Behold Nature by Posh Train Car

Article excerpt

Byline: Fyllis Hockman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It has all the markings of a fine hotel - impeccable service, remarkable attention to detail, gourmet food and presentation, incomparable views - but this vacation getaway is hurtling through the Canadian Rockies on train tracks.

Welcome aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, traveling from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Lake Louise and Banff, both in Alberta, and trying very hard to live up to its self-proclaimed designation as "the most spectacular train trip in the world."

Here I am, comfortably seated, head back, bloody mary in hand, staring through high dome windows at scenery changing from farmland to lake country, bountiful forests to semiarid land, deep ravines to towering mountains. I know the books I have brought along for entertainment will never be opened.

The two attendants servicing our car, one of about 20 snaking through the countryside, begin the first morning with champagne and orange juice, setting the bar for the rest of the journey. As we toast to scenic vistas and making new friends, attendant Ron proffers Nicorette gum to smokers to ease the trauma of having to do without. First impressive attention to detail.

The attendants onboard provide colorful and informative commentary during the two-day daylight journey (there's an overnight stay midway through in Kamloops) on the history, ecology, wildlife and significance of what we are seeing - most of which, according to Ron, is actually factual. Bantering and occasional bad jokes add to the local color.

Lisa Wood and John Bailey from Worcester, England, are impressed with the knowledge of the attendants. They try to stump the commentators but are unable to do so.

"There's something so romantic about the railway - it held the country together," Miss Wood says. This is true of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, upon whose tracks the Rocky Mountaineer rides. CPR, Canada's first transcontinental railroad, was completed in late 1885.

When Canada became independent in 1867, it consisted of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. To ensure that what remained of the territory did not become part of the United States, Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, proposed a railroad connecting the continent. That persuaded potentially fickle British Columbia to join the confederation in 1871, helping to hold the country together.

Meals are very important on the Rocky Mountaineer, especially if you're in the Gold Leaf service. Breakfast and lunch, served in the dining car, are accompanied by fine linens and fresh flowers.

The choice of gourmet offerings, as appealing to the eye as the scenery out the window, might include a baked wild British Columbia salmon served on polenta and accompanied by maple-pickled vegetables and organic greens in a delicate strawberry vinaigrette. Or perhaps slow-roasted Alberta bison glazed with maple and ginseng. For dessert, a brownie-mountain dessert surrounded by a mango-sauce river, with a chocolate-shaped train traveling wafer-thin tracks. How's that for imagery?

"I've traveled all over and never encountered this level of service before," says Carl Ricketts of New Orleans. "From the preplanning to all the explanations to the transport at Kamloops, all so smoothly maneuvered from beginning to end. Not to mention the quality of the food and its presentation."

During periodic photo opportunities, the train slows to "Kodak speed." With a spotting of wildlife, the word travels the length of the train, and you hope the bison, bear, elk, bighorn sheep or eagle is still there by the time your car arrives at the area of sighting.

The most spectacular scenery reveals itself during the second day. In the middle of lunch, the loudspeaker announces "photo op on the right"; conversation and chewing stop as everyone lurches to one side to catch a glimpse of your everyday rivulet rushing over rocks through a valley of wildflowers beneath a backdrop of mountains. …