All aboard! A mindful rail journey from Vancouver to Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer winds through majestic Canadian scenery and witnesses Mother Nature at her best.
Riding the Rails
The mountains soar above and around me. Their sheer strength of presence is like a coat of arms. Majestic and mighty. Proud and protective. It’s a moving cinema, a depiction of nature’s glory observed from my oversized picture window here on the iconic Rocky Mountaineer.
My squishy, reclining chair is like a lounge sofa, comfy and heated. A leg rest is there to treat my feet, while the lumbar setting pleases my spine. There’s even a mechanism to turn the seats to face the window. This is a far cry from cramped airline travel, that’s for sure. Above my head is a glass dome roof to make sure every inch of my view is accounted for.
Our journey on the Rocky Mountaineer crisscrosses bridges, follows twisty streams, and witnesses waterfalls throwing their weight in powerful watery ways. As the scene clicks by, we peep into windows and backyards, and at houseboats moored around glassy lakes. We wave and smile back at the friendly faces that follow us. Leaves lick the windows, and trees tap the roof as we snake around bends and eagerly watch for wildlife. We spot bear cubs deep in the woods below and goats grazing in open fields. Elks just stare back at us, the transient visitors rumbling through their playground.
There’s something very magical and meditative about all of it. This is mindful travel at its best.
Fellow passengers are mesmerised and captivated, as I am. There are no distracting digital devices except for cameras to capture moments. Fellow travelers are reliving childhood memories, while multi-generational families are celebrating milestones and making new memories.
I’m travelling in one of the twenty carriages following the historic First Passage to the West, from Vancouver, through sunny Kamloops, to Lake Louise/Banff. Back in 1855, the Canadian Pacific Railroad opened in a place renowned for fur trading and gold. The train retraces the tracks laid by labourers who risked life and limb to carve a rail route through solid rock to connect the west to the east of Canada. The railroad was a catalyst in the development of the nation. It also increased trade and introduced tourism.
The Rocky Mountain Railroad Hotels were built along the route to accommodate the new wave of travellers. Back then, guests staying at the Banff Springs Hotels were required to prove they could afford to stay in such luxury. Today, this landmark property situated in the UNESCO World Heritage Site remains a popular stay for passengers on The Rocky Mountaineer.
On Board Comfort
From time to time our tracks run parallel to the highway, a reminder of the hectic tempo we left behind in Vancouver. It’s a stark contrast to the genteel pace onboard.
I’m presented with a spoilt-for-choice menu. Would it be spinach and cheese soufflé, avocado toast, or berry parfait for breakfast? Oh, the dilemma!
The train’s executive chef caters to dietary restrictions and, where possible, sources food locally. Lunch is a leisurely three-course affair. The starter is a sharing platter followed by a choice of six main course options. A yummy dessert rounds out the meal. The food is as colourful and inspired as the scenery outside. It’s hard not to toast the occasion with the Rocky Mountaineer’s signature cocktails such as a Gin Rocky or The Mountainrita. There are also British Columbian beers, Okanagan Valley wines, and ciders to quench your thirst.
From sharing stories about engineering feats to refilling our wine glasses, Rocky Mountaineer hosts make the experience comfortable meaningful. Best of all, there are no sleeper cars here. You travel, dine and sightsee by day, then shower and sleep in comfortable hotels at night. It’s the best of both worlds,
Fresh and healthy meals are served each day
Silver or Gold?
The Rocky Mountaineer offers every guest aboard the train an unparalleled rail journey, regardless of which service you choose. However, there are two classes of service, Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf, and choosing between them is like selecting fabulous and extra-fabulous. You won’t go wrong with either.We traveled in Gold Leaf class, which has a two-level carriage. Up top is the viewing/ travel car with its overhead panoramic windows that completely immerse you in the scenery. The dining car is is below and is a place to share stories, exchange travel experiences, and enjoy the food and wine. Silver Leaf travelers are also offered delicious, regionally inspired meals, which are served at their spacious seats, still surrounded by oversized windows.
Gold Leaf offers access to an exclusive outdoor viewing area, while Silver Leaf provides outdoor viewing between coaches,
Hotels are another small difference between Silver and Gold Leaf Service, with Gold offering more luxurious accommodations with premium rooms. Silver Leaf offers comfortable accommodations too, and rest assured, whichever service you choose, the journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer will be unforgettable.
The onboard hosts of the Rocky Mountaineer provide narratives and facts that give context and meaning along the route. This is not just a train journey, it’s an experience and personal interpretation. As we delight in the diverse landscapes, they point out the sheer walls of the Fraser Canyon and Avalanche Alley.They highlight the perilous rapids at Hell’s Gate and describe the many ecosystems. The unique landforms, known as the Hoodoos, were formed after the last ice age. Finally, we arrive for our overnight stay in Kamloops which was the trading centre for the Shuswap people.
Day two is no less spectacular and the narrative becomes more detailed. I’m fascinated by the Spiral Tunnels. “The amazing accomplishment is a perfect maze, the railway doubling back upon itself twice, tunnelling under mountains and crossing the river twice in order to cut down the grade”.
In 1907 construction started, based on the tunnel system of Switzerland, taking 20 months to complete. The Upper Spiral travels through Cathedral Mountain for 3.255 feet, turning approximately 290 degrees to emerge 50 feet higher than when it entered the mountain. The Lower Spiral tunnels through Mount Ogden for 2,923 feet and turns around 230 degrees, emerging 56 feet higher.
The Continental Divide is a landmark on this route, the highest point of our journey at 5,332 feet above sea level. It separates the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. We slow down at Craigellachie to acknowledge the exact place of the Last Spike driven into the ground in 1885 on Canada’s Transcontinental rail line. Our final stop is Banff
The Canadian Rockies have always been home to many indigenous people. Their spirits are still in the mountains and their voices continue. As we travel through their lands, we listen in silence as we’re told of their traditions and challenges, a subject that begs me to explore further.
Onboard hosts share facts and details about the passing landscape
At the back of the car on the lower level is the open-air platform, with shiny chrome bars to mark our safety. The wind whips my face, and the smell of wet cedar is like nature’s aromatherapy. A blur of trees whizz past. As we meander around bends, we play catch up with the front carriage, turning the other way. We point—there is the back!
The mysticism of nature unfolds before me. Here, the mountains steel your mind, lock your thoughts, and uplift your spirit. We are suspended in time and majestic wonder. Its strength of presence swirls around me as the locomotive clatters and cuts through ravines and tunnels made from the hands of hard labour of years gone by. Trees add a feathery texture, like furry dusters that lean into the steep, sharp escarpments to keep their balance. Blasts of dazzling white patterns accentuate the seams and ridges of the rock faces, which are so vivid we can see them in the darkness of rock tunnels.
Our final stop is Banff. And we disembark, richer from the experience of journeying by rail through this beautiful, breathing, natural world.
BeSeeingYou In: The Canadian Rockies
Good to Know: The Rocky Mountaineer runs between April and October
WOW! Factor: Rocky Mountaineer plants a tree with Trees Canada to honour the employment anniversaries of each team member. More than 13,500 trees have been planted in Canada since 2008.
Tip: Luggage travels separately so bring a small bag with valuables and necessities aboard each day.
Author bio: Jane Wilson