Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Vancouver to Banff, Canada

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Rocky Mountaineer

As you may have noticed I’ve been absent from the blogosphere recently.  Once again, blogging and reading friend’s blogs must take a back seat.  Our days here in Alberta, Canada have been a marathon of fun, and tapping keys on the computer just hasn’t been happening 🙂

I’ve taken many pictures of the stunning Canadian Rockies for all to view and enjoy in my future posts.  For now let’s take a train ride!  

While perusing the exhibits at a railroad museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba last year (that story here), Steve saw a picture of a beautiful passenger train chugging through the stunning Canadian Rockies.  He couldn’t quit talking about it, and a year later here we were in the Rockies taking the dream trip that he had booked several months ago.

I wasn’t that excited about the trip at first, as I had ridden passenger trains to work hundreds of times during my working life.  But when he showed me the route and the promise of indulgence and relaxation, I was “all aboard” with the idea.  And it gave him a break from driving and cooking for a while!

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The Plane

We left Betsy parked at Bow RiversEdge RV Park (Steve’s review here) in Cochrane, Alberta, and boarded a plane to Vancouver where our getaway would begin.

West Jet Airplane

Steve’s first commercial flight in quite a while

We had visited Vancouver in 2012 – those blog posts are here and here.   With only a few daylight hours left when we arrived, we hustled to Harbour Center, where we used our voucher to see the city from 553′ up.  At the observation deck we had a 360° view, and although it was already twilight I managed to get some decent pictures.

Harbour Center

An outside elevator took us up to the Vancouver Lookout

Burrad Inlet

Burrad Inlet and a hazy view of West Vancouver

Historic Gaston

Historic Gastown

Canada Place

Built to resemble a ship sitting in Vancouver’s harbour, Canada Place has five iconic white “sails”

The Train

Rocky Mountaineer

He’d been waiting a long time for this moment!

The excursion we chose was a two day, one way First Passage to the West aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.  This route retraces the historic Canadian Pacific Railway’s route famous for uniting Canada by connecting it from east to west.  Boarding the train in Vancouver, we made an overnight stop at Kamloops and completed the trip at Banff on the 2nd day.  We chose the Gold Leaf Service so we could enjoy the luxury and comfort of a glass-domed coach with full-length windows. For the hotels we downgraded to the Silver Leaf Service, which saved us quite a bit of money and still provided very nice hotel rooms.

The awesome service began the moment we checked our luggage and hopped on the bus that took us to the train station.  This was our first experience having luggage transferred directly into our room at our next stops, and we liked it a lot!  They even gave us our room keys on the train so we didn’t have to check in at all.  Loved it!

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We were sent off in a festive mood

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Gold Leaf Service

Gold Leaf Service – this is the way to experience the Rockies!

The trip was superb, thanks to our coach hosts Pete and Shino.  They totally spoiled everyone, and also provided a colorful narration for the natural drama unfolding outside the windows.  In addition, we got a copy of the Rocky Mountaineer Mile Post, which featured a route guide listing points of interest along the way – referenced by mile posts.  It also explained information about the train, the history of the route, and the wildlife that we might see along the way (and we did see a bear, a couple of Bald Eagles and many Bighorn Sheep).

Pete and Shino

Pete and Shino were amazing

Downstairs in the dining car, Candace and Lynn made sure our tummies were always filled with yummy food and drinks.  Between meals we were plied with all the drinks and snacks we wanted.

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Fill it up, I’m not driving!

Here’s a sampling of our excellent main courses freshly prepared in the kitchen and served on real china:

Cheers to our new friends, Rocky and Marsha

Cheers to our new friends, Rocky and Marsha.  Rocky is a pilot, so he and Steve had lots to talk about

Day 1 – Vancouver to Kamloops

The first day of our journey took us from Vancouver to Kamloops in British Columbia.  The scenery unfolded from the lush green fields of the Fraser Valley through forests and winding river canyons surrounded by the peaks of the Coast and Cascade Mountains.  We also traveled through the desert-like environment of the British Columbia Interior.

