Rocky Mountaineer: It all about the journey

A piper welcomes guests on the Rocky Moutaineer at Vancover's purpose-built train station
MARTIN HAUGHEY

A piper welcomes guests on the Rocky Moutaineer at Vancover's purpose-built train station

What should you do if you meet a bear?

"Don't make eye contact, walk slowly away and hope like hell that luck is on your side," says Travis, the Rocky Mountaineer steward who looks a lot like George Clooney's younger, hotter brother.

As it turns out, we don't have to worry – despite frequent reported sightings of black and grizzly bears on the two-day journey from Vancouver to Jasper, we don't spot any.

Gold Leaf Class features a glass roof to provide uninterrupted views.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

Gold Leaf Class features a glass roof to provide uninterrupted views.

It's disappointing but when you're travelling in Gold Leaf (first class) on what's regularly voted the best train journey in the world, it's a little churlish to complain.  So we shrug, order another gin and tonic and watch the most astonishing snow-freckled mountains fill our windows.

We'd started our eight-day Adventure World Western Explorer journey in Vancouver on a spring day so unseasonably warm even the locals were confused by the golden orb in the sky.  It's hard to tear ourselves away from such an Instragrammable city but the promise of even more scenic swathes of countryside helps to seal the deal.

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There's no shortage of spectacular scenery enroute
MARTIN HAUGHEY

There's no shortage of spectacular scenery enroute

They say every epic trip deserves an epic start and ours involves a red carpet, a Scottish piper, and champagne.  We arrive at the purpose-built train station at an hour of the morning I don't usually see.  But the bubbles help to take the edge off, as do our seats in the plush, second-level, glass-domed coach.

Because it's so early in the season, there are only 200 passengers on board.  At the height of the northern summer this can rise to 600.  Most are Australian and the station is a sea of grey heads: many passengers are retired or well-heeled enough to be thinking about it.  But there's also a smattering of younger travellers, including a honeymooning couple from Sydney who alternate between gazing at the gobsmacking scenery and into each other's eyes.  A raucous Aussie tour group, hogging the back seats like naughty teenagers and headed for an Alaskan cruise after this, make up the bulk of the 60 or so Gold Leaf passengers.

But we're all here for the same thing: an eastern journey across the girth of British Colombia and Alberta, and the kind of scenery that screen-savers were made for.

There's no shortage of spectacular scenery enroute
MARTIN HAUGHEY

There's no shortage of spectacular scenery enroute

We wave goodbye to our luggage (that goes by road, to await us in our hotel rooms at the end of the day), and as we slowly edge out of Vancouver, it's hard to ignore the delicious smells that curl up the stairs from the dining car.

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The last time I ate on a train it involved day-old cheese sandwiches and coffee that tasted like muddy water.  Refuelling on the second largest private passenger rail company in the world, with its old-school elegance of white table cloths and fresh flowers, couldn't be further from that.

Breakfast is a two-hour affair and, over the fattest coconut pancakes I've ever seen, I find out more about a Brisbane couple's plans to subdivide their farm than I ever need to know.

The Rocky Mountaineer wiggles its way slowly through British Columbia and Alberta.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

The Rocky Mountaineer wiggles its way slowly through British Columbia and Alberta.

But the train takes an awfully long time to extricate itself from Vancouver's industrial hinterland, so there's little else to distract me.  By the time we're back at our seats, factories have relented to the flat, fertile Fraser Valley, which coughs up more than half of British Colombia's agricultural produce.

You don't ride the Rocky Mountaineer to go fast - the whole point is to power down and get off the grid.  It would take eight hours to drive from Vancouver to Jasper, less than half of that to fly.  But meandering along at 50kmh, yielding to freight trains that glide past like grafittied serpents, swallows the best part of two days.

