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Rocky Mountaineer

Take one of best train trips in world

By CARY ORDWAY

The folks at the Rocky Mountaineer have come a long way since we took our first trip on the railroad back in 1991. While they were the premiere Canadian rail experience even back then, they now offer several more routes including a 17-day excursion coast-to-coast. And Rocky Mountaineer even has been awarded the "World's Leading Travel Experience by Train" at the World Travel Awards in London.

In our opinion, the original route -- a ride between Calgary and Vancouver - is why the company has grown and prospered. If there is a more spectacular setting for a train ride anywhere in North America we haven't yet found it or heard about it. The scenic backdrop for this two-day trip is the spectacular Canadian Rockies.

Prior to 1988, Canada's VIA Rail offered service along this route - connecting Vancouver, BC and Calgary, Alberta - but some of the most scenic segments were traveled in darkness. In 1988, VIA Rail began running a special Canadian Rockies by Daylight service and, after two successful seasons, the BC government offered the private sector a chance to operate it.

The winning proposal was from Great Canadian Railtour Company Ltd., which inaugurated its service in May 1990.

A typical two-day trip on the Rocky Mountaineer will transport passengers about 600 miles, showing them vast remote stretches of Canadian wilderness where elk and moose play in the shadows of the jagged Rocky Mountains. The train travels at a leisurely but steady pace, stopping along the way at picturesque stations in Banff and Field and slowing down for unusually high trestles. Miles of tunnel are also included along with real-life scenery reminiscent of the fake backdrops you find at Disneyland.

Along the way, there is plenty of time for your rail car attendant to brief you on all the geological and historic sights visible from the rails. Elaborate lunches are brought right to your spacious and comfortable seat, with snacks and drinks available for the asking. Service on this train is so good, in fact, that it rates a close second behind the scenery.

With plenty of leg room and space to store belongings, passengers tend to lean back and just soak up the scenery. Surprisingly, few people spend their time reading - they have their books all right, but seem to be afraid to take their eyes off the scenery outside. It seems that around every corner there was some new picture-postcard view.

Passengers also tend to be social on this train. With plenty of time to chat and no time pressures, travelers seem to relax and converse with fellow passengers much more freely than on a quick airplane ride. Train travel is just different - the pace is something we products of the late 20th century are simply not used to.

Heading out of Calgary, the train passes through an agricultural and grazing area until it begins to approach the eastern slope of the Rockies. It's here, just 90 minutes out of Calgary, that you enter Banff National Park, a tourist mecca that attracts 2.5 million visitors each year. Stopping at the Banff station, you then head westward with mountain ranges visible in all directions and wildlife such as elk, mule deer or moose visible close to the tracks.

Traveling past such photo opportunities as Mount Rundle and Castle Mountain - both over 9000 feet - the train skirts Lake Louise and the Mount Victoria Glacier, elevation 11,365 feet. At Stephen, the train passes the Continental Divide, and just a few miles further is the "Spiral Tunnels," a unique design that allows the train to change elevation at a low grade.

About 76 miles past the tunnels the train comes to Stoney Point Bridge, one of the world's most important bridges when it was constructed in the 1890s. The bridge was rebuilt in 1929 and now spans 484 feet, towering 325 feet above the creek bed.

The five-mile-long Connaught Tunnel comes next. Until 1988 this was the longest tunnel in North America.

Traveling westward, the train passes Craigellachie where, in 1885 the last spike was driven to connect the ocean-to-ocean tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Further up the road is Sicamous and Shuswap Lake, houseboat capital of the world. Between Sicamous and Kamloops, you see the hoodoos, strange rock and clay formations formed after the end of the last ice age.

From Kamloops, the train travels along the walls of the narrow Fraser and Thompson river canyons. The train crosses the Thompson River seven times, with the most spectacular crossing at Cisco Bridges. Passengers can view white-water rafters battling the Jaws of Death Gorge.

The train continues along the Fraser River Valley into Vancouver, passing along the way such attractions as Hell's Gate, the narrowest part of the Fraser River. Over 200,000 gallons of water surge each minute through this 37-foot-wide gorge. The Mountaineer also goes through Hope, a city protected on three sides by mountain peaks and one of B.C.'s most historic locations.

For more information and to get route times, destinations, and rates, call 877-460-3200, or visit www.rockymountaineer.com.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Wine Country, Northwest trains, Northwest history and western theme towns.

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