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Rocky Mountaineer / Canadian Rockies Trip - August 2009
Fortunately, we had our traditional breakfast at the muffin shop near Union Station before we got onboard. The trip itself is a striking dichotomy: The train races on good track from Seattle to Bellingham in about two hours. Once we cross the border into Canada, we rock-n-roll along on poor track, taking two hours to slink grudgingly into Vancouver's Pacific Central Station. The last mile of our journey takes a good 30 minutes as we have to hand line through multiple switches at a leisurely pace. Further delay is encountered unloading our train and schlepping our way through Customs. Driving is still definitely faster!
Once free of the tentacles of Amtrak, we climb the Skytrain stairs with our three suitcases for the brief hop on to the Hotel Vancouver where we'll be staying for the night. Ah....the Hotel Vancouver! I always enjoy these old CP railway chateau type castles. The gal who checks us in is very cute, but she knows nothing about our very expensive tour. Lucky for us, her more-competent co-worker is present and makes sure we receive the necessary vouchers and even a surprise $400 gift card from the Fairmont hotel chain! We dump our bags in the room and head down for a couple drinks in the lobby.
Alcoholic craving satisfied, we next meet up with my brother and his kids. Out to dinner we go! Some joint on Robson Street that definitely caters to the young and beautiful as my brother Mark and I are easily the oldest ones present -- including the staff.
l to r: That's Mark, Mallory, Trevor, Lindsay and Baolu.
My technically-challenged brother having a go at the restaurant's screwy credit card machine.
You can tell it's a Monday night. This is not their best crew. Manager himself takes our drink orders...and promptly forgets them. Finally we ask a couple more times and the iced tea is delivered. Ewwww! I forgot I'm in Canada. Shouldn't have ordered iced tea. They serve that canned, pre-sweetened stuff which is wretched. The staff manages to mess up Mallory's order twice. The third salad is the charm and finally Mal gets her dinner. Shades of Fawlty Towers.
Tuesday, August 18:
An early 6:30am start to what will be a very long day. We are downstairs in the lobby checking into our Rocky Mountaineer tour. This trip is to both celebrate my upcoming 50th birthday and our 16th anniversary. We are traveling in their "Gold Leaf" service (first class), so expectations are high.
The lobby is a mob scene as I manage to pick the slower of the two lines. Finally our baggage is checked through, we are handed our all-important main travel voucher, and we board the bus for the station. It is a beautiful morning and the bus hostess regales us that we will be seated for breakfast "immediately" upon boarding the train. It would turn out that pretty much everything she told us was false.
#1: Here we are, about to get onboard the train. #2: There's Lindsay all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. #3: Lindsay and Baolu strike a silly pose. #4: The remainder of our champagne and orange juice "toast" to the train ride. Check that barf bag in the seat pocket!
Once onboard, the car host announces that since the downstairs dining room can only seat half of the car at once, there will be TWO sittings for breakfast. Uh-oh. You guessed it. We are in the second sitting and we are both hungry. Ironically, we had joked that there is a 24 hour McDonalds close to the Hotel Vancouver and that maybe we should get something before we left. Now we'll pay.
The first seating for breakfast disappears downstairs along with the rest of the car attendants. We are hastily offered coffee or tea with a stale scone to sustain us until breakfast (which we will shortly be referring to as "lunch"). With nothing better to do, I head downstairs to the brass-railed "open-air" portion of our car and take some pictures. Baolu heads to the back of the car to fetch herself some water. So much for first class service.
#5: While we cool our heels at a red signal, a Millennium line Skytrain passes overhead. #6: We trundle across the Fraser River at New Westminster.
The start of the journey is agonizingly slow. We hand line ourselves through switches and back out of the depot, then start forward eastward. Unfortunately, we have a rookie engineer who seems to be having trouble controlling his locomotive. Stops and starts are very abrupt. We have a very long passenger train pulled by one EMD GP40-2 locomotive, #8013. Actually, it is TWO passenger trains. At Kamloops, our stop for the night, the train will split with half going on to Jasper and half going to Banff.
