The sound of steel grinding on steel is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s ear-piercing at times, then vanishes as the Rocky Mountaineer floats effortlessly along the train tracks, slowly winding through the Canadian Rockies in beautiful British Columbia.
I’m standing among a handful of camera-toting tourists clustered along the railing of the train’s outdoor vestibule. They’re waiting for that split second when the trees give way to jaw-dropping views of wild and untouched terrain. It’s a nature photographer’s dream.
Suddenly we disappear into inky blackness. The air turns cool and damp. We’re travelling through a tunnel, the roar of the train echoes off the nearby walls as we gently sway back and forth. In the blink of an eye, the darkness turns into blinding daylight and we’re treated to closeup views of the angry Fraser River, churning through the rugged canyon like a boiling pot of chocolate milk. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
"It’s always been on our list of things to do. Anybody we’ve talked to that’s done the trip has just raved about it," says David Carroll, who has come from Mississauga with his wife for the two-day ride from Vancouver to Banff, a trip 15 years in the making. "It’s really spectacular. It’s everything we thought it would be and more."
Like Carroll, a train trip through the mountains has been on my "to do" list for several years. I’ve flown over the Rockies and travelled through them by car several times, but I knew it would be an entirely different experience on a passenger train.
I chose the First Passage to the West route — a 1,000 km journey from Vancouver to Banff, with an overnight stop in Kamloops — due to its historical significance.
The route retraces the steps of 19th-century explorers, and passes the spot where the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven. It traverses the Continental Divide and travels through the legendary Spiral Tunnels — considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. These steel tracks created Canada as we know it, uniting the country from East to West.
Following a stay at the swanky Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, the red carpet is rolled out as we board for the journey of a life time. Our coach has two levels — the bottom for dining, the top for gazing at spectacular mountain views through a glass-dome — all part of the luxurious Gold Leaf service that treats guests like royalty.
The train chugs along at a leisurely pace, averaging 20-25 kph, which allows you to notice details of your surroundings — the leafy trees, bufferflies circling amid colourful flowers and the stillness of forests blanketed in shade. I often find myself lost in thought, staring out the window for hours.
The staff ensure passengers never miss a moment, proudly sharing their knowledge and history of the gorgeous ever-changing landscape as the train glides through lush forests, rugged canyons with raging rivers, pristine lakes, farmland, sprawling valleys, deep gorges and quaint towns.
The grand finale is the Rockies. Their jagged peaks poke through the fluffy, white clouds like a sword. I feel like a speck as we hug the base of the daunting giants.
One would think the novelty of staring at the majestic mountains for endless hours would eventually wear off, but it doesn’t. In fact, I can’t get enough of it, and am beaming with national pride by the time we reach our final destination in Banff.
"It’s really great," says Bostonian Carol Siegel. She and her husband are among many Americans on board. "I’m so happy we could do this."
So am I.
DINING ON THE MOVE
The food in front of me looks more like a work of art than something to eat: Giant slabs of pork tenderloin rest on a mountain of garlic-mashed potatoes with three glistening pea pods sticking up like a roosters comb. There’s also something crunchy that looks like a sail. I’m wondering if my dinner is preparing for take off.
A crew of cooks, including three internationally trained chefs, slave to produce the mouth watering feasts served on board. I’m told creating such masterpieces is a challenge in a kitchen that’s constantly on the move.
After two days aboard the Rocky Mountaineer sampling dishes I’ve never had before — such as scrambled eggs with smoked steel-head salmon topped with kelp- caviar and lemon-chive creme fraiche for breakfast — I am compelled to peek inside this kitchen on wheels. In fact there are two fully equipped stainless steel galleys with 10 electric elements, three dishwashers, two ovens, and three hot pans. The biggest challenge, says Sous Chef Travis Catfish, is the train’s movement.
"In our fridges, we’ll knock the grates back so things don’t move. You’ll see a locking pin on the ovens so they don’t open on their own. We use a material so nothing slides around," the 30-year, who hails from Texas, says.
Dining is a huge part of the epic two-day journey. Today, the cooks are serving sumptuous three-course meals for the 160 people in the Gold Leaf Service. The team uses fresh local ingredients from B.C. and Alberta, such as Alberta beef and pork tenderloin, wild Pacific salmon and Okanagan wines.
During an overnight stop in Kamloops, supplies and items that are difficult to create on a train, such as glazes, are loaded.
"This (journey) can be a life-changing experience for some people," Catfish says. "I come back every year for the guests, their smiles — people grin from ear to ear. They’ve come from half way across the world to experience this."
NEED TO KNOW
Rocky Mountaineer has more than 45 Canadian vacation packages along five unique rail routes through the Pacific Northwest and Alberta. A new route started this year — the Coastal Passage from Vancouver to Seattle. The First Passage to the West is the company’s flagship route. See visitrockymountaineer.com.