Sunday, 22 December 2013

CANADA: TRIP OF A LIFETIME ON THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER

It’s hailed as one of the world’s greatest train journeys, but that’s one of the world’s greatest understatements. If Pinocchio had described my two-day trip on Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer as “one of”, his nose would have stretched the whole 594 miles from Vancouver to Banff. For me, it’s THE greatest train journey, and every minute of my every hour on board was a thrill.

EXCITEMENT IS MOUNTAIN: Fabulous Rocky
Mountaineer and the Rockies Photo: RM

ROCKY START: Train station in Vancouver,
where the journey begins

The sense that you’ve signed up for something special kicks in before you even take your seat. The Rocky Mountaineer has its own custom-built modern station. A pianist playing a baby grand welcomes passengers into the marble-floored concourse. They come from every part of the globe, and converse excitedly in umpteen languages and accents. There, beyond the wide, floor-to-ceiling trackside glass wall, sits the train, resplendent in its blue, gold and white livery — a first tantalising glimpse of the ‘Ritz on the Rails’.
The passengers point.
“Oh-my-gaaawd!”
“Dios mio!”
“Strewth!”
“Mon dieu!”
Not wishing to appear unimpressed, I throw in an “Och aye the noo!” As you do.

PLAY IT A TRAIN, SAM: A pianist welcomes
passengers to the Rocky Mountaineer station

Everyone has been looking forward to this moment for ages — in my case, for years. I want to rush out to the platform and get going, but most people simply stand and admire the gleaming gargantuan. Besides, there’s a ceremony to be performed before we embark on a journey across British Columbia and into Alberta.
The Rocky Mountaineer crew and management line up with the train behind them. An Australian passenger, Mr. Harrison, is introduced. His name has been drawn at random, and he’ll have the honour of performing the ceremony. There’s a bellows contraption on the floor in front of him with three horn pipes sticking out of it. I ask the pianist for the low-down.
“It’s like a mini church organ,” he whispers. “When that gentleman presses the bellows with his foot, it’ll make the exact same sound as the train’s horn. And every bit as loud.”
I’m so-oooo jealous. I have the urge to yell “Taxi for Harrison!” so I can do it, but decorum prevails.
As per instructions, Mr. Harrison gives two short blasts and one long on the horns. He looks delighted with himself. A cheer echoes around the station and everyone applauds. The train manager steps forward. A hush descends. All eyes are on him as he takes a deep breath. He flexes his knees and throws back his head. And then out come the magic words.
“Aaaaall aaaboooaaaard!”

PLATFORM SOULS: Passengers boarding

On the platform, Mike Chisholm takes a deep breath too and blows into his bagpipes. In the days when I had hair, it stood on end at the sound of the Scottish pipes. Now I go all dewy-eyed. I stand there tapping a toe and dabbing at my nose while Mike plays the rousing We’re No Awa’ Tae Bide Awa’. If there’s a psychiatrist in the station and he spots my trembling bottom lip, he’ll probably whisk me awa’ to his consulting rooms — it’s all getting a bit overwhelming, and I haven’t even set foot on the train yet.
I pull myself together and pocket my hankie. Mike has stopped for a quick breather, so I go over for a blether. He’s a Vancouver resident but comes from Nova Scotia, to where his forefathers — like thousands of other displaced Scots — fled during the cruel Highland Clearances at the end of the 18th and well into the 19th centuries. Ruthless aristocratic landowners turned countless families off of their crofts and replaced the people with more profitable sheep, devastating clan society and Gaelic culture in the process.
People of Scottish descent are the third-biggest national group in Canada, which would explain why Canadians say “aboot” for “about”, and Mike is fiercely proud of his hills-and-glens heritage. He’s in big demand to play the bagpipes at weddings, funerals, birthdays and “all special events”, as it says on his business card. Well, today is a special event — I get to realise a long-held ambition to ride on the Rocky Mountaineer.

PIPES DREAM: Bagpiper Mike Chisholm

Mike wishes me bon voyage, and I hop aboard double-decker car CB05 and climb the spiral staircase. If I’d been on a pogo stick, I couldn’t have had more of a spring in my step.
Head host Tyler shows me to my window seat. It’s big, wide and comfortable, and there’s enough leg-room for a basketball player — perfect for the next 10 hours as we travel to Kamloops in British Columbia’s semi-arid interior. As I’m sitting six feet from the complimentary bar, arid is something I won’t have to worry about. But I’m slightly concerned about dozing off and missing something — I was collected from my hotel at 6.30am, it’s still only 7.30 and there’s a long day ahead. I’ve made a list of the many sights I want to photograph from the train, and I’ll be kicking myself if I miss even one of them.
I ask Tyler if he’d be good enough to poke me in the ribs should I fall asleep. He smiles and shakes his head.
“You mean you won’t wake me?”
“No,” he says. “I mean you won’t fall asleep. Trust me.”

