Travel writers John and Sandra Nowlan recount their journey through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta aboard the Rocky Mountaineer
It’s clearly one of the world’s most spectacular and luxurious train trips but, surprisingly, Australians are its most frequent guests. The Rocky Mountaineer, with several route variations that run the rails between British Columbia and Alberta, combines daytime mountain passages with a level of comfort and cuisine that’s better than the first class sections of most airlines. The increasingly popular GoldLeaf service uses double deck cars with 68 guests in comfortable seats along the full length glass dome. The dining room below accommodates guests in two sittings with gourmet cuisine including fresh Pacific salmon, prime Alberta beef and excellent BC wines. Tables are set with white linen and fresh flowers. There’s also an open viewing platform on the lower deck for wind-in-your-hair photo opportunities.
Walter and Sue James of Perth, Australia, are typical passengers. “We heard good reports about the train and they were all correct,” they told us. “The scenery is truly spectacular and everything is remarkably well organized.”
That scenery is the prime reason why so much international attention is focused on Canada and the Rocky Mountaineer. From our starting point in Vancouver, British Columbia the train climbed upriver along the Fraser and Thompson systems passing pastoral lakes, quiet salmon pools and dramatic surging water cascading through narrow, rocky gorges like Hell’s Gate and Jaws of Death. The rails cut through Avalanche Alley with sheer, often crumbling cliffs interspersed with special electronic rockfall and snowfall detectors. The thick forests of the BC coast gave way to arid landscapes in the BC interior while wildlife – numerous eagles, osprey, Bighorn Sheep and an occasional bear – were spotted along the route. Each car has a knowledgeable guide to provide a running commentary.
At Kamloops, our 22-car train stopped for the night and guests were transported to one of several hotels in the pleasant mining, paper and university community (all hotel accommodation is included in the price). In the morning, eight cars were transferred to a train headed for Jasper while the rest of us enjoyed a full-service hot breakfast and continued east towards the Alberta border.
This second day of the journey was even more spectacular than the first. The Rocky Mountaineer made its way on historic Canadian Pacific tracks carved along mountain passes and through long tunnels, including two that spiraled through solid rock for close to a kilometre. These were built 100 years ago to cut the incline from a dangerous 4.5% to a more manageable 2.2% grade. Emerging from the tunnels, we were greeted with snowcapped mountain vistas above the dome cars and a series of a series of lakes, canyons, wild waterfalls and occasional glimpses of the Trans-Canada highway alongside or below.
The train slowed as we passed historic Craigellachie where the Last Spike in the transcontinental rail line was driven in 1885. We glided through mountain-ringed towns like Revelstoke, Golden and Field. Several times we had to stop on a siding to allow long freight trains, some with four engines and 200 cars filled with wheat, coal and sulfur, to pass on the single track.
At Banff, a resort community surrounded by rugged mountains including the sharply pointed Three Sisters, a number of passengers left the train while, with dusk approaching, the rest of us continued on to Calgary and a night at the historic railway hotel, the Fairmont Palliser.
While all of our fellow passengers were in awe of the majestic mountain scenery during our two-day adventure, many told us that the train is a splendid destination in itself. “Well beyond expectations,” is the way David and Carolyn Henderson of Manchester, England, summed it up. “You just can’t fault the service and the commentary. And the food is amazing. It approaches the level of top restaurants. We never expected that.”
Scott Fuqua from Texas was surprised that so few Canadians were aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. “You have a national treasure here in Canada,” he said. “More of you should enjoy it.”
Lloyd Spalding and Judy Munro from Hamilton, Ontario agreed. They traveled on Via Rail from Toronto to reach Vancouver. “Part of our Via trip through the mountains was at night,” they said. “This is so much better. Unfortunately it is expensive to travel across Canada. You can go to Cuba for just a few hundred dollars and that’s not right. Canadians should enjoy their own country first.”
IF YOU GO:
The Rocky Mountaineer is offered at three levels – GoldLeaf, SilverLeaf and RedLeaf. Details at www.rockymountaineer.com
Accommodation for train passengers in Vancouver and Calgary is provided at Fairmont Hotels
All other photos courtesy of John and Sandra Nowlan