Travel: discover the beauty of Canada’s Rocky Mountains
Nicola Russell takes a journey on Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer train, learning to chill out and relax as nature’s majesty unfolds before her eyes.
I’m sitting with an excellent glass of British Columbian pinot gris in my hand, some aged Canadian cheddar at the ready, my good pal beside me and an increasingly spectacular view of the Canadian Rockies playing out before me through glass-domed windows.
We’ve just had a lightly roasted salmon fillet for lunch served on a white tablecloth in the dining car, where we met an engaging couple who shared their love story with us, warts and all – just the way a journalist likes it. That was followed by a stroll out to the vestibule between carriages to capture mountain goats on our phones, which are currently being used only as cameras.
On this two-day rail journey on the Rocky Mountaineer there’s no Wi-Fi, and mobile coverage is sporadic at best – what it does have is some of the most dramatic scenery in the world accompanied by first-class cuisine and wines. The cliché – “it’s about the journey, not the destination” – is made for this trip (although the destination, magical Jasper, is itself remarkable, but that’s another story). For now, we are about to scale mountains, roar through tunnels and travel beside miles of rivers with cascading rapids, and I don’t even have to worry about having the right shoes.
We are on the “Journey through the Clouds”, a unique train trip from British Columbia to Alberta,
Mt Robson’s snowtopped crown is an awe-inspiring sight.
following the route of the Fraser
River and passing Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The journey departs from Vancouver, stops overnight in Kamloops and then heads for Jasper, the national park famous for its wandering elk and crystal clear lakes.
We have already got off to a grand start – being welcomed onto the train with Scottish bagpipes, a red carpet, a glass of Champagne – and there is a palpable level of excitement, plus a few nerves on my part. Not someone who can sit still for long, I am anxious about how I will manage two days literally with my bum on a seat. The only exercise you can get on the train is walking the stairs for breakfast and lunch, and strolling the aisles to get to the between-carriage vestibules for wildlife and scenery spotting.
Later, after nine hours on the train, I find that Kamloops’ Riverside Park provides an opportunity to control my hyperactivity. I go for an evening stroll in the park and a short run the next morning before reboarding. But for now I learn there is more to the comfort of long-distance train travel than remembering to stretch my legs.
As the train chugs along in its meditative way, I soon realise I need to breathe in and out in a similar rhythm, chill the heck out and simply enjoy the majestic (a word we use repeatedly on the journey – to the point of ridicule – but it really sums it up like no other) landscape we are lucky to be privy to. It’s actually impossible not to absorb the rhythm of the train – on our overnight stay in Kamloops I text my friend in the adjacent hotel room to ask if our beds are moving! They’re not.
While there is not a lot of opportunity for physical activity on
the train, there’s plenty to happily sit still for.
Passengers need not fear a postlunch snooze, because the crew announce any significant sightings or landmarks so no one misses out. On day one, as we follow the Fraser River through the Fraser Canyon, one of the many attendants in our carriage points out the passing attractions.
One of the most dramatic is Hells Gate. Here the abrupt narrowing of the towering granodiorite rock walls forces the water through a 35-metre passage, which an early explorer described as “a place where no human should venture, for surely these are the gates of Hell”. Quite safe from where we are sitting, but still gasp-worthy.
We see the incredible Pyramid Falls, descending from a hanging valley above North Thompson River, and are told to watch for mountain goats, eagles and elks and, if we are fortunate, bears and moose! We see all of the former, none of the latter, but disappointment is far from our minds.
Day two sees us winding our way into the glorious Canadian Rockies, where our photos of yesterday are usurped by the increasingly stunning and dramatic scenery, peaking with Mt Robson, the pinnacle of the Rocky Mountains. Reaching nearly 4000 metres in height, its snow-topped crown is an awe-inspiring sight.
We’re seated on the upper level of the two-tier train, which is like a travelling living room, but better. At home I don’t have this view or a stream of goodies delivered by friendly crew, who must have welldeveloped stomach muscles from staying upright as we travel along the tracks. Over the two days our stomachs get a workout too – not from exercise but from digesting the incredible food prepared on board.
Delivered to our seats are scones and jam (before breakfast!), an array of snacks and a steady stream of fine British Columbian wines – and that’s in between meals. In the dining car we have breakfast and lunch prepared by a team led by award-winning chef Jean Pierre Guerin, who honed his culinary skills at British Columbia’s five-star hotels and fine dining establishments, and runs the onboard kitchen like a well-oiled machine.
The food is consistently excellent and varied, quite remarkable considering the restrictions of a train kitchen. Breakfast choices include such things as Canadian cheddar
It’s impossible not to absorb the rhythm of the train.
soufflé, baked and served with roasted nugget potatoes; smoked bacon and country chicken sausages; or cranberry apple French toast. Lunch? Tender Fraser Valley chicken breast roasted whole and served over a creamy sweet pea purée; or Steelhead salmon fillet, lightly roasted and accompanied by nugget potatoes and a shaved fennel slaw, to name a few.
“The hardest thing is movement and space,” the charming Jean Pierre tells us. “Everything has to have a place and it has to be synchronised. Everything happens at the same time – every galley is doing the same task within a few minutes.”
During our journey, the kitchen crew prepare 3000 meals in eight galleys – six gold class and four silver. All food is made in the GoldLeaf galleys, and SilverLeaf passengers have theirs reheated in the silver galleys. Both classes of passenger have the same quality of food; the difference is GoldLeaf passengers have a greater choice of meals and eat in a dining room, while SilverLeaf are served at their seats. A tour of the train shows SilverLeaf is hardly a poor relation however, as it too offers equally comfortable seating; the main difference is high windows in comparison to domed ones.
There are a number of routes to choose from on the Rocky Mountaineer train, which runs from April through October, spanning Seattle, Vancouver, Whistler, Kamloops, Jasper, and Banff, all giving passengers a chance to be part of Canada’s long history with rail. Before the 1800s this part of the world was largely inaccessible. Now the tracks are used for both tourism and freight, and I don’t tire of watching the epic freight trains pass by us as they head from the United States to Canada. In my newly discovered Zen state I attempt to count the carriages, but my still busy brain combined with the length of the monstrous machines means I never quite make it to the end.
The two-day, 18-hour, 45km-perhour journey ends in Jasper, 900km from where we started. It would have taken eight hours to drive, but the experience of train travel is one where time is forgotten – something few of us get to do these days.
Mindfulness is pretty trendy right now – but train travellers have been practising it for centuries.
When travelling by train, time is forgotten.
LEFT: The Rocky Mountaineer on its Journey through the Clouds. ABOVE: Passengers are served high-quality cuisine prepared in the train’s galleys.