FIRST-GLASS SERVICE: Hosts welcome
passengers aboard GoldLeaf service RM

I feel like a VIP, and as far as the Rocky Mountaineer’s charming and highly-professional hospitality team are concerned, that’s exactly what everyone on board is — a Very Important Passenger.
Tyler introduces his colleagues — Andrea, Ann, Alicia, Roni, Keith, Ted, Jasmine and Casey. My eyebrows shoot up. Casey? Surely her surname can’t be . . . Jones?
Casey Jones was my favourite TV programme as a child and instilled my abiding love of train travel. Every Saturday morning I’d be glued to the screen for my weekly black and white Wild West appointment with Casey, the man at the throttle of the Cannonball Express; his wife Alice; son Casey Jnr; fireman Wallie Sims; and conductor Red Rock Smith. I’ve been unconsciously humming and whistling the theme tune in the weeks running up to my departure for Canada, much to the annoyance of friends and colleagues who can’t get it out of their heads. As it turns out, the Rocky Mountaineer’s Casey isn’t called Jones. Ah, well.

WILD WEST DADVENTURE: Casey Jones and
his son, Casey Jnr, on the Cannonball Express

The crew distributes glasses of Bucks Fizz and fruit juice. Tyler lifts a microphone. It’s something he and his colleagues will do throughout the journey as they alert us to photo opportunities up ahead, when the driver obligingly slows to what they call Kodak speed, and deliver potted histories of the places we pass. These guys have done their homework — the commentary is informative and entertaining and frequently fills the carriage with laughter.
A toast is proposed — to the trip of a lifetime. We all drink to that. On cue, the driver sounds three blasts on the horn, two short and one long, just as Mr. Harrison had done in the station, and the Rocky Mountaineer slowly and oh-so-gently begins to move. Backwards. But not to worry, because the driver’s shifting to another track. Five minutes later, the train tiptoes forward and the adventure begins — for everyone but the two Japanese ladies sitting side by side who stare at a Harry Potter movie on their iPad while sharing the earphones.
The Rocky Mountaineer operates from April to October on five routes. The journey I’m taking, First Passage to the West, retraces the historic Canadian Pacific Railway and is the most popular. There are three levels of service, and I’m fortunate to be travelling GoldLeaf, or first-class. The crew seem to be telepathic — I’ve only to think about a drink and someone magically appears, Jeeves-like, at my side.
Vancouver is half-an-hour behind us when we’re told: “Ladies and gentlemen, breakfast is now being served in your personal dining salon downstairs. Bon appetit.”
If you want tea and toast, just ask, but this is the Ritz on the Rails, remember, and there are eight sous chefs and two executive sous chefs on board. Ask for toast and I’m sure you’d be given a colour chart to choose exactly how brown you’d like it. But how about Sir Sandford Fleming Benedict — a poached egg served over smoked meat on a fluffy crumpet with tarragon Hollandaise? Or an omelette filled with mozzarella, asparagus, freshly-roasted potatoes and smoked ham? Or scrambled eggs and smoked steelhead salmon topped with kelp caviar and lemon chive creme fraiche? Or traditional buttermilk pancakes, hot off the griddle, with candied orange zest and berry preserve? Or granola parfait — vanilla-scented yogurt and granola with fresh berries? They also do a fry for hearty eaters.

KELP YOURSELF: Breakfast of eggs, smoked
salmon 
and kelp caviar RM

I share a beautifully-set table with the Australian couple seated across the aisle from me upstairs. Stephen Weatherstone, a former chief airline pilot from Sydney, and his wife Charmayne are making the most of their retirement by filling it with worldwide travel adventures. They’re clearly enjoying this one. At the table opposite, the two Japanese ladies are clearly enjoying their movie while some of the most amazing scenery in the world rolls past at a leisurely 15mph.
Stephen’s camera is always to hand. He’s a habitual snapper — if film were still the medium, it would cost him a fortune to get all his pictures developed. I venture that he takes a lot of photos.
“I don’t take photos, mate,” he says. “I collect memories.”
I ask him if he misses work — if he ever hankers to get back in the cockpit.
“Nah,” he says, and shakes his head. “I’m retired, mate, and retired I’m staying. Right, Charmayne?”
His wife smiles and pats the back of his hand.

