As I board the sleek carriage of the Rocky Mountaineer at its private station in Vancouver, I realise that I’m also stepping into history, riding the rails that united Canada from east to west more than 125 years before.
Although the Rocky Mountaineer has four equally spectacular journeys to pick from, I’ve decided on the two-day ‘First Passage to the West’ itinerary from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Banff, Alberta, retracing the footsteps of the 19th century pioneers and explorers. The journey, which travels via Kamloops and the spectacular Lake Louise, is the train’s most popular route – and for good reason.
Leaving the glass skyscrapers of Vancouver behind, we travel through Canada’s legendary spiral tunnels and it’s not long before we are surrounded by snow-capped, pine-covered mountains, deep canyons and raging rivers.
The train has two levels of service: SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf. One is perfect, but the other more perfect, as the GoldLeaf service comes with luxury extras like a two-level observation dome; dining room; more upmarket accommodation; and an outdoor platform so you can get closer to the action.
I feel like my head is swivelling with the 360 degree views from the panoramic glass dome. Along the way, our train crew entertains us with fascinating facts and jokes, and keep an eye out for wildlife along the tracks. We’re all on bear alert, although I find the sight of a wild moose is just as exciting. We keep our eyes peeled for the mythical Sasquatch in the thick forests that the crew teases we may see. Rocky Mountaineer only travels in the daylight hours, meaning you never miss a moment.
The on-board chefs have prepared lunch, and the mouth-watering menu reflects the regions we are travelling through, such as berries from British Columbia and Pacific salmon and lobster. Even though I scoffed down a hot gourmet breakfast when we first boarded, and followed up with scones with jam and cream at morning tea; the feast, complemented by local wines, is too good to resist. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are complimentary in both classes.
Our first stop for the night is the old fur trading town of Kamloops, which means ‘meeting of the waters’ in the Shuswap First Nations people’s language because it sits at the junction of the North and South Thompson rivers. We’re transferred to the hotel, and our luggage is conveniently already waiting in our room.
Back on board in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a good night’s rest, we set out for Lake Louise. Called Emerald Lake by its first European visitor in 1882, Lake Louise was renamed in 1884 to honour Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria. It’s the kind of scenery that makes you want to stand up and applaud. Home for the night is the magnificent Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
It’s only about 50 kilometres from Lake Louise to Banff, and all too soon we’ve reached our final stop. This picture-postcard resort town is set within Canada's first National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the stately Fairmont Banff Springs hotel rising above it like a fairy-tale castle.
Although the luxury of one of the world’s greatest hotels beckons, I miss the train’s camaraderie and gentle clickety-clack of the wheels on the track, and I just want to jump back on and do it all again.
Fortunately, Rocky Mountaineer has three other journeys which also take in Jasper and Whistler, and a coastal passage which travels between Vancouver and the US city of Seattle to Vancouver. Whichever direction you decide, be prepared to let nature take your breath away.
All images: Rocky Mountaineer.