Rocky Mountaineer

All aboard the wine train.

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The sun is rising as I check in at the impressive Rocky Mountaineer station in Vancouver for an extravagant wine-themed, two-day journey through the Canadian Rockies to Calgary. If it wasn’t for the welcoming staff and wafting aroma of freshly brewed coffee and warm blueberry scones, I would have been tempted to head back home to bed. I also stay because I’m curious to see how the Rocky Mountaineer measures up to my previous travels on the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and on Switzerland’s Glacier Express.

From my top-deck seat in the upscale GoldLeaf section with its glass dome sun-roof, I spot wildlife and watch scenery roll by at a camera-friendly speed (the train slows down at Hell’s Gate for a photo-op) while sipping pinot gris and listening to on-board attendants deliver live commentary on the history, geology, flora and fauna.

By offering local products, the train’s menu reflects the places it travels through. “We use wild pacific salmon, orchard fruits, berries and root vegetables and free-range chicken from Fraser Valley and prime beef and bison from Alberta,” says executive corporate chef Frederic Couton. In the private 36-seat dining car on the main level, travellers enjoy a made-to-order breakfast and a British Columbia wine-pairing lunch. It turns out that, on average, 90 per cent of passengers, mostly from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have never tasted a B.C. wine.

Lunch begins with Salt Spring Island goat cheese over tender spinach leaves with grapes and popped wild rice croutons followed by a creamy chanterelle soup; both are paired with a pinot gris. For the main course, a wild salmon glazed with buckwheat honey served over warm potato salad, with a glass of pinot noir. The cheese course is a local blue matched with Pipe, a port-style wine, and dessert is tarte Tatin and ehrenfelser ice wine.

The descending sun signals the end of the first part of the journey (the Rocky Mountaineer travels only during daylight hours), but the adventure resumes when we pull out of Kamloops, our overnight stop, and proceed through vast ranchlands, past Craigellachie, where the “last spike” was driven completing the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. Then we move through the tunnels of snow-capped Rogers Pass, and the legendary Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park before crossing over the Continental Divide into Banff National Park and on to Calgary.

Next year I’ll do the trip again, but will break up the journey between Vancouver and Banff by taking advantage of Rocky Mountaineer’s first ever 2010 GoldLeaf Themed Experiences in the beautiful Okanagan Valley. The eight-day wine-tasting itinerary includes multi-day excursions for those with a nose in search of New World vineyards and blue-green lakes. Upon arrival in Banff I’ll have to decide between a round of golf on a world-class course in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains or soaring above in a helicopter before a wine-themed dinner at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

The Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury train that has all the trimmings of its overseas counterparts. In the wild and remote Rocky Mountains of Western Canada, this train will take you past some of North America’s best scenery. Even the most jaded Poirot fan will not have to read a book to pass the time on this memorable trip.

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December 10, 2009