It's an early morning in Vancouver; the sun is just peeking beyond the mountains. Morale is high. Our coach bus, filled with fellow travel writers and content creators, arrives at the dedicated Rocky Mountaineer train terminal, the departure point for our scenic train ride through British Columbia and Alberta. Cameras and notebooks in hand, we make our way to the platform.
For over 30 years, the luxurious train has operated out of Vancouver, guiding travellers throughout the majestic Rocky Mountains of Western Canada. The First Passage to the West is a two-day voyage centred around fine dining, slow travel and what seems like a never-ending feast for the eyes. On our route, we will travel from Vancouver to Kamloops, stop for the night at a partnered hotel, then travel onwards to Banff.
The elegant blue and gold beast of a train awaits. The platform fills with adventurers while kilted bagpipers play. The Rocky Mountaineer has its own exclusively designed tartan: blue and yellow — perhaps a nod to the sea and sun seen along the journey.
Before boarding, a few of us quickly jolt to the front of the train to snap a photo of its glory — gold crest and all. Riding a dose of adrenaline, we make our way to our designated bi-level GoldLeaf Service carriage — the crème de la crème. GoldLeaf Service coaches stand taller than the single-level SilverLeaf Service coaches. The most notable additions in Gold are the dining room and outdoor viewing platform on the lower level, and reclining seats with full-dome windows on the upper level, where complimentary drinks and snacks are served between meals.
Now settled in our extremely ergonomic seats, the train begins to depart the station. Looking out from the panoramic glass dome windows, Rocky Mountaineer crew members wave us off as the tune of bagpipes carries on. It’s a proper send-off, if there ever was one.
We drift into what feels like a scene out of Twilight; dense evergreens, rugged mountains and moody, low-hanging clouds surround us.
A warm aroma of coffee and pastries begins to fill the cabin and it can only mean one thing: Breakfast is ready to be served. If there is one thing the Rocky Mountaineer is especially known for, it's their gourmet fare. We make our way down the spiral staircase towards the dining room.
Tables are adorned with white tablecloths, fine silverware and an extensive menu that highlights locally sourced ingredients. The GoldLeaf dome features a full kitchen attached to the dining room.
Smoked salmon avocado toast; a hearty scrambled eggs skillet with tomatoes and seasonal vegetables; classic eggs benedict made with Canadian back bacon, smoked paprika hollandaise, hash browns and citrus-dressed greens, garnished with juicy red pomegranate beads. The options are overwhelming.
Knowing that tomorrow will bring another opportunity to try a new dish eases the pressure. I take the lemon and honey buttermilk pancakes dressed in fresh Okanagan stone fruit compote, served with none other than Quebec maple liquid-gold.
“Eggs benedict tomorrow,” I declare to my dining companions.
Meals are served with views and conversation. We pass by the rushing waters of Hell's Gate in the Fraser Canyon, and the steep slopes and rock sheds along the Thompson River. The train slows while passing especially scenic sights to give us ample time to snap the perfect shot or sneak out to the viewing platform and fully embrace the elements.
Glancing out from our table, we all agree how surreal it is. Our host, Victor reveals to us that the first time he was on board, the natural beauty of the land brought tears to his eyes.
In between meals, Victor and our other onboard host Patrycja share stories about nature, history and the land that surrounds us.
We pass by Doris, a joyful lady who lives in a yellow house near the town of Canoe. She stands on her porch offering a full-hearted double wave to the train. “She never misses a passing by Rocky Mountaineer train,” says Patrycja.
Before we know it, it’s time for lunch: a three-course affair.
The starter comprises of seasonal Kamloops pickled vegetables, prosciutto, summer fruit, brie and baguette. My table orders a cheeky second helping of the charcuterie.
For lunch, the options are even more elaborate than breakfast. Braised Alberta beef shank ragout served with local wild mushrooms, polenta and gremolata; crab ravioli in a luscious cream sauce; or a chickpea and Moroccan spiced cauliflower bowl with sundried tomatoes and olives… To name a few. The drink list is also extensive, featuring signature cocktails, craft beer and local wine.
After much humming and hawing, I decide on the crispy skinned Lois Lake steelhead — a decision I am especially pleased with when I spot the handmade gnocchi hidden just beneath the cut of steelhead.
For dessert the options are delicate yet satisfying: Fraser Valley berries with Chantilly cream, honey, bee pollen and fresh mint; or, my personal favourite, a lemon lavender posset (essentially custard) served with Okanagan stone fruit compote and an earl grey macaron.
Executive chef Kaelhub Cudmore, who’s been with Rocky Mountaineer for two years, has created an entirely new menu this season that highlights Canadian food culture. The offerings change each operating season (April to October), but special feature dishes are added throughout, such as the arctic char and chicken entrées which are available for lunch during my journey. Cudmore’s goal is to provide a menu that’s as local as possible.
“The ultimate vision is tying in local communities and really showcasing them and highlighting their ingredients as part of the trip — to bring a community focus into the dome,” says Cudmore.
He approaches local farms and producers to ask what they have in season, then curates a menu around those products. “That’s the important part — not going to them saying, ‘I want this,’ but going to them and asking what they have for me. This provides the opportunity to use the best products available,” says Cudmore.
This is especially important when creating a menu that serves a crowd. Each season, 400,000 meals are served, after all.
Much of the menu's ingredients are sourced locally. The bee pollen used in the berries and cream dessert is brought aboard from Corbicula, in Surrey, B.C. The gnocchi served at lunch is from Pasta d’Angelo in Port Moody. The macarons (70,000 of which were served this season) come from Granville Island, and the train weaves through various berry fields in Vancouver.
“I want to have the meals perfectly choreographed. During service, if you’re eating a piece of chicken, the train could be rolling by the farm as you’re eating it… To me that’s amazing to have the story transfer right in front of your eyes and onto the plate,” says Cudmore.
Post lunch, we head back to our luscious, pre-heated ergonomic chairs. Afterall, relaxing is the name of the game on the Rocky Mountaineer. The spacious, leather seats have been designed with optimal comfort in mind. A solution to the age-old airplane problem, they recline without encroaching on the person sitting behind. There is a raised footrest, three heat settings and a side tray to place any reading material or snacks (or a delectable cheese plate served late afternoon). It’s also the best place to watch for wildlife.
While travelling the First Passage to the West, there are always opportunities to spot animals like bighorn sheep, elk and even grizzly bears before their hibernation. Our hopes are high — October is known as the ‘great last fall feast’ for grizzlies.
It’s hard to predict what natural wonders will be revealed during each trip. We keep our eyes peeled to scour the land passing by and our ears keen to hear someone call out “bear!” which our hosts say is quite common.
The morning clouds give way to vibrant double rainbows that span across the horizon. Victor and Patrycja remind us that if there is anything they can do to make us feel more “pampered,” to not hesitate to ask. With a coffee in hand, my chair slightly reclined back and the heat on level three, pampered is an understatement.