Vancouver - World's Most Liveable City

Vancouver has been voted the world’s most liveable city by the UK based Mercer Institute for three years in a row . Here are some reasons why:

The Stanley Park Seawall. Vancouver’s natural setting is stupendous and on this 6.5 mile hike around the seawall you get it all: the Pacific Ocean enfolds the ancient rain forest that is Stanley Park. Across the water snow-capped mountains and distant islands dream in the mist like a Northern Hemisphere Bali Hai.The Seawall hike can be crowded. Turbaned Sikhs on mountain bikes and Chinese families on rollerblades, stately Russian matrons out for their evening constitutional. The hike takes about two hours. Bikes and roller blades can be rented from Harbour Air Seaplanes Adventure Centre next to Canada Place: 604 233 3500.

Neighbourhoods - Kitsilano. Named after an Indian chief and formerly Vancouver’s hippie haven, Kits has heritage houses, hills with gorgeous views, funky shops, lush gardens and one of the best beaches in town. Catch a number 4 or 7 bus on Granville Street and get off at Capers' excellent organic grocery store on 4th Avenue. Wander down Vine Street to the Pacific. Swim at Kits enormous outdoor pool . Head back up very steep Yew Street, taking in some jazz at Rossini’s and reward yourself with a latte with the locals at Kits Coffee Shop.

Fine Dining: Fresh wild salmon from BC’s mountain streams, fruits and wines from BC’s Okanagan are just some of the fabulous produce that contribute to setting Vancouver’s restaurants among the finest in Canada. Lumiere on Broadway is considered by many to be one of the nation’s top restaurants. If you want to get a taste of the place without blowing your budget, go to the tasting bar adjoining the main room and order one or more of the 16CAD dishes selected from the main menu. The papardelle with short rib meat or the roasted sablefish are two big favourites.No reservations allowed – the very popular bar is first come first served. Closed on Mondays.
Lumiere 2551 W. Broadway. Tel: 604 739 8185. Take a number 10 UBC bus or a ten minute cab ride from downtown.
From the sublime….At the opposite end of the dining spectrum is Casa Gelato – home of 198 ice cream flavours. Next to the railroad tracks on an east-side industrial estate, homesick Italian Vincenzo Misceo sits in a pink-painted, neon-lit ice cream parlour surrounded by his flavour creations: pear gorgonzola, wild-berry jalapeno,vegemite. Misceo admits to the occasional failure – chocolate fudge and salmon?! Take the 22 Knight bus on Burrard to Glen. 1033 Venables St.

The Absolute Spa at The Century. At Vancouver’s most popular day spa, they sprinkle rose petals in the bath tubs and wrap you in chocolate -alas, non-edible. (For real chocolate see below.)Then they massage you while dozens of warm horizontal jets of water sweep across your body. In the opulent relaxation room, snack on strawberries dipped in chocolate then take a swim in the ozonated pool or a eucalyptus steam bath. 1015 Burrard St. Tel: 604 684 2772">

Hollywood North and the Chocoholic Bar. Vancouver is known as Hollywood
The Best Cappuccino in Western Canada.Caffe Artigiano, 763 Hornby Street opposite the Vancouver Art Gallery. Tired of anemic cups of foam from Starbucks? There are Italians in Vancouver ready with the antidote. Inspired by the original Venetian coffee houses, Artigiano serves a robust, creamy brew to gallery goers, office workers and media folk from the nearby CBC studios.

Bard on the Beach.>English actor/director Christopher Gaze has taken Shakespeare and set him down within yards of the ocean under an enormous tent. Throughout the summer three Shakespeare plays are set against a backdrop of ocean and mountains. The Bard, being the Bard fits right in with the seagulls, floatplanes, cruise ships - even the occasional passing Tel 604 739 0559

Vancouver has the cheapest CDs in North America. Downtown try A&B Sound at 556 Seymour for pop and rock. Sikora’s Classical Records at 432 W. Hastings for classical.

Canadian Wine Country in British Columbia's Okanagan

“The bears must think we are an obliging lot,” chuckles winemaker Marcus Ansems as he stands among the vines at his Therapy Vineyards in Naramata, British Columbia. “Lining up their food in neat rows and at arms’ length.”

