Though I’ve been traveling like a manic woman since the beginning of August – Vail, Salt Lake City, Alaska, Breckenridge, Snowmass, Florida – I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hop on board the iconic Rocky Mountaineer train this week. I’m riding the rails of Western Canada with some other gear, fashion and travel writers, courtesy of the venerable clothing manufacturer Woolrich, to ultimately test some outdoor wear in the mountain and on the water in and around Banff and Lake Louise.
But before we disembarked to overnight at Fairmont hotels in Lake Louise and Banff, Alberta, we took the leisurely route inland from Vancouver on the Rocky Mountaineer’s last western departure of the season. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Rocky Mountaineer offers half-day to multi-day train trips to Whistler, Quesnel, Jasper and Banff (via Kamloops). All take place during the daylight for best sightseeing opportunities.
We traveled on the two-day “First Passage to the West” itinerary: about 8 hours from Vancouver to Kamloops to overnight at a moderate hotel near the rail station, then abut 11 hours to Banff. We had seats in the two-story, glass-domed GoldLeaf Service coach — which costs nearly twice as much as the “classic rail service” offered in the RedLeaf category. Here are just a few of the highlights of our trip:
Service: The staff on board GoldLeaf Service coach offers the same excellent quality of service I’ve experienced recently at Colorado Springs world-class The Broadmoor and Ritz-Carlton Naples. Antoine, Sharla, Alicia — our Onboard Attendants – handed us warm towels a the start of each day, served us drinks in our chairs, and shared their knowledge about the history, topography and wildlife along the way (some conversations included funny, personal anecdotes, which were a hit among all on board).
Friendly, smiley and attentive, these folks should have been exhausted at the end of a busy 2010 season of departures, but their enthusiasm for this area of Canada absolutely enhanced my enjoyment of the trip.
Coach: In our GoldLeaf Service coach, seats were quite wide, with plenty of leg room. The seats reclined back further than airplane seats do. The glass dome let the sunshine in and allowed for unobstructed viewing. A covered, open-air vestibule in the back of the car was perfect for clear photo taking.
Food: In a GoldLeaf coach, passengers take breakfast and lunch in the dining car on the first level of the, with items cooked to order in a tiny galley kitchen. While the menu is limited, options are quite good.
Breakfast begins with fresh fruit and croissants followed by entrees like scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with crème fraiche and caviar, served with roasted potatoes, mushrooms and tomatoes. Favorite lunch: chicken breast encrusted with wild B.C. mushrooms, pan seared and served with garlic mashed potatoes and a blueberry relish.
Chairside drink service on the upper level started at about 10:30 a.m. each morning – with mixed drinks, wine and beer flowing regularly (on request anytime) throughout the day. And we enjoyed mid-day snack (aged Canadian white cheddar, dried fruit and crackers), as well as cookies late in the day. On this itinerary, passengers are on their own for dinner in Kamloops.
Landscape: The scenery is likely what surprised me most about my train trip – I didn’t realize we’d pass by so much farmland outside of Vancouver – plenty of red barns, looming silos, cows and crops. Just before we reached Kamloops was semi-arid country; the dry, sandstone-colored we saw here reminded me a lot of Western Colorado, near Grand Junction. We snaked our way along the murky Fraser River, and then past the Thompson and Eagle rivers, and scenery on our second day featured pine tree-covered mountains ascending from blue-green lakes. The definite highlight however was reaching the Canadian Rockies to see the famous jagged mountain peaks covered in snow.
Wildlife: We spotted sockeye salmon spawning in the Thompson and Eagle rivers, plenty of osprey and bald eagles, and even some bighorn sheep at the side of the mountain. But what everyone on the train whooping was the two bear sightings — one on our eye level from the dome coach, and the other rambling alongside tracks below. Our coach was the last on the train, so when the Train Manager or Onboard Attendants saw wildlife up in the front of the train, they’d radio back to our coach to alert us to look out one side of the train or the other.
The Rocky Mountaineer experience isn’t inexpensive – the price for this two-day trip June to September (high season) is $1,789 CAN and $979 for RedLeaf service (chilled meals in the seat instead of a dining room; no dome windows). I absolutely recommend saving pennies for the more expensive GoldLeaf, where you feel pampered on board with attentive service and fine-dining experience.
Two points to note: Most of the folks who were on board our coach were easily 55+, so if you’re much younger than that, you won’t find many peers on the First Passage to the West itinerary (I’m told the shorter trip to Whistler from Vancouver attracts a younger crowd and more families). Also, the train departs early from Vancouver and Kamloops; you need to be at the stations around 7 a.m. (or earlier) each day. We actually left the Kamloops station a bit late because some passengers slept in; nice of the Rocky Mountaineer not to leave the late sleepers stranded!
Driving the route from Vancouver to Kamloops and Banff might be faster, but with so few opportunities to ride trains in North America, I recommend sampling the romantic era of train travel to truly relax and enjoy the journey along the way. Allowing someone else to do the driving, lets you best enjoy the spectacular scenery: glacier-fed lakes, rushing rivers and majestic mountains.
Another option for those short on time (or money) is the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Whistler, the “Whistler Sea to Sky Climb.” We’ll see if I can make that happen next June when I’ll be back in Western Canada for TBEX 11!
This spring, Woolrich, Rocky Mountaineer and Travel Alberta are teaming up on a sweepstakes to provide one lucky winner the opportunity to experience the same trip I went on. Stay tuned!