A journey by train through the Canadian Rockies
Author: Eliza O'Hare
Photography: Chris Chen
We arrive in Vancouver at just the right time. It's the annual 420 marijuana festival, which has drawn a smoky crowd of about 20,000 pot lovers to the very pretty, usually very proper city square beside our hotel - the landmark Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. The rally, where the authorities turn a blind eye to proceedings, offers a glimpse of the legendarily rebellious Canadian spirit.
It's also the opening of the Rocky Mountaineer season, and we're here not to light up but to embark on one of the world's great train journeys.
Our trip through the Canadian Rockies will take us from Vancouver north-east to Jasper, with an add-on bus ride to the national park resort town of Banff. Named "Journey through the Clouds", this is the company's flagship, 900-kilometre route through the prairies of Kamloops and the snow-capped peaks of Jasper. It's one of four Mountaineer routes crisscrossing the Rockies, traversed on foot more than a hundred years ago by settlers making their way to the Cariboo goldfields.
It's quite a scene at 6.30am at the Rocky Mountaineer Station in suburban Vancouver. The terminal has been renovated but retains the historic charm and features of a locomotive maintenance centre, with soaring ceilings and a wall of windows that frame the impressive Rocky Mountaineer train waiting on the tracks outside. It stretches as far as the eye can see. It would take 15 minutes at a trot to reach the last of 13 cars, but ours is just steps from the terminal.
A cheerful hostess shows me to my seat in Gold Leaf, the more upmarket of the Mountaineer's two cabin classes, and I settle in with a glass of something cold, sparkling and Canadian. The double-deck carriages are spacious, the reclining seats wide and comfortable, with generous-sized tray tables and cashmere blankets tucked into the front pockets. Each carriage comprises a kitchen, dining room, lounge, toilets and open-air viewing compartment on the lower deck, and seats on the upper deck. The highlight is the glass dome atop the upper deck, delivering 180-degree views and requiring craning passengers to wear sunscreen and hats on sunny days.
Rail yards and warehouses give way to leafy suburbia and the imposing British Columbia Penitentiary, accompanied by a running commentary from our host, Bernardo Bamberg, whose knowledge of local history is astounding, not least since he's Brazilian. Already the gentle rocking motion has lulled me into a calm state, ready for breakfast.
The dining room has window tables for four, set with crisp white linen, custom-made cutlery and native prairie flowers. We choose our seats, and none of us deviates from our place for the rest of the journey. The breakfast menu sets the tone for the rest of the trip: hearty, simple fare with an emphasis on local produce. My breakfast choice is an "explorer's omelette" - a cheesy extravaganza with all the trappings: sausage, mushrooms, tomato, country-style potatoes and crisp double-smoked bacon.
Executive chef Jean Pierre Guerin, who has headed kitchens in hotels in Vancouver and Hong Kong and a number of airlines, understands food preparation in confined spaces. His custom-built kitchen is just two metres wide, and in full steam when I meet him.
"The key is organisation and storage," he says, as nine chefs prep and plate around him. "It's like cooking on a private plane - no open flames."
There can be up to 10 kitchens and 50 chefs on these trains, turning out all-day meals and snacks for 41 passenger cars. Highlights on this trip include seared albacore tuna and roasted British Columbia salmon with fennel and roast potato salad. But it's the wine list that really impresses. All the wines are Canadian and the whites are particularly good - the Jackson-Triggs sauvignon blanc, for instance - available over lunch and in our seats all afternoon.
By lunch on our first day we're deep in the prairies, vast lowland meadows usually awash with wildflowers. We're here early in the season before the flowers bloom, so instead there's a sea of swaying grasses. With a glass of Sumac Ridge chardonnay in hand, we settle into the ultimate armchair adventure, passing elk and eagles, cargo trains and logging towns, osprey and bison. Our maximum speed is about 50 kilometres per hour, which means there's plenty of opportunity for marvelling.
The history, too, is fascinating and Bamberg launches into tales of courage and tragedy endured by the Overlanders, the pioneers who settled this northern part of Canada. In 1862, a group of 150 settlers set off from Ontario on foot with packhorses, aiming to cross the Canadian Rockies and reach the Cariboo goldfields. The families dragged themselves on gruelling, freezing journeys blighted by bears and wolves. As we pass treacherous rapids and breathtaking rocky outcrops, we hear tales of grim places such as Hell's Gate, where pack mules and provisions were regularly lost over the edge of Jackass Mountain; and we cross rapids known as the Jaws of Death, the Witch's Cauldron and, the most treacherous of all, the Mother-in-Law.
We spend our first night in the Sandman Signature Kamloops Hotel. Kamloops is a prairie town about 350 kilometres north-east of Vancouver; its emerging food culture sustains two weekly organic farmers' markets and a couple of new brew houses. We arrive late after delays on the tracks - the Mountaineer is required to give way to freight trains - and at dusk we find our way to The Noble Pig Brewhouse in search of the house specialty, flash-fried pickled cucumbers. Locally grown and house pickled, the secret to their success is the Cajun-style breading and a dill ranch dip. They arrive with a flight of six house-made beers: a lager, a pale ale, a peppered ale, an amber, a porter, and, the standout, the malty Fascist Pig Pilsner. "We try to do as much as we can with as little as we can," says Dustin McIntyre, owner and chief pickle-maker.
