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New Frontiers: Charting New Courses

Mike Nolan

I had just settled onto a red leather couch in the Royal Canadian Pacific’s Mount Stephen lounge car when I had a change of heart. Although I was enjoying the vodka martini served to me not a minute before, I decided to replace it with a libation more appropriate for this section of the lounge, a narrow alcove separated from the rest of the car by a 4-foot-high partition topped by a mountain of freshly cut flowers. The space is known as the Churchill Corner because the former British prime minister employed it as an office during a wartime tour of Canada in 1943. As anyone who has read Churchill’s memoirs would expect, the Dewar’s and water flowed at the time nearly as steadily as the glacier-fed stream that was coming into my view from the couch. We were on the first leg of the Royal Canadian’s annual five-day golf excursion through Alberta and British Columbia, a trip during which the prime minister’s ruminations about the versatility of liquor would ring true for the 32 duffers now on board. “In victory, I celebrate it,” Churchill wrote. “In defeat, I need it.”
 

Built in the early 1900s, the Royal Canadian Pacific’s railroad cars have a long and venerable history, one that includes their use as transport for the managers of the Canadian Pacific line and for traveling dignitaries such as Churchill. The game of golf, however, has not enjoyed such an illustrious existence in the Great White North. Legend holds that a merchant seaman on shore leave in Quebec struck the first golf ball in Canada in 1854. The massive influx of Scotsmen to the country later in the 19th century led to the formation of golf clubs, but today, perhaps because of the country’s short window of warm weather, most Canadians handle hockey sticks better than they do 5-irons. The River Course at Humber Valley, designed by Canadian architect Doug Carrick, is in an area of Newfoundland that weathermen describe as climatologically moderate, and yet the course remains open only from late May through early October. Outside Calgary, the excessively challenging Links of GlenEagles offers cliff-top views of the Bow River, but even in high summer, the wind blowing across the prairie recalls the not-so-distant past, when glaciers covered the area.

Still, with little fanfare, architects such as Carrick and GlenEagles designer Les Furber (who spent 14 years working with Robert Trent Jones Sr.) have been building world-class golf courses in Canada for the last couple of decades. American architects also have begun to contribute to the cause, including Jack Nicklaus, whose Bear Mountain course on the Pacific Coast in Victoria opened in 2003. Canada’s courses are starting to attract international attention (a biochemist from Taipei is among our trip’s passengers), and the mountain layouts on our itinerary, which includes stops at Carrick’s Greywolf and Furber’s SilverTip, soon would reveal the reasons why.

On his journey through Canada in 1943, Churchill likely needed his trademark wit. In addition to the rigors of running a war effort, the prime minister faced a political irony by his choice of conveyance. Churchill deeply lamented the sun’s sinking on the British Empire, and yet it was these very rails that had ensured British Columbia’s split from the motherland in 1871. Citizens at the time voted to join the confederation of provinces to the east, which formed the dominion of Canada, but agreed to do so only if a trans-Canadian railway—linking Atlantic and Pacific, French and English—was completed within 10 years. The Canadian Pacific Railway transformed British Columbians into Canadians.

Nationalism of a different sort was on display in Calgary, where our journey began. At the Fairmont Palliser Hotel (named for John Palliser, leader of the mid-19th-century Royal Geographic Expedition that surveyed much of the territory we would cover), the staff—like virtually every other person in the city—wore cowboy hats and jeans in honor of the ongoing Calgary Stampede. Riding the waves of oil extracted from Alberta’s massive shale deposits, Calgary, a city of 1 million residents, is a bona fide boomtown. Downtown skyscrapers proclaimed allegiance to one oil company or another, but most people we encountered on the streets were of a uniform mind-set. To avoid taxes that support, in the eyes of many Albertans, a European-style welfare state in Canada, Calgary residents were leading a charge to form a landlocked republic of new-world oil barons. Bumper stickers on over-accessorized pickup trucks proclaimed “Welcome to the republic of Alberta,” and every conversation with locals revealed a populace flirting with the idea of a split from Canada.

