Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Jasper

Canada, O Canada

Friday 22 May 2015

Homeward bound we finally reach our front door lateish on Saturday afternoon, my thanks to Cerys Matthews (Radio 6; Sunday mornings), Johnnie Walker (Radio 2; Sunday afternoons) and Mike Brown (CHBN – the Friday Alternative, should be compulsory listening) for providing an aural disguise to the jet engines on the 747.  No photographs on this section!

If I have not gushed enough about Canada on the individual blog posts then this is my last opportunity.  Taken in the round we loved the trip itself (with diverse views on the sleeper accommodation on the Canadian between Toronto and Jasper); we thought it gave a wonderful representation of the country and speaking personally I would hope we can find an opportunity to visit the eastern part of the country that was missing on this trip.  Oddly Victoria was outstanding as we were completely ignorant of the place and another trip covering just there and Vancouver might be planned – simply because we feel there must be more to see than just the highlights we hit.

Not a single meal which could be rated as poor over the entire holiday – and in general service was outstanding – usually friendly chats with waiting staff provoked by an initial enquiry about our accents and of course a shared history and interest.  The good service rating does not extend to VIA Rail who should take up operating freight trains given their incompetence and complete absence of passenger service (and passenger needs are far higher than any mere customer).

It is impossible to single out a highlight – up the CN Tower, Rocky Mountaineer, Jasper, Victoria, Sulphur Mountain gondola in Banff, Vancouver – there are too many good bits.

We enjoyed it and had a great time.  I think the sunshine helped – apparently we were somewhat lucky in this respect.  If you can go then do so.  Another great holiday.

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.

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.


Wednesday 13 May 2015

Before starting this little update I should mention that the Winnipeg posting from a couple of days ago has had a small update.

When we arrived last night there was a quick tour round this little town.  Essentially two main streets and with only a slight deviation we reach our hotel – Best Western Jasper Inn.  Now re-united with our luggage we can unpack and also we can catch up with social networks at home and news (little enough of that goes a long way).  Also a proper shower is welcome.

Come the morning it is a half day tour around the lakes and mountains which are part of the Jasper National Park and we are bouyed by reports from fellow travellers who had encountered elks when they sauntered into town for dinner the previous evening.  Sadly Maligne Lake is still frozen and therefore not worth the trip but instead we go to Lake Patricia and then to Medicine Lake whilst seeking visibility of deer and hopefully more bears.

The photographs of this excursion can be found at this link.

We are enjoying more wonderful sunny weather, a nice crisp morning but the sun is beating down, very slight breeze if at all and at Patricia Lake (that well known film star) we are able to obtain some lovely pictures of mountains with pitch perfect reflections.  I know that the weather we are enjoying is unusual for the time of year but it is all part of a wonderful experience and random photos through the coach windows hardly do the scenery justice.

Our next stop is at Medicine Lake which has no obvious outflowing river. This caused much investigation and it was found that the water drained from the bottom of the lake through rock and re-appears many miles away at Athabasca Springs.  Many attempts were made initially to block the outflow when the cause was found but nothing was successful.  In recent weeks the residents of Ambridge would have welcomed such a self draining arrangement.

The sky is blue and we are enjoying glorious sunshine – this is at some elevation; at sea level I would probably be resorting to shorts.  This little town has mountains surrounding it, lovely clear air and the residents are friendly and welcoming.

We find a small pizza place for lunch and have a small salad and a smallish pizza which we consider is more than adequate and then wander back to the hotel as the warmth and fresh air has taken its toll and we need a sleep!  One matter on which I have not previously remarked is the apparent Canadian addiction to sport.  It seems a bar cannot exist without one, two or three screens showing sport and indeed often several screens showing different sports.  Even in the relatively upmarket bar in the hotel in Toronto this was evident, I am sure I hear people moving round to obtain a view of a particular event; thankfully some of the better restaurants have not adopted this as yet.

Come the evening we wander back along the road into town and whilst we do not see any elks, we do see something which could well be elk poo; so they must indeed visit the town – presumably much later in the evening.  Unless our fellow travellers were suffering the effect of alcohol consumption.