ROOF WITH A VIEW: Passengers take
photos from a GoldLeaf carriage

We return upstairs for a spot of early morning sightseeing. Nature has provided the views, and the Colorado Railcar Manufacturing Company has provided the GoldLeaf glass-roofed carriages from which to marvel at them. Everything is so breathtakingly beautiful that I expect an oxygen mask to drop from the overhead panel, only there is no panel, just clear blue skies, snow-capped mountains — proper mountains, like the iconic Paramount Pictures one — and majestic eagles.
Look left and right and you see dive-bombing ospreys plucking salmon and trout from the many lakes along the way (Canada has two million lakes, more than every other country combined). It’s a wildlife wonderland out of those windows, and among the trackside stars are black bears and grizzly bears, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, raccoons and beavers. I happen to be looking the wrong way when Tyler picks up the mike and says: “Look, everyone — there’s Bigfoot!” Funnily enough, everyone else is looking the wrong way too.

BEAR HUG: It's a wildlife wonderland RM

Before we know it, it’s lunchtime. Everything on the regularly-changing menu is made on board from scratch using the freshest ingredients from British Columbia and Alberta, and dishes are paired with award-winning wines from the Okanagan Valley.
Host Alicia hands me the menu. There’s a choice of the day’s featured soup or freshly-prepared salad; lightly-roasted wild British Columbia sockeye salmon with shaved fennel slaw, mustard seed vinaigrette and warm vegetable and roasted potato salad; slow-cooked Alberta beef short ribs served with garlic whipped potatoes and seasonal vegetables; black tiger prawns simmered in a bouillabaisse broth and served over a sticky rice cake topped with sauteed vegetables julienne; Fraser Valley chicken breast encrusted with wild British Columbia mushrooms, pan-seared and served with garlic mashed potatoes and a blueberry relish; traditional farfalle pasta tossed in cream, sweet Chilliwack corn, green peas and Parmesan; fresh local vegetables layered with wonton crisps, balsamic vinegar molasses, garlic and herb coulis; and for dessert there’s freshly-baked brownie with French vanilla ice cream, warm chocolate sauce and crisp ginger snap.

FISH AND SIPS: Delicious lunch of sockeye
salmon 
with a glass of Okanagan red wine RM
SHORT AND SWEET: Slow-cooked Alberta
beef short ribs with garlic whipped potatoes RM

I have the salmon, and am tickled to learn that one of the chefs who prepared it is Travis Catfish. As I rise from the table, a glance at the two Japanese ladies confirms they’re still in a little cinematic world of their own. They’re watching another movie, but I can’t make out what it is, so I stop and pat my pockets, pretending to search for something, and take a peek. They spot me and look up. I smile guiltily and give them a little embarrassed wave. Now, the Japanese for “Good morning” is “Ohayoo”; it is NOT “Hyundai”, which is Korean anyway, but the word is out of my mouth before I can stop it. Mortified, I hurry up the stairs and back to the safety of my seat.
It’s a gorgeous day, so after a chat with Stephen and Charmayne we decide to nip downstairs for a breath of fresh air on the open vestibule between carriages. If the Rocky Mountaineer is going to be robbed, this is where the bandits, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ and firing their pistols in the air, will board after galloping hell for leather alongside the train and leaping from their saddles. Unlikely, I know, but it was on this length of track on May 8, 1906, that such a robbery occurred.

PIC YOUR MOMENT: Passengers take photos
from the open vestibule between carriages

Former Pony Express rider Billy Miner, known as the “Gentleman Bandit” because he always said “please” and “thank you” when relieving his victims of their valuables, began his life of crime at the age of 17 in 1864 when he and his gang held-up a Wells Fargo Express stagecoach in his native Kentucky.
Fast forward to 1906 when, at Ducks Station (now called Monte Creek), Billy and his sidekicks William ‘Shorty’ Dunn and Louis Colquhoun boarded a Vancouver-bound Canadian Pacific train with the intention of making off with thousands of dollars’ worth of gold, currency and bonds. Unfortunately for them, they boarded the wrong train — because of a scheduling change, the one carrying the valuables was delayed. In the event, Billy and the boys scarpered with $15 — and a bottle of liver pills. I don’t know how much liver pills were worth in 1906, but Canadian Pacific was mightily miffed about losing them and, with the provincial and federal governments, put up a reward of $11,500 for the capture, dead or alive, of the bandits.
They were caught less than a month after the robbery, and ringleader Billy was sentenced to life imprisonment in New Westminster penitentiary, from which he soon escaped. His early release in September 1913 from a prison in Georgia — from which he had twice before absconded — had nothing to do with time off for good behaviour: according to a newspaper report of the day, “his third escape from the Georgia penitentiary was in company with the Angel of Death”. He was 65, and had spent more than half his life in jail.
We’re nearing Kamloops, 285 miles down the line from Vancouver and the mid-point of our two-day idyll, where we’ll stay the night. There are no sleeper cars on the Rocky Mountaineer, so after a day on the rails we’ll board assigned buses at the station for the short hop to our hotels. Our luggage has preceded us in a truck, and will be in our rooms on arrival.
As we pull into the station in the early evening, red-shirted members of the local mounted rangers wave from the trackside. Their horses appear equally glad to see us and nod vigorously as the train crawls to a halt.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HI: A warm welcome awaits
passengers as the train arrives in Kamloops