Bears are not a problem in Burgundy and Bordeaux. And when Hollywood spotlighted the Californian wine country in last year’s Oscar nominated “Sideways,” the biggest danger came from the protagonists’ own libidos. But in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, bears occasionally lumber into the vineyard. This is Canada, after all. But it’s not the western Canada that most of us know – that macho man’s man of a landscape with its spiky summits and brooding forests that surrounds Vancouver, Whistler and Banff .When I drove the four hours from Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley one October weekend recently, I found the Venus to the rest of the region’s Mars - a gentle land of vine-covered hills running down to a deep blue lake. The most grandiose feature in the landscape was the quasi-Tuscan architecture of Mission Hills – probably the most famous of the Okanagan wineries and whose award-winning wines are sold in the UK.

Mission Hills is situated on Lake Okanagan just minutes from the city of Kelowna. The bell tower, loggia, formal rose gardens and Chagall tapestry all testify to the ambition and vision of owner Vancouver-born, European-raised, Anthony von Mandl.

Missionaries first planted vineyards in the Okanagan Valley in the 1860s. For years the region produced basic plonk. Cheap and sweet tended to be the criteria. Canadian wines had names like Fuddle Duck and Gimli Goose. All that changed with the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the US when local wines lost their trade advantage and had to compete with the blossoming Californian wine industry. The inferior vines were ripped out and the Okanagan wine industry started from scratch. By 1994 a Mission Hills Chardonnay had been voted best Chardonnay in the world in a blind tasting at London’s International Wines and Spirits Competition. When the panel heard of the winner’s obscure origins, they demanded a re-tasting. The results were unchanged and many of the seventy vineyards throughout the region have gone on to win awards throughout the world.

I took three days to amble along the lake shores, following the burgundy and white “wine route” signs and dropping in to any winery that took my fancy. With so many of the wineries opening restaurants or even the occasional B&B on their properties, I could have wandered happily for at least a week. A mile down the slope from Mission Hill at the Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, I ate a lunch of caramelized onion tart and spinach and scallop salad at their Old Vines Patio restaurant looking out on the vines, the glorious autumn colours and the lake. For all the dulcet beauty of this landscape, there is a gnarly finger of suburban sprawl scratching its way up these hillsides – a reminder of the long strip mall that makes up most of the city of Kelowna. After lunch I drove away from the city along the lake through Peachland and Summerland towards Penticton.

Those names tell of Okanagan’s other claims to fame. This is orchard country – the source of the peaches, apples and cherries that fill the Vancouver markets. In spring, the blossoms fill the valleys and, as I drove south with the lake on one side and the orchards on the other, I saw that peach trees turn a stunning shade of flame-orange in October. Summerland may just be an arbitrary name but the Okanagan does have some of the warmest summers of the province and the lake that, on this October day, is so blue and empty and calm, fills up with waterskiers, ski-dooers and various other noisy pleasure craft. The Okanagan Valley is a place to be saved for the blossoms of spring or the autumn harvest when the air is heavy with the scent of thousands, probably millions, of apples.

Another of the Okanagan’s cities, Penticton, lies at the south end of the lake. It’s more attractive than Kelowna but you don’t come to the Okanagan for the cities so I drove on, looping up the east side of the lake to lovely little Naramata, a village nestling in the prettiest, most Mediterranean part of the Okanagan. Ten wineries perch in the hills and small valleys that line the winding country road between Naramata and Penticton. Therapy Vineyards and Guesthouse is the newest and offers bed and breakfast accommodation – its rooms have burgundy drapes and duvets and look out on walnut trees, vines, peach trees and the omnipresent lake. Other Naramata Bench wineries include Red Rooster – its new buildings unmissable just a few yards from the road, and Hillside with its big wooden barn of a bistro. Down in Naramata itself, the elegant and cosy Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa with its Rock Oven dining room looks out on the lake at the end of the elm-lined main street.

Driving down the long main street, I was sceptical. The restaurants looked as though they might serve you a hearty slice of meatloaf and a cup of Maxwell House. Then I came to the Wine Country Welcome Centre and its Toasted Oak Wine Bar and Grill a big, cosy pub-like establishment, housed in the old firehall and with a manager, Jay Drysdale who has a mission to demystify wine in general and share his passion for BC wines in particular. Jay pointed me in the direction of the “golden mile” of Okanagan wineries between Oliver and Osoyoos. My favourite stop was the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery – a southwestern mission-style structure with an elegant restaurant, The Sonora Room, that looks out over dramatic dark hills and miles of golden and red vines.