The hue and cry for secession reached a crescendo at the stampede, where a deliriously entertaining program of chuck wagon racing gave new meaning to the phrase hell-bent for leather. The evening ended with a Super Bowl halftime–like show that celebrated all things Albertan, from Native American tribes to oil company sponsors of the event. To the delight of the audience, a comedian poked fun at the other Canadian provinces, and a talented troupe of musicians, singers, and dancers—saddled years ago with the currently inconvenient name of the Young Canadians—performed highly polished production numbers.

The next morning, with leather RCP tags affixed to our luggage and golf bags, our group of more than 30 boarded the Royal Canadian Pacific in a vaulted train station that is attached to the hotel. A palpable sensation of entering the past, or at the very least a more graceful present, enlivened our group as we climbed aboard to be met by members of the RCP staff, whose attention to detail would quickly become a familiar topic of conversation. The cocktails waiting for us each time we boarded after a day on the links may have influenced some passengers’ opinions, but the staff’s spontaneous kindness seemed genuine, perhaps more the result of Canadian upbringing than professional training. The train’s no-tip policy was overruled by unanimous vote at journey’s end, when a good-sized hat was passed and its contents given to the staff.

Our route ran westward across tracks laid down in the 1880s over some of the most rugged terrain in North America. In five days the train would travel more than 600 miles through the Bow River Valley to Banff, north to Golden, and then south along the Columbia River to Kimberley. At stops along the way, four golf courses would test passengers’ skills. Instead of continuing on and completing a loop over the plains back to Calgary, we would return through more scenic mountainous territory. 

Although the seven-car train includes sitting areas from which to gaze at the passing scenery, perfect weather made the outdoor viewing platform at the rear of the Mount Stephen a popular spot with our group. At Kicking Horse Pass, just north of Lake Louise, the natural beauty of the landscape and the know-how of the railroad line’s original engineers conspire to present one of the world’s great railway shows. Named for a packhorse in Palliser’s expedition that bolted and kicked geologist James Hector hard enough to break his ribs, the pass marks the Continental Divide and is the highest point on the line. Snowcapped peaks, glaciers, and forested slopes stretch to the horizon in all directions.

 

When they constructed the line, engineers left a dangerously steep hill on the western side of the pass. It had a grade of 4.5 percent, which was 10 times the generally accepted limit at the time. Destructive and often deadly runaway trains were not uncommon, and it took four locomotives to move even the shortest trains over the Divide. Finally, in 1909, engineers built two spiral tunnels, based on a Swiss design, that cut through the granite rock of the pass. The tracks meander back and forth, crossing over themselves in a figure-eight pattern, causing the railroad to double back twice within the mountain and thus lengthening the line but decreasing the gradient. Passengers on longer trains than ours can see their own locomotives’ lights heading toward them from the cabooses.

Today, this same terrain presents challenges to golf course architects, and to the golfers who attempt to play their designs. Golf carts were almost as necessary to our trip as the train was; walking was not an option on the four courses. This became apparent just three hours after we left Calgary, at the first tee of the Stewart Creek Golf course on the northern end of the Bow River Valley in Canmore, Alberta. Drives on the par 4 plummet to a landing area far below. As with most of the holes we played on the trip, the positioning of the tee boxes takes advantage of the surrounding topography. Golf balls fall slowly against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, enabling even the weakest players to hit shots that are worth admiring.

Even with the help of a GPS system that measures distances from golf carts to greens, club selection is problematic. On slopes that would be rated black diamond at nearby ski areas, lies normally requiring an easy pitch to the green turn into full-bore 8-iron shots. Drives down the left side of the par-4 15th hole run the risk of nestling against the boarded-up entrance to an abandoned mine. But even landing in the middle of the fairway does not promise a good lie on the bumpy terrain.

