Rocky serenade

Mountain High

It stood gleaming blue and gold with stylised white stripes at Whistler station in British Colombia, Canada. We felt a sense of immense satisfaction knowing that we were guests on one of the most legendary trains in the world — the Rocky Mountaineer.

The welcome aboard was a red carpet and roses affair, spiked with the cheery wit of chirpy hostesses. We smiled back at passengers as we walked down the isle of a glass-domed compartment to claim our seats. Yes, we had established a sense of camaraderie that comes with knowing that we were going to share a very special journey with total strangers.

With a great-to-have-you aboard message from our cabin attendants and a ceremonial toot, the Rocky Mountaineer chugged off on its epic three-and-a-half-hour (120 km) sea to sky odyssey. This run, of course, was the sky to sea route since we would be travelling from sky-high mountains down to the sea that washed the shores of Vancouver, our final destination.

As the resort town of Whistler swept past our window, we were swamped by a flood of memories — the exhilaration of zip lining over silvery mountain streams and across a rainforest canopy, mountain biking down rugged trails, soaring across valleys in a glass bottom cable car that was attached to the world’s longest suspension cable, breaking local bread and dipping into aboriginal culture with new found friends at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, fine dining in restaurants with spectacular views and a black bear feeding on a green traffic island.

“Champagne?” We were jolted out of our musings as a cabin attendant leaned across with a tray of bubbly. We accepted a flute and savoured the sensation of it sparkling on our taste buds even as the scenery unravelling outside our window lit up our senses.

The Rocky Mountaineer was well into its journey by now, ploughing through wild terrain — craggy cliffs baring their teeth at a blue sky; slopes draped in thick pine forests; the blue glacier-fed Alpha Lake, which fielded the reflection of snowy peaks in its ripple-free surface.

There were great photo opportunities around every twist and turn in the track and they were too pure and crisp to risk sacrificing with window glass distortions. So we hurried down the train to join other camera-toting passengers in the window-free observation car to capture the landscape as it un-spooled outside.

Shutters tripped in chorus as the train negotiated steep bends and trundled over bridges that straddled deep ravines. Since the journey was the destination and there was no urgency to reach the final port of call, the train would slow down at strategic points — be it the foaming Brandywine Falls, a 195 ft cascade or an angry Cheakamus River venting its frustration on rocks and outcrops that impeded its impatient journey towards the sea.

At times, the train would pose self-consciously for portrait shots, its sleek body stretched over tracks that threaded folds of mountains that surged almost vertically over canyons, carved by surging glacier-fed rivers. The train tooted at an average speed of around 40-50 km; the pace was unhurried, allowing the heady fragrance of wild flowers to waft in from time to time.

We got back to our seats in time for a proper English high tea service of fresh baked cookies, chocolate-dipped strawberries, profiteroles, watercress sandwiches and scones with jam and clotted cream. Our seat-back tables were elegantly draped with white napery and cutlery and the service enabled us to sip tea even as we enjoyed ringside views of the Canadian wilderness.

By then we had come to the cusp of the sky and sea journey and the Pacific Ocean soon started to fill the frame of our picture windows. We steamed past the picturesque little mountain village of Squamish which, in the native tongue, means ‘birthplace of the wind’.

This is because the heavier cold air above the glaciers across the bay drops down to the warmer waters of the sea and then rises in a rush, sweeping across the mountain slopes like a fresh breath. Aptly enough, this resort of mysterious beauty was one of the locales where the Twilight films were shot.

The brooding mood in these parts spawned eerie legends too. The witch of Kaukale, with a pointed hat and flying robe, was swept off her broom when riding the winds and slammed into a rocky cliff, leaving her impression (the result of erosion) against the black rock. Native fable has it that when kids are particularly naughty, the witch takes to the sky once more to check out if there is enough evil around to brew a spell.

Indeed, we were regaled with stories, legends and jokes right through the journey. An attendant drew our attention to a glacier-polished granite monolith (the second largest in the world) called the Stawamus Chief clawing at the sky and the Britannia Mines, which in the mid 1930s, were the largest copper mines in the British Empire (a total of 200 km of tunnels burrow into the surrounding hills). The mines have been closed permanently and now house the Museum of Mining.

As the track descended towards the ocean, we sailed past a few caravan and tented camp resorts and charming little villages where children, who probably see the train go by their garden homes twice every day, smiled and waved at us. Kayakers and wind surfers dotted the waters of Porteau Cove with brilliant colours as a magnificent bald eagle rode the thermals overhead.

Soon the steel and glass skyline of Vancouver defined the horizon. First impressions, however, were deceptive for nature’s paintbrush sweeps right through the capital city of British Colombia — down 35 km of waterfront walkways; at Stanley Park which contains a thriving temperate rain forest; at Grouse Mountain (accessible by cable car) where grizzly bears roam.

The Rocky Mountaineer finally pulled into Vancouver station and as we stepped out of our coach, we realised that even as one amazing journey had come to an end, we were about to embark on another unforgettable one.

Travel tips
* The Rocky Mountaineer offers over 45 train vacation packages ranging from 25 days to day trips; the most popular being the overnight trip between Vancouver and Jasper; the two nights journey between Vancouver and Banff and the three-and-a-half-hours run between Vancouver and Whistler, and vice versa.

* The luxurious train travels by daylight and passengers spend the night in boutique hotels en route. It is one of the finest ways to experience the Canadian Rockies as well as the stunning Banff and Jasper National Parks (UNESCO World Heritage Sites) in the province of Alberta.

* The train operates from April to October and every season has its advantages. June is springtime in the Rockies; July and August are delightfully warm while April, May and October offer savings.

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