There is something about a train that sets it apart from all other modes of transportation: that unique combination of laid-back relaxation and visual stimulation as the wheels clatter beneath your feet and the world glides by outside your window.
Having grown up during the golden era of American train travel -- riding on the City of Los Angeles, the Super Chief, the Daylight and the Twentieth Century Limited -- trains and train travel are in my blood.
Last summer, I journeyed from Chicago across the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras on the California Zephyr. This summer I reversed direction and fulfilled a dream of traveling from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Banff, Alberta, aboard one of the most remarkable trains in the
This upscale tour train's history dates back to 1990, when Canada drastically cut its heavily subsidized national railroad, VIA, and privatized its daylight tourist service. That's when the Great Canadian Railtour Co. (owner of Rocky Mountaineer Vacations) was awarded the right to operate the routes and purchase VIA's rail equipment.
Five years later, the company introduced its luxury Rocky Mountaineer Gold Leaf service, featuring double-decker, vistadome-style coaches complete with galleys, elegant dining rooms and open-air observation platforms.
Operated as a tour rather than a traditional journey from point A to point B, the Rocky Mountaineer travels only during the day in order to maximize
You can also expect to encounter wildlife such as bighorn sheep, nesting ospreys and, in our case, one very inquisitive bald eagle that cruised alongside the train for the better part of a mile.
There is, however, a discernible difference between the Rocky Mountaineer's two levels of service. Red Leaf (economy) passengers travel in old-style VIA single-level coach cars that were built in the 1950 s, and they dine on considerably more modest food. Gold Leaf passengers dine in luxury, savoring finely prepared meals featuring fresh baked goods and seasonal specialties. (All meals are included in the fare for both classes of service).
The food is delicious and the dome cars are quite comfortable. But the really great feature of these Gold Leaf cars are the open-air vestibules which add a sense of zest to the journey that no hermetically sealed train car can offer. To lean out and feel the wind rushing against your face as the train hurtles along is an amazing experience. The surprising thing on our trip
The Rocky Mountaineer follows the historic route of the original Canadian Pacific Railroad, which was completed in 1885. After leaving Vancouver, it follows the Fraser Valley. It then climbs through the Cascades, the Columbia Mountains and the Rockies, where it crosses the Continental Divide at Kicking Horse Pass.
This part of the journey is famous for its "spiral tunnels." Carved from solid rock, these unusual tunnels, whose construction began in 1907, represent an engineering feat comparable to the challenges faced by the Southern Pacific Railroad as it crossed the Sierras.
Throughout the trip the
The halfway point of the trip is the booming crossroads town of Kamloops, where we disembarked and were transported (by an exceedingly chatty bus driver) to modest, motel-style accommodations. The next morning, at the all-too-early hour of 6:30, it was time to get back on the train for the second half of the trip.
Day 1, while strikingly beautiful, is like coming attractions compared with the
There is, however, one significant disadvantage of traveling on the Rocky Mountaineer: a lack of privacy. With assigned seats and no sleeper cars or roomettes, there's nowhere you can go to go to be alone and cozy up in peace. This rules out one of the more romantic aspects of train travel.
Without question, the Rocky Mountaineer is an extravagant way to travel. Top price for the four-day Gold Leaf package during high season (May 31-Sept. 29) is $2,519 per person, based on double occupancy. This includes two days of train travel, two breakfasts and lunches, luxury hotel accommodation in Vancouver and Banff (including dinner), rail transfers, luggage handling and a one-day national parks pass.
Red Leaf service for the same time period is $1,199. It is also possible to purchase rail-only tickets.
Prices decline somewhat between Oct. 2 and Oct. 16, at which time the regular season ends. But for those who wish to see the mountains in snow, the Rocky Mountaineer operates a few special winter trains in December.
But if you really love traveling by train, have always wanted to see the Canadian Rockies and have the money to spend, the Rocky Mountaineer provides an experience you will never forget.
