Our team member Zoe experienced the Rocky Mountaineer for the first time last week, travelling on the two day First Passage to the West route from Banff to Vancouver. Read on to find out everything you’ve wanted to know about a journey aboard the iconic Rocky Mountaineer.
Kamloops provides the halfway point on the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West. If you think it’s just a stopover town, don’t be fooled – it was pleasantly larger and much livelier than expected. After a great dinner at the restaurant and micro-brewery, The Noble Pig, and a good night’s sleep at Hotel 540, it was time to continue our Rocky adventure. We left our bags in the hotel room that morning, knowing the Rocky’s top-notch service would take care of them. Simply attach the label provided with your next hotel address and voila! The Rocky service will make sure the bags are transported ahead of you and are ready in your next hotel when you arrive.
Despite a long day yesterday, the Rocky Mountaineer hosts gave us the same warm, enthusiastic welcome as our first day on the train. After being waved aboard we settled back into our GoldLeaf seats. Despite some overcast weather, the views were still gorgeous. I could tell that later into the season the weather would be even better and there would be even more chances to spot wildlife emerging from hibernation. To keep things fair, the group in the first sitting for breakfast and lunch yesterday would switch to the second sitting today. Of no bother to us, we simply enjoyed the stunning views for longer before heading down to dine, and the hosts made sure we didn’t go hungry by bringing us a hot, fluffy cinnamon scone with jam before breakfast.
Breakfast was another hedonistic affair, with a refreshing plate of fresh fruit as an appetiser and buttery croissants for the table. My curiosity piqued the day before, I chose the Scrambled Egg Crisp I’d spotted on the menu. I couldn’t resist its inventiveness – the menu teasingly promised it was served inside a crispy spring roll. When it arrived the roll was deliciously light and just as described – fluffy eggs on the inside and delicate crisp roll on the outside, accompanied by garlic-rosemary potatoes and roasted cherry tomatoes. And of course, we ordered more giant blueberry pancakes for the table. The Rocky chefs had done it again!
Settling back into my seat contentedly full, I was absorbed by the constantly evolving scenery outside the window – it was a world away from the startling crags of the Rockies. As we followed the snaking path of the Thompson River, the snow-capped peaks and gaunt lodgepole pines gave way to verdant ponderosa pine forests rising on either side of the valley. The early morning mist snagged on the tops of the pines like sheep’s wool on a barbed fence. The scenery was different, but was just as dramatic as the well-loved Rockies.
The canyon narrows at the confluence of the Thomspon and Fraser Rivers with steep cliffs on either side. The Fraser River descends rapidly from the plateau of the BC Interior down through the craggy gorges of the Coastal Mountains and would eventually lead us all the way to Vancouver. Appearing suddenly, we were alerted to the imposing rock face of the aptly named Black Canyon by the Rocky Mountaineer hosts, who kept us on our toes. The landscape was thrilling, like a meeting of Jurassic Park and the Wild West. The rivers we were passing today were no wide waterways dawdling lazily past – these were fast-flowing rapids thundering below. Nowhere more so than at Hell’s Gate.
The hosts told us the histories of the early Gold Rush era prospectors and the builders of the Railway, which intertwine with tales of daring engineering and impossible bridges over impassable waters. At the raging torrents of Hell’s Gate, Canada’s First Nations people were enlisted to help span the gorge as the work was deemed too difficult and dangerous for the Europeans. Back in the present we were treated to the sight of the Cisco Bridges, two incredible steel-arched railway bridges spanning the canyon one after the other. This was where the original Canada National and Canada Pacific railways switched sides, and we were soon trundling across and gazing down at the huge drop to the canyon floor below.
Our day was nicely broken up again by the call to lunch and a change of scene. A different choice of homemade soup or perfectly dressed salad was on offer today, so I enjoyed fresh tomatoes and tangy feta. The main menu was the same, giving you the chance to sample something new that had caught your eye the day before. I would have loved to try everything on the menu, but in the interests of my waistline restricted myself to just the one dish for lunch: local salmon with salmon mousse and cumin couscous. The salmon was perfectly cooked and incredibly fresh, with a gorgeous, deep colour which put the usual pale and delicate fish we eat in the UK to shame. Dessert was an enormous chocolate brownie arranged on a platter for two to share, perfectly complemented by intense blackberry coulis and vanilla ice cream.
By the afternoon, the guests aboard the Rocky were in high spirits (possibly aided by a few of the sprits the hosts were serving, too). The social aspect of the Rocky Mountaineer really came into its element as guests who’d been getting acquainted over the last couple of days left their seats to congregate in the aisles, chatting and laughing excitedly together. New friendships were cemented, stories exchanged and continents spanned in the space of a few hours. A Kiwi named Bruce – face shining with happiness and a few too many glasses of wine – delightedly told me that of all his extensive travel adventures, this was the best thing he’d ever done.
As we left the final stretches of river and Coastal Mountains behind us and began the approach to Vancouver, the hosts played a few crowd-pleasing songs to match our exuberance. Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline proved a firm favourite as the carriage erupted into song with the lines “Good times never seemed so good!” (Swiftly followed by punching the air in time to “So good! So good! So good!”) The mood was infectious and it was impossible not to feel overjoyed by the whole experience.
We pulled into a slightly rainy Vancouver a little sad to end the journey, but buzzing none the less. After fond hugs farewell with hosts and new friends, we disembarked the Rocky Mountaineer. Just as when we first boarded the train, we were greeted by smiling, flag-waving hosts who braved the rain to welcome us to Vancouver. Holding out golf umbrellas to keep us dry, the Rocky Mountaineer hosts provided a final escort along the platform to begin the next stage of our adventure.