04 October 2022

Witness fabulous scenery on board the Rocky Mountaineer
A ticket to a towering spectacle
Frank Barrett boards the fabulous Rocky Mountaineer for an epic Canadian journey – and if he’d stayed on the train he’d have missed a speeding fine!
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ook to the left, the captain said, and you’ll see killer whales. That’s not the invitation you expect on a car ferry, especially if you are more used to the hop between Dover and Calais. But this was Canada and I was on a 90-minute crossing from Swartz Bay near Victoria on Vancouver Island to Tsawwassen, about 15 miles south of the city of Vancouver on the mainland. The prospect of sighting whales thrills me. Clearly they’re no big deal to Canadians, since few fellow passengers stirred from their breakfasts to glimpse the passing pod. People are used to things being on an epic scale here.

Vancouver Island, for example, may look like a dot on the map, yet it’s nearly 300 miles long and 50 miles broad at its widest. Standing on deck gazing east, I strained for my first sight of the Rockies. On the horizon is what looks like a sweep of steepling peaks but these turn out to be modest foothills. Beyond lurk the real mountains. Even on these first steps towards the country’s heart, you begin to grasp that this is a place on a vast scale. It’s the world’s second biggest country, 36 times the size of Britain but home to 33 million – half the UK’s population.
Built in the grand style - the Banff Springs Hotel
Moraine Lake in Banff National Park
In Canada I felt instantly at home. At the excellent Empress they serve a lunchtime curry buffet as fine as anything on a British high street. And at any time you can be sure of a real cup of tea. The Empress provides a worthy introduction to the chain of magnificent ‘railway hotels’ – now under the Fairmont banner – that stretches across Canada. These hotels are built on a grand scale in a style described as ‘chateau-esque’. The finest example is the Banff Springs Hotel, which I encountered several days later. It has the look of a Scottish baronial home.

The city of Vancouver owes its existence, and name, to the railroad. Known originally as Granville, bosses at Canadian Pacific decided Vancouver would be better – though it infuriated the citizens of nearby Vancouver Island as the city, of course, isn’t even on the island. Van Horne realised the real challenge would be to attract passengers. He wooed writers, artists and photographers, offering free tickets so their stories and pictures would show the world the wonders of the Rockies. ‘Since we can’t export the scenery,’ he remarked, ‘we’ll have to import the tourists.’

Not so long ago, there was a danger it would close to passenger traffic – with competition from air travel along with the extraordinary fact that services often ran only at night, denying passengers the visual thrills that should have been paramount. Then 20 years ago the concept of the Rocky Mountaineer was born – an ultra-comfortable train allowing travellers to enjoy the scenery in all its magnificent splendour. Today there are three routes – from Vancouver to Jasper, Vancouver to Calgary and north from Vancouver to Jasper via Whistler. In the Rocky Mountaineer’s more expensive Gold Leaf class you are served superb meals while in the upstairs section you have a glass-domed roof through which to feast on the glorious unfolding panorama.
I had arrived in Canada via the ‘back door’ after taking another ferry, the high-speed service from Seattle to Victoria. One minute I was in fast-paced America – Seattle is home to Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft – the next I was in Victoria, taking the five minute walk from the sedate ferry terminal to the even more sedate Empress Hotel.
"Even on these first steps towards the country’s heart, you begin to grasp that this is a place on a vast scale.'
Bald eagles stretch their enormous wings as they fly alongside the train, and bears sometimes amble into view. We left the train at Jasper to stay at the Jasper Park Lodge, a mile out of the small town and located spectacularly on the shores of a lake. The drive from Jasper to Banff is along the spectacular Icefields Parkway, a 140-mile road running parallel to the Continental Divide, the backbone of the Rockies.

Along this divide all water flows either east or west, and the huge glaciers of the Columbia icefield provide an unforgettable sight. In Banff, it’s hard to know which sight is more fantastic: that of the Banff Springs Hotel or the view of the Bow Valley from the hotel. Arrange a room with a valley view and be up for sunrise - one of the world’s best free shows.
"But then that's part of the wonder of
Canada: I don’t think I've ever enjoyed a journey so much."
The bears of Jasper National Park
A contender has fun at the Calgary Stampede Rodeo
The comfortable interior of the Rocky Mountaineer
Before I reached Calgary, I was keen to encounter two things: a Mountie and a bear. I should have been careful what I wished for. Outside Calgary, I was flagged down on Highway One and told I was over the speed limit (of 90kph). I was confused, I said lamely, because the limit was in kilometres. ‘You still have miles in England?’ said the policeman incredulously. ‘What would the limit be in miles… 150 an hour, I guess,’ he joked. My guess had been 70mph and I should have been doing about 55. It was a bad guess that cost me a 300 dollars fine. In Calgary, I came nose to snout with brown bears and grizzly bears.

Fortunately this was in the superb Calgary Zoo, which devotes a huge section to wildlife including beavers, wolves, foxes, owls and eagles. A visit to the Calgary Highland Games, where Canadian Scots celebrate their heritage in time-honoured fashion, was an uplifting excursion. There were marching pipe bands, caber-tossing, Highland dancing and ‘haggis on a bun’. In the city that’s home to the Calgary Stampede rodeo, it was no surprise that many of the Highland Games participants wore cowboy hats with their kilts.

Standing on a sun-drenched field in Alberta next to stalls selling Oor Wullie annuals and bags of Walkers crisps, you had to pinch yourself to remember you’re in North America. Jings, as Oor Wullie might say. But then that's part of the wonder of Canada: I don’t think I've ever enjoyed a journey so much.

Original article published in Mar 2010. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
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