With scrumptious food and spectacular scenery, the Rocky Mountaineer may be your trip of a lifetime!
I am a restless traveler, wanting to move rapidly, see and do a lot of things, always looking for what’s over the next hill. However, a leisurely—and luxurious–two-day rail trip from Vancouver, B.C. to Banff on Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer showed me the merits of slowing down, taking a deep breath, and watching the world go by.
We begin our journey in Vancouver, that shining international city surrounded by the sea and breathtaking snow-capped mountains. Vancouver is one of the cleanest, safest, and most beautiful cities in North America and it has all the things that make a city great – a spectacular location, world class hotels, a plethora of terrific restaurants of every stripe and a level of livability that includes public art, lush parks, and plenty of bike and walking paths.
I spent 24 hours in Vancouver staying at the Fairmont Waterfront, an upscale property right on the water with knock-out views of busy Coal Harbor and its cruise ships, float planes, and pleasure craft buzzing about. It’s also on the seawall trail, a broad, concrete pathway that follows the waterfront and leads to Stanley Park, the city’s 1,000-acre natural preseve. I borrowed one of the hotel’s complimentary bikes and spent a joyous two hours peddling in the sunshine.
The Journey Begins
Early the next morning, my rail journey begins when Rocky Mountaineer staff meets me and a few friends in the Fairmont Waterfront’s lobby for a 7 a.m. motorcoach pickup and a 10-minute ride to the train depot. We’d been previously told to pack a small onboard bag and the uniformed Rocky Mountaineer staff efficiently tags and swoops up my other suitcases for delivery to my hotel in Kamloops, our overnight stop. Because this train travels through some of Canada’s most beautiful scenery, the train only runs during the day and passengers stay in hotels or resorts that are part of the rail package.
We are welcomed at the station by the lively strains of a bag piper and a shiny train painted in gold and navy blue. The Rocky Mountaineer offers three levels of service–MapleLeaf, SilverLeaf, and, the most luxurious, GoldLeaf. The differences in service levels include the type of rail car, the opulence of the food and beverage service, and the overnight accommodations. We opted for GoldLeaf because it offers full dome cars and gourmet meals made with local ingredients from areas we travel through.
As we pull out of the station, 30 or so staff from Rocky Mountaineer’s office enthusiastically wave us off. I’m already beginning to feel like the Queen of England.
Our rail car features a downstairs dining car with booths and, upstairs, two-across reclining lounge seats with plenty of leg room and huge dome windows tinted on top to shade the sun. Because it’s early in the season, our car is only about two-thirds full so we spread out, each of us claiming an aisle for ourselves.
Unlike with air travel, we can easily move about. We access the two downstairs bathrooms, the dining area, and the outdoor vestibule between cars (for fresh air and photos) via a spiral staircase. There is also a lift that several older passengers use, including one woman who giggles and waves enthusiastically every time she gets on. She, too, must be feeling like the Queen.
We’re barely settled into our seats when we’re called down to breakfast. The car has two seatings for both breakfast and lunch. Those on second seating are served scones and coffee and tea in the morning and cheese, crackers, fruit, and wine in the afternoon while they wait for their meal. Throughout the day, the staff brings beverages, including alcoholic drinks, that are complimentary on GoldLeaf.
We hustle down the spiral stairs and sit at white-clothed tables for four. Each day, both the breakfast and lunch menus change. Later, the Rocky Mountaineer’s Executive Chef, J.P. Guerin, takes us on a tour of the two mini-kitchens, super narrow spaces where five chefs do an amazing culinary dance churning out from-scratch food for guests. While much of the prep work such as sauce making and bread baking is done in the company’s kitchens in Kamloops, all dishes on the train are cooked fresh-to-order.
We’ve got plenty of choices on the custom-printed breakfast menus—mozzarella omelet, blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, eggs Benedict, granola parfait. The meal starts with fresh fruit that includes melon, strawberries, blueberries, and gooseberries. I order scrambled and salmon, a big rosette of lightly smoked salmon and a bit of crunchy, briny caviar topping soft-scrambled eggs. It comes with flavorful country potatoes studded with wild mushrooms and fresh cherry tomatoes. Like my companions, I clean my plate.
Breakfast is deliciously leisurely and, by the time we get upstairs, it’s after 10 a.m. and we’re whizzing by Harrison Lake and Lake Errock. A young uniformed staffer with a microphone points out the highlights, including T. Kilby General Store, one of the early pioneer retailers still doing business. We pass by mountains, rivers and lakes, and stretches of farm land. We follow the Fraser River, its brown water carrying sediment and minerals into the Fraser Valley, one of the most fertile places in Canada.
“Residents lived in Hope but died in despair,” our microphone gal tells us as we pass the town of Hope, a former Hudson’s Bay fur trading post and gold boom town that’s now the chainsaw carving capital of Canada.
We pass snow-capped mountains, plunge into dark tunnels, and slice through forests of maple, cedar, and Douglas fir. Now the mountains are closer and higher; the forests thicker. By 11:15, we’re churning by the town of Yale. During the 1858 gold rush, this town boasted 130,000 souls. Today, 138 residents call the place home.