We pull out early next morning and leave the prairie behind, entering pine forests dotted with log cabins, and rolling past glacial rivers with pebbled bends made for trout fishing. If anyone sees a grizzly bear, a black bear, a moose or eagles, suggests Bamberg, they should shout so we can all catch a glimpse. And moments later comes word from the front of the carriage: "Bear on the left! Bear on the left!"
A phalanx of iPhones and cameras is pressed against glass, and while no one manages to capture an image, we're thrilled to know there are bears out there. This prompts the standard bear safety lecture: don't run, stand tall and back away slowly, and never, ever make eye contact. Bamberg confesses he broke all the rules during his only encounter, when he interrupted a bear scavenging in rubbish bins in a lane in Jasper. Both parties panicked - Bamberg turned and ran, jumped a fence and hid in a backyard, while the bear escaped in the opposite direction.
As we continue to follow the winding path of rivers and rapids, the mountain faces become more dramatically sheer and snow flurries drift by, triggering a rapid temperature dive. This prompts the appearance of cashmere rugs and hot chocolate with Baileys - the perfect way to roll between the Monashee and Cariboo mountains and glimpse majestic Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
We're heading for the World Heritage-listed Jasper National Park in Alberta, and at its heart is our bed for the night: the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, built in 1922 as a stopover for well-heeled adventurers seeking a genteel wilderness experience. Here we relax in deep lounges scattered with embroidered cushions featuring deer and elk, huge stag heads over stone fireplaces, and spectacular views of Lac Beauvert. The log walls are hung with framed photographs of illustrious visitors - the Queen Mother, Bing Crosby, and Marilyn Monroe among them.
The main lodge is a short, bracing walk from our room, past squirrels, gophers and a gang of cartoonish elk grazing on sweet spring grass. We've been warned it's calving season and to give them a wide berth. Elk cows swim across the lake in front of the lodge to a tiny island to give birth in safety, away from wolves and bears, whose presence is acknowledged in signs warning us not to deviate from the trails around the lodge.
Next morning we head by coach to the Athabasca Glacier via the Icefields Parkway. One of the world's great scenic drives, it stretches 232 kilometres past glaciers, waterfalls and the extraordinarily bright waters of Peyto Lake. While waiting at a transfer station for our glacier snowcat, I order a bowl of poutine - a Québécois dish of hot chips tossed with cheese curds and topped with a rich gravy. It's hot, salty and carby - perfect glacier-exploring fuel.
The snowcat ride is a quite an experience, and is the only way to ascend to the massive carved plain of the Athabasca Glacier. The drivers are trained to read the snow, navigating safe passage around potential chasms that can swallow a snowcat. When we reach the centre of the glacier, we're engulfed by silence and a dazzling whiteness. Around us are 11 of the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies. I'd like to linger but springtime here is still very cold, and our glacier walk is more a short, stiff stroll.
By the time we return to our coach and the Icefields Parkway, we're driving in a snow storm. Visibility is less than 20 metres, so the spectacular Big Hill and Saskatchewan River Crossing are obscured. "They're there," our bus driver tells us as he climbs out to scrape ice from the windscreen. "Just take my word for it."
We spend our final night in the Rockies in Banff. Three railway workers discovered hot springs in the area in 1883, and a spa resort town and railway soon followed. The destination's popularity convinced the Canadian Pacific Rail Company to invest in a handful of grand hotels. Today, Banff is a town for chic skiers in the snow season - it closes during the harshest months of winter - and dedicated summer hikers. The main street has a row of pretty château-style stores and bars; it's quiet during the day when most visitors are skiing, hiking or immersed in the hot springs. Here we splurge on all things maple - syrup, boiled lollies, toffee apples, candies of all kinds.
The town is dwarfed by Mount Rundle, Cascade Mountain and Castle Mountain and, at the far end, the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel - our final stop. More palace than hotel, it was built in 1888 in an ornate Scottish baronial style with 768 rooms, among them ballrooms and bars and restaurants, stone corridors and Gothic details. It bears a resemblance to the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which is thrilling and only adds to the romance. Any spookiness is outweighed by the hotel's welcoming atmosphere and sunny, comfortable rooms.
The beauty of the Rocky Mountaineer is the access it gives travellers to some of Canada's most impressive and rugged terrain, all while they recline in comfort. What stays with me most vividly are the stories of the Overlanders who embarked on this same journey, but on foot and in the winter. I know where I'd rather be.
Rocky Mountaineer's two-night Journey through the Clouds travels between Vancouver and Jasper via Kamloops. Travel in Gold Leaf class costs from $2,521, or in Silver Leaf class from $1,863. Fares include a night's accommodation in Kamloops, hotel and station transfers, and all meals and drinks on board. The entire fleet features glass-domed carriages, and the season runs from late-April to mid-October. There are four rail routes and a range of add-on packages, including cruise and touring options. 1800 821 531, rockymountaineer.com