Kamloops gets its name from the Shuswap First Nation word “T’Kemlups”, which means “meeting of the waters” and refers to the confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers. T’Kemlups was for thousands of years a trading centre for the Shuswap people, who in 1812 became the main suppliers to the Pacific Fur Company. Pacific was later taken over by its competitor, North West, and in 1821 the famous Hudson’s Bay Company arrived and set up shop.
Unremarkable but immaculately-kept Kamloops, where Boris ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ Karloff began his acting career, is unlikely to feature in any list of “places to see before you die”. That said, in 1980 a group of Tibetan holy men named a sacred First Nations site 30 miles from the town as “the centre of the universe”. Imagine getting a postcard from there.

NORTH BEST PASSAGE: Rocky Mountaineer
travels along the North Thompson River RM

I check-in to the Thompson Hotel, about-turn and immediately leave. That’s no reflection on the establishment. Rather, on the way in I’ve spotted a busy beer garden next to the entrance and spend an hour there with an Imperialist Pig — of the liquid variety. It’s an English-style Indian pale ale, one of seven beers and lagers from the Noble Pig brewhouse whose garden it is. An arbour on which the brewmaster grows hops provides the patio with shade and respite from the heat — it’s nearly 8pm, but the temperature on the street is 22C.
Refreshed, and feeling peckish, I stroll along the main drag to the Fireside Steakhouse in the Plaza Hotel, as recommended by the driver of the bus that collected us from the station. The waitress has obviously misheard me, or maybe a film crew from Canadian Candid Camera is hiding in the kitchen, watching me on a monitor and chuckling, because she reappears after 10 minutes with enough food to feed the mounted rangers — and their horses.
What I manage to eat of the huge Haughton Black Angus steak, big baked potato, log-sized fries, pile of onion rings and mini Mount Everest of sauteed vegetables is delicious. What I leave is a disgraceful waste. By the time I throw in the towel — or rather, the napkin — my belly’s a couple of inches closer to the table edge. I’ve barely made a dent in my dinner, but the family sitting nearby have long-since cleared their plates and are studying the dessert menu. I pay, loosen my belt and waddle out the door.

CLOUD-PLEASER: GoldLeaf carriages RM

Day two of my Canadian rail adventure dawns as bright and beautiful as the previous. According to the forecast, it’s going to be clear skies all the way to Banff, 309 miles up the track. As I stand chatting on the platform with Stephen and Charmayne, Tyler helps a lady using a wheelchair to board the train via a hydraulic platform (there’s also a lift between the lower and upper decks in each GoldLeaf carriage for the convenience of less-mobile passengers). As the platform inches its way up to the open vestibule, the lady has everyone in stitches when she jokingly presses her palms together as if in prayer, looks skyward and sings “Nearer my God to Thee”.
The journey from Kamloops has more twists than a game of rummy as the train snakes its way ever upwards into the Rockies, skirting lakes, hugging mountains and going through them. As we cross deep canyons and ravines, those passengers who don’t have a head for heights avert their eyes.
My companions at lunch are medical equipment technician and Rod Stewart lookalike Andrew Law and his partner Patsy, from Tasmania. Andrew’s son is an assistant hotel manager in Banff, and dad and lad haven’t seen each other for nearly three years, so a big reunion is in the offing.
I ask Andrew about his name. Law is as Scottish as haggis, and Andrew is Scotland’s patron saint, crucified on an X-shaped cross, which is replicated in white against a blue background on the national flag.
“Family’s from Ayrshire, mate,” he says, confirming my suspicions.
Just then, Casey-not-Jones, who’s upstairs, comes on the intercom and tells us that if we look out of the right-hand windows we’ll see a couple of helicopters dropping water from the lake on to a mountainside forest fire.
“Pfff!” says Andrew, unimpressed by the flames and smoke, before returning to his tiger prawns. “That’s not a forest fire. Back in Tassie, I cook on bigger barbies than that.”

