Milling around the Rocky Mountaineer station on Terminal Avenue on a rain-soaked September morning, the unmistakable skirl of a bagpipe could be heard over the din of the growing crowd.
Maybe it’s my Scottish heritage, but hearing the shrill tone from that chanter pipe was an immediate indication this was going to be a special couple of days. As it turned out, our trip exceeded even those early expectations.
Following the call for “All aboard!” we filed out of the station towards our GoldLeaf Dome Coach and manoeuvred through the downpour assisted by uniformed staff, graciously holding umbrellas, as we made our way to the red carpet leading to the start of our two-day adventure.
But before enjoying those jaw-dropping views, we settled into our plush seats while the train meandered through Metro Vancouver and the Lower Mainland giving us an opportunity to chat with fellow passengers. The travellers my partner and I met were largely from Eastern Canada, the U.K. and Australia, enjoying what each described as the “trip of a lifetime.”
One such visitor was Patricia Henderson from Norton, County Durham in England, who said she’d been dreaming of this trip for 58 years after studying about British Columbia in geography class at age 10.
“The return journey to Calgary via the Rocky Mountaineer was the icing on the cake or the cherry on the top,” Henderson told me via email not long after our trip.
Like myself, Henderson was impressed by not only the scenery, but the attentive staff and quality of the service and food during trip. The cuisine offered on the train has a focus on regional, fresh ingredients, including smoked steelhead salmon and caviar for breakfast, and spot prawn, Alberta short ribs and Fraser Valley chicken as menu items offered at lunch.
That fact the food and drink were served by hosts dedicated to the highest attention to detail, such as Mackenzie Strome, made our experience even more worthwhile.
Meanwhile, senior steward Ewen Cameron kept his passengers entertained and informed as he shared his extensive knowledge of the history and ecology of each area we passed, as well as anecdotal tales of everything from the building of the railroad, to the First Nations peoples living along the route to the spawning habits of salmon. During one section of our journey we could actually see hundreds of bright-red salmon struggling upstream towards their spawning grounds.
The train doesn’t stop along its route, but instead moves at such a leisurely pace it’s easy to snap photos of landmarks such as Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in 1885, the engineering feat known as the Spiral Tunnels, Castle Mountain, the Columbia River Bridge, Three Sisters Mountain and more.
That pace is also why it takes almost 13 hours to get to Kamloops where Rocky Mountaineer passengers overnight. We stayed at Hotel 540, which has been recently renovated and again exceeded our expectations. (The train only travels during the day so none of the scenery is lost to the dark.)
Early on day two, we finally entered the Rockies and I got goose-bumps. I especially enjoyed watching fellow passengers stare in awe as we climbed through the snow-capped peaks through valleys of blue, green and grey that eventually surrounded us.
As we neared Banff on that second evening, a passenger requested Cameron play the John Denver classic “Rocky Mountain High” over the sound system. I suspect that prior to this trip, playing the 1972 hit might have been greeted with some eye rolling from this well-travelled group.
But on this night, it was the ideal musical accompaniment as our blue and gold cavalcade slowed to a halt. And as so many fellow passengers told us during our two-days of travel, even for a couple of Vancouverites it was the trip of a lifetime.
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