Coastal Passage Canadian Rockies Highlights
Finally the time has come for me to head to Seattle to start a trip of a life time on the Rocky Mountaineer. Rail Plus staff are fortunate to go on rail famils where we familiarise ourselves with our great train journeys for a fantastic real world experience of train travel. This year, I am excited to be partaking in the Coastal Passage Canadian Rockies Highlights journey.
Seattle, the start of the Rocky Mountaineer Coastal Passage Route
Seattle is the home of all things coffee where the atmosphere is relaxed and carefree. Having only spent a weekend in Seattle previously I was excited to be spending a couple of days exploring the city, before boarding the Rocky Mountaineer.
Seattle has a lot more to offer than you first believe with hidden treasures around every corner. From the famous Gum Wall, Pike Place Market, Space Needle and Starbuck’s Roastery and Reserve there is something of interest and appeal to everyone.
Columbia Centre Observation Deck
Two things you simply must see in Seattle would be the Columbia Centre Observation Deck and the Dale Chihuly Garden and Glass gallery. The Columbia Centre is the tallest building in Seattle and the observation deck gives you unobstructed 360 degree view of Seattle. You can see the cruise ships coming into port, the Cascade Mountains to the north and the Olympic National Park to the west. It was truly an amazing view.
Dale Chihuly Garden and Glass gallery
The Dale Chihuly gallery at first might not be your cup of tea, but don’t judge a gallery by its name. The gallery has the most amazing blown glass sculptures in the world. Their are a range of bright colour themes with light hitting sculptures in the most magnificent way.
The greenhouse has a lei hanging from the ceiling that transcends you into a Hawaiian village. Not being a gallery person myself, I was blown away (no pun intended) by all the sculptures and all the amazing things created with blown glass. There is also information on Chihuly himself, how he got into the field of glassblowing and how he mastered the art. A section of the gallery is also devoted to the Bellagio in Las Vegas as Chihuly designed and created the artwork in the ceiling as you enter the casino.
After a half day tour of the city, I headed to Seattle's, King Street station to board the Rocky Mountaineer. The King Street Station is a period station with high white ceilings, chandeliers and old church pew style benches. The classiness of the station was just the beginning of my journey to come.
Upon boarding the Rocky Mountaineer I took my seat while our hosts for the journey welcomed us on-board. I was surprised when an Amtrak train entered the station because from my high up GoldLeaf seat I was able to pear down out of the windows and look down at the roof of the Amtrak train. This is the moment I knew that on-board the Rocky Mountaineer, we would have the best views of this scenic journey.
In GoldLeaf there is an upper and lower train level. The upper level has a glass domed roof and this is where your seats are. The lower level has panoramic windows for the restaurant. A fully domed roof upstairs means you have 360 degree views so you'll never miss a scenic oment. The large panoramic windows downstairs allow you to see the sights while enjoying the cuisine.
Being a part of the Rocky Mountianeer means you'll have access to these two levels. Unlike other modes of transport (car, bike, taxi), a double level train gives you unobstructed views, right from the time you board to when you arrive at your destination.
Welcome Aboard The Rocky Mountaineer
As the train started to depart, I was given a welcome drink (non-alcoholic) to toast the start of the journey. This was just the first of many surprise moments between Seattle and Vancouver, not just by our hosts on-board but by the whole Rocky Mountaineer experience.
Along the journey, the hosts provide commentary and story telling. It’s not your usual tour guide monotone commentary. The hosts are lively, and give you not only historical titbits but personal stories too. For instance while we passed the home town of one of the hosts he gave an insight to his hometown, a personal touch that enhanced the journey.
Seaside Sunsets from the window of the Rocky Mountaineer train
As I left Seattle in the afternoon, while travelling along the coast, I got to experience one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The sun began setting while we were travelling past Puget Sound and from there following the coast line, the sun kept getting lower creating the most amazing reflections on the water. It was truly an amazing experience.
Another bonus of travelling on the Rocky Mountaineer was not having to stop at the Canada –United States of America border. The train didn’t even slow down, it just kept moving. You go through customs in Vancouver at the train station. The carriages are processed one at a time, which might seem like a huge wait, but it wasn’t. We were at the station for maybe 15 minutes before we were asked to disembark. On the platform our luggage was waiting for us and we then went through customs.
The whole process, including the wait on the train, took only 25 minutes. That is incredible! If I had to fly through solo I would have to wait hours for check in, processing, customs and all the other airport security checks. The brief wait on the train wasn't spent sitting there twiddling my thumbs waiting to disembark. The hosts keep us entertained and gave information about all the wonderful things to do in Vancouver, its history and the sights not to miss. Once clearing customs, there was a coach waiting to take me to my hotel for the next 2 nights.
I woke up to an overcast day in Vancouver. I had a full day of sightseeing to do, but Mother Nature was not nice and it poured rain all morning. But a little bit of water was not going to stop me seeing the sights.
