Some opportunities are just too good not to take advantage of, and this trip to Western Canada was unmissable…
We’d never sell a holiday that we wouldn’t love to go on ourselves, so taking the time to sample our products is so important for me. With such a dedicated team at Canadian Affair, there is less and less requirement for me to go out myself, and usually plenty of work to keep me tethered to my office! But this time it was a real treat to go.
It’s Canada’s 150th year since the historic signing of confederation, forming what we know today as Canada. In fact, it was some years later when British Columbia were enticed to join in with the first provinces, with the lure of a coast-to-coast railway line that would connect BC to the east of Canada. So, when invited to explore the last section of the railway line which was instrumental in helping Canada develop, I jumped at the chance.
But first I had the chance to explore even further West; my journey started on Vancouver Island in the picturesque city of Victoria, BC’s capital city.
Day 1. A flying visit
No word of a lie! My day began in Glasgow on-board the inaugural summer 2017 flight with Air Transat to Vancouver. Sampling the delights of Club Class was a treat, especially as the new season’s menu had just launched and I was exquisitely fed and watered for 9 ½ hours.
Upon landing in Vancouver International airport at 12:30, I jumped in a cab to the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, Vancouver’s newest Fairmont hotel in Canada. I dropped off my large suitcase before heading straight to the Harbour Air terminal just 3 minutes’ walk from the hotel.
Not sated with one flight, I headed onto a floatplane (a Dehavilland Otter) seating just 14 passengers. We took off at 2:00pm and landed in Victoria Harbour at 2:35pm. So just 2 hours after setting foot in British Columbia I was in the capital city, Victoria.
It was only a couple of steps from the harbour to my hotel, the impressive Fairmont Empress, but Harbour Air’s delightful driver insisted that I should hop aboard his mini coach and he’d take me to the hotel. As I was the only passenger and upon hearing my “strange” non-Canadian accent, he immediately recognised an out-of-towner and offered to give me a short tour of the downtown core. What a great way to kick start my time in Victoria! It had been 10 years since I was last there, and I was impressed with the changes and how this beautiful city had expanded and improved.
I was dropped off at the hotel and guided to the Fairmont Gold check in lounge on the 1st Floor, met with smiles and warm greetings and the offer of a drink of my choice. This was a great welcome! However, a cold Okanagan glass of wine would have to wait as I had places to be! I set off to my room on the 3rd floor, carefully negotiating my small wheelie case through the luxuriously plush pile carpet to my room.
The hotel has spent multi-millions on renovations in the past 2 years and the décor is simply stunning. Warm greys, blues and lilac tones instantly make you feel relaxed. The walls are adorned with framed photos of the hotel dating back to the early 1900s and of the hotel’s Royal visitors. My room was a delight with the most spectacular view overlooking the harbourfront. Crisp white linen, a marble bathroom and incredible lighting fixtures immediately caught my attention. There was complete attention to every detail in this room.
A quick bag-drop in my room and I was off to the newly reopened Willow Stream Spa for a relaxation massage. I must say that I am not in the habit of going to a spa. So, given the chance to do this after a 14-hour day of travelling was total luxury. For 60 minutes, I enjoyed the most incredible massage and I soon felt the strains and knots in my back disappearing. The spa also had a sauna, steam room, swimming pool and plunge pool, which I managed to sample for 30 minutes before my treatment began.
Feeling renewed, I got ready for dinner and went down to meet my hosts from the hotel for dinner in the Q Bar and Restaurant. With the hotel’s heritage linking back to Queen Victoria, this bar and fine eatery are aptly named ‘Q’ for ‘the Queen’ and adorning the wall are large format paintings of the queen as a young woman and then in her later years as monarch. They are bright and funky and bring a modern, cool and edgy twist to this iconic hotel.
The drinks and food were out of this world too. I kicked off with the signature cocktail, the Q 1908 named for the year in which the hotel first opened. The gin is locally distilled, which makes it even nicer! We feasted on a sharing platter of oysters, large shrimps, crab claws, Pacific salmon and pork belly sliders…and that was just for starters! I wasn’t sure if the main course could beat it, but fear not, Head Chef Juan from Argentina had more delights in store for us.