We’re in the Fraser River Canyon and the hillsides around us are steep. As the train rounds a corner and passes Hell’s Gate, a narrowing in the river where water gushes at 200 gallons per minute, faster than Niagara Falls, we slow to almost a crawl and we all crowd along the windows to ogle the torrent and snap photos.
Before long, it’s lunch time and our choices include Alberta beef short ribs, tiger prawns, Fraser Valley chicken breast, or vegetarian farfalle. It’s seved served with soup or salad and wonderfully warm, crusty French bread and cold butter that none of us can stop eating because it’s so delicious and our server, Vanessa, keeps filling our basket. My ribs are tender and rich and come with garlic whipped potatoes and fresh veggies. While my companions order glasses of red or white B.C. wine (included with the meals) and pronounce it delicious, I sip unsweetened ice tea.
After lunch, I wander out to the vestibule, a large outdoor area with a railing that keeps passengers from plunging onto track. It’s a favorite place for photographers to gather to take photos without worrying about glare off the dome windows. The air is fresh here and it’s fun to see the trees and rivers streak by. Every once in a while, we meet a freight train coming in the opposite direction and our train slows and box cars rumble by seemingly close enough to touch.
By now, the terrain has changed dramatically–it’s drier and pine has replaced cedar and Douglas fir. When we reach Rainbow Canyon, the whitish sedimentary rock walls are painted in reds, pinks, and yellows from oxidized iron, copper, and sulfur. Grey granite walls studded with pine rise up above the roiling brown Thompson River. When I step outside of the air conditioned car for a moment, I’m startled by the change in temperature as hot wind blows off the canyon walls.
It’s late in the afternoon and I feel restless. Other passengers, many from Europe, don’t seem fazed by the slow pace. They order complimentary cocktails, play cards, talk, and make new friends. Unlike freight trains, the Rocky Mountaineer is surprisingly quiet and smooth. There is no “clack-clack-clack,” but there is a gentle rocking that, along with the sun streaming through the dome and the rise in temperature, makes everyone sleepy. Several of my friends doze in their seats.
Sometimes the train churns at a good clip; other times we move along so slowly it feels as though I could walk faster. I’m tired and wishing we were in Kamloops, but we’re a couple dozen miles out. We pass Lake Kamloops, a 25-mile-long body of water formed 12,000 years ago. As I gaze at the water, I spot a number of eagles and osprey. In the sagebrush, a herd of big horn sheep graze unconcerned by the train’s passing.
Just outside of Kamloops, our guide points out a series of abandoned buildings that once housed tuberculosis patients. We’re in a broad green valley now surrounded by brown hills and we pass over the Thompson River into Kamloops, native Canadian for “meeting of the waters,” and our home for the night.
We detrain and motorcoach over to Hotel 540, an immaculately clean and blessedly quiet motorlodge next to a casino in downtown Kamloops. We’re greeted with cold lemonade and luggage already stashed in our rooms.
Kamloops (population 85,000) is one of those quaint river towns with a shady, walkable downtown filled with one-of-a-kind stores in historic buildings. It’s a high desert place where, in the summer, temperatures routinely soar above 100 F. and the intense sun and heat make it famous for sweet watermelons and other produce.
After freshening up, we walk a few blocks to Terra, a local restaurant run by David and Andrea Tombs, a husband and wife chef/pastry chef team, who specialize in using all-local ingredients and serving B.C. wines. We opt for a chef’s tasting menu and are delighted when salads arrive of fresh spinach, asparagus, and tomatoes, accented with hard cooked egg and paper-thin slices of salty prosciutto lightly dressed in sherry vinaigrette. Next comes a small piece of grilled halibut served over a cheesy-tomato risotto. While my fish is slightly overcooked, it’s moist and very fresh and the risotto has a nice chewiness.
For me, the star of our menu is the lamb chop and sausage served with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. The lamb is mild and tender and perfectly cooked. The potatoes are creamy and the roasted beets, carrots, tomato and broccoli could make a meal in itself.
Our meal is topped off with two desserts by pastry chef Andrea–individual strawberry rhubarb pies with a small scoop of local vanilla ice cream and a jam jar cheesecake crowned with basil berry jam. The pie has just the right sweet-tartness and a super tender crust. The cheesecake could be silkier, but the mascarpone and cream cheese combine for a tangy flavor that’s spot on and the basil jam provides an interesting accent that lingers on the tongue.
After dinner, we stretch our train legs walking the downtown streets and peering into the shops. Unfortunately, the train arrives after the local hops have closed and I make a mental note to come back to this interesting little burg another time.
Morning arrives early and we’re picked up at our hotel and driven to the Rocky Mountaineer at 6:15 a.m. As we churn out of Kamloops, the scenery immediately and dramatically changes from high desert pine and sage brush to lush, green mountains and rivers.
