It is a travel experience of days gone by. The calming rock of a steady train, the fast-moving scenery whipping by the nearly floor to ceiling windows. My forehead stayed pressed against the window while trees, lakes, mountains sped past as we made our way through the Canadian countryside, taking me back to the time when trains were a force to be reckoned with, train travel was romantic, endearing, a chance to sit back and breathe on the way to your next destination – physically and mentally. With the ever-increasing hassle of flying, travel by train seems be slowly – and thankfully – coming back into style.
During the fourteen-hour, two-day trip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Banff, Alberta, aboard the magnificent Rocky Mountaineer, I may have only taken my eyes off the window a handful of times. The ongoing picture show just outside the plain glass kept my gaze for most of the trip, even while I ate my meals, drank my wine, listened to a steady stream of tunes through my headphones. I searched the hills for bears, mountain goats, random humans traipsing along the countryside, just outside the train’s boundaries. I thought about the thousands of people who had traversed the same train tracks, through the Canadian Rockies, past Lake Arrok, along the curves and lines of the Fraser River.
The terrain changed every few hours, the pastel blue sky remaining the constant overhead. The train’s staff bustled about, fifteen or so college students to recent grads manning the GoldLeaf car, packed with well-to-do retirees from New Zealand to Germany making for a jovial experience. Along the way, staffers would take to the microphone, explaining notable spots along our route, from Hope, British Columbia, the chainsaw carving capital of Canada, to Yale, popular during the gold rush of 1858, where the population exploded to over 30,000 at its height, and the community gained the reputation of being the “wickedest settlement” in the region.
Warm scones, coffee, fruit, and beverages greeted us each morning, available to those in who were made to wait for the second seating of breakfast. On-board meals were prepared in the tight quarters of the train’s kitchen, with Executive Chef Jean Pierre Guerin overseeing the balancing act. With his history of kitchen preparation on a larger scale, namely Lufthansa Sky Chefs, the dishes offered aboard are reminiscent of first class airline travel – well executed if not a tad under seasoned – complemented by the impeccable service of the dining car staff.
Even with the grandeur of the train, sleeping cars are notably absent on the tour. Guests instead are treated to comfortable sleeping quarters in each of the train stops. For the “First Passage to the West”, our trip began in Vancouver, with accommodations at the beautiful Fairmont Waterfront. The overnight visit to Kamloops, a sleepy little town along the way to Calgary, took place at Hotel 540, complete with adjacent casino. Our press group departed the train ride just a destination short, in Banff, before it continued on to Calgary – the typical Rocky Mountaineer route – where we resided at the delightful Rimrock Resort Hotel, a hotel offering views far and wide of the picturesque Banff National Park surroundings.
Notable meals and imbiberies along the way:
* Cocktails at the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Lobby Lounge, Vancouver, British Columbia
Bartender Grant Sceney – the hotel’s lead mixer and VP of the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association – heeded my call for mescal with a bit of tamarind syrup and fresh lime, along with a rim of Tajin.
* Maenam, Vancouver, British Columbia
Every dish at Maenam was spectacular, from the mussels with chiles and lemongrass to the amazing presentation (and taste!) of the 8-spice tilapia. My favorite was, however, the halibut hot and sour soup. Quite possibly the best Thai dishes I’ve ever had anywhere.
* Sweets aboard the Rocky Mountaineer
While I wasn’t completely sold on the savory options aboard the train, the warm scones and coffee, along with the lunchtime desserts, helped to keep me satisfied along the tour.
* Terra Restaurant, Kamloops, British Columbia
I’m probably the first person to roll my eyes when someone arrives at our table and chatters about being farm-to-table, but I’m proud, nonetheless. I appreciate that the bar has been raised, that connection with your farmers and local producers is the standard benchmark almost across the board, whether you’re in California or Kamloops. Terra greeted us as weary train travelers, and though the quality of the whole meal was above and beyond what I expected for a tiny town, it was the fresh lettuce and asparagus tossed lightly with vinaigrette that won most of us over. The strawberry rhubarb mini pies were so flaky and light, and the collection of local British Columbia wines was impressive. Yet was something so simple as an opening plate of greens that succeeded that evening. Silly, I know, but sometimes it’s all about a great salad.
* Larkspur Lounge, Rimrock Resort Hotel, Banff, Alberta
I was more than happy to be in Canada during the NHL playoffs, particularly given the fact that my beloved Red Wings were still in the Stanley Cup running. On the evening we arrived into the mountain destination, I took a spot in one of the comfortable leather chairs at the Larkspur bar for dinner and was thrilled by both the perfect Manhattan and the lobster corn chowder. Oh, Canada. I’m so glad we’re friends.
**Many thanks to Tourism British Columbia; Tourism Kamloops; Banff Lake Louise Tourism, the Rocky Mountaineer; and the wonderful staffers at the Fairmont Waterfront, Fairmont Pacific Rim, Hotel 540, Fairmont Banff Springs, and Rimrock Resort for hosting me on this press tour! It was a marvelous way to see the Canadian countryside, and I look forward to returning!
*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender