Rolling thru the Rockies

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer provides an elegant way to explore the continent’s last frontiers.

The Rocky Mountaineer provides a luxury experience in a Canadian frontier of glacier-fed rivers, forests and mountains. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The crisp fall morning air is interrupted by the ding, ding, ding, ding of the train engine, followed by the echoing blurrrrrrrrph blasting from the train horn. Then there is the growing gentle scream of brakes as the clacking wheels come to an orderly halt in front of us. This is the entrance that the Rocky Mountaineer makes at the picturesque Banff train station.

Telling a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer starts with a red carpet for passengers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The train is painted in crisp white, blue and gold colors. Its windows function like a type of long mural, reflecting the forests and snow-capped mountains surrounding us. As we walk the length of this train, hands and fingers point, accompanied by a dozen languages and even more accents of the giggling crowd of excited passengers.

This is my second trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, which rolls through the spectacular mountain landscape between Vancouver and Calgary. This day the train from Calgary is stopping in Banff to pick us up for the trip to the coast. My previous trip was the reverse: Vancouver to Calgary.

The Mountaineer is an adjective-depleting experience that is almost unfair because of how it spoils passengers. This service has thought about every aspect of the travel experience. The staff are well-hired and well-trained. You can’t fake the kind of people skills that Rocky Mountaineer attendants posses. They’re considerate, efficient and happy. Rather than asking, they anticipate needs. The service is as grand as the landscape. It’s a level of retro elegance reminiscent of days when well-dressed people travelled with retinues and steamer trucks.

There is a great historic connection to taking a train from Banff. The Canadian federation was saved by American railroad executive Sir William Van Horne. In 1871 the federal government made a commitment to British Columbia that if it joined the Canadian federation, rather than becoming part of the United States, the new province would be connected to the rest of Canada via a railway. That was key for commerce. However, the project was bogged down by incompetence and corruption. Enter the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Illinois-born Van Horne, who pushed the railway through the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. When Van Horne saw the view of the Bow Valley from Banff he famously said, “Since we can’t export the scenery, we have to import the tourists.” And he made it so. He ordered what is now the iconic castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel built so that tourists arriving by rail had a place to stay.

This is the light-filled top level of the Gold Leaf Dome Car. Windows are washed daily so passenger views are clear. (Allan Lynch Photo)

On this morning most of us have come from the hotel to the train. My fellow passengers range from a group of British train enthusiasts, Americans celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, honeymooners, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Canadians discovering their backyard. I chuckle at the Brits who are thrilled both with our train and with the massive, freight trains that share our tracks. A retired British transportation executive, counting 100 freight cars on one train, exclaimed, “That train is as long as the track from London to Brighton!”

Some of the wildlife seen from the train. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Riding these rails is like being part of a great nature documentary. Other than when the rails were laid, much of this landscape is as untouched as it has been for millennium. This is a view denied to all but extreme adventurists and those, like us, privileged enough to take this train. We pass prairies, foothills, wetlands, flatlands, forests, snow-capped mountains and glacier-fed rivers, lakes and gorges. We see beaver dams, elk, deer, bear, osprey and gravity-defying big-horned sheep who jump from one improbable perch to the next, somewhat like nature’s ultimate circus act. In one river we see the red schools of what my seatmate said are Kokanee salmon.

The sightseeing is accompanied by meals worthy of any good restaurant. In our

Breakfast on the Rocky Mountaineer. (Allan Lynch Photo)

dining room tables are set with white linens and fresh cut flowers. The five-item breakfast menu offers fresh omelettes of mozzarella, asparagus and smoked ham; scrambled eggs with steelhead salmon, kelp caviar and chive crème fraîche; eggs benedict with Montreal smoked meat; buttermilk pancakes; and a granola Parfait. Lunch, which changes daily, ranges from vegetarian and light options to wild BC Sockeye Salmon, Alberta pork tenderloin, short ribs and Black Tiger Prawns. The wine list features the best of BC’s vineyards: Chardonnay, Pinot, Merlot, Shiraz and a sparkling wine. It all fortifies the message that life is good.

