WESTERN CANADA ABOARD THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER
IN SEPTEMBER 2015, I WAS PRIVILEGED TO EXPERIENCE A TRIP ABOARD THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER TRAIN JOURNEY THROUGH WESTERN CANADA. IN ADDITION TO THE TRAIN TRIP, I ALSO VISITED CALGARY, BANFF, LAKE LOUISE, JASPER AND VANCOUVER. IT WAS AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY FILLED WITH BEAUTIFUL SCENERY, INTERESTING WILDLIFE AND SOME OF THE FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE I HAVE EVER MET.
My journey began in Calgary, where we spent a couple of nights exploring the home of the Calgary Stampede. While the Stampede was not on during our time there, we were able to visit the show grounds to enjoy a bit of the history of the event. Calgary also offers a sky tower, beautiful river walkway and a fun night-life area to its visitors.
From Calgary, we drove towards the Kananaskis mountain range where we took a helicopter ride over the foothills. Due to the winds, this is not an experience for the faint of heart. While the view from above of the waterways winding themselves along the landscape and the foothills turning into proper mountains was breathtaking, I was happy to set my feet on the ground again.
We ventured on to Banff; a small, sweet town filled with fantastic shopping, delightful restaurants and a “tourist town” feel. Because Banff is in the heart of a national park, no more buildings or hotels will ever be erected here, so it is a hard place to get accommodation last minute; I would therefore highly recommend booking in advance if you plan to visit here. Banff felt a lot like Aspen, Colorado and had a distinct ski-resort vibe and fun night-life. It's also convenient to walk around and one could easily spend a couple of nights here.
Lake Louise was our next stop and it certainly lived up to the hype. The Fairmont, which sits on the edge of the turquoise-coloured lake, is like a fairytale castle placed perfectly for its guests to enjoy the natural beauty of this area. Lake Louise has so much to offer in both summer and winter and while most people only stay here one night, if you’re a nature-lover, I would suggest stretching that out to at least two. As I was there in the autumn, I was able to hike to the Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse. With a slight elevation in altitude, the hiking was a bit slower going than normal, but it was so worth it. The Teahouse sits high in the mountains that rise above the far end of the lake and it is run with no electricity whatsoever. All food is made and cooked in the old-fashioned way with dry goods being flown up by helicopter at the beginning of the season. The staff hike in at the beginning of each week, stay there and then hike back down the mountain at the week’s end. Cell phones are not allowed to ensure the Teahouse maintains a atmosphere focused on sharing in nature and conversation with other guests. I delighted in my homemade minestrone and grainy bread as I chatted away to people from England, Australia and Sweden. The most magical part of the trek was probably when the snow began to fall as I started my descent. This takes a couple of hours and it’s a good idea to wrap bells around your wrists as a bear deterrent.
As we took our leave from Lake Louise the following morning, I was sad to say goodbye to such a stunning area. Thankfully the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier awaited me, which was an interesting experience.
While lacking the serenity that hiking in Lake Louise provided, the glacier is easily accessible and can be done while driving onwards to your next destination. Be prepared for crowds and high prices at the restaurant where you wait to board your snow coaches. The glacier itself is interesting and the guides have a lot of knowledge about the history of the area and how global warming has affected the ice.
From here, we continued onwards to Jasper and experienced some of the most breathtaking scenery of the trip - multiply the Southern Alps of New Zealand by 1000 and you may develop an idea of just how massive this mountain range actually is.
Jasper is another quaint town positioned in a national park; so once again, no more buildings will ever be constructed here. While a small distance from the main town, staying at the Fairmont Jasper Springs afforded me the opportunity to once again delve into nature. I went mountain biking through hundreds of miles of forest trails and the autumnal colours were magical. (I didn’t actually bike hundreds of miles to be clear!) Also, there is something to be said for rounding a corner and coming upon a female elk relaxing in the shade of a pine tree. Jasper offers a warm, inviting and refreshing environment and is a great place to relax a bit before boarding the Rocky Mountaineer Train.
So after 5 days on the road, we finally embarked upon our Rocky Mountaineer Train Journey. We were fortunate to be sitting in the Gold Leaf carriage and I must say this is the only way to experience the Rocky Mountaineer. With massive domed windows allowing guests an unobstructed view of the natural surroundings, large and luxurious leather seats, beautifully crafted cuisine served in a separate dining area and incredible service, it truly is a once in a lifetime experience. The commentary on the train was informative and entertaining and the guides were very attentive. Our glasses were never empty nor were our stomachs. I was impressed with the ability of the chefs to produce such fantastic food in the cramped spaces they were allocated on the train.
Two days were spent like this: wining and dining while basking in the beauty of an isolated region of Western Canada only accessible by the train. It was exciting to search for and spot the wildlife and the train operators made every effort to ensure that we saw as many animals as possible. The high level of service was extended to our overnight in Kamloops, which is merely a place to stop and lay your head for the night. Our room keys were distributed efficiently on the bus whilst driving to our hotel and our luggage was already waiting in our rooms when we arrived. No need to check in or out, which allowed for a very large number of passengers to make their way quickly to their beds!
The second day was more of the same incredible treatment and stunning views of nature. As we rolled into the station in Vancouver, the ground staff awaited us with big smiles and joyful waves. It was such a wonderful end to an amazing train trip.
Finally, we spent a night in Vancouver, which in no way was long enough. Vancouver and its surrounding area requires at least 3 nights - if not more - to enjoy both the metropolitan area and the surrounds, which offer a plethora of activities from hiking, biking, boating and much more. Like most major cities, Vancouver is a shopper’s paradise and the nightlife is top notch. With easy-to-use public transport and a vibrant city centre, if you can use Vancouver as a stopover destination on your next flight to the UK or Europe - it is very much worth it.
All in all this experience was one of the most beautiful and refreshing I have ever had. The Rocky Mountaineer has many routes, which can allow you to enjoy parts of Western Canada in the lap of luxury for anywhere from 2 to 14 days. With a focus on customer service and ensuring every person has at least a few “WOW!” moments, a holiday aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is an experience you will not soon forget.