Gently, almost imperceptibly at first, the Rocky Mountaineer makes its way through the heart of Vancouver. People stopped at rail crossings alongside the tracks get out of their cars to take pictures of the handsome gold, blue and white train as it rolls past. We follow the banks of the Fraser River, where tugboats haul great rafts of timber through silty water. At the final edge of the suburbs we spot a coyote and deer in the fields and the trip feels like it has really begun.
Since it started in 1990, Rocky Mountaineer has grown into the largest privately owned passenger rail service in North America, having hosted more than 1.5 million passengers. It's won the "World's Leading Travel Experience by Train" at the World Travel Awards almost annually since 2005.
I've been invited on board to experience the train's GoldLeaf service – which means I get to sit in one of the bi-level glass-domed coaches with an uninterrupted view of the landscape. (The cheaper SilverLeaf service offers a dome coach with somewhat smaller windows, while economy-style RedLeaf service offers standard picture-window views.) By the time we reach the lush Fraser Valley, verdant with farms and dotted with dairies, the staff announce that it's time for breakfast, one of the other reasons I'm here.
Like any great luxury rail service, the food is a crucial component to the experience. My fellow passengers and I are presented with seasonal menus. This morning it's Dungeness crab from the coastal waters of the Pacific pressed into cakes and served with scrambled eggs; buttermilk pancakes are topped with a warm, sweet compote of B.C. blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. The chefs offer a taste of Western Canada by using local ingredients wherever possible. In fact, we'll be rolling past some of the farms, lakes, rivers and forests where executive chefs Jean Pierre Guerin and Frederic Couton source their ingredients. It's an impressive effort for an organization that serves about 800,000 plates of food each year. Rocky Mountaineer has even published Eat, Play, Love, a cookbook based on the regionally inspired cuisine the train has become famous for.
The dining coach of the Rocky Mountaineer is decorated with reproductions of famous Group of Seven paintings: J.E.H. MacDonald's autumnal Falls, Montreal River, Tom Thomson's, warm Split Rock, Georgian Bay. The changing light from the scenery passing by outside flickers off the paintings, like it would in nature, bringing new life to these familiar icons. Outside the windows I spot a goat, a cat and a horse all hanging out together in a field like some kind of children's fable come to life.
After breakfast some guests return to their chairs while the rest of us make our way outside to the viewing platform to feel the rush of the wind and breathe in air that has lost its ocean aroma and is now fresh with pine. We pass the town of Hope, B.C., and climb higher into the mountains. The train slows down as we approach Hell's Gate, where the Fraser River is narrowed by the Fraser Canyon to a mere 35 metres wide. Twice the volume of water that goes over Niagara Falls flows through here every minute, and the scene lives up to its name.
Just before the town of Lytton, B.C., the train slows again to give us a view of the famous Cisco Crossing. Here, two rail bridges, the black Canadian Pacific span that was built in England in the late 19th century, and the orange Canadian National bridge – the longest single span structure on the entire line – traverse the Fraser River. One passenger, an Australian self-described train geek, tells me that for him, photographing these two bridges was the whole reason he made the trip.
After passing through Lytton we encounter the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers where the train veers east and the landscape becomes more arid as we begin our route into the Okanagan.
The desert doesn't seem inviting to farmers, but it has been good to grapes. "We aren't far from some of the best vineyards in Canada," my knowledgeable server points out, offering me a glass of unoaked chardonnay from Sumac Ridge,"one of Canada's oldest wineries." As promised, the clean, bright apricot and peach flavours make a great pairing for the richness of the wild B.C. sockeye salmon that's been slow roasted and topped with tracing-paper-thin shavings of fresh fennel.
Admittedly, it becomes difficult to focus much on the food and wine pairing as we enter Rainbow Canyon, where the rocks glow in dramatic colours: green, purple and yellow. The effect is the result of minerals embedded within the rocks being exposed to the air.
Just before dinner we reach Kamloops. Some of the guests have had enough travel for one day and look forward to a quiet night in a hotel (there is no overnight accommodation on the train), but I'm looking forward to tasting more of the local specialties. At Terra Restaurant, chef David Tombs is bringing seasonal cooking to this charming riverside town. He serves fresh halibut with a bacon and corn risotto and pairs it with an impressive chardonnay from Harper's Trail, Kamloops's first vineyard.
We're back on the train early the next morning and are greeted with mimosas as we pull out of Kamloops headed for Banff. We follow the Thompson to where it meets the gorgeous Shuswap Lake. Elaborate houseboats ply the dark water, which is edged with soft beaches and surrounded by lush mountains. Farther along, beside quieter lakes, ospreys and eagles hunt for fish.
Once again the train slows as we approach Craigellachie, B.C., where the symbolic Last Spike was driven to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railway. "It's not true, you know," my Australian train buff friend informs me. "What's not true," I ask? "The Last Spike," he says. "In 1885 when Sir Donald Smith drove it in, he messed it up and bent the thing, so a replacement had to be put in place."
The weather cools dramatically as we climb to the Rogers Pass and everyone but the diehard Australian returns to the warmth of the viewing car. The train climbs higher, ducking under snow sheds that protect the tracks. The staff tell us that this area receives an average 10 metres of snow each year and point out great swaths of steep mountainside where no tall trees grow, explaining that these areas are naturally prone to avalanches, so no large trees can take root.
After lunch (braised Alberta beef short ribs in honour of our evening's destination) we approach the Spiral Tunnels, an engineering marvel that even non-fanatical train enthusiasts get excited about. One of the steepest stretches of train track in the world, the original descent brought trains down at a 4.5-per-cent grade. It proved too much for many and the first locomotive that attempted the descent came off the rails, killing three workers. The building of the Spiral Tunnels lessened the pitch to a much more manageable 2.2 per cent, although mudslides, rockfalls and avalanches still present challenges.
Safely though, we carry on to Lake Louise where one eagle-eyed passenger spots an elk calf and everyone scrambles to get a picture like it was a royal baby. By the time we pull into the Banff train station in the early evening, no one is in a hurry to depart. It's the end of the line for most but many passengers linger on the platform to pose for pictures and exchange contact details with new friends. As for me, the next time I'm in Coolangatta, Australia, I have a place to stay.
Overnight trips start at $899 plus tax for 1 night, 2 days, for RedLeaf service. rockymountineer.com
The writer was a guest of Rocky Mountaineer, which did not review or approve this article.
WHEN SLEEPING ON THE TRAIN IS PART OF THE FUN:
If you want to fulfill that travel fantasy of sleeping on a train, you'll have to book on Via Rail's four-night Vancouver-Toronto trip aboard the Canadian. Via has recently finished $22-million in upgrades, much of it spent on passenger cars and sleeping areas. Guests who book the Sleeper Plus Class can bunk in berths, cabins that sleep up to four, or a suite. (Turndown service, exclusive shower access and an amenities kit are a few of the perks. Fares start at $859 for the Toronto-Vancouver trip.) Economy Class travellers, however, sleep in their chairs just like on an airplane. Via also lets travellers bed down on board the Ocean line (one night Montreal-Halifax); two nights on the Winnipeg-Churchill line and one night on the Montreal-Gaspé line. viarail.ca Catherine Dawson March