Flying into Calgary, Alberta a couple of days ahead of our train ride, you’re struck by how the topography of Western Canada dramatically changes. Its prairie interior stretching across the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba offers expansive flatlands of rich agricultural soil and vast skies. Then suddenly west of Calgary, jagged peaks, deep valleys and glaciers emerge. This is what we’ve come for – the Canadian Rockies.
By the time we arrive in Banff, an hour and a half from Calgary via the Trans-Canada Highway, we are immersed in a world of soaring mountains, turquoise lakes and cascading waterfalls. Banff is a pretty town and well worth spending a couple of nights. Stay in the heart of the compact central area, where you can walk to restaurants, bars, cafes and shops and as a base for venturing to stunning Lake Louise, Peyto Lake and great hiking trails.
The day before the train departs we check in with Rocky Mountaineer at their office in the town and start to have a sense of how precisely conducted and organised this journey is going to be. Luggage labels and tickets are handed over and we are told to leave our suitcases suitably labelled in the hotel lobby from where they will be collected. If this sounds like trusting to luck, worry not, they’ve done this before!
At 7am the following morning, armed only with carry-on items, our guides, drivers, and transportation arrives precisely as promised. Documents are checked and we board the buses for the 10-minute ride to the rail yard. So, what should be carried on? Phone for photos rather than wi-fi – there is none on board. You really don’t want to be living your life on Instagram and miss a rushing river or roaming grizzly. Apart from glasses, passport, tickets, and any meds the most important item is clothing. The train is air-conditioned to ‘cool’ so think layers.
The Canadian routes offer two classes of service: Silverleaf or Goldleaf. The difference is that the latter consists of a two-storey carriage with the restaurant and refreshment area at ground level and your seating area on the upper floor. Arriving upstairs the space opens to a glass-domed roof to allow maximum viewing pleasure during the journey. As for the seats, think airline business class comfort with recline and lumbar support options.
Silverleaf passengers enjoy the view through oversized windows and all the comforts and commentary you would expect but the carriage is ground level only and meals and drinks are served at your seat rather than in a separate restaurant table setting. Since you may only take the train once, my advice is ‘Go Goldleaf’. Of course, there is a price difference but in my opinion, it’s not enough to make it a difficult decision.
Each carriage is staffed by four hosts and two cooks and all of them excel in what they do which is pretty much everything. They give commentary on the points of interest along the way, stories from the beginnings of the railway and its construction; history, geography, geology, zoology and even philosophy are imparted to a rapt audience. Their enthusiasm to share their knowledge and passion for the journey is captivating and infectious.
Departing Banff it is important to say that in a journey of high highs and hardly any lows the first 100 miles heading west towards Vancouver are perhaps the most memorable. One amazing vista after another convinces you early on this is a far cry from Swindon to Paddington on a dreary Tuesday in February. For a start the air is crystal clear, the sky is blue and there are few dancing streams, snow-capped peaks and white water rafters on Great Western Railways!
An early highlight are the spiral tunnels which help climb the aptly named ‘Big Hill’. Trains are not great at slopes so an elaborate system of flattening out the track was devised. You can look out of the window and see the front of the train coming back past you as it navigates between tunnels.
We were ready for breakfast by now. There are two sittings and as we were in the second and had been up since 6am were feeling hungry. Not for long! Downstairs, white linen tablecloths and silver service awaited not to mention an elaborate menu including Eggs Benedict, pancakes, smoked salmon, pastries, smoothies, coffee and more. The standard was high-end hotel grade, beautifully presented and delicious.
After breakfast, we took to the ground level viewing platform for a different look at the world going by. The train averages only a little over 30mph to afford the best viewing experience but it certainly feels different from the viewing platform than up above in the quiet of the carriage.
Today’s highlights included the dramatic scenery of the Continental Divide; rivers on the west slope of the Divide drain into the Pacific Ocean while those on the east slope drain into the Atlantic. We saw Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 13,000 feet, dramatic Pyramid Falls, the climb over Yellowhead Pass and along the North Thompson River.
The sights were variously appreciated while listening to music and podcasts on the phone as well as lunch and afternoon cheese and wine. It is worth dwelling on my lunch of beef short rib and apple galette – well I enjoyed dwelling on it! Barely two hours later a cheeseboard and a choice of wine were proffered, and it seemed rude to refuse. In case of doubt, all food and drink, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, are included.
So you don’t miss a thing the train overnights at the small British Columbia city of Kamloops. It is fair to say Kamloops is not quite in keeping with the standard set by the train, but our hotel was comfortable enough, our luggage was waiting in the room (oh yes) and next morning we left it there in the certain knowledge we would be re-united in Vancouver.
Day 2 saw some dramatic changes in scenery from the desert-like interior through winding river canyons and pristine forests to the Coast and Cascade mountains and the lush green fields of the Fraser River Valley. If today did not quite match the majesty of yesterday it says more that Day 1 was beyond spectacular rather than Day 2 being anything less than breathtaking.
Naturally, the run into Vancouver becomes somewhat industrialised but by this time we were exchanging photos and email addresses with our new besties, our fellow passengers, and enjoying the last of the cheese and wine. One should perhaps emphasise that the Rocky Mountaineer is not part of a calorie-controlled diet!
Our arrival in Vancouver was on time at 7.15pm but it should be noted that since freight trains have priority over passenger traffic this can slip somewhat. Perhaps don’t make dinner plans. Are you kidding? I couldn’t eat for a week.
The Rocky Mountaineer is the perfect compliment to a Western Canada road trip enabling you to enjoy the train ride and exploring beyond the tracks to coastal British Columbia, gorgeous Vancouver Island and more. Other ideas include adding an Alaska cruise from Vancouver taking in the famed Inside Passage and stunning Glacier Bay National Park. Your Bon Voyage Canada expert will help plan the perfect holiday, tailor-made for you.