THE CANADIAN ROCKIES BY TRAIN & BUS
Sept. 14-21, 2014
(Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by the author. Click on a photo to enlarge it.)
Seeing the Canadian Rockies has long been on my travel wish list. Since I was finishing up a Tauck Tour of the Pacific Northwest in Vancouver ( a separate blog post), I did a web search to see what extensions might be available either to Alaska or to the Rockies, but most tours and cruises would have required waiting too many days to start. Then I discovered Canada Rail Tours, an agency in Calgary that puts together a combination of rail and bus travel that I could join with only a one-day wait. (www.canadarail.ca). I booked the top of the line gold- leaf service since it promised deluxe hotel rooms with a view and a dome car on the Rocky Mountaineer. I didn’t expect to repeat the trip so I wanted to go first class and I’m glad I did. And booking the top service awarded me a free extra night in Vancouver which I used for the day between tours.
Sunday Sept.14 Vancouver
The program began with participants gathering in the Fairmont Waterfront hotel, located in a busy but delightful section of the harbor front where the cruise ships dock, and with splendid views of the harbor, at least from my room.
Since I was already in Vancouver I was able to enjoy more of the city on the hop on/hop off bus with a free pass provided by the agency. (Normally 40 dollars, 37 for seniors).
Monday Sept. 15. Vancouver to Kamloops
We an early 6:30 check-in presenting our vouchers in the hotel lobby with only one woman to check in about 40 participants and the long wait to board the bus didn’t match the first-class reputation of the train. Once we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer however, everything was first class. I had a comfortable seat with a window in the dome car and, luckily, an extremely friendly and intelligent seatmate, a retired law professor living in Australia. It seems as if at least half of the passengers were from Australia so the agency must do some quality advertising there.
The dome car was above a cheerful and comfortable dining room which we shared in two sittings. Lesser classes of service dine at their seats like on an airplane. The food was superb with generous portions and wine or cocktails included.
The attendants in the dome car doubled as wait staff. They are a gifted, well-trained group with wonderful personalities and they take turns on the microphone providing information on the sites the train is passing, usually with humorous anecdotes.
As the train departed Vancouver along the Fraser river with views of the Cascade mountains, we saw lots of agriculture and livestock flourishing and wonderful scenery all the way to our overnight stop in Kamloops. The river is over 900 miles long and salmon were running but we weren’t lucky enough to see any jumping. The wait staff on the train were quite generous with their drink offerings so one could get quite mellow with a morning Bloody Mary, single malt scotch before lunch, and wine with lunch.
The train is not a sleeper so we debarked at the train station in Kamloops where we bussed to a nice hotel by 6 pm. The hotel had a heated pool, free internet, and a frequent shuttle into town. I took advantage of the shuttle to see the town but didn’t find it all that special and the restaurant prices were steep.
Tuesday Sept. 16. Kamloops to Banff
Another 6:30 am wake-up for the bus transfer back to the train, and I was glad to be on the first breakfast call to the dining room. Those in the second call were served coffee and scones while waiting. Eggs benedict for breakfast and pan seared wild salmon for lunch.
This was another bright sunny day with excellent vistas of the mountains, but it was afternoon before we actually entered the Rocky Mountains. Then the scenery grew even more spectacular with occasional spottings of Big Horn sheep, a bald eagle, and ospreys. To the young attendant humorously sharing some of the trivia of the area, I told him I had a piece of trivia he was unaware of and he gave me the microphone. I said that my last name was Horn and I had a great- great uncle who was so huge his nickname was Big Horn. He came to these mountains before there were women, and that’s how the sheep got their name. Groans and laughsWe pulled into the Banff station in the late afternoon where a bus met us to drop us off at different hotels according to the class of service booked. The Rocky Mountaineer service ended to my regret since it is at the top of my travel experiences.
I was lucky the first bus stop was my Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. (Tip: your first stay in a Fairmont hotel, join the President’s Club. It’s free and you get a number immediately by email that gives you free email in all their hotels. But you won’t get credit toward the stay if you booked through a third party). Alas, it was nearly 6 pm when I got to my room and the shuttles were infrequent to go into town. It was also too late to use the gondola pass at the ski resort that was included in the package, though given my fear of heights I probably would have skipped it given the photos I saw of the experience. Neither dinner nor breakfast were included at the hotels on the bus portion of the tour despite the high price paid. Hotel breakfasts in British Columbia and Alberta hotels are very pricey, with a full breakfast running about 30 dollars without tip. You can save only ten dollars by just ordering oatmeal, juice, and coffee. Hotel dinners are also very expensive but shuttles are available to take you into town where the choices are better.