Ten minutes south of Burrowing Owl, I heard myself announcing “I’m in Santa Fe” to the empty car. The change in landscape from Naramata’s gentle green slopes to brown hills and sagebrush is startling. The Nk’Mip (pronounced Inkameep)Cellars belong to the native band of the same name and look out over Osoyoos in the heart of the pocket desert that stretches all the way from the Sonora desert in Mexico. Signs on the road here warn of rattlesnakes. It’s hard to believe that I’m just 80 miles down the road from Mission Hill’s bell tower. I could have driven the length of the Okanagan’s wine country in less than two hours. But why on earth would anyone want to? feature the Naramata Heritage Inn and for 10 nights, including Air Canada flights and intermediate car hire would cost from £1387
Quail's Gate Estate Winery: 1 250 769 4451
Therapy Vineyards & Guesthouse:
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery: 1 250 498
Nk’Mip Cellars: 1 250 495 2985

Bear Watching in British Columbia

When Michael Allen got married on Whistler Mountain four bears
appeared at the wedding.

"They always show up where I am," shrugs Allen, a 41 year old British
Columbia native whose wide face and stocky build are reminiscent of the
animal that has been his lifelong obsession. And no, those four bears didn't
come and stand on the groom's side for the wedding photo. "They just
grazed close by."

These days Michael is known as the bear man in Whistler which, in addition
to being the leading North American ski resort, is also in the heart of
black bear country. About 300 black bears live in the area. Between June and
October Michael runs bear-viewing tours in the early mornings and at dusk.
On this very hot summer evening in late July our group of five travellers
has joined him in a bumpy, dusty ride across the summer ski slopes to
mid-mountain where the bears like to graze at twilight.

A decade or so ago local policy was to shoot bears that ventured too close
to a village that was beginning to attract as many visitors to its summer
activities of mountain biking, rafting and hiking as to its ski slopes.

Bears are, of course, safely asleep in their dens in the winter. Unwary
skiers and snowboarders frequently skim a few feet from the head of a
sleeping bear. But in the summer everyone is out on the slopes. Two
mountain bikers once came careering around a bend and crashed into a grazing
black bear. Nobody was hurt but all parties were extremely surprised. Local
authorities needed to find a way for the bikers and the bears to co-exist.

"Cometh the hour, cometh the man." Fourteen years ago, Michael Allen, a
resident of Trail, BC, came to Whistler with a request to study the resort'
s bears. A self-described loner with little interest in a formal scientific
education , Allen has felt an affinity with bears since the age of 12.

"I couldn't figure out why everybody was so scared of them. At first I was
nervous but the fascination outweighed the fear. I would go out and my mom
would drag me back. Pretty soon she realized that I was probably safer out
with the bears than hanging out with the other kids at the local pool hall."

Up here on the mountain, we've yet to see a bear. Michael is unconcerned.
He passes the time by taking us to a bear den deep in the woods. It has been
hollowed out of a tree trunk which surprises everyone in the group. We'd all
imagined caves. "That's Yogi," says Michael. As we fight off the black
flies, gnats and mosquitoes that throng around us, (insect repellent and
long pants are essential) Michael, who seems to be of no interest to the
bugs, tells us a few more bear facts.

Bears burrow into their dens in November, eating one last meal of wood
chips, pebbles and bear hair that will plug them up and close down their
digestive system for the seven month hibernation. Their heart beat will slow
to about 8 beats a minute. Sometime in January during hibernation, a female
bear will give birth to one or more babies the size of a banana.

I'm wondering why humans couldn't come up with such a simple system when
suddenly as the evening cools, the bears start to appear. First we glimpse
a yearling - a year old bear - on the edge of the forest, then in a meadow
of purple lupin and scarlet Indian paint-brush, Michael recognizes the bear
he has named Daisy, a very shy and rarely seen mother with her lone cub.
Soon the skittish Daisy has disappeared into the undergrowth.