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Pete or Shino would advise us in advance of any major photo opportunities, and the train would slow down a bit for us to get a good shot.  The downside was that taking pictures from within the glass dome showed reflections in many photos, and the common vestibule outside the car was always packed with people taking shots from there.

Hells Gate

The steep walls of the infamous Hell’s Gate Canyon on the Fraser River

Rainbow Canyon

Rainbow Canyon

Avalanche Alley

Rock sheds and slide detection fences protect the rails from unstable areas above – this area is called Avalanche Alley

Frazer River

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Our greeting party as we completed the first day

Once off the train we walked around Kamloops to burn some of the calories we had ingested during the day.

Golden Gate

Golden Gate – a monument honoring the vital role played by Chinese workers in building the railway

Kamploops

Concert at River Park in Kamloops

Kamloops Courthouse

A town in Alberta or British Columbia would be incomplete without lots of beautiful flowers!

Day 2 – Kamloops to Banff

On the second and final leg of our journey we continued east to our final destination at Banff.  We passed many more sparkling lakes and rivers, and an historic area.

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We passed through the spot where the last spike of the CP Rail Line was driven in 1885 at Craigellachie.  If not for the construction of the railway – built between 1881 and 1885 to connect Canada east to west – this dream-filled landscape would have remained hidden to the world.

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Kicking Horse River

We crossed Kicking Horse River seven times

The final section was an area full of railway history, tunnels, bridges and snow sheds. The most interesting part of our journey was when we entered the “Big Hill.”  In 1907, unique spiral tunnels were constructed that took 1,000 men 20 months to complete.  It allowed the climb to be reduced to a manageable 2.2 percent from the dangerous 4.5 percent that existed.  It’s described as a perfect maze, the railway doubling back upon itself twice, tunneling through mountains and crossing the river twice in order to cut down the grade. Pete narrated the entire 8-mile stretch as we traveled in the darkness.

Spiral Tunnel

The white dotted line is the route the train took through the Spiral Tunnel

Once out of the tunnels we had crossed the Continental Divide, the highest point on our journey.  This was the boundary between Banff National Park in Alberta and Yoho National Park in British Columbia.  We began seeing glaciers, high mountains and glacier-fed rivers.

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Bow River

Glacially fed Bow River

Rocky Mountaineer

A happy rocky mountaineer gives a thumbs-up to this trip!

We were among 625 passengers aboard 16 coaches.  On board we were surrounded with a team that ensured we had a wonderful journey.  There was a lot of interaction among passengers, especially during the lively commentary from Pete and Shino.  It was a luxury experience that definitely exceeded our expectations.

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Arriving in Banff, we extended our stay for two days so we could experience what the town is all about.  Since this post is already long, the automobile portion (actually a rented automobile) will be up next.

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Steve grudgingly gets back into the driver’s seat…

 

Next Up:  Banff National Park



 

City of Gardens- Victoria BC

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Following the urgings from several of our friends who had been to Victoria, we decided to go back to Canada when our last opportunity to visit presented itself.  Steve discovered we could go to Victoria via a fast ferry from Seattle. Since Woodland is only 2.5 hours south of Seattle, we drove (leaving Woodland at 4:30am) and then hopped on the Victoria Clipper Ferry.  For two short days, we were back in Canada, visiting the capital city of British Columbia, Victoria.  These were our 9th and 10th US/Canadian border crossings since June, I wonder if they were starting to recognize us?

Stratchcona, Victoria's Entertainment Center

Stratchcona, Victoria’s Entertainment Center

Victoria was named for the British monarch Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 to 1901 and has been the capital of British Columbia since 1868.  It is the 2nd largest city in BC with a population of about 350,000.  Known as “The Garden City” due to the abundance of gardens and city parks, Victoria also has an impressive selection of historic sites and heritage architecture.  Its downtown is full of heritage buildings that now house shops and restaurants.

