VANCOUVER, British Columbia — As I stood on an observation deck overlooking this beautiful city, often voted by travelers as the world's favorite destination, I breathed in the combined scents of sea air and evergreen forest, and marveled that it could be so balmy, 50 degrees, in March.
I needn't have worried. If I had wanted something more evocative of Canada in late winter, I had only to wait. A few days later, I was far away from the Pacific Coast in the hinterlands of Alberta at Lake Jasper National Park, and the temperatures had dropped considerably, to 20 below zero.
Ah, now that's more like it.
I had traveled from Vancouver to Jasper National Park by Via Rail, that most elegant method of transport, and temperatures aside, it is a journey I highly recommend, not the least because it actually combines three vacations in one.
The pearl of British Columbia, Vancouver, which is gearing up for the 2010 Winter Olympics, is a feast for the senses. In addition to the breathtaking visual fabric of Pacific vistas, snow-capped mountains, evergreen forests and futuristic buildings, there's the tangy scent of cedar and pine groves that ring the city or the ethnic nosegays of saffron in Little India, orange blossom tea in Chinatown, and oregano and basil in the Italian district's markets. Ears will be soothed by the chime of church bells or the clip-clop of horses pulling sightseeing carriages.
The best way to see Vancouver is not by carriage but by foot as it is a great walking city with well-defined neighborhoods. Two of my favorites are Gastown and Chinatown.
Gastown, the oldest part of the city, stretches from Canada Place to Maple Tree Square along the bustling harbor. Walk the cobbled streets with their turn-of-the-century lanterns, and you will find the history of Vancouver — the ghosts of renegades and rogues, prospectors and fancy ladies — all those who had a hand in shaping the raw frontier outpost into today's cosmopolitan city.
At opposite ends of Gastown stand two of its icons: a statue of "Gassy Jack," the legendary saloonkeeper for whom the area is named, and the famous steam clock, 17 feet tall, weighing 2 tons and powered almost entirely by steam.
A few blocks away is North America's second-largest (after San Francisco) Chinatown. Its oddities include the world's narrowest office building and one of the only full-scale classical Chinese gardens outside of China. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, modeled after the classical gardens of the Ming Dynasty, are cloistered behind the Chinese Cultural Centre, which offers guided walking tours of the area.
The Chinese weren't the only ethnic group to leave their mark on Vancouver. Punjabi Market in Little India is a hub of activity for the large Indian community, and Little Italy is a colorful melange of shops, bakeries and restaurants.
Among the city's other sights not to be missed are the 1,000-acre Stanley Park, with its secluded walking trails and 8-mile seawall bordering the harbor; one of the world's largest collections of Northwest Coast native artifacts at the Anthropology Museum on the campus of the University of British Columbia; and Granville Island, especially at night when it comes alive with restaurants, jazz cabarets and innovative theater.
At 4,200 square miles, Jasper National Park is the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, an ecological marvel composed of rugged mountain ranges (younger than their U.S. cousins, the Canadian Rockies are less eroded), deep valleys, forests, alpine meadows, hot springs, waterfalls, wild rivers and the glaciers of the Columbia Icefield.
Seeing this vast expanse completely covered in a dazzling blanket of white and encrusted in a prison of ice left me with a dual feeling: awe that something could be so beautiful and fear that something could be so immense and untamed. Adding to the fear factor was the knowledge that this is the only place in southern Canada where the entire gamut of carnivores — from grizzly bears to wolves — roams freely. Although at this time of year they had better sense than their human counterparts and were cozily ensconced in some warm chamber for the winter.
I was soon to join them. My final destination was the Jasper Park Lodge, a rustic retreat overlooking Lac Beauvert. From a humble beginning as a tent camp in 1915, it became one of the luxurious hotels operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad that spanned the country, from the Maritime Provinces in the east to the Pacific Coast in the west. Today, these hotels and resorts are run by Fairmont Hotel Co.
My lodgings were in the Outlook Cabin (forget any notion of a cabin you might have had), a six-bedroom stunner complete with living room, dining room and kitchen that got the royal seal of approval after the 2005 stay of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, who were in Alberta to celebrate the province's centennial. Since their visit, Outlook Cabin has been known as the Royals' Retreat.
Indeed it was, royal and a retreat. While one gentleman in my party valiantly hiked the nearby Maligne Canyon — encrusted with ice and snow though it was and with temperatures dipping to 20 below — I was content to sit in front of a roaring fire with a cup of tea and a good book, happy in the knowledge that that was what Elizabeth would have done.
One of the things I miss most about travel in the United States is the lack of a truly connective rail system such as the one completed by Canadian Pacific Co. in 1885, which served to link Canada from nearly coast to coast. Today, Via Rail is the epitome of the classic rail service associated with a bygone era. Its handsomely appointed carriages allow passengers the ultimate in comfort and convenience.
My overnight journey from Vancouver to Jasper was on the Canadian, where Silver and Blue class passengers get their own private sleeping cars. Not that you'll probably be in it all that much — there is too much more to tempt you. For example, cocktails in the Skyline or Park cars and dinner in the stylish dining car with fresh Canadian produce served on china, crystal and linen and accompanied by premium Canadian wines.
Most popular, however, is the train's glass-roofed observation dome, where you can relax and get a 360-degree view of the incomparable scenery without worrying about directions or how far it is to the next gas station.
The cosmopolitan quality of Vancouver, the rustic serenity of Jasper National Park and the romance of the rail on Via Rail combine to make a memorable travel experience.
IF YOU GO:
Western Canada on Via Rail
Where to stay:
• Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. With 556 rooms, the Absolute Spa, trendy 900 West Lounge and Griffins Restaurant, it's one of the city's premier hotels. 1-866-540-4452. www.fairmonthotel.com/vancouver.
• Jasper Park Lodge. Nestled between mountains and lakes in a UNESCO World Heritage site, this hideaway offers the ultimate Rocky Mountains lodge experience. The 441 guest rooms and suites are in either the main lodge or in cabins spread across the grounds. The Great Room, a comfortable spot for a morning coffee or evening cocktail, has floor-to-ceiling windows offering a spectacular panorama. The Lodge's Moose Nook Restaurant is a cozy retreat. 1-866-540-4454. www.fairmont.com/jasper.
Attractions: If you're up for the Maligne Canyon ice walk or other chilly adventures, you can arrange it through the Jasper Adventure Centre, Ltd. (780) 852-5595. www.jasperadventurecentre.com.
Booking on Via Rail: Via Rail offers 16 routes across Canada. The Vancouver-to-Jasper route is an overnight trip, and the fare includes all meals. To book, call 1-888-842-7245 or go to www.viarail.ca.