A World Away
The Rocky Mountaineer is a train journey that transports one not only through the immense beauty of Western Canada, but also through history, to a time when “luxury” meant more than just a mint on your pillow and “service” meant that there was nothing else to wish for. Kingdom’s James Gannon takes an amazing ride…
The journey begins with the whistle, officers from the train company stepping on a bellows that releases the same multi-timbre, throaty moan that has signaled the start of epic rail trips for nearly two centuries. The train—the Rocky Mountaineer—waits outside for its first run of the season, majestic and shining under a cool late-spring Vancouver sunrise. Inside the station, before the whistle sounds, children softly complain and wipe the sleep from their eyes, newlyweds and tour groups scramble to buy last-minute souvenirs from the gift kiosk, men pore over guidebooks and maps of Western Canada while their wives patiently sip coffee, and train staff adjust their smart uniforms and prepare to board passengers.
The whistle sounds and the adventure begins, with waves and good wishes and with that anticipation-building call:“All aboard.” For the next two days the train will take its fortunate charges from the cosmopolitan coastal elegance of Vancouver high into the rugged and startling interior beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Everyone riding these rails will enjoy astounding views and unparalleled service, but those of us in first class—“GoldLeaf Service,” in Rocky Mountaineer parlance—will get something else as well: One of the world’s great train journeys.
The Rocky Mountaineer has its own station in Vancouver, a former rail maintenance building remodeled into a beautiful, contemporary structure with an old world feel belied by its 35-foot ceilings and bold glass-and-timber construction. It’s an appropriate place to embark on a grand trip, something between cathedral-esque and modern mountain lodge. Staff couldn’t be nicer, helping passengers onto the double-decker GoldLeaf carriages (seating up top, dining below), and scheduling and organization couldn’t be more precise. Starting at the excellent Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver, we didn’t have to worry about our bags until we arrived at the magnificent castle known as the Fairmont Banff Springs. Train staff collected our luggage, organized buses to the station, and made sure we were on board when the train departed precisely at its scheduled time.
The first thing one notices about the GoldLeaf passenger carriages is that the roof above the upper-level seats is mostly glass, giving one the feeling of traveling in a moving atrium. Light fills the space, and there’s no feeling of confinement whatsoever. On our first morning, a light mist coated the glass above us, but that quickly disappeared with the breeze as we got underway. Getting into our seats, my wife and I found we had more than enough room.
At just under 6’ tall, crossing legs and settling down a bit into the seat was no problem whatsoever. No issues with the seats in front of us, either, and all the seats recline. And though the wife took the window, it wasn’t really a noticeable difference from my own seat, what with the view on all sides and above basically unobstructed. The interior coloring and appointments of the cabin are modern yet discrete, which is appreciated in that the décor does not at all distract from the scenery outside. And should you wish to actually get the wind in your hair, there’s an outdoor viewing platform at the end of each carriage, just down a spiral staircase and out the door.
The first day of Rocky Mountaineer’s “First Passage to the West” trip takes you from Vancouver to Kamloops, your first and last stop in British Columbia.
Vancouver is a beautiful city. In addition to rooftop gardens everywhere and lovely historic buildings, upgrades and new construction for the 2010 Olympics left the downtown waterfront area feeling cutting-edge, which it is. Furthermore, the city is a foodie’s paradise, with the numerous small neighborhoods offering excellent dining at all levels of culinary ambition. Departing Vancouver on the Rocky Mountaineer, one sees a different side of the city. Train trips out of urban areas often give passengers a sense of a city’s fundamental character with a window on its street art (also known as graffiti) but the walls and bridges of Vancouver aren’t covered in the same sort of aggressive tagging you find in, say, Philadelphia or New York. Instead, along the tracks we saw mostly well-composed paintings of Simpsons cartoon characters, a large heart with the words “I love you” painted inside, and a surprisingly nice rendering of the salutation, “Happy Valentine’s Day,” among other things. Hardly skulls and obscenities, and while Vancouver’s street-art youth might get a rough time from their American counterparts on their choice of subject matter, it certainly leaves the casually observing train passenger feeling rather tranquil during a morning departure into the lush, green wilderness beyond the city’s concrete walls.
For the two-day trip, GoldLeaf passengers are divided into two groups per carriage. One group eats before the other, and the next day it switches. On the first day we were in the second seating for breakfast, and it couldn’t come soon enough—though we were served homemade scones and coffee shortly after boarding, both of which were excellent. The elegant lower portion of the carriage holds tidy dining banquettes, tables set with linens and polished silver. We were seated with a couple from Eastern Canada, and while we talked I enjoyed a version of Eggs Benedict with a smoked meat and admirable Hollandaise well flavored with tarragon, while my wife enjoyed eggs with local salmon. There were a number of options from Executive Chef Frederic Couton, a French-born chef who trained at Michelin Star restaurants before sussing out how to create (and plate) top-shelf food in the pantry-sized rolling train kitchens. Dishes were presented with as much attention to detail as I’ve seen in some of New York’s better restaurants, juices were fresh, and the coffee—often a point of issue with me—was good. Almost too full too move, we ascended the spiral staircase and settled back into our seats.
