- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

VICTORIA, British Columbia — Following a narrow path that skirts a glass-smooth lake tinted blue by “rock flour” residue from nearby glaciers, I’m up close and personal with nature. Mountains soar overhead, hiding their snowcapped peaks in the clouds and providing a backdrop for the dramatic scene surrounding me.

The mood is very different in the tranquil setting of a Ming dynasty Chinese garden. Images of graceful pavilions and covered walkways are reflected in jade-green pools surrounded by willow, bamboo and delicate plants.

These landscapes exemplify the variety of scenic treasures that greet participants on a Rocky Mountaineer Vacations train trip. Vancouver, British Columbia, where a number of journeys begin, offers the attractions of a destination included on many lists of favorites.

The Banff-Lake Louise area at the other end of the line allows passengers alighting from their luxury ride on the rails to commune with nature at its best.

Vancouver has an idyllic location between the sea and towering mountains. Parks and green spaces dot the city’s urban landscape like squares on a checkerboard.

The proximity of ocean and forest provides a playground teeming with a long list of outdoor to-see’s and to-do’s. The diversity begins with the multicultural population.

Vancouver has the second-largest number of Chinese residents in North America, after San Francisco. One influx, mostly males, arrived from China during the gold rush in Canada, to be followed by another immigration wave brought in for construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1880s.

More recent arrivals have come from Thailand, Laos and other Southeast Asian countries. Other, much earlier travelers from that part of the world also impacted the region’s culture: Ancestors of present-day Indians began to arrive from Asia as long ago as 16000 B.C. Finding abundant seafood in the bays and wildlife roaming the forests, they settled in to stay.

The influence of people of the First Nations, as those original dwellers and their descendants are known in Canada, is everywhere. Intricately carved and brightly painted totem poles, which once guarded traditional houses and graves, today stand at a number of sites in Vancouver, serving as proud reminders of this native heritage.

Travelers can board authentic 45-foot-long oceangoing cedar canoes to experience the songs and legends of the Coast Salish culture. Members of the Squamish First Nation demonstrate their heritage as they preserve centuries-old customs such as spearfishing for salmon.

If you want to experience reminders of this Indian culture, along with other major sights of Vancouver, hop aboard a sightseeing trolley. Passengers may remain onboard for the two-hour tour, as drivers deliver information and unabashedly corny puns in equal doses.

I liked the opportunity to get off the trolley at any of 23 stops along the route, then reboard to continue the ride.

Stanley Park, a major trolley destination, is a Vancouver must-see that warrants a lingering look. This popular urban retreat sprawls over 1,000 acres and is large enough to encompass ecosystems as varied as shoreline, West Coast rain forest and freshwater environments dotted throughout.

The park is laced by 22 miles of inviting biking and hiking paths. My hourlong stroll led through dense woods, around marshy ponds and past fields where some of the 200 species of birds that live there or drop by during migrations joined in a symphony of song.

A much louder noise is heard at 9 p.m. each evening with the firing of an English sea cannon, which has stood in the park for more than 100 years. Originally set off at 6 p.m. to mark the time limit for fishermen, the cannon’s roar now serves as the signal for locals that the evening party hour has arrived.

Less noisy, but at times only slightly so, is Granville Island, a former industrial park that, despite its name, was built on a sandbar peninsula during the 1920s. After falling onto hard times during the Depression, it was rescued in the 1970s. Brightly painted warehouses and Quonset huts became homes to craft shops, artists’ studios, clothing stores and other retail and entertainment businesses.

Much of the action is centered at the Public Market, a sprawling covered space that houses row after row of produce tables and poultry stalls, seafood vendors and specialty shops. Takeout food counters are jammed with an eclectic crowd of laborers wearing work clothes, business people in the latest fashions and women out for a day of shopping.

Fish lined in perfect rows is so fresh that it looks as if it could jump out of the displays. Sausages, locally foraged mushrooms and even homemade chutneys are among items offered in more variety than I knew existed. Sweet smoked salmon lives up to its reputation as Indian candy.

Here, too, the Indian culture holds court. In addition to prints, blankets and jewelry, the Wickaninnish Gallery sells small medicine stones ($4) adorned with hand-painted crabs, lizards and other animals. According to lore, these trinkets combine the power of the pebble with characteristics of the animal depicted.

Items I spotted for sale at the nearby Creekhouse Gallery ranged from simple human figures carved out of caribou antler ($15 to $20) to foot-long mother-and-pup soapstone seals priced at $3,220.

After the hustle and bustle of Granville Island, the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden does, as its brochure proclaims, provide “refreshment for the heart.” That’s why officials, scholars and others of China’s traditional elite constructed such oases of calm and quiet at their homes.

Modeled after gardens created during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), the Vancouver version was built almost entirely of components shipped from China. Amazingly, every architectural structure was perfectly fitted in the traditional manner, with no screws, nails or glue.

Never before has the concept of balance between yin (female) and yang (male) been made so clear to me. Covered walkways (yin) are offset by pavilions (yang). Throughout the garden, light is balanced by dark; rugged and hard (rocks) are offset by soft and flowing (plants and flowers). So complete is the immersion in tranquillity that after departing through the Hall of One Hundred Rivers Courtyard, I was shocked back to reality by the clamor of the world outside.

