Great Train Journeys: Over the Canadian Rockies from Banff to Vancouver on the Rocky Mountaineer
Mountaineering? No, that is not for me. Unless of course you mean Rocky Mountaineering through the Canadian Rockies with an old school dining car and upper level viewing car to soak it all in? Well, yes, of course! That is a different thing.
My journey started in Banff at 6am at the end of September, and a sharp -2 deg C. That day would take me through the Rockies in late Autumn, with its turning leaves, cascading waterfalls and rushing rivers. We were headed towards Kamloops heralded by the bright early Autumn sky and the crisp sharp air.
I boarded the mountaineer, greeted by cheerful hosts at dawn, the sky dressed to match with a splash of pink ribbon light. I was excited, I adore trains and slow travel and I was allowing myself a couple of days to just be. How rare is that? For the next two days, that Rocky Mountaineer carriage would be my world.
All travel on the Rocky Mountaineer is in daylight so that you can absorb and appreciate the views. In the gold leaf carriage there are two levels. Downstairs is the dining room, dressed sharply in linen and silverware, and this is where you have your breakfast and lunch. Upstairs is the viewing carriage with a dreamy transparent domed ceiling. Everyone is excited, it is a journey of a lifetime for most. There were travellers from Australia, the US and Canada sitting by me. Some celebrating important anniversaries, some wildlife obsessives hoping to see bears, hawks, eagles and rivers dotted with bright orange sockeye salmon en route to spawn. The girl sitting next to me had returned with her parents, having done a different Mountaineer journey earlier in the year.
The Gold Leaf service has the best food and drink offering, serving breakfast and lunch downstairs, and serving Canadian wines and craft beers in both sections of the carriage. There was an exterior vestibule too, an open space at the back of the carriage and I spent much of my time there, absorbing every minute. Service is excellent and so friendly, everyone knows your name. It was a joy to watch the world pass by at gentle speed, watching goods trains pass in the shelter of the Rockies, with their cargos of wheat and fuel, through enormous historic spiral train tunnels and admiring snow capped peaks as we weaved among them. Continuing on through the Rockies and over the continental divide.
The day starts with breakfast, 6 options cooked to order in the carriage kitchen, served in 2 sittings. If you are lucky enough to be served second (and on one of the days you will be), you will start your day with a warm cinnamon biscuit (or what we call a scone), jam and coffee before you go downstairs to indulge. I love breakfast eggs, and eggs benedict with Montreal smoked meat on an English muffin with tarragon hollandaise sauce proved too much for me to resist. Lunch was soup, followed by a Alberta ranchlands pork tenderloin and dessert.
We arrived at Kamloops as the sun was about to set. We were now in British Colombia, and we were to spend the night in a hotel organised by the Rocky Mountaineer. Our luggage was there already in our rooms, and the next morning it would be collected and would be waiting for me in the Fairmount in Vancouver, which would be my next port of call.
Kamloops has many restaurants, and the Rocky Mountaineer supplies all guests with a map detailing all of them, should you want to dine out when you arrive. I was jet lagged, and full, and all I wanted was my bed. Pure luxury! Just me and my book and a bright early start the next morning in that crisp mountain air.
Day two would bring us towards the Pacific Ocean and Vancouver. We were no longer in the Rockies and would see desert like interior landscapes (complete with scrabbling goats), river canyons and forests. The train would wind along the water and creep gently across high metal bridges, passing Hell’s Gate and lush river valleys. We had joined with the train from Jasper at Kamloops, and now our train was double in size, and I loved watching it wind behind from the vestibule.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs with kelp caviar and lemon creme fraiche, lunch was a perfectly rare piece of seared albacore tuna followed by lemon creme fraiche. A day with my book and some lovely Okanagan wines, and those gorgeous views.
I was hoping that I would see a bear from the train. Just one. I knew there was lots around the Rockies and in BC too, but when I spotted the bear watching the train go by as we whizzed through the mountains, my heart soared a little. He stood just a few feet away watching us speed by. The Rockies, a bear, that gorgeous Autumn light.
We arrived into Vancouver in the early evening, and all I could think was, when can I do this again?! It is so relaxed with excellent service, lovely food and wine and beautiful views that you would otherwise never see. Just you, and the train, the Rockies, and time. Perfect.