#7: Ugly scenery and empty stomach is no way to start the journey.
For the trip out of the Vancouver area, we are dispatched as far as Matsqui on Canadian National (CN) track. CN doesn't like us. We face red signals at every possible interlocking or control point. It takes a full two hours of start and stop to finally clear CN's Thornton Yard at Port Mann and get onto mainline track. It is 10:30 am before they invite us downstairs to breakfast. It is a "gourmet" breakfast (translation: delicious, but very small portion), so we wolf it down and load up on the breakfast croissants.
At Matsqui, we cross the Fraser River again and join up with the Canadian Pacific at Mission City for our trip up the canyon. The scenery is very pretty, but much of the way, we are in a "canyon of trees" so picture taking is difficult. The dispatching is noticeably better. From what I've read on various websites afterwards, CP considers this train their pride and joy - a worthy replacement for Via Rail's politically-rerouted "Canadian".
#8: Crossing a quiet backwater along the CP. #9: We get a friendly wave at Harrison Mills. #10: Baolu in much better spirits after finally getting breakfast (lunch). #11: A little Canadian Club to make the day brighter.
After breakfast and back upstairs, they start pouring the alcohol! This is good as the scenery is starting to look better and it calms down half a car of disgruntled passengers. We are still getting randomly thrown around by that rookie engineer, though. At one point near Hells Gate in the Fraser Canyon, he actually dumps someone's drink and cheese snack on the floor. People are holding on for dear life wondering when the next slack action is going to bang through the train. Rookie hogger managed to dump part of Baolu's white wine on her pants. This engineer sucks! It's like he's kicking freight cars in a yard.
#12: Hells Gate part of Fraser Canyon. #13: Muddy Fraser River, meet clear Thompson River. #14: CN work train working outside a tunnel. #15: Three short tunnels on the CN side of the canyon. #16: Nasty accident below! This guy missed the road and hit the scenery.
At Cisco, we cross over the Fraser River, then around Lytton, we switch back to CN tracks for the rest of the journey to Kamloops. Once on the CN, we are no longer overtaking and passing freights. The CN sticks us in the siding 3 times in a row for westbound freight. As we're having lunch at around 3:30pm, we watch as we are overtaken by an empty eastbound CP coal train across the river. He's going about 10mph faster than we are! Soon, the entire coal train is by and out of sight up the valley. We never catch up. On Canadian National, we are definitely not the hottest thing going up the Thompson River.
#17: Watching a CP coal train overtake us. #18: Beautiful ride along Kamloops Lake. #19: About to enter a rock runnel. #21: Lindsay crossing the North Thompson River at Kamloops. #22: The local welcoming committee as we pull into Kamloops.
Finally reaching Kamloops, we cross both the North and South Thompson Rivers and into the station. Onto our assigned bus, we are quickly whisked up the hill to our hotel for the evening. The "Gold Leaf" service means they handle our bags to and from the room and dinner at the hotel is free - even including the tip! We didn't think we'd want dinner this late (it's after 7:30 pm), but they really didn't feed us much on the train. Dinner is quite good so we partake and for the first time today our bellies are full. Off to bed as there is an early start tomorrow.
Wednesday, August 19:
Up at the crack of dawn - our room has a beautiful view of the
valley's.... shopping mall. An added bonus is semi trucks downshifting their way
into downtown. We were both too tired from yesterday and slept through it all.
As I begin my morning ritual, I get an eye-opening surprise as this is one of
those "green" hotels which proudly explains how they are saving the frikken
planet. Translation: We have the roughest toilet paper in Canada.
It's like sandpaper.
#1: Room with a View: Kamloops style. #2: A
pair of EMD GP40-2's #8016 and #8011. #3: Comes the dawn - flying east on
#4: Breakfast menu. #5: Classic dining car scene.
#6: Food fit for a King! (a King who's not too hungry, that is).
#7: Baolu contemplates another 12+ hour ride parked in
her chair. #8: climbing Notch Hill. #9: Water skier on Shuswap Lake.
