All aboard for gourmet meals on wheels

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - Cather­ine Mar­shall

I’m as fat as a bear, and soon I will burst my seams. The food just keeps com­ing: break­fasts of blue­berry pan­cakes drip­ping with Canadian maple syrup; baked eggs served over Yukon gold pota­toes and Canadian ba­con; and lunches so lus­cious they wrench my at­ten­tion from the land­scapes rolling past.

What’s more beau­ti­ful, the soar­ing Rocky Moun­tains or a pip­ing hot mush­room burger ooz­ing smoked ched­dar? There are tea trays piled high with warm cook­ies the size of bread plates and trol­leys crammed with bowls of bite-sized trail mix and choco­late-cov­ered nuts.

On the Rocky Moun­taineer’s pop­u­lar First Pas­sage to the West itin­er­ary from Van­cou­ver to Banff, I feel as if I’m be­ing fed to pre­pare for hi­ber­na­tion. But it’s spring, and black bears and less com­mon brown griz­zlies are be­gin­ning to emerge from their se­cret win­ter lairs in search of sus­te­nance.

If they found their way to the Fraser Val­ley, west of Van­cou­ver, they’d be re­warded with fresh blue­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries, stone fruit and ap­ples and herbs, and kale so pro­lific it grows like weeds. It’s past th­ese lush pas­tures that we’re chug­ging now, leav­ing the graf­fitismeared out­skirts of Van­cou­ver, the bloom­ing as­pens and over­passes we spy through the glass ceil­ing of our GoldLeaf car­riage. But it will be at least a day be­fore we can spot a bear, and then only if we’re re­ally lucky, says train man­ager Ze­bu­lon Fastabend, whose last en­counter was about 45 jour­neys ago.

We make a toast, nonethe­less, to the his­toric Canadian Pa­cific Rail­ways route, which ex­tends in seem­ingly in­ter­minable, some­times jagged lines west from here, unit­ing Bri­tish Columbia with the rest of Canada. As we cross the Fraser River into Mis­sion, two har­bour seals poke up their heads from the wa­ter and ogle the pass­ing train. Per­haps they’re sali­vat­ing for the smoked salmon curled like a rose­bud in­side a cupped tor­tilla chip atop my break­fast of creamy scram­bled eggs. For yes, I am seated in the din­ing car­riage, and the feed­ing has be­gun.

As I eat my break­fast I un­der­stand why peo­ple un­der­take this jour­ney as much for the food as the scenery. Ex­ec­u­tive chef Jean Pierre Guerin, a 10-year veteran of the Rocky Moun­taineer, con­jures magic in­side his slim­line gal­ley kitchens across four routes. Menus are a cel­e­bra­tion of ev­ery­thing that grows in this re­gion and its ad­ja­cent se­aboard. It changes each sea­son, but Guerin has re­tained favourites, such as beef short ribs, braised for hours in Okana­gan Val­ley mer­lot. “This is your com­fort­type food,” he ex­plains. “It’s not ex­tremely orig­i­nal but it’s been one of the best­sellers. I can’t tell you how many hun­dreds of thou­sands of por­tions we’ve cooked over the years. It’s just un­be­liev­able the amount peo­ple eat.”

But things are chang­ing and Guerin has re­ceived so many re­quests for gluten-free dishes that this year the menu has be­come al­most 100 per cent gluten-free. It’s only ob­vi­ously wheat-based prod­ucts such as bread and crois­sants that con­tain gluten now, and al­ter­na­tive gluten-free va­ri­eties are avail­able on re­quest. More­over, ev­ery menu con­tains a veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan choice.

All around me, pas­sen­gers are smack­ing their lips, mop­ping up the re­mains of their break­fasts and al­most for­get­ting to look out of the win­dow, where the coun­try­side has opened up like a sto­ry­book.

When we left Van­cou­ver early this morn­ing, rain­drops had pooled like liq­uid peb­bles on the glass dome, but the clouds are lift­ing now and bright day­light is flood­ing the car­riage. The flat, ex­pan­sive land­scape starts to crum­ple, tak­ing on the con­tours of al­ti­tude.