The Rocky Mountaineer follows the Fraser River out of Vancouver, running through the Fraser River Valley into deep forests and winding canyons. Eventually, the scenery shifts and the thick green landscapes of the coastal and canyon regions turn to desert, more reminiscent of the High Sierra than of your typical British Columbia postcard. Fellow passengers said that they’d been told that the scenery on the second day, from Kamloops to Banff, was the real treat, but in all honesty the entire route is compellingly beautiful, and sites like the rushing waters of Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon and the horizon’s numerous rises and drops through the Coast and Cascade Mountains bear that out. Sightings of deer came almost immediately upon leaving town, and there were enough large birds and flashes of “something” in the woods to keep cameras clicking and everyone oohing and ahhing all day.
Consider for a moment that while all of this natural beauty is rushing by, GoldLeaf passengers aren’t merely wedged onto a bench or plastered to the windows, as more conventional rail services in the U.S. might have it. Instead, they’re reclining in comfortable seats with a complimentary cocktail, glass of wine or other beverage in hand, watching the world unfold through the clear and inspiring glass dome that covers the carriage. Cheese and fruit were served to us while awaiting our seating for lunch, and the wines—enjoyable selections from British Columbia—flowed unceasingly.
When lunch came, it was almost too soon (though we certainly weren’t complaining). Pork tenderloin with onions and whipped garlic potatoes was accompanied by a papadum. The crisp is usually served with Indian food, but it complemented the decidedly Canadian fare and was both a surprising and enjoyable bit of creativity indicative of the fact that this is no ordinary train ride.
At the end of Day 1, just as the sun was starting to set, we came into a small series of lakes outside the town of Kamloops. On the distant bank of one of the lakes, we spotted a bear getting a late afternoon drink of water. We were too far away to trouble him, but it was a thrilling sight nonetheless. Eventually we rolled around the north side of Kamloops lake and saw the series of buildings that make up the now abandoned “Tranquille Sanatorium,” established in the early 20th century as the King Edward VII Tuberculosis Sanatorium and abandoned in the 1950s, today quiet and still in its lovely valley setting by the lake.
After spending the night in Kamloops, during which we enjoyed a local pub called The Noble Pig, we rose and met our bus to re-board the Rocky Mountaineer.
Again, we left our luggage in the room and it was managed for us. The second day unfolded much as the first, though this time we were more relaxed at the outset, enjoying our breakfast with a seemingly familiar comfort. The steady sound of the wheels on the rails and the extreme luxury of the journey made it easy to fall into a rhythm. Having boarded the bus just after 6 a.m., the mix of coffee and fresh air on the train was stimulating, and a brief stint in the cold breeze on the viewing platform was pleasantly bracing, to say the least. Many of those on the train had been anxiously awaiting Day 2, and we soon learned why. We left the banks of the Fraser River for the tracks along its largest tributary, the Thompson River, and with it we left the scenic variation of the first day.
Rather than city to forest to desert to lakes, the second day’s journey is devoted almost wholeheartedly to the grandeur of the snow-capped Canadian Rockies. Along the way, fueled again by the ever-flowing local wines and an excellent lunch of tender short ribs, we passed Craigellachie, which is where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in 1885, cementing British Columbia’s promise to join the then-emerging new country of Canada, which it did in 1871.
Craigellachie itself was named for the Scottish ancestral home of Sir George Stephen, the railway’s first president. Past that, there are notable waypoints at almost every mile. The dramatic Rogers Pass, at the summit in Glacier National Park, offers numerous tunnels and wildlife in abundance. Kicking Horse Pass delivers frequent deer sightings, while the Spiral Tunnels that help the train climb more than 1,000 feet in 10 miles provide great fun, pitching passengers from bold and sweeping views into complete darkness, only to re-deliver them into breathtaking vistas over and over again.
We saw deer, sheep, bears, numerous large birds and all manner of smaller birds during our trip, and all of it in a setting that couldn’t be better if it were painted. By the time the dramatic mountains around Banff came into view, we were at once invigorated and relaxed. Two days of cold, clean, fresh air, elegant accommodations and dining, and the excellent staff and the service they provide all combined to make the Rocky Mountaineer a train journey that lives up to the romanticized vision of railways past. It is difficult to imagine that passengers on the Orient Express of old had it any better, which makes it unsurprising that guests such as Bill Gates have enjoyed the outfit’s GoldLeaf service. No matter whether you’re a business magnate or a simple traveler who likes the finer things in life, the Rocky Mountaineer is a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed. Trains around the world should be as good, but they’re not.
Thankfully, Western Canada keeps this shining jewel for rail aficionados and lovers of luxury travel everywhere.