Ride the coasts of North America

By Pamela Wade

Enjoy snow-capped ranges, striking glaciers and exotic wildlife from the comfort of a carriage, writes Pamela Wade.

The Rocky Mountaineer traverses some of Canada's most spectacular landscapes. Photo / Rocky Mountaineer
The Rocky Mountaineer traverses some of Canada's most spectacular landscapes. Photo / Rocky Mountaineer

No worries about driving on the wrong side of the road, no bitter recriminations over missed turns, no unwittingly passing the locations of momentous events - instead, room to move, food, drink and commentary mean that travelling by train beats a self-drive holiday hands down.

For a no-worries and relaxing break, here are five of the best journeys on the scenic west coast of North America.

1. Alaska Railroad's Coastal Classic, Alaska

Route: Between Anchorage and Seward, four hours, 20 minutes one way, daily May to September.

Scenery score: 8/10 for Turnagain Arm, snow-capped Kenai Range, glaciers, reflecting lakes and impressive zig-zags up to Moose Pass. Extra points for the mountain goats.

Experience: Early start (6.45am) but the upper-level GoldStar Service eases the pain with a dome car, reclining seats and free refreshments. There's an outdoor viewing area downstairs for fresh air and photographs, and the excellent commentary can be heard there, too.

Tip: Sit on the right going south. There's a dining car for those doing the return journey.

Hotels: Hotel Seward has unique decor in the foyer; Copper Whale Inn, Anchorage.

2. White Pass and Yukon Route, Alaska

Route: From Skagway to White Pass, three-and-a-half hours' return, twice daily May to September.

Scenery score: 10/10. A steep climb from sea-level to alpine, tunnels, trestle bridges, snowy peaks, mirror lakes, precipitous drop-offs.

Experience: An unmissable optional excursion for those on an Alaskan cruise: riding in vintage carriages behind a steam engine built in 1947. The historic narrow-gauge track follows the route trodden by stampeders in the gold rush of 1897-8 and the commentary sounds more like an adventure story.

Tip: Choose the rear carriage for photos of the train on bends, but be prepared to jostle for space on the tiny open platform.

Hotel: Your own cruise ship - Silversea recommended.

3. Rocky Mountaineer's First Passage to the West, Canada

Route: Vancouver to Banff, two days, overnighting in a hotel in Kamloops (train continues to Calgary), April to October.

Scenery score: 9/10 for spectacular mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and lakes, Hell's Gate and the engineering triumph of the Spiral Tunnels.

Experience: The GoldLeaf service dome car is the best way to appreciate the scenery, although all that food and comfort can lead to a counter-productive temptation to snooze. Lunch and dinner downstairs, by big windows, were delicious and unhurried, beautifully served, and the wine generous. The commentary was interesting and wide-ranging, though you can't hear it on the viewing deck. This is a deservedly famous train journey. In Kamloops, the BC Wildlife Park is well worth a visit for close-ups with Canadian wildlife, including bears. Our hotel in Kamloops was arranged by Rocky Mountaineer.

Tip: Sit at the back, upstairs. Second sitting for dinner is late, but gets added cheese.

4. VIA's The Canadian, Canada

Route: Jasper to Vancouver, 19 hours overnight (train runs from Toronto to Vancouver), two to three days weekly, year-round.

Scenery score: 6/10 simply because this is a sleeper service. However, before it gets dark, crossing the divide there are mountains, tumbling rivers, forest and a first-class waterfall.

Experience: Refurbished 1950s stainless steel carriages are equipped for sleeper passengers with dome cars and a lounge with games and free refreshments. Dinner in the dining car was very good and efficiently served, and mixing with the other passengers made for a sociable time.

Tip: Head straight up to the dome car to claim a seat and wait for the champagne and canapes. Some carriages are newer than others - explore right to the end (good exercise for legs, and arms). Make sure your suitcase doesn't exceed 23kg.

Hotel: Try the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

5. Rocky Mountaineer's Sea to Sky Climb, Canada

Route: Vancouver to Whistler, three-and-a-half hours, five days a week, year-round.

Scenery score: 7/10 for Howe Sound's milky blue waters, the rafted logs, waterfalls, the Coast Mountains and dizzying Cheakamus Canyon with its roaring waters.

Experience: Even on a rainy morning, the platform staff, and all the regular Vancouver window wavers saw us off as we ate a hot breakfast at our seats upstairs in the Dome Service carriage. The Sound with its colourful settlements gave way to a narrow, rocky gorge and glacier-scraped bare peaks. Criss-crossing the river, we went through nine tunnels, passed the 70m Brandywine Falls and saw a billion trees. The train slowed for the scenic highlights, and an open-sided heritage observation car allowed for raindrop-free photographs. The commentary was interesting and complimentary drinks and snacks were constantly offered.

Tip: Sit on the left going north and dress warmly for the viewing car. There will always be a tree in the middle of your photos.

Hotel: Fairmont Chateau Whistler and one of the three in Vancouver.

CHECKLIST

World Journeys, specialists in itineraries for both independent travellers and escorted small groups, has a range of rail options in North America.

The writer travelled with some assistance from World Journeys.

- NZ Herald

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