Bigger is certainly better when it comes to the Rocky Mountaineer, discovers Pamela Wade.
Flags, red carpet, hot towels, a welcome toast ... it was clear from the very beginning that riding the Rocky Mountaineer wasn't going to be any ordinary train trip. There would be no curled-corner sandwiches or thick china cups here: on the First Passage to the West the service is five-star, friendly and full of thoughtful touches.
And then, of course, there's the route. From Vancouver, overnighting in Kamloops before crossing the Continental Divide to Banff, it's two days of tumbling rivers, blue lakes, snow-capped mountains and mile after mile of pine-scented forest. Bit of a scenic cliche, you're thinking? Been there, seen that, in the South Island? Then remember that other cliche, bigger is better, and prepare to have your socks blown off.
On my trip, a freight train derailment blocking the line between Vancouver and Kamloops, meant passengers were bussed over the first day's route. We were reassured we weren't missing any scenery since, on this section, road and rail mostly run together along river canyons through the coastal mountain range. The offer of $300 compensation also helped.
Climbing aboard in Kamloops next morning, it was food rather than scenery that occupied us first: a splendid breakfast setting us up for the day's sightseeing. This started relatively modestly along the wide South Thompson River, with sculpted hoodoos (rock spires) beyond and red barns in the foreground. Soon, cattle gave way to wild deer, farmland to forest, river to lake and then it was time to sit back and really appreciate our GoldLeaf service dome car, its glass roof allowing a180-degree view of Canada's finest: Rocky Mountain peaks more than 3000 metres high and between them, huge glistening glaciers.
The Canadian Pacific Railway joining Vancouver and Montreal was completed in 1885, and at Craigellachie we passed The Last Spike, where the two ends were joined. Sitting comfortably in our spacious, reclining seats - Meghan and Christine turning up regularly with hot towels, snack baskets and offers of drinks - it was hard to imagine the dangerous toil that was the daily lot of the 12,000 navvies who laid the nearly 5000km of this 'iron ribbon' - even though we'd heard stories from onboard attendants.
Standing outside on the open section downstairs, though, the super-fresh air reddening our cheeks as we leaned to watch the train curve round a bend or clatter over a trestle bridge, it felt much more hands-on. Many of the passengers hung out there for much of the trip, giving their reflexes a work-out as they tried to snatch a photo of river or lake that didn't end up with a tree in the middle of it. The wildlife was an added attraction: bald eagles and deer, ospreys nesting untidily at the top of spruce trees, and Canada geese, of course. There was a possible beaver's lodge in a still pond, and distant bighorn sheep halfway up a cliff face; but what everyone was hanging out to see were moose and bears. Both are regularly sighted and cameras were kept at the ready.
When the moment came, though, it was marriage-threatening. Taking a break upstairs in the comfort of his seat, Mr Boston was the one to spot the bear, a big grizzly right by the line, in the open on a shingly bank above the track. "Bear!" he shrieked and we all swung around to glimpse it, the moment passing too quickly for a photograph. Mrs Boston downstairs, though, had been looking on the wrong side, and missed it entirely. Cue shock, disbelief, disappointment, resentment and finally - and thankfully - amusement, as she worked through a series of variations on "it's unbearable!"
The moose came later, knee-deep in a bog; but by then most of our attention was on our lunch. Served downstairs on linen tablecloths, it more than lived up to the high standard set by breakfast: delicious and accompanied by generous servings of wine.
Ten hours later, we arrived at Banff, tucked beneath a ring of spectacular mountains. We'd followed the Columbia River, climbed Kicking Horse Pass, curled through the disorienting Spiral Tunnels, and at 1600 metres above sea level crossed the Divide from where rainwater runs west to the Pacific or east right across Canada to the Atlantic. There had been magnificent mountains, thick glaciers, milky blue rivers, reflecting lakes and a billion, billion trees; plus stories, jokes, hot oatmeal cookies and a doggerel competition.
Banff is a beautiful place, but few Rocky Mountaineer passengers would arrive there without a pang of regret.
The First Passage to the West is one of four routes offered by the Rocky Mountaineer through the Rockies and down the coast to Seattle. There are two classes, GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf, and all overnights are spent in hotels. For details, go to rockymountaineer.com.
Helloworld has a 'Journey Through the Clouds Explorer' $3579 pp, for travel on selected dates. There's a CAD$800 bonus for bookings on selected journeys.