AS THE majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountain range came into sight, I heard the rapid clicks of camera shutters all around me.
I was one of several eager passengers practically hanging over the railing of the train’s outdoor vestibule, holding out my trusty compact camera to get as many perfect shots of the towering mountains as I could.
Marvelling at the scenery outside while the cool wind rushed through my hair as the train trundled along the tracks at a sightseeing-friendly 70kmh — now, that was an exhilarating experience!
It is no wonder that The Rocky Mountaineer has a reputation for being one of the most scenic trains in the world.
It offers several routes through western Canada with one objective — enabling its guests to discover the stunning natural beauty of the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta in comfort and style.
I was on a two-day journey on the First Passage to the West, one of the Rocky Mountaineer’s most popular flagship routes.
The itinerary begins at the Canadian port city of Vancouver, moves on to Kamloops for an overnight hotel stay, and continues on to Ban National Park, part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks that are Unesco World Heritage sites.
Running from April to mid October, The Rocky Mountaineer also travels from east to west.
It is the only passenger train that travels on the Canadian Pacific tracks, which first connected British Columbia to the rest of Canada over 125 years ago.
One of the best ways to experience this amazing mountain range that straddles the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the award-winning train takes you past vast turquoise lakes, historic steel bridges, gushing rivers, craggy cliffs, deep valleys and lush forests of towering trees.
I arrived at 7am at The Rocky Mountaineer Vancouver Station, which is for the train’s exclusive use.
Even at the relatively early hour, the anticipation of the passengers — including me — was palpable.
The spacious, modern station offered complimentary Wi-Fi service, coffee and tea, and comfortable seats. There was even a pianist playing lounge music to welcome passengers.
Looking around me, I observed that many of my fellow passengers were in their 50s and 60s and travelling with their families.
The staff went out of their way to make our experience memorable —a bagpipe player and the assembled Rocky Mountaineer ground staff gave us a warm send-off as we boarded the train.
On board, smiling, friendly staff and a red carpet at the entrance to each train carriage really made me feel special as I made my way to my seat in the top deck of a two-level GoldLeaf Service coach.
Best of all, the coach had fully domed glass windows offering optimal views for sight-seeing. The lower deck was for meals.
GoldLeaf Service is one of two categories of service on The Rocky Mountaineer for this itinerary.
The other, SilverLeaf Service, seats passengers in a single-level dome coach with oversized windows that o er panoramic views as well. Gourmet meals are served to their seats.
Around 600 to 800 passengers travel on the train in one journey, with 68 people in one Goldleaf carriage.
Travelling on a Rocky Mountaineer tour has an added convenience — we did not have to bother with our luggage; our bags were sent on ahead to the hotel we were stopping at for the night.
Another element of The Rocky Mountaineer’s exceptional service was the running commentary by the onboard hosts as they told us what to look out for, or informed us of photo opportunities when the train was going to pass a significant spot.
They also gave us a brief history of the places we saw or visited.
On the first day’s journey from Vancouver to the city of Kamloops, the train passed by historic Fort Langley, which used to be home to the First Nations people of the West Coast, as well as the beautiful Fraser Valley, Mount Baker, Rainbow Canyon and breathtaking Hell’s Gate canyon.
Hell’s Gate is at the narrowest part of the Fraser River, where an enormous volume of water pounds through the 34m-wide gorge, which is also a prime spot for salmon spawning.
Other natural wonders we saw were Avalanche Alley and the Jaws of Death gorge, whose turbulent waters are a popular spot for whitewater rafting.
At about 5pm, the train pulled into Kamloops, a big university town with a population of about 84,000 people. It is a popular venue for sports tournaments.
As it was summer, the sun would only set at around 9pm and the town was still bustling with activity. There was a jazz concert in the park and restaurants were filled with people.
I stayed the night at Hotel 540, a modern hotel which was a perfect place to rest after travelling the whole day.
Back on the train the next morning, I noticed a change in scenery from Kamloops to Revelstoke.
The dry, rocky landscape began to give way to the lush, densely forested Columbia Mountain region.
As the train hurtled on, cries of “Bear on the left!” from the onboard hosts woke me up from my food induced stupor.
I looked out of my window just in time to see a little black bear in the trees.
Canada’s national parks are teeming with wildlife and we were lucky to spot a lone black bear twice, as well as bald eagles and elks, thanks to the trained Rocky Mountaineer hosts who would call us to attention, prompting a rush to the windows for some photo-taking.
From morning till around lunch time, the train travelled in the Shuswap Division, which is home to the sparkling vast Shuswap Lakes and Craigellachie — the historic spot where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific rail was set — before entering the Mountain Subdivision from Revelstoke to Field and into the Rocky Mountain range.
Our journey ended in the evening at the popular resort town of Ban in Alberta.
Surrounded by gorgeous, rugged mountains and huge parklands that are home to elk and grizzly bears, Ban is a natural choice for a variety of outdoor activities.
Waking up early to board the Rocky Mountaineer for each day’s sightseeing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I guarantee you will perk up when breakfast is served.
GoldLeaf Service passengers take turns to have their meals, as the dining room on the lower deck of each coach can only accommodate half the occupants seated on the top deck.
While the first half of passengers are having their breakfast below, the rest get a warm scone and a drink of sparkling orange champagne as they wait.
The breakfast menu included items such as Eggs Benedict, spinach and feta cheese souffle and blueberry pancakes.
I spoke to 28-year-old sous chef Bernie Wen, now on his seventh season with The Rocky Mountaineer, who told me that the culinary team works with local farms that supply produce.
Lunch was a deliciously fulfilling three-course meal with choice of either a salad or soup, main course and dessert, with white or red wine to accompany the meal, and tea or coffee after.
The choice of main courses included local dishes such as beef short ribs, Alberta ranchlands pork tenderloin, steelhead salmon and a smokey mushroom burger with a Canadian Angus beef patty.
Dessert was the chef’s creation and I had a scrumptious chocolate fudge cake on the fi rst day and apple crumble with vanilla ice-cream the next.
There is also a separate vegetarian menu with gluten-free options.
The writer’s trip was sponsored by Scenic Travel.
I flew on United Airlines from Singapore to Vancouver with a short stopover at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan.
■ Summer is warm and good for outdoor activities but autumn is also a great time to take this trip if you want to see the foliage changing colour.
■ Pack essentials for the train, especially items like medication, a light cardigan, a book or music player. The rest of your luggage will be sent ahead to the hotel you are staying at after the day’s sightseeing.
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