I am embarrassed to say that I have seen relatively little of my own country.
Partly due to the fact that it is so large, partly because it is so expensive to travel around it, and partly because it is home and other places just seem more exotic. I am certainly not the only Canadian in this boat. And when we can fly to Europe for the same amount that we can fly within our own borders, well…
Increasingly, though, as I have been traveling to other countries, I have begun to develop a greater desire to see more of my home and native land. But even when I received an invitation to take a ride on the Rocky Mountaineer, the privately-owned train service that transports passengers into the heart of the Rocky Mountains in luxury, my first thought was, “Yeah, okay. I don’t have anything else planned for that week.”
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I had heard the name, but I didn’t actually know anything about the train or even very much about Western Canada. I had some vague idea that there were a lot of windows, that there would be mountains, and… well, that’s about it, really.
The Rocky Mountaineer is not a train that is used to transport people from Point A to Point B. It is a full service luxury travel experience, and, for me, something I consider a once-in-a-lifetime journey. There are several different levels of service at various price points, and many different packages available, which you can find out more about on their website.
Travel days on this train begin very early, especially for someone who is not a morning person. But somehow, I managed to be ready and waiting in the lobby of my Vancouver hotel for the transfer to the train station by 6:00 am. The fact that your luggage is picked up directly from your room and transported to your next destination does make things a little easier.
The grandeur of this experience begins at the terminal, where free coffee and tea – and a piano player! – are waiting for you. The sense of excitement is palpable. Everyone gathers round for an official welcome and a bagpiper plays until every last passenger has boarded the train.
My seatmate, Gretel, had traveled from the UK to take a cruise to Alaska. This train trip was the last leg of a once-in-a-lifetime journey for her and her brother and sister-in-law. They welcomed me into their fold, and we shared travel stories and meals in the dining car and drinks at our seats. We crawled over each other to get photos as we passed one stunning sight after another, and I practiced the British slang that I had picked up over the years from watching Coronation Street on television.
We were seated on the upper level, surrounded by a glass domed roof, and took our meals in the dining car on the lower level. The food was delicious and beautifully presented, and the wine was free-flowing. It was such a social environment, and if the volume of conversation in the dining car was any indication, I was not the only person enjoying meeting people from around the world, feasting on local delicacies like BC salmon, Fraser Valley chicken, Chilliwack corn, and Okanagan wines, and frequently jumping up to take one of the more than 700 photos that I accumulated over the course of two days.
Throughout the day, the staff offer a running commentary to provide some context for the sights that you are passing by. They possess a wealth of knowledge about the geography and history of the area, tell amusing anecdotes, and really seem to love what they do. I spent so much time staring at the scenery that I took no notes. I completely surrendered myself to the experience, and loved every minute of it.
One afternoon, I found myself alone in the vestibule, the outdoor viewing area on the lower level of the train. As I paced back and forth to see which side offered the best view, barely noticing that I had learned to sway with the movement of the train, or that the wind was whipping my hair into knots, we rounded a turn and I was literally stopped in my tracks. I stared up and out at the massive mountains in the distance and was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. A mixture of awe, pride, patriotism, and gratitude washed over me. I have lived my entire life in this country, but had never experienced these landscapes. I was completely unprepared for the intensity of my reaction.
This must be what people mean when they speak of riding the Rocky Mountaineer as a life-changing experience.
There are few things that will get me out of bed before 5:00 am, and even fewer that would see me waking before the alarm, excited to start the day. On this trip it happened two days in a row. I could not wait to see what each day would bring. Clearly, the other passengers felt the same way. There was no grumbling or griping to be heard. It certainly helped that the staff were perky and excited to see us each morning (what time must they have to get up?) and that we were met by the enticing aroma of coffee brewing and buttery croissants baking as we boarded the train. It also helped that we did not have to drag our luggage behind us, not even to the lobby of the hotel.
My only regret about this trip is that I did not make it when I was younger. I think it might have ignited in me a greater passion to explore Canada. Regardless, this is a trip that I would recommend to solo travelers of any age. It might require some planning and saving, but there is a reason why it is consistently voted one of the top train travel experiences in the world.
I was a guest of Rocky Mountaineer on this trip. The experience, the story, the photos and memories – all mine.