#10: Lindsay's impressionist Monet photo. #11: Beautiful lake view. #12:
An old "wigwam" slash burner along the tracks. I haven't seen one of these
in years. Boonie!
#13: Craigellachie depot. #14: Original rock cairn
at Craigellachie. #15: Crossing the Columbia River into Revelstoke. #16:
Revelstoke roundhouse with snowplows and cabooses out front.
#17: Albert Canyon. #18: The mountains are calling me!
#19: Pork: The other white meat. #20: Stoney Creek Bridge - vandalized! #21: How
Stoney Creek SHOULD look, if they'd just cut down a few trees... #22: Coming
down off Rogers Pass and on to Golden.
#23: Along the milky-white Kicking Horse River. #24: Another view of the Kicking Horse. #25: Rafters on the river. #26: Moose country! A quiet backwater heading towards Field. #27: Climbing towards the mountains.
#28: Yet another CP freight in the siding for us. #29:
Canadian Tire containers with Mount Stephen in the background. #30: Canadian
Pacific helpers at Field. #31: Field, BC and Mount Stephen.
#32: Squeezing through a short tunnel. #33: More mountains. #34: Emerging from Lower Spiral Tunnel (that's the track below). #35: Entering Upper Spiral Tunnel. #36: Climbing towards the Continental Divide.
#37: View of Lower Spiral tunnel from above. #38:
Beautiful lake and mountains on Continental Divide. #39: Another view looking
back towards BC. #40: My favorite grab shot from upstairs. #41: FINALLY: Baolu
is off the train and smiling at Banff!
#42: View of Bow River from outdoor restaurant. #43: Baolu with Banff Springs Hotel in the background. #44: Backlit Baolu and Lindsay. #45: Banff in twilight. #46: Sunset on the Bow River. #47: Purple mountain majesty.
We walk back to the "Castle" after dark and get a good night's sleep.
Summary of the Rocky Mountaineer train trip: I give it a
B-. Baolu gives it a C. You can't provide "first class" service to
80+ passengers with just 5 people. Our car attendants really worked hard
(we tipped them well at the end), but there just aren't enough of them.
Food service was good, but very small portions and long waits between meals with
no snacks available. There's no way to walk the train because the kitchen
is downstairs. You're sort of stuck in your seat or in the crowded vestibules
for 12+ hours each day. The scenery is spectacular, of course, and is what
they're selling. Train handling is much better on the Canadian Pacific.
CN acted like we were in the way. For the thousands of dollars we paid to
ride -- next time, I'd just drive.
So now we're driving! ;p Yep, rented a big old boat - some sort of gigantic Buick Roadmaster or whatever they call it now. Grandpa's ride. I have to say there's a lot of room to stretch out and enjoy the view!
First stop today is an early morning visit to McDonalds! Baolu adores sausage the way it is made in Canada -- so we head to the golden arches.
#1: Baolu happily snarfing a Sausage McMuffin with Egg at Mickey D's.
Appetites satisfied (hey, it's not gourmet, but it's filling), we head to the local Safeway for some fruit and sandwiches to munch on the way. When lunch comes and goes, we'll be somewhere between Banff and Jasper out in the boonies. Next, we hustle to catch the first ride up in the Banff gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain. Lots of early morning blue sky although the Bow Valley is still in the shade. This is one of the "free" rides via coupon provided by our Rocky Mountaineer tour -- might as well check it out.
#2: Banff Springs Lodge from high above. #3: Up we go on the gondola.
Wildlife! Or at least some tame goats or sheep are at the top. Signs everywhere not to feed them and they are pretty much fenced off from contact with those pesky tourists.
#4: A family of goats viewed as we arrive. #5: Papa Goat looks warily as he is digitized.
Time to head down the mountain as we have a lot to see today.
#5: Hazy Bow Valley with Banff on the left. #6: Close up of Bow Valley and Banff Springs Lodge through the haze.
