Anyone looking to explore the staggering landscapes of Western Canada should consider a pre- or post-Alaska cruise extension on the Rocky Mountaineer train. Rocky Mountaineer operates a handful of two- and three-day rail journeys, including service from the cruise departure cities of Vancouver and Seattle. You will be awed by the sheer scale of the mountain ranges, rushing rivers, waterfalls and miles of ever-changing wilderness -- from the comfort of your coach seat.
The cruise-and-rail packages sold through the Rocky Mountaineer website are in partnership with Holland America Line voyages. However, Rocky Mountaineer also partners with multiple cruise lines, such as Cunard, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Azamara and Viking Cruises, which sell packages bundling a ride on the Rocky Mountaineer train with a sailing to Alaska.
If you're looking to board the train but not sure where to start, we've broken down where you can go, what packages you can buy and what you can expect onboard the Rocky Mountaineer.
The Rocky Mountaineer train offers two main routes through the Canadian Rockies: First Passage to the West (Vancouver via Kamloops to Banff and Lake Louise -- or reverse) along with Journey Through the Clouds (between Vancouver and Jasper via Kamloops -- and reverse).
Two additional itineraries include a Coastal Passage route from Seattle to Banff via Vancouver, and the Rainforest to Gold Rush journey from Vancouver to Jasper via Whistler and Quesnel. All routes can be ridden in reverse; check the calendar to see which departure dates are offered for your preferred itinerary.
The Rocky Mountaineer train utilizes Canada's two main railway systems -- Canadian Pacific and Canadian National -- to pass between Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise in the province of Alberta, and Vancouver, Kamloops and Whistler, located in British Columbia.
There are only two service levels onboard a Rocky Mountaineer train: Gold Leaf and Silver Leaf. (Red Leaf service ended in 1995.) The primary difference in service levels is that Gold Leaf passengers have a separate dining room downstairs for meals with more menu options, while Silver Leaf customers dine at their seats. All passengers onboard the train are treated to the same type of informational commentary and attentive service.
A wide beverage selection applies to all travelers, and coffee/tea, ice water, soft drinks, juices, beer, wine and select spirits are enthusiastically served throughout the day and included in the fare. The beer, wine and food onboard are locally sourced throughout Alberta and elsewhere in Canada.
Children are welcome onboard the Rocky Mountaineer, if they can handle being onboard a single train car for an entire day. Coloring books and activity packs are provided, a special ice cream treat is served at lunch and the staff onboard do their best to entertain these younger travelers.
Passengers who book a Silver Leaf ticket can expect full-size windows for admiring the scenery as well as a small viewing platform for about two people at a time to enjoy the view in the open air. Apart from the small viewing platform, Silver Leaf passengers are confined to their car with meals served at their seats (a fold-out tray table is affixed to all seats on the train). Two hosts and one culinary team member attend to each car, with a maximum of about 56 people.
The breakfast and lunch Rocky Mountaineer menu consist of two options (with a vegetarian option available upon request). Breakfast could be scrambled eggs or French toast. Lunch begins with a starter (like a tomato salad) and mains are primarily a fish or other protein option, such as oven-baked Pacific salmon with garlic-herb risotto or a signature burger with local beef on a brioche bun and served with Yukon Gold potatoes. Dessert changes daily.
Snack mixes (sweet and salty, spicy, nuts or dried fruits) are served between meals, and hot towels are passed before every meal service.
The Rocky Mountaineer Gold Leaf level provides passengers with the full viewing experience of a glass dome roof as well as a larger viewing platform downstairs. Four hosts attend to a maximum of 72 passengers; two service the seating area, while another two hosts and a culinary team of three people cater to passengers in the dining room.
All meals are held in a dining room that accommodates four at each table, which means that meals are taken in two seatings. This also means that if you are a party of two, you will likely be paired with other travelers at your table.
The Gold Leaf menu is made to order, meaning that dietary restrictions are easily accommodated, and each menu comes with a choice of about five options. Breakfast is the same each day, but the lunch options change. Snack mixes are also served throughout the day.
Breakfast starts with a fresh pastry (roll or croissant) as well as a fruit juice or smoothie. Meal options might include blueberry pancakes; a spinach, feta and egg souffle; or a smoked salmon and egg scramble. While half the car is waiting for breakfast, a delightful coffee/tea service is offered with fresh cinnamon scones.
Lunch begins with a soup or salad du jour, bread basket (we enjoyed the rosemary focaccia) and then a choice of about five entrees and a daily dessert special. Expect choices like an Alberta pork tenderloin with onion fondue or sauteed Pacific prawns with garlic-herb risotto, both served with local vegetables. Dessert could be a custard with berries or a chocolate cake with homemade ice cream.
On the day when passengers have second-seating lunch, a wine and cheese service is held before lunch in your seat with the area's own Canadian cheddar.
The Rocky Mountaineer trains -- there are three -- operate a season similar to that of Alaska cruises; service begins in mid-April and ends in late October. Trains run daily and depart Vancouver every Monday, Tuesday and Friday.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a daytime train, with no sleeper cars. Passengers spend up to 12 hours at a time onboard the train (schedules vary depending on rail traffic) but spend the night in hotels. There is typically time to grab dinner or drinks in town before heading to bed, but given the early start each morning, that's about it.
Prices to ride the train vary by seasonality and service level; Gold Leaf is about 25 percent more, on average. Despite that, the breakdown on a typical train is about 60 percent Gold Leaf passengers.
A 12-day package -- including a two-day Rocky Mountaineer extension with hotel stay and a full-day sightseeing tour in Vancouver following a weeklong Holland America Line Alaska sailing -- is listed on the website starting from about $4,000 per person, based on Silver Leaf service and an ocean-view cabin.
Gratuities are welcome and appreciated. Envelopes and survey cards are passed out on the final day of your trip.
Rocky Mountaineer packages sold with each Alaska cruise are not the only options. The great thing about Rocky Mountaineer is that it's highly customizable, meaning apart from the two-day minimum onboard, customers have the ability to choose from various hotel options for the overnight stays, as well as packages including day tours, self-drive options and even themes like "mountain adventure," which includes a heli-hiking detour. Prices vary based on which options you choose.
Here are a few tips to help you get the most from your train trip.
Dress for comfort: There is no dress code onboard the Rocky Mountaineer. However, it's advisable to wear sturdy comfortable footwear as the train does rock and stairwells are narrow. Mornings can be cool and damp, while afternoons in the dry desert climate of Western Canada can get quite warm. Heading between the observation deck and the air-conditioned interior of the train means you might want to have a light jacket on hand.
Pack a day bag: Luggage travels separately from the train and is transferred to your hotel each night -- and eventually onto your ship. Because of this, pack a small day bag to bring onboard with you containing medication, camera equipment and anything else you'll need for the day.
Know your train limits: Many former passengers say that three days onboard the train in a row can be a tad much. The two-day journeys seem to be the magic number, and a nice precursor or finish to a week or more on a cruise ship.
The scenery throughout the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia is so staggering that you somehow won't be bored throughout your two-day trip. Service onboard the Rocky Mountaineer is warm and pampering, which adds to the "I'm on vacation" comfort of wining and dining and snapping shots of awe-inspiring mountains and rapids. Not only is the train a pleasant way to arrive or depart your Alaska cruise, but the operation is so well organized that you simply step off the train onto a coach, into your hotel room and back again without sparing a second thought.