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AAA Traveler Worldwise | International


The words “train travel” are music to a luxury-seeker’s ears. The mere mention, and we’re mentally on board, whisking past riverside villages where church bells ring out over fruit orchards, our champagne flutes and cutlery clinking in time to the steady whoosh and clack of steel wheels on track.

Rocky Mountaineer trainRocky Mountaineer staff serve up a side of local history to go with the breathtaking scenery; Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

It’s mid-spring, and my husband, Josh, and I are about to board Rocky Mountaineer’s Goldleaf train car for a two-day First Passage to the West journey from Vancouver to Banff. The Goldleaf package combines exceptional luxury and service with culinary travel at its finest. It’s wild salmon plucked from a babbling stream high atop British Columbia. It’s a ballad of local berries bursting with farm freshness. It’s gin and chartreuse infusing the afternoon with pale-green harmonies.

And just like any great musical composition, this production is all about timing.

Executive Chef Kaelhub CudmoreExecutive Chef Kaelhub Cudmore; Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

Steeped in food history and culture, the ruggedly beautiful locales of the Canadian Rockies that include Surrey, Kamloops and Salmon Arm are best experienced through the eyes, ears, heart and hands of a local expert. Enter Executive Chef Kaelhub Cudmore. When he joined Rocky Mountaineer, the Vancouver native brought along two decades of dining knowledge that span Canada’s finest wilderness lodges, heli-skiing resorts and luxury cruise lines.

“I’m inspired by the land we travel through and the food memories we create,” he says. “For me, this is the beauty of the culinary program at Rocky Mountaineer. We’re fortunate to travel through incredible lands, and the scenery on the other side of the windows is a constant inspiration.”

Chef Cudmore sources the freshest possible ingredients from spots along the train route. He gets farm-fresh poultry and produce from the fertile Fraser Valley; pork and coffee hail from the Shuswap region.

“When our guests are dining with us, we want them to enjoy a great meal and learn the stories behind the food,” he says. “Sourcing locally helps us support the communities and producers in the places we call home.”

woman looking out at lake with mountains in backgroundInhaling mountain-fresh air on the train’s outdoor viewing platform; Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

The sun is just starting its purposeful march across the Vancouver foothills as we board with roughly a dozen other Goldleaf guests. The Goldleaf car is a bi-level restaurant on wheels, with spacious, buttery-soft leather seats that provide a dazzling 180-degree view through the glass-domed roof. The galley crew is already strumming our favorite wake-up tune: a coffee grinder buzzes merrily, steam hisses from pillowy croissants. It takes only a few invigorating sips before we’re singing the praises of pre-breakfast in unison.

Properly caffeinated and newly acquainted, we notice shapes beginning to materialize outside the domed windows. Bighorn sheep lap their own libations from the banks of a lazy creek bed, while a bald eagle sizes up its prey. It seems all of nature is bellying up to savor the new day. We parade down the spiral staircase to the train’s lower-level dining room for a spread of smoked salmon on avocado toast and fluffy lemon-and-honey buttermilk pancakes.

charcuterie boardA late afternoon charcuterie snack aboard the Rocky Mountaineer; Photo by Josh Purnell

We spend the afternoon sipping cocktails in our comfy seats while the train hugs steep slopes, passing through winding river canyons, man-made rock sheds and lush forests. The tranquil blues and greens of Fraser Valley slowly fade away, replaced by arid canyons so close it seems we could reach out and pick a wildflower from their feet.

Dusk descends as we approach Kamloops, nestled at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers. We’ll disembark to explore the town and rest for the night—but not before feasting on IPA-braised Albert beef shank and handmade gnocchi.

After a delightful evening of conversation over craft beer and elevated pub grub𠊊t The Noble Pig in Kamloops, we’ve made lifelong friends with several of our fellow passengers. We spend a restful night at a luxury hotel and awake refreshed and ready for the second act.

eggs benedictBreakfast aboard the Rocky Mountaineer: eggs Benedict with crispy skillet potatoes: Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

It’s now day two and our final day aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. After a soul-soothing breakfast of creamy eggs Benedict and slabs of salt-cured bacon, guests gather on the train’s outdoor viewing platform to spend the afternoon soaking up as much natural beauty as we possibly can. We’re snapping pics of sparkling Shuswap Lake when Matt, our Rocky Mountaineer guide, takes to the intercom. “In a few minutes, we’ll be passing Criagellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in 1885,” he says. We round a curve in time to see schoolchildren gathered around the site, engrossed in an oral history. Back in our seats for another afternoon reverie, we wave to residents greeting the train from their porches in the dreamy cliffside villages of Yoho National Park. The train begins its final ascent against an emerald-green backdrop of cascading waterfalls.

Before we know it, it’s time to head back downstairs for an early dinner of crispy-skin steelhead trout and Moroccan couscous with cabbage, wild sun-dried tomatoes and local mushrooms. The wine and conversation are flowing freely now, and we’re just wrapping up a dessert of fresh apricots and cream when Matt chimes in with another message: We’re approaching the Spiral Tunnels—and things are about to get really interesting.

The Rocky Mountaineer boasts no shortage of engineering feats, but this particular section, completed in 1909, is among the steepest grades ever constructed. The track tunnels deep into the heart of Mount Ogden and Cathedral Mountain from the valley floor, snaking upward and outward—with intermittent and jaw-dropping glimpses straight down the mountainside—before looping back to continue its journey. The train meanders slowly for this final leg, as if it knows we’re in no hurry to leave all this natural beauty and cheerful companionship behind.

Fairmont Château Lake LouiseA prized view of the lake and Fairmont Château Lake Louise; Photo courtesy of Fairmont Château Lake Louise

However bittersweetly, the time has come to depart. As we wait patiently to disembark, our little posse huddles around one last charcuterie board to plan for the next two days in Banff National Park. There’s more adventure in store. Our first look at the Fairmont Château Lake Louise, where we’ll be staying for two nights, takes our breath away. Perched beneath two glacial mountains that feed its namesake turquoise lagoon, this 539-room resort blends untamed wilderness with unbeatable luxury. Every detail is polished—from its glittering dining rooms and tidy gift shops to the intricately carved maidens in the main lobby’s chandelier, who pay homage to the Swiss influence in the area’s early development.

The next two days are a haze of afternoon tea, decadent meals, hot soaks and endless laughter in a setting reminiscent of a scene from a Wes Anderson film. By day, we don boot spikes and crunch through lingering lakeside snowdrifts to Fairview Lookout. By night, we trade train memories over port and oven-warm cookies beside a roaring fire. The crystalline frost at Lake Louise belies a surprisingly comfortable temperature; we sleep with the windows open while the wind whispers songs in a language only the mountains understand.

It’s been weeks now since our adventure concluded, but sometimes when the breeze kicks up just so, I can still hear it: the faint but unmistakable whistle and whir of the Rocky Mountaineer.