Rocky Mountaineer Railtours - Travel Feature
A Transportation Experience of a Lifetime
by Alain Gayot
Luxury Train Trips
Lovers of intrepid travel owe many thanks to William Van Horne. As President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was responsible (some would even argue single-handedly) for opening up the abundant wildlife, snowy mountain peaks, glacier lakes and towering trees of the Canadian West to tourists. His greatest lifetime achievement: In 1886, he oversaw the first scheduled transcontinental trip across Canada, from Montreal to Port Moody, BC. His greatest legacy: Rocky Mountaineer Railtours, a company that unites Van Horne's passion for rail adventure with the spirit of nineteenth century train travel and brings it into the new millennium.
Following a stay at The Fairmont Waterfront, we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer at its terminal near Vancouver's Pacific Central Station. You know it's time to board when the uniformed staff lines up to announce in song, complete with whistle-blowing, the train's departure. Of the service levels available, we chose the GoldLeaf Service for its double-decker train cars with full-length dome-window observation decks. Chairs on these decks rotate and recline, and views are unobstructed — essential in this part of the world and decidedly the whole point of the trip.
As the train crosses the plains through the Fraser River Valley, breakfast is served onboard. There is a maximum of 70 passengers per car; half remain upstairs on the observation deck, while the other half are hosted in the downstairs dining car, complete with picture windows. All meals are freshly cooked at a commissary kitchen in Kamloops under the guidance of executive chefs Jean Pierre Guerin (Five Sails Restaurant, Lalique Restaurant) and Frédéric Couton (Cannery Seafood House). When our turn came, we ordered the GoldLeaf Breakfast, which features wild British Columbia smoked salmon. On a journey through the Canadian wilderness, BC salmon is a natural choice, and we weren't disappointed.
As the day progressed and the train traveled on through the Coast Mountains and into Fraser Canyon, passengers enjoyed the service of Onboard Attendants. Not only are the attendants available to serve beverages and snacks (wine, cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, Canadian cheeses and local sweets are complimentary all day long), they act as guides, offering interpretive commentary on history, local culture and points of interest. They also teach you games to help you spot wildlife. At times the train stops so that you can linger over a view, although passengers are not allowed off. (Keep in mind that the train also stops occasionally at points not so interesting, in order to load and unload cargo.)
Lunch is served onboard, and the day progresses against the backdrop of the thundering waters of Hell's Gate. This is one of the stops that delivers an amazing show of nature during the salmon runs. There is actually a tram that brings people from the highway above to watch the fish make their final journey to give birth in the Shuwap Lake four hundred miles inland. It is said that the fish are so tightly packed that you can walk across the river.
A change of scenery occurs as the train veers off to follow the Thompson River. The dryer conditions through White Canyon, also known as Avalanche Alley, necessitate travel through a series of tunnels to protect the train from the chasm's constantly crumbling edges. This desert-like landscape stretches from the upper reaches of Canada all the way through Washington, Oregon and California to Arizona.
Then comes the plateau with pristine, serene and undeveloped Lake Kamloops, which ushers the train into the historic city of Kamloops, gateway to the interior of British Columbia. This will be your overnight. Since your luggage actually rides on trucks, it will be waiting for you at your lodging. Rocky Mountaineer Railtours has selected several Kamloops accommodation options. Most of the train's guests stay in town and enjoy the Two River Junction and Musical Review. We chose the outlying rustic South Thompson Inn, where we dined in Madisens restaurant overlooking the river. Because these journeys take place only during daylight hours — for maximum rubber-necking — there is time when you arrive in Kamloops to enjoy a horseback ride, play nine holes of golf or take a walk along the river.