Aaron, our seat attendant, draws gales of laughter from passengers as he does his impression of a moose. (Allan Lynch Photo)

I consider the Rocky Mountaineer as being like a rolling resort. I’m in the Gold Leaf Service, which is the highest of their three passenger categories (Red, Silver and Gold). Each has its own style of rail car. Any level on this train is above what you will have experienced on another service. In Gold Leaf 68 of us share a dome car staffed by three seat attendants, two chefs, plus dining room servers. We sit in sunshine enjoying the vast panorama outside. The car’s lower level has a foyer/gift display, washrooms with fresh cut flowers and flagstone floors, dining room and is connected to the upper level via a spiral staircase and, for those with mobility challenges, an elevator. The real bonus is the balcony. Each dome car has a substantially-sized open-air balcony with room for 12-15 passengers to inhale the crisp, fresh, invigorating, seasonal aroma of forests and mountain lakes, and snap spectacular photos without any glass glare.

Among the company’s attention to detail is how they handle luggage. At the Fairmont Banff Springs my bag was placed in the coach taking me to the train station, from which it was delivered to my hotel room in Kamloops. This is a two-day trip. The train stops at night so passengers never miss the scenery and crews can restock and thoroughly clean the train. The next morning, my suitcase was picked up from my Kamloops hotel room and delivered to my room at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. This is really spoiling the traveler.

We rolled past pioneering communities with rustic names and identities, like Skuzzy Creek, Boston Bar, Jackass Mountain, Cisco Crossings, Avalanche Alley, Jaws of Death Gorge, and the Three Sisters Mountains. As we passed Sicamous, our attendants, who double as tour guides delivering local history and directing us to best upcoming angles for pictures, told us this is houseboat capital of Canada, where pizzas are delivered to the middle of the lake. Further on we experienced the engineering miracles of the “Spiral Tunnels”. The Cathedral Mountain tunnel turns 250 degrees in 993 meters/3,255 feet, while the Mount Ogden tunnel turns 230 degrees in 912 meters/2,922 feet.

Approaching Vancouver we pass vast vegetable and flower gardens, see log booms

Passengers are encircled by a large landscape of rivers, forests and mountains. (Allan Lynch Photo)

on the Fraser River and learn that at the narrowest part of that river, Hell’s Gate, 200 million gallons of water (909,218,000 liters) per minute pass through! This whole experience is about nature unhindered.

The experience caters to those who appreciate nature, a culinary experience, a glimpse into the discovery of the continent as well as engineering wizardry. At the very least it’s one elegant way to go from A to B.

A choice of experiences

Rocky Mountaineer (http://www.rockymountaineer.com) offers four services: First Passage to the West (Vancouver, Kamloops, Lake Louise, Banff), Journey through the Clouds (Vancouver, Kamloops, Jasper), Rainforest to Gold Rush (Vancouver, Whistler, Quesnel, Jasper) and the Coastal Passage (Seattle, Vancouver, Rockies).

10 ways to rock winter in Canada

Voltaire once dismissed Canada as “a few acres of snow”.

We’re more than a few. But contrary to the clichés about cold, snowy Canada, we are not a permanently frozen wasteland. Most Canadians live within a 100 miles of the Canada-U.S. border. If non-Canadians want to know what the weather is like, look to comparable places in the U.S. Vancouver’s weather is like Seattle’s. Montreal, Toronto and places in Eastern Canada can be similar to New York and Boston. (Tho’ in Atlantic Canada, thanks to the ocean, we don’t that their humidity.)

Canada has the traditional four seasons – except Montreal. Montreal has three: summer, winter and pothole season.

As a winter country, we embrace the opportunity to play with the snow, ice and vast terrain.

Here are my personal top ten ideas for winter fun in Canada:

The hockey addiction starts early. These players are at the birthplace of hockey, Long Pond, Windsor Nova Scotia. (Allan Lynch Photo)

1. Skating. If you’re not a Canadian you should know Canadians don’t “ice skate” just as we don’t play “ice hockey”. We skate and play hockey. It’s done as God meant it to be done, on ice. The only modifier for hockey is “road hockey” played in driveways, lesser-used neighbourhood streets and empty far corners of parking lots. A relatively recent embracement of retro ideas has spurred a resurgence of “pond hockey”. That’s playing outside on a frozen pond, lake or river. The premo place for this is Long Pond, Windsor, Nova Scotia, which is the birthplace of hockey. For more on the history of hockey check out: http://canada150.rocks/2017/01/24/celebrating-the-origins-of-hockey/

I think most small-town Canadians grew up going to the local rink for weekend skates. Many schools also reserved an afternoon for skating. Those public skates involved everyone skating to music in one direction. The music changed and everyone turned and skated in the opposite direction.