Two other stops on the trolley tour route intrigued me enough to disembark. Yaletown is a far cry from its genesis as a somewhat run-down neighborhood of warehouses and industrial activity. While railroad tracks remain embedded in the streets, the old railway repair shed has been transformed into a community theater.

Warehouses have been restored as artists’ lofts, trendy restaurants and nightclubs. The low-profile refurbished industrial structures from the past rest in shadows cast by modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers that have risen close by.

Gastown is intriguing for several reasons, including that it is Vancouver’s birthplace. The colorful story is that in 1867, a riverboat captain named John Deighton showed up near what is now Stanley Park with a keg of whiskey, threw a plank across two barrels and began selling shots of the beverage to workers in nearby timber mills.

Deighton’s reputation as a talkative chap who on occasion stretched the truth earned him the nickname “Gassy Jack.” The community that rose around his place of business became Gassy’s Town, which, over time, evolved to its present derivation.

After degenerating to skid-row status, the area was restored during the 1970s with brick sidewalks, cobbled streets and renovated Victorian buildings. Restaurants, bars and boutiques attract visitors and locals.

A special, somewhat offbeat, attraction in the center of the action is the world’s first steam-powered clock, a Rube Goldberg-like contraption operated by chains and 2-ton steel weights that are visible through glass panels. Be sure to hang around and listen when the little steam engine sounds off, every quarter hour, tooting like an oversize tea kettle.

Passengers alighting from the train at the other end of the Vancouver-Banff-Lake Louise run are more likely to hear rushing rivers, the howl of a coyote and other sounds of the wild. This is Rocky Mountain country.

Banff, nestled in the Bow River Valley, is encircled by a rim of towering, sharp mountains that rise from the edge of town. The setting of Lake Louise, about 30 miles away, is even more dramatic, framed by mountains on either side with the majestic Victoria Glacier spilling down between them.

Even after viewing these images on many postcards, seeing them close up is a memorable experience. Soaring to more than 11,500 feet, the highest peaks are topped with snow year-round, providing a permanent white background for the green valleys below.

As a guide leading a hike around Lake Louise noted, “This is a place for experiential tourism.” Immerse yourself, rather than just gazing at the beauty of the area, to appreciate it to the fullest.

Hikes range from casual strolls along the shore of Lake Louise to challenging scrambles up steep hillsides. Going with a guide can add to the enjoyment.

I joined one group of hikers following a seemingly ageless leader named Bruce along a gentle path through the woods. On the way, he poetically likened the babbling of a brook to “a symphony for the soul” and described the scent of bark from a fir tree as “Rocky Mountain perfume.” Summing up his love for the area as the hike came to an end, Bruce murmured in a hushed, almost reverent tone, “This place seeps into your heart.”

I learned that the heart can be strenuously exercised when following the advice of another resident of the region, who implored, “Don’t just see — do.” There are plenty of choices for that.

In addition to hiking, exploring by land can mean road and mountain biking, climbing, and riding horses. Canoeing, rafting, fishing and boat tours offer opportunities to enjoy the lakes and rivers. Scenic flights and helicopter rides provide bird’s-eye views of the scenery as it stretches out in every direction to the horizon.

Those who prefer the views without the flight may prefer to hop aboard the gondola that glides to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, overlooking Banff, or another that provides spectacular views of Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier and the surrounding mountain peaks, including the Continental Divide west of Banff.

Even golfers on any of several valley courses enjoy close encounters with nature. One challenge is trying to keep your eye on the ball with so much beauty just off the fairways.

Another is occasional natural obstacles in the form of elk, bear and other animals that sometimes find the manicured grass to their liking. Where else do golf course rules state that a player whose ball happens to strike a bear may hit the shot over without a penalty — unless, of course, the bear decides to impose one.

The Banff and Lake Louise area and Vancouver attract visitors from around the world year-round. As an add-on to a Rocky Mountaineer train trip or other excursion, those destinations become very welcome icing on an enticing vacation cake.

The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise were constructed as part of a plan to combine first-class lodgings with train transportation during the late 1800s in order to attract passengers west to view the scenery. Both began as log structures with a few rooms, far different from their present manifestations as full-service hotels.

The Fairmont Banff Springs is nicknamed “Castle in the Rockies” because it is styled after baronial castles of Scotland. Vaulted ceilings, suits of armor and other touches add to its period look.

Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar in Vancouver serves modern Canadian cuisine in a 1912 Yaletown heritage building with high ceilings, vintage wood and old bricks. A wild British Columbia salmon taster small plate ($12) includes sweet salmon Indian candy, pepper gravlax and smoked salmon. Among featured entrees are grilled venison flank ($19) and Alberta beef tenderloin ($24).

Steamwork Restaurant, near the steam clock in Gastown, is in a sprawling building that originally housed outfitters for prospectors during gold-rush days.

Of six rooms with different decor, I preferred the dim downstairs area reminiscent of an English pub. Portions are huge and prices reasonable. Grilled salmon fillet ($14) is served with honey cumin sauce, crispy beets, vegetables and rice.

For more information, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission at travelcanada.ca.

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