The two-day train trip between Vancouver and Banff takes about eight to 10 hours daily but the time flies by thanks to the scenery.
One of the first passengers to ever board the Rocky Mountaineer, which attracts close to 100,000 visitors annually, was Victoria resident Alan Roaf.
Shortly after the privately owned passenger train began operations in May, 1990 Roaf travelled on the tourist train between Vancouver and Banff as a “pretend passenger.”
At the time, the former CEO of Rowing Canada and an Olympic rowing coach was doing a “silent survey” to ensure guest expectations were being met.
Thirty-two years later Roaf returned to the Rocky Mountaineer as a real passenger, but this time with his wife, Bonnie Johnston, to celebrate her 70th birthday and their 20th wedding anniversary.
The couple was travelling the same route Roaf took decades earlier, which is also Rocky Mountaineer’s most popular journey, called First Passage to the West, a two-day train trip between Vancouver and Lake Louise or Banff. (Guests can opt to do overnight stays in one or both communities when they book their all-inclusive packages. The first night stay is in Kamloops).
“It’s romantic, fun, something different. You can take your time and soak in the whole environment,” Roaf says, as to why the couple chose to ride the rails so close to home.
Adds Johnston: “It’s a very relaxed way to travel. There’s no stress. And we also like to stay in really nice hotels.”
Their Rocky Mountaineer voyage included overnight stays at two historic, luxury hotels — The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Since the train isn’t a sleeper train, passengers are shuttled to a hotel in the evening to sleep before returning to the train early the next morning.
Asked the difference between the Rocky Mountaineer today and from its first year of operations Roaf jokes while the “scenery is the same” the company’s opulent touches, like linen on the dining tables, heated, plush reclining seats and gourmet meals, are new since he last boarded the train.
“To see the difference between then and now is like night and day. The cars were pretty rudimentary to what they are today,” he says, before adding: “And the food here is excellent.”
Rocky Mountaineer’s new executive Chef Kaelhub Cudmore is just completing his first season with the company after working for years at luxury destination resorts.
His last job, which lasted a decade, was at the five-star, Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge near Tofino, known for its fine, regional culinary cuisine. Cudmore’s experience cooking with British Columbia’s bounty goes back even further to his childhood, when his “hippie” parents raised him to live off the land, catching seafood from the sailboat they built themselves to foraging for food on the deserted island, near Port Hardy, they called home.
“The outside was basically our fridge,” he says.
“My goal with Rocky Mountaineer is to speak to the country we are travelling through. Obviously the scenery around us is stunning and I don’t see the food as taking away from that but adding to it.”
Cudmore says as guests travel through specific areas, they are enjoying a menu that is reflective of the region, such as dining on Fraser River salmon and Fraser Valley fruits and vegetables.
All of the locally sourced food is prepared fresh on the train, including the delicious pastries that are provided between meals.
It’s a challenging task to cook on a train with its unexpected jerking movements that can be felt in the small, galley kitchens, but staff make it work feeding as many as 700 passengers at a time. The train I travelled on had 10 kitchens going, with three culinary staff working in each kitchen, to prepare the food while hosts were kept busy providing both non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks to guests. (Unlimited alcohol beverages are part of the package deal for all guests).
When booking a trip, guests can choose either the GoldLeaf or Silverleaf Service. The main difference between the two are Goldleaf guests ride in a custom-built, two-level car with a glass dome ceiling offering panoramic views.
And their multi-choice gourmet breakfast and three-course lunch meals are taken downstairs in the dining car, which is adjacent to a large outdoor viewing area, giving guests unhindered views to the scenery.
Silverleaf passengers stay in one-level cars and guests eat their meals, with more limited choices, at their seats. Their outdoor viewing area is also significantly smaller but with so much scenery to pass by during the 957-kilometre trip between Vancouver and Banff, there’s still plenty of opportunity to take pictures outside, without others in your way.
Still, Roaf and Johnston believe the upgrade to Goldleaf was definitely worth it on what they described as a “journey of a lifetime” and one that left them “proud to be from B.C.”
Besides the scenery, you never know when a wildlife sighting will happen. At one point on my own trip with the Rocky Mountaineer, the train passed a gravity-defying herd of mountain goats so close passengers could have reached out and touched them from the viewing platform.
The two-day train trip takes about eight to 10 hours daily but the time flies by thanks to the scenery. On the first day the train, travelling at an average speed of 50 km/h, we pass the lush farm land of the Fraser Valley and continue through the semi-desert area around Kamloops. Highlights on Day 1 include slowing down to see the churning waters of Hell’s Gate, where the Fraser River narrows to only 35 metres wide, and getting up close to where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven over 125 years ago at Craigellachie.
The Rocky Mountaineer hosts will explain important sights along the way, providing some history to passengers who may not have bothered to read their informative Mile Post Rocky Mountaineer newspaper provided to all guests.
On Day 2 the much anticipated snow-capped Rockies come into view and our hosts give us plenty of warning as to when to have our cameras ready to get the best shots. My favourite part of the journey was travelling the Continental Divide — the boundary between Yoho National Park in B.C. and Banff National Park and reaching the highest point of the journey at 1,626 metres (5,332 feet) above sea level.
As we climbed the famous Spiral Tunnels that traverse through Cathedral Mountain and tunnel through Mount Ogden, located near Golden and Field, B.C., the train is doubling back on itself twice and crossing the river twice in order to cut down the dangerous grade. Construction of the Spiral Tunnels, an engineering marvel, began in 1907 and took 1,000 men 20 months to complete at a cost of over $1 million.
Being able to retrace Canada’s railway history that united the country is one of the reasons why Rocky Mountaineer’s flagship journey continues to draw visitors and was named “one of the world’s greatest trips” by National Geographic magazine.
Besides the First Passage to the West journey, Rocky Mountaineer also has a two-day rail journey through the Rockies to Jasper called Journey through the Clouds, a three-day journey called Rainforest to Gold Rush through the Cariboo Chilcotin region to Jasper, and in 2021 launched its first route in the United States called Rockies to the Red Rocks, which travels between Denver, Colorado and Moab, Utah. The latter two-day rail trip does not offer the Goldleaf service as all train cars are one-level cars.
Kim Pemberton is a Victoria freelance writer who experienced the Rocky Mountaineer as a guest. The Rocky Mountaineer had no editorial influence on the article.