Between Kamloops and Banff, we cross seven rivers and everywhere I look there are eagles perched on tree snags scanning the water for breakfast. One we pass is so close to the train, it looks like I can reach out and touch him. Unlike yesterday, when I felt restless and anxious to arrive at our destination, today I feel calm, settled. It’s as if the motion of the train itself has had a meditative effect and I’m content to gaze out the window and watch the beauty pass by.
We’re on second meal seating so the staff brings us delicate scones and coffee to tide us over. Despite the snack, when I sit down to my eggs Benedict with country potatoes, I’m plenty hungry. The eggs are fresh and the Hollandaise sauce is light with just the right lemony lilt. And, again, the country potatoes are hearty and delicious and I leave satisfied.
Our staffer on the microphone informs us we’re passing Craigellachie, the spot where the last spike was driven to complete the first trans-Canada rail line. There’s a monument, a small museum, and an old rail car that marks the spot and we scramble to snap pictures.
The mountains are higher and much closer now and the forests are dense. On either side of the train, cliffs rise steeply, dressed in deep evergreen and the pale green of spring. We follow the Eagle River and climb continually. The train’s second engine is engaged to pull our heavy load up the steep runs.
Our host on the microphone tells us that the Hudson’s Bay Company traded with area native Canadian Indians for as many as 100,000 pelts a year to satisfy Europe’s craze for hats made from beaver. To shape the hats, hat makers boiled the pelts in mercury, which made them crazy and the term “mad as a hatter” was born.
We are deep in the Canadian Rockies now. The mountains are nearly vertical and tower over us like green giants. Occasionally, the mountains’ vermillion carpet is broken by sharp outcroppings of rock, tumultuous falls, or patches of snow yet to surrender to spring’s sunshine.
Around noon, we pass over the Columbia River and past Revelstoke, a town in the heart of the Selkirk Mountains renowned for skiing, snowmobiling, and heli-skiing. The scenery is breathtaking and I’m entranced. My thoughts are lazy, my breathing slower. I gaze at the snow-capped mountains and watch eagles wheel overhead. When I spot a long abandoned pioneer cabin being reclaimed by the forest, I wonder who lived in it and what their life must have been like in this wild place. When a young staffer brings me another beverage or a hot towel to refresh my hands and face, I find myself smiling broadly.
By 1 p.m., we’re moving into Glacier National Park, the first national park in Canada, established by mountaineers in 1888. We pass under snow sheds, long tunnel-like structures built to protect trains from the avalanches that frequent these steep elevations. Suddenly we’re plunged into darkness as we pass through the longest tunnel on the line. An engineering feat, the five-mile-long tunnel cost millions to build, including nearly $3 million in dynamite to blast away rock to bore into the mountain.
High Bridges, Delicious Lunch
We pass over Stony Creek Bridge, at 480 feet long and 325 feet high and surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs and a tumultuous waterfall, it’s a jittery crossing our engineer takes at a slow pace. We gather along the windows snapping photos of the impressive drop-offs. One friend refuses to look and stands in the middle of the car, convinced we may plunge over the side any minute.
We survive the crossing and it’s a good thing because lunch is delicious. The pork tenderloin is juicy and served with a confit of sweet corn demi-glace, veggies, whipped potatoes, and parsnip chips. But the wild sockeye salmon is the real star, moist and perfectly seasoned. It’s served with a delicate mustard sauce, hearty roast potatoes, and buttery spaghetti squash.
We’re just about to tuck into dessert—a delicious maple caramel compost served between flaky biscuits with ice cream—when someone yells, “Bear on the right.” I look up just in time to see a fat black bear sitting beside the tracks. She turns and looks right at me as we pass.
By late afternoon, the terrain is impossibly steep. We’ve been climbing steadily all afternoon and now the trees are narrower to handle the harsh and deep snows. Overhead the sky is brilliant blue and the mountains stretching to touch it look like something out of Disney’s Fantasyland.
We’ve reached the Spiral Tunnels, an amazing engineering solution to the problem of trains careening off steep mountains. Built 1907-09, the Spiral Tunnels enable the trains to switchback up the mountain, the first tunnel making a 230 degree turn into Ogden Mountain; the second, a 250 degree turn that runs under Cathedral Mountain. The two tunnels allow as many as 30 trains each day to make three-quarter turns, lessening the impact of gaining 1,000+ feet in less than 10 miles and reducing the gradient from an impossibly steep 4 to a safe 2.2.
Just as we pass the Continental Divide at 5,332 feet, we spot a rare sight—a mountain goat scampering down the mountain. We’re in Alberta now running along the Bow River that, unlike the other six rivers we’ve passed, flows east rather than west to the sea.
We roll past Victoria Glacier, the massive field of dense ice that feeds Lake Louise. We’re very close to the ski town of Banff, our final destination.
As the train pulls into the station, I feel settled, relaxed. Somewhere along the Rocky Mountaineer’s track, I left behind all the anxiety, all the worry, all the restlessness. And I’m grinning like a kid and wishing I’d have booked the Rocky Mountaineer for an even longer journey. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Rocky Mountaineer www.rockymountaineer.com/
Destination British Columbia www.hellobc.com/
Tourism Kamloops www.tourismkamloops.com/