Butchart Gardens

There are a wonderful array of attractions in Victoria, so we had to pick and choose what we could enjoy in two days.  Fortunately, there are several hotels close to the harbor and most attractions are within walking distance.  We discovered that taking the fast-ferry from Seattle actually worked out better for us than the service from Vancouver would have.  The reason is that the Vancouver ferry stops at Sidney, which is about 20 miles north of Victoria.  You can take a free shuttle from Sidney, so it’s no big deal, but unless you want to particularly see Sidney it takes time out of your schedule at Victoria.  However, the fast-ferry stops right at the harbor in Victoria and you can walk to just about everything from there.  We wouldn’t suggest the extra cost of taking your car on the ferry from Vancouver unless you really plan to be there long enough to travel outside of Victoria.  Besides, walking is good for you, right?  We did over 5 miles on our second day!

The showpiece, Sunken Garden

Our first stop was the world renowned Butchart Gardens which is also designated a National Historic Site in Canada.  The garden is a century old, created and transformed out of a barren limestone quarry by Robert and Jennie Butchart.  We have been to many man-made gardens and by far this is the most impressive, beautiful and well-planned exhibit.  It has four sections – The Japanese Garden, The Rose Garden, the Italian Garden and the centerpiece Sunken Garden.  It took us about two hours to go around the 55 acres and admire the Butchart’s  passion for gardening then and now.  It continues to be maintained by their descendants. The pictures don’t do justice to this stunningly beautiful and impressive display.

Butchart Gardens

Butchart Gardens

As we  walked around town we noticed a vibrant community and a city with a mixture of the old and the new which demonstrates what  our tour driver has said that  “Victoria is a city of the newlyweds (honeymoon destination) and the nearly deads (retirement haven).” We strolled around Victoria’s most famous buildings, the majestic 1908-completed Fairmont Empress Hotel and the 1898-built BC Parliament Buildings.

BC Parliament Building

Fairmont Empress Hotel

Fairmont Empress Hotel

We took a tour of lavish, Edwardian-era luxury at Craigdarroch Castle, the former mansion home of local coal baron Robert Dunsmuir.  Built in the 1890s, its splendid interior features Scotch granite columns, stained glass, oak staircases, and mahogany fireplaces.

Craigdarroch Castle

Craigdarroch Castle

Mahogany staircase, we’ve never seen so much wood on the ceiling walls and floors in one place before!

We passed by St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Victoria, which was built in 1890. Its 22-m/72-ft facade features sharply tapered bell towers and materials like red brick, stone and slate.

Inside St Andrews Church

Inside St Andrews Church

Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street located in historic Chinatown, once North America’s second-largest.

Inner Harbour

And so we had a great time in Victoria coupled with beautiful fall weather.  Then we hopped back on the ferry for Seattle and drove back to Woodland, WA on the second day.

Mountains, multiple gondolas and our first bear sighting!

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We’ve been getting around during our week in Vancouver doing touristy things. We spent one day touring the city, Stanley Park, the Lion’s Gate bridge, and the Capilano Suspension Bridge/Cliffwalk attractions.  We took a tour for this, since we didn’t want do drive all over the city and miss the knowledge we gained from our guide.  It was worth the extra money.

We went to Grouse Mountain on our own, and it was a lot of fun.  We took the Skyride gondola trip which climbs to 1,100 metres (3,700 feet) in just 8 minutes. You’ll dangle above the piney mountainside while taking in the cityscape and views of neighbouring peaks, the Pacific Ocean, inlets and bays.

Skyride Gondala at Grouse Mountain

Then we took a ski lift and went up to experience the Eye of the Wind, which is a very cool glass room at the top of a functional wind turbine that offers fantastic views of Vancouver and everything else in the area. We told the park attendant that we have hundreds of them in California but none are like the Eye of the Wind  that provide a 360 degree view and enclosed in glass.

