There are champagne bubbles fizzing in our flutes and rain droplets bubbling along the glass dome and an effervescent thrill rising up from the passengers’ seats as we pull slowly out of Vancouver’s Rocky Mountaineer Station. It’s a sluggish yet sparkling start to the legendary First Passage to the West journey that will take us through the Canadian Rockies, across the continental divide and over the border from British Columbia into Alberta and the alpine village of Banff.
Though we’ve been warned to have our sunglasses at the ready – “it’s true what you’ve heard, they really have been polishing those windows!” one of the cabin attendants had said as we’d climbed aboard our Gold Leaf carriage – a drizzle has settled in, stippling those windows and framing the city in a garland of raindrops.
Perhaps it is best this way, for it softens the edges of Vancouver’s grungier side: rubble stacked haphazardly around the railway siding, graffiti blooming on ramshackle buildings and on the concrete pillars holding the overpasses aloft.
“We like to start the journey with some wonderful scenery,” jokes train manager Zebulon Fastabend, sweeping his arm towards the unfolding scene.
“Here we see some of Vancouver’s leading graffiti artists.”
But the bright painted swirls left by graffitists soon give way to nature’s gentler creations: aspens aflutter with spring’s new leaves; peach trees ornamented with candy-sweet blossoms. Slowly the landscape shakes off its stiff city clothes and pulls on something a little more comfortable.
From where I sit, the fully domed windows deliver a moving commentary: here is the Fraser Valley planted with berries and herbs and orchards; there is the faint outline of Mt Baker; beneath this bridge is the river flanked by neat little clapboard houses and inhabited by harbour seals who poke their faces out of the water as sail on by.
The fruits of this landscape are served during lunch, in the restaurant on the lower level of our carriage. Executive Chef Jean Pierre Guerin and his team work miracles inside their galley kitchens, turning out high-end platters of Fraser Valley chicken served with Yukon gold potatoes, Canadian steelhead salmon baked with local market vegetables, and vegan dishes like chili chipotle and vegetable gyoza. The wine, of course, is Canadian, and it flows merrily into our glasses as the landscape – growing craggier and wilder by the minute – drifts by.
We pass through the Fraser Canyon, a temperate rainforest crammed with Douglas firs and maple trees and cedars. Whole copses were ravaged by fire last year; they shake off the cinders and ruffle their spring-fresh leaves. I peer from the dome down to Hell’s Gate, an angry chasm of water compressed by the narrowing Fraser River. In the 19th century, fur trader and explorer Simon Fraser and his men navigated this stretch of river in birch bark canoes. “Surely we have passed through the gates of hell,” he said, after they had successfully made it through.
I won’t go hungry on this journey, for the cabin attendants ply me with endless offerings from their trolleys: fresh-baked choc-chip cookies, cheese and wine, fruit and nuts, tea and coffee and cocktails. While snacks alleviate my peckishness, the landscape does an excellent job of whetting my visual appetite, for we’ve been delivered from a tunnel of greenery into a dun, dry landscape: chalky mountains striated in bands of orange and brown and green; clay hoodoos arising surreally above the glass dome.
We pull to a stop in Kamloops, where we will overnight. The railway line was once the town’s main road; its streets are filled with historic buildings that tell a story of yesteryear. But it’s a city clothed in modernity, too: the alleyways in downtown Kamloops come alive with enormous artworks, murals blossoming across drab buildings as part of a revival project that began in 2005.
The next day is epic, for we cross two mountain ranges and seven rivers. The fuel for such excitement-inducing activity is delivered at breakfast (blueberry pancakes, smoked salmon and egg scramble) then lunch (Alberta pork tenderloins, smoky mushroom burgers, Pacific prawns). While jabbing forks into my mouth I watch as the scenery becomes progressively dramatic: rivers spreading out to resemble glassy lakes; mountains rising up in increments until their peaks disappear inside the clouds; aspens and cottonwoods and hemlocks tumbling down towards the railway tracks.
The weather has changed now, too, for snow sits on the forest floor. Everything is still and silent. We cross the continental divide, and pass over it into Alberta. And it’s as though the pages of a storybook have opened, for I find myself inside a world of deep turquoise lakes, of mountains rising sheer and snow-dusted from every horizon, and ospreys flying high on the breeze. It’s a fairy-tale, and I’m its newest character.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of The Rocky Mountaineer. See: rockymountaineer.com