My Grand Tour of Canada

Travel writer Lynn Houghton joined a Travelsphere tour of Canada just as the country was getting into party mood to mark its 150th anniversary.

Towering carved totems stare down at us with bright vacant eyes as we gaze up from below. Totems, or story poles, are carved by First Nation peoples and tell tales of an ancient land full of wildlife, water, ice and snow. Eagles are prominent on totems as are toads, birds of prey and indigenous people. I spot a bald eagle circling overhead as we take in the mysticism and magic of this moment. With stunning views of the sparkling city of Vancouver just across the water from this very spot, I feel transported.

Modern day tourists may think Canada is all about maple syrup, ice hockey and mounted police but they are only scratching the surface of this magnificent and fascinating land.

Canada is the second largest country in the world, and on a 17-day trip, I only see a tiny fraction of its vast expanse. It is a place of superlatives – the biggest urban park in the world, some of the lowest temperatures on record, bordering three of the largest bodies of water in the world and, uniquely, in Collingswood, Ontario, there is the largest Elvis Impersonation Contest on the planet! 

Vancouver is considered one of the healthiest places to live on the earth (another superlative).  Sushi is hugely popular here with fresh fish readily accessible to most residents. Incredible markets such as the one on Granville Island feature top meat and charcuterie producers, bakeries, donut shops and much more. Tree-filled parks and beachfronts, as well as petite city spaces, are filled with residents going for a jog, walking their dog or doing a morning work-out.

But this is the end of our trip and it is the journey to get to Vancouver that is truly remarkable… travelling on the historic Rocky Mountaineer train from Banff. This iconic train is unique because, over the heads of passengers, are dome-shaped glass roofs to optimise viewing.

The SilverLeaf service single-level dome coaches were built in Montreal in the 1950s and were fully remodelled in 2012, while the Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf bi-level dome coaches were custom-built by Colorado Railcar. The bi-level coaches have a dining area below and passenger level above, again with the shatter-proof glass overhead dome. 

Landscapes, wild animals, glaciers, mountains, lakes and tiny towns all whizz by on this journey to the ocean. The Rocky Mountaineers Mile Post Magazine, along with the hosts on board, broadcast information about the scenery we travel through and it is riveting stuff. 

We pass Hell’s Gate Canyon, which was first seen by 19th century explorer Simon Fraser. We learn about the last spike of the railway, which is an iron nail as opposed to the gold ones which were historically used, and we see the marker for the Continental Divide not far from Lake Louise. 

On the first day of our two-day trip, we get into Kamloops quite late due to an earlier delay.  But staff on board Rocky Mountaineer are so attentive and intuitive, they make sure everyone is offered supper so they can go straight to bed on reaching their hotel. 

The beginning of the tour is also remarkable as I have never been to Quebec. Visiting French-speaking Canada is something I have been looking forward to with anticipation. Sadly, Montreal is in the grip of a cold snap when we arrive and so isn’t showing us her best side, except the Basilica of Notre Dame which is staggeringly beautiful. But nothing can dampen the trip the following day to Quebec City. The walled city is truly a surprise, particularly as it is the only fortress to survive intact in North America. But it is the Fairmont Hotel Le Château de Frontenac, perched aloft in the highest part of the city that takes my breath away. I am simply mesmerised by her beauty. 

Early on, during a short tour, we hear about the battle on the Plains of Abraham – interesting as it sealed the fate of French Canada – and we also learn about the 150th anniversary of the confederacy, which is being celebrated this summer.  But what I enjoy the most about Quebec and Quebec City is hearing French being spoken and enjoying the French sense of style that has infiltrated this part of the world. I even try a dish called Poutine. But discover that as it is cheesy chips with gravy, it is more a British dish with a French moniker.

As celebrations get into full swing for the anniversary, this is a perfect time to visit Canada. But if you don’t make it this summer, not to worry, there is ample time to make plans for next year.