July 14, 2020

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Passage to perfection

Trip aboard Rocky Mountaineer casts Canada in a whole new light

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/12/2019 (206 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I’m aboard the ultra luxurious Rocky Mountaineer, speeding along the transcontinental rail line on an exciting two-day journey to Banff, Alta.

ROCKY MOUNTAINEER</p><p>The Rocky Mountaineer passes through Stoney Creek on its journey to Banff.</p>


The Rocky Mountaineer passes through Stoney Creek on its journey to Banff.

It’s a glorious autumn day in late September and as the state-of-the-art diesel locomotive closes in on the arid town of Ashcroft, B.C., near where the Bonaparte and Thompson rivers meet, I join a few other trippers on the lower-level, open-air observation deck.

The breezy vestibule offers a breathtaking view of the stunning Western Canada landscape — miles and miles of tree-covered, snow-capped mountains, tumbling waterfalls, crystal blue lakes and intermittent wildlife — and as I steady myself against the chrome railing, a friendly Australian strikes up a conversation and, after some time, asks me where I’m from.

When I reply that I call Canada home, he spreads his arms wide and sweeps them toward the colourful desert terrain and sparkling waterway.

"Oh, well then, all of this is yours," he says.

Yep, and since climbing aboard this fast-moving national treasure, this Prairie girl’s heart is bursting with pride.

And it’s no wonder.

LEESA DAHL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Rocky Mountaineer nears the town of Ashcroft, B.C.</p>


The Rocky Mountaineer nears the town of Ashcroft, B.C.

I’ve just spent an unseasonably sunny weekend exploring the seaport town of Vancouver — arguably Canada’s most picturesque, and populated, coastal city — with a pair of longtime friends. In a few short days, my treasured duo and I cycled the 8.8-kilometre seawall surrounding the 400-hectare Stanley Park, wandered up and down the trendy West 4th Avenue, stayed up way too late at the legendary Roxy Cabaret on Granville Street and enjoyed some of this country’s finest fish tacos at Go Fish on Granville Island.

It’s been a bit of whirlwind, and now, after a ceremonious send-off at the newly remodelled Rocky Mountaineer Train Station — the former Canadian National Railway locomotive repair shop on Cottrell Street in Vancouver — I’m all set to entrain the gleaming cavalcade of blue and yellow bi-level railcars (there are more than two dozen for this 957-kilometre trip, including a pair of emission-free, 3,000-horsepower, diesel locomotives).

My big-budget GoldLeaf ticket (20 GoldLeaf Service bi-level dome coaches were custom-built by Colorado Railcar and have since been remodelled with shatterproof glass and fully equipped stainless steel kitchens) allows me passage onto one of four glass-domed coaches and promises a stunning panoramic view, heated seats that recline and pivot (mine is on the aisle), freshly prepared meals and complimentary beverages all day long. The alternate, lower-budget SilverLeaf service (16 SilverLeaf Service single-level dome coaches were originally built in the 1950s in Montreal by Canadian Car and Foundry and were used for the CNR’s transcontinental passenger rail route) features oversized windows, reclining seats and meals served seat-side.

LEESA DAHL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Morant’s Curve, an area the Canadian Pacific Railway passes through along the Bow River, can be viewed from the Bow Valley Parkway.</p></p>


Morant’s Curve, an area the Canadian Pacific Railway passes through along the Bow River, can be viewed from the Bow Valley Parkway.

Founded in 1990 by British Columbia entrepreneur Peter Armstrong, the award-winning luxury tourist train company is gearing up to celebrate its 30th anniversary. It’s already welcomed more than 1.7 million guests onboard its all-dome fleet, which offers fascinating, historic storytelling, world-class cuisine, and a first-hand look at the vast and untouched wild beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Lately, there’s been some talk of promotions, giveaways and the addition of its 10th newly built GoldLeaf railcar, but until then the Rocky Mountaineer will continue to offer a variety of routes including The Journey Through the Clouds, which takes passengers through British Columbia’s interior and shares the history of the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific railways. It finishes on the second day at the alpine town of Jasper, the idyllic commercial centre of Jasper National Park in Alberta.

