Why Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer is still one of the world’s great train journeys

Travelling Well | Story: Catherine Best | Photos: Rocky Mountaineer | Posted on 02 December 2019

Experience the ride of your life onboard Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer railway.

It’s bad manners to leave a meal unfinished, abandoning a delicious forkful of pork with onion fondue to nip outside into a blast of cold air. But this panorama is too wondrous to view from an indoor bubble. Balconies of ice hang from rock ledges, pine needles bend under a meringue of snow, and spring snowmelt trickles and gushes from cracks and gullies. The train slows, groaning as it climbs and curves over a bridge, a torrent foaming far beneath the rails. Soon it’s gone, replaced by a teal tongue of water cinched between track and tree, a cathedral of mountains looming ahead.

Sit back, switch off and let Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer make one of the world’s great train journeys your destination. 

Lunch can wait. There’s no hurry. This is the Rocky Mountaineer, one of the world’s great train journeys and a delightful bastion of slow travel. Carving a scenic corridor through Western Canada’s most dramatic landscapes for almost 30 years, the Rocky is an immersive, all-senses experience that encourages passengers to sit back, switch off – physically and metaphorically – and surrender to the hypnotic rhythm of the train. It’s 957 kilometres of therapy on rails.

Slow travel is a thing. The trend is gaining steam as travellers rebel against 12-countries-in-24-days sightseeing jaunts that leave them needing a holiday to recover from their holiday. “It’s a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better,” says the godfather of the ‘slow movement’, Carl Honore. “We are obsessed with the destination and have lost the art of enjoying the journey.” 

The Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West journey from Vancouver to Banff begins with a fanfare send-off: bagpipes, red carpet, the tootle of a train whistle and an energetic “all aboard”, before sparkly-eyed passengers do just that. Soon we’re easing out of the station, rooftops recede into velvety green pastures and forest, drinks are served and there’s a toast: “To new friends, new experiences and a wonderful two-day journey”. Amen.

Sun streams through the carriage’s glass-domed canopy and a flipbook of images – treetops, sky, overpass – flickers through the roof in a strobe effect. It will be 12 hours before we pull into Kamloops for the night. Tomorrow’s journey is 13 hours.  

Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer

They’re long days that would normally have travel-weary commuters reaching for a book, iPad, phone, pillow – any form of distraction. But not on this journey. 

I’ve adopted Carl Honore’s philosophy of “savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them”. I’ve disconnected from my devices (there’s blessed little reception and no wifi), and am involuntarily practising the kind of mindfulness wellness-seeking yogis take years to perfect – tuning in to the melodic vibration of the train, the prickle of the breeze on my skin, the stillness of the water, the shiver of leaves, the smell of cookies baking and the tastes of British Columbia.

Eating is a big part of the Rocky Mountaineer experience. In the downstairs dining room guests gorge on dishes inspired by local, seasonal produce such as plump Pacific prawns curled on a bed of risotto. Three-course lunches are devoured at a leisurely pace over wine and lively conversation. And all dishes come with a side of snow-slathered mountains, canyons, gushing rivers and waterfalls that become so commonplace they’re almost immaterial.

Almost. The journey is luxuriously languid. Even the animals seem to have embraced the slow life. The shiny back of a harbour seal lolls in an alpine lake, a clutch of bighorn sheep cling to an arid escarpment, a bald eagle drifts on the horizon, a black bear’s behind swaggers into the woods. It’s like watching a National Geographic showreel playing in 3D inside a cosy cocoon. It’s not until I step onto the outdoor viewing platform, assaulted at once by the visceral cold and noise – nose numb, eyes running, hair buffeted – that it feels real. Exhilaratingly real. 

Rocky Mountaineer
Banff Hot Springs

Some moments of the journey have to be experienced raw – not from behind the glass. Moments like Hell’s Gate, where 750 million litres of water a minute surge through a narrow canyon on the Fraser River. And the Spiral Tunnels – an astonishing feat of railway contortionism, where the line tunnels through two mountains, and twists back on itself twice to reduce the punishing gradient. 

When the train chugs in to Banff, the alpine hamlet presents like a pop-up fairytale picture book. Elk graze by the glacier-fed Bow River and soft snowflakes fall amid twinkling lights and mountains wreathed in mist. 

Banff is where depleted souls come to escape. They recharge in the restorative waters at Banff Upper Hot Springs and jettison their woes at the base of the gondola en route to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Nature is the best therapy.

My journey ends in Kananaskis at the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge (included as a self-drive add-on with Rocky Mountaineer for the first time this season). 

Tucked in woodland on the edge of the Kananaskis Valley, the lodge is alive with the sound of winter’s thaw. Water trickles from rooftops, icicles crash off gutters and dollops of snow plop from branches. 

Behind a bear-proof fence is the Kananaskis Nordic Spa, a Disneyland of outdoor pools, saunas, steam rooms, fire cauldrons and heated hammocks. Soaking in the hot pool is a sublime cure for rocking ‘train legs’. The cold pool, not so much. But it’s all part of the wellness journey.

Catherine Best was a guest on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Close up of crushed nutmeg
Lake Louise

Don’t miss...

... Lake Louise, a 45-minute side-trip from Banff. The turquoise-coloured lake, set against a backdrop of mountains and glaciers, is one of the Canadian Rockies’ most iconic sights. Visit in summer and canoe across the lake, or go in winter and ice skate.

The trip at a glance

The Rocky Mountaineer is the largest privately owned tourist train in the world and services four routes from spring to autumn. The flagship route is the two-day First Passage to the West journey, from Vancouver in British Columbia to Lake Louise or Banff, in Alberta. Prices start at $1807 per person, including accommodation in Kamloops. 

Guests have the option of travelling in SilverLeaf or GoldLeaf service. Both cars have domed-glass windows, and the latter has a separate downstairs dining room and large outdoor vestibule. The reclining seats are heated and supremely comfy (don’t fall asleep!). 

Bring clothes for all seasons; it can be warm when the sun is shining through the domed glass, but very cold outside on the Kamloops-Banff leg. It is possible to do the trip in reverse from Banff to Vancouver, but the anticipation as the train approaches the mountains is wonderful. 

'Import the tourists' 

The Rocky Mountaineer traverses the historic Canadian Pacific Railway, a transcontinental line completed in 1885 after six years’ construction to connect Canada’s east and west coasts.  

The man charged with building the transcontinental line, Canadian Pacific Railway general manager William Van Horne, hoped it would draw Canadians across their province borders. He loved the Rockies and was a strong proponent of tourism, saying: “If we can’t export the scenery then we’ll have to import the tourists.”