Canada is so incredibly vast, the best way to gain any sense of its size and scale is to travel across it overland.
And taking the train is a great way to see it without the discomfort or worry of driving a car or riding a bus. Recently, my husband Joshua and I were invited to get on board Canada’s famed Rocky Mountaineer, a privately owned luxury rail service, for a trip through our majestic Canadian Rockies.
Heralded by a bagpiper at the terminal, we, along with 700 rail enthusiasts — mostly tourists from the United States, Europe and Australia celebrating everything from anniversaries to retirement — climbed aboard one of 22 cars destined to either picturesque Jasper or Banff.
Travellers on the Rocky Mountaineer pre-determine their destination and choose between SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf service. We had the pleasure of the latter, the firm’s top tier of service with glass-domed, double-decker seating and a separate dining level below.
From the attentive service, big bucket seats and white tablecloths, to the fine china, silver ware and gourmet meals, it truly felt like we were reliving the golden era of rail travel. Even the leisurely pace at which we were travelling (roughly 50 kilometres per hour) had an old world charm to it. The first day’s leg from Vancouver to Kamloops took just over nine hours (everyone disembarks in Kamloops and is put up in a hotel overnight).
Our time on board was easily filled, beginning with the food and beverage service.
We made our way down a spiral staircase to enjoy two elaborate three-course meals. Executive chefs Jean Pierre Guerin and Frederic Couton’s menu is extensive, inspired by Western Canada’s diverse culinary landscape. From buttermilk pancakes topped with a warm compote of sweet B.C. blueberries for breakfast to Alberta beef short ribs for lunch, every item is sourced from local farmers wherever possible.
While many, yours truly included, wanted to head upstairs to take a nap following the royal repast, to sleep through the spectacular scenery would have been criminal. Instead, Joshua and I went outside to the vestibule — a viewing platform between carriages — for a breath of fresh mountain air and to take in the outdoor entertainment. And what an impressive show. From the ever-changing soul-stirring scenery ably described by our guides to the wide variety of animals that greeted us, every moment was photo worthy.
We saw horses, cattle, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, elk and blacktail deer. Every sighting was called out by our knowledgeable Vancouver-based attendants Sara, Eddie, Darren and Zahra and fellow travellers. To the disappointment of all our cabin mates, the only creatures out of view were the much-anticipated, discussed and sought-after grizzly or black bears. Thankfully, we were consoled with endless snacks, spirits, beer, and Okanagan VQA wines.
Day two would bring more adventures, and arguably the most breathtaking stretch of scenery as we made the dramatic climb (some 1,625 metres above sea level) through the majestic Rockies. The roughly 10-hour journey to scenic Banff, AB. would take us through three national parks and Craigellachie, B.C., where the historic last spike was driven in 131 years ago, marking the completion of the transcontinental railway and connecting the West Coast to the rest of the country.
But the biggest moment of the trip was saved during the second seating of lunch.
The pronouncement from the front of the train that a bear was sighted stopped everyone in their tracks.
The entire group quickly lurched left, and held their collective breath, anxious for the iconic creature to come into view. The entire carriage fell quiet. And then in a flash, a young black bear appeared, quietly grazing through the tall grass oblivious of all the attention.
Attempts at a decent photo failed. Blurry at best, it didn’t matter. The group erupted in cheers as if we had just won the lottery. Their reactions: priceless. Hurrahs, hugs and high-fives ensued. The bear spotting was the perfect ending to a most memorable trip. With smiles on everyone’s faces — fully satisfied with what just transpired — we all retired upstairs for a final round of celebratory cocktails and fresh baked cookies, brought to us by the hard-working culinary team.
All too soon — just as friendships were being cemented — we reached the end of the line. “Spectacular.” “Simply breathtaking.” “Magical.” “Trip of a lifetime.” These were some of the comments shared about our adventure by our new best friends. No one was in a hurry to depart. We thanked our lovely hosts (tipping is encouraged), exchanged contact details with our new besties from Australia, Ireland, England and Switzerland, and took a few more selfies before finally saying goodbye.
A most memorable trip indeed — an experience more locals — Vancouverites, British Columbians and Canadians — should really discover. Sometimes it’s not about the destination, but about the journey itself. This was such a case. The luxury rail service is truly worthy of all its praise and accolades. The Rocky Mountaineer runs until Oct. 17.
Fred Lee was a guest of Rocky Mountaineer.