Back in the Buick Batmobile, we set off for our next stop of Lake Louise. It is a beautiful day and instinct tells me to stop here in case the weather is "not so fresh" when we return on Saturday.
#7: Baolu grabs a nifty shot along Trans Canada Highway 1. #8. Lake Louise. #9. Lake Louise, encore. #10. Incredible blue water and their boat house. #11. Lindsay and the Lake.
It is a rather tedious drive from Banff to Lake Louise as the entire highway is one big construction zone. Most of it is finished -- a beautiful, four lane, divided highway, but they still have a ridiculous 70 km/hour speed limit in place. Most of the Albertans just ignore it and even going 80 kph, I am still tailgated and passed. It is 11 am when we arrive and the parking lot at Lake Louise is almost full. However, my one real talent in life (always finding a good parking place) holds true and I find a spot right away in front with no trouble.
The view of Lake Louise is awesome. I can't imagine a more picturesque spot for a hotel. Just wow. The water is so many interesting shades of blue and turquoise, it almost looks fake. Baolu says she thinks they must drop a couple bags of dye in the water at night to make it look like that!
After Lake Louise, we make a quick trip over into B.C. to take a look at the famous Canadian Pacific "Spiral Tunnels". There is a large pull-off interpretive center with ample parking. The only drawback is the view is not that great. Again, a "selective logging operation" would do wonders for this spot. Luck is with us as a train arrives just as we do. I understand people stand here for HOURS waiting for a train to see at this famous location.
#12. CP's "Spiral Tunnels" are just visible through the trees.
It's approaching the noon hour as we head off on the afternoon portion of our journey to Jasper. We'll be traveling along Alberta Highway 93, the "Icefields Parkway". After passing through the park entrance, we stop at a nice spot to have our lunch.
#13. Icefields Parkway. #14. Our lunch stop and my favorite picture of the trip. It just says "Canada". #15. Wall of Mountains. #16. Along the road. #17. Mountains and Glacier.
Getting on into afternoon, we arrive at the Columbia Icefield. It is a short, but steep hike up to the toe of the Glacier's edge.
#18. Columbia Icefield. #19. Baolu posing with her new Banff "hoodie". #20. A view down the hill.
From here, it is pretty much downhill all the way into Jasper. We will be staying at the famous (the Queen stayed here once) Jasper Park Lodge which we discover, to our horror, does not have air-conditioning. It turns out we have arrived on the hottest day of the year (94F/32C). Jasper Park Lodge is not really a Lodge, but more a series of long log cabin bunkhouses spread out over acres and acres of land. A very nice setting -- situated along a chain of lakes and forest. Furnishings are decent inside, but it is just too darn hot. Instead, we take a ride into town in our air-conditioned Buick to beat the heat.
#21. Baolu trying to stay cool on the bench. #22. This is the only "bear" we'll see on this trip. #23. The old CN Jasper train station. #24. CN #6015, a 4-8-2 "Mountain Type" steam locomotive on display near the depot.
We take a stroll and have an early dinner in an air-conditioned Italian place right across from the train station. Very good food! Biggest portions I've seen this side of the border. We discover from the waitress...no McDonalds in Jasper. How primitive! Fortunately, we discover a breakfast place that's open at 7am for tomorrow. Afterwards, we pick up some local wine to take back to our sweatbox room. It is hard to get to sleep as there is no breeze, even though we have every window open. At least the room comes with a fan to move the warm air around.
Friday, August 21:
We are up early and into town for breakfast at "Smitty's". Another good chewing place! We'll have to come back here tomorrow as well. Baolu loads up on her Canadian sausages and then we're off to Maligne Lake (pronounced Mah-leen Lake) for a boat tour out to the famous Spirit Island.
#25. Moose doots outside Smitty's. No moose, though. #26. Lineup of tour boats. #27. Baolu waits to board "The African Queen". #28. Mountains and Glaciers and some of that amazing blue water. #29. Roaring up Maligne Lake. #30. So many shades of blue...
