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.


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;

Visit Canada (0906 871 5000, calls cost 60p per minute;;; and

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
businessHow bosses are inventing unusual ways of making us work harder
REX/Eye Candy
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?