Bonhomme skates with young admirers at Quebec Winter Carnival. (Allan Lynch Photo)

A real joy is to find a frozen pond or creek. You have to be certain that the ice is thick enough, but it turns the fun of skating into an adventure.

I have a friend who lives in Stanley Bridge, Prince Edward Island. The bay outside her house freezes and that becomes a massive rink at her doorstep. One year, the wind was blowing so much she got inventive, took out an umbrella and let the wind drag her across the frozen bay. She laughs that she probably looked ridiculous, but it was more fun than usually prescribed to someone our age.

2. Sliding. The song speaks of ‘slip, slidin’ away’. Snow and ice

Sliding down one of Quebec City’s ice runs. (Allan Lynch Photo)
are great facilitators. My introduction was tobogganing. I had an aluminum toboggan which was really light to carry and super fast on snow. I had a beagle and he liked to crawl into the curved front for the race downhill.

Like most kids of my era I had a couple of hills where I met my friends. There was the ‘church hill’ and ‘research hill’.

The church hill was great because it was two-faced. You slid down from the sidewalk to the bottom, ran up the other side to the longer hill which was tall enough that I could get enough of a run on to slide part way up the other side. Sadly, it’s been filled in and paved to meet the needs of one of the few parishes with a growing congregation. The research station hill still exists and has been named Burger Hill. I don’t understand the name connection, but generations of kids still get to race down it on their toboggans, flying carpets and flying saucers.

Our friends in Quebec have taken tobogganing to new heights. A 30-minute drive from the Quebec City

One of the smaller slides at Valcartier. (Allan Lynch Photo)
is Village Vacances Valcartier (https://valcartier.com/fr/glissades-hiver/). This is a resort complex that has 35 slides, with such comforting names as Avalanche, Tornado, Himalaya and Everest. Everest claims to be the highest accelerating slide in North America. It’s 33.5 metres high enabling brave sliders to reach speeds of 80 km/hour. Sliding at Valcartier is done on inner tubes and rubber rafts. They have 5,000 pieces of sliding equipment for hire.

They also have skating, various outdoor games, an ice hotel (plus a real hotel with heat). On my visit I also went go-carting-on-ice. It’s probably not still on offer, but it was a trip. Go-carts easily got into spins and stuck sideways or slide into a snow bank, which required staff to drag you out and set you in the right direction. The way to make it around the course was to drive like your grandparents. It’s probably one of those fun things killed by insurers.

In Charlevoix, which is a resort area two-hours from Quebec City, Le Massif de Charlevoix ski hill (http://www.lemassif.com/en/sledding), owned by a cofounder of Cirque du Soleil, offers rodeling (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HGHm21j0ko). Rodeling is extreme sliding. It’s a European sled experience on a 7.5 km downhill run (don’t panic, it’s not a direct drop) on a groomed trail. It takes about two hours to complete and there is a beverage break mid-way down).

Charlevoix is also a very arty and foodie area. Every second person is either involved in gourmet something or a painter. There are lots of restaurants (very good ones) and accommodations. Close to the ski hill is La Germain Hotel Charlevoix (http://www.legermainhotels.com/en/charlevoix/). It originally opened as Hotel La Ferme. Very trendy, very cool accommodations. Further up the road in La Malbaie is the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu (http://www.fairmont.com/richelieu-charlevoix/). This is a giant stone chateau on a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence. It’s a full-service, year-round resort. There’s a casino on-site, so that adds to the live entertainment option. One of the resort’s uniquely Canadian features is valet snowmobile parking. Some people come and rent a machine others will ride a snowmobile along trails from Quebec City. The Manoir has a full menu of winter experiences to enjoy.

Looking down an Olympic run in Whistler. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Another ultimate sliding experience is provided at the Whistler Sliding Centre. This is a legacy project from the 2010 Winter Olympics. If you’re brave enough, you can see about the sliding options. If you are more sedentary, then you can see the facilities and be gobsmacked by the agility of the athletes and speeds they reach. And get some selfies of yourself playing with the equipment.
(http://www.whistlersportlegacies.com)

3. I don’t ski or snowboard. Looking down from the top of a hill or mountain, I imagine a trail lined in broken bones. Mine. But a truly brilliant experience is Snow-Limo Tours http://www.snow-limotours.com

Prepping the snow-limo at Whistler. (Allan Lynch Photo)
Snow-Limo skis you down the mountain! The business was started by two bothers from New Brunswick. Their family loved to ski. As their parents aged, the guys thought about how to still share the experience the family loved. So they developed a lightweight chair on skis. A guest is strapped into the chair, bundled up in a blanket and the ski chauffeur stands on the back of the skis and takes you down the mountain. Your body is warm, but do plan to put a scarf over part of your face. Even with a beard my face got cold.

