The last of it – the trip that is…

February 18, 2017

After returning to Vancouver the cruise port we departed from, I had a couple of free days.  This was the 2nd of the kick-ass hotels on this trip, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.  Situated in the middle of downtown Vancouver, it is the perfect location for everything.  Unfortunately for me, and despite the best efforts of myself, and the crew of the MS Volendam, I was starting to come down with a cold the day I disembarked the ship. The cold would hang with me until I returned home 10 days later.  I mention the crew of the ship because every time you went anywhere near food for the first 2 days of the cruise, there was a crew member there, dispensing purell.  There are purell dispensers all over the ship, and I used them liberally, or so I thought.

The Fairmont staff are fantastic, and they let me check in early that morning.  I think the best way to describe the Hotel Vancouver is classic elegance.  From the hotel website:  Though its name and heritage date back to 1888, the present Hotel Vancouver first opened its doors in 1939, on the eve of the Royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

A few posts back (http://pauls-words.com/?p=71) I told the back story of this trip.   We’ve now arrived at the Rocky Mountaineer (RM) portion of the journey.  My travel documents alerted me that I needed to allow at least 45 minutes for the taxi ride from the Fairmont to the Rocky Mountaineer station.  This seemed excessive, especially since I was told I needed to be at the station by 6:30 am.  I asked at the front desk of the hotel and they really didn’t have an answer.  I asked the concierge, and they confirmed I should allow that much time.  So… I was in the lobby by 5:45 and got a taxi to the train station.  Of course, we arrived in less than 20 minutes.  J  Before I could pay the taxi driver, Rocky Mountaineer staffs had unloaded my bags from the trunk, and were waiting for me.  This was a precursor of the level of service on 2 of the 3 legs of my “Circle Tour” of trips I was taking.  This will explain itself as I go along.

Since I was there so early, check in was a breeze, and again the staff of RM are fantastic.  The lobby of the departure station is remarkably comfortable, open, airy with high ceilings.  There was juice and coffee available.  After a few minutes, a gentleman came out and started playing the grand piano that is in the center of the lobby.  It quickly filled up as more guests arrived.  As departure time neared, the piano player stopped, and the station manager greeted us all, and gave us some information about the train.  We soon boarded.  I was in Gold Leaf, their highest class of service I was in a two level coach.  We traveled in the top level and the coach was glass domed, so we were able to see nearly 360 degrees. Think first class domestic airline seats,  The lower level of the coach is where the meals were served.  It seats half the number of folks in the coach so we would be eating in shifts.

We soon departed the station, and we meet the hosts on board our coach.  There were 4 of them taking care of us, 2 on each level.  We met our train manager, he came through each of the coaches, and we had a bon voyage toast.  One of the interesting things about RM is that, well, you are never hungry or thirsty.  They split the coach into 2 groups and the first seating went down to breakfast.  Since you’re not hungry, the hosts on the upper level of the coach served us a snack.  Cinnamon scone with jam, coffee or juice, whatever your choice of beverage is.  I can say, this is the best scone I’ve ever had.  The two groups swap early seating  times on each day of the journey, and I can say that I missed the scone on the 2nd day of the trip.  Rather than walk you through every meal on board, let me summarize it and say that the food is simply amazing.  They make everything in the tiny galley kitchen that is in the front of the dining area on each car, and it is amazing the quality and quantity of the food that they prepare.

As I mentioned in the Alaska portion of this dissertation, or manifesto, whatever it is, that I took a boat load of pictures on the trip.  I didn’t really have camera envy on the cruise.  On RM, oh my goodness, the photographers, and their gear!  My little digital camera was just a toy in comparison.  As we made our way out of the city, there wasn’t a lot of flora and fauna to look at.  I was still excited, the next stage of the adventure was beginning.  I also like trains, and it was fun to see the world from that perspective.  It also afforded an opportunity to get used to taking photos while on the train.  We were soon enough out of the city and suburbia and out into the country.  The scenery gradually changes from sea to farm to plains.  One thing to note, and this was hammered home on the 2nd trip, was the amount of lumber produced in Canada.  By the end of the trip, it was staggering, from raw trees being floated down the river to mills, to the train cars of finished lumber to the pulp mills, It was amazing.

