By Rail, By Day, Into the Canadian Rockies

By Candace Leslie

Like any comfortable adventure, the rail tour into the Canadian Rockies begins gently, providing plenty of time to get in the perfect mood. Vancouver's Pacific Central Station offers just the right amount of nostalgia as the "al-l-ll aboard!" echoes through the cavernous waiting room. Excitement mounts as we stroll the platform in the early light of morning, locate our assigned coach, settle into the cushy reclining seats and breathe in the surprising aroma of baking cinnamon rolls. Before long the train inches through the working railroad yards. After a short delay for a sea-bound ship, it crosses the Fraser River on the century-old swing bridge. Now we are really on our way to Banff, the famous mountain resort in western Alberta.

But "The Rocky Mountaineer" is no ordinary commuter. In fact, the Great Canadian Railtour Company Ltd. has the audacity to call it "The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World," a boast that more than one seasoned rail traveler agrees is well deserved. We, too, by the time our two full days of travel across western Canada ends, will find it impossible to believe that any rail journey could surpass this. Spectacular scenery, superb service, in-depth edification, first rate entertainment and gourmet cuisine keep us all exceedingly happy. Even the dark does not intrude. We will spend the one night between Vancouver and Banff at a hotel in Kamloops, so not a mile of magnificent Canadian scenery is lost.

Were it not for the railroad, Canada-from-sea-to-sea might not have come into being at all. David Mitchell, author of All Aboard! Canadian Rockies by Train, calls the building of the trans-Canada railroad, of which this glorious section is only a part, a "miracle." The project was certainly controversial back in the 1870s. But California was booming, Alaska had been purchased and the threat of American expansion loomed. "I would be quite willing personally to leave the whole country a wilderness," John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, said of British Columbia, "...but I fear if we do not go there, the Yankees will."

And go they did, in spite of practical reasoning, heated protest, and unforgiving territory. Surveyors sometimes had to crawl on hands and knees in search of possible routing through seemingly impossible terrain. Workers came from around the world. Many lost their lives. But finally, on November 7, 1885, the last spike was driven into the 3000-mile track. East and west were joined, and rail travel quickly became an integral part of Canada's identity.

Dressed in black, a reincarnation of the powerhouse behind the monumental project strolls through our car, stopping to briefly acknowledge a passenger or two. Stout, pompous, with gold watch tucked into the pocket of his formal waistcoat, he presents a somewhat humorous image of the man we must thank for our being able to head into the Rockies in luxury. Back in the last decade of the 19th century, William Van Horne ardently believed ,in the importance of the rails. President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he fiercely oversaw the building of the historic route. Van Horne also believed in tourism and the attraction of the magnificent Canadian Rockies. "If we can't export the scenery," he promised, "we'll import the tourists." We hear those oft-quoted words many times on this trip, spoken by his formidable look- alike, and repeated by the staff who feed us, tend to our every need, and serve as knowledgeable docents of the whole 600-mile journey. On this trip we truly are inheritors of Van Horne's impetuous dream.

