Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Banff

Rocky Mountaineer

Sunday 17 May and Monday 18 May 2015

I have rolled these two days together for the photographs and thought I might as well do the same here in the blog.  Wordpress seem keen for me to use a new format for writing the blog so I wait to see how long it takes to learn new software (or revert … why do people who improve things actually make them worse?).

Once at Banff station the train headed by a surprising total of three diesels, one in a scruffy CP livery, brings in the train from its overnight resting place.  The operational arrangements are that the train working up from Vancouver uses the CP rails and splits at Kamloops on the outward journey overnight with a section going over CN rails to Jasper.  We are using CP rails from Banff to Kamloops, our overnight stop but tomorrow we use CN rails after the two sections re-unite.

We board, knowing our total tour group has split; a number are in Red, which is discontinued after this season, Silver which is a relatively new introduction and a small group of us in Gold as we always said that if we did it we would do it in style.  Gold has the benefit of hot food (so we only need light food if anything for dinner) and alcohol.  Our group is sandwiched between Americans (in front) and a large and increasingly raucous group of Australians behind.  Surrounded by colonials!

Once a very long freight train has passed us by we head out after it heading towards Kamloops.  We follow much the same route as yesterday so the surroundings look familiar and our first stop isthe  at Lake Louise station used in the film Dr Zhivago.  It looks very different in the spring sunshine!  The seating is more or less full and we are travelling in a brand new coach – only a week old we are told.  There are lots of announcements over safety and other aspects and we have a team of six hosts (normally four) as two are new recruits on their first trip.  Even so they are pretty busy.  They swap around so the three on the upstairs team on this return journey were downstairs on the table waiting team on the outward trip; with a further three in the galley.

The front half of the coach are given first sitting today (second sitting tomorrow) and we descend the stairs to the lower level where a cooked breakfast is served – with about five choices.  All good stuff and better eggs benedict than at the hotel in Banff.  There is no hurry over service and second sitting is called down about two hours after us.

Outside Canada rolls gently past.  This section is mainly single track and our progress is no doubt not enhanced by the freight train ahead, especially when another train has to be passed.  Key to this section are the famous spiral tunnels where we loop around losing height.  These were built to replace a very sharply graded bank which suffered numerous runaways and problems.  Being inside the mountains they are harder to comprehend but we cover a cursive L shape as we descend.  Inside we can see the lights of the coach ahead are at quite a sharp angle to our own coach.

On the first day we are clearly still in the real Rockies with mountains, snow capped above the tree lines, and for a while we follow the Kicking Horse river, so called because an early explorer was kicked so hard by his horse that his fellow explorers deemed he had died and he recovered to find that they had already dug his grave and were preparing to bury him (I believe he was the medical man in the party!).  One other major site we pass is “Craigellachie” the place where the “Last Spike” was driven to link the CP line from east to west and also cementing Canada into a single nation as British Columbia had only agreed to join if a railway was completed within ten years (it was achieved in six).  The name came from the Scottish financiers who sent the clan cry “Stand fast Craigellachie” to confirm that they money to pay for the line had been raised.

Our train’s progress is steady and gentle and we sometimes pass a freight going the other way.  These can have locos at both front and rear and front and middle to ensure they can cope with the climbs.  There are some sharpish curves as well but getting decent photographs proves difficult due to the internal reflections on the windows which tend to inhibit decent pictures.

Soon after 12 we descend again into the lower cabin and this time we have a wide choice of main meals to follow on from a tomato and basil soup.  Rib of beef to follow – we are advised the menu tomorrow will be different so make your first choice here!  Following the heavy lunch, I develop heavy eyelids and spend part of the afternoon snoozing (although it could also be something to do with the alcohol consumption too I suppose).  For once the diabetic information did reach its destination and I enjoyed a large bowl of strawberries for dessert and fruit was distributed during the afternoon.