The specific details of the trips have more or less melded together into one memory, of you will, so I can’t really take you through a blow by blow experience like I did for the cruise,  Let me just try to give you some of the “flavor”.  As I mentioned above, RM is all about service.  Since I was in gold leaf service, I didn’t touch my bag while traveling with them.  They took the bags from my taxi, and they were in my hotel room when we arrived at the hotel in Kamloops.  You leave your bag in the room, and they gather them after you leave, and transport them to your next hotel for you.  So for the first journey, we traveled from Vancouver to Banff, AB, spending the night in Kamloops, BC.  I find train travel to be serene, and RM makes it nearly sublime.  I described the meal seating’s above, they server Breakfast and Lunch on the train, as well as free flowing cocktails, and snacks.  They really treat you like royalty.  The scenery is amazing as it passes the windows, and the hosts tell you about some of the things that you are seeing.  On this trip, one of the hosts had lived in the area along the route, and she was able to share personal anecdotes about certain places, that really enhanced the experience.

You travel at a leisurely pace, RM trains rarely exceed 30 mph.  They also don’t own the tracks they travel on, so you will sometimes have to wait on a side track for these immense freight trains to pass.  We were making excellent time on day 1, and were looking like we were going to arrive in Kamloops ahead of schedule.  Then, well, about 90 minutes outside of our destination for the night, we pulled over for a train to pass, then a second one as well.  We were very near Lake Kamloops, and there were a smattering of cottages just to the right of the train.  I was looking around and saw something between 2 of them,  I thought it was a bear, but it could easily have been a dog.  I didn’t want to be the guy that called out a bear sighting when it turned out to be a black lab, so I called one of the hosts over, and pointed the animal out.  She said it was a bear, and announced it to our train car.  Well, I was a star for a few minutes for spotting it, and then was surrounded by everyone on our coach.  Because of where the bear was, between to cottages, only our coach could see the bear.  We had hosts from other coaches coming into ours to see the bear.  Bear sightings are a big deal on RM, and everyone was excited.  The bear helped break up a very long wait to proceed.  We were on track to arrive early, and ended up getting into Kamloops a bit later than scheduled.  We were met at the station by member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which was pretty neat.  We boarded busses and were taken to our hotels for the night.

I had an early wake up call as like on RM is early to start.  We were to be in the lobby by 6:00 0am for a 6:30 departure to Banff.  Many of the folks on the train found this day more exciting than the first as we were making our way into the Rocky Mountains today.  I thoroughly enjoyed both days.  The trip into the higher elevation was exciting though.  Next up was Banff.  I was staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, billed as the “Castle in the Rockies”  It is a glorious hotel, and everyone was nice, but for some reason, my room was in the conference center.  It is on property, across the driveway from the “castle”  I was warned that the Fairmont rooms were small, but that was certainly not the case for me in the convention center.  I had a room that is larger than my apartment.  It had 2 queen beds, 2 couches, a couple of chairs, and a ton of room in the middle.  The bathroom had to be 400 sq. ft.!  I had mountain views out of the window in my room.  Fairmont staff are wonderful.  The hotel is wonderful, I just wish I had stayed in the castle.

Had a half day tour of the Banff area the next day, went to Sulphur mountain, IIRC, and had a ticket to take a gondola ride to the summit.  I was concerned about that, I am a bit claustrophobic. I got all the way to the head of the line, and just couldn’t get in.  I passed on the gondola ride, all of them for the trip, actually.  Next for me was a trip into town for laundry.  I ended up being away from home for nearly 3 weeks, and I had planned out when laundry was going to happen far in advance.  J

After a leisurely morning, I had a transfer from Banff to Lake Louise, and an overnight stay at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.  The Chateau ended up being my favorite hotel on this trip, for lots of reasons.  First, Lake Louise is amazingly, fabulously gorgeous.  Second the Hotel and restaurant staff are 2nd to none.  I had lunch in the Lakeview Lounge, appropriately named, as there is a wall of windows that look out on the lake.  Every photo you’ve ever seen of Lake Louise is either taken from, or shows in the background the Chateau.  It was raining that afternoon, and the mountains that surround that lake kept coming into and out of view,  The sun even came out for a while, and well, most everything is better in the sun.  After lunch, I spent some time walking around lakeside.  It was peaceful, serene, gorgeous.  Can you tell I liked it??  I wish I would have had more time there.  I made my way back to the hotel, made a dinner reservation, and visited the bookshop to purchase a book, and a photo of the Lake.

