Canada Day 10 – Calgary

As Craig had planned to go on a mountain hike with our new local friend, I decided to stick around Calgary and wander around with my camera.

I finally made it outside after lunch and wasn’t walking around for long before a heavy hail shower hit. I retired as quickly as I could to the shopping mall we had discovered on our first day in the city to keep out of the cold and the hail – no conditions for photography.

Finally the blue skies reappeared and after I regained my bearings, I headed for some of the areas of the city that we had seen the night before from the Calgary Tower.

The cold weather began to chill me and so I headed back to the hotel. Craig returned around 1800 after his mountain hike (by his description I was glad I had stayed in the city). We then made our way to The Keg – a steak restaurant that Craig knew from his previous visits to the city as BA cabin crew. The meal was rather better than the one we’d had on our first night at Ruth’s Chris and was quite a bit cheaper too.

Canada Day 9 – Fort Calgary & Military Museums

As the day was due to be wet and cold, we had targeted museums for the day.

Fort Calgary is on the western edge of the city and is where it all started. The fort was established by the then North Western Mounted Police (NWMP) who were the force establishing law and order and overseeing the implementation of Treaty 7, which formed the basis of agreement between the new settlers and the indigenous people of what would become south western Alberta. The fort was originally a rudimentary affair and nothing now exists of it – the site was later used for rail expansion and was only rescued from further development towards the end of the 20th Century. The fort’s outline is marked by art installations but there is not much to see. The museum alongside is however a fascinating place that explains the whole history of the site and the city of Calgary that it started.

The museum had a number of displays showing what life was like in and around the fort for the NWMP, who later became RNWMP and then merged with another force to become the modern RCMP that we know today.

As well as cells and a carpenter’s workshop, there were recreations of a typical surgery, drugstore etc that were similar to those we’d seen the previous day at the Historical Village. The displays then moved on to show 20th century Calgary as it developed into the city it is today.

When we emerged from the museum, the sky was throwing sleet and hail through a biting wind and we walked as quickly as we could to take shelter beneath the canopy of the impressive Central Library, before taking an Uber to the Military Museums – with all three of Canada’s armed services represented there.

We started with the Army Museum, which explained the army’s roles in wars and later UN peacekeeping and observer roles. The horror of the First World War were explained, including Canada’s mounted regiments, before then covering the army’s role in the Second World War and then the Korean War. A Ford jeep, as often seen in the TV series M*A*S*H was displayed, along with accounts of UN roles in the Balkan war and other global flashpoints. The displays referenced some actions that some may wish to forget but which reflected the sometimes -confused rules of engagement and poor oversight by the UN.

After the Army Museum, we went onto the Air Force Museum which described the early beginnings of flying in Canada, their role in the First World War and then a little more about the Second World War, where Canadian crews lost many thousands of men in the Allies’ bombing campaigns. Many Canadians were stationed in the airbases that once covered Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, with familiar airfield names like Leeming, Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth and Middleton St. George (now Teesside International Airport).

Some very moving film footage was also being shown in a small theatre. As well as a film depicting a tragic raid over Berlin, in which local Alberta airmen were lost, a second film showed another airman’s experiences and his risky journey into USSR-occupied Germany to find the grave of his brother who was lost in that Berlin raid. Finally, incredible but chilling footage was shown from Luftwaffe fighter aircrafts’ gun cameras. The film showed the cannon fire from these fighters damaging and destroying Allied bombers. It was moving to realise that we were watching the last moments of some bomber crews’ lives in that footage.

By this time, the museums were not far from closing for the day and so we had little time to discover the Naval Museum. Being rather smaller than a naval vessel (and very much inland) the hall had various gun turrets, torpedoes, gun shells and an array of scale models of Canadian naval vessels. Given that my uncle visited Canada in the Navy at the very end of the Second World War, it is a shame that we hadn’t had enough time to see it all. I hope to put that right in Halifax…

Finally, after getting back to the hotel, we had some time to relax before going to our restaurant for an evening meal. We had booked into the revolving restaurant near the top of the Calgary Tower. While smaller in diameter and a little older, it brought back memories of dining at Auckland’s similar restaurant in its Sky Tower. Although already dark by the time that we were dining, it was still fascinating to watch the city unfold far below us. Our helpful waiter was very happy to help identify landmarks and the mix of period buildings and modern skyscrapers in the downtown area was very apparent, as was the network of enclosed elevated walkways that are characteristic of the city and which come in useful during its harsh winters.

