Who of us has not wanted to climb aboard a big North American train as the guard calls out that iconic warning?
OK, there’s no tearful blonde waving on the platform, only the Rocky Mountaineer office staff lined up to send us off from Vancouver (a nice touch, though). But we’re going on a 500-mile journey into the heart of Canada and trips don’t get much bigger or more romantic than that.
Train journeys are always thought-provoking. You look out the window and random thoughts are sparked off by glimpses into the backyards of others’ lives. And as the abandoned cars and scruffy industrial lots of Vancouver give way to river valley and then the climb into the mountains, the thoughts rise to meet them.
‘If we can’t export the scenery, we will import the tourists,’ said Cornelius Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s – and a man obviously used to big thoughts. The company proceeded to build a series of magnificent hotels to attract tourists to its railway. In the heart of the Rockies, these hotels do justice to the magnificent landscapes, being attractions in their own right.
At Jasper, the log cabins of Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge could have been the setting for Bing Crosby in White Christmas. Indeed, Bing turns out to have been a guest. The resort boasts Canada’s top golf course but the mountains around are the real attraction.
A gentle hike to the top of Mount Whistler, using the cable car most of the way, reveals views of the Jasper National Park. A mile-long freight train is a tiny speck in the landscape far below us.
The day finishes with some whitewater rafting in the (literally) ice-cold rivers of the park before gourmet dining back at Jasper Lodge.
Enjoying air so fresh it hurts my London-scarred lungs, it’s an early start for the glacier-strewn Icefield Parkway to Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. This fantastic Alpine hotel features staff in Swiss costumes and a setting that’s more Swiss than Switzerland.
Guide Bruce Bembridge (pictured above) takes me for a ramble in the woods, where we turn back at a sign warning us of bear. As we regain the edge of the forest, with a glimpse of the car park below, he utters a most memorable line.
‘People out there talk about the “real world”,’ he says. ‘That isn’t the real world. This is. Nature was here long before we came along and will be here long after we’re gone.’
Following Bruce’s advice, I get up at dawn to see the ‘double sunrise’ of the rising sun reflected on the bright blue waters of the placid lake. It’s a perfect time of day to stand dwarfed by the wonders of nature before the calm is broken by the arrival of the first coachloads of new visitors.
The last stop on this trip is Canada’s oldest national park at Banff. The famed Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel was built in 1888 and stands like a Scottish castle at the meeting of the Bow and Spray Rivers. The huge 770-room hotel is still dwarfed by the mountains around it.
In its award-winning spa, a masseur eases a muscle strain from my whitewater adventure in Jasper. Then it’s into the small town of Banff for some shopping and a few museums before yet another magnificent meal. Tomorrow it’s back to what I can never again call the real world.