May 12, 1996

Riding In Style Rocky Mountaineer Offers Luxurious Way To See Western Canada

Kia W. Mcinerny Special To Travel
 

Few things come close to the yester-year experience of sailing away on a great ship bound for Europe, removed for days, if not weeks, from faxes, phones and the relentless intrusion of the evening news. But a similar-in-spirit experience, luxury train travel, still lives in North America.

It is early June in Vancouver, British Columbia, and we are preparing to board a train bound for Jasper, Alberta. Not just any train, but a two-day luxury trip along a stretch of Canadian wilderness which has changed little since the rails were completed in 1885.

My husband and I love trains. In the ‘60s, as a young ensign, he traveled by train from Milan to Barcelona. Together, we’ve enjoyed trips through the British Isles and the high speed trains of Belgium, France and Switzerland. Our last journey, from Geneva to Florence by way of Venice offered spectacular scenery. But the Rocky Mountaineer, a daylight journey through the Rockies, may surpass Europe for comfort and scenic grandeur. And with the Canadian exchange rate, it’s very alluring.

We meet at 7 a.m. at the beautifully restored Pacific Central Station in Vancouver. The interior, with its brass and glass ceiling lamps and fresh mauve-colored walls, fits our impression of the elegance of train travel. Beyond the brass doors are 15 sparkling blue and white cars, including a dome car.

Our larger bags are checked and boarding passes issued. By the time the conductor calls “All aboard!” - for charm, not necessity - an understated air of anticipation ripples among the (undeniably) well-heeled passengers.

The coaches are comfortable with plenty of leg room, foot rests and aisle space. There’s a lavatory in each coach. And the reclining chairs were specially constructed for European travel, where trips sometimes take several days. We’re grateful for squeaky clean windows and no canned music.

One of the most attractive features of the trip is our coach steward, Dean. Professional and lively, he’s well prepared to give appropriate commentary and point out sights we would otherwise miss. He also serves snacks, cold drinks, alcoholic beverages and breakfast and lunch.

Seating is assigned, and all smokers, including Dean, are restricted to the breezy platform between the cars for a smoke break.

The ride is smooth and almost soundless, with the clickety-clack almost muted by the installation of ribbon rails. Swiftly, we’re beyond Vancouver to a place where berries grow wild along the tracks. Along the Fraser River, we glimpse scenes of farm life and dogs racing up country roads to greet the train.

I confess to previous feelings of ambivalence about a two-day rail trip through forests, even the spectacular Rockies. I packed paperbacks, and wondered if we’d get cabin fever. I was entirely unprepared for the pleasure of such a trip, or its scenic variety. As we roll along, dramatic falls, hidden pools and glimpses of wildlife - not to mention breakfast, lunch, tea and cocktails - keeps us lively.

Lunch is served, a fresh poached salmon. Perhaps it swam in the Fraser yesterday. The fare, though predictable, is fresh and tasty. And the view - well - who’s complaining?

At 5 in the afternoon, we pull off at Kamloops, a homely town with a colorful history. Accommodations are modest, as might be expected, but clean and modern. An ice cream shack along the river affords a pleasant reason to stroll after dinner, and count the catch of the fishermen on the boat dock.

The train splits in Kamloops; part of it heads for Jasper, the rest for Banff and Calgary. From Jasper, you can get a bus or hire a car to Banff and Lake Louise, via the Icefields Parkway, surely one of the most beautiful highways in the world. Many take the Banff route because that train continues on to Calgary, where you can get a flight home. We chose the route to Jasper where we planned a drive through the icefields.

Day two begins by backing out of Kamloops along our second river, the Thompson. Over a leisurely breakfast, Dean urges us to watch for otters, osprey, bear, and other wildlife along its banks. We keep our cameras ready and get some great shots of Pyramid Falls, beavers, otters, marmots, osprey, and elk.

Rail travel feels adventurous. On the open platform, the bracing mountain air whips our hair and tingles our faces. And there’s nothing quite so thrilling as the view up ahead, as our train negotiates hairpin turns along a rock precipice, the whitewater of the Thompson River below.

There are miles of rapids. And in the cliffs we spot hoodoos - Indian rock formations created to imprison the evil spirits of the dead.

Dean’s commentary reminds us this is wilderness. Little has changed since 1885 when the railroad was completed. The track was laid through forests, close to the river. Although the Trans-Canadian highway goes through here, we rarely see it.

Another pleasure is our fellow travelers, a congenial group composed of independent travelers like us and a small tour of Harvard/UCLA alumni. We encountered some of them after our train trip at some of the first-class hotels at Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff.

One hour before the end of our trip at Jasper, we reached the Continental Divide, the invisible border between British Columbia and Alberta. As if to finish off in grand style, a deer leapt across the tracks, gracefully avoiding the engine. She appraised us frankly before disappearing in the trees.

As we disembarked at Jasper’s charming station, our romantic impression of trains remained untarnished: It’s still the most civilized way to travel. Add one more to the great train trips of the world - and to our surprise, we found it not in Europe or Asia, but the Canadian Rockies.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The Rocky Mountaineer runs from May through October, departing from Vancouver, Jasper, Banff and Calgary on Tuesdays, Sundays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. You can take the train from west to east, or east to west. The fare in approximate U.S. dollars is $441 one way. The Rocky Mountaineer also provides a variety of tour packages, varying in length from 3 to 12 days. For information, contact Great Canadian Railtour Co., 340 Brooksbank Ave., Suite 104, North Vancouver, British Columbia, B7J 2C1; (800) 665-7245.

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = DRIVE SEASON ‘96 SUMMER TRAVEL GUIDE

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The Rocky Mountaineer runs from May through October, departing from Vancouver, Jasper, Banff and Calgary on Tuesdays, Sundays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. You can take the train from west to east, or east to west. The fare in approximate U.S. dollars is $441 one way. The Rocky Mountaineer also provides a variety of tour packages, varying in length from 3 to 12 days. For information, contact Great Canadian Railtour Co., 340 Brooksbank Ave., Suite 104, North Vancouver, British Columbia, B7J 2C1; (800) 665-7245.

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = DRIVE SEASON ‘96 SUMMER TRAVEL GUIDE


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