Does train travel still have an esteemed place in the 21st century? I’m guilty of placing train rides on the bottom of my priority list, only keeping them in mind for a budget-friendly means of transport from Point A to Point B – until I discovered Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer train. For the cynics and “flighty” types: Rocky Mountaineer will obliterate your expectations and quite possibly change the way you travel. With five daytime routes showcasing southwestern Canada’s natural majesty in modern luxury, the journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is the destination. For six days, I experienced their First Passage to the West route from Banff, Alberta, to Vancouver and supplemental Coastal Passage to Seattle, and I am now convinced there is no finer way to explore the breathtaking sights of the Canadian Rockies and coastal Pacific Northwest.
As Rocky Mountaineer is a daytime-only service (thus more “bang for your buck” in terms of sightseeing), the ports and overnight stopovers allow guests to roam picturesque cities and splendid national parks. If you choose the First Passage to the West route, taking a few days to explore the picturesque mountain town of Banff and its national park is a must. Brewster Travel Canada’s Explore Banff tour helped me see much in the 36 hours I had before my train voyage: I ascended Sulfur Mountain on the Banff Gondola, giving way to postcard views of the village and the six mountain ranges that encapsulate it, saw the wide, roaring rush of Bow Falls flowing adjacent to Rundle Mountain’s beguiling scalene figure and gawked at the fairy-tale setting of Banff Springs Hotel, Western Canada’s Neuschwanstein Castle. I had to pinch myself witnessing Lake Louise, its water a dazzlingly electric blue-green from glacial runoff and refracted sunlight magic, lined by snowy peaks and tree-coated slopes. I hadn’t even hopped aboard the Rocky Mountaineer before placing this trip on my “Best Ever” shortlist, anticipating the train ride would sustain my travel high.
Train passengers are up bright and early for hotel pick-up to the train depot on boarding day. The damp, chilly morning weather in Banff did little to quell my excitement when I saw the sleek, mammoth, blue-and-gold train slowing approaching the depot. When the bubbly Rocky Mountaineer staff rolled out an (actual) red carpet for my train car and ushered me upstairs in a contemporary glass-domed coach, I knew I had boarded one of the world’s greatest travel experiences.
About that glass-domed coach: out of the three levels of service, which includes the basic RedLeaf and the more premium Silverleaf, GoldLeaf is the double-decker grande dame. The ultra-luxurious coach has a separate gourmet dining room, the comfiest of seats, a spacious open-air vestibule and a crystal-clear dome that takes sightseeing in your seat to a level unmatched by many comparable luxury trains. You will not regret shelling out a little more for GoldLeaf’s five-star experience.
After the greetings and virgin cocktail toast by our lovely hosts, we were off to our full-day first segment to British Columbia territory. I sat mesmerized in my leather window-seat, peering left, right, and – thanks to the ingenious glass dome – above, watching the scenery transition from imposing glacial territory in Alberta to the verdant peaks of British Columbia. My favorite place to view the passing landscape, however, was in GoldLeaf’s lower-level vestibule, as there’s nothing sweeter than hearing croaking ospreys and gushing river water while breathing in fresh, brisk Canadian air.
The service aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is a study in Canadian hospitality. The hardworking hosts are engaging and natural, while the equally amiable guest service managers made occasional rounds to check in ensuring the experience is an outstanding one. For GoldLeaf passengers, the mealtimes are a real treat as guests enjoy gourmet dishes in a separate lower-level dining car. Breakfast diners start with a dainty fruit bowl and warm croissants with salted butter, followed by a brief a la carte menu. My favorite breakfast option was the Gold Rush Scramble, a coiled arrangement of smoked salmon atop lightly-scrambled eggs with kelp caviar and lemon chive crème fraiche. For lunch, diners enjoy a soup du jour or a salad before noshing on selections such as the Billy Miner’s Wild Salmon – roasted and pan-seared with a tangy fennel slaw, mustard vinaigrette, and roasted potato salad – and the Hell’s Gate Spiced Chicken, a roasted chicken breast dish with chilled cucumber raita, seasonal vegetables, and roasted baby potatoes. Seeing the sights of Canada’s countryside rolling past whilst eating a pleasurable meal in the dining car is, certainly, a huge bonus.