You ride this train because, like the English passenger who diligently records the number of freight carriages in his dog-earned notebook, you're a train spotter.  Or because you've been sold the romance of trains by your father and have long lusted after the golden age of train travel (me).  Or because you want to follow the historic trail of early explorers, a route that appears little changed in the past 100 years.  The Rocky Mountaineer is one of those increasingly rare things, a journey that's all about the journey itself.

It's easy to see why early settlers named this spot in Yoho National Park Emerald Lake.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

It's easy to see why early settlers named this spot in Yoho National Park Emerald Lake.

But it isn't easy to leave the 21st century behind: my default setting is to do everything as quickly as possible, so I find it hard to relax into the rhythms of life on-board.  I'm particularly cross there's no wifi; don't they realise I have work to do, dammit?

But time doesn't exist on trains.  There's nowhere to rush, no deadlines to meet.  As we hug the Fraser River, one of Canada's longest, and the mountains scroll by like an episode of the Wilderness Channel, I put the laptop away and give myself over to slow travel.

Spring is a good time to visit the Canadian Rockies: winter snow and ice are leaving town and the chlorophyll is bursting through.  The setting is otherworldly and we pass mountains with peaks like a dinosaur's spine and plunging networks of gorges.  We nose-dive into tunnels and slice through forests of maple, cedar, and Douglas fir trees with trunks as big as my car.

The lovely Lake Louise is one of Canada's most photographed spots
MARTIN HAUGHEY

The lovely Lake Louise is one of Canada's most photographed spots

Travis, one of four tour stewards in our carriage, points out highlights such as Hells Gate where, in a gorge almost 180m deep, the huge swell of the Fraser River is squeezed into a 38m channel of foaming water.  Think camel, eye-of-the-needle stuff.

Trains are stitched into the fabric of Canada in a way they aren't south of the border. Before the 1800s, this region was a largely inaccessible wilderness, visited only by the hardiest trappers and traders (similar to the setting for The Revenant, which was filmed around here).  Sir John Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, figured that trains were the key to uniting this vast landmass, and so in the 1800s he kick-started what would become the trans-continental railway.  We pass the spot at Craigellachie, in British Columbia, where the "last spike" of the Canadian Pacific was driven in 1885 when rail crews from the east and west met to complete the track.

Fast forward a few years and the magnificently named William Cornelius Van Horne, then vice president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, realised the way to make the railroad pay was to promote the wondrous backdrop.

They believe in up-sizing at Yoho Natural Park, including the rivers, trees and snow-covered mountains.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

They believe in up-sizing at Yoho Natural Park, including the rivers, trees and snow-covered mountains.

"If we can't export the scenery, then we'll import the tourists," he famously said.

And so we come, 1.7 million at last count, to ogle the mountains from the comfort of the blue and yellow train.

Nine hours and 458km after leaving Vancouver, we pull into Kamloops, the overnight stop for passengers heading east.  Not everyone is sober and some have trouble with "train legs", the result of stepping on to land after so many hours.  Travis suggests the best solution is to "walk with a wide stance".

The lovely Lake Louise is one of Canada's most photographed spots
MARTIN HAUGHEY

The lovely Lake Louise is one of Canada's most photographed spots

Kamloops, population 85,000, appears to be closed for the evening.  I wonder what life is like here during the winter.  We stroll through Riverside Park, where a homeless convention seems to be taking place.  It's not the clean, green Canada of my imagination but nor is it the kind of place where you clutch your handbag closer to your chest.  This being Canada, everyone we meet, including the homeless blokes, are friendly and polite.

We're back on board early the next morning for our 418km leg to Jasper.  The gasps start soon after.  In a part of the world not given to small gestures, the necklace of sheer mountains, quilted in white, still manages to astound.  Mt Robson, at 12,972 feet, is the highest peak in the Rockies, so high it has its own micro-climate ("The peak may be obscured by cloud when all the surrounding sky is clear," says Travis).

The rolling photoshoot is broken by more food and the ever-present drinks cart.  I sample a Caesar, a uniquely Canadian concoction of vodka, hot sauce, and Clamato, a mashup of tomato juice and clam broth, that tastes as awful as it sounds.

