Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer provides an elegant way to explore the continent’s last frontiers.
The crisp fall morning air is interrupted by the ding, ding, ding, ding of the train engine, followed by the echoing blurrrrrrrrph blasting from the train horn. Then there is the growing gentle scream of brakes as the clacking wheels come to an orderly halt in front of us. This is the entrance that the Rocky Mountaineer makes at the picturesque Banff train station.
The train is painted in crisp white, blue and gold colors. Its windows function like a type of long mural, reflecting the forests and snow-capped mountains surrounding us. As we walk the length of this train, hands and fingers point, accompanied by a dozen languages and even more accents of the giggling crowd of excited passengers.
This is my second trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, which rolls through the spectacular mountain landscape between Vancouver and Calgary. This day the train from Calgary is stopping in Banff to pick us up for the trip to the coast. My previous trip was the reverse: Vancouver to Calgary.
The Mountaineer is an adjective-depleting experience that is almost unfair because of how it spoils passengers. This service has thought about every aspect of the travel experience. The staff are well-hired and well-trained. You can’t fake the kind of people skills that Rocky Mountaineer attendants posses. They’re considerate, efficient and happy. Rather than asking, they anticipate needs. The service is as grand as the landscape. It’s a level of retro elegance reminiscent of days when well-dressed people travelled with retinues and steamer trucks.
There is a great historic connection to taking a train from Banff. The Canadian federation was saved by American railroad executive Sir William Van Horne. In 1871 the federal government made a commitment to British Columbia that if it joined the Canadian federation, rather than becoming part of the United States, the new province would be connected to the rest of Canada via a railway. That was key for commerce. However, the project was bogged down by incompetence and corruption. Enter the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Illinois-born Van Horne, who pushed the railway through the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. When Van Horne saw the view of the Bow Valley from Banff he famously said, “Since we can’t export the scenery, we have to import the tourists.” And he made it so. He ordered what is now the iconic castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel built so that tourists arriving by rail had a place to stay.
On this morning most of us have come from the hotel to the train. My fellow passengers range from a group of British train enthusiasts, Americans celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, honeymooners, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Canadians discovering their backyard. I chuckle at the Brits who are thrilled both with our train and with the massive, freight trains that share our tracks. A retired British transportation executive, counting 100 freight cars on one train, exclaimed, “That train is as long as the track from London to Brighton!”
Riding these rails is like being part of a great nature documentary. Other than when the rails were laid, much of this landscape is as untouched as it has been for millennium. This is a view denied to all but extreme adventurists and those, like us, privileged enough to take this train. We pass prairies, foothills, wetlands, flatlands, forests, snow-capped mountains and glacier-fed rivers, lakes and gorges. We see beaver dams, elk, deer, bear, osprey and gravity-defying big-horned sheep who jump from one improbable perch to the next, somewhat like nature’s ultimate circus act. In one river we see the red schools of what my seatmate said are Kokanee salmon.
The sightseeing is accompanied by meals worthy of any good restaurant. In our
dining room tables are set with white linens and fresh cut flowers. The five-item breakfast menu offers fresh omelettes of mozzarella, asparagus and smoked ham; scrambled eggs with steelhead salmon, kelp caviar and chive crème fraîche; eggs benedict with Montreal smoked meat; buttermilk pancakes; and a granola Parfait. Lunch, which changes daily, ranges from vegetarian and light options to wild BC Sockeye Salmon, Alberta pork tenderloin, short ribs and Black Tiger Prawns. The wine list features the best of BC’s vineyards: Chardonnay, Pinot, Merlot, Shiraz and a sparkling wine. It all fortifies the message that life is good.
I consider the Rocky Mountaineer as being like a rolling resort. I’m in the Gold Leaf Service, which is the highest of their three passenger categories (Red, Silver and Gold). Each has its own style of rail car. Any level on this train is above what you will have experienced on another service. In Gold Leaf 68 of us share a dome car staffed by three seat attendants, two chefs, plus dining room servers. We sit in sunshine enjoying the vast panorama outside. The car’s lower level has a foyer/gift display, washrooms with fresh cut flowers and flagstone floors, dining room and is connected to the upper level via a spiral staircase and, for those with mobility challenges, an elevator. The real bonus is the balcony. Each dome car has a substantially-sized open-air balcony with room for 12-15 passengers to inhale the crisp, fresh, invigorating, seasonal aroma of forests and mountain lakes, and snap spectacular photos without any glass glare.
Among the company’s attention to detail is how they handle luggage. At the Fairmont Banff Springs my bag was placed in the coach taking me to the train station, from which it was delivered to my hotel room in Kamloops. This is a two-day trip. The train stops at night so passengers never miss the scenery and crews can restock and thoroughly clean the train. The next morning, my suitcase was picked up from my Kamloops hotel room and delivered to my room at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. This is really spoiling the traveler.
We rolled past pioneering communities with rustic names and identities, like Skuzzy Creek, Boston Bar, Jackass Mountain, Cisco Crossings, Avalanche Alley, Jaws of Death Gorge, and the Three Sisters Mountains. As we passed Sicamous, our attendants, who double as tour guides delivering local history and directing us to best upcoming angles for pictures, told us this is houseboat capital of Canada, where pizzas are delivered to the middle of the lake. Further on we experienced the engineering miracles of the “Spiral Tunnels”. The Cathedral Mountain tunnel turns 250 degrees in 993 meters/3,255 feet, while the Mount Ogden tunnel turns 230 degrees in 912 meters/2,922 feet.
Approaching Vancouver we pass vast vegetable and flower gardens, see log booms
on the Fraser River and learn that at the narrowest part of that river, Hell’s Gate, 200 million gallons of water (909,218,000 liters) per minute pass through! This whole experience is about nature unhindered.
The experience caters to those who appreciate nature, a culinary experience, a glimpse into the discovery of the continent as well as engineering wizardry. At the very least it’s one elegant way to go from A to B.
A choice of experiences
Rocky Mountaineer (http://www.rockymountaineer.com) offers four services: First Passage to the West (Vancouver, Kamloops, Lake Louise, Banff), Journey through the Clouds (Vancouver, Kamloops, Jasper), Rainforest to Gold Rush (Vancouver, Whistler, Quesnel, Jasper) and the Coastal Passage (Seattle, Vancouver, Rockies).