- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

Outside two large windows, snowflakes glaze the mountain treetops, while inside — where it’s 60 degrees warmer — champagne chills in a silver ice bucket, freshly cut flowers sprout from a vase, and chocolates tempt the lucky occupants of a king-size bed with cozy down comforter.

Oh, and upon awakening in this brilliant winter wonderland, passengers are served breakfast for two — in bed. This is not your typical winter resort. Would you believe the train?

“We want everybody to enjoy the scenery and the trip,” says Maurice Desaulniers, onboard service manager for VIA Rail Canada’s classic wintertime rail journey, the Snow Train to Jasper.

Given that I would be skiing solo, I hadn’t booked VIA’s Romance by Rail package, but I was happy to discover that my single berth aboard this time-honored 1954-55 stainless-steel train — original art-deco cars of the old Canadian Pacific Railroad — provided the same amenities, sans the flowers.

Via Rail Canada was established by the Canadian government in 1977 as the country’s national passenger train service, similar to Amtrak in the United States. The line operates despite funding cuts and reduced runs over the past two decades. Proof pours from frosty bottles of French champagne uncorked in the train’s acclaimed Bullet Lounge, where I pluck appetizers from a silver tray.

Exclusively reserved for Silver & Blue Class passengers, the bullet-shaped lounge has wrap-around windows offering a spectacular, always-changing view of the Canadian Rockies and its many occupants. (Sixty-nine species of animals live in these woods.) Just eight carpeted steps above the lounge, every seat is front-row in the popular 360-degree dome.

“We see lots of wildlife on virtually every run,” Silver & Blue Class entertainment director Tracy MacLean tells me in the adjacent Mural Lounge, where I belly up to the bar. “I’ve seen thousands of head of elk, and there’s lots of bighorn sheep — mule deer and whitetail deer are everywhere — and moose, lynx, caribou, coyote and lots of wolves.”

The Mural Lounge, directly beneath the 360-degree dome, is famous for its Canadian art collection. My fellow rail riders find its booths the perfect place to play Scrabble while sipping wine.

In fact, every car on the Snow Train, including its comfortable economy class, features an original painting by a well-known Canadian artist. A Richard Lacroix work,”Boreal,” hangs in my car. Then there’s the dining car with its etched-glass dividers. A fine selection of hot meals is served here morning, noon and night, complemented by wines, white linen and silverware. I’m most impressed, though, with the antique cars that provide all this splendor.

“We have 170 stainless-steel ‘manor cars,’ and right now we’re buying more from Europe,” Mr. Desaulniers says. “They are acid-washed three to four times each year, and they come back shiny as new. Stainless steel will never wear out.”

My rail journey begins in Vancouver, easily reached via Toronto aboard Air Canada from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Given that the Snow Train doesn’t depart downtown Vancouver until 5:30 p.m., I have several hours to explore Canada’s most hip if not cosmopolitan city. (More than half of Vancouver’s children have been raised speaking a language other than English, especially Chinese.)

My best discoveries are the shops and restaurants in yuppie Yaletown, a renovated warehouse district where favorite pastimes are reading newspapers and sipping caffe latte, preferably with a dog at your feet; Granville Island Public Market on the shores of False Creek, a feast for the senses with its amazing selection of produce, meats and seafood that beats any I have encountered anywhere; the cobblestone streets of Gastown (smaller, but similar to Georgetown); Stanley Park (President Clinton’s favorite jogging path is along the park’s 61/2-mile sea wall); and, last but not least, one of the largest Chinatowns east of the Yangtze River.

But I’m here to catch a train. All aboard.

It has been written that VIA Rail’s Canadian train is so close to the heart and history of Canada that it’s difficult to separate one from the other. “It runs through the nation like an artery,” a route guide proclaims.

The entirely uphill Vancouver (coastal) to Jasper (mountain) Snow Train leg, departing Vancouver on Fridays, Sundays and Tuesdays, takes about 17 hours, with the shiny silver train winding its way, sometimes precariously, through British Columbia towns and outposts christened with names such as Chilliwack, Boston Bar, Kamloops and Blue River.

Outside Boston Bar (population 890), the train creeps above Hell’s Gate, the most famous stretch of rapids in British Columbia. The current is so strong here that a fish ladder was built to help the salmon swim, or should I say “climb,” upstream to spawn.

The sun rises several hours before we glide past towering Mount Robson, the “Monarch of the Canadian Rockies,” said to be visible for 13 miles of the Snow Train’s journey. On this wintry day, though, the massive peak is shrouded by snow that is still falling as we chug into Jasper, so unique, sleepy and distant from the rest of Canada that it wasn’t officially designated a township until 2001.

