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The Rockies by rail

If you want to experience one of the world’s great train journeys and fancy treating yourself to a gastronomic experience like no other, book a trip on the newly refurbished queen of the tracks, The Rocky Mountaineer, says Andrea Kon

  • Although advertised as a two-day trip, the train halted mid-afternoon on the first day in Kamloops, the gatewaImage Credit: Supplied picture
  • The food onboard the Rocky Mountaineer is the finest Western Canada can offer. Image Credit: Supplied picture

The idea for our Rocky Mountain adventure stemmed from a stroke of brilliance by our travel agent. After cruising Alaska, we had arranged to pick up a hire-car in Vancouver and drive ourselves to Jasper in West Alberta, Canada, via Lake Louise and Banff. Our Canadian travel company, Brewsters, had worked out a variety of possibilities for us, together with appropriate maps and pre-paid tickets for every possible combination of routes.

The joy of it was that we were free to pick and choose our stops on the seven-day drive through ever more majestic pine-forest lined Canadian Rocky Mountain roads. We rode on a snowmobile on a glacier in mid-June; walked through a rainy forest to discover a lake of perfectly turquoise water, experienced a hot spa in Banff and watched salmon fishing as we ate lunch amid some of the most majestic scenery in the world. The journey ended with three nights in a rustic wooden lakeside lodge in Jasper, where Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip once stayed.

It was a lifetime of experiences crammed into a week! However, there remained the ‘small’ problem of getting back to Vancouver in time for our return flight to London. We only had two days and a single night to spare but we wanted to make the most of it...

“Finish the holiday in style. Take the Rocky Mountaineer Journey Through The Clouds,” the travel agent recommended. “That way, you get a guided tour, you get to sit ‘upstairs’ in a double-decker dome coach so you have an 180-degree panorama – and the food is fabulous. It’s an absolute must!” That was all the convincing we needed.

We left the lodge at 7am and were greeted on the tiny platform at Jasper station by our guide, alongside chefs in full tall-hat tradition and waiters resplendent in black and white uniforms, who led us to our seats at a table opposite the people who were to become our new travelling companions – Aubrey and Bobby, from Tennessee.

The train chugged gently forward along dignified tracks, and picked up a little speed as we passed the Pyramid Creek Falls, the ten-carriage-long train sweeping elegantly across a bridge. Beneath us we could see the foamy water of what is known as Hell’s Gate, an abrupt narrowing of the Fraser River.

The track was originally constructed for the Canadian Northern Railway in 1914, when men blasted thousands of tonnes of rock into the river, inadvertently restricting the sockeye salmon run. To combat the fishy disaster, they had to lay detonators to clear the run and to build a ‘salmon ladder’,

so that the fish could ‘climb’ effortlessly upstream to mate in spring. The salmon’s natural run was restored – but at the cost of many human lives.

We puffed along the magnificent Coast Mountain Ranges, passed through the Fraser Canyon and slowed whenever wildlife demanded. It’s hard to describe the thrill of watching brown bear cubs paddle and splash in the shallows, unperturbed as a majestic train ‘tiptoes’ past them to give its passengers the rare opportunity to watch the little cubs’ games without disturbing them. Or the awe-inspiring experience of seeing eagles soar at eye-level just beyond the domed window overhead.

Gourmet rails

As our visual appetite was whetted by the magnificence of the scenery, so Chef Jorundson and his team of sous chefs were cooking up our first meal aboard. The main upper carriage in the Gold Leaf coach seats 72 passengers at tables of four. At meal times, we were invited to descend the spiral staircase to be seated at tables elegantly laid with crisp white linen, fine china and cut glassware.

The food is the finest Western Canada can offer. Breakfast featured scrambled eggs wrapped in wild British Columbian smoked salmon drizzled with dill crème fraiche and topped with caviar; eggs served with bison sausage if you fancy or home-style harvest granola served with fresh banana bread, strawberries and low-fat yogurt. And if you could manage lunch after such a feast, you could sample Northern Alberta freshwater pickerel (a kind of pike) with red onion marmalade, or a British Columbia goat’s cheese salad followed by Fraser Valley chicken baked in a pumpkin crust, or pan-seared local venison.

Although advertised as a two-day trip, the train halted mid-afternoon on the first day in Kamloops, the gateway to British Columbia. We wasted no time checking in at the three-star Thompson Hotel, which is also owned and managed by Rocky Mountaineer. Our luggage had been transported by truck ahead of us, and was already awaiting us in our room.

We headed off to explore the town, meandering through a leafy green park, where we were amused to see a number of First Nations people carving traditional totem poles from bare tree trunks for a competition. It was fun to learn that most of them were members of the Shuswap tribe of the Interior Salish Nation who were Kamloops’ first inhabitants.

Sadly, the excellent entertainment that came as part of the package on our journey last summer has been stopped. Instead, passengers will be offered maps and a list of recommended restaurants this year and invited to explore Kamloops themselves.

The next morning it was up and all-aboard early in time for a wonderful breakfast as swifts and falcons soared and dipped overhead. We literally all held our breath as the engine snaked around a steep corner ahead of us and we watched it tugging us on to an ancient wooden bridge spanning two mountain-edged tracks. Our guide informed us the bridge had been built during the Gold Rush days to transport aspiring gold diggers. Thankfully, it proved more than capable of bearing our weight, despite the extra pounds everyone had surely gained at breakfast and lunch banquets!

Going off track

However, our trip wasn’t without those panics that turn leisurely travel into a personal nail-biting experience. What should have been a couple of hours out of Vancouver, the train shuddered to an unscheduled halt. However, this time, it was not for watching fauna, flora, bird or bear but a different kind of beast...

We discovered, to our dismay, that in Canada freight trains take precedence over passenger trains. We were nearing a single-line track, and had to wait while all 150 lumbering carts of what seemed to be the world’s longest, slowest freight train cleared the single-line track ahead, travelling in the opposite direction. We sat still for more than an hour as coach after container-bearing coach lumbered past. With less than four hours until our plane was due to take off, and still two hours out of Vancouver, we were cutting it fine.

But we needn’t have worried. The wonderful Rocky Mountaineer rose to the challenge. Our hosts phoned ahead, warning Vancouver of our plight. As the train pulled into Vancouver station, we were disembarked ahead of all other passengers, reunited instantly with our luggage and ushered into a waiting taxi. At Vancouver airport, with barely 45 minutes to spare, we were ushered through security and check in like royalty. British Airways, checked us in faster than the swifts that had circled above us. As we took off above the wonderful pines, we sighed with relief, and sat to re-live the railway experience of a lifetime.