To really see the Canadian Rockies, take a train

Photo: Rocky Mountaineer

The engineer on the Rocky Mountaineer must have one of the most gratifying jobs in the world. It's not without risk and difficulty, but driving a train through the Canadian Rockies - there can't be many places in the world where you get to work in such beautiful, ever-changing surroundings like these.

My own job took me on that train in early August. Travelling 947km across the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta and over the Continental Divide, the First Passage to The West is one of four routes available on Rocky Mountaineer. This one goes from Vancouver to Banff. (Image above shows the Rocky Mountaineer travelling along the Shuswap Lake in British Columbia on this route. Photo: Rocky Mountaineer)

It's the only passenger train travelling this route and it retraces the historic Canadian Pacific Railway, which every Canadian schoolchild would have learnt about.

The first two hours after the train leaves the station is uninteresting in terms of scenery but our hosts, Michelle and Justin, keep us occupied with a pre-breakfast snack and stories about the route.

And then the scene starts to change. Industrial tracts give way to forest, water and canyon - we haven't reached the Rockies yet; that comes on the second day - and everyone is mesmerised by the living postcard we are in.

From the bi-level car - seats upstairs, dining room below - with fully domed windows and an open-air vestibule, we get a glorious eyeful of the countryside. Our greenhouse on wheels chugs along at speeds of up to 80km/h, giving us plenty of opportunity to capture mementos of the trip on film.

But there's so much around us and it's easy to give up trying to get that perfect picture of a waterfall, rushing river or craggy rock face (even then, at the end of the first day, I have downloaded 367 photographs and videos from my camera and phone). Yet I know I don't really need the pictures to forever remember those vistas.

Until, that is, someone yells "Bear! To the left!" and we all threaten to tip the train over when we rush to that side with our cameras. There were a couple of black bear sightings and one false alarm, plus a number of bald eagles, osprey nests, Canadian geese, elk and bighorn sheep.

A hot breakfast, an excellent a la carte lunch comparable to a meal at any fine dining restaurant, more lovely stories from the hosts and breathtaking scenery, and we arrive in Kamloops. As we pull into the station, we're met by the town's Mounted Patrol, an organisation of local volunteers who welcome out-of-towners.

Kamloops means "meeting of the waters" in Secwepemctsin or the Tk'emlups language (don't ask me how to pronounce either of those words) which denotes the city's location at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers.

From the Hotel 540, it's a short walk down to Riverside Park, first crossing the impressive pedestrian bridge that passes over the town's railroad tracks, with its cheeky sign at the end of the short flight of steps: "Congratulations! You made it to the top."

In July and August, there's free music in the park and an amazing blues singer/guitarist named Cecile Doo-Kingue is performing at this time. We stay awhile, but it's been a long day, and I head back to the hotel to recuperate for the early start the next day and the Xanadu that we're all expecting.

We get that and then some.

For city dwellers, breathing in the air of the Canadian Rockies will be a jolt to the lungs. Inhaling pure oxygen too quickly can make you a little lightheaded.

Like the first day, there are beautiful trees, rivers and lakes, but it is all this in combination with the mountains in the background that leave me with my jaw on the floor.

While nature rules, a marvel of human construction on the route is just as awesome. The spiral tunnels in the Rockies were completed in 1909 to make it easier for trains to cross the mountains without travelling up or down a steep incline.

As we get closer to our final rail destination, Justin reads out a poem about salmon and then challenges us to write our own - being a food lover, mine has to be about the kind you find on a dinner plate.

And then it is time to say goodbye to the train. Two days on board have left me with wobbly legs and an unsteady gait that would have anyone thinking I've had too many of those complimentary cocktails on the train (one glass of white wine is all I had, honest). No, what was intoxicating was the ride.

We still haven't seen the last of the beautiful Rockies. We are spending the night in Banff, a town of 9,400 people that lies in the Banff National Park, the oldest of the national parks and a Unesco Heritage Site. In every direction is one mountain or another.

Historically, this was an important stop on the rail line. This is where you find the legendary Fairmont Banff Springs. It was built during the 19th century as one of Canada's grand railway hotels.

Like all good hotels, it has its ghosts. The most famous is the Ghost Bride. The story, dating back to the 1920s, is that the bride was on one of the hotel's marble staircases and her wedding dress caught fire from a candle flame. She died at the spot and since then has been moving up and down the stairs or dancing in the ballroom upstairs, pining for the first dance with her husband that she never had.

For many guests on the Rocky Mountaineer tour, Banff is the last stop.

Leena Lin and Kitiphong Thinsuetrong, two passengers from Toronto, wanted to visit the town and the best way for them to see the Rockies was by train.

"On Rocky Mountaineer, we sit in this glass dome and it's safe, our food is taken care of, there's so much to see and we get to enjoy the view," says Lin.

The 30-somethings, immigrants from Hong Kong and Thailand who have lived in Canada for 15 years, are planning to ride the rails again in a different season for another view of the Rockies.

"The colours of the leaves will change, and there will be ice in the mountains. It will be beautiful," says Lin.

For my group, however, it is on to Calgary by coach. But not before we ride the Banff gondola up Sulphur Mountain, visit the Hoodoos (amazing rock formations in the Bow Valley) and take a 20-minute helicopter ride for a spectacular bird's eye view of the Rockies.

Not a bad lasting impression.

 

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