Surrounding the village of mainly shops and restaurants and about a four-hour drive north of Banff, is Jasper National Park, the largest of all Rocky Mountain parks and an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also home to Columbia Mountain, at 12,293 feet the highest peak in Alberta, although it’s difficult to pinpoint, given a thousand snowcapped peaks in the park.

A five-minute taxi ride up Highway 16 from the Jasper train station takes me to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, where “lodge” is the operative word. The forest hideaway began as an eight-bungalow wilderness retreat a century ago and has grown into a 903-acre luxury resort, albeit retaining its many chalets and log-cabin-feel. This, after all, is what drew the Rockefellers, Kennedys and Queen Elizabeth II to the place for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

I’m here just five minutes and surprise myself by strapping on a pair of cross-country skis for a breathtaking sunset glide around the shoreline of Lac Beauvert. (OK, I was encouraged by a lady writer for Ski magazine staying in my lodge.)

Moments later, we are literally stunned in our tracks to ski past a stand of trees and come face-to-face with a huge elk, its impressive rack wider than I could stretch my arms. Never approach an elk, or moose, for that matter. They can charge and inflict as much bodily harm as a grizzly bear.

We trudge on, telemarking past the resort’s picturesque Point Cabin, one of Marilyn Monroe’s favorite escapes, with five bedrooms, a grand stone fireplace and woodsy accents. My favorite of these cabins, which are available year-round, is the Gardener’s Cottage, with its sunken sitting room and pool table.

New to the Jasper Park Lodge is Executive Chef Michael Mandato, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y. After working in several upscale New York and Toronto restaurants, he joined the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto as executive sous-chef in 2001.

Cooking with fresh regional offerings from Alberta, Mr. Mandato brings us Snow Train arrivals together in the Gardener’s Cottage and served a prairie mushroom consomme, smoked honey-glazed Marieville duck breast, and a spiced rack of venison. Oh, and for dessert, peppermint creme brulee, sour cherries and a fireweed-honey Anglaise.

Gourmet sustenance, surely, for the next day’s visit to Marmot Basin, the world-renowned downhill ski area in Jasper National Park. Several times each day, a 20-minute shuttle departs the Fairmont packed with skiers, although the resort is never packed. In fact, a lift line has never been seen here.

Talk about a mesmerizing view.

Marmot is “one of the most beautiful places on Earth [for] skiers, boarders and mountain enthusiasts,” says John Day, chairman of the board of the resort’s owners. OK, so he’s partial to his business interests, but as one who spent his early journalism career living and skiing in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, I have to concur.

Foremost, there are no icy patches spoiling Marmot’s slopes. The resort is too far north (the average December temperature is 12 degrees, although it rises to a balmy 27 degrees in February) for much melting to take place. Falling on its packed powder is like falling onto a feather bed. I later read that Marmot’s alpine bowls have the driest natural powder (160 inches’ worth) in the Rockies.

All told, Marmot has 84 trails and bowls crisscrossing almost 1,700 wilderness acres; the longest run is an amazing 3.5 miles. Two new bowls that have just opened this year are the Birthday Bowl and Sugar Bowl, expanding the upper slopes by almost 40 percent. Don’t worry about climbing aboard the wrong chair, though: Novice, intermediate and expert runs are offered off all nine lifts.

Still, given these ideal conditions, don’t be intimidated by all the black- and double-black-diamond runs (40 percent of Marmot’s trails are expert). Go for it.

• • •

Air Canada has numerous daily flights departing all three Washington-area airports. Call Air Canada at 888/247-2262 or visit www.aircanada.com.

VIA Rail Canada’s Snow Train (888/842-7245) provides service to Jasper three times weekly from both Vancouver and Edmonton. Jasper is 31/2 hours due west of Edmonton, 41/2 hours northwest of Calgary.

The Fairmont Waterfront Hotel is in the heart of Vancouver’s harbor, within walking distance of Stanley Park and Gastown; 866/540-4509 or visit www.fairmont.com.

The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (800/441-1414) provides, in addition to luxury cabins and chalets, a variety of accommodations, including the Main Lodge. The Great Hall has a fireplace worthy of its name, with abundant seating. There also are a health club, heated outdoor pool, sauna, steam baths and a shopping promenade for clothing and gifts. Cross-country skis and horse-drawn wagon rides are available by contacting the front desk. If the snow ever melts, a world-class golf course is right outside your cabin door.

Marmot Basin offers a variety of ski packages and lessons; call 780/852-3816 or visit www.skimarmot.com.

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