Back in the jeep, Michael negotiates some vertiginous descents as he tells
of seeing a yearling asleep on top of a ski station coke machine and of
another bear sprawled across a chair lift.

"Ah, there she is, there's Jeanie," he says suddenly as we stop near the top
of Olympic ski run and see, less than a hundred yards away, a brownish
black bear and her two cubs ambling across the slope. Michael has known
Jeanie since he came to Whistler. He named her after his Scottish
grandmother, has an obvious deep affection for her, describing her as being
one of the "smartest, most adaptable bears." Jeanie has recently been
fending off the attentions of Slim, a male bear who wants to mate with her.
But a female bear with cubs is physically incapable of mating so Slim has
twice attempted to kill her young. "He's a very handsome bear - kind of the
Brad Pitt of the males here - but very aggressive," says Michael. "He's not
real keen on me. He hit me on the back of the head with his paw recently so
I hit him on the head with a log."

Tonight Jeanie is grazing peacefully with her cubs. We climb out and follow
behind Michael in a nervous huddle . Mothers with cubs are notoriously
aggressive but not, it seems, if they know Michael. He murmurs softly to her
as we follow her up the mountain track. She lets us get within fifty yards
of her and her cubs then wanders off into the dark forest.

The next day I am tired. The combination of fear, excitement, and bumping
around in a jeep has left me happy to stay in down in Whistler Village. In
honour of my encounter the previous evening, I eat dinner at the Bearfoot
Bistro. This restaurant has the finest wine cellar in Whistler and a menu
that features contemporary Canadian dishes such as Roast of Wild Arctic
Caribou or Roasted Atlantic Lobster with a white chocolate sauce.

As the light fades, I gaze out at the deceptively still, silent mountains
and wonder if Michael is up there whispering to Jeanie and her cubs or are
he and his old adversary Slim going another round in the forest?


Flights from London to Vancouver during bear-viewing season of late May to
October start at £401 plus tax on United Airlines.
Whistler is a two hour drive north of Vancouver. Perimeter and Greyhound
provide bus service.
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler has a "Wild For Bears" package that includes
accommodation, breakfast and a black bear tour : $349 Cdn per person based
on double occupancy. All profits from the tours go towards
funding bear research.
The Bearfoot Bistro - 4121 Village Green, Whistler -

The Singing House by Janette Griffiths

The Singing House by Janette Griffiths

You can buy my novel from

The Courtyard in August

The Courtyard in August by Janette Griffiths

You can order my novel from Amazon

Spa, Aboriginal Travel and Holistic Resorts of British Columbia

Do you believe in signs? And if so, do you act on them? Last year I started to get strong pointers, what New Agers would call, “messages from the Universe”, sending me in the direction of Vancouver and British Columbia. A character in my novel, The Courtyard in August, wrote a country song called “My life is at a level crossing and God won’t lift the gate.” When I found myself at a similar intersection, I decided to lift the gate myself but I wasn’t quite sure where to go. I’d written a couple of novels that had sold well but not changed my life. I was currently without a partner and my mother had recently died. She was old, it was expected, I kept busy and hoped the grief might be brief.

The first pointer came from an astrologer who deals in relocational astrology - the study of which places on the globe hold strong planetary influence for an individual. She said that a Jupiter line ran through my chart in Vancouver and that this represented spiritual growth, prestige and expansion: In BC, I would embark on a spiritual journey, prosper, and probably grow fat.

As I cleaned out my mother’s flat, I found a compass from the Vancouver tourist board saying “Chart a course in our direction.” While sorting through old manuscripts one day, a five year old postcard from my best friend dropped at my feet. It showed a sleeping bear on a rock and said, “In Vancouver and dreaming of you.”

“Enough already,” said I and with the help of a tiny inheritance, boarded a plane. The Canadian West Coast is, like California on the American West Coast, a place at the far end of a continent that often attracts people who are seeking a nameless something new in their lives. But BC has Canadian understatement and common sense thrown in. The wilderness is at the back door - (black bears occasionally stroll across patios in North Vancouver) and the Indian or First Nation presence is beginning to exert an influence on the region’s spiritual and cultural life.

