Iconic rail travel in Canada

by Anthony Lambert on 23 January 2014, 11:01AM

Over one million guests have rediscovered the pleasures of train travel at its best since Rocky Mountaineer began its now world-famous excursion trains through the Canadian Rockies in 1990. The blue, white and gold trains with bi-level cars, viewing domes, open verandas and gourmet cuisine have been universally praised for the quality of the experience they offer, helped enormously by the enthusiastic and friendly staff.


Its latest route, Coastal Package inaugurated in August 2013, opens up a very different landscape, linking the home of Microsoft and Amazon in Seattle with British Columbia’s capital city, Vancouver. Cleverly offering cruise packages from both ends of the journey, the Coastal Passage route begins at the newly restored King Street station, and the palatial chandelier-lit hall and clock-tower based on the campanile of San Marco in Venice seem wholly appropriate for the stylish journey ahead. With its compass-rose floor in marble and decorative plasterwork, the hall feels opulent enough to be the lobby of a five-star hotel.


Leaving King Street at 4pm, the Rocky Mountaineer dives into a long tunnel and emerges to run parallel with Puget Sound, with the Space Needle in view, as it sedately picks its way along the waterfront corridor through the suburbs. The train may pass a trolley car on parallel tracks taking people to Pier 70 for the 40 shops and restaurants inside America’s largest restored wooden building, once a warehouse. Moving away from the coast, Chittendon Locks are part of the waterway connecting the sea passages with Lake Washington, but the train soon returns to the sea and crosses the Salmon Bay inlet to pass a vast marina.


The Gold and Silver Leaf dome cars with armchair seats offers panoramic views over the water and inland towards the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. Whichever level of accommodation, the hosts point out sights of interest and seem to have a fund of entertaining stories about the route to enrich the journey.


Edmonds is known as ‘the gem of Puget Sound’, and the station is close to the dock for ferries to Kingston. As the train approaches Everett and its inland port, the railway leaves the Sound and passes close to the Boeing aircraft factory. After a curious loop turning the line south, the train crosses the Snohomish River by a swing bridge before returning to the water’s edge.


It may be time for dinner as you watch the sun gradually set over the confusion of islands, bays, passages and straits that fills the inlet from the Pacific. This area is renowned for its spectacular sunsets and provides the perfect setting for watching the colours of the sky change minute by minute. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic setting in which to tuck into tiger prawns in a west coast bouillabaisse broth or wild British Columbia sockeye salmon, accompanied by some of British Columbia’s excellent wines.


You soon give up trying to identify the San Juan Islands or the Gulf Islands and just enjoy the expanse of sea and mountains as the train weaves along the shore beside tempting beaches and seaside homes to die for. Passing kayakers or fishermen wave at the train.


A section takes the train inland through the fields of the Skagit Valley and the town of Mount Vernon, famous for its tulip festival celebrating the millions of flowers grown in the surrounding area. The railway returns to the coast at Bellingham, the southern end of the Alaska Marine Highway System, which stretches more than 3,500 miles to Dutch Harbour and provides a lifeline to the coastal communities of America’s largest state.


There are traces of Bellingham’s past as a coal-mining and cannery centre as the train passes through the largest city between Seattle and Vancouver, and the waterfront is undergoing redevelopment – the industrial legacies giving way to yachts and desirable waterfront properties.


Across the border into British Columbia is the seaside resort of White Rock, famous for the 486-ton granite boulder splashed with the guano of shellfish-eating seabirds which gives the town its name and was used as a navigational marker by 19th-century sailors. Today its whiteness is more down to the parks department than avian droppings. The railway runs right beside the beach with bald eagles and herons wheeling overhead and, if you’re lucky, the odd harbour seal showing its face.


The Gulf Islands and the southern end of Vancouver Island fill the windows as the Rocky Mountaineer glides past the last red-painted barns and clapboard houses before the outskirts of Metropolitan Vancouver. At New Westminster there is the impressive crossing of the Fraser River by a swing bridge dating from 1904, with views along the river of the 1937 Pattullo Bridge for road traffic only and the most recent river crossing, the cable-stayed Skybridge opened in 1990 for SkyTrain services to downtown Vancouver.


The railway tracks repeatedly swop sides with the Trans-Canada Highway, a blacktop stretching for over 4,500 miles from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to St John’s in Newfoundland. The Greyhound bus station is passed just before arrival at the terminal Pacific Central station, an imposing Neo-classical Revival building of 1919, where your cases will be whisked off the train for the journey to the hotel of your choice.


On arrival in Vancouver, Rocky Mountaineer offers a variety of itineraries to suit individual tastes and preferences, but most want to spend some time in this stunningly beautiful city and explore its excellent restaurant scene before boarding the train east.

For more information about holidays to Canada including Rocky Mountaineer rail journeys, call 0845 543 6615.

Author bio: Anthony Lambert is an award-winning travel writer specialising in Canada & Rail Travel. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and regularly writes for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and Wanderlust Magazine.

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