Five days in a rolling time capsule

A trip on the Royal Canadian Pacific will satiate hungry minds and bellies alike, writes Alison Stewart.

Quaffing champagne and puffing cigars, the British prime Minister Winston Churchill planned D-Day exactly where I sit now, in the walnut-panelled, art deco Mount Stephen observation car of the Royal Canadian Pacific, with the cinematic Canadian Rockies spooling past.

This is not just a five-day luxury rail experience that plies one of the world's most savagely gorgeous routes, from Calgary to Vancouver across the primordial spine of Canada. It is also a rolling time capsule of Canadian history. In fact, without Canadian Pacific Railway's east-west transcontinental line - which it built, incredibly, in less than five years in the 1880s - there would be no Canada as we know it.

The feat of engineering that forged a railway through some of the world's most hostile terrain, costing thousands of lives, secured British Columbia as part of the new Canada and provided a strategic and economic artery that cemented a nation.

No wonder Canadians gather as the elegant old train rumbles by, waving wildly - they are acknowledging their own history. One or two cheekily moon the train as it passes.

Also with us are the ghosts of railway workers.

The Royal Canadian Pacific travels the final, most hazardous section of the original route from Calgary in Alberta's prairies, up and across the ranges of the Rockies, the Columbia and the Coast mountains through Lake Louise, and Kicking Horse Pass into British Columbia, down the steep "Big Hill" and Spiral Tunnels, across the Selkirk Mountains and through historic towns - Field, Golden, Revelstoke, Craigellachie, Kamloops.

Rocky Mountaineer runs along this route in summer but does not carry sleeper cars and sadly the general passenger service ended in 1990.

So I'm feeling pretty fortunate to be riding a veritable institution that not only takes me through UNESCO World Heritage terrain, but also revives the romance of luxury rail travel with its five-star dining and service and its restored vintage cars built between 1916 and 1931 with names from Canadian railway history - Strathcona, Van Horne, Royal Wentworth, Craigellachie, Mount Stephen, N.R. Crump, Killarney and Banffshire.

In addition, the train carries the ghosts of those who contributed to Canada's history - either by building the railway or riding this very train.

Move over, Winston. There's also US president Franklin Roosevelt; King George VI and the late Queen Mother, who slept in the Royal Wentworth carriage; the Queen and Prince Philip; the Duke of Windsor and his duchess, Wallis Simpson; princesses Margaret and Anne; John and Jackie Kennedy; Bill Gates and many others.

Also with us, sadly, are the ghosts of the railways workers, including 1500 Chinese labourers, two men for every kilometre of the 600 kilometres of track on which we will travel. In 2006, the Canadian government issued them a formal apology.

Our journey begins in Calgary, where a night at the Fairmont Palliser is included. A nice touch because this elegant hotel, built in 1914 with its antiques, marble and wood panelling, was one of CPR's grand railway hotels. William Van Horne, the railroad's dynamic mastermind, envisaged more than a railway when he said: "If we can't export the scenery, we shall have to import the tourists."

He built a series of grand hotels, such as the Palliser (now owned by Fairmont), that stretched like a string of pearls across Canada, often in pristine wilderness and designed to attract the world's wealthy.

Arriving bleary-eyed in the early hours, we are met by what appears to be the Palliser Hotel on wheels, but then, they build their cars huge here in Canada's "heart of the new West", currently booming with mining money.

That evening, we meet fellow travellers and staff at a reception in the CPR pavilion, which is literally attached to the hotel. There awaits our train, sending the buffs into a bit of a tizzy - four are regulars, such is the passion for rail history, luxury and exclusivity. One is making his 15th sortie.

In the morning, after a rather excellent breakfast in the Palliser's Rimrock dining room (that Alberta bacon!), we're led to our staterooms. Our twin has a roomy en suite, bathrobes, picture windows, walnut and maple wood inlays, scalloped lamp fixtures, brass fixtures, velvet upholstery, a domed ceiling, ample storage with full-length mirrors, and desk.

The director of heritage services for CPR, Catriona (Katie) Hill, compares the company's train to Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa and the Royal Scotsman and, in fact, many compartments exactly match those of the Royal Scotsman, as the Scotsman's owner lent CPR his plans.

Back in the Mount Stephen, we sip mimosas, admiring the fast-flowing green Bow River. We will rarely be away from water, be it rivers, lakes or waterfalls, all rich with the glacial rock grindings called "rock flour", which deliver the iridescent greens and blues. At times, you imagine you have stumbled into the illustration on a giant chocolate box.

Ahead lie the great marching ranks of mountains and it's already hard to know where to look. We scurry (or lurch - trying not to accidentally pull the emergency cord) between the Mount Stephen, our stateroom and the dining car with its brunch. (Can't eat another thing. Oh, all right!)

Calgary sits at about 1000 metres so we're not exactly at sea level when we begin our ascent from the foothills into chill mountain air. I am madly scanning for wildlife, for this is the habitat of the Canadian Big Five - deer, elk, moose, wolf and bear. Sadly, all this trip yields are two bald eagles, a white-tailed deer and a stuffed grizzly in the Revelstoke Railway Museum. Never mind - what we don't see, we eat: braised bison with wild mushroom ragu and toasted barley pilaf, for one.

An English return traveller remembers how a wildlife-mad Australian nodded off, sad to say, just before the train passed through a massive herd of elk. As you do.

But perhaps the absence of bears, particularly the endangered grizzlies, is a good thing. Rail tracks are a threat because of grain spillage, with 13 grizzlies dead since 2000 in Banff and neighbouring Yoho national parks, and only 65 remaining in Banff. CPR and Parks Canada have a five-year plan to reduce deaths using bells, electro-mats and behaviour modification.