A brief mention of the hotel breakfast.  Outstandingly good.  My wife has fallen in love with blueberry pancakes on this tour and the scrambled eggs on one morning and green eggs and ham on the second (which I ate) were both excellent.  Sometimes scrambled eggs can sit around in a watery “grave” waiting to consumed.  Not here.  And the quality of everything is good.  by now it goes without saying that the service is friendly even if a little run off their feet with the entire tour appearing at almost the same time.

Our dining target this evening had been identified earlier in the day – Syrahs – a restaurant which we discover is celerating a first birthday with a special menu arrangement – $59 for two, although there are some minor exclusions of the signature dish of elk.  This is not a difficulty and we make selections from the menu – I open with an elk carpaccio and follow that with a very nice piece of salmon.  Jackie had had salmon bruschetta to start and an Albertan steak to follow.  We shared a cheeseboard – the local “mozarella” like cheese was tasteless but the harder “parmesan” cheese and the blue “stilton” were both excellent.  The overall meal was lovely and complimented by a decent beer, a good bottle of red wine and the usual customer friendly service which we have come to expect during our stay in Canada.

During dinner we are entertained by the activities of two small birds outside the window.  They have obviously discovered that the bugs smeared on the front of cars are very tasty and being dead are not difficult to catch.  The two of them seem to attack the front grill (one can hardly refer to radiator any longer) or spoilers and one tends to knock the dead bug down for the other to eat.  At one stage one of them seems to disappear for a period and it seems likely that he/she was on the inside with the other one still hopping around at ground level.  Then another car would arrive and they would switch their attention to the new arrival.

We wander back through this delightful town, still warm and free of elks.  We take in once again the surrounding mountains and note from the rusty four by fours as they drive past that it is clearly the case that the winter can be very difficult.  But what a wonderful place to be able to visit and enjoy whilst be looked after so very well.

Good night.

Westward to Jasper

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Around Winnipeg the scenery changes and becomes very flat and is major grain and potato producing countryside; the line is pretty straight compared with earlier and we no longer seem to always have the lineside telegraph poles – they come and go.

Come morning the scenery has changed again, pleasantly undulating and a mixture of small lakes, forestry, farming and even some nodding donkeys as we are in oil country apparently.  There are even some curves to try and get some pictures of the locomotives at the head of our consist.

Again the photos can be found here.

The meal arrangements change again with a “continental” breakfast followed by “brunch” at an early lunchtime.  Early because we are due to arrive in Jasper before three normal sittings could be achieved.  However we are still running around five hours late and apparently management has now become aware that we are late.

So we watch the world going by and reach Edmonton about the time we should have been in Jasper having consumed a very nice lobster ravioli for my brunch.  At Edmonton an extra observation car is cut in about half way along the train and now we are due to start climbing through the run to Jasper.  Anyway in the dining car over lunch we are allocated to the second sitting for dinner (at 7pm) if we are running late and have not reached Jasper.  It seems likely however that we will reach our destination about 18:00.

Actually in general terms the food on the train has been pretty good.  The menu has contained a couple of vegetable soups – in four meals why repeat anything? – a good chicken soup and some excellent huge veal chops at dinner.  Good generally well prepared food has been a welcome comfort in the light of the other aspects of the operation.

The same cannot be said of the choice of wines.  All Canadian, three white, three red.  I am advised by my resident advisor that only one of the reds is consumable – a pity as evidence in Toronto was that local wines are not that bad.  Perhaps whoever chooses for VIA Rail has a different set of taste buds.  A reasonable selection of local beers for me; but no cider and the local ice wine is on the menu but not in stock.
Disappointment – no cheeses provided in the dessert selection; the chocolate cake and others are highly recommended but the diabetic is offered a fruit cup which eventually and reluctantly is admitted not to be entirely fresh but to contain an element of canned and therefore contained in syrup fruits.  This seems to be mixed as certainly a couple of the fruit cups were not drowned in syrup.  It seems the diabetes problem does not exist in Canada.

As we run in towards Jasper the Canadian Rockies initially appear as snow capped distant hills but develop steadily as we close on our destination, still nearly 6 hours late.  On the outskirts we traverse a tunnel and as we emerge there are two black bears on the hillside above the train as if they were looking for a can opener!  We arrive and board a coach for a trip around the town and into our hotel.  We have wifi and communication with the rest of the world and we can stop counting how long the freight trains are as the ground is now stable under our feet.