Two things drew me to Canada on this fine October morning: a journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, known for its jaw-dropping alpine rail tours, and an opportunity to taste Canadian beer, which a friend described as the best brew produced in North America. Yes, better than the U.S. stuff, he said.
I was also keeping an eye out for Sasquatch, which the Rocky Mountaineer’s website lists among the top five wildlife sightings on the train’s route.
Laugh if you like. You probably don’t believe in extraterrestrials, either. But the furry man-beast, which has supposedly stalked the Pacific Northwest for centuries, is a Big Thing with Canadians. It’s like the Scots’ Loch Ness monster.
The Rocky Mountaineer lists Sasquatch along with bears, bighorn sheep, elk and bald eagles. It may be tongue-in-cheek, but who knows? Maybe there’s some truth to it. At any rate, I planned to watch for Bigfoot as we rolled east from Vancouver to Banff.
But once the train slid out of the station, I forgot all about the monster tale. I was captivated by the scenery visible from the rail line’s double-decker glass-domed cars. I was seeing the big picture, and it was amazing.
The Rockies are one of the planet’s most spectacular mountain ranges — an untamed wilderness of vast forests, snow-covered peaks and rugged terrain. And there it was, an incredible panorama of blue sky, autumn leaves and lofty peaks.
I could sit in my seat, look through the glass dome and watch clouds dance across the sky and birds sail on air currents.
These plush rail cars offered other perks too. There was a luxe ambiance that included white tablecloths and three-course meals for those passengers who booked its top-of-the-line service, Goldleaf.
They spent most of the day in the glass-domed level of the car but hustled downstairs to the lower level, which is outfitted as a dining car, for elaborate breakfasts and lunches. In Silverleaf service, the cars are single-decker and you eat at your seat.
No one spent the night on board. Even the shortest trips — just two days — have an overnight stop.
The privately owned rail service, which operates April through October, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with the addition of new rail cars that will allow it to carry more passengers.
Its four routes tie together Seattle; Vancouver, Whistler and Kamloops, British Columbia; plus the Canadian Rockies towns of Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff, Alberta.
Train packages range from two to 14 days, with the longest tours combining rail and ship travel so that vacationers can add Alaska to their itineraries.
I wasn’t sure I’d like the long days — passengers spend as much as 12 hours on board daily — so I booked a mini-plan: two days on the train and a night in Kamloops, midway between Vancouver and Banff. The tab: $1,705 for double-decker Goldleaf service, including the hotel stay, four meals and lots of great scenery. Single-decker Silverleaf service is $1,247 per person.
We pulled out of the Vancouver station at 7:30 a.m., watching the landscape change from cities to small towns to open country as we rolled inland. The huge plains and fields of the Fraser Valley gave way to forests, winding river canyons and then to desertlike regions that were, well, monotonous.
Rocky Mountaineer trains wait on a siding when freight or other trains have priority access to the tracks. Some contain upward of 100 rail cars, so it can be a long wait. We were in the middle of such a wait when our group was called for lunch.
I was happy to retreat downstairs to the dining car. Photographer Jim Edwards, who had spent much of the morning on an outside viewing platform shooting pictures, was ready for lunch too.
We talked with our dining companions about the need for a good book for the slow periods on the train. British traveler Sarah Blishen was growing impatient: “I think two days is about the right amount of time for one of these trips.”
Others loved the pace. Ernie Kelly, like most of the people I spoke with, is a big booster of rail travel. “I’m happy that someone brought this kind of train travel back. It’s a great way to see this part of the country.”
Kelly, of Chevy Chase, Md., had another observation: “It’s like a cruise. They break it up with booze and good food.”
We stopped that night in Kamloops, where I began my Canadian beer familiarization program at the Noble Pig Brewhouse, a lively hangout that serves in-house brews along with a killer mac and cheese with portobello mushrooms and truffle oil.
I had a flight of craft-brewed Noble beers; my fave was a mocha porter with chocolate and coffee flavors.
We were back on the train by 6:30 the next morning. And the repetitious scenery of Day 1 soon faded into the past. We were approaching the Rockies, and the skyline ahead was spectacular. Indeed, Day 2 was a knockout.
The last time I visited Banff, I drove here. This was incredibly better. The things that make the Rockies so beautiful also make it hard to access by car.
The train route cut through mountainsides, rolled along high cliffs and charged across verdant valleys on routes carved in the late 19th century. Highways followed other routes, many of which are also beautiful. But they couldn’t match seeing the Rockies by train.
