Photos courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer
“Bear on the left!” Like a kid, I can’t stop shouting and pointing at the black bear in the woods. Minutes later, bear gone, I’m scanning jagged mountain peaks for a glimpse of ice-blue glaciers. When lunch finally rolls around (second seating), I’m feasting on wild salmon while sipping chilled Chardonnay.
Sound like an Alaska cruise? Well it is, sort of. Riding the rails aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is a pampered land cruise through Canada’s rugged Rockies, including stops at Jasper, Lake Louise or Banff. The Rocky Mountaineer, which began service in 1990, is North America’s largest privately owned passenger train and has become a popular add-on to Alaska cruises docking in Vancouver, and now Seattle.
Beginning in May 2014, the Rocky Mountaineer crossed the Canadian border into the U.S., offering the first full season of pre and post-cruise train trips from Seattle to Vancouver and beyond. Seeing the Rockies just got a whole lot easier.
About 50% of train travelers combine their rail tour with an Alaska cruise, according to Rocky Mountaineer spokeswoman Angela Osborne. On many trains, including my mid-May, six-day journey from Seattle to Vancouver and on to Kamloops and Lake Louise, Australians outnumber Americans. Most ride the rails before or after a cruise; many are retired couples. Currently, both HAL and Norwegian Cruise Line partner with Rocky Mountaineer to cross-sell multi-day rail/sail packages.
Cruisers choosing a Seattle train departure, named the Coastal Passage route, ride a luxury dinner train to Vancouver where they spend a night or two exploring the sights. Then it’s a two-day train excursion to ether Jasper or a choice of Lake Louise, Banff or Calgary. Nights are spent off the train at hotels, booked at a level equivalent to your ship cabin category. Verandah passengers on HAL’s Westerdam, for example, stay at upscale Fairmont hotels where available.
The Rocky Mountaineer, like a cruise ship, offers various levels of service. At the top end, GoldLeaf passengers enjoy cushy reclining seats in bi-level dome cars. All meals are cooked-to-order and served in the lower level dining room. Even better, wine and cocktails are included.
SilverLeaf travelers have a single level dome car and dine on cooked meals at their seats. Tourists in RedLeaf (not available on the new Seattle route) ride in standard carriages and have chilled meals, such as a continental breakfast and a turkey baguette or chicken pasta salad for lunch.
No matter which level you choose, the ride is all about eye-popping mountain scenery you can’t see any other way, combined with leisurely dining, socializing with fellow travelers and just kicking back. When not indulging in breakfast, lunch or snacks, passengers are entertained by story-telling guides who point out key sights.
During Canadian segments (10 – 11 hours a day), most passengers fill free time chatting over cocktails and enjoying the views. All cars have a place to stand (no smoking allowed) at the end for fresh air and photo-taking, and the GoldLeaf car features a large, open-air viewing platform on the lower-level, reached by a circular stairway. I expected to see people napping, but most didn’t — the scenery was that awesome.
Despite those craggy peaks and wildlife encounters (we saw four bears, big horn sheep, elk and eagles), the train is not for everyone. If you need to be wired 24/7, you’ll be out of range throughout the Rockies. All those selfies you took will be on hold until you reach your overnight hotel. Then you’re free to get back on the grid and go from unplugged to wired at will.
But would I ride the Rocky rails again? Absolutely. The train, just like an Alaskan cruise, is never the same twice.
*Check out our slideshow about Alaska cruisetour destinations
*Read our story on things you need to know about Alaska cruisetours.