Story by Carol Canter with photos by C. Canter and Jack Heyman.
The train whistle blew, signaling the arrival of the sleek Rocky Mountaineer into Banff’s heritage railway station. It was “All Aboard” by 9 a.m. and, within minutes of departure on the Rocky Mountaineer, we were raising glasses of champagne and peach juice to toast our two-day rail journey through the Canadian Rockies from Banff, elevation 4540 feet, down to Vancouver, at sea level.
We would travel by daylight only, so as not to miss a single emerald lake, saw tooth ridge, soaring eagle, bighorn sheep or any of the seven different river systems flowing by. An overnight stay at a hotel in Kamloops is built into the itinerary. We had spent the past week driving, paddling, hiking, cycling and hot spring soaking our way through the Canadian Rockies, reveling in every twist and turn along the way. And now we were seated upstairs in a plush Plexiglas bi-level dome car, enjoying warm scones and coffee as we gazed at the dreamlike canvas unrolling before our eyes.
This was the way to travel. One couple called it the trip of a lifetime, a trip they had repeated six times. National Geographic has recognized it as one of the “World’s Greatest Trips,” and for many years, Rocky Mountaineer has been honored with a World Travel Award as the “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train”. I named it “A Moveable Feast,” with a nod to Hemingway.
Our first breakfast confirmed the moniker. We descended the spiral stairway to the elegant private dining room set with white linens and fresh flowers, joined a couple from Nova Scotia, and began the meal with a plate of sweet fruit garnished with a Cape gooseberry, served with a pot of coffee and flaky warm croissant. The GoldLeaf Breakfast, named for the high-end class of service we were traveling, paired scrambled eggs with smoked steelhead salmon, topped with kelp caviar and lemon chive crème fraiche. It was one of five tantalizing menu items.
The menu focuses on seasonal ingredients indigenous to the bountiful regions we were traversing: Alberta and British Columbia, prairie to Pacific Rim. The lunch menu included Alberta pork tenderloin, wild BC salmon, Fraser Valley chicken breast pan seared in herb butter, black bean ragout and smoked corn salsa and a vegetarian dish of creamy prairie barley, risotto style, with wilted spinach, roasted button mushrooms and grape tomatoes.
Conversation and camaraderie developed at meals and throughout the journey as strangers excitedly gestured at the quickly evolving scenario beyond the train: a mountain goat scaling an impossibly rocky vertical cliff, a field of wildflowers or mountain lake of improbable clarity. We traded photography tips on the outdoor platform between cars, as we took turns leaning out to shoot a raging river, weathered bridge or landscape of painted bluffs, glowing greenish purple from oxidized copper in the soil.
“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,” said William Van Horne, President of Canadian Pacific Railway from 1888-1899. And we’ve been coming, since the last spike of Canada’s first transcontinental railway was driven in place at Craigellachie, BC on November 7, 1885, uniting Canada from east to west. We come to marvel, not just at the scenic splendor, but the “feat of construction which amazed the world.”
Entering Connaught Tunnel, we envision the labor of boring through Mount Macdonald for five long miles. At the steep gorges of Hell’s Gate, we imagine workers lowered on ropes and makeshift ladders, drilling holes to pack full of dynamite above the raging waters below. But the piece de resistance of stories and visuals, even for the non-engineers among us, is the Spiral Tunnels. Built along a Swiss model, the system took 1,000 men 20 months to complete, and reduced a dangerous 4.5 percent grade to a more manageable 2.2 percent. Described in a railway timetable of the day: “The whole thing is a perfect maze, the railway doubling back upon itself twice, tunneling under mountains and crossing the river twice in order to cut down the grade.”
The Rocky Mountaineer staff of onboard attendants who cater to our every need includes historians and storytellers, along with chefs, servers and engineers. They give us the scoop at each key milepost, as we retrace the steps of 19th century explorers. Young, smart and charming, these adventurers who live life on the rails, in season, helped make our Rocky Mountaineer journey a moveable feast for the mind and spirit, as well as body and soul.
IF YOU GO: For the Rocky Mountaineer visit: https://www.rockymountaineer.com where the routes are described. Check the website also for the 2018 and 2019 special packages: https://www.rockymountaineer.com/promotions. Westjet serves Calgary (YYC) and Vancouver (YVR) from San Francisco (SFO) with seasonal non-stop service.
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