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Rocky Mountaineer Rail Trip fulfills Vacation Dream



"Bear on the right!" a male Aussie voice shouted as heads swivelled and hands fumbled with cameras and phones. After months of planning, husband Rob and I were riding through the rugged Canadian Rockies in a Gold Leaf dome car on a Rocky Mountaineer rail trip.

Our 958-kilometre journey began the previous day with a bagpiper and pianist playing railroad tunes as we boarded the daylight luxury train at the Vancouver station.

The Fraser River sparkled in the morning sun. Following the river, we passed through the fertile agricultural valley, tiny British Columbia towns and scenic Fraser Canyon. Fir, aspen, maple and other hardwood trees grew a few metres from our window. Crossing the South Thompson River, we caught a glimpse of snow-capped Mount Baker.

The sleek eastbound train crossed bridges, passed cascading waterfalls and navigated through scenic canyons and narrow tunnels in five mountain ranges. A car host shared fascinating railroad lore, described people and events that shaped Western Canada's history and pointed out scenic wonders, archeological features, flora and fauna.

Near Ashcroft — one of the driest places in B.C. — we saw unique hoodoo rock formations. Because the Rocky Mountaineer shared tracks with freight trains, the engineer sometimes pulled onto a siding to enable a long freight train to pass. We learned some freight trains have 100 to 300 cars!

The train stopped for photos at the famous Hell's Gate Canyon, known for its steep gorge and intimidating Fraser River whitewater. We watched as sightseeing gondola cars carried land passengers to the bottom of the steep canyon. Hell's Gate also has a salmon ladder that helps the spawning fish reach their destination.

Watching the spectacular scenery — rushing rivers, towering cliffs, and thousands of acres of lush green forests — was relaxing and refreshing. Bi-level Gold Leaf dome cars provide panoramic views of rugged canyons, snow-capped mountain peaks, rushing rivers, and lush mountain meadows where cattle, horses, and sheep graze.

Amid the splendid scenery, guests were thrilled with sightings of deer, mountain sheep, beavers, bald eagles, and osprey — and an occasional bear or moose. Annie, our hostess, urged us to watch for Bald Eagles in dead trees. "Bald eagles can have a 1.5-metre wingspan," she said.

Gold Leaf guests descended a spiral staircase to dining car tables clad in white linen. Talented onboard chefs prepared gourmet breakfasts and lunches using fresh local ingredients. Breakfast begins with elegantly presented fruit and bakery, followed by choices of omeletts, pancakes, or lighter fare. We substituted extra fruit for bacon and sausage with our cheese omeletts.

With the scenery as close as one metre, we enjoyed eating in the dining car. For lunch, we started with soup or salad followed by delicious meat, fish or vegetarian entrées and finished with a decadent dessert. Seated with an Aussie couple, we compared notes on travel, vacation time and tipping policies in our respective countries.

In British Columbia's beautiful Okanagan Valley, we passed ginseng farms and lavender fields. Throughout the journey, seasoned hosts served premium B.C. and Alberta wines, spirits, beer, cheese, crackers and scones. The Gold Leaf bar opened at 9:30 p.m. and adult beverages flowed freely.

Because our May 11 trip was early in the season, our train had 21 cars and 327 guests. During the busy summer months, Rocky Mountaineer trains can have up to 40 cars.

The first bighorn sheep sighting occurred as we approached Kamloops, population 85,000 where highways intersect. Within the next hour, alert guests spotted four more small flocks of sure-footed bighorns eating sagebrush.

Annie said the word Kamloops means "meeting of the waters". On the First Passage to the West route, guests overnight at Kamloops hotels. Luggage magically appears in rooms and is collected by the train crew the following morning, eliminating a major hassle.

On the second day, Annie pointed out snow sheds that shield the train from avalanches. The Rocky Mountaineer navigated two unique Spiral Tunnels, remarkable feats of engineering. Wildlife sightings and massive snow-covered peaks became more common as we approached Banff.

Near Lake Louise, we crossed the Continental Divide, the highest point of our journey at 1,625 metres where all rivers to the east flow toward the Atlantic, while rivers to the west make their way to the Pacific.

Rocky Mountaineer offers five routes and 45 vacation packages with a plethora of add-on options. Guests can overnight at historic Fairmont Hotels in Seattle, Vancouver, Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Calgary. Each conjures up images of a grand era — and provides an indoor pool and spa to relax tired muscles.

The rail portion of our eastbound trip ended in Banff, a pretty mountain town where streets are named after wildlife that roams freely. After saying a reluctant goodbye to our train hosts, we overnighted at the beautiful Timberline Resort. In the morning a Brewster bus drove us to the Calgary airport. From reservations to Calgary airport transfer, every segment of our trip was smoothly orchestrated by seasoned Rocky Mountaineer staffers.

How to book & Where to stay

Rocky Mountaineer journeys originate in Vancouver (eastbound) or Calgary (westbound). Guests can choose from three service levels and five routes with overnights and tours in Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, Victoria, Vancouver, Whistler and Seattle. Contact your travel agent, or visit www.rockymountaineer.com. Rocky Mountaineer partners with Fairmont Hotels which operates three downtown Vancouver locations. All three are within walking distance of each other, and each is distinctively different: the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver honors its railroad roots; Fairmont Waterfront is connected to the cruise ship terminal and is known for its organic rooftop gardens and apiaries; the Fairmont Pacific Rim is new and edgy. www.fairmonthotels.com.

A widely published Arizona travel writer, Pat Woods is a train aficionado.