I did this at Whistler. It was thrilling. I’m still not going to take up skiing but I get the thrill

Snow-limo passengers are bundled up. (Allan Lynch Photo)
of the sport. It’s exhilarating. I was astonished that the mountain is so big that it took us over half an hour to reach the bottom. At Whistler there is a lip by the lodge you go over to start the run. As we made that first dip I had an OMG moment, but once on the actual ski run it was great. I was astonished at how many people were on the mountain. My one observation – other than how cold the wind can be on your face – is how much snowboarders fall down. Rarely did I see a skier down, but I saw lots of boarders. I don’t know if that was the instability of the board or age and inexperience of the boarder. What the hell, everyone was having fun.

Snow-Limo have moved from Whistler, but offer their service at Big White Ski Resort (outside Kelowna), Grouse Mountain (North Vancouver) and Sun Peaks Resort (outside Kamloops, BC).

4. Cross-country skiing is something I tried and didn’t really take to. All of the videos make it seem so elegant and effortless. That was not my experience. I took it up with a friend. Rather than buy a convenient ski package we seemingly raided the Nordic countries: Icelandic wool sweaters, Norwegian skis, Swedish poles, Danish boots … I never seemed to wax my skis properly.

A solidary skier has a frozen Lake Louise to himself. (Allan Lynch Photo)
I always had snow build up. (No one talks to you about that.) There are modern skis that don’t require waxing. We didn’t have those. And when we went skiing we took my friend’s crazy dog along. He seemed to have just defecated wherever I was about to fall. In mid-fall I would try to change course. In the end I figured it cost me $78 an hour to ski.

Lots of people do cross-country ski and do it well and enjoy it. I look at the image of the guy skiing across Lake Louise and envy his Zen-like experience.

5. What I learned that I do love is snowshoeing. I discovered my passion for it

Snowshoeing in the vineyards of Domaine de Grand Pre, Nova Scotia. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Making snow angels while snowshoeing in Quebec. (Allan Lynch Photo)
while attending the Quebec Winter Carnival. We went out on the Plains of Abraham to ski. It was fun. In a few steps you are in a tranquil place surrounded by trees, winter wildlife and a refreshing solitude.

In Quebec I learned that the styles and types of snowshoes used across Canada were adjusted by First Nations peoples for their snow conditions and terrain.

Outside Quebec at Le Manoir du Lac Delace I was introduced to a type of snowshoe orientation. You’ve

Orienteering on snowshoes in Quebec. (Allan Lynch Photo)
given a compass and map and set out to find a course through the woods. Basically it’s a scavenger hunt on snowshoes. It was fun to effortlessly enjoy the solitude of a snowy forest, away from sounds other than the crunch of the snowshoe or our own giggles from our enjoyment. In addition to Quebec I’ve snow shoed around Lake Louise with the staff
Snowshoeing up a mountain in the Okanagan. (Allan Lynch Photo)
naturalist from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. And in Halifax it’s possible to take a city bus to the top of Hemlock Ravine Park, snowshoe down the trails to the bottom of the park in Bedford and pick up a city bus to the downtown core – and my hotel. There are a lot of ways to mix-up the adventure without it having to be a backcountry survival experience.

Snow-biking is insanely fun. (Allan Lynch Photo)
6. In the are-you-crazy category is snow biking. As I think of it, Fool on the Hill. I did it at Sunshine Village between Lake Louise and Banff, but it’s no longer offered there. However, Inglis Manitoba https://asessippi.com/the-resort/activities/snow-biking/ and the Sun Peaks Resort do offer it.. https://www.sunpeaksresort.com/events-things-to-do/winter-activities/snowbike
Basically, the snow bike is a low kids bike with short skies for wheels. You’re also given short skis to wear. There are no brakes. For more about snow biking go to: http://canada150.rocks/2017/02/20/snow-biking-a-fool-on-the-hill/

7. Ice climbing is another winter sport I don’t do. But I’m impressed by those

Two tiny specs on the ice face above the tree top are climbers. (Allan Lynch Photo)
people crazy enough, strong enough and bold enough to do it. In Charlevoix I’m told they climb up frozen waterfalls. Driving the road between Jasper and Lake Louise I noticed movement on frozen ice sheets that lined some of the mountains. Looking more closely I saw people were climbing up the mountain! This takes rock climbing to a new height.