The Fraser River squeezes through the Fraser Canyon, and the Rocky Moun­taineer fol­lows suit. From the car­riage we can spy the nar­row­est part of the river, a froth­ing chasm chris­tened Hell’s Gate by 19th-cen­tury fur trader and ex­plorer Si­mon Fraser who, af­ter he and his men had rowed through it in their birch bark ca­noes, noted, “Surely we have passed through the gates of hell.”

Lunch? For me it’s steel­head salmon with gar­lic herb jas­mine risotto and mar­ket gar­den veg­eta­bles and by now I’m get­ting the hang of savour­ing food and scenery

Pas­sen­gers are smack­ing their lips, mop­ping up the re­mains of their break­fasts and al­most for­get­ting to look out of the win­dow

all at once. We’re pass­ing a bluff painted in shades of cop­per and green, and stub­bled with the hem­locks and cedars that were charred in last year’s fire; and pe­cu­liarly shaped, fos­sil-filled for­ma­tions called hoodoos, which have been sculpted by glacia­tion into con­i­cal spires.

At Lyt­tle­ton, where the muddy Fraser and glass-clear Thomp­son rivers con­verge, op­por­tunis­tic os­preys have built their nest at the top of a nearby tele­phone pole, close to where salmon spawn. Their chicks have hatched, but we can’t see th­ese young ones. “I watch them grow from furry lit­tle chicks into ado­les­cents out fish­ing for salmon with their par­ents,” says car­riage at­ten­dant Michelle Boyen, who rides th­ese tracks six months a year.

The wildlife sight­ings es­ca­late as we ap­proach Kamloops, where we will spend the night. We spot bighorn sheep graz­ing amid the pon­derosa pines, bald ea­gles soar­ing over the desert plateau. But it’s the next day that brings with it the chance, how­ever slim, of sight­ing a bear.

The Rocky Moun­taineer sets off early, trac­ing the Adams River, where mil­lions of sock­eye salmon spawn each year. I or­der a break­fast of eggs bene­dict with Mon­treal-style smoked beef, but it’s im­pos­si­ble to keep my eye on the food, for we’ve en­tered the hem­lock zone and the back­drop has trans­formed into an ex­quis­ite panorama of water­falls gush­ing through the clefts of soar­ing gran­ite moun­tains and firs tee­ter­ing on un­sta­ble river­banks, roots dan­gling like ten­drils above the ice-blue wa­ter.

Pass­ing through Revel­stoke, pas­sen­gers spot a bear but it’s just a statue. Dis­ap­pointed, I set­tle into the rhyth­mic click­ety-clack of the jour­ney and gaze on the moun­tains rear­ing up ahead. The firs are so close I can make out the dif­fer­ent species by the shape of their fo­liage, with dis­creet nee­dles on one, spiked cones on a sec­ond, a floppy spread of leaves on a third.

At lunchtime I taste my veg­etable gy­oza glazed in soy sauce and a dessert of creme brulee, but com­pet­ing for my at­ten­tion is the mes­meris­ing land­scape of jagged chasms, snow-streaked peaks and gush­ing, glacier-fed rivers. Soon we will cross the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide, the high­est point on this 957km jour­ney, be­fore de­scend­ing into Lake Louise and then, fi­nally, Banff.

And, as if on cue, Fastabend in­forms us that there’s a bear up ahead, on the left-hand side of the tracks. We press our faces to the glass and hold our breath as the train sails around the bend. And there, stand­ing in a pond of thaw­ing slush, as though wait­ing es­pe­cially for us, is a beau­ti­ful, fat, burst­ing-at-the-seams male brown griz­zly bear. He looks di­rectly at us, and as we pass he swivels his great big head to watch us go.

The snow is thaw­ing, the skunk cab­bage is bloom­ing, and sum­mer is on its way. Hi­ber­na­tion is over at last, so let the feed­ing be­gin.

Rocky Moun­taineer trav­els be­tween Van­cou­ver and Banff, above; lunch is served, left; chef Jean Pierre Guerin, right


Black bear, above left; gourmet fare, above; wildlife spot­ted from the train, above right


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