The sightseeing coach was at the hotel awaiting for me to board. The first sight to tick off the list was Stanley Park. Driving through the park I learnt about it's significance, the flora and fauna and an interesting story about the totem poles.
After Stanley Park the coach headed towards Capilano Suspension Bridge. As I am terribly afraid of heights, I wasn’t sure how I would cope, but I lived to tell the tale!
Capilano is more than just the suspension bridge, there is a clifftop walk and also a treetop walk.
There are information panels through the Capilano grounds educating you on how important the environment is, how the river carved away at the stones to create the crevice, and all the animals that live the forest where Capilano is.
Boarding the coach again, the next stop was Granville Island Market. On the drive to the island, the coach driver informed us that Granville Island isn’t actually an island but a sand bank that has been built up over time. I didn’t mind either way as I was excited to go shopping.
If you are ever at the market, there is a bakery that apparently makes the best donuts in all of Vancouver. The bakery is called Lee’s Donuts of Granville Island. By the looks of pleasure on all their customers faces, I'd recommend a stop there.
There is a lot more to the market than just the fresh fruit area, with clothing stores and 3 distilleries/breweries also calling the market home. Granville Island is also the docking station for the Aqua Buses. The Aqua Buses are small ferries that travel around False Creek bay. I boarded the Aquabus and travelled across the bay past Science Works to YaleTown.
After docking at YaleTown, the coach was waiting. The next stop on the trip was Gas Town where I watched the steam clock whistle in the new hour. From the steam clock it was a short walk to Vancouver Lookout. At the Lookout you can see as far as Burnaby to the east and Surrey to the south. It was amazing, even on a cloudy day.
Vancouver to Kamloops
I woke in the early hours of the morning, but I didn’t mind as today was the day we would board the Rocky Mountaineer again and travel from Vancouver to Kamloops. In the lobby of the hotel Rocky Mountaineer has a check in area so I checked out of the hotel and onto the Rocky Mountaineer within minutes. At this check in you are provided luggage tags which state where you are staying in Kamloops and you are also given a Rocky Mountaineer pin.
After check in, a coach awaits to take you to the train station. In Vancouver, Rocky Mountaineer has their own train station. The station is amazing and has an exclusive pianist who entertains guests. At the station there is also complementary tea, coffee and juice. There is also a kiosk at the station selling Rocky Mountaineer souvenirs.
When the train is ready to board, staff make an announcement. For my journey there was a passenger celebrating her birthday and she got to sound the train whistle to start. Once on the platform, a bagpiper greets passengers and plays until the train leaves the station. The Rocky Mountaineer staff who don’t board, wave to all the passengers which was another great touch by Rocky Mountaineer.
Not long after the train starts its journey to Kamloops passengers are taken downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast. The menu was soo mouthwatering there were a few passengers who couldn’t make up their mind on what they wanted to eat. All the meals are made on-board the train and can be made to order if there are medical requirements. There are vegetarian and gluten free options available on the menu so passengers with these requirements can order straight from the menu.
Travelling alongside the Fraser River meant I was glued to my window for the journey. Lunch time came and I headed back downstairs. Between Vancouver and Kamloops, the hosts provide a lot of information regarding the landscape and the towns we pass through. While ordering lunch, we passed by Hell’s Gate. Hell’s Gate is the narrowest part of the Fraser River and was described by Simon Fraser as “a place no human should venture, for surely these are the gates of Hell” as the water thundering through the narrow passage.
A remarkable change in landscape
From Vancouver, right up until you pass through Kanaka Bar your surrounds are a verdant lush green. The next village known as Lytton is where things start to transform and the scenery becomes arid and dessert like. The sudden transition was remarkable. Lytton is the meeting place of the clear Thompson River and the often muddy waters of Fraser river.
Just outside of Lytton is Rainbow Canyon and Avalanche Alley. Both names conjure up vivid images. Nothing could prepare me for either scene! Rainbow Canyon is literally a canyon of many different coloured rocks. The sides of the canyon change colour every couple of metres. I could not take enough photos of this site.
While in Rainbow Canyon you start to see huts built over the train tracks. This is because you are heading towards Avalanche Alley. Fortunantly when I travelled through, there wasn’t an avalanche but you could see where rock slides had been previously.
Late in the evening we arrived at Kamloops. A coach was at the train station to take passengers to their hotel. The coaches are numbered and your hosts on-board the train will tell you which coach to board.
Kamloops is a big country town, there is a little night-life but it is not a metropolitan city. Kamloops has the prestigious title of being “Canada’s Tournament Capital”. This means there is always a sporting tournament happening in the town. Kamloops is also known for its gold mining, the Thompson Rivers University and its pulp mills.
Kamloops to Banff
Departing Kamloops meant getting closer to Shuswap Lake home to thousands of salmon who return from the saltwater ocean to their freshwater birthplace each year to spawn. I was lucky enough to be able to see some jumping out of the water. As entertainment, the hosts also started a competition on board. The passenger who was able to write and then recite a poem won a Rocky Mountaineer cookbook.
