Amazing views. Luxurious seating. Delightful dining. Impeccable service. All on a train? Absolutely! The Rocky Mountaineer adventure offers all of this and more.
Rather than simply being a way to get from one place to another, the train trip IS the destination, with the stops along the way being a bonus.
There are four routes that Rocky Mountaineer takes while snaking through the breath-taking Canadian Rocky Mountains; one begins or ends in Seattle, Wash. and the other three originate or end in Vancouver, B.C. Stops include Whistler, Quesnel, Jasper, Kamloops and Lake Louise/Banff. The trips can be combined with other itineraries such as cruises off the coast, extra hotel nights, excursions, etc. I took the “First Passage to the West” from Vancouver to Banff in late June, and it was a most welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Houston’s summer. This particular route provides an extensive history lesson on the importance of trains in making Western Canada what it is today. Scenic highlights include the Spiral Tunnels, Stoney Creek Bridge, and Craigellachie.
There are two levels of service, SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf, the latter of which I had the pleasure of enjoying. GoldLeaf service is top tier and offers bi-level, glass-dome coaches with dining on the bottom level, including a full culinary team per coach; an open-air, outdoor vestibule; three to four hosts per coach for attentive, knowledgeable service; and alcoholic beverages and delectable treats delivered right to your seat. It really is the most luxurious experience one could imagine. Train and guest service managers along with engaging railcar hosts work together to ensure guests receive a top-of-the-line experience which includes chef-prepared gourmet meals, no small feat given the constraints and logistics of the small galley on board.
Known as one of the “World’s Best Rail Journeys,” the Rocky Mountaineer tourist train began in 1990 and continues to win travel awards from around the world. Guests enjoy jaw-dropping vistas of glaciers, mountains and plains; pristine waterfalls, rivers and lakes fed by glacial runoff; towering rainforests and local wildlife; and the small footprint left by men throughout the country in the form of farms, mills and villages.
Because we were traveling through a vast, mostly unpopulated wilderness, there was very little cell and WiFi service, adding to the tranquility of the adventure. Without having their noses buried in their phones or tapping away at keyboards, passengers had more time to engage in actual conversation, sit in silence while taking in the awesome landscape, follow along in the “Milepost” guide while the enthusiastic hosts shared highlights and history along the way, or simply enjoy a bit of shuteye after a filling meal and a bit of wine. The hosts would alert us when we were approaching areas where certain wildlife was known to make an appearance, and it became a competition of sorts as we kept our eyes peeled, delighting in being the first to glimpse an animal and signaling others to grab their cameras for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opp. The outdoor viewing platform gave riders a breath of brisk, pine scent-filled air, unfettered access to the scenery, and an authentic train-riding experience as we felt and heard the sway of the train.
The first part of the trip began at Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, where steps away are many local attractions, including the Pacific Centre shopping mall, Christ Church Cathedral, and Vancouver City Centre. The Vancouver International Jazz Festival was going on while I was there, with multiple stages, food trucks and vendors spread over the Vancouver Art Gallery campus. But you don’t have to venture from this “Castle in the City.” The pet-friendly hotel is a shopper’s paradise, with designer boutiques including Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. For dinner, we shared a number of appetizer plates at the amazing Notch8 Restaurant and Bar, named after a train’s top speed and an apt beginning for the trip of a lifetime. Perhaps you’ll encounter the hotel’s ghostly Lady in Red before turning in. This year the hotel celebrates 80 years of luxurious surroundings and service (Fairmont.com/hotel-vancouver).
In the morning, we rose early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and took a coach to the train station, where we were greeted with fresh coffee and juice and enjoyed music by an entertaining live pianist. After the call for “All Aboard,” a bagpiper played us off as we embarked on our journey.
Following breakfast and lunch aboard our railcar and an idyllic day viewing the splendor of the Rockies, we stayed the night in Kamloops, a First Nations word for “where the rivers meet.” Our guide on the shuttle we took to the hotel gave us quite a bit of history about the town, which has a population of over 100,000 and is surrounding by more than 100 lakes and rivers, including beaches. We ventured into the downtown district to view back-alley murals and dine at the Noble Pig Brewhouse, a cozy microbrewery that offers “elevated pub grub,” some with an Asian flair. We then spent a comfortable night at the Coast Kamloops Hotel, with an inside courtyard that is a tropical treat (coasthotels.com).
After another epic day onboard, we spent the next two nights in Banff. What a delightful destination all on its own, one that would take at least a week to fully explore! The whimsical, Swiss chalet-inspired town was designed to attract tourists, and one of its original draws was the promise that hunters could bag their choice of game as it was (and still is) plentiful. Museums, tours, historical sites and recreation are some of the highlights. Downtown is a shopper’s mecca with small stores nestled together, easy to pop in and out of. Enjoy BeaverTail pastries, Cows’ ice cream, or home-made delights from The Fudgery while exploring the pedestrian-friendly avenues.
Nearby Lake Minnewanka is a blue-watered, serene destination; one-hour interpretive cruises include a host full of witty and wonderous tales. Enjoy Banff National Park, the oldest national park in all of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes Lake Louise and three ski resorts. A great way to get an overview of the park and Bow Valley is to take the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain and enjoy a gourmet meal at Sky Bistro before braving the bracing winds outside on the roof-top observation deck with 360-degree views. We also spent a part of an afternoon floating on the Bow River, which is calm at this point. Our guide and energetic raft rower, Eddie, entertained us with plenty of info and local lore as we viewed the extraordinary mountain ranges surrounding us.
Local spots to enjoy dinner include the Park Distillery, where we were treated to a tour and a tasting of award-winning spirits and hearty fare such as ribs and baked beans. Bison serves farm-to-table dishes, sourcing local ingredients whenever possible, and the two stories provide a view of the mountains. Or opt to dine in at the Rimrock Resort Hotel where we stayed for both nights in Banff. Dating back to the 1940s, this exquisite piece of architecture offers unparalleled views, superb service, and luxurious rooms. Eden is their five star-rated dining room (dinner only and requires reservations); Primrose is less formal and the place to grab breakfast; and there are two areas to enjoy cocktails and bites: Larkspur Lounge and Divas, open only on weekends, which features the aura of bygone Hollywood’s most glamorous women. Amenities include a day spa, indoor pool, hot tub and sauna and complimentary transit into town (rimrockresort.com).
For more information on how to book a fabulous trip on Rocky Mountaineer, visit rockymountaineer.com or contact your local travel agency. Partners Tourism Vancouver (Tourismvancouver.com), Destination BC (destinationbc.ca), and Pursuit Collection (pursuitcollection.com) helped make this adventure a once-in-a-lifetime one.