Ah, the quintessential time-honored family road trip. Maui's Road to Hana? Sure, a nice family drive. The breathtaking Mount Blanc circuit of France, Italy and Switzerland? Without doubt, a family bucket list candidate.
But for my tastes nothing can hold a candle to the diamond ring of family circuit routes. Leaving from Vancouver, British Columbia, this fantabulous trip northeast to the Canadian Rockies, then west to the Pacific Ocean and then by ferry back to Vancouver will squeeze reluctant oohs and aahs from the moodiest, most text-addicted teen.
I put together the plan after a reader challenged me to create from scratch a never-reported-before road vacation that was limited to 14 days — while Europeans consider anything less than five work-free weeks positively scandalous, we Americans consider two consecutive weeks away from work a luxury — was reasonably priced and would elicit raves from even the most jaded family travelers. No better way to test that than to bring along my wife and our teenage granddaughter.
And so, we took Air Canada from Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport to Vancouver, starting our adventure by enjoying great service, a personal screen, an electrical outlet and USB hub at every economy seat. Score an immediate plus for my granddaughter.
Vancouver is the Canadian gateway to the Pacific, a vibrant metropolis that we all remember from the 2010 Winter Olympics. Far more than a ski destination, Vancouver boasts world-class museums, expansive parks and music venues. Situated between snow-capped mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the city enjoys a mild climate year-round.
We only had a day to enjoy Vancouver's delights, and in this cosmopolitan city nothing is more delightful than its restaurants. Throughout downtown are a host of top-notch eateries, but Asian is the way to go. After ambling through the bounding architecture of the city, we decided to try Azia, a new fusion restaurant that prides itself on its friendly and accommodating wait staff.
After two pots of green tea steeped with fresh leaves, we shared an appetizer of heavenly dim sum dipped in spicy sauce. My General Tsao's shrimp was served hot and crispy, over a bed of thin, crispy noodles, topped with a spicy hot sauce that brought ovations from my taste buds. Accompanying it was a side of coconut rice wrapped in a banana leaf.
My wife and granddaughter shared a Seafood Curry Hot Pot loaded with shrimp, scallops, green beans and eggplant, served in a spicy curry sauce, an all-in-one meal with a palate full of flavors. The portions were plentiful without being overbearing. We left knowing we'll be back.
The Rocky Mountaineer
The next morning we showed up early at the Rocky Mountaineer's downtown train station. Being a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we wisely decided to splurge and go with the luxurious Gold Leaf service.
Meals on the double-decker Gold Leaf cars were served on fine white tablecloths and china. Each car has its own galley and every dish we tasted from our chef, Christos Caldeos, was extraordinary, from breakfast selections like poached egg over smoked meat on a fluffy crumpet, topped with piping hot Hollandaise sauce to dinner entrees of fresh salmon or bison steaks served to order and with a full range of trimmings.
Soon after leaving downtown Vancouver the vistas widen to farming country, lakes and estuaries. Throughout, the attendants narrate historic places of interest as well as the natural and cultural history of the areas we passed. The cars on the Gold Leaf service are roomier than in Red Leaf service and include wrap-around windows that felt like the outdoors was right in our laps. Eagles and ospreys flew over and around us all day.
By 6:15 that first evening we arrived in Kamloops, having spent a very pleasant day onboard. Rocky Mountaineer tickets include overnight accommodations at a comfortable hotel.
We awoke the next day to bright and sunny skies, ready for our climb to Jasper's 4,000 feet. The mountains loomed larger every mile and we witnessed deer drinking from slate-green streams cascading with glacial runoff. As we passed the iconic Pyramid Falls the train slowed so that passengers could ooh and aah and snap photos. By 6 p.m. on the second day the Mountaineer rolled into Jasper, Alberta, our destination.
Spectacular Jasper and Banff
After a night in one of Jasper's modest hotels, we started with breakfast at Bear's Paw Bakery, where the menu includes scrumptious breakfast sandwiches, to-die-for pastries and fresh breads, all baked on site.
With gear packed into our rental car, we headed down the famed Icefields Parkway toward Banff, frequently nominated as one of the most scenic drives on Earth. Despite the overcast day, whenever there was a break in the clouds the massive Canadian Rockies suddenly loomed above us, their magnificent snowy peaks reflected in the many lakes along the route. As first-time visitors, my wife and granddaughter were enthralled.
Our destination was Moraine Lake, even more awesome to my eye than its more renowned cousin, Lake Louise, a few miles away. The drive to Moraine Lake is over a narrow, winding mountain road, making one's first glimpse of the lake simply breathtaking. The deep teal-blue water seems unreal at first, like someone Photoshopped it to balance the glorious 10 peaks that form an arc around the lake.
The lake, sacred to the First Nation tribes, is a hushed retreat, walled off from the mundane, the noisy, the ugly parts our world. Here the spirit soars. At sunset even children whisper here; it is that special.
Moraine Lake Lodge, tucked away on the side of the lake, blends well with the surrounding woods. The well-designed and roomy cabins are set back from the shore. Furnishings are top-rate, and all cabins have huge windows with lake and forest vistas. The cabins have no telephones or televisions, part of management's plan to encourage a stress-free, nature-communing respite.
