Rocky Mountain High
Cityscape rediscovers the romance of the glamorous age of travel on board the iconic Rocky Mountaineer’s super lux Through The Clouds train journey with Discover Travel’s Ian Collier.
The call of “bear!” has everyone reaching for their cameras and looking out through the Gold Leaf service double carriage’s seat-to-ceiling dome windows and over the brilliant blue river. Our passing has interrupted a lone grizzly’s gentle lumber through the pristine hillside. Unaware of his instant celebrity status, he obligingly faces the many cameras before resuming his woodland stroll. Excited chatter fills the carriage.
In an age where most forms of travel have been reduced to a chore to be endured, rather than a privilege to be enjoyed, luxury train travel harks back to a happier time when the journey was as important as the destination. I’m joining Rocky Mountaineer’s two day Journey Through The Clouds, a 900-kilometre route from Vancouver to Jasper, and no-one has asked me to take off my shoes or belt, x-rayed my luggage or instructed me to keep my seatbelt fastened. I checked in at Vancouver’s RM station 30 minutes before departure and was waved off by two dozen of the company’s staff, and my luggage magically appeared in my hotel room in Kamloops. This must have been what travel was like in the glamorous ‘golden age’ of the 1920s; something I could certainly get used to!
We overnight in the cheerful market town of 10,000; Kamloops is the self-proclaimed ‘tournament capital of Canada’, and home to a lively craft beer scene which we get to enjoy alongside the local specialty ‘putine’, a heart-stopping combination of chips, gravy and cheese. Unlike most other luxury train journeys, the night is spent off the train. Re-boarding the next morning is a breeze. Our coach transfer drops us off on the platform literally at the door to our carriage; our driver jokingly admits he’s sorry he can’t get us closer and that we’ll have to walk the remaining 5 feet. Everyone is well-rested, relaxed and looking forward to more sightings of bear and elk as we set off towards the mountain village of Jasper.
There’s no Wi-Fi and almost no mobile phone coverage for most of the journey; it’s striking how much this helps to create a relaxed ambience conducive to socialising with fellow guests. No one is staring at their phones or tablets; rather they are gazing wide-eyed at the endless parade of stunning scenery and chatting with friends, both old and new. It’s telling that even though badly jetlagged and sleep deprived from our long haul flights from New Zealand, we relax completely into the journey, and I can’t help but think this is because we’d been ‘unplugged’, forced into a digital detox we didn’t perhaps know we needed. Without phone or internet you can really luxuriate into the experience of travel and not feel compelled to report on it while it’s happening, but rather reflect on it sometime after.
Having opted for The Gold Leaf service, we’re treated to views over the tree-line that often borders the tracks and get to enjoy breakfast, lunch, snacks and beverages in the swanky surrounds of the dedicated dining carriage, where exceptional views and über-professional service join a delectable showcase of perfectly plated, local organic produce featuring delicate fresh salmon (this is Canada, after all)
and wines of all grapes from British Colombia. The scenery is much as you’d expect, a bit like New Zealand but on an even grander scale - think Fiordland on steroids. We traverse gentle farmland, ranches, and a semi-arid desert, with the track passing above raging rapids in rainbow-coloured canyons and past precarious bridges; their construction by fur-trading and gold rush pioneers must have been terrifying.
Without a doubt, the highlight of this trip through the Rockies is the 230-kilometre Icefields Parkway stretching between Jasper and Lake Louise. The road, also known as Highway 93 North, offers an overload of spectacular sightseeing from pristine turquoise lakes, tumbling waterfalls and ancient glaciers to the famed Columbia Icefields. Along the stretch we spot numerous big horn sheep, deer, black bears and coyotes.
Arriving at our destination we are treated to Lake Louise in all its half-frozen glory. The iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel has ‘the view’, of course, and is a magnet for pretty much all tourists to the Rockies; it’s worth popping in for their deservedly famous High Tea, and that view from the restaurant, alone.
Five of the Best
Cityscape’s round up of the world’s top train journeys.
1 — Rovos Rail Regarded as the most luxurious train in the world, a journey on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa is a world-class travel experience where exquisitely appointed and reconditioned carriages meet fine dining, and five-star luxury meets magical African scenery.
2 — Trans-Siberian Having achieved legendary status as the world’s longest railway line, the three-week journey through the cities of China, the Mongolian Steppe and Siberian Forests to the heartlands of European Russia is pure bucket-list material.
3 — Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Rightly world famous beyond the Agatha Christie novel (and average movie remake). Personal stewards, gleaming wood, polished brass and crisp linen sophistication are de rigueur, and three fine dining cars and a swanky Bar Car await lucky guests.
4 — Belmond Royal Scotsman Considered the grandest of Highland flings, Belmond Royal Scotsman teams mahogany-clad cars and Edwardian elegance with gastronomic dining and stunning scenery, with just 40 guests enjoying 10 carriages including the sublime Bamford Spa.
5 — TranzAlpine This homegrown hero condenses one of the iconic train journeys into less than five hours as it cuts through the Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth via 16 tunnels and four viaducts, showcasing some seriously jaw-slackening scenery.