Onboard The Rocky Mountaineer: Jane Wilson fulfils her rail dream and is mesmerised by Canada’s natural beauty 

It disappeared under my grandfather’s favourite potted plant, gathered speed as it passed the piano. The tracks divided at the signal section. There was a platform where passengers stood – were they travelling to an exotic destination? This was our family electric train set which brought hours of delight, tilting on corners and chugging along a figure of eight track.  Times change, toys morph into souped-up versions, dreams come true. 

Fast forward to today and I’m one of the passengers standing on the platform in Vancouver. Resting on tracks before me, handsomely coated in a twin set of blue and gold with a beige lining and steel shoes, my train patiently sits. Bold, big, strong and inviting. This long convoy of carriages is ready to carry me on a cinematic voyage across part of Canada and through the solid heart of the Rockies. Aptly named The Rocky Mountaineer, a national treasure and one I would soon learn to be a steel wonder.

This procession of twenty carriages follows the The First Passage to the West, from Vancouver, through Kamloops to Lake Louise/Banff. The train will retrace the tracks laid by labourers including many Chinese immigrants who risked life and limb to carve a rail route through the darkness of rock to connect the west to Canada’s east. It was 1855 when the Canadian Pacific Railroad opened in a place renowned for fur trading and gold. And ever since then has proven to be a key catalyst in the development of the nation. It brought tourism and hotels along the route. Banff Springs Hotel is one example and at the time required guests to present bank statements to prove they could afford to stay in such luxury.

Seat 32, coach CB03, I take my place onboard, my home for the next two days. The Gold Leaf class has two levels, the upper deck is stylish in cream, is light, airy and spacious. My squishy chair was like a lounge sofa, comfy and reclining and better still, heated to three settings, a lumber support to please your spine and a leg rest to treat your feet. Plenty of leg room. There’s even a mechanism to turn the two seats to face the window. Magic! And as for wheel chairs, these can be anchored into place. The foldaway tables are a perfect perch for the drinks and snacks which I soon realise are served at regularly intervals. All this framed by an oversized picture window, curved to form a domed roof to ensure uninterrupted views. Saudi princes, African royalty, Bill Gates and Morgan Freeman have all sampled these for size, on these very tracks. Adult children re-living childhood memories, multi-generational anniversary milestones, celebrations, The Rocky Mountaineer is near the top on many a bucket-list, including mine.

We sneak away from the platform with a piper heralding Bon Voyage. Our journey criss-crosses bridges, follows streams, and witnesses waterfalls throwing their weight. We look onto lakes edged with pretty chalets and moored houseboats. We peep into backyards. And where we see people, smiles and waves follow us. From time to time the highway runs parallel, a reminder of life’s hectic tempo in contrast to the genteel pace onboard. Leaves lick the windows, trees tap the roof as we snake around bends and eagerly watch for wildlife. We spot bear cubs deep in the woods below but sadly no grizzlies, goats grazing in the open fields, and elk show off close-by. We are transient visitors.

The sights continue as we step below to the dining area. This is the chance to share stories and exchange travel experiences. For solo travellers, this is a time to mingle and forge new acquaintances.  I’m presented with a spoilt-for-choice menu. Breakfast is a fruit creation with a fluffy bakery item followed by a choice of seven dishes. Would it be spinach and cheese soufflé, avocado toast, Shuswap bacon breakfast skillet or berry parfait? Oh, the dilemma. There is a lift in the Gold Leaf cars for those requiring assistance or meals can be served to your seat. The toilets are also accessible.

Throughout my journey, onboard hosts provide fascinating facts and stories. According to my host, Travis, narratives and facts give context and meaning. They bring this vision to life and engage us. It’s not just a train journey but an experience, a personal interpretation. As we delight in the diverse landscapes, he points out the sheer walls of the Fraser Canyon and Avalanche Alley, perilous rapids at Hell’s Gate as well as describing the many ecosystems. Our overnight stay in Kamloops was the trading centre for the Shuswap people and also in this area are the unique landforms, known as the Hoodoos formed after the last ice-age. 

On the second day Travis’ narrative becomes more detailed and I’m fascinated by the Spiral Tunnels, entering and then exiting to reversed views, evidence of the clever navigation of tunnelling through rock to gain height.  “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, 3,255 feet long turning approximately 290 degrees to emerge 50 feet higher than entering.  The Lower Spiral tunnels through Mount Ogden at 2,923 feet long and turns around 230 degrees emerging 56 feet higher. What an achievement!

The Continental Divide, a landmark on this route, is the highest point of our journey at 5,332 feet above sea level and separates the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. At this height, there’s peppermint or ginger tea available for anyone with any hint of altitude sickness but there are no requests. 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. This leads us to our final stop in Banff, a popular tourist destination, which was named after Banffshire in Scotland and is part of the Banff National Park. 

The Canadian Rockies has always been home to many indigenous people. Their nature and spirit lie in the mountains, their voices continue. And as we witnessed their lands, we listened in silence as we were told of their traditions and challenges, a subject begging me to explore after this trip.

This is the mysticism of nature unfolding before me. Here, the mountains steel your mind, lock your thoughts and uplift your spirit. It is like being suspended in time, in nature and drawn into their soul and majestic wonder. Their sheer strength of presence soaring above as the locomotive clatters and cuts through ravines and tunnels. Clouds cloak the rocks like a thermal coat against the settled snow on the peaks. Trees add a feathery texture like furry dusters leaning into the steep, sharp escarpments to keep balance. Blasts of dazzling white patterns accentuate the seams and ridges of the rock faces which seems so vivid as they come into view from the darkness of the rocks’ tunnels. 

At the back of the car on the lower level is the open-air platform, shiny chrome bars to mark our safety. The wind in your face, the smells of wet cedar, nature’s own aromatherapy. An orchestra of trees whizz past, like spindly strings shaped like cellos. And as we meander around bends we play catch up with the front carriage, turning the other way, there is the back! 

The onboard executive chef caters for every diet and where possible sources food locally. He is eager to keep nutrition in mind too with the wellness trends of today. Lunch is a leisurely three-course affair. The starter is a sharing platter followed by a choice of six main course options including a vegan Sesame Soy Udon Bowl, an Alberta Striploin Steak and Lois Lake Steelhead Salmon.  A yummy dessert rounds off the meal. Food is colourful and imaginative to reflect the journey. And to toast the occasion along the way, there are signature cocktails such as a Gin Rocky, liqueurs, spirits, British Columbia beers or ciders.

Lois Lake Steelhead Salmon

This is a two-day rail voyage capturing nature’s act during daylight hours with all the arrangements for the hotel overnight rests conveniently organised.  We disembark as nature’s guests. Mountains don’t get old, we get wise. I’m richer from the experience, yet humbled.  In awe and wonder, this route, The First Passage to the West, was pioneering, laying the foundation for cross country travel. This feat of engineering, so treacherously dangerous to achieve, gives such pleasurable experiences for many future adventures. 

Who would think that a memory of a toy train set can metamorphosize into the experience of one of the world’s most iconic train adventures.

Useful tips to know when travelling on The First Passage to the West

The Rocky Mountaineer runs between April and October

The train travels in daylight hours with early starts.

The route starts at Vancouver and stops at Kamloops and Banff for overnight. There is a selection of hotels offered.

The company arranges transportation of luggage to and from your hotel room which travels separately by road.

It is advisable to have a small bag for the train for necessities during the day which can be stored under your seat.

Next steps:

Take a look at our rail journeys to find more about the Rocky Mountaineer and call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678 to book. 

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Jane Wilson

Founder & editor of the Wellness Traveller

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