Things get off to a good start. On my first evening in Vancouver, I share a hot-tub with Terence Stamp at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. Our thighs actually brush as we each move around in search of the most powerful jet. But I don’t think Stamp notices; he’s perfected the “stare off at a distant mountain look” of the long-term famous. And in this case he has real mountains to contemplate - Vancouver sits on a spectacular harbour surrounded by snow-capped summits.

Hot-tubs and movie stars are not, however, what this trip is about. I am staying true to that Jupiter line and looking for the more spiritual elements. Even in this big hotel, I find a quieter more meditative world out in the magnificent herb garden on the hotel’s second floor. . The chef shares herbal remedies and recipes with regular guest, Terence Stamp and works with local First Nation leaders to incorporate their cuisine into the hotel’s menu.

Debra Fontaine cooks up fabulous vegetarian food at the Hollyhock holistic retreat, an hour’s floatplane flight north of Vancouver on Cortes Island. Hollyhock is to Canada what Skyros in Greece is to Europe: a resort cum retreat set on a white sand beach on a lagoon-like sea with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. Like Skyros, Hollyhock attracts the finest speakers on subjects as diverse as Shamanic journeys, Tibetan Buddhism, songwriting, yoga and didgeridoo playing.

On a sunny afternoon, I take the floatplane out of Vancouver harbour, out over all the yoga studios and coffee shops of this West Coast city, over the snow-capped mountains and the dense green forest of Stanley Park along the coastline of Vancouver Island to Cortes Island and Hollyhock

I have ambiguous feelings about places like Hollyhock. I know there will always be galumphing steely-haired women dressed in floaty purple dresses who will freedance around a bonfire or hottub while they liberate their spirit after the sauteed tofu supper. And I’m pretty sure that someone will find an excuse to be naked before my three day stay is out. So when Dina, the general manager of Hollyhock welcomes us all at dinner and says “Our purpose at Hollyhock is to provide a safe place that will hold you while you explore and grow,” I look at the strapping Seattle attorney on my left as he shovels down a second helping of the excellent Thai noodles and wonder just how much holding he needs.

The next day I have the best massage of my life in a cabin in a woodland clearing where, and I’m not making this up, fawns frolic and foxgloves blow in the breeze. Walking back through Hollyhock’s exuberant flower and vegetable garden, I encounter a hummingbird. In native Indian belief this little creature is a sign that healing and joy will come after a time of sorrow. Out in the pine forest, a class of didgeridoo students are looking for all the world like eccentric elephants as they curl up in tree trunks and blow that primordial sound out into the woods.

Hollyhock is not cheap but by the final night, I was almost convinced of everyone’s need to find the money to come up here and meditate and drum and blow and breath or whatever. Then we were all led to the beach for a Buddhist blessing of the ocean which was just fine until one of the didgeridooers broke off and flung himself naked into the freezing water. Several others followed and splashed and shrieked gamely while their more personal parts told the truth and withered. I retreated to the perfect peace of my cabin in the pine forest.

At sunset on the beach in Quadra Island just a ferry ride from Cortes, I’m scouring the rocks looking for the centuries -old petroglyphs that the native peoples once carved when I become aware that in the sky another creature has its head down and is scouring the beach and finding me. A bald eagle is swooping low over the water.

Next morning the eagle is perched in a tree above the balcony where I am drinking a cup of tea at the Tsa Kwa Luten lodge, an Indian-owned and operated luxury resort on Quadra Island. The lodge was designed to resemble a traditional west coast “Gukwdzi” or Big House. It’s a dramatic cathedral-ceilinged, cedar and glass structure looking out over treacherous Discovery Passage and the snowy mountains beyond. Captain George Vancouver first made landfall just along the coast at Cape Mudge and in nearby Cape Mudge Village, the Kwalgiuth Museum is known for its fine collection of First Nation ceremonial regalia.

To the native or First Nation people of this region, the eagle is a symbol of power; its down is a symbol of peace and friendship. There is even a Canadian law that forbids anyone other than a native owning an eagle feather. Just beyond my balcony the gardener looks up at the bird looking down at us and says,

“With his eyesight, he can see every pimple on our faces, every vein in the whites of our eyes.” And he points out the bird’s enormous nest in the tree and explains that nests are passed down from generation to generation and that this one is probably at least fifty years old.

