There are certain things you should do at least once in your life if you are Canadian. One is to visit the nation’s capital. Another is visiting Montreal and Quebec City. Still another is taking a tour of the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. Obviously, there are the Calgary Stampede, a drive across tile Prairies and camping in Algonquin Park to consider. A sojourn across the arctic is also incredible. In spite of this phenomenal list of national travel destinations, I think a train trip on the Rocky Mountaineer would be in the TOP five of my Ten Best Vacations ever in Canada.
Travelling on board the Rocky Mountaineer is an unforgettable experience, considered by many to be, a trip of a lifetime. The two-day rail journey recaptures the romance of rail travel as it follows the historic train route constructed over 100 years ago through Canada’s West and the Canadian Rockies, uniting the country. The entire train ride takes place during daylight hours to ensure you enjoy every minute of the breathtaking scenery of glacier-fed lakes, majestic mountains ranges and ferocious rivers. The Rocky Mountaineer train travels in both eastbound and westbound directions between the beautiful coastal city of Vancouver, British Columbia, the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, and Jasper or Banff and Calgary, Alberta.
I had first heard about the Rocky Mountaineer in the mid-nineteen nineties. What really peaked my own personal interest was when I heard that they were offering Winter Rail Vacations from Vancouver to Banff and promoted them as journeys through “the Land of a Million Christmas Trees”. I decided it would be a great trip to lake with my ten-year-old daughter right after Christmas. So we prepared for a trip though the wondrous snow-capped mountain peaks and frozen streams and lakes of Beautiful British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and Alberta’s Banff national park. We decided to go with the Gold Leaf package offered by Rocky Mountaineer for the trip. The package includes excellent on board dining, reclining seats with lots of legroom, spirits, fine wines, beverages, and fruit and snacks along the way. The service also includes live musical entertainment and a dedicated children’s program in two specially designed cars that are easily accessible from the “Gold Leaf” service car. On the overnight stop in Kamploops, the staff of Rocky Mountaineer takes care of your hotel check-in and ensure that your luggage is delivered to your room and picked up the next morning.
We flew from Ottawa to Vancouver on Boxing Day (December 26th). Rocky Mountaineer had booked us in at the Sutton Place hotel in downtown Vancouver. Sutton Place is a sophisticated European styled luxury hotel around the corner from all the shopping and restaurants on Robson Street and is idea for all visitors. My daughter’s eyes lit up when we walked into the lobby with its high ceilings, Victorian furnishings, beautifully polished hardwood floors and wonderful display of Christmas trees and decorations to celebrate the season. “Storybook” is the only way to describe it. The hotel offers a spa, sauna and indoor pool. We took advantage of the sauna and pool to freshen up form the long flight. Our room was well appointed with marble accented bath and shower, Internet hook-ups, room service- the works! All rooms have an evening turn down service. We then took in the afternoon tea at the hotel’s award winning Fleuri restaurant. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Fleuri also offers afternoon tea and chocoholic buffet, on weekends. There is also a coffee shop within the hotel. The Sutton Place Hotel (www.suttonplace.com) was a great way to decompress in Vancouver before we began the next day’s journey into the Rockies.
We began our on board trip the following morning on the Rocky Mountaineer. The Rocky Mountaineer has a dedicated train station for its trains in Vancouver – the station is very user friendly and informative. There is a photographic and historical journey of the company and all its routes posted on display in the station and staff are accessible to answer any questions. While waiting to be checked in, guests are offered complimentary coffee, and for our trip the station had arranged for a group of carollers to sing to guests. (The train leaves the stations at 7 a.m. so we were at the station at 6:20 with our luggage). Once the train got rolling, the staff passed out champagne orange juice for the adults and orange juice for the kids and toasts were made to everyone on board. Then we were invited to the dining carriage below us for breakfast. The meals feature attentive white linen service provided by the on board attendants who serve the gourmet meals prepared from regional cuisine by the on board chefs. Luxury and comfort were words that came to mind as we enjoyed the on board atmosphere and outside view.
Our journey followed the Kicking Horse Route, which goes from Vancouver to Banff and is approximately 900 kilometres. (We travelled 442 kilometres the first day and the balance on day 2).The trip winds through four mountain ranges, dozens of bridges and tunnels and alongside numerous waterfalls, lakes and rivers. (The Rocky Mountaineer offers travel by rail through five protected areas: Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Yoho National Park, and the oldest and the largest of the Rockies parks, Banff and Jasper. Three provincial parks combined with the four National Parks located in the Rockies, comprise the UNESCO Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site. This ranks as one of the largest protected areas on the planet). One of the best things about the Rocky Mountaineer experience was listening to the interpretive commentary by the knowledgeable and friendly on board attendants regarding the history of the railway, the local geography, the wildlife, and their insight into the importance of how the railway has contributed to Canada’s development as a nation. They had great trivia and information to share about the people, places and things that happened during the building of the railway that have made it one of the great engineering feats of its time. I found myself shifting back and forth between our glass domed coach on the second level and going downstairs to stand outside on the platform to stare in awe and take in all of the incredible scenery. While standing outside on the platform between carriages you can still hear the attendant commentary through the train’s outdoor speaker system.
Our stopover on the first night was in the historic and thriving town of Kamploops B.C. The train arrived in Kamploops at 6:30 and we were taken by shuttle bus to our hotel. Shortly thereafter, we gathered in a theatre at the hotel and were served a buffet meal as a prelude to The Great Canadian Lumberjack Show, a theatrical play that was highly entertaining and in keeping with the spirit of the area and the trip.
We were up early the next morning and back on board the train at 6:30 am to begin the second part of our journey towards Alberta and Banff. Again, we began the day with a delicious breakfast while taking in the exceptional scenery which was quickly changing. The train began the ascent into the Rockies that would take us to an altitude of over 4000 feet higher than when we began.
The Canadian West is fortunate to still be home to a wide variety of plants and animals. The wildlife in the Canadian Rockies helps to distinguish this region from all others, and makes for a perfect vacation. Along the Rocky Mountaineer’s route we saw many of the large mammal and bird species for which this area is known including elk, moose, osprey’s, and eagles A highlight for my daughter was seeing an elk swimming across one of the smaller lakes we crossed. There are also grizzlies and black bears, bighorn sheep, cougars, wolves, lynx and caribou – the habitat is also home to many species that rely on large tracts of land to survive.
Shortly after our lunch on the second day the train stopped and the conductor came on the speaker system to ask everyone to look out their windows… and sure enough, out of the forest came a man in a red suit wobbling along. It didn’t take long for the sounds of kids saying “look it’s Santa Claus” to be heard throughout the tram. Eventually, Santa boarded and spent some time with the kids and then with the adults…another nice touch on a classy trip.
Our Rocky Mountaineer train trip ended in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Banff, AB. We were booked for one night at The Rimrock Resort Hotel located in Banff National Park. Nestled in a pristine mountain setting above the town, the Rimrock Resort Hotel (www.rimrockresort.com) offers comfort and luxury combined with the most breathtaking mountain and alpine valley views to be found anywhere. We checked into the hotel and were taken by its fabulous lobby decor and floor to ceiling windows that provided a lookout over the property and its exceptional amenities. We took a day to explore Banff but it wasn’t enough and I am determined to return. People from all over the world vacation in search of the Banff experience, whether it’s the restaurants, shops, cultural activities, or adventures in the wilderness. On Banff’s bustling main avenue, virtually every language from German to Japanese is spoken. Within minutes of Banff, you can be hiking in a quiet secluded forested area or skiing. We are saving this for our next trip.