The three-day Rainforest to Gold Rush route — running from Jasper, through Quesnel and Whistler, B.C., ending in Vancouver — is the company’s newest route and rides the rails through the Pacific rainforest, said to be the largest temperate rainforest ecoregion on the planet.

If you go

The Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West tour departs the Rocky Mountaineer Train Station on Cottrell Street in Vancouver and finishes in Banff, Alta. So, while visiting those cities, consider the following things to do and see:

The Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West tour departs the Rocky Mountaineer Train Station on Cottrell Street in Vancouver and finishes in Banff, Alta. So, while visiting those cities, consider the following things to do and see:

Where to stay:

● JW Marriott Parq Vancouver: This four-star, beautifully-designed hotel on Smithe Street opened in 2017 and features a two-floor casino, eight restaurants and lounges, and nearly 6,000 square metres of event space. It’s within walking distance to Rogers Arena, BC Place and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Go to: marriott.com/hotels/travel/yvrjw-jw-marriott-parq-vancouver/ or call 604-676-0888.

● The Delta Hotels Kamloops: The Victoria Street hotel is sufficiently equipped with all the amenities a tired train traveller might need for a quick layover in a tiny, quiet mountain town.

Go to: marriott.com/hotels/travel/ykade-delta-hotels-kamloops/

● The newly renovated Mount Royal Hotel — it went up in flames three years ago after a fire broke out on the rooftop — is centrally located on the corner of Banff Avenue and Caribou Street in the beautiful resort town of Banff. The top-floor hot tubs off the quaint hotel’s Cascade Lounge offer stunning mountain scenery.

Go to: banffjaspercollection.com/hotels/mount-royal-hotel/

What to do:

● Landsea Adventures’ four-and-a-half-hour narrated Vancouver City Highlights tour takes sightseers into Gastown, Chinatown, Vancouver Harbour and the Olympic Cauldron. Notable scenic stops along the way include an impressive collection of First Nation totem poles at Stanley Park. The amusing tour also includes a quick peek at English Bay, the popular sunbathing, swimming, and sunset-watching beach in the downtown Vancouver area and, depending on the weather, the Vancouver Lookout Observation Deck atop one of the city’s tallest buildings.

● It’ll take about two hours to circumvent the 8.8-kilometre Seawall in Stanley Park on two wheels, but cycling the lengthy waterfront path is a definite must for anyone visiting this bustling seaport, especially on an auspiciously sunny Saturday afternoon. Be sure to stop in at Stanley’s Bar and Grill on Pipeline Road for a cold one or two.

● The jaw-dropping Lake Louise ski village (at 1,500 metres, it’s the highest town in Canada and is also fed by glaciers) is a 45-minute drive from Banff and in that short time a knowledgable tour guide — if you’re lucky you’ll end up with the sharp-witted Gina Levnaich of Discover Banff Tours — will delight you with tidbits of information such as the successful Bison reintroduction project; the Trans-Canada Highway’s 90 kilometres of 2.8-metre-high wildlife protection fencing; the seven overpass animal crossings that take wildlife from one side of the highway to the next; buffalo berries; and the 300-kg Bow Valley bear named Boss that some believe can feel the vibration of the train.

● Whether you choose to hike up Sulphur Mountain (highly recommended) or take the gondola, a meal at the Sky Bistro is not to be missed and features a panoramic view atop the 7,510-ft. summit station, as well as regionally sourced local meats, produce and ingredients.

● Morant’s Curve, which can be viewed from the Bow Valley Parkway en route to Lake Louise, is definitely worth the stop.

INSTAGRAM</p><p>Talented Vancouver country singer Justine Lynn performs at the Roxy Cabaret on Granville Street and at other venues in the area.</p></p>


Talented Vancouver country singer Justine Lynn performs at the Roxy Cabaret on Granville Street and at other venues in the area.

● The Roxy Cabaret on Granville Street in Vancouver hosts musicians and house bands every night of the week. If you’re lucky, local country artist Justine Lynn will be raising the roof at the legendary night club.

Justine Lynn's Instagram and website

● The colourful annuals at the peaceful Cascade of Time Garden in Banff were withering on a cloud-covered weekday in September, but even still, this terraced garden on Banff Avenue is a must-see at this resort mountain town that welcomes no less than 4.5 million visitors every year.