Canada Day 8 – Calgary Historical Village

On our first full day in the city, we were keen to visit the Historical Village on the southern outskirts. With one of the C-Train lines out of action, we caught an Uber there, although could have used the busway which stopped very close by. The Historical Village was a similar sort of tourist attraction to the Beamish site back in North East England, primarily focusing on the early years of settlement in Canada’s west.

Having entered the park, the first attraction was Gasoline Alley. As its name might suggest, this was focused on cars but in fact there were lots of original gas (petrol) pumps throughout the display and several period tankers and breakdown trucks too, including the very earliest type with a basic pulley on the back of a truck. As would be expected, the focus was on rural vehicles that were in use in the Canadian outback and prairies and dated back to the earliest days of cars and trucks, including a Model T Ford. While most vehicles were in immaculate condition, some were displayed as they had been found, with rotted wooden elements and some of the metal elements rusted away. With some of the early vehicles on show, the very basic mechanics were clear to see. There were also some beautiful 1930s era cars, like the 1932 Auburn sedan shown below. The display was quite fascinating and well thought through.

1932 Auburn Sedan at Gasoline Alley, Calgary Historical Village

Having had our fill of all things gasoline, we visited the home of the equivalent to the UK’s suffragette – led by 5 women striving to be allowed to vote.

Next, we caught the park’s steam train around to the other side of the park. The locomotive was a very archetypal American-style example with cow-catcher and a Pacific 4-6-0 axle arrangement. Its whistle echoed through the park all day. It was only a short ride to the other side of the park and we alighted in the actual village, with a range of period shops, a hotel and civic buildings. Some of the buildings were replicas, but we learned that most had been moved there in one piece.

After buying a huge ice cream from the dairy, we wandered through the village. Staff seemed to be mainly volunteers and all were delighted to talk to us as foreign tourists. We were visiting Calgary as a mayoral election was looming and, not wanting to miss out, the village was holding their own election for mayor. A small acting troupe were recreating a number of hustings scenes throughput the day, with a woman seeking election and a rather stupid man campaigning against her with his wife as his agent. We also learned the running joke that the village’s current mayor was always napping during the day and unable to attend the hustings. All good fun and attracted quite a crowd.

The Village had a replica grain elevator/silo for storing grain and transshipping to wagons. Canada’s west was built up around the Canadian Pacific railway line. We’d already heard on the Rocky Mountaineer that stations were generally 8 miles apart because 4 miles was the maximum distance that a farmer could travel to take their crop to the railway for transhipment and still get home to their farms that same night. The railway company built the grain facilities, similar to that replicated here, to service the farms within 4 miles radius and then towns grew up around those. Some towns never thrived and subsequently died, but even now this pattern of development can be seen across the west, even after their original purpose has disappeared.

The town’s newspaper office was working too; the linotype lettering and engravings of a newspaper page being constructed in front of us. In the blacksmiths, a volunteer was working hard fashioning items from iron, while the reconstructed roundhouse had large snow ploughs and various track maintenance vehicles, along with a sister locomotive to the one we’d ridden behind but which had been converted to diesel. The building also had an iconic caboose – the brake van characteristic of North American freight trains, with a raised lookout post for the brakeman to watch the train and communicate with their colleague in the locomotive at the front.

The park also had a cottage hospital and a synogogue, with enthusiastic, chatty volunteers in period costume. The last building we visited, which was on a bit of high ground with views of the city, was a windmill. This particular example had been constructed without metal. The Eastern European family who’d originally built it had created components from bushel that had been cured into a very hard substance that was an old but effective alternative to metal. The family had apparently been gratified to find that the Canadian prairies were well suited to growing rye, which was familiar from their home country.

