“Bear on the left!” a spotter calls out. The guests aboard the train scramble to the left, their eyes to the glass and cameras and cell phones in hand. Those down below on the landing between passenger cars stick their heads out, the wind whipping through their hair as they look for the elusive beast.
“There he is!”
It’s a black bear, sunning himself where the forest meets the railroad tracks, either unaware or uncaring of the 83-ton train passing him. We add him to our list: bighorn sheep, elk, eagles, osprey, and I’m certain I spotted a female moose meandering along the trees.
They’re all breathtaking sights for the passengers aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train, moving eastward 35 miles per hour along the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railways cut through mountain and cross over rivers on the train’s First Passage to the West route, a journey from bustling Vancouver to Kamloops, then finally Banff and Lake Louise.
You’ve probably seen the world by plane, by car. But what about a good old-fashioned iron horse?
Our adventure begins in the luxe Fairmont Vancouver, just steps away from the Vancouver Art Gallery and an easy walk to the waterfront. With an early train departure, we’re greeted at the Rocky Mountaineer station with coffee and a live pianist. As staff, dressed in navy blue vests and slacks, gently ushers us toward the train to board, a bagpiper sends us off into the wilderness.
The first floor is the dining room, where guests take turns indulging in cuisine that Chef Jean Pierre Guerin calls “elevated comfort food” for breakfast and lunch. Until your seating, have no fear: Servers load your tray with drinks, pastries and fruit.
But we’re not here for the food. We’re here for the views. On the Gold Leaf cars, riders have a 180-degree dome window overhead, where tree branches caress the glass like wayward curtains. The mountains crash into the clouds, sprinkled with trees and sugary snow. We pass logging towns, cross the Fraser River, spy strawberries, corn and blackberry bushes thriving in the meadows.
Standing in the open-air landing between cars, you can smell the earthy underforest, green leaves still drenched in morning dew, the thick wall of ponderosa pines. I can’t say how the sun and the wind have a smell, but from that landing, you could breathe it in.
The white heads of osprey and eagles dot the sky, decorating their treetop nests with orange fishing nets. You can spot the emerald flashes of ducks swimming. On the river, the beavers are the engineers, jamming up the waterways with their logs. We pass a bighorn sheep, nature’s Spider-Man, as it looks down at us while clinging precariously to the sides of jagged rock. Each time, spotters call out their discoveries.
“It’s a fun job,” Train Manager Peter Masejo tells me. “Every trip is so different…even a week ago it wasn’t as green, and the river is lower.”
With our feet propped up, watching Canada pass, one of the last sights before we arrive in Kamloops is the eerie Tranquille Sanatorium. It was originally built in 1907 to treat patients with tuberculosis, then converted into an “insane asylum” in 1959. It’s no wonder that this secluded white building, paint peeling, is rumored to be haunted.
Our first overnight stop is the “cow town” of Kamloops. Three men on horseback greet the Rocky Mountaineer into the station, waving and tipping their cowboy hats.
Chef Guerin invites our group to join him for dinner in town. I ask him, “Is it hard to cook on a train, with the cars rocking back and forth without mercy?” Non. A former airline chef aboard first-class flights, he says you can do so much more on a train.
“You can’t sauté and flambé in the air,” he explains.
A glass of red wine in hand, Guerin tells us about the ranch he owns an hour outside of town. He’s seen Kamloops, where the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways meet, grow from a supply town into a city of 90,000 people. At this busy hub—the city’s name is derived from the Shuswap First Nation word for “meeting of the waters”—people are on their way east to Banff or Jasper, or to the big city of Vancouver.
As indicated by the restaurants, there’s a large Japanese population in town, their ancestors were forcibly moved from Vancouver into internment camps nearby during World War II (not unlike what was happening across the border).
The next day is another trip on the rails. A few hours into the leg, we pass a source of pride for the railroad: Craigellachie, the memorial where the last spike was driven into the tracks, much like Utah’s famed Golden Spike. Take a second to look down, and there’s a story behind the scenery: the sweat, blood and dynamite that built the Canadian Pacific Railway.
After Canada became independent in 1867, the nation’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was determined to not let the western territories join the United States. He hatched a plan to connect the land from coast to coast, a huge feat requiring that his men survey millions of acres of Canadian wilderness.
Once a pass was found in 1881, the next four and a half years were a race to the Pacific. Railway workers battled blizzards, raging rivers, cliffs, rockslides, mishandled dynamite, hunger and disease. More than 10,000 Chinese men were brought in from California, earning less than half what their white colleagues were making.
In 1885, the Last Spike was smashed into the railroad, completing Canada’s first transcontinental railroad—six years ahead of schedule.
Banff & Lake Louise
On the second night of the trip, we arrive in the burgeoning tourist hub of Banff, a snowy playground where visitors ski, hike and escape to the hot springs. Here, the lakes are frozen over and the mountains are truly snow-capped.
After checking into the hotel, I wander the mountainside town and pop into local shops—I buy a wedge of bourbon chocolate at Mountain Chocolate, organic soaps and lotions at Rocky Mountain Soap Company, and a wooden bear ornament at The Spirit of Christmas. For dinner, we dine at Grizzly House, a wacky fondue restaurant serving up shark, alligator, rattlesnake, buffalo, venison and more. We follow dinner with a tour of Park Distillery and a tasting of its vodka and gin—be sure to try the spirits infused with espresso and vanilla.
But a trip to Banff without stopping at Lake Louise is a travesty. En route to the lake we make a stop on the side of the road to take in the grandeur of the Castle Mountains, named for their flat-topped peaks. While taking photos, a long, rumbling freight train goes by. I see trains differently now.
To access Lake Louise, we stop at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, an elegant hotel with floor-to-ceiling picture windows framing a postcard view of the lake set against the mountains. I learn it’s named for Princess Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, and I also learn it’s not an exaggeration to call the waters Tiffany blue. After taking a romp around the lake, grab a drink or lunch at the hotel’s picturesque Fairview restaurant or Lakeview Lounge.
Alas, my journey across the Canadian Rockies had to come to an end. Getting up before the sun rose, I took an airport van to Calgary, where I flew back to the United States and sunny South Florida.
After spending days on a locomotive, being rocked back and forth as I took in the sights and smells of the wild, I said goodbye to the mighty mountains.