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Thursday, August 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scenic train ride to Whistler serves up a photographer's paradise

Special to The Seattle Times

ON THE TRACKS TO WHISTLER, B.C. — For photography, it doesn't get any better than this: gorgeous scenery, a clear day and a slow-moving train piloted by an engineer who brakes just to help set up the perfect shot.

We're onboard the new Whistler Mountaineer train, heading from Vancouver to Whistler mountain resort, with an arsenal of digital cameras pointed out the open-sided window. The only thing missing is the fusillade of clicks and whirs that, in the days of film, would have accompanied the incessant snapping.

"I'm a hobby photographer, and I wanted to see if I could get a winning picture for next year's camera-club competition," said Christiane Delage, a translator from Toronto toting a high-end camera. Delage and 30 other passengers are crowded into the Henry Pickering, an open observation car with no glass in its windows. There's lots of politeness as people wait for a space to open up next to the moving wall of scenery.

If you go


The Whistler Mountaineer operates daily through Oct. 16. The train takes a leisurely three hours to travel the 74 miles between North Vancouver and Whistler. It offers two levels of service: Glacier Dome ($264 round trip for adults) and Coast Classic ($163 round trip). (Prices are in U.S. dollars.) Ticket prices include transfer by motor coach from Vancouver hotels. A one-day round trip on the train provides a scant 90 minutes in Whistler; if you opt for a bus journey back, you get four hours to spend in Whistler and a slight reduction in ticket cost. Accommodation packages are also available.

More information

888-687-RAIL (7245) or www.whistlermountaineer.com

Frank and Lainie Cargould, on their way to attend a conference in Whistler, position themselves on the east side of the train as it snakes into what is perhaps the most scenic part of the three-hour journey: Cheakamus Canyon, a roughly hewn granite carving by Mother Nature.

"This is the best," said Lainie Cargould, who's from Ohio. "I was really looking forward to it, but this is absolutely the best. This is like going through God's cathedral."

That's no hyperbole: The views of Howe Sound, the Coastal Range (aka the Cascades south of the border) and the canyon are fabulous. Cheakamus Canyon is definitely the highlight but even as the train approaches Whistler, passengers get a glimpse of 195-foot Brandywine Falls. Much of what you see from the train is not visible from the highway to Whistler, which is undergoing major reconstruction in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Road delays are common.

Wide cross section of passengers

The scenery quotient begins gently enough with views of sculpted back gardens crowding the rail line as it leaves the suburbs of North Vancouver. Locals enjoying a morning coffee on their decks offer a friendly wave.

Calling the departure point a "station" is too grand a description: It's really just a paved and fenced area with an open shelter next to a rail yard. Nobody seemed to mind. Travelers from Asia, Europe and North America were evident as the crew readied the steps to allow passengers to step aboard the five-car train. A red carpet was rolled out for those who opted for the more expensive of the two classes of service, the Glacier Dome. For about 50 percent additional cost, those passengers were seated in cars with ceiling windows for increased views. They also received a cooked breakfast.

Holders of Coast Classic tickets (see "If You Go") were given a boxed breakfast consisting of fresh fruit and a croissant sandwich soon after the train's slightly late departure. All the passenger cars are refurbished rolling stock dating to the 1950s. The interiors of both classes of cars are similarly finished in gray and green fabrics. The seats recline and have built-in, fold-down tables. Each car has its own attendant, who serves food and narrates part of the journey.

It's hard to know if the Glacier Dome ticket is worth the warm breakfast, since all passengers are permitted to use the observation car. That's where many gravitate on our journey, partly to get better photos but also to enjoy the cool mountain air as the train climbs 2,000 feet to the summit of the line.

Travel options

Originally built as the Pacific Great Eastern in 1918, the railway to Prince George (north of Whistler) was dubbed the line from nowhere to nowhere, since beyond the Vancouver environs there are no major metropolitan areas. The provincial government of British Columbia bought the line and operated it until late 2003, when, in a controversial move, the B.C. government sold everything except the track itself to Canadian National Railways. A year earlier, BC Rail had ceased its daily passenger train to Whistler and Prince George. The sale agreement included provision for continued passenger and tourist trains.

This is the inaugural season of the first passenger train under that agreement. The Whistler Mountaineer is operated by the same company that already runs the Rocky Mountaineer tourist trains to Jasper, Banff and other parts of the Canadian west. Unlike its other operations, which involve trips of two and more days, the Whistler train is a simple out-and-back operation. You can make it a day trip by either riding the train both ways or by taking a bus one way. There's even a train-plane arrangement.

Since Whistler Station is a couple of miles from the actual resort, waiting buses transfer passengers to their desired hotel.

According to Whistler Mountaineer spokeswoman Nancy Dery, the train is already drawing more passengers than predicted. The company expects to record 40,000 trips this opening season. The train will not be in service from mid-October to May.

Gordon Black is a freelance writer who lives on Bainbridge Island.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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