Sleeper hit on the Rockies express

Forget cardboard food and aloof airline staff, there's a wonderfully rejuvenating alternative with breathtaking scenery to boot, writes Michael Gebicki.

I AM welcomed on board by a smiling man who takes my bag, shows me to my seat, asks me when I'd like dinner and tells me the Skyline Car will be dishing out sparkling wine and canapes shortly after departure.

I'm on board The Canadian, the VIA Rail train that makes the long journey from Toronto to Vancouver, and before we've even left the station I'm asking myself when travel last felt this good.

My double-berth cabin has two armchairs, a big picture window, wash basin and toilet. Over the wash basin is a stack of fluffy towels and a handy toiletries kit with a pair of earplugs. There's also an electrical socket so I can charge my laptop and admire my photos.

I admit, I'm travelling sleeper class, the tonier of the two classes on board, but when I head into the economy cars there are tall people stretched out in reclining seats, legs fully extended.

I'm aboard for just the final leg of The Canadian's westward journey, a 16-hour, overnight trip from Jasper to Vancouver. We're travelling across the Rocky Mountains, the photogenic highlight of the train's transcontinental journey. As soon as we leave Jasper, we plunge into forests alongside a river and the wonders begin.

For the most part, the train runs alongside rivers in the depths of glacier-carved valleys. There's Moose Lake, a sheet of chrome mirroring the mountain peaks, and Yellowhead Pass, the Continental Divide, where the rivers change direction to flow west.

Two hours after we leave, we pass the ice sheet of the Albreda Glacier and the train slows as we pass Pyramid Falls, although clouds obscure the 3952-metre summit of Mount Robson, the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

I take it all in from the Panorama Viewing Car, which has tinted glass windows that extend from my elbow up and over the ceiling. There's another see-through domed section in the Skyline Car and at the tail end of the train is the Park Car, with a 360-degree scenic dome plus a lounge area.

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When you're bumping into other passengers in the swaying corridors, conversation follows naturally. Over the next couple of hours, I learn that Canadians are the world's politest people, far more mannerly all round than folks from the US. I also learn that Canada produces the world's best ice hockey players, except that most of the top talent ends up in US teams, seduced by big bucks. Also, that Canada's polar bears are declining in number not because of melting polar ice but because of hunting by fee-paying trophy hunters from ... guess where?

The route the VIA Rail train follows runs parallel to the Rocky Mountaineer train's Journey through the Clouds between Jasper and Vancouver. Aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, it's a more leisurely journey spread across four days. Unlike VIA Rail's Canadian, the Rocky Mountaineer has no sleeping accommodation. Come evening, passengers disembark to spend the night in a hotel.

If you choose to travel economy, the VIA Rail train is also significantly less expensive than the cheapest seats on the Rocky Mountaineer. Meals are included along with the Sleeper Class ticket and I'm booked in for the 7.30pm dinner service, the later of two.

The four-seater dining configuration throws me in with a recently retired BBC radio producer and a human-rights lawyer who works with non-government organisations in Tanzania, on her way back to her home in Vancouver Island with her teenage grandson.

The entree is a choice of soup or creamy seafood chowder. Main course is lamb, beef or salmon, plus a salad. Dessert is either chocolate cake or carrot cake. It's all luscious.

My salmon is moist and rich, the salad crisp and piquant under its french dressing. When I return to my cabin the armchairs have disappeared, replaced by a wide single bed with crisp sheets, two pillows and a doona. I sleep like a bear in winter, rocked to and fro by the train.

I'm up with the birds and into the shower at the end of the corridor - and it's a beauty. Inside is a separate cubicle for keeping your clothes dry and, like everything else about the train, it's spick and span.

Breakfast starts at 6.30am and the dining car is already close to full as I sit down to my juice, eggs with ham, oatmeal with blueberries, toast and coffee and conversation with a couple of Brits who have made their home in Ottawa.

Although we left Jasper an hour late, we're half an hour ahead of schedule when we arrive at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station.

It's a fond farewell. Bonds have formed. For some, the train has been a home for the past few days and there are hugs and handshakes like you rarely see between airline passengers after a long flight.

"A More Human Way to Travel" is how VIA Rail subtitles itself and they're not wrong. If you're travelling trans-Canada and looking for an alternative to the squishy seating, cardboard food and coolly indifferent service that is the norm for airline travel these days, VIA Rail could be just the tonic.

The writer was a guest of Travel Alberta and VIA Rail.

Trip notes

Getting there

The closest major airports to Jasper are Calgary, 400 kilometres away, and Edmonton (370 kilometres). Greyhound operates bus services from Calgary and Edmonton to Jasper. greyhound.ca.

By far the best way to get to Jasper is to hire a vehicle in Calgary and drive, which takes you through Banff and Lake Louise and along the magnificent Icefields Parkway, one of the world's greatest road journeys.

On the train

The journey aboard The Canadian between Jasper and Vancouver costs from $750 a person for a two-person cabin in Sleeper Touring Class. Economy Supersaver fares start from about $150. The train departs Jasper on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons and arrives at Vancouver the following morning. Discount deals are often available.

Further information

Via Rail Canada, viarail.ca.

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