Taking the train through the majestic Rocky Mountains is a once-in-a-lifetime journey on many a traveler’s bucket list. It’s one I was recently fortunate enough to experience with a group of travel advisors.
I walked away with two insights from this amazing trip. A Rocky Mountaineer train journey is the best way to experience the Canadian Rockies. And there are four very good reasons that you absolutely want to book this through a travel advisor.
Reason 1: Rocky Mountaineer Options Abound
First you have to choose an itinerary. A travel advisor can help you figure out which of the several Rocky Mountaineer variations suits you best. We went on the very popular First Passage to the West, which runs from Banff to Vancouver.
Our journey began with a flight to Calgary. We stayed there overnight and took in the breathtaking view from the 627-foot Calgary Tower.
From there, we toured by motor coach for four days, keeping a sharp eye out for wildlife. Our alertness was rewarded with an elk in someone’s front yard in Banff Springs (twice!). We also saw bighorn sheep feeding by the side of the road on our way back from Athabasca Glacier.
Two other memorable views were a dramatic helicopter flight-seeing tour – easily one of the highlights of the trip – and a ride up the Banff Gondola, with its 360-degree vistas of six scenic mountain ranges.
Throughout our touring, we saw towering peaks, glistening glaciers, unbelievably blue lakes and rushing rivers. The Natural Bridge over the Kicking Horse River is particularly remarkable.
We spent two nights each at a pair of historic hotels: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and The Fairmont Banff Springs. Each morning at Lake Louise we enjoyed a beautiful walk on a lakeside path as the sun rose. For casual dining, small bites at the Chateau’s Lakeview Lounge are a treat – for the food and the view. For a more substantial meal, The Walliser Stube was fantastic. The Spätzle Skillet, with sautéed wild mushrooms and Gruyere cream sauce, is an unbeatable appetizer!
The Fairmont Banff Springs feels like a castle, but you aren’t cloistered in the slightest. We enjoyed the close proximity to the charming town of Banff, where you’ll find upscale shopping, dining and much more.
In Banff, we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer train for two days, with an overnight hotel stay in Kamloops on our way to a final night in Vancouver.
Assuming you choose this journey, you also have to decide which direction you want to go. You can end your Rocky Mountaineer trip with the rail journey like we did. Starting out by rail is another option. A travel advisor can help you weigh the pros and cons of each choice.
Beyond that, things really get complicated. Your advisor can also book just the train portion of the Rocky Mountaineer experience, a rail and drive experience, or even add an Alaska cruise for a more complete Northwest experience.
Reason 2: Increase Your Level of Luxury
Once you choose your Rocky Mountaineer itinerary, you have to decide how you’ll travel. Right off the bat, booking with your Virtuoso travel advisor nets you complimentary luxury perks. During our journey we met a couple who were Virtuoso clients and they enjoyed a complimentary airport limo transfer in Calgary. I’ll admit I was jealous when I was getting into a cab with two other people and realized I didn’t have any Canadian currency to pay my share.
Your travel advisor can also help you decide which level of luxury you want to experience onboard the Rocky Mountaineer train. The lowest level, RedLeaf, is being phased out. So GoldLeaf (upper) and SilverLeaf (middle) are the main options.
The Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf class is the most popular with good reason. Fortunately it’s what we got to experience. Taking in the panoramic view through the dome windows is something I’ll never forget. Probably the biggest advantage is that you can really take everything in without staying glued to one small window or craning your neck to see out someone else’s. The train travels just fast enough so you are never bored, but slow enough so you can watch for wildlife and take in the changing views. You’ll transition from the blues and greens of Banff National Park to the surprisingly arid climate around Kamloops, then returning to more moderate Vancouver.
Beyond the staggering view, the Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf class provides a reclining seat, separate downstairs dining with full a la carte menus, and a large outdoor area to stretch your legs and get a different perspective. Plus, with GoldLeaf Deluxe, more luxurious hotel accommodations are available.
Speaking of luxury hotel accommodations, I toured the Gold Floor Lounge at both The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and The Fairmont Banff Springs. You want to book this. The Gold Floor puts you in one of the best rooms the hotel has to offer, gives you highly personalized concierge service and provides you with access to a private lounge for complimentary breakfast, afternoon canapés, honor bar and more.
Currently the availability is too limited for Rocky Mountaineer to offer the Gold Floor as a standard option, even with GoldLeaf Deluxe. But your travel advisor can book it for you. Your travel advisor can also obtain added-value perks for you at hotels that are part of the Virtuoso network: typically a room upgrade and a dining or spa credit. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and The Fairmont Banff Springs are both part of the Virtuoso Hotels & Resorts program.
Reason 3: Know What To Expect
When you travel, everything isn’t always like the photos. You can’t always see and do exactly what you anticipated.
For example, there are plenty of ways to experience Lake Louise. If possible, make sure your travel advisor books you a lake view room. People come from everywhere to see the surreal blue water. However, take into account that it can remain frozen into May. When I was there, it was still mostly frozen, but breathtaking nonetheless, and now I have a reason to return.
Other things your travel advisor can help you anticipate are hotel accommodations. Some places, like Kamloops, don’t have a wide selection. Your travel advisor can let you know what amenities to expect.
Other destinations, like Vancouver, have multiple options. Your advisor can help you pick the one where you’ll feel most comfortable (and receive the added Virtuoso perks). One tip: always get the most recently renovated rooms, whenever possible.
Reason 4: Your Advisor Knows You
I won’t lie. Even though I was technically working, I had a blast on my Rocky Mountaineer trip. A big part of that was because I was with travel advisors who were intent upon seeing and doing everything to the fullest. This way they could make sure their clients will have as much fun as we did.
Now that they’ve been on this experience and received tips from the Rocky Mountaineer pros, these advisors can make sure their clients see and do whatever will make them happiest. Are you nervous about riding in helicopters? Some of the advisors were first timers on our flightseeing adventure and they loved it! Now they can pass that knowledge on to their clients.
Would you be the type of person who wants to step foot on a glacier or experience it from afar? Talk it over with your advisor, who can recommend whether you should visit the Athabasca Glacier on the Ice Explorer vehicle like we did. The vehicle drives right onto the glacier and includes a stop for you to step out onto it.
If you’re interested in a Rocky Mountaineer journey (or another iconic train voyage), now’s the perfect time to sit down with your Virtuoso travel advisor and craft your adventure. Don’t have an advisor? With just a few clicks of your mouse, Virtuoso can introduce you to one who will be a great fit for your needs.