The gentle clackety-clack of the Rocky Mountaineer rolling through the foothills of British Columbia to Banff is almost soothing enough to lull you to sleep.
5-Star dining on rails
Almost – but not so much that one misses the coffee cart quietly making its way up the spacious aisle of the famous glass-domed GoldLeaf carriage on the first morning of the two-day First Passage to the West journey through the Canadian Rockies. Renowned as five-star dining on rails, the train’s white glove service is something to behold. The early morning coffee delivery is no exception.
“Can I offer you a warm pastry and fresh coffee before breakfast?” Before breakfast, you say?
The offer comes from Tyler D’Sousa, one of a small army of attentive and knowledgeable train stewards whose job it is, he says, “to make sure people are happy, well-fed and relaxed.”
By the time second breakfast is done (a nicely curated menu including a souffle and fresh local produce), it’s clear that Tyler and the train crew take their ‘make people happy’ job seriously.
Likewise, lunch is another gastronomic adventure, created by Executive Chef Kaelhub Cudmore, whose team cooks on board under tight and sometimes bouncy conditions. Using a combination of prepped and freshly cooked elements from across the western provinces, Cudmore says his menu reflects the environment and history travellers view from their seats.
“We spend a lot of time riding the train and observing where we’re travelling through and taking inspiration from the environment. We use brighter, fresher flavours that tie into the idea of creating memories, as food should,” he says.
Moreover, it’s an apt approach, considering that the journey is a magnificently illustrated rolling history lesson.
Unlimited mountains and scenery
Delivered by well-versed staff, some of Canada’s most hair-raising moments and near-misses come to life. The location of the famous last spike joining the Canadian Pacific rail line from east to west? The train slows at the mountain village of Craigellachie for a photo op. (An onboard seatback newspaper notes that financier Donald Smith A. Smith’s “first blow was a feeble one and the plain iron spike bent and was knocked away.” Ouch.)
–versed staff, some of Canada’s most hair–raising momentsand near–missescome to life. Thelocation of the famouslast spike joining the Canadian Pacific rail line from east to west? Thetrain slows at the mountain village of Craigellachie for a photo op. (An onboard seatback
The mind-bending engineering of the Spiral Tunnels built in 1909 through Cathedral and Odgen Mountains? The train passes through them, too. And exactly where did Sir John A. MacDonald’s wife, Agnes, strap a chair to a cow catcher on her mountain rail journey to get the best view? Happened right over there.
Part romantic adventure stories, part dazzling feats of engineering, the history of Canadian rail and its impact on nationhood is a delightful context for the luxury journey.
Founded in 1990, the Rocky Mountaineer offers two-and three-day excursions from Vancouver to Banff and Lake Louise or Jasper. In its 32-year history, it’s hosted thousands of mostly Australian, American and British tourists looking for exquisite views and astonishing wildlife, all from the lap of luxury.
Each 10-or 12-hour day of the journey over delivers during the year, which runs from late April to mid-October. Depending on the season, travellers see bears, big horn sheep, eagles, owls and coyotes, for a start. Yet, while the animals don’t always make an appearance, Doris does: a resident of Canoe, BC, whose home backs onto the train line, she’s alerted to the Rocky Mountaineer’s approach by her dog. Like clockwork, she wave two-handed to passengers from her back porch. (A few years ago, Rocky Mountaineer gave her and her husband a free trip; staff drove to her house so they could wave to her as the train passed.)
And, depending on budget and inclination, travellers choose between carriage types. Most famous is the dome-topped GoldLeaf service featuring a lower level dining room and wheelchair access through a lift. The dome itself is a marvel of Swiss engineering and can be tinted or clarified using electrical current technology, depending on the weather. The SilverLeaf carriage, which also seats up to 60, has oversized windows. SilverLeaf attendants serve meals from a slightly smaller menu selection at passengers’ seats.
Every other detail is also considered, from luggage pick up and delivery to hotels along the route to suggestions for excursions and restaurants at the overnight stops in Kamloops, Banff, Quesnel and Jasper.
For staff, some of whom make the four-day round trip 25 to 30 times in a season, each journey has its moments, says train manager, Colin Krahn. But some stand out.
“On my second trip, we had a group of retired cops from Australia checking out lawn bowling leagues in Canada. And another group were French Canadians, so I was going back and forth. I left the car for 10 minutes and when I came back, they’d made forts and were having a pillow fight.”
Celebrities, too, have been seen on the Rocky Mountaineer, including Reba McIntyre, Peter Jennings, Jean Luc Picard, Anna Ferris, Morgan Freeman and Bill Gates.
Even so, the real stars of the show are definitely the mountains and wild landscape, he says.
“We enjoy people from all over the world and hearing their stories. But more than anything,” he says with the satisfaction of a man who really loves his work, “we get to show of one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
If you go
Rocky Mountaineer offers several options within the SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf services, including trip length, overnight stays and options hotel upgrades. Booking includes rail travel and meal, luggage handling and rail station transfers. Airfare and additional activities are not included. Prices range from around $1864 to $4660 per person, depending on the package.
Things to do
The list of things to do in Canada’s West is extensive. Adventurous visitors can pay extra for a vast range of things, including a boat cruise on Lake Minnewanka, a glacier walk on the Columbia Icefield, a ride on the Athabasca Glacier or trip up the Banff Gondola to view Sulphur Mountain and dine at the Sky Bistro (whose new chef, Claudius Wolf, has revolutionized the menu).
Good to know
Rocky Mountaineer recently premiered an American experience called the Rockies to Red Rocks, which runs to November. The trip goes from Moab through Glenwood Springs and on to Denver through rugged desert terrain.