The boat ride up to Spirit Island is fast and fun...exceptin' that we're sitting behind these two old biddies from Australia wearing "old lady perfume" that wafts back to us in the breeze. Phew! Spray it, don't bathe in it!
#31. Spirit Island, classic view. #32. Spirit Isthmus err... Island. #33. View from the shore. #34. View from the boat as we depart.
It turns out that Spirit Island is actually an Isthmus (connected to the land) rather than an island. What makes it so famous is it was submitted by a Canadian photographer in some sort of Kodak contest years ago as the "Spirit" of Canada. It truly is a fabulous spot.
After our return by boat, we had a decent lunch in the cafeteria before setting off to ride the Jasper tramway (another free coupon in the tour book). Good chow and WINE with zee meals! They were doing a booming business as it is the only eating place for miles around. On the way back into Jasper, we came upon a herd of these critters:
#35. Herd of sheep/goats. #36. Keeping an eye on the youngsters. #37. Anne Elk. Not an Expert.
The next stop was a ride up on the Jasper Tramway. The view was a little hazy today. The guide explained that was smoke due to intentionally-set forest fires in the area -- trying to eradicate the pine beetle which is eating much of the forest.
#38. Up Up and Away. #39. A train in the valley below. #40. The hike we DIDN'T take. #41. Hazy view of Jasper. #42. That's just the parking lot. #43. Two more, smelly elk.
It was still warm outside, but much cooler than yesterday, so we decided to eat outside at "The Lodge" with a view of their private lake. A very good meal, actually. The staff had a little trouble with using our Fairmont "gift card" -- it didn't seem to work properly! To their credit, they ingeniously billed the meal to our room, then credited the cost back with the card. Odd, but it worked. After dinner, we took a nice walk around the lake to stretch our legs until it was dark, then sort of groped our way back to our cabin for some shuteye.
Saturday, August 22:
We have a leisurely day today, just driving back to Lake Louise for our final night "In the Rockies". First, we MUST have another sausage fest at Smitty's in Jasper. The restaurant is very crowded, but the staff is really handling it well and the food is as good as ever.
Today is much more hazy than when we drove up on Thursday. Plus we are heading "into the sun" so the view is completely different. Check it out.
#1. Look Mark! Baolu is pointing again! #2. "Climb every mountain...." #3. "Ford every stream..." #4. Columbia Icefield.
#5. This picture should be on a beer bottle. SO refreshing... #6. The highway makes almost a complete circle. #7. Sunbeams from Heaven.
This being a Saturday, Lake Louise is VERY crowded, no doubt with folks up from the Calgary area. We park our land yacht in the underground garage and "check in". Well, the room isn't ready yet, so we'll leave the bags in the car and attend high tea!
#8: Baolu consults the menu. #9. Perfect, back-lit shot of Baolu having tea. #10. Three levels of munchies! #11. Baolu and the Lake. #12. The Lake and Lindsay.
Having tea at Lake Louise is fantastic. You just can't beat that view. The service is great and we'd love to linger, but we've got to go walk off that food! So along the shore of Lake Louise we go. It is very crowded with lots of families featuring their "free range" children scurrying to and fro and shrieking at random. Up towards the end of the lake, we happen upon a colony of Chipmunks who have mastered the art of mooching from the humans.
#13. Simon....Theodore.... #14. And Alvin. ALVIN!!!!! #15. The end of Lake Louise. #16. Chateau Lake Louise. #17. Ditto.
Hey, our room is ready! It's time to polish off that nice bottle of B.C. Chardonnay before dinner. Our first choice for dinner is sold out! (The Fairmont dining room). We debate between the cafe where we had tea and someplace called "Poppy Brasserie". We go with the Poppy (for variety's sake) and make a reservation with the hotel concierge.
#18. Pre-prandial drinks. #19. View of Chateau Lake Louise from our room. #20. Room with a view.