Food was paired with both red and white local BC wines, which were the perfect accompaniment. I’m familiar with BC wines and thoroughly recommend them when in town. A small space was left for desert, which was a local speciality cake. It nearly saw the end of me! But it would have been rude not to…
Bed called as it was 7:30am at home and I’d been up for 26 hours! Tomorrow was another day… so a few hours’ sleep was required.
Day 2. A hop across the Strait
Jet lag is cruel. You think you’re so tired you’ll sleep for hours, but at 3:05am I woke up feeling like I’d slept all night and no amount of trying would get me back to sleep. So, a bit of work to do, emails and calls made, I headed out at sunrise for a few miles of jogging around the harbourfront, past Fisherman’s Wharf and round to Mile 0 in Canada! The day was gorgeous; it was 13 degrees at 6am and the sun was coming through the clouds showing off the cruise ships entering the harbour and the first floatplanes taking off. This was the best start to the day.
Later, I met my hosts in the Fairmont Gold Lounge for a hearty breakfast with a wide choice of healthy and not-so-healthy options! I opted for healthy, plus a tiny corner of a warm cinnamon swirl bun… Again, it would have been rude not to!
No time to hang around – after a quick walking tour of the downtown core we were off to the floatplane for our return flight to Vancouver at lunchtime.
My second floatplane ride with Harbour Air in 24 hours! The flight was full and the captain offered for someone to join him up front. I was up and in that co-pilot seat like Usain Bolt! I wasn’t going to bypass the chance of a lifetime! Minutes later Captain Craig guided the plane out of the harbour and off into the air heading across the Georgia Strait back to Vancouver.
It was the clearest of days and flying at 3500ft you could see everything. I was listening into the air traffic control and hearing all the major airlines coming in to land at Vancouver international. As we flew closer to Vancouver, we could see the aircraft on their approach and we flew over them. It was so incredible.
A quick landing in Vancouver harbourfront and within minutes we were back checking into the Fairmont Pacific Rim, where just 24 hours before I’d checked in my larger suitcase. (The sea planes can only take small bags up to 15kg.)
What a hotel! This is the newest Fairmont in Vancouver and it exudes contemporary style in every fitting and fixture. Technology is at the heart of the hotel, and from the in-room iPad you can control the temperature, curtains and even the TV! The rooms are large and spacious too, with huge marble bathrooms with a separate walk-in shower and massive bath.
RawBar is a favourite spot of mine, just by the lobby. This glass fronted sushi restaurant, in my opinion, serves the best sushi. Matched with a great selection of wines, the afternoon can quickly turn into night! There is also a quirky café, Giovane, serving up a huge array of coffees and teas along with all day food and snacks. Coupled with this is a funky gift shop selling all sorts of cool gifts from fragrances and candles to welly boots and funky clothes.
Just one night here wasn’t enough, but it did give me a flavour of one of the coolest hotels in Vancouver.
Day 3. A day on the rails
This morning it was rise and shine early – in fact too early to manage a run around the seawall at Stanley Park! Our Rocky Mountaineer check-in hosts were meeting us in the lobby at 6am. We promptly registered for the train, handed over our luggage, were handed our boarding cards and boarded the coach for the short transfer to the Rocky Mountaineer Vancouver train station. Our journey was to be the First Passage to the West- Vancouver to Kamloops to Lake Louise/Banff.
Boarding the train was great fun! Staff from the train meet and greet every arrival along with bagpipes and flag-flying, so you are waved off on your way on time. Our departure was a wet and misty morning, which added atmosphere to first 30 minutes of our daylight train journey, from downtown Vancouver following the Fraser River to Kamloops. 460kms of glorious train track ahead!
It wasn’t long before we were in the countryside leaving behind the industrial city and busy waterways where ships trade between Vancouver and the rest of the world. Before long we were hitting fields and forests in equal measure. I was the first to spot a solitary black bear in the woods within our first 40 minutes – this day was going to be great!
