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Aboard the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff, one writer learns the value of taking the scenic route.
I am standing in the middle of the Rocky Mountaineer train station, scowling. It’s bright and sunny, and everyone around me is buzzing with excitement, craning their necks to get a view of the train outside on the platform, but I’ve got baggage beyond my suitcase: the last train trip I took was for a government-sponsored student exchange program, during which I was shoved with hundreds of other sweaty teens into a passenger car and trundled from Vancouver to rural Quebec, so I am not exactly jazzed to ride the rails again.
On that last trip, there were no showers. We slept in our seats. The days passed in a sluggish haze: you counted down the restless hours between meals because there wasn’t anything else to do, but when lunchtime came, you were still full from breakfast. (Playing cards isn’t high on the calorie-burning index.) The train would stop only to pick up more kids or kick off the ones who had snuck vodka aboard. They were the second-longest four days of my life—the longest happening eight weeks later, when we spent four more days making the same trip in reverse, homesick and bored.
I’ve been assured by my travelling companion that this trip will be in no way a replay of that trip, but I’m approaching with caution. We’ve booked passage on the Rocky Mountaineer—a far cry from the cramped cabins of CN Rail all those years ago. I sink into my lush seat, and a smiling attendant in a jaunty cravat approaches me, a mimosa in hand, with another employee following, passing out warm cinnamon scones. “A toast to our journey ahead!” they say, and my fellow passengers cheer and clink glasses. I cautiously raise my own. So far, so good.
Nobody takes this train because it’s convenient—it turns what would be a nine-hour drive or an hour-and-a-half flight from Vancouver into a two-day event. And nobody takes it because it’s an inexpensive alternative—take a bus if you want to save a few bucks. It’s one of those rarities in 2015: a trip that is literally about the journey. The destination is a nice one, of course (the route takes you right to the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel), but by selecting the long way around, you’re making a specific choice, declaring train travel an experience in and of itself.
It’s an unusual concept for most people, me included. In the rest of our lives, we look to do things as fast as we can. Efficiency is next to godliness, and it’s really tough to let that instinct go. For the first three hours, as the train transitions from the Fraser Valley to the Fraser Canyon, I shift anxiously in my seat, refreshing my Internet browser on my laptop even though I’ve been told there’s no wifi on the train. I make to-do lists for the next week, organize my purse, flag down the porter to find out what time we’re making our overnight stop in Kamloops so I can plan a workout routine for the evening. As we chug past landmarks (the churning waters of Hells Gate), the Rocky Mountaineer hosts offer history lessons and corny jokes, and I perfunctorily acknowledge the majestic scenery before turning back to my busy work.
But by the end of day one my Type A personality is transitioning into Type B, verging on C as I forget about my workout plans. The whole point of this experience is to power down and enjoy being off the grid. Breakfast is a two-hour affair: fresh croissants and coffee followed by fruit followed by creamy scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and caviar. Lunch is just as leisurely, enjoyed in the dining car alongside friendly strangers—the three-course meal on day one is inspired by B.C. ingredients, and on day two by Albertan ones, both meals paired with a never-ending flow of Okanagan wines.
A few glasses of chardonnay in, at the advice of my dining companions, I try to think of this as a personal challenge: the measurement of success on this train will be how little work I can get done. Yes, I think, slamming my laptop shut, I am going to relax so hard. I am going to be the best at relaxing, a champion. I will relax circles around my fellow passengers.
It’s tough competition, of course. The Rocky Mountaineer attracts expert loungers—senior citizens who love the scenic route; international travellers well versed in living in the moment; honeymooners happy to alternate between gazing into each other’s eyes and gazing out onto the jagged mountainside.
But eventually the gentle sway of the train, the murmurs of relaxed conversation and the rolling scenery start to work their magic (that and the bottomless Baileys and coffee). I start to lose track of the hours, stop refreshing my email. Curled up in the plush seat, I alternate between reading a guilty-pleasure thriller and scouting out the windows for mountain goats. Further down the car, someone shouts that they spotted a bear, and it’s a silly scramble to jockey for a view as we all play wildlife paparazzi. And when I feel like stretching my legs, I walk down the spiral staircase to the open-air vestibule, where windswept photographers with Australian accents lean slightly too far over the railing to snap photos of the engine turning around the bend.
And soon, too soon, we’re checking into the Banff Springs, and I’m filling my backpack with hiking essentials (the house-made chocolate bars from the hotel) and heading out onto the Spray River Loop trail. It feels good to move around again, to be free and alone to explore the same landscape that I had been watching for two days, but I can’t help but think that it all looked just a little better framed by the window of the train.
Vancouver-Portland At 10 and a half hours the Amtrak Cascades takes longer than driving and you still have to stop for customs. But this is the classic urban-hub-to-urban-hub tripóperfect for a four-day escape. amtrak.com/cascades-train
Jasper-Prince Rupert Via Rail operates this line, which is sort of a slightly blue-collar alternative to the chi-chi Rocky Mountaineer (though itís still pretty nice). Expect plenty of foreign nationals as wellójust the slightly more rugged ones. viarail.ca
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