I had what would be the best meal of the trip that night and it comes with a story.  I had planned out some places that I really wanted to eat on the trip, and the Walliser Steube was one of them.  Had I been travelling with anyone we would have had the fondue that is a specialty of the house.  It’s served for two though.  There were many other tempting items on the menu, but I wasn’t too disappointed.  I had the last seating of the evening, and well, I was the last one in the restaurant that night, which, frankly, I hate being.  My server was an absolute sweetheart about it, and made sure that I wasn’t uncomfortable about it.  We struck up a conversation, and I mentioned that this trip was a birthday present for myself.  After the meal, she brought up some chocolate creations one of which had “Happy Birthday” written in it.  It was so sweet of her to do that.  I was touched.  As I was leaving, she looked out the window, and told me that it had started snowing.  I had seen a few flurries earlier in the day, this was snow showers.  I awoke to a Winter Wonderland. There were accumulations of 4 – 5 inches in the morning.  It was like waking up in a snow globe.

The next day was a full day tour on the Icefields parkway into the Jasper National Park with an overnight at the Jasper Park Lodge.  Among the many stops along the way, the highlight for me was a stop at the Athabasca glacier.  We stopped for lunch at the visitor’s center, then we got a trip on the Icefield Explorer to a plateau on the glacier, and we were able to get out.  I walked on a glacier!  We also stopped at the glacier skywalk, but I didn’t think there was any way I could do that.  I couldn’t walk across some glass block in the CN Tower in Toronto many years before, I didn’t want to get out on the skywalk and freak out.  Better safe than sorry sometimes.

The next morning was another early start as I got ready for my 2nd RM train trip, this one Jasper, AB to Whistler, BC with an overnight in Quesnel, BC.  We crossed the Rockies again, this time going west from Jasper, then turned south travelling through BC.  The crossing into BC meant that we switched from Mountain time back to Pacific time, which made for an extra long day, by the time we got into Quesnel.  Quesnel was an amazing little town, and I was disappointed that we were late getting there.  The mayor of the town was there ot greet the train, and I think he shook everyone’s hand, I know she shook mine, and thanked us for coming.  The local hot rod club met our train, even though we were a couple of hours behind schedule by the time we arrived.  Everyone was so nice, and it seemed a shame not to be able to spend more time there meeting more people.  I really want to go back there some day.

The RM trip from Vancouver to Banff basically parallels the Trans-Canada highway, and this trip from Japer to Whistler doesn’t follow any particular roads.  As such, you end up seeing things that you only get to see if you are on the train.  There were some amazing agricultural sights, as well, again as a tremendous amount of lumber, again in all stages.  This RM crew was as fantastic as the first, and again, a great experience.

We arrived in Whistler, and by then the cold had really taken a toll on me.  We had a free morning, and by and large, I spent in in the hotel.  That afternoon, we had a trip from Whistler back to Vancouver.  This trip is what was considered “Red Leaf” service, basically RM’s economy service.  They have since discontinues this level of service.  It wasn’t a bad experience, the food was fine, the service was acceptable.  You just weren’t doted on, as you were in Gold Leaf.  There was a bit of a hiccup when we arrived back in Vancouver.  The arrival terminal is in a freight yard, rather than the luxury train station we departed from.  Not a problem, just not as nice.  When I made my way to the shuttle bus that was going to take me back to the Fairmont Vancouver, there was a problem.  The bus was full.  The attendant assured me that was not the case, and I asked her to actually look at the bus, all the seats were full, they were standing in the aisles from back to front, and there were a handful of us still standing outside.  They were arranging taxis, and I managed to secure one, and retired to the luxurious Fairmont.  The next stop, was Orlando, then home.

It was an amazing journey.  I told myself at the time “Once in a Lifetime” journey.  As soon as I got home, I know it couldn’t be.  I am bitten by the travel bug, and am looking for the next one.

If you’re interested in seeing photos from the trip, please email me at paul@pauls-words.com.  I’ll send you a link to the online site where they are hosted.

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