[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_single_image image=”5568″ img_size=”full”][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]story and photos by Ann Wallace
When I was a child growing up in England, my well-travelled grandmother told me about a certain train journey in Canada. She tried to explain that the train entered two spiral tunnels in the Rocky Mountains and that when the engine emerged from the tunnel, it passed under the rear section of its own train and that if you were sitting near the front you could see the end of your train – going in the opposite direction! I didn’t believe her!
But, of course, we all know that it’s true. This engineering feat is one of the wonders of Canada and its setting – Cathedral Mountain, Mount Ogden and the Kicking Horse River – is one of Canada’s most spectacular. Little did I know, all those years ago, that I would one day live in Canada and now I’ve been on a Rocky Mountaineer, daylight-only trip from Vancouver to Banff and seen those spiral tunnels for myself, both on the train and from the valley vantage point on a day trip out of Banff.
Rocky Mountaineer’s slogan is “The Most Spectacular Train Trip(s) in the World” and they certainly help their passengers enjoy these train excursions in style, especially in their Gold Leaf Service. We’ve mentioned the company many times in these pages, and last summer I had the opportunity to experience it for myself, together with a little exploration time in Vancouver, Banff and Lake Louise.
The Vancouver departure for my Rocky Mountaineer journey was 7:30 a.m. Check-in was like air travel used to be … quiet and stress free. It was explained to us that our luggage would travel on to our overnight stop in Kamloops by road, so access to luggage while aboard the train during the day would not be possible. Soon everyone was organized and taking their seats on the spotless train and waving to all the terminal staff as they lined up in their smart uniforms to send us off and wish us bon voyage. The Gold Leaf Service passengers sit upstairs in a domed car for the duration of the journey, descending to the dining car beneath for breakfast and lunch. (There is an elevator for wheelchair users or those who do not wish to navigate the curved stairs, together with a spacious handicapped-accessible washroom.) The meals are offered in two sittings which are switched on alternate days, but if the aroma of others enjoying breakfast is almost too much to bear there’s no need to worry, for coffee and a selection of baked goods are offered in your seat to tide you over. (Red Leaf Service passengers are served meals in their seats, airline style … although the food looks a great deal better. Both services are clearly described – and illustrated – in RMR’s brochure and on line.) Also offered in the dome car are drinks throughout the day, served without any sense of censure if you fancy a bloody Caesar or mimosa early in the morning!
Now a word about the Gold Leaf meals themselves, for there’s no doubt they compete with the scenery to make this trip memorable. After a stellar career which included competing with Team Canada and with hotel groups such as Fairmont, Mark Jorundson combined his love of food with his love of trains to become RMR’s Executive Chef in 2002, whereupon he was given the mandate of creating exclusive Western Canadian cuisine for the train passengers, many of whom have come from afar to experience this trip. No surprise, therefore, to find BC smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, or turkey and cranberry sausages on the breakfast menu. And then, after cocktails, comes lunch! Alberta beef, wild BC salmon, free-range chicken breasts and more, all paired with award-winning wines from BC’s Okanagan Valley. The tables-for-four mean unexpected conversations and new friends. I talked with people from all over Britain, from Australia and New Zealand and from Canada. Canadians who were with friends or family from overseas were looking as proud as could be, and so they should for everyone was impressed with the trip, with the food and service and, of course, with the scenery. I especially enjoyed talking with a German travelling with his young son who wished to be a railway architect one day. What this young fellow knew about trains and their routes around the world was astounding!
Of course all the passengers learned things on this route, as we journeyed from lush forests into deserts, beside tumbling rivers, through valleys narrow or broad, beneath towering mountains or beside glittering turquoise lakes while we listened to the commentary. Many of the names were familiar to us, even if we hadn’t travelled this way before: the Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon, Hells Gate and the South Thompson River. Expert wildlife spotters were popular as they shouted “bald eagle” or “osprey” or “deer” or “bear”, whereupon everyone leaped to their feet, cameras in hand. We learned about spawning salmon; a little of the history of the railroad in Canada; about the ‘owners’ of the lines today and their conductors and engineers and the fascinating fact that all train movement throughout western Canada is watched over by rail-traffic controllers in Edmonton. We were intrigued that someone sitting before a console so far away could see us waiting in a siding for another train to pass.
At around 5:30 p.m. the train pulled into Kamloops Station and we transferred to our motorcoach for the short trip to our hotel. Accommodation here varies from trip to trip, and if RMR passengers choose this route they should be aware that there are no truly luxurious hotels in Kamloops. However, we were booked into the Plaza Heritage Hotel, located right downtown, and it was just fine: I was assigned a quaint single room decorated in what I can only describe as Grannie-style with floral wallpaper and bedspread, a tiny bathroom and a tray complete with tea pot and all the fixings. And there was my suitcase waiting for me! The dining room here looked inviting and popular and oh how I wished I had stayed. But one of the extras offered by RMR is an evening outing to see Kamloops’ Great Canadian Lumberjack Dinner Show. Don’t go … it is truly dreadful. The performers are enthusiastic and do their very best to entertain, poor dears, and the buffet is passable with good salads. But the theatre is enormous, on our evening in July the audience was sparse and the whole thing was a bit embarrassing. How I wished I’d spent my evening exploring Kamloops. However, we stuck it out with help from a bottle of wine and applauded politely before returning to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.