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Rail Journeys: The World's Most Scenic Train Rides

From Sea to Sky on the Rocky Mountaineer

October 9, 2016 - By Christine Gray

Arriving in Vancouver is exhilarating. The energy of the city combined with the awesome natural beauty is electric.

I am booked on the world-renowned Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to the Canadian Rockies and part of their luxurious GoldLeaf Deluxe Service is being picked up at the airport by Star Limousine so I arrive in style at the iconic Fairmont Hotel Vancouver in a black Mercedes. Glamour abounds in the lobby with five luxury boutiques including Louis Vuitton and Dior and the hotel's signature Notch8 Restaurant & Bar, named after a train's top speed.

My trip here coincides exactly with the royal visit by William, Kate, Prince George and Princess Charlotte which ups the excitement factor. I've arranged to spend a couple of days in Vancouver exploring the city and the majestic Fairmont built in 1939 is perfectly centrally located. I walk down to the cruise port and experience the spectacular virtual-flight attraction FlyOver Canada, stroll along Robson and Alberni streets with their great shops, cross the harbor to North Vancouver to visit Capilano Suspension Bridge Park and to get a bird's eye view of the city from atop Grouse Mountain, and take in a Zodiac harbor cruise for views of the city from the water. I discovered a great restaurant called Fable, short for “Farm to Table,” serving the freshest local cuisine. It seems this eatery is no secret because it was very busy even on a Monday night. I packed in a lot of sights but still missed some great attractions including Stanley Park and Granville Island, so I'll just have to return to explore more!

Rocky MountaineerPhoto credit: Rocky Mountaineer

Rocky Mountaineer – Time to Daydream

Named as “One of The World's Greatest Trips” by National Geographic, the Rocky Mountaineer has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I'm excited to be boarding even if it's early morning. We receive a ceremonious send-off by a Scottish bagpiper and then settle into our roomy seats in a GoldLeaf glass-domed rail car. There are two classes of service on board: SilverLeaf, with large panoramic windows and meals served at your seat, and GoldLeaf, with glass-domed seating upstairs and private dining room downstairs.

GoldLeaf glass-domed rail carGoldLeaf glass-domed rail car. Photo credit: Christine Gray

The amazing scenery is complemented by a fine dining experience throughout the journey with many menu choices including healthy vegetarian options to my liking. The cuisine is prepared by a team of Michelin-trained chefs headed by award-winning chef Jean Pierre Guerin using the freshest, locally-sourced products. Meals are served as we roll along and pass through the fertile Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon with Hell's Gate where the river cascades dramatically at its narrowest point.

Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf dining carRocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf private dining room. Photo credit: Christine Gray

We follow the South Thompson River and the Cascade Mountains, arriving at dusk into Kamloops, a city of about 85,000 located where the North and South Thompson rivers meet and check into Sandman Signature Hotel with beautiful views facing Riverside Park. Dinner is at another popular restaurant called Terra, where we enjoy tapas paired with wonderful local wines – white, rosé, and red. Who knew? Kamloops, an adventurous outdoorsy city, is also home to a blossoming wine industry along the Kamloops Wine Trail.

On the second day, the Rocky Mountaineer carves its way into the Canadian Rockies with increasingly dramatic scenery climaxing with the snowcapped Mount Robson towering to nearly 13,000 feet. Along the way our train hosts ask us to call out when we spot any wildlife and we saw a lot -- bald eagles, osprey, elk, mule deer and big horn sheep. It's also possible to see moose and grizzly bears.

Fairmont Jasper Park LodgeFairmont Jasper Park Lodge - view of Lac Beauvert and Mount Edith Cavell. Photo credit: Christine Gray

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Our final destination by train is the UNESCO World Heritage town of Jasper, Alberta. We transfer to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge situated on 700 acres with four lakes, 1000 elk, and 47 grizzly bears. The property opened as a wildlife resort in 1922 with cabins and chalets situated around the shores of Lac Beauvert (meaning "Beautiful Green Lake") overlooking the stunning Mount Edith Cavell, the most prominent peak entirely within Alberta. As Jasper's only year-round full-service resort, the Fairmont offers onsite and offsite activities including canoeing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and an 18-hole golf course designed by Stanley Thompson. Winter at the Lodge is also outdoor-oriented with cross country skiing, snowshoeing, horse-drawn wagon rides, and outdoor ice skating on Lake Mildred.

Lake PeytoLake Peyto along Icefields Parkway. Photo credit: Christine Gray

Maligne Lake boat cruiseMaligne Lake. Photo credit: Christine Gray

During our two night stay in Jasper we enjoy a boat excursion on Maligne Lake to magical Spirit Island, as well as a wonderful dinner at the lodge's ORSO Trattoria overlooking the beautiful lake and mountains. Then we're off to Banff via the Icefields Parkway. To travel the Icefields Parkway is to experience one of world's national treasures. Stretching 144 miles through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site, this road trip of a lifetime reveals a vast wilderness of broad sweeping valleys, ancient glaciers, towering waterfalls, pristine mountain lakes, and diverse wildlife. On this majestic travel route we make stops at the Columbia Icefield, Lake Peyto with its surreal turquoise color, and stunning Lake Louise among others.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel aerial summerFairmont Banff Springs. Photo credit: Fairmont

The last stop of our trip is Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the legendary Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel surrounded by wilderness grandeur. The Fairmont is one of Canada's great castle hotels dating back to 1888, opening shortly after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885 and hot springs were discovered. This regal hotel has been visited by actual royalty with King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip having stayed here. The hotel is also loaded with ghost stories including Sam the Bellman, the Phantom Bride, and the mystery of room 873. The views from the hotel are picture perfect, but for a totally incredible experience we take the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain where we marvel at a 360 degree view of six scenic mountain ranges from 7,486 feet above sea level with an unsurpassed view of the town of Banff and the Bow Valley.

Back down to earth with incredible views from my guestroom, I have one last chance to take in the mountain splendor. A flight back home to reality and my Rocky Mountain dream has been realized!

Rocky Mountaineer Route Map

Rocky Mountaineer operates seasonally from April to October. More information: rockymountaineer.com

Top photo credit: Lacy Colley Yamaoka, theexpate.com


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