Join John Borthwick as he takes us on an unforgettable journey through the breathtaking landscapes of Western Canada. From the majestic alpine canyons to the vibrant cosmopolitan harbours, this region offers something for everyone. Start your adventure on the iconic Rocky Mountaineer train, immersing yourself in the stunning beauty of Lake Louise before finishing in stunning Vancouver.
A frenzy of excitement sweeps the platform, as a kilted bagpiper plays the ‘all aboard!’ call. Climbing a spiral staircase to GoldLeaf Service, romance infuses the air. I’m taking the First Passage to the West route from Vancouver to Calgary, aboard the world-renowned Rocky Mountaineer.
Bestowed with an orange and peach juice cocktail, I gaze through the glass-domed roof as aromas of the breakfast kind seep from the diner below. The clank of cutlery summons me to scrambled eggs, smoked steelhead salmon, kelp caviar and lemon chive crème fraiche. Life can be harsh!
The scenery dramatises when the Fraser River simmers like a witch’s cauldron. Tumbling ferociously, it squeezes through Hell’s Gate, where around two hundred million gallons of water torrent through this bottleneck per minute: twice the volume of Niagara Falls! Colours intensify when passing Rainbow Canyon, with its minerals projecting green-tinged copper, russet iron and sulphurous yellow.
Back in the dining carriage, snow-white tablecloths and fresh orchids welcome all. The culinary excellence of Frederic Couton and Jean Pierre Guerin (Guerin has cooked for Princess Diana and Bill Clinton) harvests prime Alberta pork tenderloin, confit of sweet onion, garlic potatoes and parsnip chips.
Kamikaze rafters tackle treacherous white waters around Jaws of Death Gorge. We rubberneck, risking ingestion, as rafts and humans tumble about the river’s washing machine cycle.
Tails and Tales
Back on the train (having stabled overnight in Kamloops), peculiar, turreted rock formations pillar the skyline. Like castellated battlements, Hoodoos were sculpted by erosion after the Ice Age. Their magnificence sends a deluge of cameras to the open-air vestibule.
Passing Shuswap Lake, our giant windows’ living slideshow captures the ‘Houseboat Capital of Canada’. Sicamous’s 300+ houseboats are where holidaymakers ply the area’s misty waterways. Approaching Beaver Dam Raychl our host reveals how mercury oxide was used to soak beaver pelts for hat-making (I watch a freight train pass). Its toxicity affected the workers’ central nervous system, rousing the term: ‘mad as a hatter’ (I tally 304 carriages).
Chugging past Craigellachie, the platform swarms with trainspotters. The last spike was driven here in 1885, completing Canada’s first transcontinental railway. William Van horne (President of Canadian Pacific Railway) famously said: “if we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
Canyon Deep, Mountain High
We near 8km-long Connaught Tunnel that burrows through Rogers Pass. Someone points out a field of yellow flowered skunk cabbage; a delicacy for the black bear, which confusingly, can be brown or blond. He’s the smaller cousin to the grizzly, which sports a rounder face, humped neck and silver-tipped brown fur. We’re all itching to see any colour bear on this trip!
Pinned to mount tubber, Stoney Creek Bridge propels camera-clingers to snap its brave stature 100 metres above the creek. The Canadian Rockies dwarf us, gift-wrapping our see-through ceiling. We become the cake beneath the icing as flurries of frozen feathers dust the train, soon licked off by the sun.
After passing field, the genial engineering of the Spiral Tunnels thrill all. Curling through Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain, they almost loop back on themselves full-circle to tackle the steep grade. Like a snake chasing its tail, the back of the train enters one tunnel as its front exits higher. We elevate to the Continental Divide, the journey’s highest point. From the outdoor vestibule, we hear the rowdy roar of an avalanche. Like wet thunder, it echoes behind the plummeting snow. Castle Mountain is the next show-stealer, rising to 2,766 metres with its layers of horizontal rock.