At a few points along the route, we highballed, the engineer announced, with the train reaching speeds of up to 68 mph. We passed Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven, climbed over Rogers Pass and roared through the remarkable Spiral Tunnels, hailed as an engineering wonder when they opened in 1909.
Edwards, along with a handful of other camera-toting passengers, spent much of his time shooting from the outside platform. But when I joined them for a few minutes, the chilly weather and high winds were brutal. So much for my plan to watch for Sasquatch; it was too cold.
That night we warmed up with brews in Banff, which is working on its reputation as a craft-beer scene and farm-to-table — or as they put it, farm-to-summit — foodie destination.
Banff Ave. Brewing Co. brags that it makes its beers from glacier water that runs through Banff National Park. It’s all about the beer — and the water.
But my favorite in the area was Park Distillery, which holds craft spirits tastings and distillery tours and also operates a restaurant. “I never knew how they made it, I just like to drink it,” another tour member said as we poked around in the distillery. It was a fun way to spend an hour or so.
Another elevated way to spend a few hours was at Sky Bistro, which has mountaintop dining at the 7,510-foot summit of the Banff Gondola. The view was amazing, and there are plenty of adventures — and spirits — available. Sunset was a great time to visit.
My only mistake? I didn’t hear about the popular Banff Avenue nightclub Dancing Sasquatch until too late.
“We have sightings all the time,” said Katie Tuff, director of operations. “He really does love to dance.”
How to spot a Sasquatch
There are books, museums and clubs dedicated to Sasquatch, a.k.a. Bigfoot, the hairy, humanlike creature that some people think exists in western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Here’s what to look for, according to the Rocky Mountaineer.
Height: 6 feet, 10 inches
Weight: 500-plus pounds
Footprint: 24.4 inches long, 8 inches wide
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO VANCOUVER, CANADA
From LAX, Air Canada, Westjet, American and United offer nonstop service to Vancouver, and Delta, Alaska, United, Westjet, Air Canada and American offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $295, including taxes and fees.
Train rates: Rocky Mountaineer packages are available from two to 14 days, with rates starting at $1,247 for a two-day package, including scenic rail transportation from/to Vancouver and Lake Louise/Banff, accommodations in Kamloops, four meals and transfers. (877) 460-3200
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont Banff Springs, 405 Spray Ave., Banff, Canada; (833) 762-6866 or (403) 762-2211. This historic “castle in the Rockies” is one of Canada’s most famous hotels, a landmark UNESCO World Heritage Site in the picturesque alpine town of Banff. Golf, multiple restaurants, spa. Even if you’re not staying here, drop by for lunch and a do-it-yourself tour of this luxurious 130-year-old hotel complex. Doubles from $375 per night.
Fox Hotel & Suites, 461 Banff Ave., Banff, Canada; (800) 661-8310 or (403) 760-8500. Lots of mountain-top ambiance in this attractive complex, which offers roomy units, an indoor pool and spa and free breakfast. Short walk to downtown Banff. Doubles from $150 per night.
Sandman Signature Kamloops Hotel, 225 Lorne St., Kamloops, Canada; (250) 377-7263. You can’t beat this for convenience if you’re riding the train: It’s just a minute’s walk from Kamloops Heritage Railway and a 10-minute walk from downtown restaurants and shops. It’s comfortable but nothing special. However, the price is right. Doubles from $75 a night.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Park Distillery, 219 Banff Ave., Banff, Canada; (403) 762-5114. Craft spirits tastings and distillery tours are part of the operation here, as well as dining. It’s one of the most popular places in town. The restaurant features campfire-inspired foods that are wood-fired, spit-roasted and smoky-savory. Entrees from $13.
Noble Pig, 650 Victoria St., Kamloops, Canada; (778 )471-5999. This lively watering hole and restaurant is a favorite stop for Rocky Mountaineer passengers during their overnight stops in Kamloops. Try the house-brewed craft beer and dine on a pub grub menu that features shared plates, pizzas and sandwiches, as well as pastas and meats. Entrees from $10.
Sky Bistro, Banff Gondola, 1 Mountain Ave., Banff, Canada; (403) 762-7475. Sky Bistro, at the top of the Banff Gondola, affords spectacular views of the Canadian Rockies and a varied menu. Gondola admission plus two-course meal from $83 per person.
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism Vancouver, (604) 683-2000