A train ride to remember


The Rocky Mountaineer crosses Ottertail Creek on the First Passage to the West route. The train runs from Vancouver to Banff, and vice versa. (Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer)

Story by Debra Smith Writer

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The sounds are gone. The clickety-clack of steel wheels, the squeal of brakes, the mysterious rattles below cars — these are the noises I was expecting. Surprisingly, all I hear is the murmur of conversation and a gentle whoosh of air as it rushes by the panoramic windows of my seat on the Rocky Mountaineer train.

My childhood vacations were spent on trains. My father was a chef on the Canadian National Railway and our family had a pass to travel anywhere in Canada that CN rail had track. On short trips we bounced along on bench seats that magically converted at night into sleeper berths. On longer trips, my mother and I would share a wood veneer-lined cabin fitted with a tiny steel sink, miniature reading lights and a fold-down table. I marvelled over every detail.  Everything was just my size.


Historic towns, abundant wildife and ever-changing scenery keep photographers busy onboard the Rocky Mountaineer train. (Debra Smith/

What a transformation the Rocky Mountaineer has created on the former VIA Rail Canada passenger route. Since 1990 more than 1.7 million guests have enjoyed the daylight run between Vancouver and Banff, via Kamloops and Lake Louise, on the route called “First Passage to the West.”

The line skirts mountainsides through pristine forests, skims along glacier-fed rivers and flashes past white thundering waterfalls. Instead of WiFi, there is real-time commentary on the history, geology, flora and fauna along the route, delivered by knowledgeable hosts. It is the best kind of digital detox. As Paul Theroux, that celebrated chronicler of trains, remarked about the Trans-Siberian, “This train is an occasion, not a subject … like an ocean liner.” The Rocky Mountaineer is Canada’s ocean liner of the rails, serene and luxurious with outstanding attention paid to every detail.

Just like on an ocean liner, levels of service can be customized. Rocky Mountaineer guests can choose from GoldLeaf or SilverLeaf, mix and match accommodations, and choose from dozens of additional side tours to create a unique, affordable experience. GoldLeaf guests usually choose to stay at Fairmont hotels. Conveniently for art lovers, the Vancouver Art Gallery is right across the street from the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

When I visited, the exhibit called Mashup: The Birth of Modern Culture was in full swing.  Every corner of the museum was filled with artworks of visual culture from the past 100 years, from Duchamp to DJ Spooky. 


For a change of pace from the rails, Rocky Mountaineer guests have the option of a day trip to take part in a sea safari adventure north Vancouver. Jetting across Howe Sound, visitors go in search of orcas. (Debra Smith/

The next day, our Rocky Mountaineer group headed out by motor coach for an optional trip to Sewell’s Marina in Horseshoe Bay. We laughed and struggled our way into bulky bright red ski suits like a bunch of oversized toddlers before boarding our Sea Safari zodiac. Zipping around the bay, we were happy spotting seals and sea birds until our captain was radioed about a rare orca sighting. He wheeled the zodiac around and we set off in pursuit. Our reward was the sight of a giant black fin cutting across the bay like a sail.

Read More About the Sea Safari Experience in Squamish

The next morning, boarding passes in hand, we set off for the converted historic locomotive repair barn that is now the modern timber-beamed Rocky Mountaineer Station. With a skirl of bagpipes and a communal shout of “All Aboard” we headed for the waiting cars. The bi-level GoldLeaf service cars are continually refurbished to a luxurious standard — they even have an elevator.

The bubble-topped Sceneramic car that I remembered has been replaced with overhead windows that run the length of the dome coaches. They’re a photographer’s dream. The deep, cozy seats have airplane-style trays on the back and they swivel around to accommodate card games or conversation.

As the train wound through the Fraser Valley that is to the east of Vancouver, our hosts made us comfortable with coffee and cookies, and stories of the early days of the trappers, settlers and First Nations people.  The train slowed as we passed Hell’s Gate, the narrowest point of the Fraser Canyon, so we could see the water bursting into foam. We settled into a pleasant routine of chatting, listening for points of interest, picture taking and, of course, breakfast and lunch service in the dining car below.

As a child, my biggest thrill was walking through the cars for meals. Mom and I staggered like sailors across the rocking platforms, the floor plates swivelling from side to side like the scales on an enormous dragon. I had to pull with all my might to open the heavy stainless steel and glass car doors. 

They closed behind us like bank vaults, leaving behind the jangles and screeches of the rolling cars and the relentless drumming of the engine. The dining car was a sea of calm after that adventure. 

On the Rocky Mountaineer, the dining car is located below the GoldLeaf dome coach and accessed by a small spiral staircase. Two to three chefs work like acrobats in a tiny 18-by-8-foot galley kitchen to create the west coast-inspired menu.

Freshly baked scones, full meals, cheese plates, desserts and snacks appear throughout the day for the 72 guests. In one year they will serve more than 4,500 dozen farm fresh eggs, 20,000 free-range chicken breasts, 45,000 pancakes, 22,000 beef short ribs and 450 kilograms of smoked salmon. 

“Have you ever worked in a place where everyone loves their work? This is that kind of place,” says J.P. Guerin, the executive chef.

When evening came we disembarked in Kamloops for our overnight stay.  The downtown area is small and walkable with two excellent local restaurants, Terra and Twisted Routes, and a burgeoning local wine scene.   

The next morning, we boarded for Banff and the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, passing Craigellachie, where the famous Last Spike was driven in 1885, through Rogers Pass and the Spiral Tunnels before crossing over the Continental Divide. For lovers of train travel this stretch of track is unparalleled. As one guest that I spoke to said, “I’m ready to do it all over again.” Next time I won’t wait so long.


Ticket Cost: A two-day trip from Vancouver to Lake Louise and Banff (or vice versa) on the First Passage to the West route costs $1,699 (SilverLeaf) or $2,299 (GoldLeaf) for travel in July.
Reservations: Telephone 1-888-619-5412 (toll free) or visit the company’s website.

Debra Smith is a freelance travel writer, editor and photographer living in Calgary, Alberta. From festivals to fantasy vacations; from luxury hotels to camping trips; historical sites, galleries, museums; fine dining and hotel reviews, she covers them all. Look for her latest stories in WestJet Magazine; AAA's Home & Away, and major Canadian newspapers. She is a member of TMAC, the Travel Media Association of Canada and NATJA, the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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