Why the Rocky Mountaineer is one of B.C.'s best-kept tourism secrets


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Rail pass | The Rocky Mountaineer crosses a bridge near Hells Gate

The second-largest private passenger rail company in the world remains largely unknown at home 

Just as the joys of Christmas are best seen through the eyes of a child, the charms of your province are most evident from a tourist’s perspective. Private rail company Rocky Mountaineer—one of the hidden gems of B.C. tourism—has been operating a series of routes through the Canadian Rockies for over a quarter-century and is regularly voted one of the “world’s leading travel experiences by train” by the World Travel Awards. Ask British Columbians about the company, however, and many will draw a blank.

Part of that has to do with physical visibility. The Rocky Mountaineer Station is hidden in a warren of roads off Terminal Avenue in East Vancouver—away from the city’s main rail link, Pacific Central Station, and tucked between a Chevy dealership and a Home Depot. Yes, there’s a bagpiper to send off the departing guests, but other-wise the departure from Vancouver is unheralded—and unnoticed as the train snakes through the Lower Mainland’s patchwork industrial lands, then disappears up into the Fraser Canyon.

But mostly the lack of brand awareness is intentional: Rocky Mountaineer, founded in 1990 by Vancouver entrepreneur Peter Armstrong (who took over the service from VIA Rail), targets an international market, with British Columbia representing just 20 per cent of the 60,000 to 80,000 passengers the company hosts each year. Its key markets are Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States—with the States, thanks to a lower dollar, being a key growth market (the top five U.S. markets: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Ohio).

On a brisk but sunny Tuesday morning in late September—the last week of operations for the 25th season of Rocky Mountaineer—a fairly homogenous group of 750 passengers board one of the nine GoldLeaf cars en route to either Jasper or Banff. GoldLeaf is the top tier of service at Rocky Mountaineer, with glass-domed seating and a separate dining car (prices start at approximately $2,000 for the three-day, two-night Banff route), and tends to attract well-off retirees who have time and money to burn. (SilverLeaf service doesn’t have the full glass domes or the dining car.)

For the few locals on the train, it’s a perspective on B.C.’s interior that they’ve likely never had: hugging the Fraser River, then the Thompson, the train weaves through a rugged landscape made famous in photographs and watercolours but rarely experienced firsthand. At 50 kilometres an hour, it’s a leisurely journey—taking over nine hours just to get to Kamloops from Vancouver—but one that’s ably narrated by James Brejcha, a part-time actor and comedian. We learn why Simon Fraser gave Hells Gate its name, what gives Rainbow Canyon its array of colour and where Sergei Rachmaninoff had to unexpectedly abandon his concert piano. Filling the gap of storytelling sessions is an endless supply of nourishment: two elaborate sit-down meals (breakfasts of smoked meat eggs benedict, lunches of mushroom risotto), several snacks (scones in the morning, cheese and crackers in the afternoon) and enough visits from the drink cart to keep the thirstiest of guests well-lubricated.

That’s all on the first day. All Rockies-bound trains overnight in Kamloops, with the train splitting the next day—some heading up to Jasper (the “Journey Through the Clouds” tour) and the rest of us to Banff (the “First Passage to the West” tour). The overnight in Kamloops, given the pace of the trip, is a necessity—but feels like a bit of a hiccup, given the contrast in accommodations. Guests are put up in what is the equivalent of a slightly higher-end motel in Kamloops—fine for this traveller but for the more well-heeled guests expecting luxury, perhaps a bit of a letdown.

The next day, however, any memories of ordinariness are vanquished by a dramatic climb through the Rockies (1,625 metres above sea level at its peak near the Alberta border) and a front-row seat to some of Canada’s foundational history, including Craigellachie, where the last spike of the CP Rail line was driven some 130 years ago. After another 9-to-10-hour day, we disembark the train in Banff—tired but content. A couple from San Francisco, seated beside us, echoes the sentiment of many: “I didn’t realize Canada could be so damned beautiful.” 

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