Boasting epic landscapes and decadent dining, Rocky Mountaineer offers the best of both worlds for an eco-friendly adventure through western Canada
Rocky Mountaineer is reviving the romance of train travel: here’s how
Slow travel doesn’t get more romantic than an epic rail journey. There’s something about being rocked into slumber by the sway of the train; of watching small towns and mountainscapes slowly roll into view while the clatter of wheels on steel sets a comforting soundtrack that triggers a sense of nostalgia for a nature-immersed adventure.
Black bears, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, eagles, mountain goats, moose: they’re all visible from the tracks if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, which is why I’ve decided to explore Canada’s iconic Rockies region by rail, boarding the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer to spy verdant forests, snow-capped mountains and ancient glaciers – all while sipping a glass of pinot noir from the comfort of my heated seat. Readers, Interrailing this is not.
First stop: Vancouver
Taking the First Passage to the West route – one of Canada’s most iconic – I start my adventure in Vancouver. It’s my first time in the city, so I arrive a couple of days ahead of departure and head straight for Granville Island – a city staple that actually ceased being an island in the 1950s. Despite this, the best (read: most memorable) way to get there is still by ferry (False Creek Ferries runs from the Aquatic Centre’s dock every 5 minutes), and you’ll be dropped off directly outside Granville’s must-see Public Market – a bustling foodie hub crammed with independent grocers, growers and crafters. Think fresh-from-the-ocean seafood, delicious cheeses, artisan coffees, and leather crafters for all your souvenir fail-safes.
Once you’re shopped/feasted out, hit the ferry again and get a feel for Vancouver’s character-filled corners back on the mainland – from bouji Yaletown and trad, tourist-friendly Gastown to Stanley Park for a walk through the woodlands to the marina-dotted Sea Wall. If you’ve got a head for heights, don’t miss a trip to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, too. Located a 15-minute drive from the city (regular free shuttles run from various hotels), this lofty landmark is suspended 70m above an emerald canopy of cedar, Douglas firs and read-leaf maples, and has been attracting thrill seekers since 1889, when George Grant Mackay first strung a footbridge crudely crafted from hemp rope and cedar planks across the Capilano River canyon. Today, the bridge is (thankfully) a tad studier due to the modern addition of steel cables, but it still boasts serious wobble factor – and incredible views. Don’t be tempted to eat there, though – instead, head back to the city and treat yourself to a delicious Veneto-inspired refuel at Bacaro Vancouver – a stylish hidden gem near the water that serves up high-end fare in a friendly, fuss-free atmosphere. Small plates with big flavour are par for the course here and you’ll be welcomed in like a local.
A family run rail company that has been operating for three decades, Rocky Mountaineer offers four distinct routes in Canada – but it’s the legendary three-night, four-day First Passage to the West that I’ve come to experience. Traversing the Continental Divide, passengers pass dramatic canyons, and thunder through British Colombia into Alberta’s snow-season-famed Banff via stunning landscapes that pay homage to Canada’s most scenic vignettes. From desert-like terrain and thick forest, to glass-like lakes reflecting the sky’s turquoise tones, this is North America at its finest – the way the pioneers saw it – and the train itself ensures you’ll never miss a thing. Cue a contemporary GoldLeaf carriage (there’s also a single-deck SilverLeaf option), where you’ll enjoy gourmet dining on the lower level, heated leather seats that swivel on the upper level, and glass-domed coaches that bring the outside in for passing panoramic vistas.
Sated by shiraz and bison steak, I spend the majority of my days out on the private-viewing platform spying inquisitive black bears as the train winds its way round rugged ravines, and marvelling at the beauty of soaring bald eagles. But don’t worry if you fancy having a siesta, either – knowledgable guides are on hand to keep an eye out for wildlife and will happily announce a moose cameo before the moment’s gone. One thing to note is that there’s no accommodation onboard, so once daylight fades, coaches arrive at Kamloops (your first stop) and Banff (the final destination) to ferry you to partnering hotels. My tip? Request the Fairmont at applicable stops for the highest level of luxury from start to finish.
Rocky Mountaineer doesn’t just dish up Narnia-esque vistas: its full-bodied BC wines and signature Canadian dishes are pretty indulgent, too. GoldLeaf guests can tuck into everything from coastal tasting platters and Alberta steak, to Lois Lake salmon and butternut squash risottos rich in regional herbs – all served on crisp-white linen tablecloths in a modern, domed dining car that maximises the views and dials up the decadence. (Note: in SilverLeaf carriages, meals are served to guests seat-side, instead.) There’s also limitless top-ups of your chosen tipple to enjoy, whether that’s hot chocolate with a warming shot of Baileys or a glass of bubbles to celebrate the latest black bear sighting – because, like everything else on the Rocky Mountaineer, luxury and adventure are served side by side.
Indeed, as I depart this iconic train on the final day and make my way into the buzzy resort of Banff, I realise this trip was the perfect post-pandemic love letter to Canada’s dramatic terrains – and an ode to the nostalgia (and environmental wins) of travelling by train.
How to book
Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West packages start from around £1,325 per person (SilverLeaf), including food and beverages aboard, plus one night’s accommodation. GoldLeaf packages start from approximately £2,309 per person. For further details or to book, visit www.rockymountaineer.com.
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