The Journey on Rails: The Acclaimed Rocky Mountaineer
Among the fifteen most impressive railway routes in the world, as per the Conte Nast Traveller, the Rocky Mountaineer Train, which departs from Vancouver and ventures into the heart of Canada, holds the second spot. It navigates through the globally renowned Rocky Mountains, surpassing even the famous Eastern Express, which finds itself at the fifteenth spot in this rating.
The carriages of the Rocky Mountaineer are wonders themselves, outfitted with glass roofs for passengers to marvel at the sweeping landscapes that glide by. As eyes feast on nature's grandeur, the palate is treated to delights such as foie gras and flowing champagne, served by attentive stewards. However, this comes with a hefty price tag: over 2000 pounds for this two-day journey.
Demand and Popularity: The Rocky Mountaineer's Allure and A More Accessible Alternative
With such allure, it's unsurprising that the Rocky Mountaineer is extraordinarily popular. Reservations usually need to be made a year in advance, given the high demand for this unforgettable experience.
So, when I began planning my Canadian itinerary in July, the steep price and the lack of a time machine for an early reservation deterred me from choosing this train. However, after some diligent searching, I discovered a more accessible alternative: Via Rail, Canada's national railway company. By forgoing the luxury of the glass roof and replacing foie gras and champagne with a hearty breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup, I could traverse the same route for a mere 100 pounds on Via Rail's overnight train.
The Journey: Vancouver to Jasper and Beyond
These trains, departing a couple of times a week, cover the route to the eponymous town of Jasper in the Canadian province of Alberta in approximately seventeen hours. From there, they continue to Edmonton and Toronto. However, these trains aren't known for their punctuality, as they often yield right-of-way to freight trains sharing the same railway tracks.
Fortuitously, I found an available ticket on one of these trains. By extending my stay in Vancouver, I managed to seize this slice of Canadian 'brie'. As a result, my Canadian itinerary expanded to include two renowned, albeit typically hard-to-reach national parks: Jasper and Banff. I planned to spend three days in each, allowing ample time to explore and appreciate their unique landscapes and wildlife. The anticipation of the journey ahead filled me with an exhilarating mix of excitement and curiosity. The sights and experiences that awaited me on this trans-Canadian rail journey promised a memorable adventure.
The Departure: A Pleasant Surprise and Unforeseen Complications
The departure day progressed as planned. After checking my baggage at the Pan Pacific station in Vancouver, where I had arrived from Seattle more than two weeks prior in anticipation of my Alaskan journey, I waited for boarding. I had no inkling of the unforeseen turn of events that lay ahead.
The proverbial thunderclap came from the train steward, who said:
"I'm sorry, sir, but it seems your cheese has turned into fondue."
Or more precisely, he informed me:
"Didn't you know? It's the main news on national TV! Jasper has burned. Well, not burned exactly, but it's been without power for two days due to the spreading forest fires in the vicinity. The train station in Jasper is closed. However, arriving trains haven't been cancelled yet, and we'll be departing soon. Local hotels will likely give you candles."
Scrambling through a haystack of internet newspapers, I found that the real thunderclap had struck a few days earlier in the form of a lightning storm, igniting the local woods like an imprudent tourist with matches. The fire had been spreading ever since, consuming more and more of the surrounding areas.
Despite the apocalyptic images of fiery infernos on the internet, the town itself was not directly threatened. However, a burned-down power station left the town without electricity for an indefinite period.
Aware that it wasn't realistic to change my itinerary at such short notice, I stocked up on some Canadian cash as a "fire protection suit", in case card transactions were disrupted due to power outages. I decided to stick to the original plan.
On the Train: First Impressions and Unanticipated Comforts
Upon boarding the train, expecting nothing good apart from a sleepless night from my ticket on a train without a pre-reserved seat, I was pleasantly surprised. Finally, in the carriage, I found my allocated pair of seats to be reminiscent of a European aeroplane's business class. They reclined close to a horizontal position, promising a somewhat comfortable and tolerable night. Although the prospects were far from ideal given the uncertainty in Jasper, the unexpected comforts on the train were a welcome respite.