KICKETY-CLACK: Kicking Horse Pass RM

It’s mid-afternoon, and Tyler tells us about an approaching attraction, which he describes as a miracle of railway engineering. Given the big billing, we’re all ears.
Laying eight miles of track straight up Big Hill to near the top of Kicking Horse Pass was, in 1884, an unavoidable endeavour. The cost was steep, and so was the gradient — at an unfeasible 4.4 per cent, it was asking for trouble. Over the next 22 years, Canadian Pacific threw money at this hazardous folly, and many lives were lost in accidents as trains derailed on the way up and down. The solution came in 1907 when construction began on two spiral tunnels, one through Cathedral Mountain (the upper tunnel) and the other (the lower) through Mount Ogden, which together halved the gradient to a meandering and much safer 2.2 per cent. The upper tunnel turns through 250 degrees and emerges 15 metres higher than the entrance, while the lower tunnel turns through 230 degrees and comes out 17 metres higher.
Acting on a tip-off from Tyler, I make my way to the open vestibule at the rear of the 22-carriage train. Leaning out — but not too far for fear of being decapitated — I catch a fleeting glimpse of the lead locomotive, having completed almost three-quarters of a circle inside the mountain, nosing out of a tunnel as the tail end of the train enters it and all goes dark.

BEND ON THE RUN: Kicking Horse Canyon RM

We’re close to the highest point of the journey (1,626 metres), which also marks the Continental Divide where the Rocky Mountaineer leaves Yoho National Park in British Columbia and enters Banff National Park in Alberta and another time zone.
Having disappointed with his Bigfoot alert, ‘Trick-me-once’ Tyler tells us that if we look out to our left then maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a man standing in the meadow waving at us. A totally naked man. There are little squeals of delight from the ladies, and I fear the carriage will tip over as those sitting on the left press their noses to the windows and those sitting opposite move into the aisle and peer out. The right-hand seats are now a female-free zone. Most of the men harrumph and feign indifference, but Stephen and I can’t get our lens caps off quickly enough to take photos of . . . a meadow. With no naked man in it.
Tyler is most apologetic, and insists he was there when the Rocky Mountaineer passed here the week before.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I swear, I saw him,” he says in all sincerity. “Would I lie to you?”
Having been fooled by his Bigfoot alert, the jury is divided, but Tyler puts up an ultimately convincing defence. The naked man is a farmer who rears cattle; he hasn’t always saluted passengers, though he has always appeared without so much as a pair of socks on. In the early days of the Rocky Mountaineer, which made its first journey from Vancouver to Calgary in May 1990, he complained that it spooked his animals and, regardless of the thigh-high thistles and stinging nettles, would leap up and down in the meadow and wave his fists every time it passed. His protests ended, as did his self-inflicted injuries, when it was agreed that the train would slow to a crawl whenever his beasts were out grazing.
We’re homing in on Banff, where sadly I have to part company with my new friends, when host Andrea invites everyone — for a bit of fun and a prize — to write a limerick or a short poem about our Rocky Mountaineer experience. I decide to adapt the first verse of the Casey Jones signature song, with yours truly in the starring role:

Tommy Sween, steamin’ and a-rollin’
Tommy Sween — you’ll have another beer?
When you hear, a load of slurping noises
It’s Sweeney sipping lager on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Beat that, I think, and hand in my entry. Imagine my surprise when I’m pipped to the prize — a rather smart Rocky Mountaineer raincoat — by a travel agent from Paris whose poem a) is read aloud by Casey-not-Jones in French, so I don’t understand it, and b) doesn’t even rhyme. I console myself with the fact that at least Mr. Harrison, who got to sound the departure horn in Vancouver, hasn’t won.

AWE-RORA: The Northern Lights provide a
spectacular show over Banff SATORU KIKUCHI

