Great rail journeys: Lakes, elks and luxury coaches

Cleo Paskal has an eventful journey through the Rocky Mountains

Iguess I shouldn't have been surprised at the choice of the first sing-a-long. We were half-way through a two-day trip from Vancouver to Calgary aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, a train designed to make what is already one of the most interesting train trips in the world also one of the most comfortable. In "Red Leaf" class, the economy section (a relative term), travellers got extra roomy seats and tasty box lunches delivered to them. "Gold Leaf" passengers got a state-of-the-art dome car and a dining car where they were served haute cuisine on real tablecloths. Both classes got the same postcard-perfect, spectacular views.

As we slithered along the banks of the Fraser and Thompson rivers on Day One, my 700 or so fellow passengers and I had "wow-ed" at gushing whitewater-capped rivers, wide and wild valley floors, wooded mountains and big osprey nests. Really big osprey nests.

We were also fed and watered regularly. And, throughout the day, on-board guides doled out curious bits of Canadiana. There was history, geology and local lore, such as the story of the guy who had tried to start up a fox farm on "that island right over there... look quick! Out the left side of the train." All went well until one winter when the river froze and the foxes all escaped. The man wasn't too popular with his neighbours after that.

At the end of the day, we tied up in Kamloops, the natural midway point. It's been a resting stop for a very long time. The word Kamloops comes from a Shuswap First Nations word meaning "meeting place" as the town is at the junction of the North and South Thompson Rivers. Since the train is designed for daylight travel, passengers sleep in hotels scattered throughout town. But several hundred of us reconvened at night for the Two River Junction Dinner and Musical Review.

From the time Canada's transcontinental rail system was completed in 1885, the "spine" of Confederation has produced many odd offshoots. There were the track-side utopias, frenzied and sometimes murderous land speculation, and honest-to-Betsy genuine Swiss mountain guides imported by Canadian Pacific to guide its mountaineering guests safely to unclaimed peaks.

And now there is a packed-to-the-rafters, internationally acclaimed musical revue in Kamloops.

In order to give the hundreds of Rocky Mountaineer travellers something to do during their overnight stop in Kamloops, the company helped start up a dinner show using local talent (another option is The Great Canadian Lumberjack Show for those that like their entertainment with a bit more wood). The waitress who, only minutes before, had cleared away my buffet plate was now on stage with a score of other Kamloopians encouraging the audience members to sing along to, yes, "I've Been Working on the Railroad".

And because much of the audience consisted of happy, tippling, Americans and Australians, we did sing along. And enjoyed it. There is definitely something to be said for travelling with people who think cynicism is just that, a sin.

After the singsong got our blood circulating and our feet vaguely tapping, the show moved into the "story" section of the evening. Something about Billy Miner and a bank robbery that netted $15 and a handful of liver pills (something many of fellow passengers would probably be in need of in the morning).

The next day we blearily boarded the train not all that bright and much too early. Legendary locations flew by fast and furious. First came Craigellachie, site of the driving in of the famous Last Spike that connected the west of Canada to the east of Canada by rail, and tied the country together. It ushered in a new industrial era in Canada and was another nail in the coffin of traditional ways of Native Canadians.

It's hard to underestimate the value of the railway to Canada. Geographically, North America is naturally a north-south kind of place. The Canadian Prairies have more in common with the American Great Plains than they do with the fishing communities of Nova Scotia, which themselves have much more in common with Maine than with the people of Alberta. The thing that created Canada, that made it work, was the railway.

In the early 1870s, when British Columbia had to choose between joining Canada, going independent or joining the States (which had already bought Alaska and was trying to put the squeeze on the whole Pacific coast), one of its main conditions for entering confederation with Canada was the building of a railway through the Rockies, to tie it into the rest of the country. It was done. And Canadians started thinking east-west, instead of north-south.

As the steel track stitched the country together, it created a new way of life. Dauntingly isolated and beautiful valleys were suddenly a steam whistle away from daily newspaper delivery. Remote lakes saw 100-room hotels spring up on their shores. Once-unclimbable peaks were being scaled by Yale boys up for the season.

The train brought colonists, prospectors, industrialists, religious refugees, farmers, ranchers, teachers and tourists. Lots of tourists. William Cornelius Van Horne of the Canadian Pacific Railway, launched an aggressive marketing campaign, selling the country any way he could. It was "50 Switzerlands in one!" It was unfished lakes. It was Noble Natives and Gallant Mounties. And the tourists are still coming to see Emerald Lake, Mount Cathedral, Lake Louise, Banff, all sites so spectacularly beautiful, CP Rail used them to brand the image of Canada's mountain splendour.

Equally impressive is the engineering. To tame the peaks, engineers designed contorted stretches of track that twist, turn, double back, tunnel and huddle under avalanche sheds. Spiral Tunnels were built, like other treacherous stretches of track, at the cost of countless lives, mostly those of Chinese labourers.

All the while, our guides told us stories, the train slowed when it came to good photo ops (an elk, a bear, a beautiful-to-the-point-of-cliché snow-shrouded mountain), and we were stuffed silly. The only dangers were a seemingly shrinking waistline on my slacks and the guide's jokes. ("Did you hear about the sheep that was chasing a female on a mountainside? He went right over a cliff. I guess he didn't see the ewe-turn.")

Towards the end of the second day, the trip started to wind down. Many passengers left the train in Banff to continue their trip through the Rockies by car or bus. Others stayed on for the two extra hours (and one extra meal) to Calgary.

I opted to waddle off in Banff, hoping to walk off some of my post-rail cruise excess baggage. I stood on the platform, marvelling again at the view that had lured Victorians halfway around the world. In front of me, one of my fellow passengers, an American with a happy, silly grin, said to the world at large: "That was something, wasn't it?"

It sure was.

INFORMATION

The Rocky Mountaineer (01 604 606 7245; www.rockymountaineer.com) offers several different routes and adventure trips throughout the Canadian Rockies and Canada, from the two day Rocky Mountaineer classic trip to a 16-day trans-Canadian adventure. Prices start from £245 (per person and before tax)for the Red Leaf trip from Vancouver to Banff. Gold Leaf on the same route starts around £510. Gold Leaf on the trans-Canadian route starts at around £2,200.

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