We were in GoldLeaf Service which is exquisite. In the upstairs dome carriage, deep armchair-style seats boast endless legroom; the glass roof lets you view all sorts of birds overhead; and there is plenty of room to walk around and mingle with other guests. Downstairs is the separate dining room where breakfast and lunches are served. From the minute you board, your carriage hosts introduce themselves and they quickly become your friends for the entire journey. They serve with a smile, introducing each town and milepost or place of interest, with funny stories, historic moments and individual experiences passed down in true Rocky Mountain style.
Breakfast is served and it’s a feast to behold. Choose from eggs benedict, BC blueberry stacked pancakes with maple syrup, a sizzling skillet of bacon, sausage, eggs and golden Yukon potato squares, and there is also the healthy granola or rolled oats. But I reckoned it wasn’t the day to be healthy! While the first sitting of breakfast was underway, guests on the 2nd sitting were treated to warm scones with strawberry jam, tea, coffee and fresh juices. Delish!
After the first sitting return from breakfast, the bar is open and guests can enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks (if you have room!)
It’s not all about the food! Trust me, the scenery is spectacular and a major benefit of being in GoldLeaf Service is being able to stand outdoors and breathe in the fresh air, from the warm air in the plains to the cool mountain air as you climb. Listening to the noise of the train passing other cargo trains which go on for miles, crossing many bridges and winding your way through tunnels is just a spectacular experience that brings out so many emotions. But mainly feelings of just being so lucky to experience that kind of journey.
At your seat is a very useful newspaper called The Mile Post. It explains all the Rocky Mountaineer journeys, giving every detail about the routes and each subdivision within each route. It was fascinating to learn so much about the historic setup and to learn how the mile markers and subdivisions were created and what they signified. I was constantly in this paper burying deep into the history of each place we passed by.
The sights rolled by with plenty of sightings of bald eagles, elk, big horn sheep, more black bears and a grizzly bear, Canada geese, marmots and ospreys. My only regret was relying on my iPhone for photographs. The zoom was just not up for the images I wanted, but it did allow me to capture hundreds of pictures. I’d recommend a better camera though to anyone who wants to take great quality pictures.
The hosts continued to give information on all the key spots, the train even slowing for the magnificent Hells Gate, the narrowest part of the Fraser River.
Lunchtime was delicious – three courses of fine cuisine, generous but not-too-big portions of fresh, local BC fare. Such a selection! Beef short ribs, Fraser Valley chicken, steelhead salmon and chipotle chilli were just some of the main options. I opted for the salmon and it was served to perfection. Matched with a Sumac Ridge Estate unoaked chardonnay it was unsurpassable!
On the back of the menu was a lovely quote, “People who like to eat are always the best people!” by Julia Childs… I liked her already!
We gently rolled onwards from forest to desert plains and arid canyons as we followed the Thompson River into Kamloops. A gloriously warm evening gave the most spectacular views of this contrasting view of interior BC.
As the sun was starting to set we arrived into Kamloops station to be warmly greeted by the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police to welcome us to their fine city. A short walk took us to the new Sandman Signature Hotel where our luggage awaited our arrival.
Day 4 – Rolling into Lake Louise
Morning broke to the sounds of birds and wildlife and another 6am meet-up at the train station with the spine-tingling whistle of the train as it arrived to let us board. The train parks overnight a few miles out of town where it is painstakingly washed inside and out for our second day of this marvellous journey.
Day 2 of The First Passage to the West continues to Lake Louise and Banff some 497km in distance. Probably the most anticipated journey for me as this part of the journey is through the Rocky Mountains. We did have a tour of SilverLeaf before heading off on day 2 in GoldLeaf, and it is amazing too. Leaving Kamloops for Revelstoke, you’ll travel through the Shuswap Subdivision. This section is infamous for the “Great Train Robbery” when Billy Miner and his crew pulled off the least successful train robbery in history, netting just $15 and liver pills!