Early on the trip we are lucky to see a black bear and then a grizzly bear – the latter have only been spotted a couple of times in recent years; sadly getting a picture proved beyond my competence – I was more interested in seeing it!  Other wildlife seems to be keen on avoiding us, although some eagles are seen and one even made it into a photograph.

Overnight is spent in Kamloops.  Like other towns which have been based around railways it is not overly attractive and we do not venture out of the hotel.  Nachos followed by biscuits and cheese and then to bed.  We have another full day tomorrow.

Coaches return us to the “station” which is situated on a link line between CP and CN and the train has been completely reformed with the combination of the segment from Jasper.  We now have the beenfit of a good view out of the front of our coach along the train allowing some better trains shots during the day.  Getting the road coaches in the right order alongside the rail coaches is quite a good demonstration of getting organisation right – but it is done very well.  As yesterday our main luggage goes by road to our destination and will be waiting in our hotel room in Vancouver for our arrival.

The scenery is more open today for much of the journey as we have descended out of the mountainous area.  We pass the Painted Bluffs which is a very small national park near Kamloops, the Black Canyon (no photos sadly) and “Hells’ Gate” canyon which proved very difficult to navigate with only one steamship – the SS Scuzzy – managing to negotiate the river at this point in the lowest of water in early spring carrying construction kit for the railway.  The original explorer found travelling through the area using the First Nationals paths and routes so difficult that he felt he had reached the “Gates of Hell”.

On second sitting today but the food is again of excellent quality and well presented.  Salmon and scrambled egg at breakfast.  The diabetic information has gone missing and I do not share the chocolate brownies which look lovely when they turn up for dessert at lunchtime.

For the Canadians it is a “long weekend” and I think this accounts for the paucity of crossing trains on the second day.  We certainly make very good time reaching Vancouver by about 6pm.

Overall we are well looked after on this service and enjoy the  friendly hosting, the comfortable seats and we can acknowledge that this is a well run business with some wonderful scenery to do.  Very much part of a trip of a lifetime.


Saturday 16 May 2015

In the itinerary this was a free day to do as we wished.  The main possibilities offered by Richard, our tour guide, was to visit the Whyte Museum or to ride the Banff Gondola (a cable car in plain English).  Jackie however had put her sleuthing hat on and found that on Saturday evenings only the Restaurant at the Banff Gondola have two special meals at 5 and 7pm.  The fee for the ride is normally $40 each; special price including a three course meal was about $60 each.  She booked the early sitting.

They sent through the email confirmation with pdf attachment.  On careful reading we find the latter has to be printed to enable the barcodes to be scanned.  Who takes a portable printer on holiday?  Technology is not that good!  And they cannot scan the barcodes on the ipad screen.  Cue panic.  Eventually however I managed to get the internet PC off reception to print the magic pieces of paper.

Instead of eating breakfast in our hotel we walked down the street about 6 hotels / hostels etc.   Jackie had spotted  restaurant in another hotel called “El Toro” and inside we found comparative peace and quiet – our hotel had a noisy dining room – plus much better prices and a huge breakfast.  Jackie is now quite addicted to blueberry pancakes and I had a “combo” – scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms and a lot of potatoes I did not eat.  Plus the inevitable fruit with your Canadian breakfast.  And the waiting time is such that it was all freshly cooked.  Not quite beating Jasper breakfasts but pretty good.

We visit the spa and spend 10 – 15 minutes in a 28 seater jacuzzi.  104 deg F – hot!  We retire to our room, Jackie to sleep and I attend to photographs and so on.

Buses today are running to time so we are at the Gondola base station in plenty of time; as it is not busy we are granted immediate access and we are lifted into the sky to the top of Sulphur Mountain.  The weather is unattractive but I walk most of the way to the old weather station but retreat when the snow joins the cold wind.

Photos of this excursion are not outstanding and can be found here.