Where to eat:

● The easygoing Prospect Point restaurant is situated at the northern tip of Stanley Park. It serves fabulous, casual grub and, more importantly, features a remarkable outdoor observation deck where onlookers can get amazing panoramic views of the Lions Gate Bridge and West Vancouver.

● The elegant two-floor Brix & Mortar restaurant on Homer Street in Yaletown is an 11-minute walk from the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver on Smithe Street. Located in a stylish 1912 heritage brick building, the restaurant offers a variety of reasonably priced set-menu meals for groups of eight or more as well as a regular menu option.

● The laid-back, outdoor eatery Go Fish on Granville Island serves sustainable fish and fries in a basket. Orders are placed at a window and meals (do not pass up the tuna and salmon tacos) are enjoyed al fresco with a relaxing view of the False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf.

The Coastal Passage gets underway in Seattle and hugs the shoreline north to Vancouver.

Our route, The First Passage to the West, is the long-standing rail-tour company’s most popular and has been retracing the historic Canadian Pacific Railway — it united the country and connected British Columbia to Canada more than 125 years ago — for nearly 30 years.

It gets underway at 8:15 a.m. under typically overcast skies and in no time at all, the noiseless locomotive is winding its way slowly through the town of New Westminster. From there, it makes its way onto the Fraser River Swing Bridge, a 115-year-old bridge that crosses the 1,368-kilometre-long Fraser River and meanders through the city of Surrey and into Fort Langley, the former fur trade post of the Hudson Bay Company. At the quaint mountain town called Hope, the clouds clear, the sunlight suffuses the glass-domed rooftop and the track bends, steering us north to Yale, the dividing line between the Coast and the Interior regions of the mainland.

Fraser River smoked salmon and egg scramble served in a crispy corn tortilla with a side of Yukon Gold potatoes.</p></p>

Fraser River smoked salmon and egg scramble served in a crispy corn tortilla with a side of Yukon Gold potatoes.

My left-side aisle seat is situated on the second-last row and puts me in fine company with the second wave of 72 passengers who are ordered to the lower-level dining room for breakfast, a delicious selection of West Coast-inspired dishes. As I savour the mouth-watering Fraser River smoked salmon and egg scramble, which is served in a crispy corn tortilla with a side of Yukon Gold potatoes, our doting British Columbian hosts, Brandon and Rob, impart interesting details about dangerous train robbers, ambitious gold rush miners and dim-witted bandits.

And now, at the notorious Hell’s Gate, an abrupt narrowing of the 1,375-km Fraser River that stopped explorer Simon Fraser dead in his watery tracks more than 200 years ago, Brandon lets on that the former fur trader from Cornwall, Ont., was indeed intimidated by the towering rocks and dangerous rapids.

ROCKY MOUNTAINEER</p><p>Passengers on the Rocky Mountaineer take pictures from the open-air observation deck.</p></p>


Passengers on the Rocky Mountaineer take pictures from the open-air observation deck.

According to Brandon, Fraser described the passage as a place where no human should venture, as the rumbling diesel engine slows to a steady purr (about 15 km/h) so picture-takers can get a clear shot of the spectacular 35-metre wide opening in the Fraser Canyon, once thought to be a navigable waterway to the Pacific Ocean.

Afterward, the train picks up speed and crosses the 39.93-metre-high Skuzzy Creek Bridge (blink and you’ll miss the waterfall). Eventually, we reach the Cisco Crossing, the point at which both the CP and CN rail lines cross the Fraser River and minutes later, pass Rainbow Canyon in Lytton, B.C. where the mineral-painted rocks reflect a rainbow of colours.

It’s been a few hours and we’re somewhere near Avalanche Alley and the Jaws of Death Gorge, where the banks of the Thompson River steepen and narrow. Lunch is being served and the menu this time around features a tantalizing choice of short ribs braised in an Okanagan Valley merlot, Fraser Valley chicken served with Yukon Gold potatoes, a three-bean chipotle chili, a garden flatbread or steelhead salmon served on a bed of jasmine risotto.

About an hour outside of our overnight destination, just before the neighbourhood of Tranquille on the northeast side of Kamloops Lake, we pass an osprey nest sitting atop a telephone pole. A flood of passengers head to the observation deck to catch a glimpse of the roost as our host, Robert, regales us with historical tales of the tiny town’s tuberculosis sanatorium.