Before long you are passing through the Hoodoos (famous rock formations) and onwards to the stunning Shuswap Lake. Once again, countless historic stories are recounted along the way by our friendly crew. Some of the track is so remote that it made me wonder just how magnificent these railway men were and made me appreciate the incredible feat of engineering to complete this railway on November 7, 1885. You pass by Craigellachie where the last spike was driven, marking the joining of the railway from eastern Canada to the West Coast. This is now a visitor experience and as you pass by on the train everyone celebrates with a cheer.
Let’s not forget about food! Boarding at 6am means you’re hungry by the time you get underway, so breakfast is promptly served. This time it’s reverse order for dining from the day before, so the first sitting go second and vice versa, which means if you went first for breakfast you get the warm scone to start off your day and then enjoy a hearty breakfast after that! Watching all the sights roll by and spotting wildlife builds up a healthy appetite, so it’s important to stay full!
Onwards into the Mountain Subdivision is when the scenery gets really interesting. The temperature drops as the climb beings from Revelstoke towards Rogers Pass, but you’ll pass through Connaught Tunnel, some 8.5kms long and built to allow trains to pass in winter and avoid the heavy snowfalls in this area. Stoney Creek Bridge is an incredible sight, with a span of 147m and sitting 90m above the creek below. This is a prime photo opportunity. I spent much time outside (coming in for the tunnels!) as the scenery was just so good, the smells were incredible and the cold air blowing in on the viewing deck was just fabulous.
Lunch was once again met with the same anticipation and I knew it was going to be good when the first group struggled to get up the stairs! The smokey mushroom 8oz AAA Alberta beef burger was a killer! But I also sampled the Pacific prawns served with jasmine rice, along with tasting the farmer’s market risotto and a bit of pork tenderloin… the choice was just too good but everyone was happy to share and taste! We struggled to make room for a dessert of chocolate fudge brownie with vanilla ice cream, but we did ourselves proud! Again, lunch was served with a selection of BC wines and I sampled the Jackson Triggs Reserve Select sauvignon blanc.
The last subdivision of the journey is the Laggan and is home to the renowned Spiral Tunnels – the Lower and Upper Spiral Tunnels through Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain. What a spectacle!
As can often happen, we waited in the sidings for a while to allow the priority freight trains to roll on. Anywhere else, this could have been a little boring, but at Rocky Mountaineer they don’t do boring! A very competitive game of “name that tune” was hosted by the crew, dividing the carriage into left and right teams. We had several very enjoyable rounds of competitive games matched with a few rounds of drinks and afternoon snacks of chocolate covered raisings and peanuts, crisps and fruit and nuts! Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better the head chef came through himself with a platter of freshly cooked chocolate chip cookies. The delay didn’t bother us one bit and we enjoyed every minute of the company and our wonderful hosts.
Sadly, the day was drawing to an end and the sun was starting to set when we pulled into Lake Louise, though just in time to see our final bear of the trip! It had been a marvellous day on board the train.
The last nuggets of history were shared when we discovered that Lake Louise was originally named Laggan, but changed to Lake Louise in 1884 after Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta who was the wife of the then Governor General of Canada. It was little gems of information like this that helped bring this journey in Canada to life. It’s a young country, with history being only a couple of hundred years old. Young by British terms, but nonetheless the Canadians are proud of their heritage and happy to share it with visitors like me.
Our fabulous hosts: Cherry, Alyssia and Lyndsey
We were met from the train by our coach to take us to the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. This marvellous hotel overlooks the Mount Victoria Glacier which at the beginning of May still houses a fully frozen lake and snow had just recently fallen that day! We started the day in Kamloops at 16 degrees and finished the day in Lake Louise at -5 degrees C. You need to come prepared with a coat and gloves.
The fabulous Fairmont hotel is one to be enjoyed whether staying or coming for afternoon tea or drinks, it’s a tourist attraction. But we were staying in the hotel and were whisked off to our hotel rooms to relax for the short while before dinner. A view overlooking the lake cannot be beaten and I was not disappointed. Waking up to this view was a total thrill. I didn’t close my curtains that night and woke by the natural light. Sunrise was 6:05am. You can get an alar call for sunrise but it was cloudy that morning so they didn’t wake anyone up, but thanks to jetlag I didn’t need a call anyway! A brisk run from the hotel down to the town site and up to the ski gondolas woke my senses and a strenuous run back up the hill gave me a good appetite for breakfast!
