Toronto Star, May 23: The tomato slices are arranged like little pieces of art. The glistening red fruit is covered with a Spirograph of greens and goat cheese with a balsamic reduction on top. The sun pouring in the train window lights up half the plate. It’s almost too pretty to eat.
The waiter pours a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and my companions and I tuck into the first course of lunch aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, a train taking us on a luxurious two-day trip from Vancouver to Banff.
We started the tomato salad near where the mighty Fraser and Thompson rivers meet and we finish our chocolate cake around Avalanche Alley, where engineers used to slow down to grab messages clipped to telegraph poles.
After lunch, we head back up the narrow spiral staircase to our seats to feast our eyes on the scenery.
The windows in the domed car are spotless. They’re cleaned every night when the passengers get off to enjoy dinner and a night in a hotel. We overnight in Kamloops and are back on the train bright and early for the 10 or-so hour trip to Banff. The “or-so” is because there’s only one track through the Rockies and sometimes we have to pull over to wait for a train loaded with potash or grain going west.
But no one minds. There’s more than ample leg room, you don’t have to cram your bag underneath the seat and you can read a newspaper, or two, without performing origami. You can also walk around and visit with the other passengers or head to the vestibule behind the car to hear the clickety clack and stick your head out for a looksee, just like a happy dog in traffic.
“Animaaaal!” an American woman shouts when she spots something, likely elk, in the bush. Everyone rushes to her side of the coach to take a look. “Snow!” a woman from the southern states yelps when we climb high into the mountains. While no one rushes over to see, we’re all delighted that’s she so delighted. A British passenger who knows everything about smart cocktails in London is gobsmacked by the beauty and “the loneliness of the place.”
But it’s not lonely inside the Rocky Mountaineer, even if you’re riding by yourself. Mike Cofini of Toronto is taking the long way home after a business meeting in Vancouver and “struggling to keep my camera battery alive.”
He’s enjoying the hosts’ commentary — a little history, a little geography and a few corny jokes (Why is called the Connaught tunnel? Because we cannot see!).
The banter “puts everything into perspective,” he says. Without it, “I would just be sitting here blown away by everything. Once you see it yourself it’s not just a mythical place anymore.”
Linda Fehr of Morden, Man., is sitting in the next row and getting to know her seatmates. “He knows how to say ‘Baileys’ and ‘beautiful,’ ” she says of the Vietnamese man sitting across from her with his wife. As we talk, the host picks up the mic to point out a beaver dam and explain that beavers are attracted to water. “It’s educational too,” says Fehr. “We have an amazing country to see.”
We’re fed fancy snacks between meals and kept pretty well hydrated too. The bar opens at 10 a.m. “It’s 1 p.m. in Toronto so I’m okay,” Cofini quips. The staff is taught to “read the coach.” If people want to stick to themselves, they’ll stick to pointing out the Last Spike. But if passengers seem a little more lively, like our crew, the hosts will oblige and ham it up a bit.
We all shout when we see wildlife. Elk, osprey, eagles, bighorn sheep: We keep calling ’em as we see ’em. During lunch on the second day, a quiet Canadian sees a bear and we fly across the coach cheering like it’s a double overtime playoff goal. The sighting was over just as fast. A young woman from Florida got the best of the blurry shots on her iPhone.
She got some better pictures after lunch as the train approached the highest point on the trip (and the continent), the Continental Divide. As the host explains it’s the height at which rivers flow to the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other, the woman stands to take picture after picture. After a while, she puts her camera down and soaks up the view, saying: “Well done, Canada.”
As one of the Canadians on board, it was hard not to feel like our team had just won the cup.
Just the facts:
“Train legs:” About 30 per cent of passengers experience this sensation, like mild sea legs, when they get off the train.
Vancouver: The eastward trip on the Rocky Mountaineer kicks off with a couple of nights at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. If you’re on the westward trip, you’ll finish your journey at the “Castle in the City.” Either way, you’ll enjoy the long history and recent renovation at this landmark railway hotel.
Kamloops: This little city at the half way point has many charms. Take a stroll down the main drag to walk off your train legs and pop in at the Noble Pig Brewhouse (try the fried pickles), Terra Restaurant and Fireside Steakhouse before calling it a night at Hotel 540.
Banff: We wrapped up the journey with two nights at the famed Fairmont Hotel Banff Springs. The “Castle in the Rockies” was the vision of W.C. Van Horne, the head of the CPR. In 1886 he said with considerable foresight: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”