After returning from the village to the hotel, where we went for a couple of drinks in the bar, we later went to a ‘vegetarian forward’ restaurant, called Ten Foot Henry. While they had some menu items with meat ingredients, the majority were excellent vegetarian dishes, presented in a shared tapas style. Who knew that tomatoes on sour dough toast could taste so good? We were sat at a counter by the kitchen and could see the kitchen staff working very hard throughout the evening to create dishes for us and the other patrons; we were mesmerised by their hard work and speed.

Canada Day 6: Banff Gondola

We awoke to a surprise, snow was falling in Banff. The snow was quite heavy for a short while and gave the mountains a bit of a dusting, but by the time we had finished breakfast it had largely disappeared.

The plan for the day was to walk up to the Banff Gondola and take that to the top of a nearby mountain for some (hopefully!) spectacular views.

Google Maps and Apple Maps didn’t quite agree on the route, but the shorter route shown by Apple seemed logical and feasible so we took that. The Google route seemed to use roads, while Apple suggested a walk up through the trees. It soon became clear that the Apple Maps route was fine and we followed a track through the trees up the hillside. It was hard going at times due to the steepness of the track but we saved an hour and had a pleasant walk.

At the Gondola, we bought our tickets (about CA$50 each) and had little or no wait until we were ushered into a gondola and were on our way up. The views of the hotel and the mountains were spectacular as we soared over the treetops. We had a gondola to ourselves – two people in a cabin designed for four – so could really enjoy the views without getting in other passengers’ way. It only took about 5 minutes to reach the top and compared to other cable cars, was a fairly tame experience in terms of height above the ground below. Mer de Glacé in Chamonix and Montserrat near Barcelona remain my favourites!

At the top of the mountain was a visitor centre, with a small exhibition, a restaurant and a (closed) cafe. There was a viewing platform on the roof of the centre as well as a boardwalk stretching away from the visitor centre to the site of an old cosmic ray survey station on a slightly higher peak 200m or so away.

After enjoying the view from the rooftop viewing platform, we descend to the boardwalk and set off for the peak. The snow at this higher altitude had not completely thawed and a staff member was scraping the snow off where it had accumulated. The boardwalk was quite busy but gave some spectacular views across the Rockies around Banff. It wasn’t even particularly cold.

We’d been given a 90 minute stay at the top of the mountain (although you can have more time if you’re dining at the restaurant and can delay return when you’re at the top) . Our allotted time was perfect for walking to the old Cosmic Ray survey station and back with the slow pace required when taking lots of photos!

After returning to the lower gondola station, we headed back down the way we’d come. Within 5 minutes though, Craig pointed out a deer beside the track 100m or so away. A fawn joined the deer and we watched and photographed for a few minutes. Finally we walked slowly towards the deer so as not to startle them. We got very close before they moved away from us, but even then they seemed unconcerned.

A few hundred metres further down the path, we then heard and saw a squirrel in the trees. Again we stopped and watched for a few minutes and took some photographs.

After returning to the hotel, we had a free history tour booked. This was a fascinating insight into the hotel’s beginning, subsequent changes and a chance to walk around some parts we’d not seen. It really can feel like a castle sometimes!

For dinner, we were booked into the hotel’s own alpine-style restaurant in its grounds. The main theme of the food was fondue and so we shared a fantastic cheese fondue along with a schnitzel before having apple strudel (me) and a Black Forest dessert (Craig). We were sat beside a roaring log fire, which added to the atmosphere of the evening. At the end of the meal, we got chatting to a lady and her daughter at an adjacent table and were the last customers out of the restaurant at 10pm!

Canada Day 5: Banff

The Banff Springs Hotel was originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to encourage travellers to stay there. In its heyday, it was the place to go in the Rockies. The hotel still has that grandeur and its setting is spectacular. It’s not a cheap place to stay, but few hotels in Banff are and the sense of magic of being in such a place is palpable.

