- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

It has all the markings of a fine hotel — impeccable service, remarkable attention to detail, gourmet food and presentation, incomparable views — but this vacation getaway is hurtling through the Canadian Rockies on train tracks.

Welcome aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, traveling from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Lake Louise and Banff, both in Alberta, and trying very hard to live up to its self-proclaimed designation as “the most spectacular train trip in the world.”

Here I am, comfortably seated, head back, bloody mary in hand, staring through high dome windows at scenery changing from farmland to lake country, bountiful forests to semiarid land, deep ravines to towering mountains. I know the books I have brought along for entertainment will never be opened.

The two attendants servicing our car, one of about 20 snaking through the countryside, begin the first morning with champagne and orange juice, setting the bar 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. First impressive attention to detail.

The attendants onboard 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 we are seeing — most of which, according to Ron, is actually factual. Bantering and occasional bad jokes add to the local color.

Lisa Wood and John Bailey from Worcester, England, are impressed with the knowledge of the attendants. They try to stump the commentators but are unable to do so.

“There’s something so romantic about the railway — it held the country together,” Miss Wood says. This is true of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, upon whose tracks the Rocky Mountaineer rides. CPR, Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, was completed in late 1885.

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 United States, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, proposed a railroad connecting the continent. That persuaded potentially fickle British Columbia to join the confederation in 1871, helping to hold the country together.

Meals are very important on the Rocky Mountaineer, especially if you’re in the Gold Leaf service. Breakfast and lunch, served in the dining car, are accompanied by fine linens and fresh flowers.

The choice of gourmet offerings, as appealing to the eye as the scenery out the window, might include a baked wild British Columbia salmon served on polenta and accompanied by maple-pickled vegetables and organic greens in a delicate strawberry vinaigrette. Or perhaps slow-roasted Alberta bison glazed with maple and ginseng. For dessert, a brownie-mountain dessert surrounded by a mango-sauce river, with a chocolate-shaped train traveling wafer-thin tracks. How’s that for imagery?

“I’ve traveled all over and never encountered this level of service before,” says Carl Ricketts of New Orleans. “From the preplanning 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 opportunities, the train slows to “Kodak speed.” With a spotting of wildlife, the word travels the length of the train, and you hope the bison, bear, elk, bighorn 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 announces “photo op on the right”; conversation and chewing stop as everyone lurches to one side to catch a glimpse of your everyday rivulet rushing over rocks through a valley of wildflowers beneath a backdrop of mountains. Oh, that again. A chorus of oohs and ahhs ensues before chomping commences again.

Be sure to visit the vestibule between rail cars 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 and the immediacy of the mountains make a more tangible immersion in the experience.

As Alison Michaelson from the United Kingdom’s Channel Islands observes 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 onboard newspaper — printed in English, French, Japanese and German — provides an alternative should the views 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.

Whether you’re reading, talking or watching, if it has been more than two hours since you last ate, chances are you’ll be offered wine and cheese, or perhaps homemade cookies, to tide you over until the next meal.

Here is one difference between the Gold Leaf service and the less-pricey Red Leaf version: There, the cookies are packaged. Among the other, more significant differences is that the Gold Leaf’s dome car offers a visual expanse, while large side windows in Red Leaf stop short of reaching overhead.

Whereas the Gold Leaf’s gourmet meals are served at tables, the Red Leaf provides a continental breakfast and a pair of luncheon entree choices served at your seat, and the Gold Leaf’s open bar is replaced by $6-a-drink service on the Red Leaf. However, the ongoing commentary is the same, and, of course, the views outside the windows are constant for both tiers of service.

When stopping at a hotel in Kamloops for the night, passengers receive keys to their rooms before disembarking so they don’t have to wait in line to check in. Their luggage awaits them in their rooms.

“The usual expectations of a train is that it takes you from point A to point B,” says guest-services manager Shauna Hetherington, who has been traveling the rails for six years. “What happens in between is the adventure. It’s not only the constantly changing views that bring excitement.”

Then she tells a story of the previous summer when the train suddenly slowed because a bull was making its leisurely way westward on the tracks. Given little choice, the train followed for 20 minutes. “The crew used [high-volume water guns] to try to move it out of the way, and then we chased it with mops and brooms,” Miss Hetherington says.

Apparently, the bull protested but remained unmoved. 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. Nine-hundred passengers waved goodbye. Not many of them are going to forget their trip aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.

I don’t see any bulls along the way — or any other wildlife, for that matter — but I do see turquoise glacial water; waterfalls tumbling down mountainsides; snowcapped peaks rising overhead; towering trees in greens, reds and yellows; and rivers, ravines and ravishing vistas. I dine well at a superior restaurant, converse with interesting travelers from around the world and am entertained and educated for two days as if attending something between a history seminar and a comedy club.

As I say, welcome aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.

For more information, call Rocky Mountaineer Vacations at 800/665-7245 or go to www.rockymountaineer.com. The Rocky Mountaineer operates from mid-April to mid-October. Prices for a two-day train trip from Vancouver to Banff or Jasper, Alberta, including overnight accommodations, are $429 to $569, per person for the Red Leaf and $869 to $1,119, Gold Leaf, depending upon time of year; Vancouver to Calgary, $489 to $629, Red Leaf, and $959 to $1,209, Gold Leaf.

Options for sightseeing at both ends are also available.

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations also offers a variety of rail, rail and bus, and non-rail packages from three nights and four days to 11 nights and 12 days throughout Canada, including luxury accommodations and extensive sightseeing opportunities in the cities visited. Or choose from grizzly viewing, kayak-canoeing, wine country tours, ranch stays, resort options and other travel arrangements.

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