The stage is set and our anticipation is high. However, the timing is less than perfect. It’s the Canadian late summer here and the wildfires in the north of British Columbia are the worst on record. The winds have pushed the smoke south. The air quality in Vancouver is poor and in Kamloops, our first stop, it will be worse. ‘Hazy’ is the word. There are 110 active fires in the area.
We arrive along with hundreds of others at about 7am at the Rocky Mountaineer terminal in Vancouver. It is a huge shed and the man at the grand piano belts out favourite tunes. People tap their feet and sing along. The souvenir stand displays products which can be purchased onboard. There is excitement as the Piper cranks up his bagpipes and leads the eager travellers onto the platform. The mix consists of 417 passengers and 57 crew. Some people head to the single deck Silverleaf class with limited vision and service. Some, including Jenny and I, head for the upper deck, to Goldleaf, with its dome glass cover, and by all accounts, great service and food.
Most of these train trips are taken by people on some sort of package deal. Either a train and land tour, or a train, land and cruise combo deal. It’s sometimes difficult to determine the actual component costs.
There are discounts available depending on when you are travelling, how far in advance you book and with whom you book – so do your research. We are paying A$3750 per person for the RM Goldleaf combined with a six-night Rockies land tour including accommodation, sightseeing, guide and transfers.
This only includes three breakfasts in the land component. Be mindful that, in some resorts, food costs can be rather high for ‘captive audiences’.
The Goldleaf cost per person is A$2450, and Silverleaf A$1800 (google). This includes one- night midway accommodation. The alternative is VIA rail Canada, which offers an overnight Sleeper Plus deal with meals for about A$500 per person.
There is a huge price difference, but if you want to be pampered, see the sights, and travel during daylight hours, then do yourself a favour and take the once-in-a-lifetime Rocky Mountaineer trip.
We will travel 900km in two stages, the first to Kamloops, with an overnight stay at a Rocky Mountaineer hotel. The next leg will be to Jasper, at the northern end of the Icefields Parkway Highway.
The leather ‘business class’ seats with heating, reclining, extension, lumber support and leg rests, are new and very comfortable. The seat pitch is no issue and stretching out is easy. It is a slow start and two hours later after a bit of shunting, we are outside Vancouver and into the already spectacular, albeit hazy scenery.
There are four staff and two chefs looking after our carriage of about 50 people during this trip. The food and beverages start, along with the excellent ongoing commentary. Hot scones as starters then two sittings for breakfast – gourmet style. As soon as the second sitting has finished breakfast, the first group is almost ready for lunch. And so it continues. The wines are excellent as is the service – continuous and professional. Light jazz plays in the background. This is good.
It gets better with another scrumptious meal for lunch. This time a three-course gourmet’s delight. The beverage service continues throughout the day and snacks are served accordingly. The train slows at most photo ops. Here’s a tip: if you want to limit window reflections, head downstairs to the outside area, that is if you have the energy to get out of your chair after your most strenuous time on board.
The landscape changes dramatically as we climb higher and move further away from the coast – from heavily treed, green and lush, to arid desert hills and rocky outcrops. We follow fast-flowing rivers for a large part of the journey. One such aquatic highlight is Hell’s Gate, where a cable tram operates above the rapids.
There is quite a lot of wildlife to see along the way, including beaver, bald eagles, deer and long-horn sheep. The smoke haze rating at Kamloops has doubled from seven to 13. We stay indoors at our hotel because of the poor air quality.
The Coast hotel is located on top of the hill on the outskirts of Kamloops, where we would usually have magnificent views of the town. But not tonight Josephine, there’s smoke in the air!
What about more food then? No need for dinner because of our gourmandising during the day. So, we just relax after our long day and enjoy a great sleep in the two super comfortable queen sized beds in our room.
The scenery after Kamloops changes again to more temperate land cover, with heavily wooded and mountainous landscapes. The haze clears as we follow the Thompson River towards Jasper. The views are much better as we climb higher into the Rockies.
More gourmet food, more nice wine, more excellent service and it’s now sunny with no haze. Can it get any better?
Yes. We see the stunning Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies at 12,790 feet, and gaze at other magnificent vistas as we weave our way through the ranges.
We reach Jasper by late afternoon. The autumn hues have started to appear on nearby hills and the low sun casts an eerie orange light. The balmy air feels good as we get off the train. We stop, look around, and reflect on two amazing days. It was expensive, but we reckon it has been an unforgettable experience, and yes, we think it has been the ride of a lifetime.