Golfers on our trip who endured a bad round at Stewart Creek found consolation back on the train. After enjoying the welcoming cocktail, we headed to our gracious staterooms, which are lined with Circassian oak from Russia with maple inlays. Every morning the staff placed a detailed schedule of the day’s activities and the evening’s dinner menu on each room’s mahogany writing desk, directly under the scalloped-shade lamps. With generous closets, large drawers built into the bed frames, and amply sized bathrooms, the staterooms are anything but cramped. Predinner cocktail hour, enjoyed in the Royal Wentworth lounge car or on the viewing platform, became a forum for our group—which included board members of corporations, business owners, and even a retired naval captain—to boast of or lament the day’s round.

The configuration of the 80-foot-long railcars necessitated several trips through the kitchen, where the aromas rising from the work area of French-Canadian chefs Denis Sirois and Eric Maheux offered hints at the culinary delights awaiting us. “We have found that people have lower expectations regarding food because it is a train,” said Sirois, whose signature piece, foie gras with dumplings, would entrance diners that evening. “So we like to surprise them.” This the chefs accomplished continually, with dishes such as pan-seared crusted Chilean sea bass served with a Benziger  Chardonnay at the Craigellachie dining car’s long, candlelit table.

Three more golf courses awaited us, all with their own risks and rewards. Perhaps the most demanding of them is Carrick’s Greywolf, which he carved out of the Canadian Rockies in Panorama Mountain Village, British Columbia. On the tee of the par-3 6th hole, called Cliffhanger, cameras were in use as often as clubs. The 175-yard hole seems to require an easy 6- or 7-iron shot to a slightly sunken green. Our group of golfers, now well versed in elevation changes, promptly selected 8-irons before stepping to the tee box. Here, the complications, mostly mental, commenced. The hole demanded a carry over a 200-foot gorge, aptly named Hopeful Canyon. Rising air from the depths created swirling winds that made hitting the green a challenge and keeping your ball on the putting surface a miracle.

At Trickle Creek, radical elevation changes reminiscent of the Rockies belie the course’s location in the Columbia River Valley of British Columbia. The track plays laterally along the side of the Purcell Mountains, and features spectacular views of the Rockies across the valley. Hills surrounding the green on the par-3 8th hole shroud the flag, and less-than-perfect shots run the risk of careening off into deep ravines.

By the time the train returned to Alberta for our final round, at Furber’s SilverTip golf course, we had learned a few tricks for playing mountain courses. We automatically factored elevation changes into our club selections, and we had acquired a rudimentary understanding of the physics involved in hitting a ball from an uneven stance. We no longer asked about the rough, knowing it would be long and thick. And we stocked our golf bags with plenty of extra balls. Yet at SilverTip, which has an astounding slope rating of 153 from the back tees (no U.S. course rates higher than 148), our preparations proved futile.

After the round at SilverTip, I resumed my position on the red leather couch and admired the lounge car’s walls, which are lined with photos of notables who have taken this ride in the past: members of the British royal family, then-senator John Kennedy—an avid golfer who no doubt would have enjoyed this Royal Canadian Pacific journey—and, of course, Churchill. In the prime minister’s corner and in defeat, I find a Dewar’s and water again seems appropriate, if not necessary.

Engineering Your Escape

Golf Courses are not the only stops on the Royal Canadian Pacific’s routes. The venerable line cuts through the Canadian countryside on themed trips covering everything from spa treatments to trout fishing.

 

• ROYAL FLY-FISHING ADVENTURE: Anglers test their luck and skills in some of the world’s finest fishing rivers, including the Kicking Horse, in Alberta and British Columbia.

• ROYAL CULINARY, WINE & MUSIC EXPERIENCE: The gastronomic talents of the RCP chefs are complemented by stops at wineries and a performance by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

• ROCKY MOUNTAIN TRAIN, TRAILS & SPA ADVENTURE: Horseback riding and spa visits mark this five-day excursion with a stopover in Banff.

Each of RCP’s themed trips is all-inclusive (including golf and other off-train activities), and prices begin at $4,500 per person. Private charters also are available, costing from $1,500 to $2,000 per person per day (minimum of 24 passengers), depending on the activities. Past charter trips have focused on heli-skiing, mountain climbing, horseback riding, and spa visits.

Royal Canadian Pacific
877.665.3044
www.royalcanadianpacific.com

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Photo by Janos Grapow