More than 4.5 million visitors flock to Banff each year, though most come in the winter months and spend their time in the area’s three ski resorts — Mount Norquay, Lake Louise Ski Area and Sunshine Village. It wasn’t always called Banff. Until 1880 it was Siding 29 — hardly a name to attract the well-heeled visitors that the Canadian Pacific investors hoped would fill their trains as they travelled to enjoy the hot springs at Sulphur Mountain.
William Van Horne, who was hired as general manager to oversee construction of the railway at a salary of $15,000 — which when he started in January 1882 put him in the same pay league as today’s top soccer players — was also a tourism pioneer. He recognised that despite its remoteness, Banff’s rugged beauty — he called it “the million-dollar view” — was reason enough for people to journey here. He’s famously quoted as saying: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
To this end, a 10-square-mile park reserve was created on Sulphur Mountain in 1885. In 1886, park superintendent George Stewart began designing Banff township as a spa resort. The following year, the reserve was expanded to 260 square miles and named Rocky Mountain Park, later Banff National Park (it now covers 2,546 square miles and contains two dozen peaks that rise 2,989 metres or more). While this was going on, Canadian Pacific was building several grand hotels, none grander nor bigger than the enormous Scottish Baronial-style Banff Springs which opened in 1888. It dominates this community of 8,300 year-round residents where the streets are named after local wildlife (I couldn’t find Bigfoot Boulevard). Banff Springs was an immediate success, initially as a summer retreat for wealthy Americans and Europeans who would stay for three or four months. These days it’s busy year-round, especially at Christmas when it welcomes 3,500 guests.
When Van Horne coined his “million-dollar view”, he was referring to what nature had provided at Banff and the vista from the splendid Chateau at lovely Lake Louise, 36 miles to the east, but the description may justifiably be applied also to Banff Springs. It’s rendered minuscule by the mountains, but with its petticoat of pine trees and the mountains as a backdrop, it’s magnificent.

INN FOCUS: View of Banff and the Rimrock
Resort Hotel (foreground) from Sulphur Mountain

As we prepare to disembark, I’m heartened to see that the two Japanese ladies are at long last showing an interest in the journey. They’re still peering at their iPad and sharing the earphones, but they’re watching the Rocky Mountaineer’s very own music video. In 2012, an international contest was launched, with musicians invited to submit a song with a rail travel theme. Hundreds of entries were received, from which English singer-songwriter Andrew Mockler’s Next Train (www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tKsokqTP48) was chosen earlier this year as the best. While Tyler and the crew’s taste in written-to-order odes is questionable, their bosses’ taste in songs is impeccable.
My two-day train trip of a lifetime, which has been on my bucket list for so many years, is over. It’s a melancholy moment as I board the bus for my hotel, but I smile as I reflect that while it might have been murder on the Orient Express, it’s marvel after marvel on the Rocky Mountaineer.

CURVE-ACEOUS: The Rocky Mountaineer at
Morants Curve close to Lake Louise RM

MY ROCKY MOUNTAINEER ROUTE
The First Passage to the West (2 days) route that I travelled on goes from Vancouver to Calgary via Kamloops, Lake Louise and Banff. That is of course west to east, but you can ride the rails in either direction. Places of special interest along the way include:

DAY ONE
Fort Langley: The original fort was built in 1827 by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a centre for collecting and exporting furs, mainly beaver for use in hats coveted by Europeans who thought that strutting around with a dead animal on their heads was the height of fashion. I blame Davy Crockett.
Mount Baker: This 3,285-metre peak, 40 miles to the south in Washington State, is clearly visible from the train on a good day. It’s part of the volcanic chain that includes Mount Saint Helens, also in Washington, which erupted with catastrophic results on May 18,1980.
Mission: Roman Catholic missionaries established St. Mary’s Indian Mission here in 1861, which sounds innocent enough. However, what became the first and biggest First Nations residential school of its kind in British Columbia was the precursor of many in which native children removed from their families were effectively incarcerated and ‘cleansed’ of their language and culture.
Hope: In 1848, the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fort-cum-trading post at the meeting of the Fraser and Coquihalla Rivers in the “hope” that it would provide an easier route into and out of the Cascade Mountains for fur trappers. For the next 10 years it did; then the gold rush began, the trappers turned their attention to panning and the beavers breathed a sigh of relief. Hope is now a logging station and tourist town.

HELL AND HIGH WATER: Gorge at Hell's Gate

FOREST JUMP: The train crosses a creek deep
in a pine and fir forest near Hell's Gate RM

Hell’s Gate: The 850-mile-long Fraser River, which is named after New England explorer Simon Fraser who navigated it in 1808 while seeking a trade route to the Pacific, is at its narrowest, noisiest and scariest at this 34-metre-wide gorge. When the Fraser — which can vary in height by 25 metres here — is in full spate, 200 million gallons of water a minute come crashing through.
Skuzzy Creek and Bridge: It’s difficult to imagine, but the 127-foot steamboat Skuzzy was built in 1882 to carry railway supplies UP the river through Hell’s Gate. It was only after a steam winch was installed that the Skuzzy was able — just once — to make the seemingly impossible passage.

