AAH FOR ROCKIES
The seats are warm and the scenery’s cool on the Rocky Mountaineer
There’s a popular adage which states that life (and, by proxy, travel) isn’t so much about the destination, it’s about the journey. I find myself contemplating the aptness of this saying as I take in some of the most staggeringly beautiful scenery I’ve seen, all from the decadent comfort of a huge, leatherupholstered chair with built-in “bum warmer”. Toasty, wide-eyed, and with a decent glass of red in one hand, certainly I’m in no hurry.
I’m on the Rocky Mountaineer.
Canada’s most iconic train journey. The luxurious locomotive has hyperbole in spades. A perennial on the “world’s best” lists (Conde Nast
Traveler recently hailed it as one of its top five trains on Earth), since launching in 1990 the privately owned train has taken more than two million passengers through the breathtaking Canadian Rockies via the towns of Jasper, Banff and beyond.
I begin my own adventure in Banff. Ensconced for a day and night predeparture as part of my overall package, it doesn’t take much for this quaint resort town to win me over.
Home to the country’s oldest national park, it’s an adventurelovers’ playground. Here you can ride gondolas, visit nearby Lake Louise (the turquoise lake ringed by peaks that features on countless postcards), ski, snowboard and kayak.
Rising before dawn the next morning, during the transfer to Banff station my head is filled with visions of romantic train travel, of carriage cocktails and conversation, of grandeur and old-world charm. Mulling over such fantasies, I board via an adorned red carpet with the help of friendly staff and smartly clad porters. I’m in GoldLeaf class – the top offering on board.
Led to my seat on the upper level of the double-decker carriage, I take in just how spacious its beige leather dimensions are. A control panel on the right-hand side allows for reclining and lumbar support, and then there’s the aforementioned bum warmer, which is an absolute revelation. Bliss!
Certainly appreciating the Rockies
doesn’t mean having to rough it, and for those who need creature comforts but hanker after some adventure, the train is ideal.
SET THE SCENERY
As much as inside the train is great, it’s really about what’s going on outside. The standout feature of the
Rocky Mountaineer is its customdesigned, glass-domed coaches that put guests in the thick of the spellbinding action. There are panoramic views of glacier-topped mountains and tumbling waterfalls, snow-topped forests, crystal-clear rivers and emerald-green, glacier-fed lakes reflecting the surrounding peaks. My fellow passengers issue “oohs” and “ahhs” at every turn as we rush through Western Canada on the First Passage to the West flagship route that takes us from Banff to the Kamloops, and ultimately Vancouver.
Scenery aside, the 360-degree views make wildlife spotting a breeze. Mere minutes into our journey and we spy an elk. Hours later, we’ve seen more bald eagles and ospreys than I thought possible. On ground level, among the Canadian critters frequently sighted are bighorn sheep, moose, and, most exciting of all, visiting during grizzly season, bears.
Glued to the window, camera atthe-ready, I become hawk-eyed when we pass a salmon-filled river.
DINE LIKE A VIP
Sitting in comfort taking in hours of awe-inspiring scenery works up a serious hunger. Thankfully, the train has this covered. The chef at the helm of the on-board kitchen, which easily rivals some of the country’s top eateries, has cooked for Bill Clinton and the late Princess Diana.
We eat breakfast and lunch on board, heading downstairs to the dining cart. This is probably the major difference between GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf classes – those in SilverLeaf don’t have a separate dining cart and have their meals served to them in their seats.
In GoldLeaf there are two sittings for breakfast and lunch, which are reversed on the second day. Those in the second sitting receive coffee and buns before breakfast, and cheese and biscuits pre-lunch. You never have to worry about getting peckish as staff pre-empt hunger pangs with snacks and homemade cookies.
The meals are made using fresh Pacific Northwest ingredients and are delicious, from scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast to slowroasted pork loin for lunch.
In the cart, tables are laid out for four, giving passengers a better opportunity to meet each other. My companions are a mix of Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Canadians, Americans, and Irish. Over three courses – paired with an array of BC wines (Canadian wine! Who knew?) – we’re soon bosom buddies. Everyone is up for mingling, so solo travellers needn’t fear being short of people to talk to.
Post-eating, you can snooze, read a book, do some more window gazing, or get a few more drinks with your new-found friends. An in-seat drinks menu offers non-alcoholic items, plus local beers, wines and cocktails, including the uniquely Canadian Caesar cocktail, which is ordered and served in your seat by the courteous train staff who display signature Canadian warmth and friendliness.
I relish the fact that the journey gives you time to both reconnect with the natural world around you, and to disconnect – there’s no Wi-Fi on board. Feeling a little tipsy from one too many vinos during lunch, I get some fresh air on the outdoor viewing platform and watch as alpine forests flash back. Still determined to see the elusive bear, I only retreat back to my seat when the chill gets to me.
Stopping overnight in the small city of Kamloops, I discover the ingenious luggage system used by the Rocky
Mountaineer. Unlike other train journeys, such as The Ghan or the
Orient Express, passengers don’t sleep on board. Instead, the train pulls up for the night and accommodation is provided in local hotels. Luggage is packed in the morning, left in the room and not seen until you check into the next property where it’s waiting for you, no muss, no fuss.
While there are no stops or excursions during the actual journey, there are plenty of add-ons and extras for guests, with more than 80 holiday packages in total, including tours, multi-day self-drives and hotel stays in various destinations. New 2019 packages include a splurge-worthy luxury lodge stay with guided helihiking, and guests are even able to add on an Alaska cruise to make it a two-in-one holiday by rail and sea.
AND MORE SCENERY
Midway through day two, there’s still new fodder for the eyes. Though the route is short, we traverse three distinctly different climates along the way: the snow-capped mountains of Banff, the dry Kamloops region – which is home to one of Canada’s only deserts – and then on to wet and mild Vancouver on the Pacific Coast. Throughout, there are historical ghost towns, beaver dams, freshwater lakes, rapids and old mining tunnels.
On-board commentary points out all of the above, alongside colourful local tales of First Nations characters, of settlers being lured to the area by promises of apple trees only to discover they were trees that had apples tied to them (true story), of abandoned, haunted lunatic asylums, and Hollywood filming locations.
All too soon, we pull up into Vancouver station where a line of beaming, flag-waving staff are waiting to greet us. Disembarking on the platform, I cast one last look back at the majestic train before a speedy transfer to the plush Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver’s CBD.
Now a firm convert to a slower pace of travel – especially one that involves the level of luxury I’ve just experienced – I worry about my ability to cope with the imminent return flight home in a cramped economy seat, where I’m pretty sure there won’t be a lavish three-course degustation, or an in-built bum warmer in my seat.
I wonder if Rocky Mountaineer is planning on branching out into air travel any time soon?
THE WRITER TRAVELLED AS A GUEST OF ROCKY MOUNTAINEER
Landscapes and wildlife are breathtaking from the comfy seats of the iconic Rocky Mountaineer; Moraine Lake, near Banff, is a stunner.