It almost feels like cheating. I’m semi-reclined in a plush seat, gin-and-tonic in hand, and gazing out the giant domed window beside me as the serrated silhouette of the Rocky Mountains pass by, one cliff vanishing from view only to have another appear. I’m not working hard enough to see this view, I think to myself. Where’s the sweat on my brow, the ache in my calves that makes me feel like I earned the right to bask in such a gorgeously rugged landscape?
But the train I’m riding is the complete opposite of rugged. This is the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train service that offers multi-day, all-daylight trips through the Canadian Rockies. With its domed glass roof and gourmet meals, the experience is billed as the trip of a lifetime.
“It’s a beautiful way to experience the Rockies,” says Wendy McMichael, our train manager. “It’s grandiose, it’s vast, it’s wow.”
As I sip my drink, I’m inclined to agree. Gone are the foibles of keeping one eye on the mountains, one eye on the wheel. No more fretting over navigation, misplaced campsite reservations, and who forgot the hot dog buns — no more worrying about anything, for that matter. The Rocky Mountaineer takes care of it all, McMichael coos.
Each train car has an amiable host, hired for their friendly disposition, their entertaining humour. Along the journey they serve up stories and snacks, and otherwise do everything within their power to ensure that every single person in their care is enjoying themselves.
Each evening, when passengers disembark and head to their pre-arranged hotel accommodations, their luggage is magically waiting for them in the room; after morning check out porters return the bags to the train, ready to rumble towards the next destination.
Trains are embedded in the social consciousness of Canada. They were a part of the constitutional promise to provinces when Canada was still growing, and the ensuing cross-continental tracks helped stitch Canada together.
On Nov. 7, 2015 it will have been precisely 130 years since the final spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, B.C. in 1885. Those same tracks are now home to Rocky Mountaineer—a Canadian company that has grown to become the largest privately owned luxury tourism train service in the world.
But the last spike is not the only anniversary being observed; this year, Rocky Mountaineer celebrated 25 years of business.
To get a glimpse of what has made their past quarter century so successful, myself and Canadian Geographic art director Javier Frutos hopped aboard to experience the company’s newest route (‘Coastal Passage,’ which goes between Seattle and Vancouver) and their flagship route (‘First Passage to the West,’ which goes between Vancouver and Banff).
Our journey began by winding along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Blue skies shone on the sandy shores, where beachgoers waved from lawn chairs. In fact, people waved at the train wherever we were. Unlike in Europe, where trains are a more common commuting method, North America seems to still hold a certain romanticism around trains. We reached Vancouver, and from there meandered through a surprisingly changeable landscape towards Kamloops, before slipping into the Rockies. The landscape was stunning, of course, but also somewhat private. Rocky Mountaineer boasts the exclusive cachet of being the only passenger train that passes through the famous Spiral Tunnels.
Our days were broken up with organized trips to the dining car, where gourmet meals were served up from a small but incredibly efficient onboard kitchen. The leisurely pace of travel and individualized care means that the trip is ideally suited to those who are perhaps not as limber as they used to be, but who still crave adventure.
Even the whizzing of constant internet news is put on hold. The train has no wifi, partly because the signal is unreliable through the mountains, and partly the point of the trip is to take a break, to relax. It’s a cozy bubble from which you can look out and observe the world.
It makes me think of a quote from Australian author Anna Funder: “I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.”