Eye of the wind

Just another day hanging out in the wind turbine…

Clear glass viewPOD at the top of the tower

We also watched a pretty good show featuring lumberjacks and some of the chopping/throwing/climbing things they do. Then, as we were walking around we saw a group of people going crazy with their cameras and discovered two bears playing in the snow!  We will probably be sick of bears by the end of this trip, but the first sighting was pretty exciting. Check this short clip of log rolling.

Log Carving

Lumberjacks face off

Bears at Play

Since Whistler Mountain is so beautiful but not on our path of travel, we drove there in the car.  Getting there is thru the scenic sea to sky highway  frequently rated up as one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world.  Along the way are a number of scenic viewpoints where we stopped and enjoyed the views. We also admired  two waterfalls along the way,  Shannon Falls and Brandywine falls.  Whistler is best known as a ski resort but is more known as the host of the Winter Olympics in 2010.  We also strolled along the shops at the Whistler Village.  There is so much to do and see and say about Whistler, but we will talk only of the highlights of our visit.

Brandywine Falls

Yes, you may use this as your screen background, no charge! At Shannon Falls

A choo-choo truck

Whistler Village

The Village Square

To go to the Whistler peak  we road on the first enclosed lift which  lasted almost 30 minutes, the longest we’ve ever been on.  That was just to get to the next gondola which took us between the highest elevation of Whistler mountain at 7,160 feet to the highest elevation of next door Blackcomb mountain at 7,494 feet.  This ride is called  Peak-2-Peak  aboard a huge gondola!  This one is truly remarkable, and worth every penny.  It’s like taking a helicopter trip between the mountains (the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb) except that you are dangling high up on a gondola. This gondola breaks many world records for length and height above elevation (1420′ plus).  Don’t miss this one if you are in the area.

This gondola took us to the Whistler mountain peak

This is quite an awesome machine, as you might expect for the world’s longest gondola. This will take us to the highest peak of Blackcomb Mountain

Ahhh, June is our favorite month for warm, pleasant weather – wait a minute, where are we?

Inching our way up to Blackcomb

That’s 1,427 feet below, and a distance of 2.73 miles between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and the longest unsupported span is 1.8 miles !

Enjoying the scenery

Over 1400′ to the bottom – very cool! thru our glass bottom gondola

Playing in the snow at the top of Blackcomb Mountain

Having fun at the mountain peak.

We will be accelerating our travels now, since we have some catching up to do and there aren’t many “touristy” things to do except enjoying the scenery until we arrive in Alaska.  Our internet access will be spotty due to this remote part of our travels, but stay tuned!

Once in a while friendly tourists offers to take our picture.  Taken at Shannon falls

City Tour, Suspension Bridge, and Cliffwalk…

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Having crossed the border into Canada and endured the now familiar refrain… rain,rain go away… its time to get out, dry or wet  and check out Vancouver.

However before that let me tell you about the Port Mann/Highway 1 Improvement Project which we had to traverse to get to our destination. This is a 22 mile long massive project of  building a new bridge; widening the highway and upgrading interchanges.  Driving thru unfamiliar highways was stressful enough, then adding the construction zone was like a maze so we stopped  listening to “Randy” our GPS.  Couple this with learning the  metric system, now you are reading kilometers instead of miles. Wow, our brains was  in a tizzy getting used to seeing 80 km/hr to mean 49 m/hr.

US/Canada Border

US/Canada Border

80km/hr

Wow, I’m doing 80 in the RV!