We show up promptly at 5pm. I realize we made a bad choice when they seat the couple in front of us, without a reservation, at a nice window table and sit us next to the kitchen. We place our drink order and it seems to take quite a while for her to round up a couple glasses of wine. Finally we order and we wait. And we wait. And we wait. People at tables all around us are getting their food, but our appetizers are nowhere to be found. 30 minutes later, my heart sinks as a waiter finally shows up nearby carrying what are obviously our two entree's. They forgot our appetizers. Our waitress has vanished from the moment she took our order.
Baolu is furious. The waiter offers to take the entree's back and keep them warm (sit on them, presumably), but Prime Rib doesn't keep warm very well. We decide just to eat our dinner and have them take the appetizers off the bill.
THEN the waitress shows up. "Hmmm...is there something wrong at this table?" Through clenched teeth, Baolu explains that she forgot our appetizers and to please take them off the bill. When the bill comes, Baolu writes all sorts of things on the paper about lousy service, etc. The waitress is on to her and then brings ANOTHER bill (credit card slip), rather than letting us charge it to our room. Baolu writes everything down again. It did no good. We never heard back from the hotel, so I guess the managers don't read the comment cards (or the staff ditch them, whatever). They didn't get a tip.
Determined not to let the Fawlty Towers staff get us down, we buy some cookies for dessert and stroll around the hotel grounds for a final look-see.
#21. "Hello, Fawlty Titties" (I'm making faces at
Baolu). #22. Why can't I grow hanging baskets like this? #23. Lindsay with
flower basket envy. #24. Lake Louise from the creek. #25. Late night view of
Sunday, August 23:
Up and at 'em! An early start today as we have to catch our flight home from Calgary. First, one last (morning) look at Lake Louise. This stay (excluding last night's culinary debacle) was the scenic highlight of the trip.
#1. The lake is so calm. I still haven't figured out what that roofless structure below is....
What a view to wake up to. Soon we are checked out and plodding slowly down highway 1 towards Banff. Baolu does NOT want to be denied Canadian sausage on her last day of vacation.
Although they gave it a good try. Today's crew at McDonalds is all French-Canadian and it is quickly apparent they don't know what they're doing. Except for babbling at each other in French. That, they're good at. The line is long and the food takes quite a while to arrive and it isn't until we get back to our table that we realize the froggies neglected to put egg in our sausage mcmuffin with egg. Well, that's a first. Back I go to get Baolu some replacement sandwiches. This takes time, lots of time, but we finally get what we ordered. "Don't be surprised, you're doing the French Mistake! Viola!"
On the road again. Just east of Banff, the silly speed limit comes off and we are able to fly along at 110kph/70mph. We make good time into Calgary and even find ourselves with 3 hours before our flight. Well, let's kill some time. We drive around in a neighborhood and happen upon another McDonalds! The only reason we go in is Baolu wants to pick up a sport bottle they are selling. After I sit in the car for 10 minutes, I go inside to see what's taking so long. Baolu is at the end of a long line. The staff have that "deer trapped in the headlights" look. Nothing is getting done. After another 5 minutes, we give up and head to the airport. The world's slowest McDonalds! And it's in North Calgary!
Bedlam at the Calgary airport. The only gate for our flight home has a huge "First Class Passengers Only" sign on it. We schlep our bags up and down the corridor, finally asking someone where our flight boards at. He points to the First Class sign. OK. Well, that was obvious. Wow, TSA is really crowded at this airport. I had allowed a full two hours to get through and we needed every bit of that. My legs actually started cramping up from doing that little shuffle walk in the line. Finally, we are free of the stench of officialdom! The flight to Seattle is routine and we're back by early afternoon.
As mentioned above, the train ride was a bit less than I expected. The scenery throughout is breathtaking and definitely must-see. The service, well, it was a mixture from good to bad, but I think everyone knows "they got you". You're there for the views and not the victuals. I'm glad we went. Ever since I rode the real "Canadian" in 1988, I've wanted to take that ride again.
Where to next? Well, Baolu's making some rumblings about visiting Maui next year! I think our previous Hawaiian trip really knocked her socks off. We might have to go tropical once more. Aloha, folks...LIN-Z