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Across Canada on American Orient Express
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JANUARY 2005 New Features
SPAS & RETREATS
© 2005 Bonita Productions Inc.
International Travel Adventures Magazine
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Across Canada on American Orient Express
by Robert Painter
The legendary Grand Trans-Canada Rail Journey begins at the Pacific coast in Vancouver, British Columbia, traverses the Canadian Rockies, across the vast prairies and ends in the wonderfully European city of Montreal. It began with an evening reception at the lovely Sutton Place Hotel where we had the opportunity to meet the train staff and the other passengers, followed by the next days’ sightseeing around Vancouver...a perfectly beautiful, sunny day seeing the sights before returning to the train for our first night aboard. This is to be a nine-day adventure, and if you think you’d be bored silly sitting on a train for nine days in a row, think again!
Discovering that six inches of closet space doesn’t hold everything packed in a large suitcase and a carry-on provides an opportunity to be creative. Fortunately, there is a large drawer under the seat and I quickly realize that some things will just stay in the luggage until needed. There is an ingenious steel sink in the bathroom that folds up and down for use. When finished, you raise the sink and the water flows out the back. There is also a hand-held shower, but it will be much easier to walk down the hall to the shower room. The provided plush terry robe will get me there and back discreetly. After a few days I decided that if I had the attendant leave my bed down (it folds up out of the way) in the daytime, it made not only a perfectly adequate seat, but it also allowed me to leave my shoes, luggage, etc. on the floor beneath it and out of the way. Space is at a premium, but as someone aboard described the compartments, they are “compact, but comfortable.” Traveling alone I enjoyed a Single Sleeper. The other compartments were larger, but did house two people. And, of course, there were Deluxe Suites and Presidential Suites for even more space.
The first full day on the train is spent climbing into the Canadian Rockies on the way to Jasper National Park. We drive over trestle bridges, through tunnels, pass the spectacular Pyramid Falls and finally catch a glimpse of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12, 972 feet. We’re in luck - train staff tells us that they rarely get a view of the top of the peak and we spy it several times, peeking through the clouds! We cut through the Yellowhead Pass and ease into Jasper, Canada, where we’ll be for the next couple of days.
After breakfast on the train, we discover that Jasper is a city in the heart of a National Park. There are hiking opportunities everywhere, starting in the center of town and heading out over the hills and into the woods. But first, we’re headed up to the Athabasca Glacier, part of the 130 square mile Columbia Icefield. We arrive at the Glacier and board the enormous Snowcoaches designed specifically for glacier travel. There’s an old half-track snowcoach sitting there as a reminder of days long past. The new coaches have large tires, large picture windows (all the better to see when we drop over the precipitous edge of the ridge down onto the glacier) and powerful engines to make the descent and ascent to and from the glacier. Once on the glacier, we get out and are free to walk and explore, however, with the warning to stay on the graded area and away from the crevasses.
In talking with some of the guides, I discovered that one of their recreational, after-hours activities is to slide down into some of the ice holes and explore under the ice. A bit too dangerous for tourists, but seemingly safe enough for them - at least no reports of having lost anyone - yet.
It’s cold on the ice, and when the sun slips under a cloud and a little breeze stirs, it’s very cold. Luckily, I brought along a fleece jacket and hiking boots - I saw some teens there with sandals and blue skin. Everyone tasted the water melting off the glacier. Delicious and ice cold.
The next day in Jasper National Park, everyone went his own way... some shopping, some on a tour to Lake Louise or a boat trip on Maligne Lake and some just hanging around the train after a short walk through the town. I headed up into the mountains and, with the direction of a park ranger, discovered a beautiful lake with absolutely no one else nearby. Just me, two loons and a squirrel that was dropping the remnants of his lunch on my head from an overhanging pine branch.
I don’t want to keep talking about the food, so will tell you about this evening’s menu and let you know that it was fairly typical of the entire trip: Appetizer of Sea Scallop, dusted with Garam Masala, served on Black Bean and Cilantro Salsa; Roasted Butternut Squash Soup garnished with Cinnamon Creme Fraiche; Asian Cucumber Salad with Poached Raisins, Carrots and Red Onions tossed in Rice Wine Vinegar. The Entree was a choice of Grilled New York Strip Loin with Wild Mushroom Sauce and dressed Baked Potato, or Oven Roasted Duck Breast accompanied by Potato Rosti with a Sauce a L’Orange, or Ahi Tuna served on Coconut Basmati Rice and drizzled with a Lime Beurre Blanc. For dessert a choice of Grand Marnier infused Creme Caramel, AOE Signature Blueberry Napoleon, or Seasonal Fresh Fruit.
Yes, I did a great deal of hiking and walking on this trip and, yes, I did gain weight! It turns out that even if you really like the dessert you had, but the one in front of the person beside you looks better - they’ll usually bring you one of those, too!
But, back to the adventure. Across central Alberta and Saskatchewan, expansive cattle ranches followed by vast fields of wheat, barley and rapeseed. And the indigenous Canadian architecture - the large square grain silos.
After traveling through the night to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - don’t you expect to see a red coated Royal Canadian Mounted Police just by invoking that name- we arrived in Saskatoon and spent the day at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park. There was much to see on the grounds, 19 historic sites with stone cairns and a medicine wheel, but the rain dampened those plans a bit. Fortunately, there was a lot to do inside as well, with demonstrations of tipi setups and native dances.
The next day we spent in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a tour of the city and lunch at the historic Hotel Fort Garry where we just missed Richard Gere and J-Lo filming a movie there.
We actually dropped down into the states for a few miles on the way to Thunder Bay. The train cleared customs at both borders going into and out of the US, and we skirted the northern shores of Lake Superior. From Thunder Bay we spent the day at Fort William - a replica of a large settlement that “depicts the scenery and lifestyle of Canada’s 19th century frontier period.” An expansive facility that included barracks, offices, storefronts, a blacksmith, a cooper (barrel maker), canoe maker, dairy farm, pig sty, and much more. Good for several hours of walking, with a river alongside and an opportunity for canoeing as well. Also, a frontier meal with buffalo and delicious homemade bread.
The following day we crossed the Canadian Shield. If there are more lakes and trees anywhere in the world they can’t be any more beautiful than in this region. There are open vestibules between several of the cars and throughout the trip I spent much of my time there, leaning out (the sign says “Do Not Lean Out” - but I was careful!) and taking photos of the mountains, the waterfalls, the rivers, the forests, the sunsets, the fields of grains, and all the rest of this amazing countryside.
The last day was in Ottawa, the nation’s capitol, where we toured the Canadian Museum of Civilization, had lunch on board, then later backed the train into the station in downtown Montreal - last stop on the American Orient Express Grand Trans-Canada Journey. It was a terrific trip – one of the most relaxing vacations I have ever taken and I still managed to get in plenty of walking, hiking and sightseeing! Probably what I’ll remember most will be the hours spent in the wonderful observation car where I watched the magnificent landscape, much of the time spent listening to the fascinating tales of the onboard geologist. Don’t miss this journey.
Fare begins at $4290 per person with up to a $500 discount for early booking. Covers hotel, train, all meals & major attractions. Optional tours available for additional fees. Airfare can be handled by AOE or individually.
Contact phone: (800)320-4206
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