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Fyllis: Canadian Rockies by Rail

the Rocky Mountaineer making its way beside a stream with the Canadian Rockies in the background
Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

Traveling the Canadian Rockies
In Style: Scenery, Service and Savory Cuisine

By Fyllis Hockman

t has all the markings of a five-star hotel – impeccable service, remarkable attention to detail, gourmet food and presentation, incomparable views – but this vacation getaway is hurtling across the Canadian Rockies on train tracks. Welcome aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, traveling from Vancouver to Banff/Calgary and trying very hard to live up to its self-proclaimed designation as “the most spectacular train trip in the world.” I'll go with certainly one of.

another Rocky Mouintaineer train on an early fall trip
Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

There I was, comfortably seated, head back, Bloody Mary in hand, staring through dome-high windows at scenery changing from farmland to lake country, bountiful forests to semi-arid land, deep ravines to towering mountains. I knew then that the books I had brought along for entertainment would never be opened.

lady attendant aboard a Rocky Mountaineer train giving a commentary
Photo courtesy of Victor Block

The two attendants servicing our car, one of about 20 snaking through the countryside, start the first morning off with Champagne and OJ, setting the bar (so to speak) for the rest of the journey. As we toast to scenic vistas and making new friends, attendant Ron proffers Nicorette gum to smokers to ease the trauma of having to do without all day. First impressive attention to detail.

The attendants on board provide colorful and informative commentary during the two-day daylight journey (there’s an overnight stay midway through in Kamloops) on the history, ecology, wildlife and significance of what you’re seeing, most of which, according to Ron, is actually factual. Interpersonal bantering and occasional bad jokes add to the local color.

Lisa Wood and John Bailey from Worcester, England were “very impressed with the knowledge of the attendants. We tried to stump the commentators, but haven’t been able to.” Added Lisa: “There’s something so romantic about the railway -- it held the country together.” Which was literally true of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, upon whose tracks the Rocky Mountaineer rode. CPR, Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, was completed in late 1885. But the motivation to build it impacted our country as well. When Canada became independent in 1867, it consisted of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. To ensure that what remained of the territory did not become part of the U.S., then Prime Minister John Macdonald proposed a railroad connecting the continent. That persuaded potentially fickle British Columbia to join the confederation in 1871 – thereby “holding” the country together.

Let’s be very clear. Meals are important on the Rocky Mountaineer, especially if you’re in the upgraded GoldLeaf service (more on that later). Hot breakfast and lunch, served in the first-level dining room, are accompanied by fine linens and fresh flowers.

snacks being served to passengers aboard the GoldLeaf service

smoked salmon breakfast meal on the GoldFeaf service section
Photos courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

The choice of gourmet offerings, as appealing to the eye as the scenery out the window, might include a Wild British Columbia Sockeye Salmon served over a bed of warm local vegetables and tender nugget potatoes, finished with fennel slaw, smoked sea salt and old-fashioned mustard vinaigrette. Or perhaps a slow-cooked Alberta short ribs served with garlic whipped potatoes and seasonal vegetables. A selection of fine wines to accompany the palate-pleasing menu are a given.

“I’ve traveled all over and never encountered this level of service before,” gushed Carl Ricketts from New Orleans. “From the pre-planning to all the explanations to the transport at Kamloops – all so smoothly maneuvered from beginning to end. Not to mention the quality of the food and its presentation.”

During periodic “photo ops,” the train slows to “Kodak speed” – although, I suspect, digital cameras are making that particular reference more and more obsolete. With a wildlife spotting, the word travels the length of the train, and you hope the bison, bear, elk, big-horn sheep or eagle is still there by the time your car arrives at the area of sighting.

The most spectacular scenery reveals itself during the second day. In the middle of lunch, the loudspeaker announced “photo op on the right”; conversation and chewing stopped as everyone lurched to one side to catch a glimpse of your everyday rushing rivulet prancing over rocks though a valley of wildflowers beneath a backdrop of mountains. Oh, that again. A chorus of oohs and ahhs ensued before chomping commenced once again.

view of stream by a hillside from inside Rocky Mountaineer train
Photo courtesy of Victor Block

Be sure to visit the vestibule between railcars to get a much more exquisite -– and personal -- view of the scenic drama unfolding in front of you. The rumbling of the train, the crispness of the air, the immediacy of the mountains make for a far more tangible immersion in the experience.

