Pacific Northwest | November 23, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 23, home
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Respite by RAIL
Away from the holiday hurry, we find time for good food and good company
In the galley of one of the first-class dining cars, cooks join in the holiday mood as they plate desserts for the rolling gourmet meals aboard the Rocky Mountaineer Railtours.
AS I RAISED a spoonful of pumpkin soup to my lips and took in the cold, gray light of the snow-covered hills outside, it occurred to me that the train was a world unto itself. Inside one of the "GoldLeaf" dining cars of the Rocky Mountaineer Railtours winter train, I was warm and dry, wrapped in the convivial light of a day-after-Christmas getaway. Outside, the blue Canadian Rockies were draped in their own timeless splendor.

We were on the first leg of a two-day tour from Vancouver, B.C., to Banff, Alberta. While the post-holiday mood and our pre-dawn departure could have rendered us a little disoriented, the cheery nature of the journey itself and the easy jocularity of the crew put us right at ease. The free-flowing B.C. wines from the Okanagan made it even easier to let go of the world outside.

The whole thing had begun two years earlier, when my father-in-law started dropping some not-so-subtle hints that he wanted to go on a train ride. "There's a short train ride that takes you into the mountains to cut your own Christmas tree," he said. "But a real train trip would be even better." It sounded good to us; so my wife Betsy and I determined that as soon as the right opportunity presented itself, we would hit the rails with her parents.

GoldLeaf Sugar Pumpkin Soup
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"If not the Christmas-tree thing, then maybe an overnight trip to Portland or Vancouver," I suggested. I had a hidden agenda. Both Portland and Vancouver are great restaurant towns, and while neither my wife nor my in-laws would ever go anywhere just to eat, they would not pass up an opportunity to eat well once they were in the right place to do it. Not long after we agreed to make it happen, a friend sent me some promotional information about Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (, a private passenger-rail company that offers tours from Vancouver ranging from two to 14 days. All along the way, diners, er, passengers, enjoy elaborate meals based on regional ingredients. What could be nicer?

One of the two-day tours went to Banff, a resort town perched high in the mountains, a place where, before I was born, my grandparents traveled by train. As a child, I had seen pictures of that trip and determined that the grand old Canadian Pacific hotel there, now known as the Fairmont Banff Springs, must be one of the coolest hotels on earth. I had vowed then that someday I would visit the place myself, and here was an opportunity to arrive in the way my grandparents arrived, via train. Clearly, this trip was destined to happen. We scheduled it for the day after Christmas and gave the tickets to Betsy's dad for his birthday.
Between trips to the dining area below, first-class passengers in one of the dome cars enjoy chocolate-dipped strawberries and other treats served by chef Mark Jorundson. The main fare features regional ingredients.
Billed as "The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World," the service from Vancouver to Banff lives up to its name. For one day, the historic track wends its way through the lower mainland of B.C. in the valley of the Fraser River before turning inland at Lytton, the junction of the Thompson River, and heading toward Kamloops. Completed in 1885, the track is a marvel of engineering that provides a unique perspective on this part of the world, especially when taken in over a plate of Eggs Benedict.

By lunchtime we were rolling past Hell's Gate, watching 200 million gallons of water per minute roll through the narrow gorge named in 1808 by the explorer Simon Fraser. In the dining car, the feast continued with a loin of roasted-herb-and-mustard-crusted venison in a native-black-cherry sauce. We rolled on, past Kanaka (named for the Hawaiians who panned for gold here in the mid-1800s), Murray Creek Falls and the spot where the last spike of the Canadian National Railway was driven in 1915.

That evening we arrived in Kamloops, and all of us were ushered to a dinner theater for a musical review based on the life of Canada's "Gentleman Bandit," Bill Miner. Lacking perhaps some of the subtlety and charm of the 1983 film "The Grey Fox" starring Richard Farnsworth, the play covered basically the same material in a lively way well-suited to the light-hearted nature of our journey. The second night, we did some serious dining at Banffshire Club, the most refined of almost a dozen eateries inside the hotel. Featuring game and regional foods skillfully prepared by Swiss-trained chef Daniel Buss, this place alone was worth the trip.

If I had it to do over — and I certainly would — I think I might bring the kids, stay an extra night or two in Banff and haul in our skis.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and culinary consultant.

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