The Rocky Mountaineer rolls through some of the world's most spectacular scenery. Before reaching Banff, famous today for winter sports and the castle-like grand hotel also built by the entrepreneurial Mr. Van Horne, it will have climbed more than 4000 feet from the fertile sea level valley of the Fraser River. It is a journey of colorful tales and daring feats that ring with romance, especially from the safety and warmth of the luxurious car. "Hell's Gate." "Jaws of Death Gorge." "Big Slide Area." "Kicking Horse River." Gold Rush. Salmon runs. Rock slides. It is also a journey of photo opportunities where wide rivers gather in violent rapids, trestles cross impossible canyons, and snow covered peaks loom like giant sawteeth beyond deep forested hills. We keep our cameras at the ready, fearing that we might miss something should we be caught napping. But the superb staff of attendants does double duty. Keeping an eye on the track-side mile markers, they will suddenly put down their coffee pots and wine bottles, pick up their microphones, and alert the passengers to the next exciting site or vista. Each attendant is well versed in the history, geology, flora and fauna of every region the train traverses. These energetic young people unfailingly prepare their passengers for every important sight from osprey nests to the corkscrew-like Spiral Tunnels in the rocky walls of Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain. They share the facts and tell the legends with equal flare. And when they are not keeping us informed they are plying us with food and drink.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers two levels of service - the GoldLeaf Tour and the more modestly priced RedLeaf Tour. Both are top-notch. GoldLeaf passengers spend most of their time on the upper level of beautifully designed dome cars. For breakfast and lunch, they descend a spiral staircase to the rolling dining room featuring linen table cloths and a gourmet menu prepared by the on-board chef. Spacious windows guarantee that nothing of the grand scenery will be missed. RedLeaf coaches are equally roomy with picture windows designed for optimum viewing. Meals are served at passengers' seats and include selections of fine Canadian fare such as Alberta beef and British Columbia salmon. Both tours guarantee that passengers will be well fed and plied with complimentary snacks and beverages throughout the journey. (Those cinnamon rolls that got our mouths watering were baking to keep half the GoldLeaf passengers contented while they waited for second-seating breakfast.)

Late in the afternoon of the first day we arrive in Kamloops, once a fur trading post and now a surprisingly busy city of 82,000. We have come 276 miles from Vancouver. We have left the Fraser River and followed the Thompson, crossing it seven times. We have passed through tunnels and under rocksheds built to protect the track from slides and avalanches. Scarlet- uniformed Mounties greet us. They have come not as lawmen but as colorful Canadian tourist attractions willing to pose for photos. When our photo-ops are finished, we board motorcoaches for a ride through town and up a winding hillside highway to our hotel. Most of us choose to attend musical dinner show at "Two River Junction." It has been written and produced locally, a high-falutin' and imaginative telling of the escapades of a real-life train robber. Expecting a bit of amateur corn, we are delighted to discover that the cast of four puts on a first-rate entertainment, skillfully performed and genuinely hilarious. A great ending to a five-star day.

The second day begins as the first in the early light of dawn and simply gets better and better. When the Rockies come into view just before lunch, there is no more dozing. We bundle up and take to the observation platforms, cameras in hand. The closer we get to Banff, the more spectacular the mountains, especially those that never lose their caps of snow. When we finally pull into the town of Banff, we have "oo-ed" and "ah-ed" for hours. William Van Horne's still- magnificent old Banff Springs Hotel rewards us with views of a brilliant sunset beyond those glorious mountains. But it will be at least a day before we stop feeling the rhythm of the rails beneath our feet.

"The most spectacular train trip in the world?" It is difficult to imagine a better one - unless, of course, you choose to ride on to Calgary, or take the northern leg up to Jasper. Or set out someday for eleven days instead of two and go all the way to Toronto. Meanwhile, we are exceedingly delighted with our two-day adventure. We did not meet one person who could think of a single thing that that could have made it better. Considering there were more than 150 of us, that has got to be some sort of record.

IF YOU GO

Rocky Mountaineer Railtours offers a variety of itineraries. Except for the Vancouver to Toronto tour, which includes a motorcoach trip to Niagra Falls, all tours explore only the Canadian West. Extended tours may include visits to destinations such as Jasper National Park, Whistler resort, the Icefield Parkway or Lake Louise

For a detailed listing of itineraries and rates, contact your travel agent or send for the full- color brochure "Canadian Rockies by Daylight by Rail" from Rocky Mountaineer Railtours, 1150 Station Street, 1st Floor, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6A 2X7. Phone: (604) 606-7200. Fax: (604) 606-7201. E-mail: mail@rockymountaineer.com. Website: www.rockymountaineer.com.

Copyright © Candace Leslie

Photo courtesy Rocky Mountaineer