Aspen Times Weekly: A feast for the eyes, stomach and soul
I arrived before daybreak at the Rocky Mountaineer train station in Banff, Alberta, Canada. It was downright cold, as was to be expected in early morning in the mountains in late fall. Hundreds of people gathered inside the train station to warm up until finally, at the top of the hour, a light approached in the distance. With its bells ringing, a custom-designed navy blue, white and gold, bi-level train emerged through the morning mist. The Rocky Mountaineer had arrived to take us on a two-day journey through the Canadian Rockies.
Our trip was scheduled to follow the “First Passage to the West” route from Banff to Vancouver, along the historic Canadian Pacific track, known for connecting British Columbia to the rest of Canada more than 125 years ago. It would be 10 hours of travel each day (one night spent in the small city of Kamloops) with no wifi or cell service. I was cut-off from the outside world and was honestly panicked. Not only did I fear boredom, but I kind of figured, I live in the mountains, so how exciting and different could this really be from what I already knew and loved?
We settled into the oversized leather seats of the GoldLeaf-level and were quickly given warm hand towels, coffee and pastries to kick off the trip. Around us we met other couples, many of which whom already had experienced Rocky Mountaineer hospitality on previous trips and have returned again and again.
The glass domes of the Rocky Mountaineer are its signature, and they allow you jaw-dropping, panoramic views. Around every corner was a new surprise — craggy peaks, powerful waterfalls and wildlife, seemingly unaware of our passing. The rivers were a stunning turquoise blue, like Lake Louise in Banff, and the trees were at their peak of fall colors, dazzling with a vibrant mix of gold and red, contrasting with the blue sky and white, new fallen snow on the surrounding summits. Almost immediately I was ashamed to have thought that I would somehow be immune to the beauty. Of course, I was humbled.
Not long after we pulled out of Banff, we were escorted downstairs to the first floor where we met our waiter who cared for us for the entirety of the trip. Dining on the Rocky Mountaineer is an event, a throwback to the days of romantic train travel. In the GoldLeaf service dining room, food is prepared by Michelin-trained chefs, Jean-Pierre Guerin and Frederic Couton, who oversee a bustling galley kitchen staffed with more than 80 chefs. Breakfast included perfectly poached eggs over Canadian ham and buttermilk pancakes with berry preserves and topped, of course, with Canadian maple syrup. Later in the day, I enjoyed a lunch of fresh maple-cured wild Coho salmon from British Columbia, paired with regional wines.
Service was impeccable and friendly (Canadians!) with seasonal hosts and servers who are truly invested in hospitality, ready to share their knowledge of the area and offering tips on what was ahead on the trip.
After breakfast, the train passed over the Continental Divide at Kicking Horse Pass and through the Spiral Tunnels, which cuts into Cathedral Mountain and Mount Ogden, before descending to the Columbia River Valley. As landscapes changed so did the animals and colors. Our conductor would slow the cars and our cabin host would alert us to sightings of bear, sheep, elk, deer, otter and heron.
But Rocky Mountaineer is much more than just a sightseeing adventure — it’s an experience in pampering, and a practice in decompression. Instead of checking my email (which I would have done if there was wifi, I hate to admit), I spent the day talking with other passengers, reading and enjoying wine from the Okanagan valley. I also spent a lot of time on the outdoor vestibule, taking photographs and counting bald eagles (35!) as they dove into the rivers to feast on salmon that had returned to the bedrock from which they first spawned.
This trip is perfect for the photographer, for a multi-generational group of travelers, and for those who want to be in the mountains but perhaps physically can no longer make the hike or bike to access them. Through the passing of endless ponderosa pine, aspen and evergreens, I came to understand that while these mountains, rivers and landscapes may be timeless, the view just never gets old.
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