By Jim Farber
When the luxurious train known as the Rocky Mountaineer pulls out of the station in Vancouver, British Columbia, on its way across the Rockies to Banff and Calgary, Alberta, a phalanx of cheerfully waving staff is always on hand to see the long red, white and blue train off. The route is by far the company’s most popular offering.
There is, however, a more intimate and equally impressive alternative — the Rocky Mountaineer’s Frasier Discovery Route between Jasper (Alberta) and Whistler (British Columbia). This two-day trip (with an overnight stop in Quesnel) passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in Canada, including the deep fissure of the Fraiser River gorge and the towering slopes of Mount Roboson — highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
Because the train is less well known (the route was only established in 2006), and because it requires a bit more effort to get to, the size of the passenger list and the number of cars is considerably less than its world-famous counterpart. The day my girlfriend and I departed from Jasper heading west the train only consisted of four passenger cars: three offering the more economical Red Leaf class of service and one ultramodern dome car for those holding Gold Leaf tickets.
When you travel on the Rocky Mountaineer between Vancouver and Calgary, you are following the most heavily trafficked rail (and highway) corridor in western Canada. In contrast, there is no passenger rail service whatsoever connecting Jasper and Whistler except the Rocky Mountaineer. Nor is there a major (or in many places any) highway access. This means that travelers on the Fraiser Discovery Route experience views to which no other (earthbound) travelers have access.
Our trip began in Calgary, where we picked up a rental car and headed west toward Banff. From there we drove along the winding ribbon of highway known as the Ice Field Parkway to Jasper — one of the great driving experiences in the world.
Jasper itself is one of those quaint historic mountain communities along the lines of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Teluride, Colo. It’s surrounded by mountains, and outdoor activities are paramount, whether it’s whitewater rafting, hiking, skiing or mountain-biking. By far the most luxurious accommodations are at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. With its isolated setting, championship quality golf course, rustic log frame architecture, riverfront location, indoor-outdoor pools and excellent dining rooms, the Jasper Park Lodge is the place to stay.
Gray clouds were hanging over the mountaintops and the sun had barely risen when we arrived at the station to board the Rocky Mountaineer for the first day of our journey. The train leaves at the crack of dawn to take maximum advantage of the daylight hours. After finding our assigned seats and hearing a talk on the rules of the rails, it was time to partake of breakfast in the lower-level diner of our car, where the smell of coffee, fresh-baked pastries and breads greeted us. I can’t imagine anything finer than breakfast in the diner with the lush green scenery rushing by outside the window. Several hours later lunch proved to be an even greater gourmet delight, featuring local delicacies of seafood, meats and vegetarian creations followed by delectable desserts.
The Rocky Mountaineers are not run like traditional “get you from point A to point B” trains. They are more like cruise ships on rails dedicated to your enjoyment. The ever-gracious staff is there to supply your every need, while simultaneously offering a mile-by-mile discourse on every aspect of the route — from pioneer history to the bark-beetle infestation. Along the way, in order to maximize photo ops and viewing pleasure, the train will slow to a crawl when passing some noteworthy vista.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling on the Rocky Mountaineer is to stand outside on the vestibule. From here you can watch the passing parade with the wind whipping your hair. It’s such an entirely different experience from being hermetically sealed inside your car, and it’s a photographer’s delight.
The first day of travel on the Frasier Discovery Route takes the train 311 miles to the town of Quesnel, a lumber-milling town with a long history and attractive river walk. The visual highlight of day one is the view of Mount Roboson, whose craggy snowcapped summit rises to 12,972 feet above sea level.
The ultimate vistas of the trip, however, are saved for the 388 miles of day two as the train passes through verdant farmland and pine forest before beginning its descent of the Fraiser River plateau. The valley itself is quite wide, divided by two towering mountain ranges. Below, the rushing green water of the Fraiser River is funneled into rushing rapids that surge through the deep fissure of the gorge.
After crossing the Frasier River at the town of Lillooet, the train enters a landscape of massive lakes surrounded by towering peak that looks more like the fjords of Norway than the Canadian Rockies. From here the train winds its way into Whistler, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Whistler is the Vail of British Columbia, a town dedicated to outdoor activities, fine dining and deluxe accommodations such as the Four Seasons. At night, the car-free section of the village comes alive with a festive array of locals and tourists.
From Whistler you can easily complete your trip by traveling on the much-less-expensive Whistler Mountaineer to Vancouver, a city worthy of several days’ enjoyment on its own.
IF YOU GO
There are many different ways to experience the Rocky Mountaineer. In addition to its two classes of service, the company offers a wide variety of tour packages and excursions that include hotel accommodations before and after your train trip. You can even match a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer with a cruise to Alaska. Look for seasonal specials and discount packages.
For reservations and information: 800-665-7245 or www.rockymountaineer.com.
For the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge: 866-540-4454 or www.fairmont.com/jasper.
Four Seasons Whistler: www.fourseasons.com or 604-935-3400.
Jim Farber is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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