Bridge and Hiway 1

A massive Bridge and Hiway 1 Project

Sightseeing in Vancouver cannot be done in one day yet we tried to cover as much ground as we could. Vancouver is quite scenic, vibrant  with lots of things to do/see and lots of outdoor activities. We noticed that there was no highway that leads directly to Vancouver and that there is  relatively high use of transit and cycling, and is very pedestrian friendly.  It is only here where we saw a blinking green light, which is to alert drivers of crossing pedestrians. Weird but it seems to work.  Getting around Vancouver and its nearby suburbs is easy with their efficient and integrated public transportation. They have a similar transit as the BART system in the Bay Area, called SkyTrain, and the difference is that buying a ticket is by honor system. After purchased there is no turnstile to validate it, you just hop on to the train. A system such as that in a big city like Vancouver is quite impressive.  Also, it’s all computerized – no drivers on the trains and trains come along about every 3-4 minutes.

As for the rain – the guide said it rains about 300 days per year here, so our hope of “drying out” is probably a ways off.

Skytrain, Vancouver

Waiting for the Skytrain, but not very long!

SkyTrain

Skytrain

Our sightseeing began at a the Canadian national icon, Canada Place which is the hub of activity for locals and guest.  It is a building housing the Vancouver Convention Center, Pan Pacific Hotel and the Vancouver World Trade Center and gracing Vancouver’s skyline with its distinctive five sails. We strolled along their beautiful pier or canadian promenade, the Canada Trail, watching seaplanes take off and land at the Harbour Air Seaplanes,  and we saw the 2010 Olympic Cauldron.  We drove along the three-block shopping street (Robson), the trendy West Side, and Gastown where the good eats and drinks are.  Stopped by the Totem poles at Stanley park  an evergreen oasis of 400 hectares (1,000 acres) close to the downtown core.  This is the largest park in North America!  And most importantly the SeaWall a 13.7 mile walking, jogging, cycling and inline skating path that lines Vancouver’s waterfront.  I would like to go back here and ride our bikes. We need another day to see the rest of Vancouver. It is a destination city but we won’t live here due to the 300 days of rain and it is quite pricey!

Canada Place storyboard

Steve looking up at Canada’s Storyboard at Canada Place

Canada Place

Canada Place

Canadian Promenade, Vancouver
Strolling along the Canadian Promenade

Harbour Air Seaplanes

Harbour Air Seaplanes

Olympic Couldron, Vancouver

Olympic Couldron

View of Vancouver skyline from Stanley Park

View of Vancouver skyline from Stanley Park

Totem Poles at Stanley Park

Totem Poles at Stanley Park

Our last stop was the “island” under the Granville Street bridge where again we were in heaven seeing their public market. The Public Market is the jewel in the Island’s crown.  This is the other cousin of  Pikes Place Market in Seattle where you will see a fascinating assortment of colourful stalls showcasing unique homemade products and the very finest in gastronomic delights.  All fresh from the ocean, we bought Marlin and my Salmon fish head….ha ha only i will enjoy this one.

Granville Island

Granville Island

Granville Island

He bought his Marlin fish while i got my Salmon Head

Granville Island

Another public market to enjoy fresh fish

Granville Island

The first broom store ever that i have seen.

Then off we go to North Vancouver to experience British Columbia’s top attraction,  walking on the Capilano suspension bridge.  The bridge  stretches 450 feet (137m) across and 230 feet (70m) above Capilano River. As I stepped on it and walked on the bridge it swayed and shook, but it was nothing but fun!  Then we walked  the Treetop Adventure where you have a rainforest encounter and lastly walked on their new attraction the Cliffwalk.  It is a suspended walkways jutting out from the granite cliff face above Capilano River .  It is high and narrow and, in some sections, glass (very strong glass) is all that separates us from the canyon far below. It’s 700′ long (213 metres), 300′ high (91 metros). We enjoyed our walks and adventure but not the price of the food.  This town is really expensive!

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Crossing the suspension bridge

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Capilano Suspension Bridge

CliffWalk, Capilano River

CliffWalk

CliffWalk, Capillano

Strike a pose on the Cliff

Tree top Adventure, Capillano

Tree top Adventure