He’s cut short, however, after a black bear is spotted scrambling up a mountainside, creating a flurry of excited screeches inside the train and a fitting end to Day 1.

LEESA DAHL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The view from the GoldLeaf coach.</p>


The view from the GoldLeaf coach.

Dinner at the bare-bricked Mittz Kitchen on Victoria Street in Kamloops, B.C. is marvellous and after a restful sleep at the nearby Delta Hotel, we pull out of Kamloops just as the sun is rising.

After unhitching 12 carts, half the passengers and a locomotive destined for Jasper, Alta., our train is shorter and the view from our observation deck is now unhindered.

At the get go, we’re briefed on the infamous bandit Billy Miner’s unsuccessful train robbery in 1906 on the nearby South Thompson River bank, where he and his group of loyal gangsters netted only $15, a handful of liver pills and an arrest by the RCMP.

Later, a warm breakfast — scrumptious blueberry pancakes — is served in the lower-level dining cart somewhere just outside of Chase, a popular trout fishing spot on Shuswap Lake. The lighthearted breakfast conversation is interrupted by host Rob, who at the mouth of the Adams River, near the town of Salmon Arm, B.C., recites for us a lighthearted poem about the spawning salmon’s difficult circle of life.

Rocky Mountaineer cinnamon scones

SUPPLIED</p><p>The delicious cinnamon scones served on board the Rocky Mountain.</p>


The delicious cinnamon scones served on board the Rocky Mountain.

Snacks are served continuously on the Rocky Mountaineer, but none are as delicious as the cinnamon scones

Snacks are served continuously on the Rocky Mountaineer, but none are as delicious as the cinnamon scones

454 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour

90 grams (1/3 cup) sugar

5 grams (1 tsp) sugar (to sprinkle on top)

5 grams (1 tsp) baking powder

1 gram (1/4 tsp) baking soda

2 grams (1/2 tsp) salt

120 grams (8 tbsp) unsalted butter, frozen

5 grams (1 tsp) cinnamon

120ml (1/2 cup) sour cream

1 large egg

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, 1/3 cup of sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Grate the butter into the flour mixture using the large holes in a box grater. Use your fingers to work in the butter (mixture should resemble coarse meal), then stir in the cinnamon.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and egg until smooth.

Using a fork, stir the cream mixture into the flour mixture until a large dough clump forms. Use your hands to press the dough against the bowl into a ball. (The dough will be sticky in places and at first it may appear that there is not enough liquid, but as you press, the dough will come together).

Place the ball on a lightly floured surface and pat into an 18- to 20-cm circle about 2 cm thick. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tsp of sugar. Use a sharp knife to cut the mixture into 8 triangles and place on a cookie sheet (preferably lined with parchment paper), about 3 cm. Bake until golden, about 15 to 17 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes and serve warm or at room temperature.

After a few hours of breathtaking natural beauty, we’re at a standstill just before the town of Canoe — renowned for a local named Doris who makes a point of standing in her doorway, waving to passengers as the train whips past — to give priority to a CPR freight train travelling in the opposite direction.

It’s a lengthy delay — about 45 minutes — but a precautionary one that Tessa Day, communications manager at Rocky Mountaineer, says is controlled by rail traffic controllers, train operators who co-ordinate passenger and freight train traffic on railways. "We have a great relationship with all parties and they know we have guests on board and keep us moving as much as possible," she says. "Sometimes freight trains wait for us. Sometimes we have to pull over to let freight trains past. It all depends on various factors."

When it’s safe to do so, the brawny Rocky Mountaineer is put into motion and our journey east toward the Rockies continues. Somewhere between Glacier National Park and the abandoned townsite of Palliser, folk singer John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High is piped in through the train’s speaker system, signifying the passage into the 3,000-kilometre mountain range and the impending end of this delightful railway journey.


Rocky Mountaineer’s season runs from mid-April to mid-October. There are over 65 vacation packages to choose from with four unique rail routes travelling through destinations such as Seattle, Wash.; Vancouver, B.C.; and the Canadian Rockies in Alberta. Go to: rockymountaineer.com or call 1-877-460-3200


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