8. In lieu of climbing a mountain I have gone ice canyoning in Jasper. We walked through an area that is prone to flash floods and seasonal flooding. In some places the stone walls were baby-bottom smooth. My guide said that happens because the flood water filled the space, whirled around by the rock formations, dislodged smaller rocks and sent them spinning along the larger rock faces. The easiest way to think of this as a type of natural exfoliation.

9. My hedonistic winter treat is the natural, Scandinavian-style outdoor spas which proliferate across Canada.

My introduction was during the Quebec Winter Carnival. I went to le Nordique Spa Stoneham (http://lenordique.com). It’s one of Quebec’s 20 nature spas. Don’t panic, nature doesn’t mean nudist, it means it’s half inside, half outside. Le Nordique, about a 30-minute drive from the city, cascades down a forested hillside to the Jacques Cartier River. There is a main building which houses reception area, changing rooms, café. Below are a series of hot and cold water pools and several more buildings housing saunas, steam rooms, solariums and treatment rooms (for massage only). The idea is to go at your own speed, warming up, cooling down and repeating as necessary or desired. And here I am, Mr. I’m-not-keen-on-cold, strolling snow-lined paths in a bathing suit in -12 degree weather. My skin

A waterfall and pool at the Scandinave Spa in Mount Tremblant. (Allan Lynch Photo)
is tingling, but in a good way. This is a real treat because no appointment is necessary (unless you want a massage), you just show up and linger. And it’s cheap. Admission for all day at this type of spa is usually less than a massage at a traditional spa.

I’ve also done the Scandinave Spa in Mont-Tremblant (http://www.scandinave.com/en/tremblant/ ) and Whistler and another spa outside Ottawa, whose name I’ve forgotten. These are truly relaxing days because you slow down, set your technology aside and focus on yourself. You’re quiet, you’re in beautiful and sensual surroundings, and waking up your body while distressing your soul.

My other absolute favourite place is the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmount Banff Springs Hotel (http://www.fairmont.com/banff-springs/willow-stream/). This is a temple of the flesh – and not in a seedy sense.
There are separate men’s and women’s sections, which meet in a room containing a huge circular pool. Music is piped underwater, so you can float and look through the skylight to the star-filled night. In a sheltered terrace off the pool deck is an outdoor hot tub. I like to sit here in a light snowfall. The steam from the tub melts most of the snowflakes before they reach you. Stay in long enough and you may have to shake snow off your bathrobe.

Sleigh rides in the city in Quebec. (Allan Lynch Photo)
10. Sleigh rides. I grew up in a small town surrounded by farms that had horses, wagons and sleighs. Our year included wagon and sleigh rides where we burrowed down in hay. As an adult I reconnected with the joy of sleigh rides in Halifax, Quebec and Alberta.

In a suburb of Halifax, abut 10 minutes from the city centre Hatfield Farms offer sleigh rides (http://www.hatfieldfarm.com). In Quebec during carnival there are rows of horses and sleighs lined up for hire on the Plains of Abraham. And in Alberta, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offer sleigh rides in one of the most dramatic settings on the Continent. There is a movie-like atmosphere to the jingle of the sleigh bells as you glide past mountains, forests and frozen lake. And I like that the Chateau has footless champagne flutes designed to stick into the snow.

Elk watch tourists in Jasper. (Allan Lynch Photo)
Finally, my picks for my favourite winter places: Whistler, Banff and Mount Tremblant. They’re communities built for winter. These are pedestrian/pedestrian-friendly communities so even in a great snowstorm you can stroll around and enjoy it without having to worry about practical things like shoveling and driving. I love Quebec City in winter (anytime of year, in truth). The
Downtown Banff is nestled in the Bow Valley, surrounded by the Rockies. (Allan Lynch Photo)
snow seems to highlight architectural details in a different way than you see them in the sun. Plus, whether it’s Carnival time or not, Quebeckers have lots of inventive ways to enjoy the season. I also like Lake Louise and Jasper, but haven’t spent enough winter time in either. Whether you ski or not, these communities offer a full range of activities, treats, great food, crisp service and magnificent views. I prefer them to a beach break.
A frozen Lake Louise. (Allan Lynch Photo)