Travel Edition 2019: Canadian Rockies
When someone says, “I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” you don’t take it literally. I didn’t, until I found myself staring at what sure looked like something out of a dream. Canada’s stunning city of Vancouver is already dream-like, with the sea on one side and towering mountains on another. Now, right in front of me, elegant blue and gold coaches sat on rails that held the promise of adventure just beyond the Coast Mountains to the east. Suddenly, the skirl of a bagpipe filled the air, and, you guessed it, I was pinching myself!
And why not? It was hard to imagine I was about to embark on a rail journey that has been named the “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train” not once but seven times at the World Travel Awards. With luxurious distinction, Rocky Mountaineer rolls through some of the world’s most jaw-dropping scenery, climbing from the coast of British Columbia to the Canadian Rockies.
I could feel a surge of excitement among my fellow passengers as we waited to board the train, as well as a sense that we were a privileged few. There were no crowds of frantic people scrambling to catch trains bound for Sacramento or Saskatoon. Originally, Rocky Mountaineer Station was a locomotive repair shed. After an extensive renovation, it opened as a train station in 2005, reserved exclusively for passengers on the trains of Rocky Mountaineer Rail Tours. As we pulled out of the station, employees on the platform waved goodbye as if we were family members departing on a long and arduous journey. I settled into a heated leather reclining seat for an adventure into GoldLeaf service aboard Rocky Mountaineer.
Culinary creations from Rocky Mountaineer’s kitchen are made fresh with ingredients from the fields, farms and streams of western Canada. Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer
GoldLeaf is the premium option for the two-day trip to Banff, Alberta. It’s a more expensive tier of service, and some people wonder why you would pay more for the same scenery. Well, the scenery may be the same, but “going for the Gold” literally adds another level to the experience. GoldLeaf coaches are double-deckers. Downstairs is a 36-seat restaurant. Upstairs, via a spiral staircase or a wheelchair-accessible lift, the great outdoors almost come indoors through the massive windows that arch from the floor all the way across the ceiling. I could look straight up at the mountains, the clouds and even eagles flying overhead. The mood was convivial, and the scenery came alive through the storytelling skills of hosts on each coach. They delivered desperados, avalanches, incredible feats of engineering and colorful characters from the past, all as they served up a merlot from the Rocky Mountaineer’s own label.
I wondered how anything to come could rival the scenery, the lively conversation and the incredible service that I’d experienced so far. Then I went downstairs to the dining room. I’ve eaten at five-star and Michelin-rated restaurants on many continents and I was amazed at the creations that came from Rocky Mountaineer’s kitchen. For breakfast, freshly baked croissants and scones, sourdough flapjacks, a Canadian cheddar soufflé, and so many more choices, all made fresh with ingredients from the fields, farms and streams of western Canada. For lunch, Fraser Valley chicken, roasted vegetable ravioli, seared albacore tuna or a slow roasted pork loin, accompanied by local market vegetables, the chef’s dessert creation and a choice of the Rocky Mountaineer label red or white wine from British Columbia vineyards. The linen was crisp, the silverware sparkled, and the china gleamed. They’ve even got a cookbook featuring the favorite recipes of their chefs if you want to try your luck at home.
Save the best for last
Okay, how do they top this, I asked? I found out after a night’s hotel stay at the midpoint of the journey. Day 2 checks off my “wow factor” box as the Rocky Mountaineer glides into the Canadian Rockies that form the boundary between British Columbia and Alberta. Soaring peaks and hanging glaciers tinged with blue, cascading waterfalls, rugged canyons, jewel-like lakes and wildlife watching opportunities. You can take Rocky Mountaineer from west to east or vice versa, but for my money, the sheer magnitude of the spectacular vistas of Banff National Park saves the best for last, so I always recommend the west to east journey that leaves from Vancouver.
Rocky Mountaineer has a way to make you feel like you’re not just looking at the scenery, but that you’re part of it. GoldLeaf service includes access to what they call an open-air vestibule. It’s a viewing platform that can accommodate about a dozen people. When the weather is nice, it’s a popular spot for passengers to just hang out and relax. I knew it was a great place to take photos, but what really hit me was the feeling of fresh air, the smell of the forest and the hypnotic rhythm of the rails. The adrenaline flowed right up until Rocky Mountaineer pulled into the station in Banff.
A dream come true
A journey aboard Rocky Mountaineer is a special experience that lends itself to special occasions. I truly get excited when I think about making such a dream trip come true for someone else. I booked a couple on the train for their 25th wedding anniversary. When they got back from their trip, they told me that as they were waiting to board the train in Vancouver, they heard their names called from the podium. They were congratulated and informed that they represented passenger number 2 million on the line. As such, they were being upgraded to GoldLeaf service for the journey ahead. I think I was almost as excited to hear about it as they were. I now feel like I’m part of the rich history and lore that Rocky Mountaineer brings to life. I asked someone from Rocky Mountaineer Rail Tours how long it might take to get to passenger number 3 million. I would love to be the one to help someone be that passenger.
AAA Colorado is hosting the 2019 President’s Trip aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train. Join AAA Colorado President and CEO Linda Cavanagh on this 9-night Canadian Rockies Journey featuring GoldLeaf service, tickets to the Calgary Stampede, a helicopter ride in Banff, and more. For details, contact your local AAA Colorado Travel Agent at any of our retail locations.