Canada High!

The 3,000-mile Canadian Pacific line offers one of the great railway journeys of the world. Michael Williams climbs aboard in the first part of our three-page Canada special

"Margaret Atwood." "Bryan Adams." "Yann Martel." ("Nice one!") "David Furnish." (Laughs all round.) "Avril Lavigne." ("Yeah, cool.") "Mike Myers!" This is our waitress, Michelle, and everybody claps. We're having lunch on a train high in the Canadian Rockies, playing a game of "Great Canadians", wondering why it is that this country of only 28.5 million has such a disproportionate number of achievers.

We're in the territory of superlatives here, riding one of the rare passenger trains at the western extremity of one of the world's great rail routes, the Canadian Pacific line. It strides 3,000 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic, across an almost interminable vastness of lakes and mountains, deserts and prairies - most of which is utterly unspoiled wilderness. Any sneaking Old World prejudice that Canada is - how shall we put it - a touch bland has evaporated over this past 24 hours.

While we're talking superlatives, let's put the journey in perspective. We are a day's travelling out of Vancouver, regularly voted the city with the world's best quality of life. We've passed alongside the world's biggest salmon run on the Adams River, and we are shortly to encounter the longest and highest tunnel in the western hemisphere. We have yet to hit the most spectacular scenery of the Rocky Mountains on our 600-mile ride to Banff in Alberta, but we have already passed from frozen glaciers to baking desert, traversed the Jaws of Death gorge, negotiated the Suicide Rapids, and squeezed alongside the fast-flowing waters of Hell's Gate.

All this in the air-conditioned comfort of a 1950s-style dome vista car. We also just happen to have polished off a spectacular lunch of local delicacies, including slow roasted Alberta bison and ginseng cheesecake, all prepared on the train. (Kamloops junction, half way through our journey and in the middle of nowhere, is, wouldn't you know it, the world capital of ginseng production.)

There are few passenger trains through the Rockies these days, thanks to cheap gas, Canadians' love affair with the automobile, and the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway. "The Canadian", north America's last transcontinental service, runs three times a week from Vancouver to Toronto, but on the less scenic Canadian National route, via Edmonton. Our train, "The Rocky Mountaineer", is an even greater rarity, taking the more scenic Canadian Pacific line to Calgary, but with few winter services.

Unlike the routes of other great world trains - the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian, the Blue Train - this most spectacular line in the Rockies can no longer be sampled on a timetabled service simply by buying a ticket and getting aboard. On this early summer's day, as the miles roll by, the crossing bells clang, and the mountains resound to the mournful tone of the locomotive hooter, the experience is all the more special.

These days, the dramatic vistas of the mountain sculpture of four ice ages are mostly the property of the drivers of the diesel-hauled freights, more than a mile long, with their vast loads of ore, grain and potash that keep the line busier than ever, as trade between Canada's Pacific ports and China booms. The glitzy days of "The Trans-Canada Limited" and "The Transcontinental", the coast-to-coast luxury trains that fought a rearguard action with the aeroplane and the automobile, are a fading memory of the 1950s.

But everywhere along the line are the ghosts of the pioneers and the dreamers and the toilers who laid down their lives to build it. In the 19th century, Europe was transformed by the railways, reducing the travel times of the horse-and-cart era tenfold. But the effect was simply to make an already crowded continent more congested. In Canada, not yet industrialised, sparsely populated and with as yet undrawn political boundaries, the effect was the opposite - the prospect of laying tracks over vast distances inspired dreams of riches, nationhood and empire.

Step forward William Cornelius Van Horne, the entrepreneur who made a reality the dream of building a railway that would become the backbone of the nation. With an army of 12,000 men and 1,700 teams of horses, he pushed the tracks across the Rockies in just five years, but with a terrible and tragic cost. Passengers crowd on to the open vestibules of the cars as our train passes Craigellachie, where there is a simple memorial to the hammering of the last spike in 1885. Four men had died for every mile of line constructed, working for just a dollar a day.

But William Cornelius, knighted by Queen Victoria for being "the ablest railway general in the world", was more Branson than Brunel, spotting the opportunities of the Rockies a century before the arrival of mass tourism. "If we can't export the scenery," he declared, "then we'll import the tourists." And so he did, turning the "Alps of North America" into one of the world's great outdoor leisure areas.

