By Marcia Biggs
Special to the Times
Snuggling into my comfortable window seat beneath the panorama viewing dome, I enter my state of bliss. Outside, the world is gliding by at 30 mph. For miles, the Puget Sound hugs narrow curving beaches strewn with rocks and bare timber logs that have washed ashore. Lush green islands dot the horizon as the sun slowly drops into the Pacific Ocean.
People are strolling now, coming out to the beach to watch the sunset — couples holding hands or walking dogs, small groups with picnic baskets, solitary figures staring into oblivion. The sky is fading into shades of gold, and the surface of the ocean has transformed into a massive silver mirror. As our shiny blue train passes by, the beach people turn and wave. "It's a kind gesture to return the wave," we are told by our host. "Some come out just to greet the train."
And so we do. At every small town and every fishing pier and every park, the 74 passengers in my coach aboard the Rocky Mountaineer smile and wave at the tiny figures greeting us along the shore. Eventually, the people disappear, the shoreline passes and we enter a dreamscape of watery marshland and rolling farmland, the dusky gold sky mellowing into darkness.
I am beginning a Canadian rail journey that will take me during the next six days through five geo-climates with a changing kaleidoscope of scenery — pine forests, rushing rivers, wildflowers and waterfalls, high desert plateaus and snow-capped mountains. I will visit large cities, small towns, receding glaciers and a national park. I will nibble on locally made cheeses, savor salmon from a nearby river and sip wine from regional vineyards. And I will become immersed in the fascinating stories of the Canadian railways, the history of British Columbia, and the flora, fauna and wildlife of the Canadian Rockies.
Rocky Mountaineer is considered the premiere luxury train traveling the Canadian Rockies, offering service from mid May through mid September. Until last year, all routes were contained within Canadian borders between Vancouver, Whistler, Jasper, Banff and Calgary. In 2013, a new leg was established beginning in Seattle, and a new route called the Coastal Passage now connects Seattle to Vancouver, continuing east across the Canadian Rockies to Banff and Calgary. The entire route one way is six nights and seven days, which I found both convenient and more economical than the usual two-week or longer train trips.
This excursion in mid May is the first Coastal Passage of the season, and I am surprised the train is nearly full. There are almost 500 passengers aboard 21 coaches, the majority from Australia, with the United Kingdom and the United States second. Most are retired couples and seasoned travelers. Many are on the train as part of an extended group tour that will include a cruise from Seattle or Vancouver to Alaska.
Jim and Barbara Kaprielian, the middle-aged couple from Reno, Nev., seated behind me, represent the majority of passengers: They are world travelers, socially engaging and retired.
"We love train travel and we've done the trains in Europe," Barbara says. "But European trains are mainly a mode of transportation, you go from Point A to Point B. This train appealed to our sense of nostalgia; it's a real sightseeing train."
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Seattle to Vancouver
It feels good to settle in and relax on the train after a full day of exploring downtown Seattle. I flew in the night before so I could visit the famous Pike Place Market, spread out along a 9-acre historic district on the downtown waterfront. With its colorful flowers, fresh fish and produce vendors, arts and crafts, sidewalk cafes and street musicians, the market is a bustling beehive of activity on Saturday mornings.
I even had time to take a scenic one-hour Argosy Boat Tour in the harbor before boarding the train, which departed in the late afternoon. A prearranged shuttle stopped at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel where I was staying to transport a group of Rocky Mountaineer passengers to the train station five minutes away.
The train ride from Seattle to Vancouver is a lovely beginning to the trip, but we learn one thing quickly: We may feel like royalty as we wave at the locals, but this sleek privately owned passenger train must play second fiddle to the onslaught of freight trains that own these tracks. We are using Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway tracks, and rail is the No. 1 method of freight transport in this vast country. Often during the coming days, we come to a dead stop as we wait, and wait, sometimes up to 45 minutes, for coal-laden trains to pass.
Alas, our three-hour leg to Vancouver turns into five hours and we arrive around 9 p.m. Nobody seems to mind, though, as there are buses waiting to whisk us to our hotels. There are no sleeper coaches on the Rocky Mountaineer; passengers overnight in hotels along the way. A variety of accommodations is available, from Holiday Inns to four-star Fairmonts. Luggage is forwarded to your hotel and waiting in your room when you arrive.
Indeed, the Rocky Mountaineer experience proves to be as efficient as a well-oiled machine. Hospitality is top-notch with 150 competent and congenial train hosts and other employees who go through extensive education in everything from wine pouring to the history, geography and wildlife along the routes. Our coach host, Ted, is an entertaining gent who not only provides us with superb travel commentary and trivia, but also has a grand sense of humor and quick wit.
We spend a full day and two nights in Vancouver, and I quickly fall in love with this astoundingly beautiful waterfront city with its mountain backdrop. It has a youthful, vibrant energy and touts itself as one of the "greenest" cities in North America. Hybrid buses, water ferries and dedicated bicycle lanes abound; organic cafes and tea shops are on every corner. From my LEED-certified energy-conserving room at the downtown Fairmont Pacific Rim I look down on what appears to be a city park. Come to find out, it's the roof of the convention center covered in environmentally friendly sod.
