The bagpipes bellowed and smartly dressed staffers greeted us as we milled about the Vancouver train station. My son Peter, 12, hadn’t been this psyched about a train since his preschool years of near-obsession with Thomas and Percy. We were about to embark upon the First Passage to the West, a two-day luxury rail journey, with beautiful Banff National Park as our final destination. Voted by the Society of American Travel Writers as the “best train experience in the world,” our expectations were high.
The send-off included flag waving, speeches and the aforementioned piper, and was punctuated by a loud train whistle activated by Katy, an Australian girl chosen from among the excited group of 382 passengers. As we slowly pulled away from the station we noticed about 100 or so Rocky Mountaineer employees all queued up along the track, waving goodbye in synchronized style. We reclined into our over-sized super comfy seats and confessed to each other with a giggle that the pre-boarding ceremony had given us a few goose bumps.
I’d heard a lot of great things about Rocky Mountaineer, but I feared it might be better suited to mellow retirees than to a high-energy adolescent. Would this old-fashioned holiday – one boasting scenic vistas as the highlight – cut it with my young millennial? With no WiFi, and a complete absence of the gaming and screens that typically filled the hours on our family car trips, I felt like I was rolling the dice.
My preconceived notions weren’t totally off base: most of the 60 or so passengers in our coach were over 50, but I also noticed the excited expressions of the handful of tweens on board, Peter included. I exhaled. It was going to be okay.
Service with a smile
Rocky Mountaineer offers three levels of service (GoldLeaf, SilverLeaf, and RedLeaf) and they’re all very good. However, with its superior spacious-ness and outdoor vestibule, GoldLeaf is the way to go with kids. Fully-domed windows allow for panoramic views and banish any twinge of claustrophobia; three-course gourmet meals are served in a separate lower-level dining room; attentive hosts are on-hand non-stop to cater to a child’s every whim. In the mood for freshly-baked cookies and hot chocolate? No problem. Need a warm blankie for that nap? Here you are. How about a mini geography lesson about the Fraser River to bring back to your classmates? Check.
If the words “gourmet meal” sound like a picky eater’s nightmare, not to worry. My son found lots of yummy choices on the menu. Since everything is freshly prepared, the kitchen was happy to hold the mushrooms, put the sauce on the side or serve roasted potatoes instead of mashed. The company’s award-winning executive chef, Frédéric Couton assured us, in his charming Parisien accent, that special requests are never a problem. “I want all my diners to be totally happy, whatever their ages.” There’s even a children’s menu available, featuring familiar favourites like pasta, pizza and chicken fingers. And we still salivate when we think about those delectable desserts!
The view made an impression on Peter, but not as much as our hosts, Roxanne, Meghan, Harper and Tamara; the Train Manager, Peter; and the Guest Services Manager, Zeb. Roxanne says she doesn’t think of passengers as clients; more “as if they’re a guest in my own home. This is a job that doesn’t just get under your skin; it gets into your soul.”
The View From Here
Rocky Mountaineer’s ace-in-the-hole is the breathtaking scenery, seen through those iconic dome windows. We travelled through a rainforest, across rapids and rivers, through the lush Okanagan valley, past towns and beaches, through mountain passes, across a semi-arid desert, over bridges, through tunnels, and much more.
Peter enjoyed the local wildlife facts and lept from his seat whenever someone shouted out (as we were encouraged to do): “Mountain goats on the left!” or “Bald eagle on the right!” The kids also stayed engaged by watching for the mile-markers en route and matching them up with the maps provided.
As we chugged along, Roxanne and her team kept us informed and amused with tales about the First Nations and early explorers, the wild west and the gold rush, and the industry, agriculture, and geography of the diverse areas we were viewing.Trained by experts in many fields, our guides were amazingly well informed and easily handled the off-the-cuff questions that passengers regularly tossed at them. Every step of the way we learned something new; the information always delivered in entertaining, easy-to-digest doses.
Even my own Grade 8 history lessons were revived as we slowed down to see the “last spike” in Craigellachie, B.C. I explained to our new American and Australian friends how significant that site was to the formation of our country. Peter was impressed that I cared so much about Canadian history, but to be honest, I hadn’t thought about any of that stuff since I was exactly his age! Being on the Rocky Mountaineer brought it all back.
Designed for Families
Rocky Mountaineer’s summer excursions attract more families than our spring journey did, and they have lots of tricks on board to keep little ones happy, such as complimentary backpacks full of stickers, binoculars, colouring books and crayons. Special arrangements can be made so that families can rotate their seats to face each other, with space for a card table in between.
I wondered if younger kids would disturb other guests, but Zeb assured me that the contrary is usually true. “We notice that something really special happens,” he says. “Often our other passengers, particularly the seniors, kind of adopt the children on board and really enjoy them. It puts a smile on their faces and even gives the parents a break.”
Is the Rocky Mountaineer a “life-changing experience” as its brochures claim? Maybe it is a bit of a hyperbole. But I’ve never felt closer to my boy – who, at age 12, will soon not want to travel with mom anymore. We definitely made some real, lasting memories together. And then I recalled that we’re planning a trip to the U.S. to visit one of our new Mountaineer friends.
Hmm. Life changing? Maybe so.
Oakville-based writer Nancy Fornasiero seizes any opportunity for a travel adventure, with (or without) her three active boys.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2014.