I decide to walk the trail along the seashore that leads to the Indian Village at Cape Mudge. The village is a humble cluster of small, trailer style houses, a school , a playground and a church and cemetery where some of the graves are curious hybrids of Christian and Native belief: white crosses with a raven’s head. The museum is closed for renovation. A carved wooden welcome figure still stands its arms outstretched at the entrance but a notice says that important restoration work is being done. I’m sitting wishing for a cappuccino when an Indian woman passing in a Range Rover rolls down her window and says the place should reopen in 2002. She takes me into the Band House, the local native community centre, serves me coffee and tells me that most foreign visitors to the island come from Germany. “They know more than I do about our culture and are very big on reenactments.”

When I prepare to leave Tsa Kwa Luten the next morning, the eagle is still perched above my balcony. As I slide the window closed, he utters one cry: “Good to hang with you,” he just said, smiles the bellboy who takes my bags.

Killer whales or orcas are in fact dolphins. To the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific coast, all great chiefs who die are transformed into orcas. The orca is believed to be closely related to the human thus allowing transformation from man to killerwhale. The killerwhale symbolizes long life.

In Victoria, that all too English capital of BC on Vancouver Island, I’m staying at another symbol of long life, the grand old Empress Hotel. These days even the Empress is dabbling in the New Age with plans for a holistic spa to be opened in early 2002. But for all the English colonial gentility of the hotel’s ritual afternoon teas and curry buffets, wildness is, as always in British Columbia, just around the corner, this time in the form of the resident pods of killer whales that patrol the waters around Victoria harbour. On a sunny July morning I sign up for whale watching and make my way out of the hotel and walk along the harbour to the wharf . Victoria does still have a lot of the dowager in her and today, as every day on the jetty, a Filipino nurse pushes a huddled resident of one of the many nursing homes in a wheelchair to take the sea air.

Minutes later a dozen other tourists and I are skimming out of Victoria Harbour in a zodiac motorized raft. Soon we see whale spouts a few hundred yards from the boat. Brett, the young marine biologist who accompanies us, recognizes and can name each member of the various resident pods around Victoria Harbour. The arching black masses that move rhythmically towards us now are sleeping he says. In this state they have closed down one half of their brain and ensuring that each of them is touching another, they move as one in a trance like, semi-watchful state through the water. They suddenly disappear for what Brett calls a deep dive. We wait and watch on the still, quiet waters, each of us trying to calculate where the pod will reappear. But all is silent, the sea looks empty. My arms and eyes ache from peering through the binoculars. Then three orcas surge out of the water within feet of the raft.

They are emerging from sleep,” says Brett as one whale in particular leaps out of the water. “That’s the matriarch - the head of the whole pod. She’s 92 years old.” And as this grandmother arches and swoops, I look back towards Victoria Harbour and think of the old genderless person wrapped in their blanket in the wheelchair on the jetty and conclude that those Indian chiefs knew a thing or two when they chose to transform into whales.

The wolf is revered because of his hunting prowess. Wolf also symbolizes family and togetherness.

I’m standing on a jetty clutching the paddle of an Indian canoe. All around me is the royal blue water of Deep Cove, an exquisite fjord-like inlet a few miles east of Vancouver. The local Tsleil-Waututh tribe or “people of the inlet” run an eco-tourism venture here that introduces visitors to the ways of their people through such activities as canoe trips, drum-making workshops and tours of First Nation sites

When I arrived at Deep Cove on this hot August morning, I was carrying my note book and camera. Justin George the director of Takaya tours handed me this paddle. “Thought you were going to sit back like Cleopatra?”. His grandfather was Chief Dan George who was also an actor, nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Little Big Man His community of about 500 people share Vancouver with the Musqueam tribe. They have recently elected their first woman chief.

Out on the jetty, Justin’s cousin sings a greeting song that “will link the spirit of everyone who hears it here at the harbour. It will reach out to your loved ones - the people that you care about, here and in the world of spirit.”. And he starts to drum and chant. Indians do not perform. There is never a sense that their ego is involved in their actions. This young man moves seamlessly from a brief, gentle explanation of the song to the song itself. We are just a few miles away from the highrises of downtown Vancouver but here in this cove of deep blue water, surrounded by lush green mountains we seem to step briefly outside of frenetic Western time. And as he sings I find myself believing for a moment that this incomprehensible song by someone from so far away will reach my dead and desperately missed English mother.

