Chris Marriner is on the right track for a perfect introduction to the Canadian wilderness.

They're out there somewhere, padding through the pines and scooping salmon from the rivers. Perhaps they hear the train coming or perhaps they have decided, as a collective, to boycott the journey. They might have even been at their annual picnic. Whatever the reason, the bears of the Rocky Mountains fail to make an appearance during our two-day trip on the Rocky Mountaineer. Aside from this ursine exception the views are divine.

The Rocky Mountaineer has been in operation in Canada's Alberta and British Columbia for nearly 30 years, becoming the busiest private passenger rail service in North America and opening up the Rocky Mountains to travellers who don't want to trade in comfort to get their slice of adventure. Traversing some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world while being waited on and pampered, it's easy to see why the train pulls the luxury cruise crowd.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers two types of carriage, the SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf.


Passengers in SilverLeaf are served their meals at their seats while GoldLeaf passengers travel in a bi-level dome, decamping from their warmed recliner seats on the upper level to be served meals in the dining car a level below.

The service is of the same high quality for both, with attentive staff who cater for every whim and provide excellent commentary on the sights that speed by.

I'm travelling with a group on The Rocky Mountaineer's First Passage To The West, a journey that starts in the resort town of Banff before crossing the Canadian Rockies and heading down through the Fraser Valley to Vancouver.

We've not yet got our eyes in when the first animal is spotted, minutes from the station. It's an elk crashing about in the bush. I think guiltily back to the elk burger I ate the day before in Banff.

No danger of diner's remorse over some of the other animals you might see from the train, such as the aforementioned bears or the bald eagles that make this part of Canada home. We're promised that staff at the front of the train are always scanning for wildlife and will slow the train and call back if there are sightings. There is much discussion in our group of what constitutes "bear country" and after hours of fruitless scanning of the forest some disappointment begins to seep in. Perhaps we missed them? A Canadian among us quickly dispels any notion that the bear's range might be limited, remembering the time a black bear found itself in downtown Vancouver after falling asleep in a dumpster. Hope swells again.

The Rocky Mountaineer makes its way. Photo / Supplied
The Rocky Mountaineer makes its way. Photo / Supplied

We're taking one of the last trips for the year, as the service shuts down for the winter in October. We're told this is nothing to do with the weather, more the fading light. The autumn change in the Rockies is obvious the day before we leave. Banff is covered by a good dumping of snow and, though most trees in the mountains are evergreen, the striking yellow hues of the quaking aspens emerge from a sea of green pine.

This is an old country and the ancient granite mountains and huge glacial valleys seem untroubled by the recent human intrusion. This may be due to the protections put in place, as huge swathes of the area are designated National Park, but it's easy to imagine we're seeing this landscape not much changed from that which greeted the early settlers.

As a first-time visitor to Canada I'm struck by many similarities with New Zealand. A shared heritage, an easy-going attitude with a dry sense of humour and a politeness that never stretches to cloying performance. It's tempting to draw parallels in the landscapes too and there are certainly Kiwi echoes in the rushing rivers of the Rockies and in the wine country further west. The difference here is in the scale: the Canadian Rockies are as long as New Zealand and only one of the mountain ranges the train passes through. This means amateur photographers are never in danger of missing the shot. Miss that waterfall? There are another three coming up. Asleep when we passed that snowcapped mountain? Give it another five minutes.


It's after a long day of good food, great service and stunning views that we arrive in the sprawling town of Kamloops. Passengers are efficiently dispatched by coach to hotels for the night, where we arrive at our rooms to find our luggage waiting. The conference centre hotel is jarring after a day on the rails but the whole process is very smooth and we're off again in the morning, on the home stretch to Vancouver.

Leaving Kamloops the train slinks along the Thompson River and Kamloops Lake. We're told to keep an eye out for bald eagles and bighorn sheep and though the latter keep their big horns to themselves we do see the eagles in number, swooping alongside the train or perching in trees. The area is popular with Hollywood too, transformed into Texas, Mexico or the Egyptian desert. It was gold that first drove Europeans to this area in the 19th century and their travails in taming the landscape are made plain by the names they left: the train passes through Jaws of Death Gorge, Avalanche Alley and Hell's Gate on this portion of the route.

Fittingly, it's at the town of Hope that the scenery opens up and we leave the mountains for the fertile Fraser Valley. The train picks up speed as it passes through farming country, all watched over by the towering Mt Baker, across the border in the US. There's enough time to enjoy a drink and take it all in before we begin our slow crawl through the suburbs of Vancouver.

The train is so comfortable that it's an effort to get off, which is fortunate given that until we reach our destination it is simply not an option. If there is one downside to a trip such as this, it's that we see so much that warrants further exploration, but schedules and environmental concerns mean it's not possible. But as a train journey it is hard to beat and as an introduction to this part of the world it offers access and insight you won't find elsewhere, along with a good glass of wine and warm seat.




8-day Vancouver to Calgary trip

on the Rocky Mountaineer is priced from $4449pp, twin-share.