Not long after passing through Sicamous (the houseboat capital of Canada), we pass by Craigellachie. Craigellachie is place where the last spike of the Canada Pacific Rail line was hammered into the tracks on November 7, 1885 by Donald Smith.
After Craigellachie, the train heads towards Revelstoke and the Glacier National Park. After passing through Glacier National Park it was only a short amount of time before we entered Yoho National Park. There are no words to describe the sights out on the vestibule open area of the train, the fresh air and wind in your hair was incredible.
Just outside of Lake Louise the train travels through 2 tunnels known as the Spiral Tunnels. These are based on engineering works in Switzerland the lower spiral turns approximately 230 degrees through Mount Ogden and the upper tunnel turns approximately 250 degrees in Cathedral Mountain. You exit the lower spiral 56 feet higher than you enter and exit the higher spiral 50 feet higher than when you entered.
After the tunnels it is a quick journey to Lake Louise and then to the final stop along the route, Banff.
Banff and Lake Louise
Banff is a snow village at the base of the mountains and in summer is becomes a site of summer holiday fun. The streets come alive with festivities and holiday makers. A sightseeing coach took me to the village of Lake Louise where the first stop was Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
If you think the hotel is breathtaking then no words could describe the lake itself. Its mirrored reflection of the surrounding mountains and the clear water was something that I have not experience in Australia.
After nearly filling the 16 GB card in my camera I boarded the coach again and was taken to Moraine Lake. Moraine Lake is only accessible in summer (May to September) as the area is prone to heavy snowfalls. As this area is uninhabited for 7 months of the year, it is absolutely pristine. The lake is also glacial fed (along with melted snow) and is a magnificent blue colour. Spectacular!
After the wonders of the lakes, the coach continued to another breathtaking site, the Columbia Icefields. The name of the glacier at the icefields is Athabasca Glacier. It is one of the largest land glaciers, but it is melting at roughly 5 metres a year. The journey back to Lake Louise was spent looking out the window for wildlife. The road to and from Columbia Icefields is the Icefields Parkway. It is renowned to be one of the most scenic highways in the world and gives travellers the best opportunity to spot wildlife.
That night I dined like royalty, at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. It was so fancy, I felt like a movie star!
The next day was another day full of sightseeing, lucky for me I had my camera finger ready.To start the day I experienced the Banff Gondola. The gondola takes you to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Again being terrified of heights and knowing I was so far off the ground it was a little nerve racking, but the views from the top was worth the initial fear. From the top of Sulphur Mountain you can see the entire Bow Valley.
Next up was a quick trip to Surprise Corner and the Hoo Doos. Surprise Corner gained its name because of it's breathtaking surprising views. I say this with a grain of rice as all sights in this neck of the woods are amazing. But the view from this corner gives you an unobstructed view of Banff Fairmont Springs and 360 degree view of mountains.
The Hoo Doos are a phenomenon of Mother Nature. They are sedimentary rock covered by harder rock and sand foundation that has been eroded over time. The end result is statue like formations that only appear in these national parks. From the Hoo Doo viewing point, you also have a beautiful view of Mount Rundle and Banff Fairmont Springs.
Kananaskis and Calgary
After the morning tour of Banff the coach heads towards Calgary. Between Banff and Calgary is an Indian Reserve called Kananaskis. Part of your Rocky Mountaineer tour includes a helicopter ride of the region.
The views from the helicopter of the southern end of the Rockies and across Mount Lough were just magical. The pilot was very informative naming all of the mountains he was flying over and about the environmental factors of the landscape too.
Once re-gaining my land legs, I boarded the coach again and travelled onto Calgary. I've lived in Calgary before so seeing the city skyline again was one of the best moments for me on this journey. It was like returning home and it put the previous 9 days into perspective for me. It wasn’t until I was in a familiar place that the shock and awe of what I had experienced set in.
The coach arrived at the hotel, Le Germain, where we were greeting by tourism Calgary who surprised us with a white hat ceremony. This is a tradition in Calgary, also known as Cow Town to the locals. The white hat ceremony is where you have to state a pledge to Calgary and upon completion of this you are awarded a Calgary citizenship for the remainder of your time in Calgary. You are also awarded a white cowboy hat. The white cowboy hat is the symbol of the Calgary Stampede. Calgary was the final destination for this journey.
After checking out of the hotel, I understood why the Rocky Mountaineer is on so many bucket lists and why passengers get lost for words describing their journey. It is easy to say it was one of the best experiences of my life because everything has already been thought of to ensure the journey is as hassle free as possible. From transfers to and from hotels and stations to having your luggage already in your hotel room upon check in, everything is already planned. It's no wonder the Canadian rockies train is so popular, that the 2016 Rocky Mountineer season has been extended to include more servies.
The most amazing scenery is even better when viewing through a glass dome roof of a moving train. Breathing in fresh mountain air or coastal sea breeezes from the open air vestibule was another magical highlight. The Rocky Mountaineer really does have everything you need to ensure you don’t miss a moment of it.