The hosts assume triple duty as stewards, tour guides and Canadian wildlife safari trackers; possible sightings of bald eagle, elk and grizzly bear had all the passengers on an excited edge throughout the journey. But the inanimate sights throughout are more than satisfying. I’ll never forget seeing the turreted, rust-colored expanse of Castle Mountain, marveling at engineering feats of yesteryear as we proceeded through spiraling mountain tunnels, skirting along Shuswap Lake’s idyllic, A-shaped coastline and, while approaching our Kamloops stopover, witnessing the Canadian terrain morph from chilly alpine county to dusty quasi-desert before sundown.
Once passengers land at their stopover towns, they are transported to their respective hotels, which are included in the train packages (GoldLeaf members stay at deluxe hotel accommodations). For First Passage to the West travelers, the compact river town of Kamloops provides the right balance of places to see or dine for a couple hours, lest they risk feeling groggy the next morning aboard the early-rising train.
After boarding in Kamloops, the train proceeded westward towards Vancouver, Canada, and the prime sightseeing started immediately after passing the town. The contrast to the scenery from the day before was astounding: we traveled deep into arid environs speckled with accents of jade (from sagebrush) and earthy browns alongside the Thompson River. I felt transported to the Gold Rush days in Fraser Canyon’s intricate network of bone-dry ravines and hills; it became a learning lesson in motion as I hadn’t a clue this terrain existed in British Colombia. With no mountains or dense foliage to hide behind, sightings of osprey, eagle, marmots and bighorn sheep were aplenty, kicking the safari experience into high gear.
The train soon returned into lush, mountainous territory near Fraser Valley; there are many points of interests in the area, such as the two-toned merge of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers and the intense river narrowing of Hell’s Gate. The hosts will always make sure when guests need to have their cameras at the ready. By end of day with a journey filled with wonderful memories, the trip ends (for most) in Vancouver, Canada, one of the world’s most beautiful, livable cities. Passengers with a continuing journey on Rocky Mountaineer’s Seattle-bound Coastal Passage have 36 hours to explore the city, and with so much to do and see I was hardly in my hotel after checking in.
In a city of glossy high-rises, cosmopolitan vibes and stunning mountain and inlet landscapes, Vancouver is perhaps Canada’s brightest urban star. I took the adventurous approach exploring the city on Sea Vancouver, a tour-meets-adrenaline service where riders brave a fast-paced 90-minute zodiac boat ride along the city’s gorgeous coastline. In North Vancouver, the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park offers the chance to walk amongst ancient Douglas fir canopies on the Treetops Adventure, and traverse a 230-foot high swaying bridge à la Indiana Jones on the popular Suspension Bridge.
All of that adventure would have anyone ready for a relaxed meal, and as expected from a world-class city, Vancouver’s dining scene is spoilt for choice. Having already tried the buzzy, Belgian-inspired Chambar for an excellent dinner on a previous visit, I opted for Hawksworth at the five-star Rosewood Hotel Georgia. With accolades as lengthy as its wine list, Chef David Hawksworth’s contemporary Canadian restaurant represents Canada’s finest, and I can corroborate the hype – their tasting menu of crafty, Asian-influenced fare was a knockout, a meal nearly equivalent to the phenomenal experience aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. Vancouver Magazine’s Sommelier of the Year Bryant Mao made tableside cameos to supply Canadian and international wines to complement each exquisite tasting menu dish, such as tamari glazed duck breast with macadamia and hamachi tataki with curried lime vinaigrette. Even the amuse bouche – a melt-in-mouth yellowfin tuna and prawn toast with black sesame and papaya dressing – was one of my year’s finest bites. Though I had to sadly part with that dinner, and that city, the following morning, boarding the train once again for further adventures on the Coastal Passage to Seattle sustained my high spirits.
The Coastal Passage is Rocky Mountaineer’s newest route and serves as a Seattle-Vancouver extension to their classic Canadian passages. The route runs along the same scenic path as the Amtrak’s Cascades train, which I’ve ridden before, but the comparisons stop there: five-star service, zero stops, unobstructed glass-dome views, exquisite hot breakfasts, and an air of camaraderie amongst the passengers made the voyage to Emerald City exponentially sweeter.
It will be a life-long struggle returning to ceilinged, basic train travel after Rocky Mountaineer, a service consistently, and deservedly, listed as one of the world’s greatest travel experiences. And as Rocky Mountaineer celebrates 25 years in service this year, I wish upon them another 250, for they have rewired train travel as a dated, limiting experience to a modern marvel primped to transcend time. Book this bucket list journey, and you too will never “train” the same way again.