Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017

© Rocky Mountaineer

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Rails with a view

Rocky Mountaineer plunges passengers into the country's most spectacular scenery

The more I fly, the more I love train trips. It’s not just the rail world’s lack of airport security, gut-wrenching turbulence and sardine-can ambiance, but also train travel's sense of pomp and circumstance, its Old World civility. Stations are often grand old edifices where smartly uniformed porters will lug your overweight luggage and station staff might even lend a hand as you step up into your car. Then there’s the “All Aboard!” call that never fails to set off an anticipatory flutter of my heart, even if it’s just a recording.

And it was just so as I boarded the Rocky Mountaineer in the bleary-eyed dawn of late April in Vancouver’s East End. As the whistle sounded and my carriage lurched ever so slightly, the staff lined up railside in a waving honour guard. A steward arrived at my side with a much-needed pot of fresh coffee. Eco-friendly, with a place to stretch my legs and real food — sign me up to the rails anytime.

The Rocky Mountaineer, the largest privately owned passenger rail service in North America, criss-crosses British Columbia on four luxury routes. I had recently travelled from Vancouver to Whistler on their Whistler Mountaineer, a day trip up Howe Sound and back complete baby bear-sightings. Scenery-ogling was accompanied by an open bar from 8AM, a full gourmet breakfast and high tea on the way back.

The company’s Vancouver to Banff route is its signature trip — they are also the only passenger service provider on that route — and since it is lauded as one of the world’s great rail rides by National Geographic and others, I was keen to jump on board.

From the Rockies to the Pacific is the historic final leg of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s 4800-kilometre-long trans-continental route from Montreal to Vancouver, following in the footsteps and paddle strokes of early explorers and opening Canada’s West in the late 1800s.

Valleys, whitewater and desert

While I was aboard in 2010, it turned out to be a bit of a birthday party on wheels: it was the Rocky Mountaineer’s 20th anniversary of rail trips from the West Coast to Canada’s first national park, Banff, which was celebrating its 125th year. The train travels only during daylight hours through a wide variety of BC scenery with an overnight stop in Kamloops halfway. It’s a two-day trip operating from late April to October.

As we glided through lush Fraser Valley farmland glistening with dew, I took a seat in the dining car and agonized between scrambled eggs with smoked steelhead trout and eggs Benedict on Montreal smoked meat. Clive and Liz from Tasmania joined me at my table and we chatted about his job as an antique silver and stamp dealer. They were so excited to see real maple syrup on the table, they doused everything in it, including their eggs and stack of toast. Outside, a sign flashed by: “Welcome to Hope, Chainsaw Carving Capital.”

Just before Skuzzy Creek, the train slowed to a crawl for a view of the Fraser River squeezing through the 30-metre wide canyon of Hell’s Gate, a dramatic whitewater chute. We passed Jackass Mountain and the Jaws of Death Gorge. At Lytton, we traded the Fraser for the Thompson River and the scenery shifted to arid Spaghetti-Western bluffs. A couple in period costume waved from the front porch of the Kilby General Store, BC’s oldest.

By the time we reached the copper mining town of Ashcroft, we were in one of the country’s driest corners with less than 25 centimetres of annual rainfall, a desert landscape of Ponderosa pines and sage brush, abandoned cabins and telegraph posts leaning at drunken angles.

Cowboys and outlaws

There are two classes on board. RedLeaf passengers occupy vintage 1954 CPR railcars, and the costlier GoldLeaf offers seating beneath domed plexi-glass in two-level cars custom made in Colorado. Down a spiral staircase on the main level, GoldLeaf’s dining room is outfitted with classy upholstered booths. For lunch, I chose from a selection of BC wines and beers to accompany Alberta strip loin in a red wine demi-glace created Houdini-like in a galley the size of a broom closet. My dining partner was a gracious and spunky widow from Texas celebrating her 90th birthday. Most passengers were Australian, American and Asian.

Our entertaining Czech-born guide, Ivan, pointed out a First Nations cemetery where folks were buried standing up. Then we spotted big horn sheep perched on a cliff side. It was dusk when we pulled into Kamloops, met by a mounted, three-horse greeting party in red uniform jackets.

It was another early morning start as we clickety-clacked eastward through Cowboy Country studded with strange hoodoos, eroded sandstone pillars. This was the haunt of American outlaw Billy Miner who committed Canada’s first train robbery in 1904 and reputedly coined the phrase “Hands Up!” His second attempt was less successful: 20 kilometres east of Kamloops, he and his posse awaited a cash-laden train that was delayed. The train they got instead netted them just $15, a handful of liver pills and a prison sentence!

Dramatic tracks

The landscape morphed into hot, dry vacation country alongside Shuswap Lake where we slowed at Craigellachie to see where the CPR drove the last stake into the national railway line in 1885. Then we started our climb into serious mountain country on the approach to Revelstoke through a series of spectacular ranges whose peaks reach 2700 metres and tower above our dome ceiling. We passed beneath a series of protective rock sheds on an eight-kilometre stretch called Avalanche Alley. A bear ambled alongside the tracks and there were several huge osprey nests perched atop poles.

In Glacier National Park, we lost sight of the peaks when we plunged into the eight-kilometre-long Connaught tunnel. We were in darkness for eight long minutes. When we emerged, I headed outside into the vestibule between carriages. Smacked by wet flakes of snow, it felt like winter and I was treated to a full symphony of train creaks and groans as we inched across the 1929 Stoney Creek Bridge arching high above a gorge.

The Spiral Tunnels were one of the trip’s highlights. To reduce a dangerously steep decline of 4.5 percent, the rail line makes two loops inside two mountains. Modelled after a Swiss tunnel system, the Spiral Tunnels cost $1 million to build in 1907. As we were about to enter the first tunnel, I looked up and see where we would soon emerge, 17 metres higher, after doing a 230-degree turn inside Mt. Ogden. The second spiral inside Cathedral Mountain had us climbing another 15 metres and turning 288 degrees.

Castles in the peaks

We were now in serious Rockies country, the Valley of the Ten Peaks creating a dramatic saw tooth skyline of snowy jagged peaks. The train picked up speed. Mount Temple’s hanging glacier glitters through the dome while outside the windows were beaver ponds and a munching moose, log cabins, turquoise glacial lakes, rock bridges and waterfalls. A single red canoe travelled down a broad stream. It started to snow again. “Chardonnay or Merlot?” the server asked, setting down a cheese plate with fruit.

Having travelled from temperate rainforest through desert and mountains to 1370 metres, we arrived in Banff National Park, greeted this time by a pack of hefty elk grazing the station parking lot lawn.

Banff National Park was created and promoted as a kind of carrot in 1885 to entice visitors into the wilderness. One of its staunchest supporters was CPR’s American-born president, William Van Horne, who famously quipped: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” The icing on that remote carrot was now-iconic hotels that thought they were castles — Chateau Lake Louise and the Banff Springs Hotel.

It was to the Banff Springs I headed, a Scottish baronial castle with nooks and crannies and spiral stone staircases leading to hidden wine bars and deep window-box benches to look out at the scenery. Two pampered days on the train had put me in the mood to do nothing but relax. I happily made a bee-line for the spa.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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