View of the Rockies from Banff Springs Hotel bedroom

Inside, the hotel feels a bit like being in Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s school, or a castle.. or both. It’s quite a maze of rooms and corridors and its grounds are extensive, with a golf course by the river below the hotel. The town of Banff is about 20 minutes’ walk away and this is where we went for a walk after our breakfast of bacon, eggs, pastries & coffee.

The town is pretty, with its main street purposefully aligned between two mountains. Preparations were well advanced for Banff Pride (which we’d sadly miss) and rainbow banners adorned shops and lamp columns everywhere. As with many similar towns, there were many tourist-focused shops, but it still felt like a thriving town in its own right. We learned that, surprisingly due to its location in ski country, summer is is busiest season. On a sunny autumn day, the town looked stunning.

After a wander around a small Farmers’ Market, we headed along the river back to the hotel to get to the Bow River falls before walking up past the golf course to get back to the hotel; we had a lunchtime appointment at the hotel’s spa.

After the treat of a relaxing massage to try to rid us of jetlag, we were able to enjoy the spa’s mineral pool, hot pools, steam room and jacuzzis. One of the hot pools was outside the spa, with mountains looming all around us. Even in light rain it was a fantastic way to relax. We got chatting to a visitor from Calgary who was similarly treating himself for a special occasion and he gave us some tips for our next stop in his home city.

We had arranged a cocktail demonstration in the hotel bar that afternoon, which was quite good fun. I wasn’t a great fan of the cocktails demonstrated, but it was an interesting hour learning about some of the art and science involved.

In the evening, we went to one of the hotel’s restaurants – a tiny charcuterie place that created towers of meats and cheeses, adorned in pickles. Fantastically presented and delicious with it. The brilliant food was washed down with a fantastic bottle of red wine.

Canada Day 4: Kamloops to Banff

The Rocky Mountaineer was scheduled to leave Kamloops at 0700 and so we were picked up by coach from our hotel, with other passengers, just after 0600. 

Overnight, the train had gained a couple of carriages and an additional locomotive – presumably for the climb into the Rockies. 

The rear half of our carriage were called to breakfast soon after we left Kamloops, while we were given coffee and cheese scones. 

We were following the lakeside out of Kamloops and, as on the previous day, we found it relaxing to take in the scenery. We were soon called to our breakfast after the first sitting had finished. We were sat again with the lovely honeymooning couple from the previous day and quickly picked up our conversation from where we’d left off. Rather than having Eggs Benedict twice running, I chose a sunrise skillet – a mix of potato & sausage with a fried egg atop. All was of course washed down with plentiful coffee. 

Soon, we started climbing into the Rockies and the scenery became ever more spectacular. It’s hard to describe how stunning the view was outside the window. I took the opportunity of half the carriage having their lunch to stay on the outside vestibule a bit longer with my camera. 

Although it felt like we’d only recently finished breakfast, we were soon called for our own lunch after the other sitting had finished and the dining area had been reset. The main menu had not changed, although the starter and dessert was different. I had the steak, which was superb – some going when it had been cooked in a small, moving galley. 

By the time we finished our lunch, it wasn’t long until we reached one of the rail highlights of the journey- the spiral tunnels. 

The original line had been built as quickly as possible with a steep gradient but this prices fatally dangerous and an alternative solution needed to be found. The solution was to change height by creating spiral tunnels within the adjacent mountains, so that the necessary change in levels could be achieved at a gentler, safer gradient. As we negotiated the spiral, we exited the first tunnel with mountains changed from one side of the train to the other and the track we’d just been on far below us. We then navigated the second spiral so that we were again travelling in the right direction and higher again. 

By this time, in the mountains, the light was beginning to go from the sky but we could still enjoy the stunning glacial scenery outside. By the time we got to Lake Louise, where a few passengers were to disembark, it was dark. 

Finally, around 8pm we ended our journey just up the line in Banff – the limit of passenger rail operation on the Canadian Pacific line. We were again met by a fleet of coaches ready to take the 300 or so remaining passengers to their accommodation. 

Finally, we arrived at the Banff Springs Hotel, overlooking the town of Banff, tired but exhilarated after finishing one of the world’s Great Railway Journeys, and possibly the best rail journey I’ve ever made.