As Alison Michaelson, from the Channel Islands in England, observed from her vestibule vantage point: “All the senses come together. I can feel the train moving below, listen to the rush of movement and feel the wind against my cheek. It is so much more exciting than sitting at my seat.”

The on-board newspaper -– printed in English, French, Japanese and German –- provides a fascinating alternative should the views outside the windows start seeming redundant. Full of maps, routes, history, anecdotes, photo suggestions and more, it’s like a Rocky Mountaineer primer that parallels the trip – and the history of the railways – mile by mile.

scenic picture of lake and hillside taken from inside a Rocky Mountaineer train
Photo courtesy of Victor Block

Whether you’re reading – or talking or watching – if it’s more than two hours since you last ate, chances are good you’ll be offered some wine and cheese, or perhaps some home-made cookies to tide you over until the next meal. Attention-to-detail option #327.

Such is one of the differences between the GoldLeaf Service and the less-pricey RedLeaf version: there, the cookies are packaged. But there are other more significant differences. The visual expanse of the dome car is replaced with large side windows that stop short of reaching overhead.

The gourmet meals `a table are relegated instead to continental breakfast and a pair of luncheon entrée choices served at your seat. And the open bar now costs $6 a drink. However, the on-going commentary stays the same, and the views outside the windows remain constant for both tiers of service.

And attention-to-detail #328? When stopping at a hotel in Kamloops for the night, passengers receive their keys to the rooms before disembarking so they don’t have to wait on line to check in. And the luggage awaits them in their room. Would that be #328 AND 329?

“The usual expectations of a train is that it takes you from Point A to Point B,” says Guest Services Manager, Shauna Hetherington, who’s been traveling the rails for 6 years. “What happens in between is the adventure. It’s not only the constantly changing views that bring excitement.”

And then she proceeds to tell the story of the past summer when the train all of a sudden slowed down, “because of all things” there was a bull on the tracks, slowly making its way westward. Given little choice, the train followed for 20 minutes. “The crew used Super Soakers to try to move it out of the way, and then we chased it with mops and brooms.”

Apparently, the bull protested but it remained unmoved -- literally. When the trainsfolk got too pushy, the bull reared up –- causing the employees to drop everything and make a quick retreat. The bull finally wearied of toying with the train, and wandered away under its own steam, so to speak. Nine-hundred passengers waved goodbye. Not too many of them are going to forget their trip aboard the Rocky Mountaineer!

view of tree-lined stream from Rocky Mountaineer train
Photo courtesy of Victor Block

Okay, I didn’t see any bulls along the way -– or any other wildlife, for that matter -– but I did see turquoise glacial waters, waterfalls tumbling down mountainsides, snow-capped peaks rising overhead, my head straining skyward to view them, towering trees in greens and reds and yellows, and rivers and ravines and ravishing vistas.

And I dined as well as at a Michelin 3-Star restaurant, conversed with interesting co-travelers from around the world, and was entertained and educated for two-days as if attending something between a history seminar and a comedy club.

view of the SilverLeaf service section
Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

New for 2012, Rocky Mountaineer has launched their SilverLeaf service, a single-level glass-domed coach offering hot breakfasts and lunches served seat-side. It’s a panoramic-viewing middle ground between Gold- and Red-Leaf options.

Prices for the 2-day train trip from Vancouver to Banff or Jasper, which runs mid-April to mid-October, including overnight accommodations in Kamloops are $789-$979, per person, RedLeaf Service and $1589-$1769, GoldLeaf Service, depending upon time of year; Vancouver to Calgary, $899-$1089, RedLeaf Service and $1739-$1919, GoldLeaf Service. Options for sightseeing at both ends are also available. Prices for the SilverLeaf Service have yet to be announced.

As I said, welcome aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. For more information contact Rocky Mountaineer Vacations (www.rockymountaineer.com) at 800/665-7245.

Related Articles:
Train Travel Through the Canadian Rockies; Western Canada by VIA Rail, Nova Scotia in 4 Days; Vancouver, British Columbia; Victoria on a Whim; Whistler, British Columbia; Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada

(Posted 7-30-2011)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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