About a year ago I ended up having one too many cocktails at an event and got a little aggressive with the silent auction. The result was my ‘winning’ a train trip for two on Via Rail through the Canadian Rockies to Jasper and a couple of nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. I love a mini holiday and thought this would be really fun since we love train travel in Europe (cue aggressive bidding). When I called with excitement to tell the husband he was a little caught off guard, but I assured him it would be fun, and that I would pay for it as the piece de resistance.
Before I left, I had to tell people about a thousand times that no, I was not taking the Rocky Mountaineer to Jasper; that I was in fact taking Via Rail and that shockingly yes, there are actually two trains that you can take. It also was surprising to people that we would be sleeping on the train, and in bunk beds no less! As a sidebar, although the Rocky Mountaineer has superb food and wine I’m sure, it travels on the same tracks as Via and you have to spend the night at a hotel in Kamloops so it makes the journey a lot longer. It’s also about 3 times the price of our round trip tickets for a one way trip.
I love train travel. It’s romantic, it’s scenic and gives you an opportunity to meet other travelers along the way. Yes, I am the rare specimen under the age of 50 who actually would prefer to talk to strangers than look at my phone. It’s also, let’s face it, a very slow way to get anywhere in North America. But when you factor in the travel time as an active part of your vacation the hours just fly by. I read a whole book en route!!!
We left Vancouver at 8:30pm Friday night, just in time for wine and snacks in our cabin, and arrived in Japser at 4pm the next day. The reverse was a 3pm departure and a 9:30am arrival home. The times are great because you get daylight pretty much any time of year for the most spectacular section between Jasper, AB and Valemont, BC. The crowd was a good mix of tourists (couples and families) and people who were commuting across country for various reasons. I chatted with a nice girl who was going all the way to Toronto. She would spend 4 nights on board and would be arriving in Toronto around the same time we’d be leaving Jasper to come home after a 3 day vacation.
Our cabin was tight, but cozy and worked well for the two of us and our backpacks. Don’t bring a rolling suitcase on the train, trust me, you will regret that choice. We started out with two comfortable reading chairs that were converted by our very friendly porter to bunks at night. Inside was also a sink and shelf area and a tiny little toilet room. Each car has a shared shower that I wasn’t brave enough to use.
We rolled out right on schedule and after getting settled, we wandered down to the bar car where we enjoyed very reasonably priced drinks. It was slow going heading out of Vancouver because we got hung up waiting for the bridge to drop so we could cross the Fraser in New West, but it was neat to see different areas of the same places you drive through from the train. By the time they kicked us out of the bar car at midnight we were just leaving the sleepy town of Mission.
We snuggled in for the night and woke up east of Kamloops the next morning. I can’t say it was the best sleep of my life, but I’ve certainly had worse. Ear plugs are essential and just plan that you’ll wake up a bunch of times and roll over and hopefully go right back to sleep. However, anyone who tells you that the train will rock you to sleep like a wee little baby is lying. There’s a fair amount of screeching and lurching happening. And if you’re lucky enough to snag the top bunk there’s a handy net to ensure you don’t roll off in the night!
We were served breakfast and lunch on the way to Jasper, and dinner and breakfast on the return. I did have higher hopes for the food, thinking it would be similar to White Spot quality, but it was more like the cafeteria at Ikea minus the meatballs and Daim bar cake. You get to order off a menu (meat, fish or veg options) and there are fancy white tablecloths and ‘china’, which I think was actually Corelle. Although it’s not the best meal you’ll have in your life, think of it as a novelty. You get to eat a three course meal while watching the world go by. And who doesn’t want apple crumble with lunch!
Another thing to be aware of when traveling by train is that passenger rail, because it’s going the way of the dodo bird, gets put on hold anytime a freight train needs to access the tracks. In quite a few of the mountain passes the tracks are one way, so you end up waiting…a lot in our case. At one point the train was stopped for over an hour and we watched about 6 freight trains go by. The good news is that despite delays we were only an hour late arriving in Jasper!
Now, about the scenery, which is probably the number one reason to take the train to Jasper. The Rocky Mountains are simply stunning. I’ve lived in BC for 12 years and having never been east of Kelowna being able to see a large part of our province from the domed panorama car was really exciting. Grab your seat early and hang onto it, because trust me, everyone wants those spots once the train starts making its way towards Mt. Robson. You still get a good view from your cabin window, but the dome car is fantastic!
I’d heard of Mt. Robson, but had never paid much attention to it or really seen any photos. But wow, what a beaut! It’s considered the most prominent mountain in the Rockies and is used by climbers training for Everest. Because of its elevation at 3,954m it creates its own weather system at the top, which results in either the top, the bottom, or both being socked in most of the year. The entire mountain is usually only visible from the train about 14 days a year so we were thrilled we got an unobstructed view (thanks full moon). It was fun to sit and listen to all the oooohhhh’s and aaahhhhhh’s from the other people as they snapped away or essentially viewed the whole thing through their iPads. And sorry, but I have to rant about how annoying it is when people use these massive devices to take photos…lots of photos…blocking other people’s view…instead of just enjoying what’s around. I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get a good shot through the smudged windows or iPad’s and decided to just sit and enjoy.
Once in Jasper we spent the next three days at the Jasper Park Lodge, wandering around the lake and enjoying our quaint cabin, an original part of the property from the 1930’s, which felt like a summer camp for grownups. It’s amazing how breathing the fresh mountain air just wipes you out.
Jasper is a cute town with a couple streets of restaurants, bars and shops selling tourise junk. We did the Maligne Caynon ice walk (go with a guide), and a dog sledding trip booked through Sun Dog Tours. Dog sledding was a fun thing to do once, but it’s not something I need to do again. Sort of like hot air ballooning. It’s expensive, really cool, and provides great photo ops! But after 3 days of being a tourist, sipping martinis in the lodge and watching herds of elk wander by we were ready to head back home.
The train was a bit late coming in from Edmonton, so we asked the hotel to hold our bags while we walked into town. They assured us they would bring them to the station 20 minutes prior to departure along with another couple who was getting on the train. Needless to say we had some issues with the bags and thought we might have to either leave without them, or miss the train (me=stressed). But thankfully train travel is different than air travel. Our friendly porter from the trip out saw me looking very distraught and after I explained the situation he put his hand on my shoulder and said, with his thick Quebecois accent, “don’t worry, it’s the train, we wait for you”. So there you have it, Via Rail really is a more human way to travel.
Take a train trip at least once in your life! And support long distance commuter rail. It’s an important institution to maintain for future generations.