Spectacular scenery—and service—on the legendary Rocky Mountaineer train.
By Charlie Huisking
“A black bear ahead on the left!”
All aboard: The Rocky Mountaineer heads west.
That news caused a commotion in the dining car of the Rocky Mountaineer train.
We travelers stopped eating our brie-and-asparagus omelets and our scrambled eggs wrapped in smoked salmon and grabbed our cameras.
I snapped a couple of shots of the bear, staring placidly at us a few yards from the tracks.
A major wildlife sighting, and this two-day train trip between Banff in the Canadian Rockies and Vancouver on the Pacific Coast was only an hour old.
I had pored over Rocky Mountaineer Web sites and brochures for years, dreaming of one day taking the trip billed as the most spectacular rail journey in the world. But my spirits sank as we boarded the train at the tiny station in Banff. The mountains were fogged in, and a cold rain fell. The forecast called for an 80 percent chance of showers during the day.
Taking in fresh air and fabulous views from the platform car.
However, I had learned during the previous week in the Rockies that astrology charts were as reliable as weather forecasts up here. And sure enough, in a couple of hours, the rain stopped and the clouds parted, affording us stunning views of snow-capped mountains, rushing streams and tumbling waterfalls.
The Rocky Mountaineer, a private company that began service in 1990, offers two classes of service, Redleaf and Goldleaf. Figuring this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we sprang for the Goldleaf service. We were escorted to a two-level glass-dome car offering unobstructed views of the scenery.
Our two attendants, Matthew and Jonas, served us mimosas for an all-aboard toast. Then, we were invited downstairs to the cozy dining car, where we ate the aforementioned egg dishes (I also ordered some pancakes with blueberry compote as a chaser).
Our dome car was nearly full, carrying about 60 passengers from Australia, England, Scotland and Portugal, as well as an Israeli-born doctor and his wife, who now live in South Africa. There were only a few Americans on board. But in the small-world department, I discovered one of them had gone to grade school with my cousin in New Jersey!
Matthew and Jonas provided tour-guide commentary as well as great food and drink.
Before long, it was time for a gourmet lunch. I had wild mushroom chowder and slow-roasted Canadian bison.
As the afternoon warmed, we spent time in the fresh air on a covered platform at the rear of our car. Meanwhile, inside, Matthew, a witty, charming Canadian, and Jonas, an equally outgoing Brazilian, served us drinks and snacks and kept us informed about the geography and the history of the region we were traversing.
The train doesn’t travel at night, allowing guests to enjoy as much of the scenery as possible. So we spent the night at the Comfort Inn in Kamloops, a bustling town in a rocky area of British Columbia reminiscent of the American Southwest.
It was all aboard again at 7:30 a.m. the following morning. We had two more fabulous meals and laughed continuously at Matthew’s clever commentary. The scenery the second day was just as spectacular as on the first, but more of the river-canyon variety than of purple mountain peaks.
Just before we arrived in Vancouver at 5 p.m., Matthew invited the participants in a poetry contest to come forward. The day before, he had suggested we write a few lines about the train trip. I wasn’t going to participate, but my sister, Sarah, and my friend, Barby, insisted I come up with something.
To be frank, I was quite pleased with my output (“We dined on omelettes and beef/I loosened my belt for relief”), and figured I was a cinch to get the gold pin prize. There were only three entries, and the first guy’s poem was rather lame. Mine was greeted with laughter and applause (though not as much as I had expected), and I sat back to listen to the final poet.
I knew I was in trouble when he started speaking in a Scottish brogue. Worse, his poem had 12 stanzas, each more clever than the last. When he rhymed Kamloops with “hot soups” I knew I was finished. My luck to be up against Robert Browning.
I hoped Matthew would be diplomatic. But, no, he said, “There’s obviously no doubt who the winner is.”
Oh, well, I may not have the gold pin, but I do have memories of a glorious train ride that I’ll never forget.