Mountaineering in Luxury: Canadian Rockies by Train
“Fifty Switzerlands in one” is how legendary British mountaineer Edward Whymper (conqueror of the Matterhorn) allegedly described the Canadian Rockies.
Whymper’s assessment is spot on – but Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer lavished me with added benefits: cozy nights at historic four-star hotels and gourmet meals and snacks.
Most important, though, were two days’ worth of panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies from the comfort of my double-decked Gold Leaf dome car.
My itinerary was the Canadian Rockies Highlights, running between Calgary and Vancouver. It’s one of more than 65 Rocky Mountaineer packages.
I spent my first night at Calgary’s luxurious Fairmont Palliser Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1914 as a way-station for weary travelers on their way to the remote Rockies.
After exploring Calgary, we boarded our coach to Lake Louise.
For some, bus tours conjure up visions of cramped, nausea-inducing drives that are light on photo opportunities and heavy on boredom. I’m thrilled to report this was NOT the case.
Never were we in the bus longer than 45 minutes at a stretch. And our entertaining guide made those stretches fly by.
The day’s highlights included a thrilling 12-minute helicopter ride over the edge of the Rockies, a ride on the Banff gondola, and stops at Lake Minnewanka and a platform overlooking the otherworldly rock spires called ‘hoodoos.’
The next night we spent at the stunningly aquamarine Lake Louise. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lake is picturesquely framed by the towering glaciers that feed it and give it its uncommon color.
Dozens of hiking trails crisscross the surrounding area, giving me an opportunity to stretch my legs.
One highlight of our afternoon coach tour was the Spiral Tunnels, a marvel of railway engineering. We also basked in the majesty of the natural rock bridge at Kicking Horse River before overnighting in Banff.
The next morning, we began our two-day adventure aboard the Rocky Mountaineer with a champagne toast by the train’s warm and professional on-board staff.
Within the hour, they invited us down to the car’s dining area, where we enjoyed a hot gourmet breakfast prepared on board. Eggs benedict, mozerella omelettes with smoked bacon, and roasted almond granola parfaits were among the menu choices.
As we finished our meal, a lucky few spotted a large black bear amidst the morning fog.
Back up top in the full-length dome, we enjoyed unparalleled views. We saw plenty of wildlife, including bald eagles, big horned sheep and caribou.
Our three dedicated hosts made sure we never went thirsty. The Rocky Mountaineer’s well-stocked bar includes top shelf liquors and spirits, local craft beers and regional wines (all included in the fare) as well as many nonalcoholic choices.
Our hosts entertained and educated us along our route. Highlights today included the Continental Divide, Kicking Horse Canyon, and Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven.
And although it was quite chilly outside, the Gold Leaf dome’s open-air viewing platform offered us an unmissable opportunity for photography. And it was great knowing that hot toddies, tea, and hot chocolate were waiting for us when it was time to thaw out! Many hours of comfortable Rockies sightseeing later, we arrived at our overnight destination of Kamloops.
The culinary team aboard the Rocky Mountaineer stayed, for the most part, out of sight. But our on-board meals in the first-level dining area were so impressive that the executive chef and his dedicated staff were never far from our minds.
An emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and regional cuisine fit perfectly with our surroundings.
The three-course lunch menu was completely different each day. It included entrée favorites like wild salmon with shaved fennel and roasted potato salad and Alberta beef short-ribs with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
And though the staff prefers to know about dietary restrictions ahead of time, they excel at “thinking on their feet.” They’ll bend over backwards to make your meal just as you like it.
Gluten free, vegetarian, and ‘light choice’ options came standard on the menu, but they’re eager to accommodate any preference or food allergy you have.
The second day aboard the train was every bit as exciting as the first. Dramatic changes in scenery unfolded outside our windows, as the desert-like environment around Kamloops gave way to mountains, river canyons, and fir forests dotted with the beautiful gold of changing larch trees (fir trees that ‘think they’re deciduous’: they lose their needles annually after turning a stunning shade of yellow).
The Coast and Cascade Mountains and the Thompson River afforded nonstop beauty, but the dizzying heights above Hell’s Gate — the narrowest portion of the Fraser River and an extreme obstacle to early river explorers and marine wildlife alike — was our favorite sight of the day.
Our bellies full of delicious food and our memory cards full of scenic images, we disembarked in Vancouver for one last hotel stay at the fabulous Fairmont Vancouver before returning home in the morning.
For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725. The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ curated list of Rocky Mountaineer itineraries is here.
We welcome Rachel Hardy to Track 25. Ms. Hardy, IRT’s sales & marketing associate & our newest employee, is a graduate of College of Charleston in political science, has traveled thousands of miles — from backpacking with a Eurail pass across Europe to luxury hotels in Rome and India. Her favorite recent travels include an adventure cruise in the Peruvian Amazon, “ice-hiking” in Chilean Patagonia, and a Micato safari in Kenya. Her first train trip was the Empire Builder, and she first rode the Rocky Mountaineer and Canadian when she was 8.