When tasked with providing a holiday of a lifetime for a well-travelled colonel along with his incredibly accomplished and former tour operator owner wife, I must confess to feeling everso slightly awestruck!
Alain, Anita, and I became firm friends in the process of formulating their complex manoeuvres, and boy do I love it when a plan comes together…
I had been to Canada with the Army many years ago but saw very little of the country. My wife, Anita, knew Jo Shayler and mentioned her desire for the trip of a lifetime to experience the Rocky Mountaineer train, and the idea of a “SKI trip” (Spending Kid’s Inheritance) was born, the acronym became a mantra whenever anyone asked if there was a specific reason for the holiday.
Jo assumed responsibility and started the planning process, coming to visit us in person to discuss the itinerary and providing us with a personalised brochure that was the envy of every other traveller we met. She even did the paperwork for our ESTA visa applications.
Being a member of The Army and Navy Club in London provided the opportunity of our own accommodation arrangements in both Vancouver and New York, none of which presented any problem to Jo, who simply tailored our itinerary accordingly.
The adventure began with an excellent transfer to Heathrow with a local firm that Jo organised. We flew Business Class with Air Canada on a daytime flight which provided access to their lounge for brunch. With Anita having some discomfort walking without a stick, Jo had arranged for assistance at both Heathrow and Vancouver.
On arrival, we made our way to the Vancouver Club, located close to the Fairmont Hotel from where the Rocky Mountaineer collects its guests.
Vancouver is a lovely city, and we spent a day and a half touring around, particularly enjoying the excellent hop-on-hop-off buses and noting the consistent smell of cannabis in the air (it is, of course, legal in Canada).
The Rocky Mountaineer train was ready and waiting after an early departure from the hotel and we received a warm welcome from the staff, who were to become friends over the following days.
We had opted for the Gold Leaf service, with panoramic roof and window views, and I simply cannot do justice to describing the spectacular scenery. The onboard food and inclusive bar were fabulous.
Our first stop was the ski resort of Whistler and our stay there at the Fairmont Hotel was excellent, as it was at each of their hotels in which we stayed. The only downside, if it can be called one, was the early rises and starts back on the train to ensure we caught the amazing breakfasts.
Sadly, the next day, the tracks had become buckled, and the last part of our journey had to be completed by coach.
Our next stop was the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which was shrouded in a light fog which we discovered was the result of the wildfires in Alberta.
Jo had arranged a hire car for us to drive to Banff for the second leg of our train journey. En route, we experienced an amazing glacier tour which included filling our bottles with the purest water I have ever tasted.
I had visited the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in 1979 and was delighted to return for a two-night stay and enjoy a room view so incredible that we even turned down the kind offer of an upgrade as it could not have been bettered.
Fortunately, on the second day, the smoke had cleared, and we continued our journey to Banff, where the first thing we looked for upon arrival was a launderette, conveniently found close to where we handed our car in. With our large suitcases containing formal attire for the return on the Queen Mary 2, we were effectively living out of a suitcase for ten days.
My only concern about staying at The Banff Springs Hotel was that as a young captain on R&R, I had been part of a group that had been thrown out of one of its magnificent bars and told we were barred for life!
I must confess, it was a good day (and evening), but I expressed the issue to Jo, who after she stopped laughing, said they had probably forgotten. Just to make sure, I found the bar and asked if they kept a list of barred people and told the bartender my story, who burst out laughing, pointing out that none of the staff had been born in 1979.
We rejoined the train with a different but equally charming crew and once again absorbed the astonishing scenery as we headed back to Vancouver.
With an early morning flight, Jo had booked us into (guess what?) The Fairmont Hotel at the airport where the departure gate was a mere 20 metres from the hotel - perfect!
We were sad to leave Canada but are determined to get back - it’s an incredible country - and we did not meet a single Canadian that we didn’t instantly like and received wonderful service wherever we went.
On arrival in New York, we took a taxi to The Yale Club, by Grand Central Station, where we also later enjoyed dining at their restaurant, with its terrific views and the best burger I’ve ever eaten!
Although having visited this fabulous city previously, we still had to spend a couple of days sightseeing and shopping, including a trip to Tiffany’s for Anita’s birthday.
The last leg of our memorable holiday was to reacquaint ourselves with the Queen Mary 2 for the transatlantic crossing which again delivered unforgettably, with excellent food and entertainment plus the advantage of no jet lag with the clocks advancing an hour every lunchtime.
Cunard had partnered with “The Greatest Generation”, an organisation that helps American war veterans, who gave outstanding daily talks on their D-Day and Vietnam experiences. As amateur historians and I, a former soldier - it made our trip.
Eight days passed in a beautiful haze that included a commemorative service for the Battle of the Atlantic, where my father as a young 18-year-old spent five days stranded in an open boat following the sinking of his ship.
We arrived at Southampton still buzzing from our amazing holiday to be met by our return taxi, again arranged through Jo, who I can’t praise highly enough. Her professionalism, humour and client liaison are the best, and having run a school-based travel company for many years, we know exactly what it takes.
Any stress was removed from this action-packed holiday with seamless arrangements, and we will undoubtedly be calling on her to plan our next “SKI” trip.
Thank you, Jo, for an unforgettable and brilliantly organised experience - you did a fantastic job.
Alain and Anita