By Jenny Peters
As the snow slowly melts away, thoughts of escaping on a Spring adventure begins to fill our minds. And while there are plenty of places to choose across the Northern Hemisphere to enjoy those long days of summer vacation, there’s one special Canadian trip that is certain to satisfy.
It’s an incredible journey into Canada’s spectacular mountain country that happens both on and off the legendary Rocky Mountaineer sightseeing train, which runs trips from April to October every year into the Western Rockies. It’s hard to explain how absolutely stunning the landscapes are in this part of the world; you really do need to get out and see them for yourself.
The trains are luxurious, built with huge glass domes that allow travelers to look not only through the large side windows but also straight up into the sky, where the massive Rocky Mountains loom above. We chose the First Passage to the West, going from Vancouver to Jasper via Banff and Lake Louise. There are a variety of itineraries to choose from, including ones up to Whistler and to Calgary.
Begin the journey in Vancouver, that lush, lovely city on the West Coast of Canada and stay for a few nights. The Rocky Mountaineer trip planners set us up at the lovely Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, located right in the heart of the city. From there, visit Stanley Park and its cool First Nations totem poles, as well as the neighborhoods of Gastown and Granville Island.
Boarding the train is a party in itself, as the early morning start draws bagpipers, coffee servers and a huge crowd. As you make your way to your designated train car, those crowds disperse and you become part of a little club, as the people in your car find their assigned seats (you’ll be in this spot for the duration of your train trip) and settle in.
When you ride the Rocky Mountaineer, it’s a full day on the train, with planned gourmet meals, cocktails and snack services throughout the day and a constantly changing landscape going by. Dedicated hosts in each car share lots of stories about the places you see, from historical sagas to tales of the marvels of construction that allow the train to traverse the massive mountains rolling past the windows—and much more.
The first day features visions of Black Canyon, where the train enters a tunnel carved right out of the shale rock, and the Hoodoos, those rock pillar formations surrounded by superstitions. Our journey stopped in Kamloops the first day, a small mountain town, then we were back on the train again for a second full day, enjoying more of the Rocky Mountaineer’s unique style of pampering and travel while heading toward Lake Louise and Banff.
This was the day we really learned what it means to be in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, with all the majesty and beauty those massive peaks reveal. There’s Craigellachie, where the eastern and western Canadian railways met in 1885, Kicking Horse Pass and the incredible Spiral Tunnels, a 1909 marvel of engineering modeled after the Swiss system of moving trains up steep mountainsides that’s a mind-boggling ride to experience.
Equally mind blowing is the view of Lake Louise from the venerable Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel, which is nestled within Alberta’s Banff National Park and marks the end of the Rocky Mountaineer train journey. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Banff is breathtaking. Book a room that faces the lovely lake and be certain to wake up to watch the sunrise out your window. The lake and surrounding mountains morph and change colors as the sun comes up, a truly splendid sight.
While the train journey ends here, there’s much more to see in the Canadian Rockies, so please don’t go home quite yet. Add in the Rocky Mountaineer Icefields Parkway tour via luxury motor coach to ride along what is justifiably described as “one of the world’s most scenic parkways.” Along here you’ll experience far-reaching vistas of mountains, lakes, waterfalls and other natural sights, including the Athabasca Glacier. There you’ll roll out in huge “Ice Explorer” vehicles to wander on that massive glacier firsthand.
More stops along the way, at Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, the Columbia Icefields and Athabasca Falls bring home just how uniquely gorgeous this part of the world truly is, as Banff National Park gives way to Jasper National Park.
Watch for elk, moose, bighorn sheep, wild goats, bears and other critters along the way; once you arrive in Jasper, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least some of those wild animals. Spending a few nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is a necessary part of this once-in-a-lifetime trip, for with its rustic yet elegant design, gorgeous lake and the chance to see the Northern Lights just outside your cabin, the lodge is a wonderful place to call home.
Once you’ve taken in all the sights around Jasper and done some adventurous outings – canoe, fish, rock climb, hike or horseback ride – consider heading to Edmonton to catch a flight home. Alberta’s capital, this city on the plains east of the Rockies is one of Canada’s fastest-growing metropolises. Continue your Fairmont Hotels’ sublime experiences with a stay at The Macdonald, the classic hotel built in 1915. The Chateau on the River is an incredibly elegant, now modern, hotel perched on the edge of the Saskatchewan River with a breathtaking garden and plenty of amenities. Stroll to see the many wall murals that dot this burgeoning city built on oil and visit one of the excellent restaurants in town. Try Wild Tangerine, Culina or Butternut Tree for a sublime meal; and if shopping is your idea of fun, hit the West Edmonton Mall. It’s the largest mall in North America with an indoor amusement park, a massive indoor water park and even an underground aquarium.