Day 5 – Beautiful Banff
Completing our Rockies experience on Day 5 meant a coach transfer to Banff and a stay in another iconic hotel, The Fairmont Banff Springs. Described by many as a castle in the Rockies, this magnificent hotel is neatly tucked in a quiet location at the end of Banff town, nestled alongside the Bow River. Surrounded by majestic peaks, everywhere provides an incredible view. I had a lovely view out to Cascade Mountain from my bedroom and enjoyed the gorgeous lounge services that came with my Fairmont Gold room. What a treat!
There are many things on offer at the hotel, from the Willow Stream Spa to the fitness centre, tennis courts and bikes to rent. There are shuttle bus services to the 3 local ski resorts, which are open all year round and are growing in popularity for hiking, exploring, sightseeing and biking in summer. Just a few minutes away is the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course too. You can book tee times as a visitor and there is a full range of clubs to hire if you don’t want to travel with your own. Take a golf buggy for the full experience too. The hotel offers a wide choice of bars and restaurants both fine dining, casual and take away options.
I walked into Banff town from the hotel, it took just 30 minutes and was downhill all the way! As it was a lovely sunny day, I was happy to enjoy the sights and smells of the mountain air and met a few local elk by the roadside quietly minding their own business! Banff Avenue offers a wide selection of shops and gift boutiques as well as an abundance of eateries and coffee shops. You’ll find great brand names mixed with local artisan shops, along with a museum, cinema and sports centre. It’s a great place to while away a few hours and sit and watch the world slowly go by. The Roam bus (collect your free pass in your hotel) shuttles people along Banff all day – which means you don’t need your car to get about the town – so I jumped on this service to return to the hotel with my bag-loads of shopping!
Tonight’s excitement brought a trip up to the Banff Gondola to explore the amazing 360-degree views of 6 mountain ranges in Banff National Park from its highest accessible lookout point, almost 3000ft above sea level. While there we enjoyed a feast of local food from the fabulous Sky Bistro, eating a delicious selection of the finest local Albertan products. Open to all guests, I’d highly recommend it.
Day 6 – Ending on a high
Another early start the day (jetlag was still very present) but this meant a beautiful early morning run through the town. At 6am, you can meet the local elk along the main street. We ran carefully as it is possible to meet with local bears in the morning, so we took precautions by taking it in turns to do bear calls, to let any potential bears know we were near!
I was staying in Fairmont Gold, therefore I had the delight of the Gold Lounge for breakfast – what a feast! I then managed to squeeze in an hour in the Willow Stream Spa pools before my short time in Banff ended. It was a very indulgent treat thanks to the team at Fairmont. It is quite expensive to use the spa pools, but I’d recommend it – especially sitting in the outdoor hot pools. It was delightful in the morning sunshine.
Moving on – to what I thought was a direct transfer to Banff – brought yet another treat. Lunch at the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Club. Wow! What an amazing setting. It’s just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel set amidst the glorious mountain ranges. The club house is open to anyone to visit and have a drink or meal. We enjoyed a delightful lunch with spectacular views. After a hearty lunch, we were back on the Brewster coach (brand new by the way, complete with luxury leather seats and USB charging points at every seat!)
We were on our way driving past Canmore, just a few minutes into our journey when we stopped off again at Alpine Helicopters. This was the most amazing excursion ever! A 30-minute scenic helicopter ride over the national park. We flew up to 11,000ft, soaring over the peaks, flying so close to the tops I felt I could touch them. The whole experience was amazing. The team here are very nice and explain the journey with a welcome video and demonstration on the helicopters you’ll fly in. I managed to luck out again by flying in the co-pilot seat with Captain Chris! I could see through the glass floor, and whilst amazing, this was also quite terrifying too! Lucky I have a good head for heights!
After enjoying a spectacular close-up view of the top of Cascade mountain and the range of mountains in the distance, our trip drew to a fitting close. Back onto the coach and into Calgary we went.
What an amazing 6 days!