Somewhere in between our love-hate relationship with air travel and a budding affinity for luxury cruises patiently sits a once-beloved suitor, the train industry. A world that was once romanticized in movies like Murder on the Orient Express and Out of Africa almost has gotten lost in testosterone-fueled Mission: Impossible and Source Code scenes. Where’s a young Meryl Streep standing at a railing with an empty gaze when you need her?
Though more novel than necessary in much of North America — in the Northeast and Midwest sectors of the United States, as well as in parts of California, trains are still essential modes of transport — trains are picking up speed again.
Some of the credit for the renewed interest can go to Rocky Mountaineer, a train company that started as a service offered by VIA Rail in the 1980s. The brand was given a chance to spread its own wings once the Armstrong Group set out on its own in the early ’90s.
It has since grown into the largest privately owned tourist train company in the world by being comfortable in its own skin. Having sleek, amenity-filled trains take their time guiding travelers through some of Canada’s most picturesque country essentially sells itself.
Forbes Travel Guide editors climbed aboard Rocky Mountaineer to try one of its four scenic journeys, First Passage to the West, which chugs from Banff to Vancouver. Read on to see if the company is on the right track with its mission of making this underappreciated form of travel more popular while remaining posh.
Big Bang Theory’s locomotive-obsessed Sheldon Cooper would be in heaven with Rocky Mountaineer. The sleek beauty glides through Canada’s untouched wilderness at roughly 30 miles per hour. The train is so smooth that the only indications you’ll have that you’re actually moving are the mountains passing by.
After just a few minutes in motion, you’ll get why some people love this mode of travel. It’s relaxing. It’s reinvigorating. It’s wi-fi-free. While that last tidbit may be a deal-breaker for some, Rocky Mountaineer takes pride in helping you unplug.
The slightly older crowd that took up most of the seats on our trip seemed more than okay with it. We befriended a happy married couple from New Jersey. The husband said he was producer on Whitney Houston’s second album. They didn’t miss a beat without the internet.
You’ll notice that passenger cars are divided into two service categories — SilverLeaf and the slightly plusher GoldLeaf. The former is more than adequate (comfortable seats, generous legroom), but the latter is a bi-level dazzler with extra staff, a separate dining area and a domed ceiling, meaning the bald eagles soaring across the mountainside can be captured in all their glory.
If you really want to grab shots for your social media timeline, make your way to the outdoor viewing platforms in the rear of most cars. These decks afford an unobstructed look at the rolling hills, slinking rivers and roaming rams you’ll notice along the way. (If you want to see a lot of animals, though, you’ll need to go to the zoo. We didn’t see nearly the amount of wildlife in their natural habitats on the train as we thought we would.)
Patrons in both classes will appreciate the seats. Like your grandfather’s La-Z-Boy, the chairs recline enough for a deep nap. Pullout trays, storage compartments and power outlets ensure everything is always within reach. A spring 2019 renovation makes the experience even more comfortable with GoldLeaf cars equipped with 180-degree-turning seats and dimmable windows.
And what about sleeping quarters? That’s a fair question. Unlike VIA Rail or even Amtrak, Rocky Mountaineer doesn’t offer sleeping cars. Instead, it wants you to focus on the sightseeing by day — rides between stops range from 75 to well more than 300 miles — before getting off in different towns to retire for the evening. GoldLeaf customers will find that many stops include stays at renowned Fairmont hotel properties.
Upon exiting for the night, you’ll always notice signs pointing you in the right direction. Motor coaches and taxis back and forth to the train stations and hotels are a breeze. But should you ever get turned around, there’s more than enough staff to get you back on track.
Team members on the train are even friendlier. The storytelling about passing landmarks and remembering your daily drink orders are great, but the staff really earns its stripes with its nightly entertainment. Skits and comedy routines feel off the cuff. But because everything else is done with such precision, it wouldn’t surprise us to hear that the bits were choreographed.
Rocky Mountaineer is proud of its culinary team and for good reason — it’s quite good. Orchestrated by chefs Jean Pierre Guerin and Frédéric Couton, the meals are a tasty example of what Canada is all about. Mornings can revolve around blueberry pancakes doused in Canadian maple syrup while, at lunch, you can try a mushroom burger prepared with Alberta beef accompanied by house-cut fries (we saw cooks slicing the potatoes in the kitchen during a back-of-the-house tour).
Almost every plate we had over the four-day British Columbia jaunt had some aspect about it that was tastier than the previous sitting. And between meals, you’re showered in snacks and cocktails that put more smiles on your face — even when you aren’t hungry.
THE OVERNIGHT STOPS
First City: Banff
Like a backdrop for Northern Exposure, Banff wins you over with its craftsman-style buildings, massive pines and moose references all over the place. By the time you make the 120-mile drive to Banff from Calgary (the closest major airport), it’ll likely be the afternoon or early evening. That leaves you plenty of time to stop by your room at the cute Banff Royal Canadian Lodge and walk around the charming shops for trinkets.
When you need to refuel, make your way to Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar. This laid-back establishment impresses with wood-beamed ceilings, stone walls and a beautiful bar in the center of it all. Still, its essence is in its food. Everything we tried, from the crispy cauliflower to the fall-off-the-bone rotisserie chicken, had a hearty, wholesome feel. The cornbread with whisky butter would even put some of the spots in the Deep South to shame.
Second City: Kamloops
Kamloops is a blue-collar town that won’t wow you with its hotels or haute cuisine, but it will easily entertain you with an all-season calendar full of events. From the first of spring (when fly fishing is at its best) to the end of summer (when Music in the Park is in full blast), there’s something to keep you busy.
There’s also a Western Hockey League team, the Kamloops Blazers, playing much of the fall and winter. Its Sandman Centre home venue sits directly across the street from your Sandman Signature Kamloops Hotel room. If the Blazers have a game while you’re in town (the season runs from September through March), it may be worth a visit to capture locals in their happiest surroundings.
Final City: Vancouver
Rocky Mountaineer arguably saves the best stop for last. Your overnight address, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, is a recently renovated, 557-room downtown property that provides remarkable cuisine (the West Coast-focused Notch8), creativity (personalized toiletry labels) and a central location (Vancouver Art Gallery sits across the street).
If you have a free day to explore before your trip home, use the time to check out Grouse Mountain, an adventure-filled attraction some 4,100 feet above the city, or Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, a Douglas-fir-filled tourist magnet that’s highlighted by a swaying 230-foot bridge hovering over Capilano River.
Once you return to firm ground, there are a number of restaurants around town to try. The first is Black +Blue, a sexy steakhouse just a few minutes from your hotel room. It tempts with leather banquettes, matte gold embellishments and the jaw-dropping The Roof, a sophisticated alfresco spot serving skewered meats, dramatic fireplaces and unbelievable downtown vistas.
The other is Tap & Barrel, a brewhouse with a knack for mouthwatering burgers and wood-board pizzas. Among the three photogenic locations around town, we lean toward the flagship Shipyard in Northern Vancouver because it’s one of the few places we know that delivers cold pints, fried pickles and unobstructed views of the Burrard Inlet — yet another picture-perfect scene from a trip filled with them.