The Vancouver skyline loomed large in the distance as I gazed out the window. My journey on board the Rocky Mountaineer train from Jasper was nearing its end. As the wheels of the train clanged and hissed on the approach into Vancouver station, my thoughts drifted to my experience on board over the past two days. The first word that came to mind was ‘epic’. I thought about the 900km-journey across the Canadian Rockies and along the Fraser River and I nodded silently. Yes, ‘epic’ was the perfect adjective.
There are many train journeys around the world that can be considered epic. The Trans-Siberian, the Blue Train, the Orient Express and the El Transcantabrico are famous examples. What makes the Rocky Mountaineer epic is the seamless combination of spectacular scenery with excellent service, comfort and mouthwatering cuisine. Delve deeper into the history of the Canadian railways, the ingenuity of the engineers who designed the routes and the livelihoods of the people who built the tracks, and the word ‘epic’ crops up again.
My journey on the Rocky Mountaineer began in the lovely town of Jasper. The train pulled into the station in the wee hours of the morning. It was cold and drizzly but even that failed to dampen the spirit of the passengers who crowded the platform. The excitement was almost tangible as the train crew opened the doors and rolled out the carpets.
The Rocky Mountaineer has three levels of service: Red Leaf, Silver Leaf and Gold Leaf. I was invited to experience the luxurious Gold Leaf service which included a plush seat in the double-level, glass-domed coach and gourmet meals served in the chic dining room.
I scrambled onto the train and up the spiral staircase to the upper level in great anticipation to find a spacious coach with massive dome windows. The seats were large, comfortable and reclinable. Refreshments were served right after everyone was settled in their seats and this was followed by a safety demonstration.
Bewildering scenery in the Canadian Rockies
The train pulled out from the station just as the sun’s rays illuminated the mountain tops. As the sun rose higher, the fall colours of the forests we passed came to life. The tracks led us past gushing rivers, snowcapped peaks, lush green pastures and mile after mile of gorgeous trees. The scenery was simply bewildering.
As we passed Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, the train slowed down, allowing passengers to make their way to the open observation area at the rear of the coach to take some pictures – I spent a lot of my time here, enjoying the cold wind in my face and the sounds of the train, and immersing myself in the scenery.
Gourmet cuisine on board
We were invited to the cosy dining room for our meals. The crew greeted us with a warm smile and presented us a menu at each meal. The first thing that caught my eye was the chef’s focus on showcasing local ingredients from Alberta and British Columbia. Top marks for that! The second thing: the refinement and blending of these local ingredients by the Executive Chef Frédéric Couton to create attractive meals that easily fit the gourmet bill. Needless to say, the meals, from the scrumptious scrambled eggs with smoked steel head salmon to the gorgeous slow-cooked Alberta short ribs, were a true delight. Combine that with the generous servings of premier Canadian wines and the panoramic vistas and what you get is an epic train ride!
The Gold Leaf service also includes an overnight stay in Kamloops or Quesnel in a deluxe hotel (other hotels are arranged for the Silver Leaf and Red Leaf service levels). There are no sleeping facilities on board so everyone disembarks for a one night stay in a hotel. I saw this as a less-appealing factor of the Rocky Mountaineer – I personally prefer the romance of sleeping in my own cabin in a luxury train. However, the Rocky Mountaineer staff ensured a smooth passage for all guests from the train to the hotels and back to the train the following morning. Gold Leaf guests didn’t have to lift a finger – my bag stood there waiting for me when I entered my room.
We were greeted by a dramatic sunset as we arrived in the desert town of Kamloops – yes, you read it right! Kamloops is a town in the middle of a stunning desert region. As we departed the following morning, I set aside my romantic ideas and appreciated the fact that I had an evening to stretch my legs and see a bit of the town. On another note, if you’re looking for a great place for cocktails and dinner, head over to Hoodoos at the Sun Rivers golf resort. I had some of the best tortilla chips (ever) paired with a gorgeous crab-artichoke-spinach dip, and the steak was superb!
A change of scenery
I thought, rather naïvely, that the most spectacular scenery was behind us (on our passage across the Rockies) but as we left Kamloops, I found myself quickly doubting that idea. The scenery was very different but no less spectacular. Whereas the first day through the Rockies was full of lush greenery, aquamarine lakes and stunning peaks, the second day was full of dramatic canyons and barren, shrubby landscapes.
The route took us along the emerald waters of the Thomson River. The highlight of this stretch was without any doubt the passage through the Avalanche Alley.
The train slowed down at the confluence of the Thomson and the Fraser rivers, providing us with a great view of the merging colours of the rivers: the emerald Thomson River and the greyish brown Fraser River.
From this point, we followed the course of the Fraser River, crossing the river at one point before continuing towards the forest-clad slopes of the Coastal Mountains and leaving the arid Thomson River basin behind us.
As I feasted on yet another superb meal (those tiger prawns in a bouillabaisse broth were sublime!), I noticed the scenery becoming greener and the fall colours we’d seen in the Rockies the day before reappear, a sure sign that we were nearing the wet, Pacific coast.
The train jerked to a stop, catapulting my thoughts back to the present. Outside, a sign read “Welcome to Vancouver“. I grabbed my bag and slowly made my way down to the platform, savouring my last moments on the Rocky Mountaineer. I paused to thank the crew for the excellent service and for taking such great care of me. I turned around for one last look at the gleaming train. Yes, ‘epic’ it certainly was!
Note: a big thank you goes to the Rocky Mountaineer for your wonderful hospitality. Though I was an invited guest on board, all views are seriously mine.