IF YOU GO
THE TRAIN: The Rocky Mountaineer operates from April 3 through Oct. 14 between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Calgary, Alberta. Special winter trains will be offered Dec. 18 and 26 (from Vancouver) and Dec. 14 and 22 (from Calgary). Trains taking the historic Kicking Horse Pass Route depart from Vancouver at 7:30 a.m. and arrive in Kamloops, British Columbia, at 5:35 p.m., at which time passengers disembark and stay overnight. Reboarding takes place at 6:30 a.m., with arrival in Banff, Alberta, at 7 p.m. The total distance of that journey is just under 600 miles.
PACKAGES: A wide variety of packages are available, including rail-cruise combinations. The most popular four-night package includes pre- and post-trip hotel accommodations in Vancouver and Banff. Rail-only packages are also available. Two grades of service are offered, Red Leaf (economy) and Gold Leaf (deluxe).
COSTS: Prices vary with the season. Four-night packages from May 31 to Sept. 29 cost $1,199 for Red Leaf accommodations (per person, double occupancy), $2,239 for Gold Leaf. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 13, Red Leaf is $969 Red Leaf, Gold Leaf is $1,959. Rail only from June 1 to Sept. 30 is $809 for Red Leaf, $1,799 for Gold Leaf; from Oct. 2 to Oct. 16, $759 for Red Leaf, $1,649 for Gold Leaf.
INFORMATION:www.rockymountaineer.com; (800) 665-7245.
BEFORE AND AFTER YOUR RAIL TRIP: GRANVILLE MARKET, MORAINE LAKE
Before you climb aboard the Rocky Mountaineer for your trip across the Canadian Rockies, plan to spend some time exploring the bustling seaport town of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Like San Francisco and Seattle, Vancouver is a city of bays, inlets and busy waterways where cruise ships, fishing boats, pleasure craft and float planes compete for the right of way.
If your time is limited, there is one destination that ranks as a must-see: Granville Island and the Granville Island Market. During warm summer months, the island becomes a popular gathering place. Al fresco dining is the order of the day and the marketplace abounds with the fruits, berries and seafood of the season.
The variety, quantity and quality, as well as the way it's all displayed, is eye-popping and mouth-watering. You'll find blueberries the size of grapes, and luscious, ripe blackberries and gooseberries selling for a fraction of what they cost in our local markets.
The small island, located on False Creek, also features theaters, artists' galleries, studios and a cadre of street performers. Plan to take one of the little jitney-style water taxis to get there.
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If your train trip ends in Banff, Alberta, spend a day exploring the Western-style town, which is much like Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Durango, Colo., or Telluride, Colo. Discover the rainbow hues of Alberta's native organic gemstone -- ammolite, made from the fossilized remains of prehistoric shellfish.
Have a wonderful lunch at the Maple Leaf Grill & Lounge (on Banff Avenue) and pay a visit to the stately Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel -- especially if you are a golfer.
Banff is fun, in a touristy sort of way. But if you want to escape to the most romantic hideaway imaginable, rent a car and drive 40 miles west on the Trans-Canada Highway to Moraine Lake and the Moraine Lake Lodge.
Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, this gem-like lake -- the color of turquoise -- is one of the most beautiful in all of Canada. So beautiful, in fact, it's represented on the country's $20 bill.
Much less crowded than its popular neighbor, Lake Louise, Moraine Lake nevertheless gets its share of hikers, canoers and sightseers during the day. But at night, the lake and its shoreline belong to those lucky enough to be staying at the Moraine Lake Lodge.
The historic hostelry offers a perfect balance of rough-hewn charm and modern amenities, gourmet dining and quick food for the trail. Don't look for a television or a phone in your room.
The Moraine Lake Lodge also offers a number of commodious cabins. With their luxurious appointments -- including wood-burning fireplaces, large picture windows and decks -- they offer the perfect romantic atmosphere. Think honeymoon!
The lodge, which is reached by two-lane mountain road, opens June 1 and closes for the winter Oct. 4. Room rates vary during the season. Lodge rooms begin at $339, cabins at $389. At the height of the season (July 1 to Aug. 26), rates rise to $409 and $499. Deluxe cabins and suites are also available.
-- www.morainelake.com; (877) 522-2777.
-- Jim Farber