Rockies and more ....

Like many people I have had the pleasure of meeting and helping with their ‘trip of a life time’ to Canada, this destination is one that I have been eager to tick off my bucket list for quite some time. So turning down an opportunity that was presented to me to experience what my clients rave about was not going to happen.

We set off as a group from Auckland using the convenient Air New Zealand direct service to Vancouver and connect on to Calgary the same day. I have flown long haul many times but this particular trip knocked me around, the likely culprit being I do not sleep when wedged in the middle of the cabin so I suggest you request seats on an aisle as soon as you confirm bookings and if you need to pay a surcharge it might be a good investment. 

We had to collect our bags on arrival into Vancouver and check in for our connecting flight to Calgary. It took one and half hours to get from our international arrival gate to our domestic gate but I would suggest you allow a three hour transit period between the two in case of delays. The arrival process into Vancouver and switch to domestic is very easy, well sign posted and efficient.

On arrival into Calgary it was grey, wet, dark and very cold but having a pre-arranged transfer to meet us and take us to our hotel made a huge difference to my first impression and experience.

Our bed for tonight?  Hotel Fairmont!  This is a very nice, grand old building that was once a hotel used by the railway.  The rooms are spacious with old world charm and heritage. Excellent staff, service and beautiful food – compliments the prestigious ‘Rocky Mountaineer’ nicely. I will touch on the Rocky Mountaineer later but when staying at this hotel and travelling ‘Gold Leaf’ Rocky Mountaineer then you will stay in a Junior Suite and have access to their exclusive‘Gold Club’ on the top floor.

The next day we departed Calgary very early and it had begun to snow lightly. We have a one and half hour drive to Banff but take our time and have a short look around Calgary (in the coach ) and then meander over to Banff.  Because of the poor weather and very low cloud cover, the concern (if we had one) was that we would not see one of the highlights – ‘The Canadian Rockies .  It was 24 April and Alberta was experiencing an unseasonably long winter which was about to play havoc on our sightseeing plans. We had intended on taking a scenic helicopter flight from Kananaskis but about 30 minutes from Calgary it had to be cancelled due to poor weather and visibility. Before arriving into Banff we take a closer look at some notable sites of the area Bow Falls and Surprise Corner. If doing a self-drive itinerary be sure to call into these sites with your camera. The resort town of Banff is in the province of Alberta, within the Banff National Park. The peaks of Mt Rundle and Mt Cascade, which are part of the Canadian Rockies, dominate the skyline. The town and main shopping street of Banff Ave is littered with shops, cafes and restaurants. The Banff National Park is teaming with wildlife, especially elk and bears.

This place really is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts seeking adventure. There are endless trails to explore, mountains to climb, fishing and hunting and a list of activities to entertain a variety of interests. 

If you are into skiing and boarding there are three good ski resorts close by: Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine. If you are wanting a really challenging day out then I suggest ‘Kicking Horse’ located just outside the National Park.

To finish a big day off we headed to the Banff Gondola which I highly recommend, even when the visibility is poor. The Banff Gondola is situated at the foot of Sulphur Mountain, only five minutes from  the village of Banff. We headed up the Gondola with some hesitation given the weather but with the snow falling it added to the experience. Although we could not see the view there is a very good display about the region, a fully licensed restaurant that caters for breakfast, lunch and dinner and trails to explore. At 2281 metres above Banff it certainly is a wonderful location to see the vistas.

After a long day of sightseeing we are taken to our hotel, which was conveniently located next to the Gondola, ‘The Rimrock Resort Hotel’. Although not in central Banff there is a free bus service that regularly runs into town and with the level of service and comfort you get from this resort you soon forget about the slight inconvenience of not being centrally located. The rooms were spacious, service was very good and the hotel had a very nice feel and ambience about it that made you feel welcome and comfortable.

It had been snowing all night so the next day we wake up to a winter wonderland, this was a sight I had only dreamt about and the environment looked like a post card. Although this was a surprise it was not unheard of at this time of year, Alberta had experienced a very good and long ski season. However this did curtail our plans as tours had been cancelled, tracks for mountain biking and walking were closed due to snow and there had also been a bear sighting.

Photo of Mount Rundle

The following day we depart Banff for a 90 minute drive to Lake Louise and what a spectacular scenic drive. We made a number of stops along the way which includedthe largest lake in the Banff National Park, ‘Lake Minnewanka’ which is also a great place to see the ‘Northern Lights’, then on to Two Jacks Lakes which are very close by. We continue on to Lake Louise which is the most famous glacial lake in the Canadian Rockies. The lake is 5680 feet above sea level and you will find the world famous ‘Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’ on the lake front.

The entire area was covered in snow and the lake was frozen over which was quite a sight. During the summer months the lake is a striking turquoise colour caused by the melting glacier silt.

Photo of Lake Louise

The Fairmont Chateau is not a particularly cheap place to stay due to its heritage, name and history but for a good, cheaper alternative I suggest the Deer Lodge which although is not on the lake front it is only 400 meters away.

After exploring the area and enjoying the sights it was time to move on to our next destination and accommodation for the night ‘Emerald Lake’, located 90 minutes from Lake Louise. It is located on a private island on Emerald Lake, in the spectacular Yoho National Park. It was simply a small, lake front resort, on its own, in the middle of nowhere – it was fantastic and such a beautiful setting, especially with the lake frozen over. Trying to peel my eyes off the scenery was the biggest challenge of the day. The mountains surrounding the lake are quite incredible; you feel really immersed by their size and feel as though you can touch them. The resort itself had tired rooms that needed attention other than that the resort was very tidy. A little open fire place in your room with wood supplied was a really nice touch, they let off a lot of heat too. The service and food were very good and the units had no TV’s which was fantastic. With open pit fires, hot pool, and stunning scenery it is an ideal place to stay for a night or two.

