Travel: Riding the Rocky Mountaineer in western Canada

The luxury Rocky Mountaineer train operates in western Canada.
The luxury Rocky Mountaineer train operates in western Canada.

A journey on the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury train service that operates on four routes in western Canada, offers a comfortable way viewing landscape and wildlife, plus insights into the important role played by the railway in the country’s history.

That’s fitting as this year marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the act of union of British North American colonies that is viewed as the origin of the modern Canadian nation.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers a fine dining experience.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers a fine dining experience.

“Especially after working for Rocky Mountaineer I realised how important the railway was to the foundation of Canada and specifically the west coast of Canada.

"It very easily could have gone the other way, and we could have been part of the United States, had the Canadian Pacific Railway not been built,” said guest services manager Ira Young.

We sat and chatted in one of the train’s double-decker GoldLeaf carriages, enjoying the panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies from the dome windows of the upper level.

The transport link provided by the Canadian Pacific Railway was promised as an incentive for British Columbia to join the newly formed Dominion of Canada in 1871. The vast, transcontinental railroad was completed on 7 November 1885, when the last spike was ceremonially driven into the track at Craigellachie in British Columbia.

Enjoying the view from the observation car

Enjoying the view from the observation car

As we rolled past the cairn commemorating the location of that event tourists visiting the Last Spike Gift Shoppe waved at us from the wooden porch and snapped photos. The elegant blue and gold livery of the Rocky Mountaineer ensured that the train is well photographed as it snaked along valleys, canyons and through spiral tunnels.

Ira was named after his grandfather, the driver of the royal train that crossed Canada carrying King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) back in 1939. One of their duties during that journey was to open the grand, Art Deco property that is now the Fairmont Vancouver Hotel. It’s one of the hotels that accommodates guests travelling on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Prior to setting off on the 375-mile journey eastward from Vancouver to Banff, the service’s First Passage to the West route, I had a couple of days to explore British Columbia’s most populous city.

For an overview I headed to the Vancouver Lookout, whose Observation Deck provides 360° views from 553ft. Some of the best views of the city skyline were from across the water at Hallelujah Point, in Stanley Park, a couple of minutes’ walk from the totem poles that are a reminder of the diverse First Nations’ heritage of this part of the world.

Wonderful scenery around Banff.

Wonderful scenery around Banff.

A boat tour, departing from Sewell’s Marina, meant opportunities to view bald eagles gliding above the Howe Sound and porpoises breaching the surface of the Pacific’s water.

The Rocky Mountaineer has a dedicated terminal on the outskirts of Vancouver and a bagpiper, in full Scottish regalia, piped us aboard. As we rolled away the piper continued to play as the company’s staff waved us off, prompting a flurry of photography from carriage windows that are cleaned before each day’s travel.

The first day’s journey, before overnighting in Kamloops, saw us passing through some of the driest areas of Canada. Early European settlers to the region panned for gold in the fast-flowing Fraser River which we skirted. Bighorn sheep and groundhogs counted among the wildlife that could be viewed from the train.

“Some of my favourite wildlife, I would have to say, has been coming out of Banff,” said Zebulon Fastabend, the train manager. One of his most memorable sightings was of a grizzly bear.

Enjoying a trip along Howe Sound.

Enjoying a trip along Howe Sound.

“I could tell it was a female as there were two cubs with her. She was a silver-grey colour. She turned to face the train and she was going to take on the whole train… she was maybe 30 feet away and the cubs disappeared into the bushes. I was so impressed by that motherly instinct. For us it was a great photo opportunity.”

Nearing Banff National Park, the first to be established in Canada, all of us on board experienced the excitements of seeing a large male bear tramping through a shallow, icy lake close to the left-side of the train.

Staff informed us he is known as The Boss, and is often spotted as the train rolls through his habitat. To get better photos of the 500lb creature I dashed to the open vestibule at the back of the carriage.

Like the bears who live in this part of Canada, guests riding the Rocky Mountaineer have opportunities to dine on salmon. For those of us enjoying attentive GoldLeaf service, which included alcoholic and soft drinks, that meant leaving our reclining seats and heading downstairs to the dining carriage for breakfast and lunch.

“Every season we do a brand new menu. We work with local suppliers to see what’s on the market. When something is good, like the Alberta short ribs, we keep then on the menu.

"They are cooked in wine a long time – it’s comfort food that isn’t extremely original but I can’t tell you how many hundreds of thousands of portions we’ve served,” said executive chef Jean-Pierre Guerin as we chatted during one of his breaks.

Vancouver is the Rocky Mountaineer's final destination.

Vancouver is the Rocky Mountaineer's final destination.

Remarkably, his teams send out half-a-million well-presented plates of food every year. Jean-Pierre strives to ensure his food compares with the quality of cuisine served on cruise ships and restaurants, despite the paucity of space in the galley kitchens aboard the trains.

Mealtimes meant an opportunity to chat with fellow guests. In addition to numerous Britons there were travellers from Australia, the USA and Canada. Several were combining the train journey with a cruise up the Pacific coastline to Alaska or driving holidays in the Rocky Mountains.

Prior to flying back to Gatwick from Calgary, I spent a couple of days based in Banff. A day trip to Lake Louise presented an opportunity to walk on the frozen surface of body of water named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter. For views of snow-capped peaks the observation platform at the top of the Banff Gondola proved outstanding.

Rocky Mountaineer – Fact File

An eight day/seven night Canadian Rockies Adventure package, with including two days aboard the Rocky Mountaineer and transfers to and from the train, costs from £2,065 with SilverLeaf and £2,764 with GoldLeaf Service. The package includes visits to the Vancouver Lookout and Calgary Tower, a summit sightseeing tour of the Canadian Rockies by helicopter, a tour to Lake Louise with a trip on the Banff Gondola, a trip along the Icefields Parkway plus a tour of Yoho National Park.

Phone: 0800 088 5541 – www.rockymountaineer.com

West Jet

West Jet flies direct to Calgary and to Vancouver, via Toronto, from London Gatwick Airport.

Phone: + 1-888-937-8538 – www.westjet.com

Air Transat

Air Transat operates direct flights to and from both Calgary and Vancouver from London Gatwick Airport.

Phone: 0207 616 9187 – www.airtransat.com

Sewell’s Marina

6409 Bay Street, West Vancouver, V7W 3H5, British Columbia, Canada

Phone: +1-604-921-3474 – www.sewellsmarina.com

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

900 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, V6C 2W6, Canada

Phone: +1-604-684-3131 – www.fairmont.com/hotel-vancouver

ACT Venture

Guided walking tours of Kamloops

Phone: +1-250-574-1615 – www.actadventures.ca

Sandman Signature Kamloops Hotel

225 Lorne Street, Kamloops, V2C 1W2, British Columbia, Canada

Phone: +1-250-377-7263 – www.sandmanhotels.com

Moose Hotel and Suites

345 Banff Avenue, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Phone: +1-866-379-0021 – www.moosehotelandsuites.com

Travel Alberta – www.travelalberta.com

Banff and Lake Louise – www.banfflakelouise.com

Tourism British Columbia – www.hellobc.co.uk

Tourism Kamloops – www.tourismkamloops.com

Tourism Vancouver – www.tourismvancouver.com

Destination Canada – www.canada.travel

You can expect to see Canadian wildlife en route.

You can expect to see Canadian wildlife en route.

There's plenty of stunning scenery

There's plenty of stunning scenery