TRAVEL: Riding through the Canadian Rockies
Trevor Mason takes the train ride of a lifetime through the snow-capped Rockies.
Hovering high above a glacier-fed lake of cerulean blue, the vast scale of the Canadian Rockies becomes awesomely apparent.
Halfway into a 30-minute helicopter flight, the snow-capped mountains stretched away in all directions for as far as the eye could see.
As we banked away from the sheer rock face of the 11,870ft high Mount Assiniboine, the intercom crackled into life and the pilot asked: “You guys alright in the back?”
Until then we’d been struck dumb by the jaw-dropping grandeur of these mountains coated with ice and snow - even in summer.
“Yes, it’s absolutely fantastic,” I offered feebly as we swept over another knife edge ridge and dropped down towards a large lake far below.
The flight from Alpine Helicopters’ Canmore base was just one of the highlights of a nine-day visit to the Rockies and the west of Canada.
The packed programme put together by Thomas Cook Tours also featured a visit to an ice field, two days of luxury train travel on board the Rocky Mountaineer and an unexpected encounter with a black bear!
The trip began for me and my wife with a relaxing Air Canada flight from Heathrow to Calgary. After landing, we were whisked off to busy Banff, with the Rockies soon appearing enticingly in silhouette.
From our hotel - the warm and welcoming Banff Aspen Lodge - we were soon out exploring the downtown area with its fine array of restaurants and shops.
Our helicopter flight the next morning gave us an introduction to the vastness of the Rockies and we were back above cloud level again later on the Banff gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain (7,400ft), which gave wonderful views of the neighbouring summits and down to Banff itself.
The town has a number of good walking trails, including one we took to the Vermilion lakes, great for getting away from the hustle and bustle.
There are hot springs to enjoy and also worth a visit is the gothic, turret-topped Banff Springs Hotel - built originally in the 1880s to attract railway visitors to the area.
Nearby is Lake Minnewanka where we enjoyed a short boat cruise and spotted our first bald headed eagle and big-horned sheep.
The next stage of the trip took us along the Icefield Parkway, route 93, to Jasper - otherwise rightly known as ‘the road through the clouds’.
Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest scenic routes in the world, it fully lived up to its billing with mountains up to 12,000ft high on either side and glaciers poking out between them.
I’m not normally a great fan of coaches. But the Brewster bus is definitely the best way to travel this road, giving you the benefit of a highly experienced driver who knows all the best places to stop, which leaves your eyes free to gaze in wonder at all the amazing sights.
Our stop-offs included the achingly beautiful Lake Louise, tranquil Bow Lake, the emerald green Peyto Lake and the more chilling splendour of the Athabasca Glacier, where we switched to a specially built Ice Explorer vehicle for a slippery trip out onto the glacier itself.
Later in the day, with the sun now high in the sky, we stopped at at the Athabasca Falls where the glacier-fed river is forced through a narrow rocky gorge with spectacular views from the specially constructed walkways above.
Jasper is smaller and quieter than Banff but still a great centre for wildlife walks and rafting, with good restaurants and grand views of the surrounding mountains.
It was there - after a comfortable couple of nights’ stay at the Chateau Jasper Hotel - that we switched from road to rail, joining the Rocky Mountaineer for the two-day trip to Vancouver.
Travelling Gold Leaf class allowed us to sit high up in the special glass dome coaches, which give all-round views of the scenic wonders along the route. But best of all is the vestibule at the back of the carriage allowing you a unique open-air view of the surrounding sights.
These ranged from the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson, to tumbling rivers, waterfalls and narrow gorges, where the train had to thread its way slowly between avalanche shelters designed to protect it from falling rock.
Below us, in the dining area of the carriage, staff prepared an excellent breakfast and lunch each day. And as the miles rolled by, we were also treated to at-seat drinks and snacks by informative staff, who pointed out the best attractions.
The train driver helpfully slows to a crawl at the most photogenic points, like Hell’s Gate, where the Fraser River is squeezed through a narrow rocky gorge.
On the second day, skirting Kamloops lake, we even saw bald eagles and ospreys nesting close to the tracks in old telegraph poles and trees.
Rocky Mountaineer run trains on four routes through the Rockies and western Canada with tremendous attention to detail. Each passenger is given a useful guide to the route, including mileage covered, the most scenic locations and brief historical details of the all the places passed.
All your luggage is taken care of by the staff and at the overnight stop in Kamloops. Impressively, it was already in our hotel room by the time we arrived - even though we had come direct from the station.
All too soon we arrived in Vancouver and had to adjust to the city pace of life as we made our way to the chic and modern Coast Coal Harbour Hotel with stunning views from our 17th floor room.
There was just time for a fascinating 40-minute Harbour Air seaplane ride. Restricted to flying low because of cloud cover, we were soon skimming over islands, freighters and the city itself.
It was even possible to see into the back gardens of sumptuous outlying island homes and, at times, we were just a few feet above the water before the pilot banked as land approached.
And the black bear? Well, he was just ambling along the roadside eating berries when we were returning from a lovely short trip to Mount Edith Cavell and its lake full of mini icebergs near Jasper.
For a minute or two, he was just a few feet from our minibus as the driver pulled up to give us a better view. Then he ambled off into the forest, munching on the treats he’d found at the roadside.
That alone would have made this trip worthwhile. But with all the other highlights, it was truly an unforgettable holiday.
Key facts - Canadian Rockies
:: Best for: Friendly hospitality and the great outdoors.
:: Time to go: Anytime. The scenery is spectacular all year round.
:: Don’t miss: The Rocky Mountaineer.
:: Need to know: Canada is the second largest country in the world behind only Russia.
:: Don’t forget: The mosquito spray. Pesky creatures can make life a misery on evening walks, particularly around Banff.
:: Trevor travelled with Thomas Cook Escorted Tours, which offers an 11-day escorted tour from £2,395 departing April/May 2012. His journey included three nights in Banff Aspen Lodge, two in Chateau Jasper, and three nights in Vancouver (Coast Coal Harbour Hotels).
:: He also spent two days on the Rocky Mountaineer daylight train journey through the Rockies, and his Gold Leaf upgrade starts at £540 per person (including meals and accommodation).
:: He flew with Air Canada which offers more services ex-UK to Canada than any other airline, ex-Heathrow to Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and St. John’s, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Air Canada reservations: 0871 220 1111 or visit