At 5 we take our seats in the restaurant and although circular it does not revolve.  We can look down on Banff and sometimes it is visible and sometimes it vanishes behind a combination of snow and low flying clouds.  Yet another good meal of a huge salad, a piece of rib of beef and strawberries in my case and a wonderful chocolate concoction for Jackie certainly made the whole thing worthwhile.

A couple of observations about buses.  Firstly know what your local stop looks like in a strange town, or you may have to walk back from getting off a stop too soon.  In Banff they also have a wonderful concept – they allow travellers to strap their bike to the front of the bus (certainly at one point we had two on the front).  Somehow I cannot see that catching on in Bracknell; nor on the front of SWT 455’s – but it is better than them being dragged into the passenger areas!

Banff National Park

Friday 15 May 2015

Another day and so the tour continues.  Although it had been looking a little grey overhead it starts to brighten up and we head up towards Norquay for a great view down on to the town which is laid out below plus some more long horn sheep and some praire dogs running around the field.  The latter tend to be far too small to be visible in photographs unless I invest in one of those extreme telephoto lenses – which is unlikely.

Pictures today are here.

Our tour today is essentially to see bits of the huge Banff National Park and to enjoy some of the highlights.  So back on the coach everyone and try to stay awake in the hope of spotting wildlife.  Although I and others can be seen dozing from time to time, particularly on some of the longer runs through the lush fir forests.  The fir trees are in fact very close together which we gather tends to limit the ability of the animals with large antlers to be able to progress through the forest, which looking at the road side is clear as spotting animals any distance into the wood is impossible.

The established view over forest fires has changed in recent years.  Historically the aim was always to seek to extinguish fires to prevent loss of trees – they can happen from natural causes such as lightning strikes as well as man made intervention.  Now the pendulum has swung and a small amount of controlled burning of the woods has happened, although we were told in one case that it had spread further than planned.  Working out the right ecological balance must be difficult.

Our second stop should have involved coffee but once again we are slightly early; the lights in the restaurant are on but the door is locked. Cleaning and preparation for the season is underway!  This is Johnston Canyon where we have time to walk as far as the lower falls before returning.  I saw a variety of small creatures running around whilst stopped here, chipmunk like but even though I was at ground level photos are not worth it as they tend to say.  In the car park was a “Beaumont” car – a General Motors marque used between 1966 and 1969 and in good condition.

The coffee stop is taken at Samson Mall (damn fine coffee in Laggan’s Bakery – no sign of any cherry pie anywhere in Canada so far) plus some sandwiches to eat at our next halting place – Lake Louise; another beautiful piece of scenery which I would love to look at for even longer.  But do not turn around; behind you is a modern hotel, with no style or design; you could find it in Dubai or almost anywhere. And it is huge.  Never mind, most of the time whilst facing the lake it does not impinge on the pictorial quality of the place; just do not turn around.  Shame it is not panto season.

We temporarily leave Alberta for British Columbia and the Yoho National Park.  In theory there is a one hour time change at the border but as we are returning to Banff later this change is not made.  I wonder how local residents popping across the border cope – or perhaps there is actually very little local traffic?

Our purpose is to visit the Kicking Horse river where there is a bridge which has been left by the water cutting through the rock and later we move onto the very peaceful and quiet environs of Emeral Lake; although we are in Yoho the photos to be found at this link.

Our journey then reverses to head back to Banff; I note for the first time Canadian Pacific trains as opposed to CN which has been the mainstay betweenToronto and Jasper; but this more southerly area was CP dominated.

In the evening we decide on something completely different and catch the bus into Banff.  We wander around the town assessing the various eating possibilities but our choice is unaltered – it is time for a greek meal in Balkan, which occupies the Cascade Hall.  Pita bread and three dips is probably to much; Jackie has a moussaka which I acknolwedge looks good and apparently is good to eat whilst I consume some skewered steak, rice and potatoes.

