Next stop Alaska: Combining a cruise with the slow train through The Rockies

I first fell in love with trains when I worked for the BBC in Bristol. The views of Bath as you pulled into the station were wonderful.

So the chance to go to Canada and see the Rockies from Via Rail's The Canadian was too good to miss. It would take three days and four nights to cross from Toronto to Vancouver.

My husband, David, wasn't so thrilled at the prospect. He was keen on the second part, though, as we were combining the train journey with seven days in Alaska on Holland America's MS Zuiderdam.

Winding through the Rockies by train

On track: Winding through the Rockies by train is a unique experience

Toronto is the exit point for all westbound trains across Canada. You board at the magnificent Beaux-Arts building that is Union Station. We'd read up about the recent history of Canada, which is inextricably linked to its railways.

Canadian Pacific completed 3,000 miles of track in 1885, and so the east and west coasts of this vast country were linked. With the line operational, the US was effectively prevented from swallowing up its northern neighbour. 

You board The Canadian in the evening. Suitcases go into a baggage car and everything you need for the four nights should be in a small carry-on bag. Both of us were a teensy bit dismayed at the size of the cabin as – when we first saw it – the beds were down and we named them Claustro (the top bunk) and Phobia. You couldn't swing a mouse, let alone a cat, in the space between the beds and the basin.

But we learnt to be organised and we did sleep well, even missing breakfast the first morning. We made it to lunch, though, as the serene Muskoka lakes of Ontario – with immense forests reflected in them – scudded by.

Before the cabin of her cruise ship, Viv tries a sleepover on a train through the Rockies

Jump on board: Before the cabin of her cruise ship, Viv tries a sleepover on a train through the Rockies

At mid-afternoon we stopped in nondescript little Hornepayne, which must be used to a sudden influx of passengers eager t o stretch their legs. The next stop, Sioux Lookout, sounded evocative to me, but that was at midnight and we were sleeping. We had gained an hour though, with one American exclaiming: 'Clocks back another hour? We'll never get off this goddam train.'

There was great excitement the next day – a new province, Manitoba, and a proper stop. It was the capital, Winnipeg, with three hours for us to explore. We strolled over the Esplanade Riel Bridge, which connects downtown Winnipeg and the French Quarter of St Boniface.

We saw the old cathedral, which burnt down, with the new one built inside some of the ruins. Then we shopped in the Forks Market right by the train station.

The true delight of the trip – and one which is welcome after the slightly monotonous yellows and golds of Sasketchewan's western prairies – is the Canadian Rockies, stretching from Alberta to British Columbia.

There was a moment of confusion as I emerged from the cabin on day three to find a second glass-domed carriage had been attached to the train during the night. We didn't hear a thing. We were heading to Jasper and the scenery had more and more of the 'wow' factor with every minute that passed.

Bear spotted from the train

Meet the locals: The passengers even spied bears from the train

There was also great excitement when two bear cubs were spotted play fighting on a grassy bank. The train slid into bustling little Jasper giving us just one hour to get an impression of this picturesque town.

Back on the train, though, the rewards of Mt Robson – the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies – looming into view more than made up for it. What luck we had! It's apparently only visible 15 days a year as it creates its own (bad) weather system and hides behind it, so we felt blessed to see it clearly.

We left the train in Chilliwack to catch a taxi to join our ship, the Zuiderdam, in Vancouver. We, and some 1,900 fellow passengers, were sailing the Inside Passage, a network of watery routes between the mainland and hundreds of islands.

Low cloud is the enemy of the tourist in Alaska. We still saw spectacular scenery in our seven days but at times the drizzly mist almost spoilt it.

Viv cuddles up before her ¿mushing¿ sled ride

Puppy love: Viv cuddles up before her ¿mushing¿ sled ride

On the second day we docked in Juneau, Alaska's capital, where the ship offers 35 different shore excursions, some pretty expensive such as the helicopter 'flightseeing' and glacier trek which came in at a cool $520 (£335) per person.

We chose an evening of whalewatching, so we had time to spend wandering the town with its original gold rush-era architecture. Men, we were told, outnumber women in Juneau two to one and a local saying goes 'your odds are good, but the goods are odd'!

At 6pm a bus took us to a catamaran where we were part of a 50- strong group eager to see humpback whales. You're guaranteed a sighting and we found a group complete with a baby. One whale in particular rewarded us with some spectacular 'breaching' – flying out of the water and crashing back down again.

Skagway was our next port of call, and was once the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush. You can still get a sense of frontier life here. We'd signed up to go deep into the Tongass National Forest for the dry land dog sled experience, or 'mushing' as it's called in Alaska.

We played with the puppies in the camp and then rode at breakneck speed on the sled, which was pulled by 14 dogs, mainly German pointers and huskies. It was huge fun.

Our last stop was Ketchikan where, in the cold and drizzle, we really did chill! It rains here 300 days a year but, on the plus side, it was the prettiest of the Alaskan towns we saw. And we were fascinated by the area, which was once, in the early 1900s, Alaska's most notorious red-light district.

Well, that's one way of keeping warm in this great, but very cold, land.

Travel Facts

For further information on Canadian rail travel, visit

A one-way fare from Toronto to Vancouver costs from C$1,465pp (about £950) in a two-berth cabin in Sleeper Plus class. For more on Canada, see

Holland America Line (0843 374 2300, offers a seven-night Alaska cruise round-trip from Vancouver, departing June 1 with prices from £807pp. This includes full-board accommodation on the MS Zuiderdam. The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto offers rooms from £135 including breakfast. fairmont. com. Canadian Affair (020 7616 9933, offers a range of holidays to Canada.

A five-night package costs from £1,559pp. This includes outbound flight from Gatwick to Calgary, transfer to Banff, accommodation for one night at the Ptarmigan Inn Banff, two days (one night) rail travel aboard the Rocky Mountaineer ( and three nights at the Sandman Hotel in Vancouver, with return flight from Vancouver.