2015-May-8 - ous unfolding panorama
Canada's epic Rockies
But this was Canada and I was on a 90 minute crossing from Swartz Bay near
Victoria on Vancouver Island to Tsawwassen, about 15 miles south of the city of
Vancouver on the Canadian mainland.
For me, the sight of whales is one of those things that always thrill me to
my boots (like the sudden and occasional views of Concorde we used to get). But,
clearly, they are no big deal to Canadians, since few of my fellow passengers
bothered to stir themselves from their breakfasts to catch a glimpse of the
People are just used to things being on an epic scale here, and not just the
wildlife. Vancouver Island, for example, may look like a dot on the map inviting
comparisons with the Isle of Wight yet it is nearly 300 miles long and some 50
miles broad at its widest point.
Standing out on deck, gazing east, I strained for my first sight of the
Rockies. On the horizon is what looks like a sweep of steepling peaks but as you
approach, these turn out to be modest foothills. Beyond lurk the real mountains.
So, even on these first tentative steps towards the country's heart, you begin
to grasp that this is a place created on a vast scale. It's the world's second
biggest country, roughly 36 times the size of Britain, but is home to 33million
people half the UK's population.
I had arrived in Canada via the 'back door' after taking another ferry, the
high speed service from Seattle to Victoria. One minute I was in fast paced
America Seattle is home to Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft the next, I was in
Victoria, taking the five minute walk from the sedate ferry terminal to the even
more sedate Empress Hotel.
It's a journey of just a couple of hours up from the US, but Canada is light
years apart from the States in most respects. Victoria, the state capital of
British Columbia, feels more like Torquay. Actually, given the ever present
Scottish heritage that surrounds you in Canada, you are reminded more of, say,
Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.
In America, you never feel able to drop your guard but in Canada I felt
instantly as if I had never left home.
At the excellent Empress Hotel, for example, they serve a regular lunchtime
curry buffet as fine as anything you can find on a British high street. And at
any time of day you can always be sure of a real cup of tea.
The Empress Hotel, by the way, provides a worthy introduction to the chain of
magnificent 'railway hotels' now under the Fairmont banner that stretches right
across Canada. Like the country itself, these hotels are built on a grand scale
in a style described as 'chateau esque'.
The finest example of the style is undoubtedly the Banff Springs Hotel, which
I encountered several days later. It has the look of the baronial home of a
Scottish Dracula all it needs is a welcome from a man in a cape and a flock of
bats circling one of the turrets.
I had travelled to Western Canada in the hope of encountering exotic
creatures, and when I got to Vancouver I found my way blocked by some
particularly scary wild things the heavy metal band AC/DC. 'That's an Ozzie rock
band,' said the doorman at the Hotel Vancouver, another striking building. 'It's
the big event in the city tonight,' he added, explaining the traffic jam ahead
Canada seems to have a particular penchant for hard rock; the country may
have given us soporific Celine Dion but judging by its FM radio at least prefers
to keep its guitar amps turned all the way up to 11.
The city of Vancouver, which will stage next year's Winter Olympics (a clock
in the square in front of the art gallery counts down the days, hours, minutes
and seconds to the February 12 opening), owes its existence, and its name, to
The city was originally known as Granville, bosses at the Canadian Pacific
railway decided 'Vancouver' would be better though their decision infuriated the
citizens of nearby Vancouver Island as the city, of course, isn't even on the
In fact, if the railroad hadn't been built, Vancouver and British Columbia
would have slipped into the hands of the United States, as the burghers of
British Columbia demanded a railroad link with the rest of Canada as a condition
of remaining within the Canadian confederation when it was all being brought
together in the late 1800s.
Taking the Rocky Mountaineer train east from Vancouver to Jasper a two day
journey with an overnight hotel stay at the halfway point of Kamloops provides
an unforgettable insight into the birth of a nation.
For a while, nobody thought it would be possible to drive a railway through
the seemingly impenetrable high valleys of the Rockies where, in quick
succession, come deep, fast flowing rivers and avalanche threatened passes.
But Black Suede Balota 140mm they did, and the feat leaves modern
travellers open mouthed as they gaze through the scenic windows of the Rocky
Mountaineer. There may be bits of scenery such as this elsewhere in the world
but seldom do you see it like this, strung together in one massive symphonic
People of extraordinary vision supported by ever anxious bankers realised the
dream. Key among them was George Stephen, a Scottish draper's assistant from
Banffshire who emigrated to Canada and eventually became head of the Canadian
Pacific Railway. He later retired to England, where he was ennobled as Baron
Mount Stephen, taking his title from the Rocky Mountain to which he had given
his name. (Most places in this part of Canada seem to be named after rail men,
their relatives and their Black Suede Big Dorcet 120mm Scottish home towns.)
But the real hero of the Canadian railway story is William Cornelius Van
Horne, who left school in Illinois at 14 but by the age of 39 was general
manager of Canadian Pacific, responsible for driving the railroad through from
Calgary, in the eastern foothills of the Rockies, to Vancouver, a task he
completed six years ahead of Leather Bloody Mary 120mm schedule.
What made Van Horne such a key figure is that he not only handled the
problems of engineering the railway and the even greater troubles of maintaining
the vital flow of cash but also realised that the real challenge of the new
railway would be to attract passengers. 'Since we can't export the scenery,' he
famously remarked, 'we'll have to import the tourists.'
In Calgary's Glenbow Museum, an exhibition called Vistas has brought together
an extraordinary collection of art inspired by the railway and the wonderful new
views it had opened up of the Rockies. The 19th Century was an age of wonders in
both engineering and art: here the two are brought together in a powerful and
surprisingly moving display.
Within less than a hundred years of the completion of the amazing route
through the Rockies, however, there was a real danger that it would close to
passenger traffic, its viability threatened by the rise of the aircraft and the
automobile and the extraordinary fact that services often ran only at night,
denying passengers travelling through the mountains the visual thrills that
should have made their trip one of the most wonderful rides of their lives.
Then 20 years ago, the White Leather Beverly 100mm concept of the Rocky Mountaineer
was born an ultracomfortable train that would allow travellers to enjoy the
scenery in all its magnificent splendour.
Today there are three routes the one I took from Vancouver to Jasper, a route
from Vancouver to Calgary and another going north from Vancouver to Jasper via
In the Rocky Mountaineer's more expensive 'Gold Leaf' class, you are served
superb meals while in the upstairs section of the special carriage you have a
glass domed roof through which you can feast on the glorious unfolding panorama
of mountains, forests, waterfalls and fast flowing rivers. You can often see
bald eagles stretching their enormous wings as they fly alongside the train, and
bears have been known to amble into view.
At the back of the carriage is a viewing platform where I enjoyed standing
for long stretches riveted to the view, breathing in the rich pine smells of the
passing forests and looking straight down on precipitous drops to boiling
rivers. Not surprisingly, the Rocky Mountaineer has climbed towards the top of
the list of Things To Do Before You Die.
We left the train at Jasper to stay at the Jasper Park Lodge, just a mile out
of the small town. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an early
visitor and recorded his enthusiastic verdict on the hotel in its visitor