This year marks my 20th in the travel industry (where’s the time gone?!) and I’ve just fulfilled another lifetime ambition with my first time to British Colombia. 14 years ago I had the choice to either emigrate to New Zealand or Vancouver. I chose NZ, so this trip was a chance to check out what I missed!
Having biked around Stanley Park and then the seawall as far as the food markets on funky Granville Island, I understand what all the fuss is about with Vancouver and how ‘liveable’ it is. It’s a beautiful city and appears totally set up for enjoying an outdoors lifestyle – absolutely brilliant for cyclists with wide, brightly painted green cycle lanes. It’s also amazingly quiet and chilled out compared to my last big North American city experience – New York. Vancouver is “Pacific” in every sense!
Rocky Mountaineer – Journey through the Clouds
In an age where most forms of travel have been reduced to a chore to be endured rather than a privilege to be enjoyed, luxury train travel harks back to a happier time when the journey was as important as the destination.
I am joining Rocky Mountaineer’s two day ‘Journey Through The Clouds’, a 900km route from Vancouver to Jasper. No-one has asked me to take off my shoes or belt, x-rayed my luggage or instructed me to keep my seat belt fastened. I checked in at Vancouver’s RM station 30 minutes before departure and was waved off by two dozen of the company’s staff, and my luggage magically appeared in my hotel room in Kamloops. This must have been what travel was like in the glamorous ‘golden age’ of the 1920’s; I could certainly get used to this!
There’s no wi-fi on the train and almost no cellphone coverage for most of the journey and it’s striking how much this helps to create a relaxed ambience conducive to socialising with other guests. No one is staring at their phones or tablets; rather they are gazing reflectively out the large ‘seat to ceiling’ dome windows or chatting with friends, both old and new. I’d personally recommend the Gold Leaf service as the double decker carriages mean you have a better view over the tree line that often borders the tracks.
Food is of course a large part of any travel experience, and it’s no different on the train, with breakfast, lunch, snacks & drinks served at your seat in Silver Leaf carriages and in a dedicated dining carriage in Gold Leaf. Great pride is taken in sourcing local organic produce, highlights include salmon (this is Canada of course!) and wines of all grapes from British Colombia.
The scenery is much as you’d expect, a bit like New Zealand but on an even bigger scale, Fiordland on steroids if you like! We’ve traversed gentle farmland, ranches and a semi-arid desert.
The track passes above raging rapids in rainbow coloured canyons and past precarious bridges whose construction by the fur trading and gold rush pioneers must have been terrifying.
The journey follows the end of the epic Canadian Pacific (CP) railroad tracks, through the Cascade and Thompson subdivisions and following the Fraser River to its headwaters in the Rockies. The CP line was completed in the 1885 six years ahead of schedule to widespread global astonishment, and thus connected both sides of this vast country. On the other side of the canyon, I watch one of the longest goods trains I’ve ever seen, with hundreds of cars rolling along the Canada National (CN) track in the opposite direction.
Lunch is served on the train, the dishes cleared away by the charming and very friendly staff, drinks have been served and the atmosphere is convivial, with travel stories swapped and the odd card school popping up. A shout of ‘bear!’ has everyone reaching for their cameras, as a lone grizzly is spotted on the hillside across the river.
It’s telling that even though badly jetlagged and sleep deprived from our long haul flights from New Zealand, we relaxed completely into the journey and I can’t help but think this is because we’d been ‘unplugged’, forced into a digital detox we perhaps we didn’t know we needed. Without phone or internet you can really enjoy the experience of travel, not feel compelled to report on it while it’s still happening, but rather reflect back on it sometime after.
I’ve seen the trend towards permanent connectedness creep into so many aspects of the travel industry over the last two decades, with guaranteed fast wi-fi on motor coaches and cruise ships being fairly recent innovations but to this traveller, still sigh-inducing!
So, kudos to Rocky Mountaineer for holding firm against the rising tide and allowing their lucky guests to switch off completely.
Kamloops is a cheerful market town of 100,000 and the self proclaimed ‘tournament capital of Canada’. We enjoyed some excellent craft beers in a lively local restaurant and the signature local pub meal of BC – ‘putine’, a rather heart stopping combination of chips, gravy and cheese. Unlike most other luxury train journeys, the night is spent off the train and in a comfortable hotel. Re-boarding the train the next morning is a breeze, our coach transfer drops us off on the platform literally at the door to our carriage; our driver jokes he’s ‘sorry that’s the closest he can get us’ and that ‘we’ll have to walk the remaining 5 feet!’ Everyone is well rested and relaxed and hopeful of more sightings of bear and elk as we set off again towards the mountain village of Jasper.
Jasper & The Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise
The second leg of the journey, from Kamloops to the beautiful mountain town of Jasper is every bit as good as the first leg, with perhaps even better scenery.
Jasper Skytrain is at an altitude of 2400m. To get here I took apparently the highest and longest guided aerial tramway in Canada. From the top, I’ve realised that I really need much more time to properly explore the little town below (think Wanaka), which has to be one of Alberta’s prettiest; there are lots of great walking & cycling trails, but you are warned to make lots of noise when out on the trails to deter visits from our furry friends!
We are often asked ‘why go to the Rockies when we have mountains, lakes and glaciers in NZ?’ This is easily answered with what was without a doubt, my highlight of this trip through the Rockies – the spectacular 230km Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Lake Louise. This road, more prosaically known as Highway 93 North, offers spectacular sightseeing of pristine turquoise lakes, tumbling waterfalls, ancient glaciers and the Columbia Icefields. Along the stretch, big horn sheep, deer, black bears, and coyotes are frequently spotted.
Lake Louise is perhaps the prettiest place in all of the Canadian Rockies, and we were lucky enough to arrive just before the Lake had thawed completely – viewed from the Chateau, the front half was still just frozen over, while the back half was the brilliant blue colour you see in photos. The iconic Chateau Lake Louise hotel has ‘the’ view of course, and is a magnet for pretty much all tourists to the Rockies; it’s worth popping in for their famous high tea and that view from the restaurant alone. However, even if you are not staying there, the walking trails around the lake are a ‘must do’. If you have the time and energy, the Plain of Six Glaciers trail offers expansive views of the impressive mountain features that surround Lake Louise, including Mt. Lefroy, Mt. Victoria and the Victoria Glacier.
Banff The drive from Lake Louise to Banff is under an hour as only 50kms. I recommend taking the Bow Valley Parkway then you can visit Johnston Canyon – another spectacular canyon that has a walkway around the canyon walls. Banff is a much bigger and livelier town (think Queenstown if Jasper is Wanaka). I took the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain and was rewarded with fabulous views over the National Park.