In its heyday, Canadian Pacific was one of the great global brands. It carried 60 per cent of all international first-class travellers, promoting itself justly as "the world's greatest travel system". These days, while it still owns the tracks and hotels, it keeps a lower profile, calling its freight arm "CP Rail" and its hotels "Fairmont". Our Rocky Mountaineer train is owned and operated by an enterprising new private company, franchised by the state, which has been busy filling the gap in the market left by CP.

But much of the CP heritage lives on. Our journey began at the grand old Canadian Pacific Hotel Vancouver, which still pulls rank amid the plate glass of the downtown city. It ends at the Banff Springs Hotel - a vast Victorian gothic edifice, which lowers over the tiny town like something out of The Shining.

With its construction personally supervised by Van Horne in 1888, it was (you've guessed it) the largest hotel in the world in its day. Even now, with suites costing up to $1,600 a night, it is the sort of grimly opulent place that the press baron Conrad Black might have enjoyed in less troubled days. Its 828 rooms are full all the year round, mostly with tourists from Japan. The service and restaurants are marvellous, but try negotiating the half-mile maze of corridors back to your room after a glass or three of the local Okanagan Valley Merlot.

But this is premature. There is further negotiation to be undertaken before the journey ends - traversing the Spiral Tunnels on the Kicking Horse Pass, one of the engineering marvels of the world and probably the only bit of railway infrastructure that three million motorists a year queue up to see. The tunnels are built in a figure-of-eight inside the mountain as a means of reducing the gradient. The effect is that the track crosses over itself, emerging from the mountain more than 50 feet below its entrance. The engine of a long freight train exits from the lower portal at the same time as its tail end can be seen rattling overhead.

But just to prove that civil engineering cannot always conquer nature, there have been several spectacular accidents here in the past few years. In 1997 an 88-car grain train ran away down the hill inside the tunnels, causing massive damage. There is a grim reminder by the trackside as we pass: two wagons lie on their side having broken loose earlier in the week.

As the Rocky Mountaineer rolls towards its destination, another nagging worry remains. At the top of my personal list of achievements on this odyssey is the chance of meeting a bear. It doesn't matter whether it's a grizzly or a black one, it seems the polite thing at least to look an ursus in the eye. The bears, along with the moose, elk, long-horned sheep and bald-headed eagles, were early inhabitants of the Rockies, long before they were trodden by the first white men only 250 years ago.

Not much chance of spotting a bear, reckons Ralph, the bluff Canadian Pacific engineer on the train. "When those guys hear that hooter blow, they scatter in front of the loco. None of 'em wants to end up tenderised."

A minute later there's a hit on the brakes. A 5ft black bear strolls coolly up to the lineside and approaches our car. (I hastily scramble the info I've read in the survival guides: "If in danger from a bear, back out fast looking humble and make cooing noises. If he's still coming for you, curl up in a ball. This may not work. In which case prepare to die.")

Luckily, I am spared the experience. "He's tipsy," says Ralph. "See that grain back there, spilled from a passing freight train? A bit of rain and and the bears are slurping it up like a distillery." Exit, not pursued by bear, which has clearly consumed more Canadian Club than even the hardest drinkers in the bar car.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Michael Williams travelled as a guest of Thomas Cook Signature and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Thomas Cook Signature (0870 443 4570; www.tcsignature .com) offers three nights at the Fairmont Vancouver, a two-day Rocky Mountaineer journey from Vancouver to Banff, and two nights at the Fairmont Banff Springs from £1,220 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights with Air Canada from London Heathrow (into Vancouver and out of Calgary), room-only accommodation in Vancouver and Banff, travel on the Rocky Mountaineer in RedLeaf Service (including one night's accommodation in Kamloops). To travel in GoldLeaf on the Rocky Mountaineer, the same package starts from £1,539 per person.

For more information

Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (01622 832244; www.rockmountaineer.com).

Visit Canada (0906 871 5000, calls cost 60p per minute; www.helloBC.com; www.tourismvancouver.com; www.banfflakelouise.com and www.travelalberta.com).

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