But, really, the animals are the appetisers (yes, bad joke) to the main course - the mountains. As Rockies guide and naturalist Ward Cameron puts it: "The rocks are the parchment on which the story is written."

And what rocks! Their orientation, composition and elevation determine the particular ecosystem. We will pass from temperate coniferous rainforest of western hemlock, western red cedar, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and maple, to semi-arid steppes to subalpine firs and meadows, with the jagged, glaciated peaks of the alpine tundra always towering above. We are indeed fortunate to experience this majestic world in such comfort.

For this reason, the RCP ranks high on the Society of International Railway Travellers' "world's top 25 trains". There are only 24 guests, accommodated in five luxury sleeper cars. Mount Stephen and Van Horne have open observation decks, and there are smaller lounges and a library.

A favourite is the newly restored 1931 dining car, Craigellachie, named for the place where the last spike was driven to complete the railway on November 7, 1885. I'm taken not just with its African walnut and mahogany interior but also what goes on in there, which is, of course, scoffing.

Senior chefs Alain Maheux and Mathieu Pare introduce their courses and the mostly Canadian and Californian wines before each meal. Australians are delighted when a De Bortoli dessert wine makes a magnificent appearance. Mains include roast halibut, seared deep-sea scallops, miso-glazed sablefish and Alberta beef tenderloin skewer.

Still following the Bow River, we "de-train" at Banff (Be Aware, Nothing For Free) for a few hours' walk around this pretty ski town in its bowl of limestone mountains. We're on the dry eastern flanks of the Rockies but once we pass the sublime Lake Louise, where we stop again for "an interpretive tour", we cross the continental divide. At 1625 metres, we're at the top of CPR's world, ready to enter the Kicking Horse Pass and begin the plunge down the Big Hill. This is the wet, western side of the Rockies, where rivers carve deeply.

There's great anticipation because we're about to experience one of Canada's man-made wonders - the Spiral Tunnels. And we'll be doing it while sampling tiger prawn ceviche, sugar-cured sockeye salmon, beef carpaccio and mushroom wrap canapes before dinner.

The first RCP descended the Big Hill in 1886 at an almost suicidal gradient of 4.5 per cent, whereas the ideal maximum grade is less than 1 per cent, giving an idea of its steepness.

From Kicking Horse Pass to the confluence of the Columbia River at Golden, the terrain falls 842 metres in 71 kilometres through dramatic scenery. Building this section claimed lives at the rate of one a week in 1884 as workers, hampered by rain, landslides, snow, ice and gravity, hacked through limestone, quartz and primeval forest. The lower Kicking Horse Pass, known as Golden Stairs, was so steep that workers would close their eyes and cling to the packhorse's tail. Once, two groups could only pass by pushing a horse into the chasm, which they did.

Thankfully we no longer take a "nose-down" approach to the Big Hill. The Spiral Tunnels, which cut through Cathedral Mountain and Mount Ogden in the Yoho National Park, allow the line to double back, creating an extra 2.4 kilometres of track, more than halving the gradient. It is still a spectacular plummet. "Yoho!" we announce to one another, mouths full, using the Cree expression for awe and wonder.

Our destination for the night is Golden, at the heart of six mountainous national parks: Yoho, Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke.

In the morning, we're climbing again, out of the Rocky Mountain Trench and into the Selkirk Mountains, which provided an even harder construction challenge than the Big Hill, for this was truly impenetrable, uncharted country. In 1916, CPR built tunnels to bypass the original high, treacherous route through the Selkirks' Rogers Pass. It is not, however, the last of the horror stretches. Westward from Craigellachie lies the notorious stretch that claimed the lives of so many Chinese workers.

We switchback down to the alpine town of Revelstoke, nestled between the Selkirk and Monashee mountains, and from there past Craigellachie and its Last Spike monument, that powerful symbol of national unity, but also, perhaps, of regret.

The terrain changes again and we find ourselves supine in our staterooms, winding along the edges of the Shuswap lakes, Canada's houseboat capital, waving languidly at mooners and genuflectors alike.

The sun rises on the town of Kamloops and we're into arid steppes, following the Thompson River along a canyon that cuts through BC's Interior Plateau. The clear Thompson joins the mighty brown Fraser River as it enters the Coast Mountains, their distinct colours remaining separate for more than three kilometres.

Finally, the mountains telescope behind us. Dressed for the last gala dinner, with the sun setting on the fertile plains of the Fraser valley, we glide into Vancouver, CPR's western terminal, for our last overnight stay aboard the train.

We are parked on the pier where transcontinental trains once welcomed wealthy passengers disembarking from the company's White Empress Pacific liners or unloaded cargo onto their Princess coastal steamers.

Full as a tick, I drift off, travelling back through history, along the ribbon of steel that stretches east, tightly binding a country.

The writer was a guest of Royal Canadian Pacific and travelled with the assistance of United Airlines.

Trip notes

Getting there

United Airlines flies daily to Calgary via San Francisco or Los Angeles, returning from Vancouver, from $1683.

Tip: The flight to Canada involves a US stopover. For $50 you can use the comfortable and quiet United Club lounge. 

 Staying there

Royal Canadian Pacific runs luxury vintage rail tours in July and August. The five-day, four-night Royal Pacific Express includes chauffeured airport transfers, one night in the Fairmont Palliser Calgary with breakfast, welcome reception, on-board stateroom with en suite, all food and alcohol, and tours of Banff, Lake Louise and Revelstoke Railway Museum. $C5800 ($5681),

For a more local experience in Vancouver, a self-catering apartment is a good option. Roomorama has a range of accommodation from $84 a night,

Tip: Buy seasonal produce from Granville Island Public Markets; take a picnic to Stanley Park, Vancouver’s 405-hectare urban park; pack a lunch to visit Vancouver Island and the spectacular Butchart Gardens.