Step aboard for a once-in-a-lifetime journey, with the incomparable romance of rail travel. The Royal Canadian Pacific Railways (www.royalcanadianpacific.com) offers a sumptuous feast for soul, cuisine and elegance. Based in Calgary, Alberta, the RCP operates a world-class fleet of luxurious, 1920's-era rail cars.
We joined our 19 fellow travelers in the CPR Pavilion at the Calgary Fairmont Palliser Hotel the evening before departure. Our Royal Canadian Experience would take us 650 miles, from Calgary, Alberta, through Banff and Golden, into British Columbia, then along the Columbia River to Cranbrook, turning east and traveling through Crowsnest Pass, Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump, across the High Level Bridge, to Okotoks and back to Calgary. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres were passed in the ornate, floor-to-ceiling windowed foyer mere steps from the train itself. This was a multinational gathering of train enthusiasts. CPR guests spend their night at the opulent Palliser Hotel on the prestigious Gold Floor. The next morning there were ear to ear smiles as we stepped onto train and entered another era. Gleaming brass, deep, rich red velvet, fresh flowers and polished mahogany greeted us. The city faded into the distance as we were led to our compartments and given an introduction to our home for the next five days. Our state car was the Strathcona, a Montreal-built car dating to 1927. The Van Horne (named for the brilliant American engineer who oversaw the construction of the railway), Royal Wentworth, NR Crump and Banffshire also housed guests this trip. Each car has an illustrious history and a lineage of historical guests including queens and kings of England, US presidents, heads of state and celebrities.
The relationship of trains to the history of Canada is long and detailed. In 1881, Canada was essentially two countries: the Eastern provinces and British Columbia. Sir John MacDonald, the prime minster of Canada, feared that British Columbia was tempted to become part of the US. He promised British Columbians that if they became part of Canada, he would built the Pacific Railroad. They accepted and by 1885, and after much controversy, the first transcontinental railway had been built, stretching from Vancouver to Montreal. Guests mixed freely as our first meal aboard, brunch, was served. We shared quiche, spinach salad, onion bread, and a lovely crème and lemon tart with the Bowens of Jersey, England. Lynne, a piano teacher from San Antonio, was traveling alone after saving for years to take this glorious trip. Joe, a retired insurance company executive and his wife Claire were from New York. Mary and John had brought her parents as a 50th wedding anniversary gift. John and Cindy were ranchers from Texas. Joyce, an English octogenarian, was also traveling alone. Alex, a solo traveler as well, surprised us all with the announcement that this was his twelfth trip on the train. He provided lots of useful information and great stories of Canadian train history.
That afternnoon, we took a quick motor coach trip to Lake Louise, the astonishing turquoise lake and skiiing area situated in the glorious expanse of Banff National Park, Canada's first national park. Later, we munched on hot hors d oeuvres as we crossed the Continental Divide, a ridge of mountains in North America which separates the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. The Spiral Tunnels, a man-made project built between 1907 and 1909 across Kicking Horse Valley, came next. The tunnels were blasted from the rock to allow the trains to make the steep grade. The Upper Tunnel burrows into Cathedral Mountain for more than 3,000 feet, turns 288 degrees, passes under itself and emerges 56 feet lower. The Lower Tunnel cuts through Mount Ogden for 2922 feet, turns 226 degrees, passes under itself and emerges 45 feet lower. The Spiral Tunnels allowed the 10 mile route of a 4.5 percent grade to be replaced with nearly 21 miles of 2.2 percent grade.
As daylight faded away, we dined on lemon-thyme chicken soup, grilled strip steaks and managed to savor a sorbet trio with candied ginger and berry compote and fresh sugar cookies. The train's gentle rocking slowed as we stopped for the night. The train does not move while the guests sleep but serves as a kind alarm clock as the next morning, the gradual movement of the train awakened us. After breakfast, served on silver and china, the group toured Kicking Horse Resort and took a gondola ride to the top of Eagle's Eye Mountain. It was snowing at the top of the peak, an enchanting experience for Texans in June.
We spent the afternoon on a private guided tour of the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel. It was fascinating to view the 1929 Trans-Canada Limited, a jazz era art deco seven-car collection known during the Roaring 20's as the “Deluxe Hotel on Wheels.” Business cars, such as the British Columbia, built in 1928, was the railway superintendent's car and the Soo-Spokane Train from 1907 showcases the Edwardian era. The train stopped for the night at Summit Lake; we dined in elegance on smoked prairie trout salad, olive-crusted lamb and lemon mousse cake. Day four brought us onto the Alberta prairie. The train stopped at Fort Macleod for a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. In the early 1800s, 65-75 million buffalo roamed these prairies. The Blackfoot Nation ruled the plains, earning a reputation as the most warlike and ferocious of all plains Indians. The educational center pays homage to the Blackfoot's proud heritage.
Passing over the High Level Bridge was incomparable. Built in 1909, it is the longest and highest bridge of its type in the world. We pulled in for the night at Carmangay. Lobster, venison and chocolate truffle cake were followed by cognac and lively conversation.
Our last day offered a trip to Homeplace Ranch, a year-round working ranch in the Rocky Mountain foothills. This area was home for hundreds of years to the Stoney and Sarcee Indians, who called it “Paradise.” Around 1980, huge cattle ranches formed, some of which, like the Homeplace, still exist. As the afternoon drew to a close, so did our lovely adventure. The gorgeous Rockies faded from view, replaced with the civilization of Calgary; we disembarked and checked in for a final evening at the Palliser.
The Royal Canadian is one of the most luxurious rail tours in the world. The staff is impeccable, never asking twice what a guest's preferred beverage may be or letting even one small detail go unnoticed. Once a year, the railway offers special focus trips: fly-fishing (Aug. 7-12), golf (July 27-Aug. 1) and cuisine, wine and music (Sept. 6-11). Custom private charters are available; the company will work with guests to create off-train activities and specially-chosen routes. Tour prices for these awe-inspiring trips range from $6000 to $7400 for six-day excursions; the 15-day “Express Experience,” which travels from Vancouver to Montreal June 13-28, is $26,500. All tours include magnificently restored staterooms with private bath, meals prepared by award-winning chefs, alcoholic beverages, all off-train excursions, taxes, airport transportation and an attention to service and detail unparalleled. The trips sell out quickly each season so it is best to book promptly.
Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill and President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy are just a few of the dignataries who have ridden the RCP's vintage passenger cars. For days after our return to Houston, we felt the gentle rocking of the train and basked in the glow of our return to a forgotten era of luxury.
(This article was originally published on 3/12/08)