Suzanne McFadden discovers a different kind of Rocky Mountain high — with fine dining and incredible views.
As the train slows on its approach to Copper Creek Tunnel on the track to Kamloops, all necks crane left — in search of the buck-naked man.
The legend of the nude, angry farmer is frequently shared on board the Rocky Mountaineer as it rolls through British Columbia's interior.
Apparently, when the farmer bought his cattle ranch on the high plains of the Thompson Plateau, he was unaware that trains would blast their whistles before safely entering a tunnel. Anxious that the loud mournful hoots were upsetting his cattle, he took to firing warning shots with his rifle as trains passed. To make more of a point, he was clad only in gumboots.
Eventually the rancher and the railways reached an accord — now, drivers on the Rocky Mountaineer no longer pull the whistle at Copper Creek. But still, we all scan the sun-baked bunchgrass on the hill, in case he bounds out, all guns blazing. Mercifully, all the locals I spy through the glass domes during the two-day journey from Vancouver to Jasper, are a lot more affable than this guy, and much better dressed.
At Vancouver Station, purpose-built for the Rocky Mountaineer, a piper in a kilt calls us to climb aboard the 24-car train for the first time. Then the staff — ridiculously chipper for a dawn send-off — line the track and wave us off on our "Journey through the Clouds". A farmer (this one fully clothed) on a quad bike escorts us out of Kamloops on our second morning on the iron road.
I was on board one of the last journeys of the season. The train runs from May to mid-October, having dropped the winter excursions because of snowfall and less daylight hours.
I'd like to think autumn is the best time of year to make this journey. The leaves are turning — the golden aspen, pale yellow birch and deep coppers of the iconic maple leaf. The peaks of the Rockies have pulled on light blankets of snow. And it's an agreeable 20C outside.
It's still light when the train pulls into its destinations around 7pm, where you disembark to sleep in hotel rooms. You don't get off the train during the day — it only stops to let the freight snakes, some more than 4km long, clatter by.
You could, of course, drive yourself through the Rockies, but there's something idyllic about doing it by train. You can sit back and stare at an unending, almost implausible, movie reel of mountains, forests, waterfalls and lakes; and be transported back to the romantic era of rail travel. (And giggle at the stewards announcing odd place names like Chilliwack, Skuzzy Creek and Jackass Mountain).
Once you take your comfortable seats, there's little reason to leave them. Unless you're in a Gold Leaf car — the first-class service on board — and you have to descend a spiral staircase from the top deck to the dining room below. But trust me, this is definitely not a burden. In fact, the food — which can be delivered to your seat, with drinks, any time you request — is a key reason many people ride this train. "Come for the food, stay for the scenery," a steward quips.
If you have to stretch your legs, Gold Leaf guests can visit the open-air vestibules at the end of the Gold Leaf cars to get some fresh mountain air, and different photo perspectives.
The first day of the "Journey through the Clouds" follows the opening stretch of the historic Canadian Pacific Railway route, tracks laid coast-to-coast across the vast continent in 1885 — paid for by the Scots, built by the Chinese. They linked British Columbia to the rest of Canada and helped unite the newly independent nation. The Rocky Mountaineer has been riding these rails since 1990.
At first, the train seems to crawl through Vancouver's boondocks, but once it crosses over the mighty Fraser River, flooded with salmon, and into the fertile green Fraser Valley, you know it's time to start paying serious attention through the massive windows that arch overhead.
By then, though, it's breakfast time, and your focus is diverted to what culinary pleasures to choose for your two courses (I recommend the spinach and feta souffle with Fraser Valley eggs and Canadian smoked bacon). Don't worry, you can still peer down into the plunging canyons as you chew and sip. The drivers kindly slow down at the best instagrammable sights, and alert you to soaring bald eagles, osprey nesting on top of telegraph poles, grazing mountain goats and if you're lucky, a bear fishing for dinner. I saw most of them, but alas, no bear.
It was a little disorienting stepping on to land at the end of the first day suffering from "train legs" — wobbling like I'd spent days at sea.
When we returned to the train early the next morning, it had split in two — half the cars and their passengers bound for Lake Louise and Banff. Our locomotive continued northeast, through Yellowhead Pass — the border between British Columbia and Alberta, which was the main route across the Rockies for Canada's First Nations indigenous people and early European fur traders.
When Mt Robson — at 3954m, the highest peak in the Rockies — came plainly into view, the train stopped so passengers could take it all in. It was such a rare sight, that even the train staff were blown away. The mountain creates its own clouds, but today, the sky was a crisp cerulean blue.
"There are only around 12 days a year when you can actually see the peak," the steward said, "and this is one of them."
On the final leg the train slips into the world heritage site of Jasper National Park, before ending its journey in Jasper, the laid-back little mountain town that prides itself on being unpretentious. My next stop was the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge — a sprawling 280ha on the serene Lac Beauvert, with Canada's top resort golf course and its own community of 700 free-ranging elk and 150 grizzly bears.
It was hard to leave that train — its framed views of sublime mountain ranges and glacier lakes; the white linen tablecloths and the hypnotic rocking that I'd become blissfully accustomed to. I wanted a little more time to spot that elusive bear, and, maybe, just maybe, a gun-toting farmer in the altogether.
It has to be the best kind of holiday from life's daily grind, right? When the only crucial decision you have to make in a day is: the Alberta beef short ribs braised in Okanagan Valley merlot or the fresh steelhead salmon stuffed with a light mousseline?
It's not actually a real dilemma. Whichever entree you don't select for your three-course lunch on the Rocky Mountaineer, it will be among the eight delights on offer the following day.
Most mobile kitchens don't dish up cuisine quite like those on the Rocky Mountaineer. On a 24-car train, there are eight kitchen cars — with 80 chefs cooking, preparing and plating.
Everything is prepared and cooked in the narrow, rocking galley kitchens, so breakfast and lunch times are precisely choreographed acts.
"The train's movement and space affect you a lot," says the well-travelled executive chef Jean Pierre Guerin, who has redesigned first class menus on many airlines, but says train cuisine is so much more complex.
"You must be super-organised and synchronised. Every galley cooks everything at the same time. Everything on the plates must be perfect." Up to 3000 meals are created each trip. Guerin tries to source all ingredients from British Columbia or Alberta; the wines are from the nearby Okanagan Valley and the beers are local brews.
Gold Leaf class passengers eat downstairs at dining room tables, with white linen tablecloths and flower posies, while in Silver Leaf, meals are served at the guests' seats.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Vancouver.
Details: The 2018 Rocky Mountaineer season has just opened for bookings.