Jasper is alone worth the trip (try to sit in the front seat of the bus) and I was later to wish that I could go all the way to Jasper. The icefield itself is located on the boundary of Banff and Jasper National Parks. One of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, it covers an area of nearly 325 square kilometres. The continuous accumulation of snow feeds eight major glaciers including the Athabasca, Dome, and Stutfield Glaciers, all visible from the Icefields Parkway. The Columbia Icefield is a true hydrological apex, for its meltwater feeds streams and rivers that pour into the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. Participants in this trip alight at the Columbia Icefield Visitors’ Centre where they can see the famed Athabasca Glacier – a tongue of ice six kilometres long and one kilometre wide – before them.
The Icefield Visitors’ Centre is pretty awful, like a giant utilitarian ski lodge bursting with tourists. One is given a number and a time to line up outside – in one of a dozen bays – for the trip onto the glacier itself. There was time before my departure time to purchase a sandwich from the cafeteria, but the overpriced sandwich was pretty awful too … take a snack and some fruit if you can. Soon I was lining up for my bus that would take us to the vehicles specially-designed to climb the steep grade onto the glacier. They are, in fact, enormous snowmobiles, specially designed for Brewsters. On the bus our driver explained how glaciers are formed and pointed out interesting geological features. He also told us some alarming facts that relate to global warming and we were shown the rate at which the glacier is retreating. He also assured us that our excursion does no harm and the company’s website does have a section showing their commitment to the environment. Once on the glacier itself the ‘ice-traveller’ parks alongside many others and the passengers can alight onto the ice if they wish. The many people on the glacier slip and slide about, complain about leaking shoes, taste the water trickling around the edges of the walkable section and pose for photos. If you are a skier or hiker you will find the whole experience very touristy, but I have to admit the scenery is spectacular. Small groups do head out in the region for serious hikes onto the glaciers, but of course this takes time and planning.
My day in Vancouver, my two days on the Rocky Mountaineer train and my visits to Banff and Lake Louise were too brief, but provided a wonderful glimpse of regions I hadn’t visited in many years. The Rocky Mountaineer trips are a great way to go, both for Canadians and for visitors from overseas, and the many day trips available from Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper provide travellers with comprehensive exploration possibilities in the glorious Rockies without the necessity of car rentals.
If you’d like to follow in my footsteps, here are the details …
- Rocky Mountaineer offer a wide range of trips through BC and into Alberta, travelling – as they say – “where only trains can take you”. The staff are excellent, the trains are spotless, the commentary interesting and not too intrusive and please remember, the domed car is handicapped accessible via a unique onboard elevator. Call Jill at 416.926.2500 for more information or to book anything in the article above.
- For general travel information on Vancouver visit www.HelloBC.com/VancouverTravel, www.tourismvancouver.com and for money-saving offers check out www.seevancouvercard.com
- For Banff Lake Louise tourism information www.banfflakelouise.com.
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