Up early, we scramble downstairs to get our boarding passes for the Rocky Mountaineer. The process is smooth. We board a charter bus and head for the train station. The Mountaineer has its own dedicated station. Beautiful, sunny and clean. A piper pipes us aboard Car Number 12 and friendly uniformed staff wave to us in welcome. Feels like what jet travel must have felt like in the 60’s.
We splurged on “Gold Leaf Service”. Our coach is nicely appointed, spacious and features a clear shatterproof glass top for viewing of some of the world’s most amazing scenery. Staff is gracious, accommodating, informative and funny. Passengers are mostly the grey brigade including a 95 years young gentleman traveling on his own. A snappy dresser with an engaging laugh, he is crossing this trip off of his bucket list. No children on board today. Many accents twitter about among the passengers. We hear smatterings of German, Dutch, English and Australian. And Gatineau French. One of our fellow passengers is based close to home.
By 8:30 we are slowly proceeding through the suburbs of Vancouver. Past New Westminster, shipping containers and rail yards. Very industrial for a bit.
Our train consists of 22 cars and over 600 passengers for today’s journey. The dining car can only accommodate so many people and we are included in the second seating, which means eating breakfast around 10 am. To tide us over we are served a warm cinnamon scone and tea while we roll through scrub land dotted with goldenrod, purple asters, yellow snap dragons, horsetail, rambling wild blackberries and inexplicably, a fully loaded tractor trailer of new vehicles in the middle of a ramshackle farm yard. The views soon give way to the farm belt of the Fraser River Valley. Tree nurseries, cornfields, blueberry “orchards,” hops and the occasional horse or cow. Fellow vacationers follow roadside towing campers.
While today’s first breakfast seating enjoys the gold leaf service, we spend time in the vestibule, an outdoor covered balcony at the rear of our train car. Here we take about 500 pictures of blurry trees whipping by as we learn to adjust to taking pictures from a speeding train. We are entering the foothills. The day is sunny, warm and the air is beyond fresh.
Our view changes to mostly mixed conifer and deciduous trees. We pull over to a siding to allow a coal train to pass. Our hostess tells me that we have the right of way as a passenger train and pay a premium for the privilege, but if the freight train is too long for the siding or is late, we will be asked to pull over. This is a working railway. By day two we will understand that we really do not have right of way.
Now our view shifts to beautiful views of the milky green waters of the Fraser River as it winds by. As we reach Hell’s Gate, the train slows to “kodak speed”, one of the very few times it does, for picture ops. “I believe I have reached the Gates of Hell”, declared wussy explorer Simon Fraser upon first reaching this narrow where more water pours through per minute than spills over Niagara Falls in the same time. Of course, it may have appeared more daunting in a birch bark canoe and knowing that no fine cheese plate and glass of merlot awaits when he returned to his seat.
Sandy rock towers rise to one side of the train. Soft rock is overlaid with hard stone and then again with soft rock. As the soft rock erodes it leaves behind artifacts that are reminiscent of the features in the mountains of Arizona. Striated rock faces in shades of grey rise into cornflower blue skies, dotted with cottonball clouds which cast their shadows blissfully on the hills. Conifers and loose pebble beaches line the cool green water. We get an occasional glimpse of a colourful, graffiti decorated train riding the tracks on the opposite bank.
Lunch is late as we are part of the second seating. The menu is varied with good choices. The food is decent, artfully presented, fine, “hotel” meets first class airline food. This is not a foodie slag. Remarkable for just being produced en masse in a small, stainless steel galley kitchen, the food, mildly seasoned is well suited to pleasing a great many people. There are over 600 passengers from around the globe with varied palates. While we are satisfied and sustained, the food is not particularly noteworthy.
The stoic, spent towers of mulleins line the tracks and begin to mingle with the grey green sagebrush. The yellow-blooming sage presents itself against the backdrop of the fawn coloured hills. I could be in the Nevada desert. I admit to being surprised by the arid BC interior. The larger mountains have receded to the background. Osprey and bald eagles are eagerly spotted by passengers in and near the dead trees they nest in. As we pass a bend in the Thompson River, we spot a herd of Bighorn Sheep.
We continue on our leisurely passage to Kamloops, where the north and south Thompson rivers converge. As the train pulls in to our overnight stop, past homes and yards, we are waved in by two of Kamloops finest on their mounts. Kamloops receives passengers from the Rocky Mountaineer, six days per week, 7 months a year, who comprise the bulk of their tourist and main industry. We are soon whisked away by “chariot” to our accommodations for the evening. Unfortunately our chariot takes issue with hills in a hilly city. Have no fear, our determined driver, backs up and takes a run at it. Luckily the traffic light is with us and we arrive in our rooms, key in hand, already checked in, luggage waiting. Very efficient. This is appreciated because we are exhausted by 7 pm.