Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Railroading in Style on the Rocky Mountaineer
A Tasting Menu Trip
So much to enjoy and so little time -- the best problem a traveler can have. The romance of railroading, bucket list sights, and foodie experiences: all this on a Rocky Mountaineer tour -- appetizer portions of beautiful fresh places.
We started with “dessert”. I arrived by plane in Calgary, cowboy country: tall grass waving, a prairie feel with puffy clouds in a big baby blue sky. We’re on Alberta Province’s main road, along low mountains, like shadows against the sky. We are passing cattle, hay bales, a singular red barn; fields look like patches on a quilt. Here and there a few deer or horses graze.
By bus, 90 minutes away was our destination. We’re at drop dead gorgeous Lake Louise and the Victoria Glacier. They’re in Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (William and Kate stayed here on their honeymoon.) Snow-capped mountains plunge into an aqua lake. It appears iridescent, because it is a glacial lake. It is the glacial sediment that creates the intense color at this lake and others in the Canadian Rockies.
We were staying at a grande dame of a hotel: the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. My room gives a mesmerizing view. Say I to someone, “They just don’t make stage sets like this anymore.” Right at the lake, the hotel, built for park tourists, dates from 1890 and has been expanded over the years. Dinner is a series of Fairmont fondues – cheese, meat, shrimp and scallops — and the finale… chocolate fondue.
The next morning we are off to explore more of the park and the town of Banff. We set out on the Bow River in a canoe with 12 paddlers. The Bow goes all the way to Lake Louise. Although the tranquil Bow is tropical turquoise it actually is freezing. Our guide tells us about the first European fur traders here in the Rockies. The area teems with summer activities: hike, heli-glide, zip line, dunk in a hot spring, or visit an art gallery. We took the funicular up to the highest point to catch another spectacular view. No wonder four million tourists come here in summer!
Next morning we quickly board shuttle buses for the special train -- the Rocky Mountaineer’s Coastal Passage tour. Hundreds of passengers line up on the platform for a picture. I’m in Gold Leaf Service, which is the best Rocky has to offer. Seats are spacious and comfortable in each of the 16 domed cars. Perched up here, as though in a convertible, is like being enveloped in scenic Alberta and British Columbia provinces. Everything feels wide open. Soon enough we’re called to breakfast. Service is white tablecloth and china. The people who run the car and the chefs make an effort to know people’s dietary needs. They are happy to oblige with kosher, gluten and lactose-free meals. Most food is locally-sourced, made to order in their small galley kitchen. Just give me a dome car, a cushion, and a day to spend.
We are going back, so we chug past the Bow River of yesterday, famous for trout fishing, and Mt. Temple, the highest mountain on today’s journey. By Mile 116, we’re back at Lake Louise, going up to 60 miles per hour. Each mile takes two minutes, nice for photo opps. And here’s the Spiral Tunnel, an amazing engineering feat executed in the early 1900’s. It goes over the Kicking Horse River and the Trans Canada Highway. We’ll follow the Kicking Horse for 37 miles. This is the only regularly scheduled train that passes through these tunnels. We are turning 260 degrees to the right and dropping 50 feet in elevation. The crowd actually sighs as we emerge from the tunnel. We pass cornfields and wheat fields and see cattle in the distance. A man waves from his front porch.
At the town of Salmon Arm, population 17,000, an estuary harbors 250 species of birds. We see every kind of Northern clime tree imaginable. That means Douglas firs, blue spruce, hemlock cottonwoods, and mountain firs, which make great Christmas trees. Several hours later, here’s the Adams River, home of the world’s biggest Salmon run: 35 million enter, but only 3 million make it through.
While we’re nibbling on cherry tomatoes and mushrooms in the dining car, we’re passing frothing streams of celadon green. Now we’re going through miles of turquoise water on the Kinbasket River, (named after Chief Kinbasket, who aided the developers of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.) For two miles, the guides tell us we’ll go at “Kodak speed” so we can all takes pictures of the countless evergreens.
Zebulon, our narrator guide and resident raconteur, keeps us amused with stories and factoids. We hurtle through the longest tunnel on the trip. It cost a fortune to blast and build. We see rivers and lakes carved out by glaciers. He tells us about the bears -- grizzlies don’t like black bears, bears live by their noses, not by their eyes as we humans do. He tells marvelous stories about the building of the Trans-Continental railroad, completed in 1885. Tomorrow we’ll see trains, towing 250 cars, cross the river, many hauling grain. Each carload weighs perhaps 70,000 pounds.
Evergreens march up the mountains, as far as the eye can see. Colorful blue spruces line the way; we cross over the Columbia River, which flows into Oregon.
We chug through Avalanche Mountain, Eagle Peak, and Mt. McDonald, a breath-taking 9,000 feet high. It’s day’s end; we’re coming into Kamloops. Locals make their living as cattle ranchers, with three cattle to every human.
Overnight in Kamloops was just fine. Anxious for tourism, the town touts its activities and hiking trails. But early we’re back on our train seeing ponderosa pine and bald eagles. Big horn sheep and an osprey are in the distance. Soon we’re at the confluence of the Thompson and Frazier Rivers. They come together dramatic and lovely… those dark green waters with small pools of blue. The two bands run alongside one another.
Next we go through a ghost town, then our first glimpses of the hoodoos, massive pillars of earth. Underneath are paths created by big horn sheep. By 11:30 we’re at Jaws of Death Gorge, a place for rafting. Within 15 minutes we’re at Avalanche Alley and Rainbow Canyon with genuine Native American teepees on the left. But soon it’s time for another lunch. This time it’s Albert short ribs “so tender, they fall apart like our hockey team does every year,” says our announcer.
Soon we’ll be in Vancouver. We go past the Portmann Bridge, a new bridge built in 2012 for 2.46 billion dollars. It is the second widest single span in the world: ten lanes and 65 feet high! We approached Vancouver, passing through the largest rail yard in Canada.
In Vancouver, I visited several food vans, serving some of the best street food ever… so high-quality and tasty I wanted to pull up a table and get out the best silverware. I could have walked the clean wide streets of downtown, but went to Granville Island, a kind of funky Williamsburg of Vancouver. Here, there’s still more food to tempt you to taste, plus lots of fun shops. Dinner at the Fairmont Pacific Rim is so fresh, the sushi almost bites.
Next morning we re-board the train for Rocky Mountaineer’s inaugural run from Vancouver, BC to Seattle, USA. No longer just a Canadian carrier, they’ll be stateside, too. One reason for opening this route is to get cruise traffic that sails out of Seattle to Alaska. Otherwise people often endure a 90 minute line at the border.
We coast along Crescent Beach to the town of White Rock. People go whale watching from the town of Richmond. Orca whales can be right under the boats, but you’ll see seals, otters, and herons. Alongside colorful small crafts, we reach closer to Seattle, known as the Emerald City.
I snacked my way through the famed Pike Street Market with fancy produce and fun food places, with just a bite at each stop. My complaint may be that I saw the best first, but Rocky Mountaineer trains leave from Seattle and end in Banff/Lake Louise as well as start there. But life is short; you may choose to eat dessert first.
IF YOU GO:
Rocky Mountaineer runs tours from early April until the first week in October with Red Leaf Service, (no dome car and simpler meals), Silver Service, (dome car with less elaborate meals than Gold Leaf), and Gold Leaf.
© February 2015 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.