To Jasper by Train

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Norway in a Nutshell, in a Nutshell

I was just looking at my photos from the fjord cruise I did in Norway in June, trying to pick the best ones for the photo book I’m finally getting around to make.  And it made me think back on the very long and expensive day we spent on the fjords.  When reading this, keep in mind that I live in coastal British Columbia.  One of the most spectacular stretches of highway (the Sea to Sky) is within 20 minutes of my house, and the Indian Arm which is pretty much like a fjord is also close within reach, as long as you’re pals with someone who has a boat.

Rick Steves raves about Norway in a Nutshell (NIN…no, not Nine Inch Nails, who I am coincidentally going to see tonight) in his Scandinavia book, giving it the coveted 3 triangles.  NIN is basically a string of public transit tickets that the tourism Norway people have put together in one easy to purchase package.  It will set you back about $250 pp (CAD) and be prepared, because if you do it in one shot like we did, it’s a very long day.  I looked around, because I thought I was going to get ripped off on their flashy tourism website, but after checking things out thoroughly I was satisfied that it wasn’t a racket.

This post isn’t intended to persuade, or dissuade anyone from going on the NIN tour.  I’m extremely glad we did.  Because it was so hyped up in the guide books I had high expectations, and was a bit disappointed.  We had really crappy weather the day we were out, and our fjord boat was fully packed with pushy loud asian tourists.  They were more interested in feeding the seagulls than enjoying the peaceful beautiful surroundings, so that was annoying.  What I’m saying is manage your expectations.  If you do decide to book NIN as part of your trip to Norway here are some tips to make the day more enjoyable.

The Sognefjord (from Flam to Gudvangen).
The Sognefjord (from Flam to Gudvangen).

Book ahead!  We were there in mid June and bought our tickets in late March.  If you have a set day you need to make the trek to fit in with the rest of your travel plans, definitely book it in advance.  You can pick up your tickets the day before you travel in the central station in Oslo.  Don’t wait until the day of, as the ticket window opens after your first train leaves Oslo.  The same is probably true if you make the journey in reverse, starting in Bergen.  It’s possible to stay overnight along the way in one of the very small towns.  Not sure I’d recommend it.  If you get bad weather (which is possible any time of year due to the geography of the area) you’re going to be stuck in a crappy hotel or hostel with nothing to do.  Mydral, Flam, Gudvangen and Voss have very little in the way of amenities.  If you’re prepared to hike, paddle, cycle or whatever in the rain, then stay in Flam, it seems to be the most set up for tourists.

Flamsbanna (waiting in Mydral).
Flamsbanna (waiting in Mydral).

Pack a lunch!  We did the journey from Oslo to Bergen. It’s a 12 hour day.  Because the towns you go through have so little in terms of amenities, and you’re essentially spending your day on public transit, there’s not much to offer food wise along the NIN route.  Eat a big breakfast and bring a ton of snacks with you.  You can get stuff on the train from Oslo to Mydral, but it’s expensive crappy train food.  Your best bet for food is in Flam, there’s a Co-Op grocery store there and a couple small restaurants.  We packed along some simple cheese and cucumber sandwiches, tomatoes, yogurts, croissants, bananas, apples and a bag of chips and we pretty much burned through that by the time we hit Flam.  With our arrival in Bergen not scheduled until 8pm, we also needed dinner, so we re-stocked at Co-Op.  If you’re not a picky eater, and you don’t mind over priced food, then you’ll do fine with a few light snacks to see you through.

Flam
Flam

Dress in layers!  It was a pretty warm morning when we left Oslo, but after passing through 3 or 4 different climate zones, we arrived in Mydral, which is very high up in the mountains. There was snow on the ground in June!  You wait here for about 45 min. for your train to Flam, and not everyone can fit inside the tiny station, so you’ll want something warm in case you get stuck outside.  Mittens and a toque are a must on NIN!  The fjord boat was also very chilly.  Even though it was a little rainy, we wanted to be outside to get better pictures.  Inside was also packed with families and people who were unprepared for the conditions and I feel like that probably really spoiled their time.  And again in Voss, we waited outside, for an hour, as there was nowhere to sit in the station.

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Pack light!  You’re luggage will be with you the whole day.  There is no porter service so a rolling suitcase will be a huge hindrance on this journey.  We always backpack when we travel, for numerous reasons, and this was one instance we were really glad to be able to just run around with our lives on our backs.

Be patient!  If your tour is crowded like ours was, remember that there’s a seat for everyone, they don’t oversell this tour.  The only exception we found particularly challenging was the train from Myrdal to Flam. There are a lot of people who take the scenic train (Flamsbanna) roundtrip from Flam, so the train doesn’t empty when it arrives. If you don’t get on it, you won’t make it to Bergen that night.  So don’t mess around in Flam, be ready to get on, and try to get a window seat, because this part is spectacular.  There are no reservations on this part!  Also, when you get off the fjord boat in Gudvangen there are busses (plural) waiting to take you to Voss.  People were pushing and shoving, because they thought there was only one bus, which isn’t the case.  The Voss-Bergen train is long and kind of boring, so find somewhere on that one to rest.  You’ll want to go out when you get to Bergen, it’s fun!

Fjord boat arriving in Gudvangen.
Fjord boat arriving in Gudvangen.

That’s pretty much my version of Norway in a Nutshell, in a Nutshell.  It’s a great tour, the scenery is amazing, and it’s a must do if you’re in Norway.  Unfortunately due to the cost and overall experience I had in Norway, it’s not on my list for a repeat visit.  But, I’m really glad I went!  You don’t have to want to go back to everywhere you travel!