Canada: Sea to sky by rail

By Joanne Carroll

Canada's beautiful Rocky Mountains are best enjoyed by train, writes Joanne Carroll.

The Rocky Mountaineer rail service. Photo / Rocky Mountaineer Canada
The Rocky Mountaineer rail service. Photo / Rocky Mountaineer Canada

Whistler is Queenstown on steroids. It's bigger, but the vibe is the same: tourist resort, party town and an adventurer's playground all surrounded by spectacular scenery. It's an all-year resort and well worth a visit in summer, when the ski slopes turn into a mountain bike park, the lake melts for canoeing trips and the sun shines to a pleasant 23C.

It's about an hour by road from Vancouver to Whistler but for a wonderful experience the Rocky Mountaineer train takes a more scenic route over three hours.

The Sea to Sky Climb is an amazing journey between Vancouver and Whistler, weaving through mountains, canyons, rivers and lakes, following a historic rail route. The train travels about 40km/h so you have time to view the unique vantage points along Howe Sound, including waterfalls, rainforests and mountains. The highlight is Cheakamus Canyon.

The train is custom-designed with huge windows and an open-air heritage observation car which was built in 1914.

In the Whistler Dome Service carriages attendants serve a hot breakfast and give a commentary on the sights, including the wildlife. Black bears in their natural habitat are easy to spot in spring and summer.

The Rocky Mountaineer also travels across the Canadian Rocky Mountains to Jasper and Calgary. It's a fun, beautiful and relaxing way to travel from the city to the mountain resort.

Up to 2.1 million visitors come to Whistler every year to stay in the picturesque village surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains.

The gondola to Whistler Blackcomb mountain is the recommended first port of call. Blackcomb is the most popular ski resort in North America and was host to last year's Winter Olympics. It covers 3277ha and 38 chairlifts give access to skifields, about 200 trails and three glaciers. It's a tramper's paradise.

Once at the top, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola takes you 4.4km across the valley to the top of Whistler mountain, revealing views of the Coast Mountain Ranges and Whistler Lakes. The gondola, opened in 2008, is the world's longest continuous lift system.

Outdoorsy types have plenty to choose from, including mountain-biking, tramping and zip-trekking.

For milder activity, an afternoon of canoeing and biking is open to all levels of fitness. Whistler Eco Tours can take you on a guided 1.5km canoe ride down the River of Golden Dreams. It's a calm, meandering river that flows into Green Lake. The small river takes you through beautiful scenery and you can stop paddling to enjoy the flora and fauna on the way.

The company also offers bike hire for a cycle around the lake.

When you want to relax, the Scandinave Spa's bath are a must. The spa is an outdoor experience overlooking the landscape of Whistler - hydrotherapy in the heart of nature. You can drift between hot baths, steam rooms and saunas into cold waterfalls, baths and showers. Massages, ranging from hot stone, Swedish and deep-tissue, relieve aching muscles.

Afterwards, head into Whistler Village, a bustling centre with about 200 shops supplying everything from ski and adventure wear to high-end fashion, art and jewellery.

The Fairmont Chateau hotel, at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain, is a chateau-style hotel with top facilities - every room has an outdoor spa and you are greeted with handmade chocolates.

The hotel's Wildflower restaurant serves delicious dishes inspired by local ingredients, such as the Dungeness crab cake and maple syrup-glazed salmon.

The chocolate fondue for two is an amazing treat after a day on the mountain, complete with fresh fruit, meringue, banana bread, dark and milk chocolate.

One of Whistler's newest restaurants, Alta Bistro, is also worth a visit. It offers a three-course set menu for only $19. The menu is a mixture of the finest local food and changes depending on the season.

The local wines are organic, biodynamic or sustainable - and all them delicious.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates direct flights between Auckland and Vancouver and also offers a daily service on Air New Zealand and partner airlines via Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Further information: See whistler.com.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 23 Oct 2014 11:48:53 Processing Time: 762ms