Following the Bow River towards calgary’s desert prairies, my rail adventure concludes. But I’m not done with Canada yet…
Boots laced, I’m back in the Rocky mountains, sashaying along lake louise’s alpine shoreline. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the trail is hopping with golden-mantled squirrels. It hugs glacier-fed iridescent teal waters, illuminated by the sun reflecting off fine glacial rock flour, hemmed in by a vertiginous crown.
Energised, I strap on ice cleats and join mountain heritage guide, Jeff Douglas, to hike lake louise’s ramparts. He reveals legends and truths about grizzly bears along the way, pulling out what isn’t a myth: Bear Spray! Luckily, it’s not needed. Instead we marvel at the distant Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: fit for princesses.
By afternoon, I ascend Mount Whitehorn via Lake Louise’s sightseeing lift. Champagne snow speckles fir and pine trees as my goose bumps and I climb to a mind-blowing peak. I absorb Lake Louise and the Continental Divide’s arthritic spine. The Interpretive Centre (wildlife taxidermies galore) teaches me more about grizzly bears. Perfectly timed, as on my descent I spot a mature beast in the wildlife corridor beneath the gondola. This Goldilocks squeals histrionically!
Finally reaching Banff as the sunset melts behind the snow, I join an evening Wildlife Safari tour. Driving alongside two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka, not a moose is to be seen. However we do spot elk and whitetail deer. Post tour, I broil myself in mineral-rich 1930s Banff upper hot Springs. Mid-blizzard, I wallow in a welcome 40 degrees as the frost thaws from my steaming face. A couple queue to hire 1920s swimsuits, and I imagine that day in 1883 when three Canadian Pacific Railwaymen discovered the hot springs that made Banff so famous.
Returning to Vancouver, I take an exhilarating scenic flight in a Dehavilland Beaver. Why Vancouverites wax lyrical about their trendsetting city becomes evident. Birds-eye-viewing this handsome metropolis, I spectacle at Seymour Mountain, Granville Island, English Bay and the 400-hectare expanse of Stanley Park. Hungry for more heady heights I board the Skyride to scale Grouse Mountain. Timber wolves prowl its base, and at the peak, I meet Grinder and Coola: two orphaned grizzly cubs, strutting about their refuge.
By evening, romance returns upon boarding the enchanting MPV Constitution to paddle-wheel Vancouver’s glittering waterways. Dining on West Coast cuisine, a musician serenades courters. Steadily, the sunset sketches a burnt-orange city skyline.
Most Romantic Stays, Western Canada
Hotel Arts, Calgary: Decadently lavish and intimately romantic, with unique artwork and sculpture throughout (a full-size horse stands in their bistro!). Chocolate and espresso-coloured rooms with wet bars weld with bathrooms bragging pedestal sinks and Italian Carrera marble.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: This fairytale castle reigns over the most charming alpine views across Lake Louise and amphitheatrical Victoria Glacier. Sumptuously romantic, balconied rooms are adorned in historic artworks of the area, with plush marble bathrooms. Inimitable!
The Rimrock Resort Hotel, Banff: Rimrock Resort steals the quixotic limelight. A visual feast, classically decorated rooms gaze over the Bow Valley from pillow-top beds. Uber-glamorous Divas Martini Lounge is wallpapered with the owner’s private photograph collection of revered Hollywood women.
Wedgewood Hitel & Spa, Vancouver: This Relais & Chateaux gem is an amorous masterpiece. Rooms showcase Murano crystal, antiques and custom-designed furniture. Limestone and Roman marble bathrooms with in-room Jacuzzis echo the hotel’s luxurious spa, beautifying guests with the Epicurean Skin Care line.
Executive Hotel Lesoleil, Vancouver: A luxury all-suite boutique hotel preserving old-world elegance. Plush Biedermeier-style furniture in all shades of red and gold stylishly bathe the rooms, with marble bathrooms offering Aveda products.
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