(Tip: your first stay in a Fairmont hotel, join the President’s Club. It’s free and you get a number immediately by email that gives you free email in all their hotels. But you won’t get credit toward the stay if you booked through a third party).
Wednesday Sept. 17 Banff to Lake Louise
I had to rush breakfast to make an 8:05 pickup for the bus tour that would end in Lake Louise. Alas, there were seven tour buses in front of the hotel, and while I arrived early, I started to panic when no one called my name by 8:30. A kindly driver on another Brewster bus phoned the agency and told me my bus had been parked around a corner out of sight and left without me. But they held the bus at its last pickup at the bus station and the Fairmont driver got me there at 9 am, regretting that the group had to wait for my late arrival. The bus tours picked up different people at different hotels so there was no one to bond with on this portion of the tour.
This excursion was called “Mountain Lakes and Waterfalls” and that’s what we saw. We were at Lake Louise by 10:30 and the group not staying there had two and a half hours to enjoy the lake walks with a deli lunch included. I didn’t check in to my room but enjoyed the paths along the lake and took lots of photos of this iconic spot, a world heritage site. The lake is fed by six glaciers so no one would swim in it even in the height of summer, and it freezes over in the winter.
The bus picked us up again at 1 pm and we proceeded to Johnston Canyon where we had a short hike to the lower falls. Next we stopped at picturesque Lake Moraine, bordered by ten peaks that the first non-native explorer unimaginatively named One, Two, Three, etc.
Next we entered Yoho Park (the word means “awe” in the language of the native people) where we saw the 1700 foot Takakkawa falls.
Again I drew the first hotel drop off, getting back to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise about 4:30 pm. The lake-view room was certainly deluxe and offered the best view I have ever had from a hotel room. I got the last window-seat in the formal dining room at 7 pm and celebrated a memorable day with a culinary extravagance: a glass of prosecco, sea scallops, rack of lamb with a malbec, chocolate ice cream, and more prosecco. You don’t want to know the price unless you live in Manhattan where it would be less than the cost in a top restaurant there.
Thursday Sept. 18: Lake Louise to Jasper
I discovered that rather than dining alone in the hotel, for an extra five dollars I could get a large room-service breakfast and read my email and favorite newspapers online. The Brewster bus arrived at 8:30 and we picked up passengers at two other hotels in town where elk were eating leaves on the main street. Our driver/guide Andy Richard is one of the best tour guides I have been privileged to listen to. He is well-informed on the natural history of the area and he made the trip especially enjoyable. By 9 am we were on the Icefields Parkway, a scenic highway with views of the highest peaks in the rockies. We made a photo stop at Peyto Lake and Bow Lake before arriving at the Icefield Center, a lodge, dining area, and ticket office for adventure services. A decent buffet lunch was included which worked well given the hundreds of people waiting for the glacier tour.
At 2 pm we boarded regular buses that took us across the highway to the start of the Athabasca Glacier, one of the largest in Canada, with ice deeper than the Eiffel Tower is tall.
We boarded a special million-dollar Ice Explorer bus for the bumpy ride to the glacier where we were able to walk around in a chilly wind for which my leather jacket was just barely sufficient.
After the glacier tour we returned to the center where our Brewster bus took us to a new attraction just opened this year, the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park, similar to the skywalk in the Grand Canyon. The glass walkway is perched 918 feet above the canyon and rushing waters formed by ancient glaciers. Even with my acrophobia I was able to walk around it quickly and marvel at the photos of the intrepid workers who constructed it.
I could not get to some of the angles used for the professional photo gallery online:
After the Skywalk we made another spectacular photo-stop at Athabasca Falls.
The bus dropped me and a few other passengers off at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a four-star hotel not up to Fairmont standards in my opinion. Dozens of duplex cabins are spread across many acres. Mine had no view of Beauvert Lake and required a seven-minute walk to the lodge for meals and reception, or a ten-minute wait for a golf-cart pickup. But Jasper has a reputation for not having really deluxe hotels and excess demand in-season, so choices are limited. A high-priced hamburger in the bar was so overcooked it could have been leather. The waiter said that by law in all of Canada, hamburger must be cooked well-done due to a mortal incident years ago. Yet the same restaurants can serve carpaccio, raw beef fillet. Go figure.
Due to a surprise early snow storm the previous week, the central heat was on in all cabins and there was no way to turn it off. The room was suffocatingly hot even with two fans on, making sleep difficult. I would rather have had a less expensive hotel in the village with more dining options nearby. The only compensation is that the hotel grounds have more elk than most other places in Alberta, even some grazing next to the tennis courts.
Friday Sept. 19. Jasper area tour and transfer to VIA train to Vancouver.
