Our team member Zoe experienced the Rocky Mountaineer for the first time in May 2016, 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.
The Rocky Mountaineer has a glittering reputation. Chances are you’ve heard of the opulent train journey through the Canadian Rockies, where views soar overhead, wildlife ambles below and bottomless booze appears at your elbow on a silver tray. Named “one of the world’s greatest trips” and “one of the world’s ultimate experiences” by National Geographic and Lonely Planet respectively, it’s up there with the most iconic travel experiences on the globe. Though its fame precedes it, don’t be fooled into thinking you know all there is to know about the Rocky – the magic of this once-in-a-lifetime journey is only fully unveiled to those lucky ones who witness it first-hand.
Before you even step foot on the striking gold and royal blue carriages, the five star service begins. As I approached the Rocky Mountaineer I was greeted by beaming, flag-waving hosts who had the red carpet rolled out in preparation to board. They gushed to welcome us with huge, white smiles and immediately complimented my group on looking so fabulous! As a reserved Brit who’d had an early start that morning, I have to say the warmth and amiability of the Canadian team caught me off-guard. But despite being a natural sceptic, it was impossible to believe they were anything but sincere.
The hosts play a huge part in making the Rocky experience world-class. Hand-picked for their warm, bubbly personalities, each one of them got the job because they are a people person. So when you board you can leave your British reserve at the door and rest assured they really are happy to share your journey with you. I embraced the infectious Canadian spirit of hospitality with handshakes all round, and beaming along with the others I climbed the spiral staircase to my seat – feeling that everyone really couldn’t be more pleased to meet me.
The upper deck of the GoldLeaf carriage really is something. Our seats had at least double the legroom of a standard train, so if you’re worried it will feel cramped, don’t be. Sink into the seats and almost fully recline if you choose; even at your most laid back, you don’t encroach on your neighbours’ space. But of course, the real draw for the GoldLeaf coach isn’t at your feet – it’s above your head. The domed carriage sides and ceiling are almost entirely glass, with unbelievable panoramic, 180° views interrupted only by a discreet lighting strip in the centre of the ceiling.
As we settled in, our resident hosts picked up the mic, introduced themselves by name – Robin, Courtney, Britney, Brigid, Kate, Cynthia – and the Rocky Mountaineer pulled away so smoothly we almost didn’t notice. After a few quick safety procedures and enough time to see the first snowy peaks slide by, the breakfast process was explained and the first sitting was invited down to the dining car. Descending the spiral staircase really gives the impression of going somewhere new, breaking up the carriage and adding a layer of intrigue. Decorated with timeless elegance, I knew we were in for a truly special experience. The dining room radiated luxury down to the last detail, from the gold embossed menus to the leather napkin rings.
I’d heard all about the incredible food on the Rocky Mountaineer but was still amazed to be presented with eight breakfast options to choose from. The mystery of how they are able to have a full, world-class kitchen service aboard a train is part of the magic. The hosts were constantly attentive, from taking our orders (special requests for sauce on the side and pancakes for the table to share were no bother) to endless coffee and tea refills. Breakfast started with the creamiest, tastiest peach smoothie and a soft, wholewheat and apple muffin to whet the appetite. The freshly cooked eggs benedict I ordered with meltingly tender Alberta salt beef and dill hollandaise was nothing short of divine.
Breakfast on the train is a leisurely affair so it was difficult to tear myself away, but the views upstairs beckoned. Here were the unmistakable, picture-postcard vistas you expect of the Rocky Mountains. Towering white peaks, lingering snow pooled along the riverside, partially frozen lakes and tall lodgepole pines. With the mountains visible on all sides thanks to the glass dome, it was impossible to do anything but drink in the views… and the local wines, of course. All drinks are complimentary, all day long and the service is flawless. The hosts weave through the carriage expertly balancing huge silver trays of glasses in one hand – even with the rocking of the train, they never miss a beat and never spill a drop. Prepare to forget all social conventions about what is usually acceptable pre-midday on a weekday.
Soon we were rolling alongside the misty Shuswap Lake, cocky in its expansiveness and impressive mountain border, with 1000km of coastline and water that never dips below 26°c. There is so much to look at from the windows and you never miss a thing thanks to the hosts and their storytelling. Every point of interest we passed was pointed out and explained to us, from the lakes, mountains and rivers to sprawling osprey nests and majestic bald eagles perched on telegraph poles. The photo opportunities are abundant, so make sure you have enough space on your memory card. For serious snappers, bring a zoom lens to get those coveted close-ups of eagles and ospreys.
The views were so arresting that without noticing the time passing, we were called down to lunch. It was a no less indulgent affair than breakfast. We were given a basket of fresh bread rolls and offered a choice of soup or fresh salad to start, plus another eight option menu for the main. I was soon tucking into a local beef short rib – so tender it fell apart – smothered in a rich, red wine gravy. Dessert was sweet and tangy rhubarb crumble. One of our group required a gluten-free diet and the Rocky kitchen couldn’t have been more helpful in creating delicious alternatives to cater for her. Several of the dishes on the menu were already labelled gluten free or vegetarian, so the food options are thoughtful and accommodating.
It was while we were relaxing in the dining room that the front of the train radioed to the back with the news we’d all been waiting for: bear! There was a bear up ahead! A mad rush to the right-hand side of the train saw us all clamouring for a good view, and we weren’t disappointed. Just a few metres from the track sat a huge black bear. He lounged on his haunches, thick arms dangling, sitting down, with his cream nose pointed towards us in curiosity. Just watching us sail by. It was such a perfect, magic moment that I didn’t bother to fumble with the camera. I simply stared, and felt excited tears well up as the whole carriage cheered.
After seeing our friend Baloo, I thought the day simply couldn’t be topped. But as we rolled towards Kamloops – our stopover for the night – there was another treat waiting. The countryside had opened up into a wide, flat valley. In the distance, among the grasses leading up to the river’s edge, I saw an unmistakable lion shape run toward the riverbank and perform a cat-like leap. It stopped and held its head up – sandy fur, long cat tail, its back to me, dark ears swivelling to attention. A cougar! Incomprehensible with excitement, I started shaking my companion next to me shouting, “Cougar!” and jabbing the window manically with my finger. Unfortunately we weren’t quick enough and the train passed before she could see. Still, I’ve got my own memory video to cherish, and the envy of the Rocky Mountaineer host for having spotted the elusive feline.
When we rolled into Kamloops to finish our first day, the Rocky Mountaineer hosts bid us adieu with as much warmth as they’d welcomed us that morning. We arrived at the hotel tired from our travels but completely elated. Our luggage, which we hadn’t seen since dropping it with the bus driver that morning, was ready waiting for us in the room.
Read part 2 of Zoe’s journey here, as she travels from Kamloops to Vancouver.