And so for all my travels, I was brought back to where I began - a forty something woman who needed to grieve and to learn from the native culture of a gentler and, for me, more believable afterlife. And to share ebullience and irresistible energy with the leaping old lady whale and stillness with the watchful eagle. I had followed the signs to learn that we are all part of it all.

The Romance of Canadian Rail

When Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint up to the top bunk in the sleeping compartment of his train in North by North West, it’s the culmination of a romantic, sexy train encounter – particularly for the 50s. Since I first saw that film, I have longed to travel in a sleeping car crossing the vast North American continent.
And if Cary Grant and the movies provided the romance, it was “Canadian Sunset,” a happy, corny kind of a song from the same era, that provided the destination. “A weekend in Canada, a change of scene was the most I’d bargained for” sang Andy Williams of his ski train to romance in the Canadian mountains. For a child growing up in Twickenham, just southwest of London, this image of crimson skies reflecting on snowy mountains all viewed from a train of young, handsome skiers was a deliriously romantic if perplexing fantasy. Which train Andy ? What scene?
When I got a chance to make a winter crossing of the WHOLE of Canada from Halifax, Nova Scotia in the east to Vancouver in the west, well all those years of longing for the romance of great train travel seemed about to be satisfied.
“Canadian Pacific carry me 3000 miles,” sang the appropriately named Hank Snow ‘through the valleys and the forests….to the sunshine of her smile” Well Hank must have got on in Toronto because my journey will carry me over 4000 miles through gentle Nova Scotia woodlands, along the dull business traveller’s corridor between Montreal and Toronto, up into the tough, gnarly Canadian shield of lakes and forests, across a vast stretch of prairie to meet the grandeur of the Rockies and the lush and lovely Pacific Coast beyond..
But before the scenery even begins to unfold, the idea of sleeping on a train that is moving through all that landscape is high romance in itself. These days, many of the more luxurious Canadian train rides send their passengers to luxury hotels at nightfall.where they are guaranteed a stable night’s sleep in an unmoving bed. But it’s the rattle, the rhythm and the raising the blind in the morning not knowing quite where you are that I am seeking.
I am well served on the first part of my journey – The Ocean from Halifax to Montreal . This train has a newer rolling stock than its big brother, The Canadian, which covers the big trek from Toronto to Vancouver. The Ocean leaves Halifax in the early afternoon and arrives in Montreal the next morning at 8 am. The sleeping compartments actually provide showers in the individual bathrooms whereas The Canadian only has shared showers in the corridors.
I spend a couple of days of truly bittersweet tourism in and around Halifax. I defy anyone to visit the Titanic exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and remain dry-eyed (Halifax seamen went out to bring back the dead bodies from the Titanic wreckage.) In the same museum, the audio-visual account of the Halifax Explosion tells another heart-rending, very dramatic tale of the 1917 explosion of a French munitions ship in the harbour ; this resulted in the biggest man-made explosion in history with the exception of the nuclear bomb.
The antidote to such drama is a ride down Nova Scotia’s lovely South Shore to Peggy’s Cove and Mahone Bay. And that same mellow feel - snow-covered woods, a glimpse of the Atlantic - continues as The Ocean travels to the Bay of Fundy and heads towards New Brunswick.
Next day, after a peaceful night in a wide comfortable bunk bed in my sleeping compartment, with no sign so far of Cary Grant, I make the connection through from Montreal to Toronto where I have to overnight before heading out on The Canadian from Union Station at 9 am.
This train is the Big Deal in Trans-Canada travel. It boasts a couple of glass-roofed dome cars, glamorous stainless steel rolling stock from the 50s and a champagne welcome for passengers travelling in the sleeper section.
Was it the champagne or did Ontario really go on forever? I enjoyed it – settled as I was in the two person sleeping room that I shared with a friend. During the day time, comfortable armchairs are set out and we could read and write and watch the white world outside whisk by. During dinner in the elegant pink and silver dining car, the chairs mysteriously disappeared and our bunk beds awaited complete with a chocolate on the pillow. Single travellers are disadvantaged on this journey: their compartment is very narrow with a bed that folds down over the toilet lid. .
Ontario was still there the next morning when I woke up to gaze out at the tight tangles of woods and lakes that make up the Canadian Shield. As the second day on the train progressed the world outside remained white with just an occasional glimpse of a lone dog-musher out on a lake or a snowmobiler roaring through a forest. The Shield turned to Manitoba prairie in the early afternoon. Via Rail tries to programme this journey to ensure that the most scenic parts of the route are visible during the day time and that we sleep through the vast, flat prairies of Saskatchewan. They also provide food that represents the region we are crossing – lake trout in Ontario, bison in Alberta, salmon when we headed into BC.
By day three, when I wake up to glimpse an Edmonton rush hour traffic jam outside my window, well I have completely bonded with the train and am a little sorry to disembark at Jasper where I have programmed a day of sightseeing in the Rockies. Then a local guide takes me for a moonlight walk through the woods complete with lamp on my head and cletes on my boots, to discover the ice cathedral that is the frozen, mysteriously beautiful Maligne Canyon..
Next day when I board in the afternoon, I head straight for the Dome Car in order not to miss the spectacular views of BC’s Mt Robson and Yellowhead and Moose Lakes. On this winter trip, night comes too soon, as does the morning and the end of this great journey for when we wake up at 7am the next day, we are already approaching the outskirts of Vancouver. A gentle rain replaces the snow, cherry trees are in blossom and I step out of my cosy home of the last 5 days into one of the most beautifully situated cities on the planet. .
The Vermonter
I discovered The Vermonter by accident one January day when snow had delayed flights out of New York and I opted instead for this leisurely, magical journey from Penn Station through a New England winter to Burlington, Vermont. The train travelled alongside the frozen Connecticut River, past Vermont’s Green Mountains and through Brattleboro where Kipling once lived and wrote The Jungle Book. We carried skiers to Sugarbush and Stowe and waved to ice fishermen out on frozen lakes The Vermonter delivered me into Burlington, an attractive bookish town on Lake Champlain, in the late evening.