I had an excellent room-service breakfast and had to hustle to make the 8 am bus pickup for the Jasper area tour. I was pleased to see our superb driver/guide Andy Richard was at the wheel once again. This was the least satisfactory bus tour since the day was overcast and the sites not up to those of previous days: Medicine Lake, Maligne Canyon, and Maligne Lake where we spent an hour so Andy could put some passengers on a boat ride before returning us to our hotels. After posting my photos of yesterday online, I forgot to return the chip to the camera so there are no photos of this day, but it was the least scenic of the tour.
The hotel was kind enough to give me a 1 pm checkout so I had time to finish packing and take the shuttle to the Jasper train station. The VIA train from Toronto picks up passengers here for an overnight transit to Vancouver. My expectations were too high thinking this would be similar to the Rocky Mountaineer. The difference was like cider to champagne. It’s just not a first class train. The roomettes had a toilet and sink with a nice shower room at the end of the car. When the bed folds down it covers the toilet making nocturnal pit stops a matter of moving the bed back up or walking down the car to the public toilet. I can’t imagine enjoying such cramped quarters on a four-day transcontinental transit.
The dome car had open-seating and there was always room there and in a lounge where one could chat with other passengers and have a drink, 7 dollars for two fingers of scotch. There were three sittings in the dining car so meal service seemed rushed to me. I barely finished my 7 dollar glass of wine when the manager had to collect money at all the tables and prepare for the next sitting. The food was quite good however. My car attendant disappeared at 7 pm due to a night assignment so I never saw him again until just before debarking in the morning. No one answered the attendant bell so I can’t imagine what one would do in an emergency.
Saturday Sept. 20. Vancouver
I managed to sleep somewhat but would not have wanted to do that for four nights as some did. I wished I had not booked airfare out of Vancouver and instead taken the short ride from Jasper and flown out of Calgary. But the tour included a night at the Fairmont Waterfront Vancouver since a 9 am arrival in the city, time consumed retrieving luggage, and the taxi to the airport would have made flights out of Vancouver that morning impossible. I was fortunate to get my bag early and found a cab outside the station immediately. I was back at the Fairmont Waterfront by 10:30 and thrilled that the same room I had the week before was already available.
I caught up on email, had lunch at the next-door food court, and boarded the hop on/hop off bus again. I stopped at the Sun Yat-Sen Chinese garden that didn’t live up to its billing. The list of attractions in Vancouver goes on and on and I kept some for a future trip, likely to return there one day for an Alaska cruise. Dinner my last night was a repeat at the Cactus Club on the waterfront, one of several in the city. It is very popular due to its excellent food at reasonable prices, so there is always a wait for a table. But the high tables in the bar area are often occupied by a single person and I asked to share and enjoyed the company of an interesting Saudi medical student.
Sunday Sept. 21 Vancouver airport and departure.
After a room service breakfast and a check of the headlines, I got a taxi at the hotel door for the 25 minute ride to the airport, about 31 dollars. U.S. bound passengers go through U.S. customs in Vancouver and I avoided the long line thanks to my Global Entry card. The flight to Rochester with a ninety-minute layover in Chicago went well except for my luggage not making the connection. Altogether there were not many glitches on this tour of the Canadian Rockies and I hope the photos will encourage readers to go if they haven’t already been. This was really one of the best travel adventures I have been fortunate enough to have experienced.
7 thoughts on “THE CANADIAN ROCKIES BY TRAIN & BUS”
This is a trip I’ve always wanted to take, Jim, and your report has me salivating! After my broken leg heals (yes, no joke) and physical therapy, maybe I’ll be in shape to do it. Or, I’ll just read this several times and fantasize.
Gracias y un abrazo,
I took the bus tour through this area in 2012. It was nice to see the photos from later in the year. Lake Louise and Maligne Lake were frozen over when I went through. I did have the opportunity to eat at the various restaurants in town in Banff and Jasper, and given your descriptions, I think that was to my benefit. We didn’t see elk, but we did see bear and wolf. This is one of the most spectacular places on the continent in my opinion. – Mike
I agree Mike, truly spectacular. But I don’t do windows or cold so no winter visit for me!
Jim: Loved your trip report. I did something similar many, many years ago, so I was delighted to be brought up to date on that beautiful part of the world. Keep traveling–and sending reports. Jake and I miss your Mexican trips. Best, Nancy
Thanks for your kind words Nancy. I miss you and Jake too. Please send me a private email and tell me how he is doing.
firstname.lastname@example.org. The best to you both.
I so enjoyed reading about your adventure, Jim, and the pictures are marvelous! Thanks for sharing.
The photo tour was great and your photos are beautiful and certainly add greatly to the narrative. It is a trip I have wanted to take and this was the next best thing. Be sure to publicize your Alaska trip in advance and maybe you will get more “friends” to go along.