As it turns out, bears aren’t so much scared off by the train as they are drawn to the tracks, where they feed on grain that falls off freight cars. When it rains, the grain ferments and the bears become inebriated, which is why they seem as relaxed as the passengers aboard the luxurious double-decker rail car.
The bear sighting occurred during the Rocky Mountaineer’s weeklong golf-themed trip from the Fairmont Banff Springs to Vancouver. In addition to great golf at courses both classic and new, the itinerary’s appeal includes exploration of western Canada’s famed Okanagan Valley wine region—not to mention the timeless romance of the rails.
A century ago, golf and train travel were inextricably linked. Rail travel spawned far-off Scottish links like Carnoustie, Cruden Bay and Turnberry. In the United States, Richard Tufts sited Pinehurst for its convenience to the train line carrying passengers looking for relaxation in the North Carolina Sandhills.
The same was true in Canada, where in the late 19th century, the Canadian Pacific Railway built what is now the Fairmont Banff Springs to promote travel along the transcontinental line, which was completed in 1885.
Then as now, a stop at this resort surrounded by granite peaks in the heart of Banff National Park is a mountain lover’s delight. Originally envisioned as a summer destination, Banff Springs now offers year-round attractions, from rafting down the Bow River to skiing at nearby mountains.
For all the activities and amenities, the resort has two treasures. The first is the 768-room hotel known as the “Castle in the Rockies,” which sits on a hillside overlooking the Bow River.
The other is the Stanley Thompson-designed layout that makes maximum use of the site’s views. Because of its setting in the Bow Valley, this is a mountain course that is very walkable. So grab a push cart and play this 1928 gem on foot, which will allow you to take in as much of the scenery as possible. The rock faces are so close you can see glacial scrapes along the cliffsides.
The 4th hole, known as “Devil’s Cauldron,” is perhaps the most famous par 3 in Canada. It plays 192 yards over a lake to a punchbowl green hard against the 9,672-foot Mount Rundle, the country’s most photographed peak. But it’s the backside stretch along the Bow River—holes 10 through 14—that really showcases Thompson’s brilliance, the dramatic bunkering that mimics the nearby peaks have become his trademark.
It is time to head west from Banff, and the Rocky Mountaineer is as much about the voyage as the destinations. The midway stop, the Okanagan Valley, seems very far off while sitting in the domed car, watching the Canadian Rockies pass by as the conductors act as tour guides.
For example, they explain that the Canadian Rockies are more jagged and towering than their American counterparts because the Ice Age glaciers had a bigger, more recent influence. Pretty soon, the hectic world of e-mails, cellphones and everyday stresses fade away like the passing mountainscape.
The largest privately owned passenger-rail service in North America, the Rocky Mountaineer operates only in daylight and the average speed is just 35 miles per hour, a pace that allows for greater appreciation of the Coastal, Monashee and Purcell ranges. Periodic “Kodak crawls” permit passengers to take plenty of pictures, as when crossing Stoney Creek Bridge, which spans 484 feet and is 325 feet high above the creek bed.
Adding to the experience is the service, most notably at mealtime. Passengers traveling on the high-level “GoldLeaf” program can retire to the dining car, where they can pair wines with a regionally sourced entree. Chances are, the wine selections are from the Okanagan Valley.
A sun-drenched lake region with a high-desert landscape, the valley entices with two main attractions, golf courses and wineries. The area’s newest course is at Predator Ridge, a 1,200-acre resort with endless views and Craftsman-style lodge and cottages. Doug Carrick’s 7,123-yard Ridge course opened in July, joining the original Predator, the host of two Canadian Skins Games. While both courses have plenty of elevation changes, the Ridge is accented by rugged rock outcroppings while the Predator, which sits on open grassland, has softer edges.
The area’s most visually striking layout is Tobiano, which is located just northwest of the valley along Kamloops Lake. Set on fissured terrain topped by sun-baked clay hills known as hoodoos, the Thomas McBroom design defies easy classification.
Some holes, like the 197-yard 7th, which has an island green atop a giant hoodoo, look like they belong in a fantasy golf video game. Fairways set in gullies, ragged-edge bunkering and infinity greens also distinguish the layout. Be sure to bring a lot of balls and play the correct tees, because Tobiano is as brutal as it is beautiful.
The pickings are easier at Harvest Golf Club, which winds through a working apple orchard. The 7,109-yard layout has wide fairways, smooth greens and views of Okanagan Lake, the surrounding hills and downtown Kelowna, which is known for waterfront parks, shops and restaurants.
The sunny slopes around the serpentine lake are home to scores of wineries best known for producing fruity whites. Many are attached to restaurants that feature cuisine designed to highlight the wine. That certainly was the case at Gray Monk Estate, where on a large outdoor deck overlooking the water and vineyards, the salmon was the best I’ve ever had—perhaps because it was complemented by the chardonnay.
Other top vineyards in the area include Mission Hill and Summerhill. At the latter, the key step of the winemaking process is the finishing of the wines inside a large pyramid, a shape said to harbor mystical properties. In a corner sits a grand piano, and as the opening measures of Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor fill the cool, dark space, the feeling is almost spiritual.
The soothing notes transport my mind back to the journey that brought me here, past some of the most majestic mountains in the world and down golf holes as well crafted as any I have played. And I realize that an experience like this wouldn’t have been possible with any other form of transportation.