SPANORAMA: Bridges at Cisco Crossings RM

Cisco Crossings: From the First Nations word “siska” meaning “unpredictable”, the name refers to the changeable nature of the water beneath the bridges here, where the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways cross the Fraser River.
Avalanche Alley: Rock chutes along this length of the line ensure that anything dislodged by not-infrequent landslides above is channelled safely over and away from the rails. A higgledy-piggledy series of redundant telegraph poles is a reminder of the days when Morse code operators billeted in small shacks beside the track intercepted messages for the trains. The engineer would slow, and if he spotted a message attached to a pole he would reach out and retrieve it.
Jaws of Death Gorge: The turbulent waters of the Thompson River make this a
favourite spot for whitewater rafting. Great photos guaranteed if the passing of the train coincides with daredevils negotiating the rapids.

HAPPILY RIVER RAFTER: White water rafting
NEST DOOR NEIGHBOUR: An osprey perches
on its nest a few feet from the train window

Osprey Nest: It mustn’t have taken the committee very long to come up with the name for this part of the track. Look out of the right-hand windows and there it is, 10 feet away — an osprey nest perched atop an old telephone pole and, if you’re lucky, an osprey perched on the edge of the nest.

DAY TWO
Great Train Robbery, May 1906: This is where bumbling bandit Billy Miner robbed a train of $15 and some liver pills. Not a good day at the office for Billy and his buddies.
Mouth of the Adams River: The site every year of the world’s biggest salmon run, when the mature fish return from the ocean to spawn — and die. Here they will have completed a perilous (Bears! Ospreys! Anglers!) 350-mile, 21-day journey upriver from the mouth of the Fraser River, instinctively intent on reaching the Adams River spawning grounds where they hatched four years before. Having laid and fertilised billions of eggs, the emaciated and exhausted males and females, which stop feeding as soon as they enter the Fraser, die.

FRASE FRAME: Passing along
the Fraser Canyon RM

Craigellachie: At 9.22am on Saturday, November 7, 1885, investor Donald A. Smith, who didn’t know one end of a sledgehammer from the other, had a ham-fisted go at driving the last spike into the last length of track of the Canadian Pacific Railway — and bent it. At 9.25am he swung the hammer at a replacement spike, and this time his aim was true. Half-a-dozen blows later, history was made — Canada’s first transcontinental railway was complete, four-and-a-half years after the first spike was hammered into place and a remarkable six years ahead of schedule.
Connaught Tunnel: It took more than three years and $9 million to construct this five-mile-long tunnel straight through Mount Macdonald. Named after the Duke of Connaught, the then Governor General of Canada, the project was derided by sceptics who nicknamed it the “Cannot Tunnel” and sat back to watch it fail. They had to eat their words when it was completed, on time, in 1906.
Stoney Creek Bridge: This is the third bridge to span the creek here on the eastern slopes of Mount Tupper, which is not named after barefoot comic book athlete Alf Tupper, the ‘Tough of the Track’. If it had been, he’d be the ‘Tough of the Tracks’. The first bridge was a wooden structure, but it became unstable. Its steel replacement opened in 1893, but with locomotives becoming ever heavier it too was replaced, in 1929. The present bridge spans 150 metres and towers 100 metres above the creek bed.
Kicking Horse River: Geologist and map-maker James Hector discovered the canyon here in 1858, and promptly received a kick in the chest from one of his expedition’s pack horses, which knocked him out cold for several hours. He returned to the site in 1903, when the horseshoe-shaped bruise was a distant memory — until his companions told him the river had been named after some idiot who, 45 years before, had been kicked by a horse. Over the course of 30 miles, the Rocky Mountaineer crosses the river seven times.

MOUNT FUJI-COLOR: Castle Mountain provides one of the
best photo opportunities of the whole journey RM

Castle Mountain: Cameras at the ready, because this is one of the best photo opportunities of the trip. The 2,766-metre Castle Mountain lives up to its name, even though that name changed a couple of times. It does indeed resemble a castle: with its turreted ridges, it wouldn’t be out of place in one of those Lord of the Rings movies in which mountains look as we imagine mountains should be. It was named Castle Mountain by James ‘Kick-in-the-chest’ Hector in 1858. In 1946, prime minister Mackenzie King decided it should be renamed in honour of US General Dwight D Eisenhower, which met with unanimous approval. Thirty-three years later, the federal government reinstated the original name, though the first turreted ridge is known as Eisenhower Peak.

