Craig Platt takes 'the world's most spectacular train journey' to an equally spectacular hotel.
“Bear on the left! Bear on the left!”
The call goes out in the packed dining car, and we look up from our salmon lunch to see a huge black bear, unperturbed by the train packed with passengers hurtling past it, watch us go by with a look of mild bemusement.
The carriage lets out a cheer of triumph – it is the first bear we've spotted so far on this trip.
We're on board the Rocky Mountaineer, Canada's famed luxury train that travels from Vancouver through the Rockies to the resort towns of Banff, Jasper and beyond.
The Rocky Mountaineer is 'the most spectacular train trip in the world™'. Yes, in the way that only North American companies can, they've trademarked a matter of opinion.
But, there's no doubting it is spectacular. We board early morning in Vancouver at a station that has more of an airport-feel. Bags are dropped off, boarding passes received and we make our way to our carriage. The Rocky Moutaineer with its many carriages is long, but it is nothing compared to the massive freight trains that criss-cross the country – at one point as we are passed by one, I count well over 100 cars. We're in the 'Gold Leaf' class – the train's top of the range offering. The carriage is a double-decker, with a dining room below and a transparent, domed roof above the seats upstairs to ensure you don't miss a moment of the mountains.
We set off on the least spectacular part of the journey – through the outskirts of Vancouver, which look much the same as the outer suburbs of any large city – before settling in the dining room for breakfast. There's a wide range of choices on offer, but I opt for scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, which is delicious. Unlike some of the world's big train journeys, passengers don't sleep on board the Rocky Mountaineer – instead, the train pulls in for the night at stops along the way, with passengers accommodation already taken care of at a local hotel. Indeed, the operation is so well organised that your luggage is waiting for you in your room. (The luggage, it turns out, doesn't travel on the train, but by bus, and it reaches the destination well before the passengers do). It's the same deal when you get back on the train the next day – you simply leave your packed bags in your room, where they'll be picked up and taken to the next destination.
Our journey is from Vancouver west to Banff, with a stop in Kamloops on the way. While it's a relatively short journey, the majestic Rockies ensure we're treated to three distinct climates along the way. Wet, mild Vancouver on the Pacific Coast gives way to the dry Kamploops region – home to one of Canada's only deserts – and then on to the snow-capped mountains of Banff, where the spring thaw has not yet reached the peaks.
Because passengers don't sleep on board, there is no cause to move from carriage to carriage (from say, the dining car to the sleeper car) and, indeed, it is forbidden. We are free to move throughout our own carriage including to the rear of the car where there is an open air platform.
As we head towards Kamploops, the hills begin to rise and the weather clouds over. By the time we hit town, rain looks likely. It's not the ideal viewing weather and we're fearful the mountains will be clouded over when we hit the Rockies.
Fortunately it's not the case. On day two as we head into the mountains, the skies have cleared, treating us to great views of the majestic peaks.Throughout the journey, our every need is attended to by the rail staff, who are constantly checking if our drinks need a top up or we fancy a snack. Our host on board is Matt, who delivers an extremely detailed commentary throughout the journey, giving us a heads up if we're approaching an object of interest, plus giving us a history of the railroad and cracking jokes along the way.
We eat breakfast and lunch on board the train, heading downstairs from our domed section to the dining room. The meals are held at tables for four, giving passengers a better opportunity to meet each other. There are dozens of Australians on board, several Americans and Brits, and a handful of Canadians. The atmosphere is friendly, but not boisterous (apart from the bear sightings, which happen on four occasions throughout out trip).
We arrive in Banff, a resort town nestled in the Rockies and home to one of Canada's most iconic hotels – the Fairmont Banff Springs. It turns out several of our fellow passengers are joining us at the hotel.Looming like some kind of Disney princess's palace above the town, the Banff Springs features spectacular views over the valley.
Built in 1888, the hotel has been here as long as tourists have. Styled after a Scottish baronial castle, the building certainly gives off an imposing vibe. Inside, the feel is much the same, with vast halls lit by huge chandeliers and filled with opulent furniture.There are 10 dining and drinking venues in the hotel, varying from fine-dining to casual pub fare, but almost all have something in common – spectacular views.
The restaurant at the back of the hotel features an outdoor area straight from the golden years of Hollywood. Sitting down for a drink, one feels it would not seem unusual for Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe to suddenly emerge from the hotel and order a couple of martinis (apart from the fact that they're dead, of course).The Banff Springs reputation as a celebrate magnet has fuelled speculation it may be a honeymoon location for Prince William and Kate Middleton.We may not be stars, but staying at this hotel certainly makes us feel like we are. And, as I sit back and sip a cocktail as the sun sets over the valley, I can understand why someone would that the region has a right to trademark 'spectacular'.
Craig Platt travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, the Rocky Mountaineer and Fairmont Hotels.
V Australia flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles, codesharing with Alaska Airlines for connections to Vancouver, where the Rocky Mountaineer departs from.
The Fairmont Banff Springs is located on the outskirts of Banff, a short taxi or bus ride from the centre of town. Rooms from about $CAD240 a night. See www.fairmont.com/banffsprings
The Rocky Moutaineer departs from in Vancouver three days per week. This year's season begins on April 26. For the 2011 season, the train is introducing a third class in addition to 'Gold Leaf' and 'Red Leaf' – 'Silver Leaf'. The company offers a wide variety of packages, but the most popular is the First Passage to the West journey - a two day journey from Vancouver to Banff or Calgary. Prices from start from CA$1,589 (GoldLeaf), CA$1,269 (SilverLeaf) and CA$789 (RedLeaf).
Crossing the country
For those seeking a more traditional, long train journey with berths on board, Via Rail offers a trip that crosses the entire country, from Halifax in the east to Vancouver in the west, passing through Jasper and the Rockies on the way. There are variety of classes, the best of which offers you a private berth with bunk beds and your own toilet. Travellers can, of course, choose to only part of this journey. We joined the train in Edmonton to return to Vancouver.