On track across the Rockies

This small but beautiful segment of Canada really rocks.


By Jan Shure, September 8, 2011
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The Rocky Mountaineer travels past Castle Mountain just outside of Banff

The Rocky Mountaineer travels past Castle Mountain just outside of Banff

Perhaps it helped to be travelling in the slipstream of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Or perhaps Canadians are just naturally warm people.

Whatever the reason, a notable aspect of a recent summer trip from Calgary to Vancouver aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train, preceded by a day in the charming town of Banff in the heart of the Alberta Rockies, was the boundless charm of everyone we encountered, all the way to the bus driver who when she realised she had forgotten to let us off at the Banff Park Museum, turned her bus round and delivered us to the museum's door.

Banff is an aesthetically pleasing town. It has a bright, clean main street and offers every kind of store, high-quality souvenir shop, Seattle-style coffee shops and restaurants offering food from every continent. It also has gorgeous river-side paths and bike trails, and the most eye-ravishing alpine scenery visible from every point in the town.

The finest views of this chocolate-box wonderland of shimmering lakes and fir-clad mountains are from the top of Sulphur Mountain, reached via a cable-car ride aboard the Banff Gondola.

From there, you can gaze at the Rockies, bisected by a winding river and dotted with opalescent lakes, or you can trek the walkway to the now defunct Cosmic Ray Station and meteorological observation centre to see the hut, now a museum, where the weather watchers lived for months at a time during the 1950s and 60s.

At the base, a bus goes back to the centre of town, via the town's best - and best known - hotel, the Fairmont Banff Springs.

Next morning, after a short coach journey to Banff Station, we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury train that was to glide us the 600 miles through the Rocky Mountains and across the Canadian Prairie to Vancouver. Our route, "First Passage to the West", travelling the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, is one of four offered by Rocky Mountaineer in Alberta and British Columbia, they range in length from three hours to two days.

As passengers enjoying the top-tier Gold Leaf service (there is also silver and red leaf) we had seats on the upper deck of a double-deck carriage, equipped with glass sides and roof, to optimise the dazzling views. The lower deck is the dining car, where meals are served.

There is a soothing rhythm to a trip aboard Rocky Mountaineer. Her average speed is 30mph and the stewards offer an occasional commentary, explaining the route, and landmarks like the Spiral Tunnels, waterfalls or the more exotic wildlife. We saw bald eagles, bear, elk, horses and a cluster of roe deer, though you had to be quick to spot them, and it helps to have binoculars. For the first day, the view is of green-clad slopes, snow-capped peaks, translucent, eerily turquoise lakes and endless blue sky. For most of the trip, the air and the water display their shiny cleanliness with a flashiness that makes a city-dweller envious. You pass through a pristine and endlessly beautiful wilderness which you can observe but not harm.

Food and wine is a big part of the Rocky Mountaineer experience, with quality Canadian and imported wines served with the excellent food, on starched white linen, fine china and fresh flowers. Lunch includes at least two dishes suitable for the kosher observant such as fresh Pacific salmon or sea-bass and risotto. And the on-board chefs will adapt dishes for you.

And as you eat, read or just gaze from the window, the alpine scenery of Alberta gives way to the equally beautiful alpine scenery of British Columbia. Then, because the train is not a sleeper, at around 6.30pm, the train pulls into a siding at Kamloops for overnight hotel accommodation. Ours was The Thompson, named for the river which runs through Kamloops.

Next morning, after breakfast aboard Rocky Mountaineer, we chugged alongside the Thompson River, watching as the landscape flattened. We dawdled past Murray Creek Falls, crept across the bridge at Jaws of Death Gorge, and chugged through the Hell's Gate Tunnel, amused by names which sounded like they had been plucked by from a Sherlock Holmes novel. By the time we had lingered over lunch we were entering the Fraser Valley, the lush, arable region north-west of Vancouver whose produce helped the city develop its reputation as a foodie paradise.

By late afternoon, we were crossing the Fraser River for the final 30 or so miles into downtown Vancouver and journey's end at the Rocky Mountaineer station.

This is an unmatchable way to see Western Canada, whilst being wined, dined and generally pampered in five-star fashion.

Getting there

Flight: British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Calgary, returning from Vancouver five times a week. Fares from £727.93.
Transfer: Banff Airporter operates 12 shuttles a day from Calgary Airport to your Banff hotel at £33 per adult/£16.50 per child.
Where to stay: The Fairmont Banff Springs offers double rooms with breakfast. Rates from CAD389
Excursion: Rocky Mountaineer offers the two-day First Passage to the West, from £596 Red Leaf Service; from £964 Silver; and from £1,207 Gold. Price includes all meals and onboard wine and snacks, overnight in hotel, transfers and luggage delivery. 00800 0606 7372
More info: www.myalbertaadventure.com

    Last updated: 10:16am, September 8 2011