On the journey into town the bus was running late on the timetable and this continued as we found when we returned to the bus stop.  Indeed the gap was such that we reckoned we could walk back to the Caribou Lodge first and so it proved as we were back indoors, walking at Jackie’s usual leisurely pace without being passed by the bus.


Icefields Parkway – Jasper to Banff

Thursday 14 May 2015

Time for the travellers to roll onwards; not by train.  Asif our local guide (for whom we have to thank for the pointer towards Syrah last night) is in charge both of driving us to our next destination but also describing the places along the way.

Essentially today we are heading in a largely southerly direction along Highway 93 moving from Jasper to Banff taking in the sights along the way.  We will also revisit part of the route tomorrow on our Banff National Park tour.

As we leave Jasper we first past Whistler mountain which is on the edge of the town and then a little further along Mt Edith Cavell after the famous nurse who was killed in the first world war.

Our progress is soon halted by a sighting of a black bear and photos of all of the day’s activities can be found here.

Excitement marginally reduced we head on to our first stop at the Athabasca Falls where once again the power of the water cutting its way through the rock bed provides another illustration of the impact of 11,000 years of activity can achieve.

Moving a way down the road we reach the main Columbia Icefields where there is yet another tour highlight with a trip out onto the Athabasca Glacier and for which we had originally anticipated the need for warmer clothing.  I have put on a long sleeved shirt as my preparation for the day!  The pullover remains deep inside a suitcase.

The transit to the glacier is in two stages; a normal bus takes us over the main road to a staging point at which we climb aboard one of 22 special glacier vehicles.  There are 23 in the world – the odd one is somewhere in Antarctica.  They are of several generations and are not built by coach builders but by heavy equipment movers.  The whole operation is run by Brewsters who have been operating in this area for well over a century and seem to have control of much of the coach and other operations in both asper and Banff.

On the glacier itself is not actually incredibly cold (thanks to the sun) although it cools when we lose the sun behind some clouds.  Disappointingly in retrospect the photographs taken on the glacier do not record the area in the way that you see it.  No doubt it is true that everything is white and the photos cannot do justice to what we actually see, where refraction and other effects do make edges of the ice above appear blue to our eyes, adding subtle tone and shadow.

Underfoot of course the glacier is advancing slowly, but also retreating in that each year it reaches less further into the valley.  The last ice age was about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago and when the ice receded in this area the ground rose – providing these glorious mountain ranges.  Since then it would be fair to assume that the world has been steadily warming and of course this period covers much of the known human history, with civilisation appearing in Egypt around 5000 years ago.

Off the glacier and following a quick lunch we are heading south again to our next stop at Bow Lake and Glacier.  Bow Lake is largely frozen – the near edges are just liquid and so makes an interesting contrast to the lakes visited earlier.  Here as elsewhere the coffee stop facilities are not available as yet.  We are a little early in the season for these things but it matters little.  Indeed it means we return to our coach a little earlier and head off for Banff.

A quick town tour leaves me confused as to just where we are on the map at the hotel when we arrive.  Banff is clearly larger than Jasper and indeed there is a bus service to the town centre from the hotel, the Caribou Lodge, which in theory runs every 40 minutes.

Once settled in we visit the restaurant in the hotel and initially determine on a light meal – starting with some shared Nachos.  The delivered pile would have been a completely adequate meal (if a little unbalanced); we had however also ordered a salad each.  These came and the remaining Nachos departed – well they would hardly be good for breakfast would they?

The salads were also sizeable and although we both managed to eat the steak (Jackie) and seafood (me) on top of the salad leaves, the quantity of the latter defeated us.  Near the end of eating my plateful I found half an avocado which was waiting for attention and that was demolished.  Service this evening was provided by a girl from New Zealand but she had had to participate in a tour around the Banff National Park as part of the conditions for the job so that she could talk about the local sights and activities.  Someone around here really cares how their town comes across to visitors like us.

Jackie goes to bed and sleep whilst I do some catching up with the world.