British traveller Garry Smith takes a ride on the famous Rocky Mountaineer train – but will it live up to his expectations?
My bucket-list train trip
My journey on the Rocky Mountaineer was a long time coming. Not because of any indecision or inefficiency but Covid got seriously in the way of my original timings.
In late 2019 I read a feature about the train and watched it on a TV programme. I couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to book a journey on this iconic train. But will a ride on the Rocky Mountaineer live up to my expectations?
I wanted to see the Canadian Rockies so I booked the First Passage to the West tour which starts in Vancouver (above) and ends in Calgary.
I’m usually an independent type of traveller but soon after calling the company and speaking to a friendly consultant I realised an organised train tour wasn’t such a bad thing after all. I soon booked my trip for July 2020 and paid my deposit.
The remainder did not have to be paid until a few weeks before the journey was due to depart. In booking direct with the company, I also received preferential hotel rates and a complimentary transfer from the airport to my first hotel.
The final tour details were for three nights in Vancouver at the beginning of the tour and two nights in Calgary at the end, making a total of ten nights in Canada.
I eventually took the trip in August 2022. In the meantime, the company contacted me thoughout to explain when it would be safe to travel again.
Two days on Rocky Mountaineer
I spent two days travelling on Rocky Mountaineer. My check-in at a hotel in Vancouver was super easy. In ten minutes I was given my boarding pass and luggage tags.
The train journey does come with a word of warning: there are no ‘lie ins’. I stayed at The Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver and the coach pick-up for transfer to the Rocky Mountaineer train station was at 06.55, for a twenty-minute journey.
In a smooth arrangement, my luggage was taken from my room and taken directly to the train. The next time I saw my bag was in the room at my hotel for that evening.
Once comfortably seated in my designated chair on the train we departed, in reverse, from the station.
Cheery Rocky Mountaineer staff waved flags and cheered us on our way. The backwards journey lasts for about ten minutes to clear the sidings before moving forwards out through the Vancouver suburbs.
This is not the most picturesque part of the journey, but the graffiti is colourful. Once out of Vancouver and across the Fraser River the perspective gets better.
Prepare yourself for some stunning sights. On the first day we travelling through picturesque canyons with vibrant natural scenes, interspersed with views of iron bridges spanning spectacular water courses.
The railway follows the Fraser River and as the river changes on its journey so do the views from the train. Gradually the views open out until by the end of the day, as Kamloops (above) approaches, it becomes less mountainous. So you will see more prairies and lakes.
Unfortunately, however many photos you take, they will never capture what you see with the naked eye – natural grandeur, colour, and spectacle. The first day is a long one – 11 hours – but there’s so much to see that it went in a flash.
Second Day Adventures
The second day was another early start; 06.50. Again, we left our luggage to be transferred to the next hotel in Banff.
It didn’t take long for the train to leave Kamloops and it quickly became evident that today would be a contrast with the day before.
The journey followed rivers, starting with the Southern Thompson River, and then taking in a further six including The Kicking Horse and Bow rivers.
The difference was that these rivers were flowing gently along the course of our journey rather than the rushing torrents of the day before.
The other difference was that we were now in The Rockies. The mountain peaks were majestic, shining white in the late August sunshine.
The lakes were expansive, an incredible calm, strong blue caused by the rock flour that gets brought down by the glaciers moving over the rocks. It was impressive and incredible.
I was told that you might seem some wildlife from the train. And I did spot an elk and some massive sheep, but no bears.
In praise of the Spiral Tunnels
For those more interested in engineering rather than nature the highlight of the second day is undoubtably the Spiral Tunnels.
These were made in the early 1900s following a similar idea deployed in the Swiss Alps.
The gradient through this section of the railway was too steep for the safe use by the trains and so the spiral tunnels reduce the gradient. This takes the train over a longer journey through the mountain in a corkscrew tunnel.
The view in the dark is not one to behold but trying to work out which way the turn is happening is a strange test on the senses.
The journey has one of two possible endings: Lake Louise, or a journey for another hour that ends in Banff.
I ended my tour at Banff (above), but after a few days transferred to Lake Louise by coach. I wouldn’t have missed either of them. They both encapsulate the scenic splendour of the journey but within the comforts of small, atmospheric, friendly towns.
Food for thought
So much for what can be seen from the train on this jaw dropping scenic railway, what about the train itself?
I travelled on the ‘Gold Leaf’ service which is a double decker train carriage. It features a transparent dome roof that runs the full length of the carriage giving uninterrupted 180-degree views.
The top section is tinted and so glare is minimised. It is on this upper deck that you will spend most of the journey time and from this elevated situation the views become even more panoramic.
Your seat for both days is given to you on check In. The carriage has a capacity for 60 people, but you are in no way cramped. The seats are very comfortable, adjustable and well-padded with generous leg room.
You are not confined to the seat and have every opportunity to move around the carriage during the journey.
Meals are taken downstairs in the Dining Room which has only capacity for 30 people so half meals are taken in two sittings.
Those on the second shift are given plenty of drinks and snacks before their dinner.
You will use the Dining Room for breakfast and lunch. It is not actually a silver service but not far short. Tablecloths and napkins are linen, you are given proper cutlery, and the tables are set ready for your arrival.
Forget any preconceptions you may have about train food: the food quality and presentation is excellent and easily restaurant standard, with a wide choice from the menu at both meals.
Table service is provided by two of the crew for the carriage and again is efficient and friendly.
This holiday was a first for me in many respects: my first time to Canada, and my first ‘train excursion’ trip.
I was not disappointed by either. In fact, based on this holiday, I would definitely repeat this trip again. I experienced an amazing country, saw some wonder sights, mixed with people from all over the world. I also met many Americans too.
It was planned as the Holiday of a Lifetime and yes, it did live up to my expectations.
The Rocky Mountaineer experience made the whole thing really easy and the company provided an efficient backroom service with lots of prompts and support leading up to the journey. Above all, the scenery was extraordinary – book a ticket today, you won’t regret it.