In one warp-speed day, I visit the Sun Yat Sen Japanese Gardens, take a 5-mile bicycle ride around picturesque Stanley Park and then join a walking tour of the hip and trendy Mount Pleasant neighborhood with its cafes, coffee shops and microbreweries. Jen, our hip and trendy guide, lives nearby and works for toursbylocals.com, which provides tours by locals in 133 countries.
Jen tells us that this hilly area a few miles from downtown was the original working-class neighborhood of turn-of-the-century Vancouver. We slip into a coffee shop to fuel up, then head down some side streets and into 33 Acres, a small neighborhood craft brewery where we indulge in a flight of freshly brewed beer and chat up the proprietor, who is concocting his next batch of brew.
We walk through the former Olympic Village, where thousands of athletes and media from around the world lived during the 2010 Summer Olympics, then hop aboard a tiny water ferry to cross the harbor and meander through a warehouse district turned uberexpensive before ending up back at the hotel.
Vancouver to Kamloops
Early the next morning, exhausted, I don't want to leave Vancouver, but the train is waiting. We depart from the downtown station and soon the city turns into countryside. We cruise along the Fraser River through rolling farmland, and by noon we have entered into pine forests with snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies in the distance.
Breakfast and lunch are served daily and all menus focus on regional foods: farm-fresh produce, eggs and cheese from local dairies, fish from local rivers, regional meats and wines. Breakfast choices include pancakes and waffles with maple syrup and fresh blueberries, omelets and handmade granola and yogurt. Lunches are more like three-course dinners, with a soup or salad and entrees such as Alberta Beef, West Coast Wild Salmon, Wild Mushroom Risotto and Pacific Halibut, all paired with wines from British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.
We are traveling in GoldLeaf Service, which allows us to eat in relaxing dining coaches with picture windows, white tablecloths and fine china. SilverLeaf passengers enjoy most of the same cuisine, but are served at their seats. I come to look forward to enjoying the experience of meeting other passengers over a nice meal as I watch the scenery drift by.
Heading toward Kamloops, our next layover near the center of the province, we travel along high desert plateaus with its wildflowers, arid canyons and picturesque chain of lakes.
Ted regales us with trivia, history and facts about the logging, mining and fishing industries that dominate the region and alerts us to upcoming photo opportunities.
"Bear on the left, bear on the left!" he shouts, as everyone jumps to that side of the train. His earpiece is hooked in to communicate with all the coach hosts so that if wildlife is spotted ahead, its location is broadcast to the rest of the train. A lucky few catch a glimpse of a bear in the woods, but in the blink of an eye we are past it and rolling on.
We have entered into the wondrous, wild Canada where hordes of spawning salmon turn the rivers red each fall, Ted tells us, attracting bears and hungry eagles en masse from November to February. We travel through narrow canyons along a whitewater river and pass hoodoos — pillarlike rock formations formed after the end of the last ice age. Along the way we spot mountain goats, bighorn rams, eagles and ospreys.
And finally we pull into Kamloops. It is late and dark, but this is a small walkable town that has become a popular destination for mountain bikers and snow skiers who visit nearby Sun Peaks Ski Resort. Kamloops is a regular stop on the Rocky Mountaineer route, offering clean, comfortable hotels and a diversity of ethnic restaurants from Indian to Mexican, Greek and Irish.
We walk to the charming Terra, where husband and wife team David and Andrea Tombs present us with the most incredible meal of the trip — all locally sourced foods and wines from nearby farms and vineyards. We dive into tender lamb chops, albino salmon, a divine multicolor beet salad, delicate raviolis stuffed with wild mushroom, sweet strawberries with freshly whipped cream and wines from the Okanagan region. Oh, Canada!
The next morning we leave Kamloops and soon find ourselves in outlaw territory.
"Coming up is the town of New West Minister, the exact site of the Great Train Robbery of 1906," Ted tells us, which, it turns out, was not so great. Billy Miner and his band of thieves had their least successful train robbery here, netting $15 and a handful of liver pills. "They were caught just up the valley by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," Ted says. "Billy served time in the penitentiary you can see on the right."
Finally, the train crosses into Alberta, where the jaw-dropping mountain scenery really sets in. Soon we are entering into the amazing Spiral Tunnels that weave in and out of two mountains in an 8 formation. Ted describes the construction of this feat of engineering, which began in 1907. We reach the Continental Divide at 5,332 feet above sea level, where the watershed leads either to the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean.
Finally, as the sun sets, we pull into Banff. Our train has been delayed several times due to freight traffic but the buses are waiting to whisk us to our hotels. I am staying at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a 45-minute shuttle drive from the train station. Many passengers are staying at the famous Banff Springs Hotel in town, a historic fortress on the mountainside that is a must to visit during your stay.
There is still snow on the ground thanks to a late spring storm, but it's pretty and seems perfectly natural here in the Rockies. Making the most of the final day of my Canadian rail adventure, I stroll the streets of the charming town of Banff, breathing in the fresh mountain air and gazing at the majestic beauty surrounding me. It's been a wild ride, indeed.
Marcia Biggs is a freelance travel writer who lives in Safety Harbor.