Virtuoso Life July 2018 Luxury Train Travel: The Canadian Rockies

Luxury Train Travel: The Canadian Rockies

The Rocky Mountaineer chugs through Kamloops, B.C.
The Rocky Mountaineer chugs through Kamloops, B.C.
Photo by Kari Medig
Roll through the Canadian Rockies like a pampered pioneer.

On a warm autumn morning in the small community of Canoe in central British Columbia, Doris Lund stands on her porch waving. Her yellow T-shirt and yellow house pop against an indigo sky. As if on cue, Canada geese cross overhead in a classic V formation. I wave back, because it’s what you do on board the Rocky Mountaineer.

It seems like everyone we pass greets the train. These sleek blue-and-gold cars ply the routes that unified the country 133 years ago and are a source of national pride. But perhaps no one is more devoted to the ritual than Doris. There was that day when she didn’t appear: Concern pulsed among the crew until she was spotted from the last car, running out her door, wearing only a towel and flapping both arms at the retreating train.

After all, tradition and hospitality must be maintained. By the second day of my three-day journey from Vancouver to Banff and Jasper national parks, I know this.

I also know we won’t be setting any land-speed records. We average 30 miles per hour, a pace that makes it possible to be the last one in the car to hear “bear!” “bighorn!” “osprey!” and still have a chance of spotting it. My other early lesson is to stop checking my cell phone. The connection is delightfully inconsistent. I power down by Rainbow Canyon and allow the stories being told by our crew to become my news feed.

The team of four animated young hosts in our car is expert at reeling out fascinating skeins of narrative – about glaciers, the salmon life cycle, First Nations culture, gold prospectors, and, of course, the rails themselves. Not long after passing Doris, we reach Craigellachie, where the last spike in the coast-to-coast railroad was struck in 1885. Train manager Barry Crawford chokes up a bit when he talks about it.

Best spot in the house: Watching the world go by from a train vestibule.
Best spot in the house: Watching the world go by from a train vestibule.
Photo by Kari Medig
This is slow travel at its best through time and unerring beauty. I’m in GoldLeaf Service, the line’s top of two classes, where the custom-built cars are bilevel. Up top, comfy reclining seats under glass-domed ceilings offer 360-degree views. Below, locally sourced, multicourse breakfasts and lunches (don’t skip anything with blueberries) are served on white tablecloths. The open-air platform at the back of the car offers the simple pleasure of mountain air and warm sun.

There are no sleeper cars, and that’s a good thing. This isn’t scenery you want to pass through with your eyes closed. The train stops for stays at spectacular hotels at the end of each day, giving passengers a chance to stretch their legs and explore more via boots, bikes, and boats.

Based in Vancouver, the Rocky Mountaineer runs two- to seven-day routes to Alberta either east through Kamloops to Banff, or north and then east through Whistler and Quesnel to Jasper. Another route, south to Seattle, hugs the coast and the Puget Sound shoreline. (All routes run back to Vancouver as well.) Guests hail from around the world, but my car features many travelers from Commonwealth countries, including several couples celebrating special events. English newlyweds on honeymoon kicked off our journey with the ceremonial sounding of the whistle, and we’ll toast a pair celebrating their 65th anniversary before we’re finished.
Onboard host Laurie Mulgrew delivers good cheer in the glass-roofed top level of a GoldLeaf Service car.
Onboard host Laurie Mulgrew delivers good cheer in the glass-roofed top level of a GoldLeaf Service car.
Photo by Kari Medig
The grandeur amps up with the altitude as we as we reverse engineer the route of nineteenth-century explorers. We climb from wide-open agricultural lands outside Vancouver through the narrowing canyons of the Fraser Valley (clinching tight at Hell’s Gate), across desert and among strange rock spires known as hoodoos, until, in dramatic fashion toward the end of the second day, we plunge into the dark heart of two mountains via a pair of 1907 tunnels that spiral through granite. A stupendous engineering effort reduced the once-harrowing grade. On the other side, Banff National Park reveals its Rocky Mountain glory in twilight.

After a night of downy comfort at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and a morning watching the Victoria Glacier trade its dark mantle for purple, then pink, then white, we board the motor coach to Jasper. The promise of the famously picturesque Icefields Parkway – and a chance to walk on (and drink from) the Athabasca Glacier – mitigates some regrets over leaving the train and its charms behind. The coach takes us past a mammoth ice field that feeds three oceans, and among iridescent lakes and changeable rivers to deposit me, like glacial till, along the shores of Lac Beauvert at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

Here, I join a group around a campfire set among cabins. Classic red-and-black plaid blankets keep off the evening chill. It’s a clear night, and the world’s second-largest Dark Sky Preserve offers a star packed view. Serenaded by bugling elks, we spy ghostly white forms in the sky. It’s the boundary of the northern lights. The full radiant spectrum of the aurora borealis doesn’t quite reach the lodge tonight (although it does on many others).

Before I can register disappointment, a six-point bull steps into the beam of my neighbor’s flashlight. Everyone takes a deep breath. For no good reason, except the example of the past three days and the excellent Okanagan Valley red we’ve been sipping all night, I wave at him.
Pre-journey selfies in Kamloops.
Pre-journey selfies in Kamloops.
Photo by Kari Medig

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