Rolling through the Canadian Rockies
Monday, June 28, 2010
On paper, the pitch sounded hard to refuse: travel by luxury sleeper train for 10 days across northwest Canada, stopping only to play golf, lodge and eat sirloin mooseburgers. The view of the Canadian Rockies would steal one’s breath by day, the clackety-clack of the steel wheels would lull one into a hypnotic slumber by night. What could possibly go wrong with such a dream scenario?
Two words: Railroad strike. Via Rail – Canada’s Amtrak – had endured long-standing disputes with its employees, who finally decided to walk the line rather than let some freeloading Yankee golf writers make Canuck jokes while swilling Molsons and staring slack-jawed at the postcard scenery. For that, I blame them not.
Relegated to a soccer-mom van instead of a choo-choo, I found my vision of a serene, contemplative journey turned into an occasion for collegial micro talk (one magnitude less compelling than small talk) about misdesigned golf holes played, bad meals eaten and the many other rubber-tipped arrows to which a travel writer’s flesh is heir. For this, Apple invented the iPod. Noise-cancelling headphones on, cone of silence engaged. Let’s roll.
Truth be told, the distant snow-capped peaks looked just as majestic from the highway, though the romance of the rails was in absentia. And when one finally got off the road, it was for some surprisingly impressive golf and more than a few memorable meals (though “Canadian cuisine” does strike one as inherently oxymoronic).
We arrived in Edmonton, Alberta – former home to the Great Gretzky – just in time to sample 19 varieties of lethal, deep-fried comestibles at an annual downtown food fest. From olives to Oreos (literally!), these here north-country types won’t eat it if they can’t see their reflection in the glistening batter. P.S., they also have a gargantuan theme park/mall in west Edmonton, replete with 800 stores and an indoor water park. Me, I never shop without jumping into a wave pool afterward, so I felt right at home.
From there, it was off to Northern Bear, one of three Jack Nicklaus Signature courses in Canada, and a good place to wield the driver from the 7,352-yard tips. Nicklaus shows golfers plenty of aspen-bordered fairway from the tees, but five lakes bring water into play on 11 holes. The flat-earth looks are not particularly memorable, though the finishing holes on both sides make dramatic use of said moisture while doglegging toward the impressive, timber-frame clubhouse.
That mythical train ride from Edmonton to Jasper was supposed to be a doozy, rising through the Canadian Rockies and disgorging riders minutes from the justly celebrated Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. The current incarnation – resurrected after a fire destroyed the original lodge in 1952 – is comprised of 52 cedar cabins and the cavernous main building. A post-dinner ritual involves watching fearless elk herds mosey onto the grounds to graze, attracting equally exotic gaggles of gaping shutterbugs.
The four-season resort also is home to one of Canada’s most revered courses, crafted by native son Stanley Thompson in 1925. The terrain – rolling and climbing and blanketed with old-growth pine – is the occasion for much ocular calisthenics. Up and down one traces the routing from elevated tee box to green to distant mountain peaks, each hole making use of the perspective for aesthetic and strategic ends. Bear sightings are common, but more fearsome is the blind look from the 14th tee, over Lac Beauvert and around a ball-swallowing pine. A nice high 5-iron leaves a short iron in, which is why I took driver in hand and hit it into the next solar system.
After a refreshing and blessedly tame white-water rafting trip down a glacier-fed river, it was back in the purgatorial van for another five-hour jaunt, due west to Kamloops, British Columbia, a city of some 90,000 people on the Thompson River. The city center is borderline quaint – but for a depressing casino I had vague plans to bankrupt – and the surrounding suburbs give way to verdant countryside and some modest residential golf developments such as Sun Rivers.
There is, however, one very good reason to visit the area, and that’s the Thomas McBroom-designed Tobiano Golf Course, a visually arresting, vertigo-inducing track set like a craggy green jewel above the ultramarine background of Kamloops Lake.
Opened in 2007, it tops the perennial “best-of” lists for the region, mostly for its ingenious routing through numerous crevices and sage-bordered canyons. The impression is one of other-planetary starkness – pine beetles have denuded the site of timber, and there are no water hazards, but McBroom has pockmarked the site with more than 100 bunkers and a good handful of signature looks. Crossing wind-blown canyons and snaking through narrow rock alleys, Tobiano lodges itself in the mind’s eye long after one’s string of bogeys has blissfully faded from memory. It’s an all-around great facility, from its glassy bentgrass greens right down to its gourmet chicken wraps.
And miracle of miracles, the golf gods conferred with the labor bosses and got the locomotives huffing and puffing again, just in time for the last leg from Kamloops to Vancouver. The overnight journey was cozy in that cramped, jiggly, sleeper car manner, the breakfast forgettable, but all in all superior to another 225 miles of highway driving.
As much as I’d grown accustomed to glaciers and horned beasts and the rest of nature’s handicraft, it was nice to feel the nervous buzz of civilization again. Vancouver – a sleepy logging town in the mid-1800s – now is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with half its population speaking a native language other than English. It is said to have the best Shanghai-style Chinese food outside of, well, Shanghai. And it is ringed by pristine waterways and islands stocked with seals, swans and migrating Pacific gray whales. It’s easy to understand why the city is ever-named among North America’s most livable urban areas.
We were ensconced at the chic Listel Hotel on Robson Street, one of Vancouver’s commercial main drags, strewn as it is with restaurants of every ethnic stripe, shopping both low- and high-end, and a teeming nightlife. The Listel is a cultural center as well as a hotel – its rooms and hallways are festooned with edgy local art and shards of indecipherable modern verse. The ground-floor restaurant/bar has a live jazz policy and a fine, Mediterranean-themed menu, heavy on fresh local seafood.
Morning found us bundled in life-jackets and jetting across Horseshoe Bay on one of those 28-foot motorized rafts, the so-called “Sea to Tee” program that drops golfers off at Furry Creek Golf & Country Club after a 45-minute voyage. The spray of the surf was invigorating as we sighted seals lounging on tiny islands and an American Bald Eagle perched above the water’s edge with a $5 gold piece in its beak. Not sure about that last detail – maybe it was just a gold-capped tooth.
Greeted by golf-course personnel at water’s edge near the 14th hole, we were whisked by cart to the clubhouse and had a world-class Kobe burger before playing a round at the cramped, 6,025-yard layout.
The Robert Muir Graves design is more scenic than it is playable, a series of pinched, downhill looks and forced carries, framed by lensworthy mountain and water views at almost every turn. Furry Creek is like a toy-sized version of Jasper Park, minus the grandeur and degree of difficulty, but still worth a swat as you make your way up to Whistler from Vancouver.
A golf trip by train through the western provinces of Canada – a swell idea, indeed – as long as our neighbors to the north aren’t singing labor anthems instead of shoveling coal into the firebox. All aboard!
Via Rail Canada: viarail.ca/en; 888-842-7245
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Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge GC:$225 ($180 hotel guests); fairmont.com/jasper; 866-540-4454
Furry Creek G&CC:$99-$109; golfbc.com/courses/furry_creek; 888-922-9462
Northern Bear GC: $69-$85; northernbeargolf.com; 866-922-2327
Northview G&CC: $70-$95; northviewgolf.com; 888-574-2211
Sun Rivers Golf Resort: $85-$95; sunrivers.com; 866-571-7888
Talking Rock Resort: $72; talkingrock.ca; 877-663-4303
Tobiano GC: $90-$130; tobianogolf.com; 877-373-2218