The lodging season is short, running from June 1, when the road leading to Moraine Lake opens, to Oct. 1, when it closes. The lodge offers visitors a classically elegant yet minimalist ambience. Minimalist, however, cannot describe the dining experience at Moraine Lodge.
The restaurant is wrapped in floor to ceiling — including the ceiling — glass, built around a whole-log framework. The sensations can overwhelm, as the lake and mountains compete with the gourmet food for your attention. Reservations are necessary. The evening sun set as we dined, lighting the peaks on fire. Above them, the clouds dotting the blue sky glowed orange and pink. I had to resist jumping up, grabbing my camera, and rushing out the door.
Via Rail to Prince Rupert
After four days, we drove back to Jasper, stopping to photograph a black bear en route. If you doubt global warming is real, whatever its causes, stop as we did at the Athabasca glacier, right off the Icefields Parkway. Markers show how far the glacier has retreated over the past 100 years. Sobering is the operative word.
We arrived back in Jasper in time to catch our afternoon train to Prince Rupert on Canada's west coast. This time we took ViaRail, Canada's quasi-public rail line, for the two-day journey. In terms of luxury it's a far cry from The Rocky Mountaineer, but that's also an unfair comparison. Judged on its own merits, our ViaRail experience exceeded our expectations, largely due to our attentive and incredibly funny onboard attendants, Bruce and Ron.
The seats are roomy and comfortable, and there are 120-volt outlets at every seat. Meals were basic sandwiches, served airplane-cart style. The observation car in the rear offered tea and coffee on demand, along with snacks. The views heading for the coast were awesome, with the train slowing for photo ops of Mount Robson and again for two black bears that ambled near the tracks. By evening of the second day we rolled into a chilly Prince Rupert, rested and awaiting our next adventure.
BC Ferries: The other cruise line
We had booked two cabins for the 15-hour ferry ride to Port Hardy, on the north end of Vancouver Island, but we only once saw our cabin again. That's because the ferry cruises down the scenic Inner Passage and we did not want to miss any of the striking views. We passed islands, mountains and pristine beaches, abandoned mining towns and active fishing boats. Every so often, the captain would announce that a pod of humpback whales had been sighted and our family would race to one side or the other to observe the frolicking mothers and calves.
The food aboard ship was cafeteria-style, solidly good and varied. Between the scenery and the whale-watching it was a brief and memorable cruise. We arrived in Port Hardy at 10:30 that night, somewhat exhausted, but feeling refreshed by the clean ocean air.
The next morning we woke late, retrieved our rental car and started our drive down Vancouver Island. If there is one aspect of our trip I regret, it was not budgeting enough time for this lovely island, handicapped as we were by our two-week limitation.
Still, we were able to see some lovely landscapes, quaint villages and wildlife as we drove leisurely to the Nanaimo ferry terminal by dusk. In a little over an hour we were in our Vancouver hotel room, recounting our favorite parts of the trip, and repacking for our plane ride home.
By the way, the Europeans have it right.
If you go Getting There
Air Canada, aircanada.com. The airline offers connecting flights from Baltimore to Vancouver starting at about $300 each way. Have your passports handy when booking.
B.C. Ferries, bcferries.com. The official site for schedules, reservations and information.
Rocky Mountaineer, rockymountaineer.com. The site offers schedules, ticketing and videos of the experience.
ViaRail, viarail.ca/en/main. The site offers schedules, ticketing and videos of the experience.
Azia, 990 Smithe St., aziarestaurants.com. A fusion Asian restaurant off the corner of Burrard and Smithe streets. Prices are reasonable; terrific wait staff.
Chinatown, vancouver-chinatown.com. Easily accessible by public transportation, nearly every restaurant I've tried there is excellent. Vietnamese and Thai restaurants also found there.
Bear's Paw Bakery, 610 Connaught Drive, Jasper, Alberta, bearspawbakery.com. Artisan breads, pastries, sandwiches.
Moraine Lake Lodge, morainelake.com. The only lodging option on Moraine Lake. Rates range $260-$595 per night, depending on season and choice of lodging.
Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks. http://www.pc.gc.ca/progs/np-pn/index_e.asp. Spectacular scenery, well-placed outlooks and good trails make this a family vacation paradise. Always take precautions against bear encounters.
Columbia Icefield Area. A must-see site of Parks Canada. Walk on the massive Athabasca Glacier, but dress warmly, even in summer.
Lake Louise/Moraine Lake, banfflakelouise.com/. Great hiking trails, scenic vistas.
Vancouver tourism information, tourismvancouver.com. Offers a wide range of information about Vancouver.
Jasper tourism information, http://www.jasper.travel. Offers maps, photos, and information on where to stay and eat, as well as things to do. Be sure to factor in extra time for wildlife stops and scenic photo ops. Also try travelalberta.com.
Banff and Lake Louise area information, banfflakelouise.com/. Offers maps, photos, and information on where to stay and eat, as well as things to do.