Canada's Rocky Mountaineer: Is this the world's greatest train journey?
Jillian Bolger boards Rocky Mountaineer, following the route of early pioneers from Banff to British Columbia in Canada
The hit of pine is intoxicating. Filling my lungs, the fresh menthol sap turns me giddy. Over the railing, forests scud past, a hypnotic line of evergreens, pure and wild.
I turn my face skywards to watch a bald eagle circling on the currents. The mountain air whips my hair and the only sound for miles around is the rhythmic clack of steel on steel. It's rail travel, but not as we know it.
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We're aboard Rocky Mountaineer, following the route of early pioneers who traversed Canada hoping to make these lands their home. Explorers, opportunists and gold-rush dreamers all came this way, along with thousands of labourers who toiled to lay these tracks on virgin soil, creating the legendary transcontinental railroad. Connecting Pacific Canada with the East, the Pacific Express made its maiden voyage in 1885, a 139-hour journey from Montreal to Port Moody, British Columbia.
I'm here for a significantly luxed-up and scaled-down version of events - the hit of pine comes on the open-air viewing platform, and I greedily inhale the scent. On a two-day journey from Banff National Park to Vancouver, I've joined international travellers on a two-storey rail carriage aboard one of the world's most famous trains. Rocky Mountaineer, the busiest private passenger rail service in North America, first began in 1990, opening up Canada's Rocky Mountains to those who craved the great outdoors (with zero requirement to actually go outdoors).
Greeted by liveried staff and a red carpet, we settle into heated leather seats up top of Rocky Mountaineer's glass-roofed domed carriage. Each large seat has an adjustable footrest and reclines, rotating fully to allow you to sit in groups of four, should you wish. Comfort levels are high, with plenty of leg room and good-sized tables. Each carriage has several dedicated hosts who run the gamut of storytellers, historians, wildlife experts, bar staff, comedians and brand ambassadors, too.
"Bears are pescetarians," as one friendly host reassures us on the first morning. "They don't want to eat us and will only attack humans if you threaten their terrain."
My journey starts in the resort town of Banff, dusted overnight with the season's first snow. Boarding the train, we'll move from the winter wonderland of Banff National Park through the Canadian Rockies, crossing from Alberta to British Columbia and breaking for the night before following along the fertile Fraser Valley to Vancouver.
All around, towering peaks encircle the rugged terrain, giving way to valley after valley, lake after lake. Skeins of rivers weave their way down the slopes like runaway tapestry threads, life-giving for centuries to Canada's First Nations people. White-water rapids tumble downhill, carving deep gullies into the granite slopes. In this part of the world, everything seems taller and wider and deeper. Our itinerary, the evocatively named 'First Passage to the West', perfectly mirrors the pioneers' intrepid footsteps.
From the train, we see only beauty, yet place names reveal a different world of adventure and folly: Surprise Creek, Jaws of Death Gorge, Hell's Gate - the narrowest part of the Fraser River, where up to 750 million litres of water thunder through a 110-foot gorge every minute - and Avalanche Alley. All recall the dangers experienced by the men who mapped this route in the 1800s. Impossibly wild and isolated, there are moments when I expect to see a posse of horsemen riding over the brow of a hill.
If the nature is overwhelming in its scale, the history is equally attention-grabbing. We learn of engineering feats and failures as we pass precipitous ledges and dramatic rail bridges. We hear of migration and missed opportunities as we pass ghost towns and the relics of the great gold rush. We learn social histories, such as the fate of abandoned Walhachin, the once-wealthy town where it's believed British settlers were lured by the deception of apples tied to trees to give the appearance of fertility.
On our first day, we travel 309 miles through snowy peaks and icy valleys before the white fades to a palette of evergreens. Shades of emerald and olive, forest and fir, moss and myrtle pulse from the forests. In between, a panorama of jade rivers, slate mountains, aqua lakes and milky waterfalls dazzles. We pass through Cathedral Mountain's Spiral Tunnels, across Yoho National Park and alongside the sparkling waters of Shuswap Lakes. Our journey breaks in Kamloops, a non-descript town known as the Tournament Capital of Canada. While it may hold 100 sporting tournaments a year, it proves an underwhelming pit-stop after this superlative scenery.
Here, we're transferred with military precision to our hotel for the night, luggage awaiting in our rooms when we check-in. Rocky Mountaineer only travels in daylight - there is no sleeping on board. Returning bright and early next day to the impressive navy blue train, we're off again, on a 285-mile trip that will take us through wide open countryside to the heart of downtown Vancouver.
On board, fine dining is the order of the day. The lower level of GoldLeaf carriages contain a swanky dining car with à la carte service and carriages are fed in two sittings: those who dine first on day one are served second on day two. If you're second, you'll be served snacks in your seat - cinnamon-scented scones and coffee at breakfast, perhaps, while you wait. A bar service operates throughout the day, with everything from wine, beers and juices to Bloody Marys served at your seat. In the more affordable, single-storey SilverLeaf, guests dine in their seats, with seatback tables that fold up afterwards. Menu choices are shorter, but the food is the same, excellent quality.
GoldLeaf brings more benefits - including a large viewing platform at the back of each carriage where I love to spend time in solitude. It's a thrilling place to hang out, take photos and get high on the forest fragrance, and proves a fun spot to meet fellow passengers too.
"We're on our way to get married in Bora Bora," one young Irish couple tells me, before revealing that the wedding dress is on board. "He wanted snow, I wanted sun: we couldn't agree on where to honeymoon, so we decided on both places!" The age profile is wider than I expected.
As we pass through the green Fraser Valley, thoughts turn to the indigenous people who once fished for migratiung salmon here in summertime heat. Picking up speed towards Vancouver, I look back at the majestic line of carriages snaking along the tracks behind us.
"We didn't see any bears," a German traveller remarks.
"True!" I nod, though I can't say I even noticed. Rocky Mountaineer is trip-of-a-lifetime stuff, and no paucity of bears is going to lessen that thrill.
Jillian travelled as a guest of the Rocky Mountaineer, which offers four trips through British Columbia and Alberta, along with over 30 different rail packages, including the option to add on an Alaskan cruise.
First Passage to the West Classic GoldLeaf Class with three nights of luxury accommodation and two days onboard costs from €2,001pp. See 2020.rockymountaineer.com
Air Canada flies direct from Dublin to Calgary and Vancouver. aircanada.com
What to pack
The train is warm and comfy, with heated seats in GoldLeaf. Pack hats, scarves and sunglasses for the viewing platform. There's no dress code but travellers tend to wear comfy smart-casual clothes: loose trousers, layers and flat shoes. Off the train, expect cool nights and snow from autumn to spring.
Depending on the route and direction you travel, you’ll arrive at your destination from late afternoon to early evening. While Rocky Mountaineer is given priority on the train tracks it uses, occasional delays can occur. For that reason, it’s recommended that you book accommodation in your arrival destination, and avoid arranging connecting transportation, including flights, on this day. With advance notice, Rocky Mountaineer can arrange airport transfers and additional hotel nights and tour options at the start or end of your rail journey.