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Making tracks across Canada
7:00am Saturday 9th March 2013 in Travel
Hungry brown bears await Peter Thompson on a train journey through Canada's Rocky Mountains.
By Peter Thompson
Mesmerised by awe-inspiring views of the majestic Rocky Mountains I was in a world of my own until a loud shout of "BEAR!" jolted me back down to earth.
Throughout the first half of my week in Canada, the subject of bears was one of the main topics of conversation in our group.
Will we see a bear? What do we do if we see a bear? What would a bear do if it saw us?
Taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs, tour guides and locals - we asked nearly everyone we encountered.
But when the yell of "bear" was bellowed out by Rod, a member of our group, there was no need to demonstrate my survival techniques by playing dead or reaching for the pepper spray, as I was in the safe haven of the magnificent Rocky Mountaineer train.
An excited Rod informed us that this particular brown bear was perched at the top of a tree, so we had clearly been well informed when we were warned not to clamber for our lives if we encountered the wild mammals. Not that my climbing skills are up to much either, I should add.
Despite my disappointment at not clapping eyes on the bear, we were not far into a train journey which had already exceeded my expectations. I had spotted bald eagles circling for prey, marvelled at scenery that you could never tire of looking at, while also being treated to five-star service and culinary delights.
In truth, I didn't know quite what to expect from my trip on the Rocky Mountaineer before I boarded the famous train. I had been on the odd steam train before, but I am certainly no rail enthusiast.
But I knew this was not going to be your average train journey and, soon after setting off on our two-day trip from the idyllic town of Banff to Vancouver, I realised why the Rocky Mountaineer attracts tourists from all over the world.
Sitting in the comfort of the GoldLeaf coach, with full length windows extending to the roof, I enjoyed a panoramic view of breathtaking snow-sprinkled mountains, ferocious rivers, gorges, waterfalls and wildlife.
As we made our way along the route which retraces the historic Canadian Pacific Railway, famous for uniting the country and connecting British Columbia to Canada more than 125 years ago, it was almost as if I had escaped from the real world.
And the five-star GoldLeaf dining experience was just as impressive as it sounds. As I tucked into tasty buttermilk pancakes for breakfast, I was still able to take in the jaw-dropping scenery while feeling as though I was in a high quality restaurant with no hint of snobbery - a far cry from a trip to the buffet car for a coffee and a packet of crisps.
I regularly ventured out to stand in the vestibules between carriages, which not only gave me an opportunity to take in some fresh mountain air, but also offered great vantage points for taking photographs.
After a sociable pre-lunch beer back upstairs, we were soon indulging in fine dining once again and I was discovering why the Alberta beef came so highly recommended.
There was another bear sighting over lunch, but although that passed me by I was more than content sampling a couple of glasses of wine as I watched waterfalls crash down from a great height into huge rivers with vicious currents and gazed at mountain ranges which stretched as far as the eye could see.
After an overnight stay in Kamloops, the friendly staff rolled out the red carpet for us to board the train for a second time. En route to Vancouver, we passed vast forests, glided alongside huge powerful rivers which are popular for white water rafters, and I watched the front of the train curve around to cross huge sturdy old bridges and disappear into tunnels.
We then looked down on the unforgiving 'Hell's Gate' in the Fraser River, a landmark which must strike fear into even the most experienced white-water rafter, and the landscape changed to the type of dusty and semi-arid terrain you see in Western movies.
Before I knew it we were pulling into Vancouver, where the tranquillity of the Rockies was replaced by the hustle and bustle of a vibrant city.
I had been a little bit sceptical about spending two days on a train, but as I stepped off the Rocky Mountaineer at the end of the journey I had run out of words to describe such an amazing experience.
Luckily for me, that was not the end of my trip to Canada and before boarding the Rocky Mountaineer, I felt like the red carpet had already been rolled out for me on several occasions.
My first night in Canada was spent in The Fairmont Pallister in Calgary - a grand old hotel where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh stayed just a year before.
Then it was onto the stunning little town of Banff for a two-night stay in the impressive Rimrock Resort Hotel, in a great location at the foot of Sulphur Mountain.
Banff National Park is billed as being one of the greatest destinations in the world and I only had to look out of the window in my hotel room to see the sprawling untapped wilderness and spectacular mountains in order to realise why.
We took a trip on the Banff Gondola way up to the top of Sulphur Mountain and the views at the summit in all directions were incredible. Clouds floated below me as I stood 2,285m above sea level and there was a stunned silence from myself and fellow tourists due to the sheer beauty of the surroundings.
Banff had the feeling of an Alpine resort and is very popular with skiers, but given it was June we settled for walks through the woods near our hotel - watching out for bears along the way of course.
The bears were clearly keeping themselves to themselves, but a pair of elk came out to give us a send off as we waited for the Rocky Mountaineer to arrive in Banff.
After our magnificent train journey through the Rockies, we spent a night at the swanky Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Despite such a short stay in the thriving city, I saw enough to understand why it is such a popular place to live.
I then boarded a float plane for the first time as we made the short trip to Victoria. I enjoy flying, but the prospect of landing on water left me a little uncertain. What transpired was one of the smoothest flights I have ever experienced and after checking into the luxury Fairmont Empress Hotel we were soon back on the water for some whale watching.
The rain lashed down, but that failed to dampen spirits on our boat, named 'Prince of Whales', as we got up close to three huge orcas - one of which appeared in the film Free Willy.
So although I failed to spot a bear, I did see a movie star and to quote a well known former Hollywood actor, my verdict on the Rockies and Vancouver is: "I'll be back".
Travel facts Seven nights in Vancouver with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow direct to Vancouver, internal flights with Air Canada to Calgary, one night at the 4V Fairmont Palliser, two nights at the 5V Rimrock Resort, one night on the Rocky Mountaineer on the First Passage to the West, Red Leaf Service, one night at the 5V Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and one night at the 5V Fairmont Empress, all on a room only basis (except Rocky Mountaineer), from £2,399 pp based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a standard room. Includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change, based on departures in September 2013. Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected To book call 0844 557 3859 or visit www.virginholidays.co.uk.