See the best of the Canadian West aboard the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver, British Columbia to Banff, Alberta
By Debra Smith
The sounds are gone. The clickety-clack of steel wheels, the squeal of brakes, the mysterious rattles below cars – these are the noises I was expecting.
Surprisingly, all I heard was the murmur of conversation and a gentle whoosh of air as it rushed by the panoramic windows of my seat on the Rocky Mountaineer.
Childhood Full of Trains
My childhood vacations were spent on trains. My father was a chef on the Canadian National Railway, and our family had a pass to travel anywhere in Canada that CN rail had a track. On short trips, we bounced along on bench seats that magically converted at night into sleeper berths.
On longer trips, my mother and I would share a wood veneer-lined cabin fitted with a tiny steel sink, miniature reading lights, and a fold-down table. I marveled over every detail. Everything was just my size.
Grown-Up Travel on GoldLeaf
What a transformation the Rocky Mountaineer has created on the former VIA Rail Canada passenger route.
Since 1990, over two million guests have enjoyed the daylight run between Vancouver and Banff, via Kamloops and Lake Louise, on the route called “First Passage to the West”. The line skirts mountainsides through pristine forests, skims along glacier-fed rivers and flashes past white thundering waterfalls.
Instead of wi-fi, there is real-time commentary on the history, geology, flora and fauna along the route, delivered by knowledgeable hosts. It is the best kind of digital detox.
As Paul Theroux, that celebrated chronicler of trains remarked about the Trans-Siberian, “This train is an occasion, not a subject…like an ocean liner.”
The Rocky Mountaineer is Canada’s ocean liner of the rails, serene and luxurious with outstanding attention paid to every detail.
Just like on an ocean liner, levels of service can be customized. Rocky Mountaineer guests can choose from GoldLeaf or SilverLeaf, mix and match accommodations, and choose from dozens of additional side tours to create a unique, affordable experience.
GoldLeaf guests usually choose to stay at Fairmont hotels. Conveniently for art lovers, the Vancouver Art Gallery is located right across the street from The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.
This year, two featured exhibitions by Yoko Ono run until May 1, 2022 – Growing Freedom: The Instructions of Yoko Ono/The Art of John and Yoko and Yoko Ono: Water Event, a collaboration with local indigenous artists.
All Aboard for Luxury
A quick trip by motorcoach took us from the hotel to the Rocky Mountaineer station to board our car. The bi-level GoldLeaf service cars are continually refurbished to a luxurious standard – they even have an elevator.
Ten brand-new, custom-made GoldLeaf cars were added in 2019. The bubble topped Sceneramic car that I remembered has been replaced with overhead windows that run the length of the dome coaches. They’re perfect for snapping photographs all day long.
The deep, cozy seats swivel around to accommodate card games or conversation. We were introduced to the Train Manager, the Culinary Team, and our four Rocky Mountaineer hosts. With cocktails and glasses of wine in hand, we were off.
As the train wound through the Fraser Valley, our hosts made us comfortable with coffee, liqueurs, and cookies and stories of the early days of the trappers, settlers and First Nations people. The train slowed as we passed Hell’s Gate, the narrowest point of the Fraser Canyon, so we could see the water bursting into foam.
We settled into a pleasant routine of chatting, listening for points of interest, picture taking and, of course, breakfast and lunch service in the dining car below.
Going Down to Dinner
As a child, my biggest thrill was walking through the cars for meals. Mom and I staggered like sailors across the rocking platforms, the floor plates swiveling from side to side like scales on an enormous dragon.
I had to pull with all my might to open the heavy stainless steel and glass car doors. They closed behind us like bank vaults, leaving behind the jangles and screeches of the rolling cars and the relentless drumming of the engine.
The dining car was a sea of calm after that adventure.
On the Rocky Mountaineer, the dining car is located below the GoldLeaf dome coach and accessed by a small spiral staircase. Two to three chefs work like acrobats in a tiny 18 by 8-foot galley kitchen to create the west coast inspired menu.
Freshly baked scones, full meals, cheese plates, desserts, and snacks appear throughout the day for the 72 guests, complete with white linen napkins.
In one year, they will serve more than 4,500 dozen farm-fresh eggs; 20,000 free-range chicken breasts; 45,000 pancakes; 22,000 beef short ribs; and 450 kgs of smoked salmon.
Sweet Dreams in the Okanagan
When evening came, we disembarked in Kamloops for our overnight stay. The downtown area is small and walkable with several excellent local restaurants (Noble Pig is a standout), and a burgeoning local wine scene.
Onboard the train, the unlimited drinks menu includes BC wines from Sumac Ridge Estate, Jackson-Triggs Reserve, and local craft beer, as well as cocktails.
Guests stay at Delta Hotels by Marriott and DoubleTree by Hilton, depending on service level. There’s no falling asleep to the sound of the train whistle anymore. In any case, you’d miss the most exciting part of the journey during the daylight hours.
Across the Great Divide
The next morning, we boarded for Banff and the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, passing Craigellachie, where the famous Last Spike was driven in 1885. We also passed through majestic Rogers Pass and around the Spiral Tunnels through Kicking Horse Pass before crossing over the Continental Divide.
Along the way, our hosts pointed out osprey nests, half-hidden waterfalls, and ghost towns. We heard tales of mountain men, First Nations people, and the building of the railroad as we kept a lookout for bears, deer, and moose.
For lovers of train travel, this stretch of track is unparalleled. As one guest that I spoke to said, “I’m ready to do it all over again.”
Rocky Mountaineer will begin its spring schedule next year. Prices begin at $1,629 CAD per person.
Debra Smith was hosted by Rocky Mountaineer, but the opinions are all her own.