There are plenty of 'wow' moments at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

There are plenty of 'wow' moments at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

While some trains go on to Banff, we say our goodbyes at Jasper.  Somewhere along the line we crossed into Alberta and the World Heritage-listed Jasper National Park, at 11,228sqm the largest of the national parks we loop through.  Jasper, fortunately, has managed to resist any attempts to turn it into Vail/Telluride; instead of gaggles of thin, blonde women in quilted jackets, it retains its windswept, frontier town spirit.

Six kilometres out of town is the stupidly pretty Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.  Built in 1922, as a pit-stop for wealthy adventurers seeking a gentle wilderness experience, the posh log cabins have hosted everyone from the Queen Mother to Marilyn Monroe.  Crooner Bing Crosby liked it so much that in 1948, during filming of The Emperor Waltz, off-duty security officers where hired to keep him from disappearing off set to go fishing or play golf.

Almost 70 years later, it's still as beautiful: we rug up to walk around a lake with Tiffany-blue water, startling elk with frighteningly-large horns, before thawing out in front of the lodge's enormous fire.

Bow Lake in Banff National Park is still iced over in early spring.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

Bow Lake in Banff National Park is still iced over in early spring.

Sadly, our time in Jasper is as limited as the temperature: early the next morning we're on a bus, headed to Lake Louise via the Icefields Parkway, a 230km ribbon of asphalt that unites Jasper and Banff national parks.  Numerous glaciers line the Parkway, including the Athabasca Glacier, which we visit on an Ice Explorer snowcat with massive wheels, the only vehicle that can make the trip.  It's snowing when we reach the glacier's centre, surrounded by the 11 of the highest peaks in the Rockies.  Not that we can see them; visibility is almost zero.  "Don't worry, they're out there," says our driver John in a familiar Kiwi voice (he's from Palmerston North).

Light is draining from the sky by the time we reach Lake Louise, one of Canada's most photographed locations.  Named after Queen Victoria's daughter, the lake is a glittering carpet of slowly melting ice shadowed by the Chateau Lake Louise, a hotel my guidebook sniffily calls "a grandiose monstrosity that would never get planning permission today".  Is it wrong that I think it's adorable, in a princess/castle kind of way?  We attempt to walk around the lake but it doesn't take long before the plummeting temperature turns us into ice-blocks and we scurry back to the warmth of the hotel bar with its views across the turquoise lake.

Our final day in the Rockies is spent on a bus, driving to Banff where three railway workers stumbled across hot springs in 1883, and a spa resort and railway soon followed.  An hour or so out of town, we hear the word we've been waiting six days for.

Pyramid Falls in Provincial Park is just one of the many waterfalls along the way
MARTIN HAUGHEY

Pyramid Falls in Provincial Park is just one of the many waterfalls along the way

"Bear!" yells someone down the back and the bus driver hits the brakes.  There on the left side of the bus, a young grizzly, his coat the colour of burnt cinnamon, lopes along the scrubby bush.  We hold our collective breath as he darts across the two-lane road and just as quickly legs it into the meadow.

It may not have been the wilderness experience I was expecting, but I'm pathetically grateful for it.  I leave Canada a happy woman.

MORE INFORMATION Adventureworld.com

There's no shortage of 'wow' moments at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

There's no shortage of 'wow' moments at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

TOURING THERE Adventure World has a curated eight-day Western Explorer Rocky Mountaineer package.  Priced from $3705 per person, the trip includes two days on the world renowned Rocky Mountaineer.  Price includes hotel accommodation, many meals, local guides, and sightseeing. 

The writer travelled as a guest of Adventure World.

The Rocky Mountaineer wiggles its way slowly through British Columbia and Alberta.
MARTIN HAUGHEY

The Rocky Mountaineer wiggles its way slowly through British Columbia and Alberta.

 - Stuff

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