The Cascades

This is a short but spectacular route that runs from Seattle, Washington along the coast to Vancouver, BC. Travellers heading northbound from Seattle into Canada take the train at breakfast time and settle in for a gentle amble (the 141 mile journey takes just under 4 hours)almost entirely along the Pacific coast to accompany their eggs and hash browns. Southbound out of Vancouver, the train leaves in the evening in time for a Canadian Sunset over the Pacific to accompany dinner in the dining car.

The Adirondack

The Adirondack has been described by National Geographic Traveller as “one of the 10 great train rides in America.” Most Amtrak trains run at a sedate pace and the Adirondack takes a leisurely ten hours, following the banks of Lake Champlain and the course of the Hudson River as it travels from Montreal to Manhattan. The train travels past battle fields of the American Revolution and the mansions of Hyde Park where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had their home. This is a train to take in late September or early October in the company of the glorious reds and golds of a North American autumn.
The Malahat
The Malahat is a local train line that runs from Victoria on Vancouver Island to Courtenay. Locals advise travelling only as far as Qualicum Beach in order to experience the most scenic part of the ride, have a leisurely lunch (there is no food served on this train) and ride back to Victoria. The Malahat travels through forest, over two precarious trestles and across the lush Cowichan valley. It even occasionally stops for bungee jumpers on the bridge over the Nanaimo river.

Travel Notes

Air Canada flights to Halifax and back from Vancouver start at £479 including tax.
For more general information on holidaying in Canada please click on
VIA Rail Canada
Travel with The Independent Traveller, 01509 618800 The Independent Traveller can organize tailor-made cross Canada rail trips, priced according to itinerary.
Low season (1 Nov-31 May) Canrail passes start at £269 per person for 12 days train in a month. But this only includes a seat.
The Silver and Blue sleeper trains start at £600 per person in low season including all meals on board.
Janette Griffiths is a novelist, travel writer and broadcaster who currently divides her time between Vancouver and Paris. She would take a train across the Atlantic if it were possible. In addition to her great train journey across Canada, in the past year she has travelled by train across Norway and on a night train called ‘Don Giovanni’ from Venice to Prague.