OTHER ROUTES
Rainforest to Goldrush (2 days) goes from Whistler to Jasper via Quesnel. This route offers some of the most beautiful and varied scenery, from coastal rainforest to the desert-like conditions of the Fraser Canyon and the sprawling ranchlands of the Cariboo Gold Rush region.
Coastal Passage (3 days) goes from the ‘Emerald City’ of Seattle, Washington — one of the world’s most popular cruise liner ports — to the Canadian Rockies via Vancouver and is the Rocky Mountaineer’s newest route.
Whistler Sea to Sky Climb (3.5 hours) goes from Vancouver along the Sea to Sky Corridor to Whistler, where passengers can join the Rainforest to Gold Rush Route.
Journey Through the Clouds (2 days) goes from Vancouver to Jasper via Kamloops and takes in the unparalleled scenery of Mount Robson, the highest peak (3,953 metres) in the Canadian Rockies, and Pyramid Falls.

HAPPY MEAL: Lunch is served in GoldLeaf RM

SERVICE
There are three levels of service on the Rocky Mountaineer:
GoldLeaf guests enjoy reserved seating in double-decker carriages with panoramic glass roofs. Downstairs is the dining salon where gourmet a la carte breakfasts and lunches are served.
SilverLeaf is available on all First Passage to the West trains between Vancouver and Banff, Lake Louise and Calgary and on the Journey Through the Clouds route. Guests enjoy panoramic views in a single-deck carriage where hot meals are served at their seats.
RedLeaf provides guests with comfortable reclining seats, picture windows and at-your-seat meals.

COOL SPEED AHEAD: Travel aboard the Rocky
Mountaineer and then join an Alaskan cruise RM

RAIL and SAIL
You can combine your Rocky Mountaineer rail trip with an Alaskan cruise (May 11 until September 7, 2014) for a two-week holiday or honeymoon that includes three days aboard the Rocky Mountaineer travelling from Calgary to Seattle, a seven-night cruise, seven nights’ hotel accommodation, North Vancouver and Banff tours, Yoho National Park tour, helicopter flightseeing trip and station and hotel transfers.

STAY
Vancouver: I explored Vancouver before boarding the Rocky Mountaineer and stayed one night in the 5-star Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and two in the 3-star West End Guesthouse. You can read about both establishments and Vancouver itself elsewhere on this blog — see ‘Canada: Vancouver is Simply Vantastic’.
Banff: A colleague of mine keeps his Facebook friends entertained by posting “view from my hotel room” photos from his trips. Sometimes we chuckle at snapshots of brick walls and wheelie-bins, while more often they’re pictures of fabulous scenery. It’s not a contest, but having been beaten to the bellows by Mr. Harrison and robbed of the Rocky Mountaineer raincoat by the Parisian poet laureate, I couldn’t help sniggering triumphantly when I opened the curtains in my room in the Rimrock Resort Hotel. Because there, beyond the window, was a big sensational chunk of Van Horne’s “million-dollar view” — and not a wheelie-bin in sight. Here’s what I saw:

IN PANE VIEW: What a sight from the window
of my room in the Rimrock Resort Hotel

The 345-room (plus 21 suites) Rimrock is a 10-minute journey from the centre of Banff on the area’s eco-friendly hybrid buses. From its lofty position 700-odd metres up the side of Sulphur Mountain, it looks down on the Spray River and Bow River valleys and out to Tunnel Mountain, Cascade Mountain and the Rundle Mountains range. What you see from the windows and terraces has the same effect on the eyeballs that weightlifters experience when they over-exert themselves and end up looking like Marty Feldman.
Everything inside this superior hotel impresses too. See www.rimrockresort.com for a taste of the experiences that await.

GETTING THERE
American Holidays are the Rocky Mountaineer specialists in Ireland and Northern Ireland. From €1,759 per person, based on two sharing, you can:
Fly from Dublin to Vancouver via London
Stay 3 nights in a 3-star hotel in Vancouver
Travel RedLeaf Service on the Rocky Mountaineer First Passage to the West
route from Vancouver to Banff (2 days)
Stay overnight in Kamloops
Stay two nights in a 3-star hotel in Banff, and
Transfer to Calgary for the return flights.
The price includes taxes, and is based on two adults travelling in April/May 2014.
To book your Rocky Mountaineer trip or rail and sail combo, call American Holidays in Dublin on 01 673 3840, Cork on 021 236 4636 or Belfast on 02890 511855 or see www.americanholidays.com

FURTHER INFORMATION
For more information on visiting Vancouver and the province of British Columbia, see www.tourismvancouver.com and www.britishcolumbia.travel
For visitor information on Banff and Lake Louise, see www.banfflakelouise.com

AS YOU LAKE IT: Lake Louise, near Banff RM