Photo of Emerald Lake

The property has a path running through the middle that takes you to reception, this is upstairs so those with mobility restrictions may need to take careful consideration.

We had an early start the next morning as we head back to Lake Louise to join the famous ‘Rocky Mountaineer’. I had mixed feelings at this point, knowing I was leaving this stunning place and was unlikely to be here again but yet was about to join a highlight of the itinerary.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers a number of different itineraries - we were joining in Lake Louise and heading through to Vancouver over a two day, one night period. The Rocky is unique in that you do not sleep on the train, you spend one night in Kamloops in a hotel. After collecting our tickets we check in at the Lake Louise Railway Station which also has a restaurant and looks fantastic. We are greeted very warmly by the staff and escorted onto the train, straight upstairs where the best viewing is to be experienced in ‘Gold Leaf’. The group is excited and eager to experience such an iconic train trip. We are soon addressed by the crew and made to feel very welcome and comfortable.

There are two types of carriages/level of service on the Rocky Mountaineer – Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf.

  Photo of Silver Leaf                                                                

Photo of Gold Leaf

The biggest differences of the two is that Gold Leaf is a two storey carriage with your seating upstairs so that you are overlooking the tree canopy ( where possible ) with the dining area down stairs and bigger viewing windows that include most of the ceiling (the Dome) so that you can look directly above you. The seats are more comfortable and have plenty of leg room although there is nowhere to store small bags. If travelling Gold Leaf you can request seats and I would suggest asking not to be seated directly behind the stair well or kitchen as the leg room is considerably less and a small table is protruding out that is not removable.

Welcome aboard the Rocky Mountaineer

The staff are quite incredible, very engaging, professional, fun and knowledgeable and when accompanied by beautiful scenery you soon realise why it is such an iconic rail journey.

There is a considerable difference in price between Gold and Silver Leaf and you can mix and match accommodation standards throughout your itinerary to suit your requirements and budget. If you choose to travel Silver Leaf you will not be disappointed, you will still be experiencing a wonderful journey in comfort and style. Silver Leaf carriages are a single level and slightly smaller windows so they do not have the same dome effect above. Meals are served at your seat rather than in a dining car.

I was quite surprised by the diversity of the landscape throughout the journey, over the two day journey we encountered the mighty Rockies that were quite ‘dramatic’, desert landscape very similar to Central Otago, low lands with green rolling hills and then the rain forests so although the name is ‘Rocky Mountaineer’ it would be fair to say that the name is based on the most spectacular scenery of the trip. After a very long first day on the train some passengers were wondering if a second day was required but after a good sleep at Kamloops we were all excited to be back on board the following morning to experience the sights onto Vancouver.

As we eventually roll into Vancouver at the end of the second day (the Rocky often gets held up by freight trains) we are ready to hit a solid piece of ground that is not moving and we make our way to the Four Season Hotel for our one night in Vancouver.

Because of our short stay we did not get to see much and from what I saw I would recommend at least three nights, two full days to explore this city – it has a lot to offer in the city and the surrounding areas and such a beautiful setting with snow-capped mountains close by.

The Four Seasons Hotel was what you would expect from a five star hotel, very nice, excellent service, and great location. I suggest trying to stay in the Robson Street area which is an ideal location for shopping, access to the water front and Stanley Park by foot.

Photo of Vancouver

We make the most of the next morning because we are heading to Whistler at 2pm so off for a walk to the waterfront where the cruise terminal is located and along the waterfront to Cole Harbour and Stanley Park. This is great place to hire a bike for an hour to explore the park and will only cost $14.00NZD from Spokes Bicycle Rentals. The areas of interest in the city are the main shopping street of ’Robson Street’, Granville Island where you will find markets, Yaletown for an older local area with a variety of shops and restaurants, Chinatown and Gastown which is Vancouvers oldest downtown neighbourhood with cobbled streets and many shops and restaurants. Try and stay away from East Hastings Street three blocks from Gastown as this is not a safe area. The surrounding mountains and wilderness offer a lot for locals and tourists to explore and experience, the Canadians know how to enjoy their stunning environment so suggest you make the most of a really good thing.

After our brief visit to Vancouver we start our two hour drive to Whistler in misty, wet conditions that were not conducive to sightseeing on the way. Whistler is located in the stunning Coast Mountains and is Canada’s premier year-round destination. Spectacular scenery with a multitude of activities and facilities to help support a world class resort, it really is worth a visit.

If you are wanting to go up the mountains of Black Coomb and Whistler without having to come down without causing injury, try the Peak 2 Peak Gondola Experience. The Gondola links Black Coomb and Whistler, the two mountains that make up part of their skiing, biking and hiking paradise.

Whistler

Our accommodation for the night is the Delta Whistler Village Suites which I highly recommend. The sizes of the apartments varied but they were very well appointed with full kitchens and laundry facilities. The property had a wide range of facilities that you would expect from a world class resort and an ideal spot to park up for a weeks skiing or biking. With spas and heated pools this is a great place to soak the sore limbs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that day to day costs were not very expensive especially for such an iconic resort. Prices for food, drink and coffee were very comparable and sometimes cheaper than New Zealand.

The next morning the cloud begins to lift and the sun is trying hard to put some warmth into the day which gives us the opportunity to view the beautiful scenery between Whistler and Vancouver that we were unable to see the previous day due to poor weather.  And what a sight we were treated to as we headed towards Vancouver Airport for our flight home. The coastline is littered with snow peaked mountains, rain forests and sheltered bays – just the right way to end a scenic journey of seven days and to leave a lasting impression on such a beautiful country.