Rolling through the Rockies

LEAH MCLENNAN
Last updated 05:00 22/11/2013

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Moments into the Rocky Mountaineer train trip and I could be forgiven for thinking my window is a giant TV showing a nature documentary.

"That's just AGM," my new American friend Bob says as we step onto the coach's outdoor vestibule on this pale grey morning in October.

"Annual general meeting? I ask.

"No, just another gorgeous mountain," he laughs.

I didn't know the American vernacular had an acronym for this western Canada phenomenon.

But Bob and I soon agree that this snow-topped peak - Mount Cheam - is not the run of the mill AGM, it's an absolute knockout.

The brochure suggests that during our two-day journey from Vancouver west to Lake Louise, with a stop in Kamloops on the way, we'll see a myriad of majestic mountains - and it promises we'll have "a life changing experience".

First impressions are positive: the trip begins with a 6am wake-up call, a clerk sporting a dark grey blazer assigning boarding cards in the lobby of the Georgian Court Hotel and a short bus transfer to a bustling, airport-style station.

"All aboard," comes the clarion call.

Red walk-on mats materialise in front of each coach, staff buzz about showing guests to their carriages and before I can take another souvenir snapshot of the huge, shiny blue train, I'm ensconced in seat seven in Gold Class (there's also Silver and Red classes). In seat eight is my travelling companion, my mum.

"Well this is different to CountryLink," Mum says, as I take in the details of the coach: glass-dome roof; plush seats with loads of leg room; huge windows; and a spiral staircase that leads down to a white tablecloth restaurant.

Within minutes Zac, one of the four attendants in our carriage, arrives with a mimosa.

We chink glasses. By the time our flutes are empty we've met Bob from Boston, accompanied by his adult daughter; to our left we chat to Myrtle, an octogenarian travelling alone ("I've come to see the leaves changing in the fall"); and behind our seat is Jay from Korea. His wife and little boy, struck by jetlag, are fast asleep, rocked like babes in their cradles.

Unlike some of the world's famous train journeys guests don't sleep on board the Rocky Mountaineer (save for naps).

At dusk each night the train pulls in to its destination and seamlessly transports passengers by bus to their hotel.

While Jay's family snoozes we pop down to the restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch at tables set for four. The menu is regionally-inspired and whipped-up to order in the galley kitchen.

Lunch is lightly roasted wild Sockeye salmon for me, vegetarian farfalle for Mum, and glasses of gewurztraminer from Okanagan winery Wild Goose for two.

The salmon is bold, salty and as exquisite as our surrounds.

Snug in our old-worldly, elegant coach, we scan the treacherous terrain for grizzly bears.

There's an abundance of Canadian creatures outside but giant, furry bears are few and far between.

In the dolphin-grey sky a kettle of bald eagles soar. In the shallow riverbeds there's salmon. Dead. Dead? It's not something I'm used to seeing.

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An article in the Rocky Mountaineer Mile Post newspaper sheds some light on this shocking scene: "The salmon only survive a few days after spawning before decomposing and washing up on the riverbanks," it says - (note to self, watch more David Attenborough).

After one day our "seen-it-done-it" list contains bighorn sheep, elk, moose and deer, but the only bears I expect we'll see today will be in our dreams after we bed down for the night at Hotel 540 in Kamloops.

The alarm rings out again at 6am, we bounce out of bed ready to embrace day two and soon enough we're dining on eggs benedict.

The atmosphere on board is jovial. It's as though everyone has known each other for years: the majority of passengers are from Australia and America, except for Jay's family, who are flying the only flag for Asia - and for children.

Two-year-old Philip is the one little person on board, lifting the mood even higher with his adoration of trains.

The scenery with every kilometre clocked gets bigger and better. Our precious few hours on board passes by in a blur of waterfalls and river rapids.

The further we go, the more we all transform into little Philips. Our childlike wonder reaches a crescendo when we pull in to Lake Louise. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Is it real or a picture from a fairytale book?

I squeal when I see it. "Awwww," Bob says. "Simply magic", Myrtle adds.

We're all dazzled, delighted and dazed as we try to listen to our guide Harper as she tells us about the area. There's so much to do, she says: shopping, dog-sledding, canoeing, being pampered, exploring the hiking capital of the Rockies.

I wonder if Bob will be joining us tomorrow on our tour of AGM?

Early the next morning, as a bunch of newly formed friends gather for the climb up to Lake Agnes atop a nearby peak - Bob strangely is no where to be found, he might be the only one in the group who is tired of another gorgeous mountain.       

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Air Canada operates flights to Vancouver. See: aircanada.com. See House of Travel for Canada deals.

GETTING AROUND: Rocky Mountaineer offers over 45 holiday packages and five unique rail routes. This year it launched the Coastal Passage, a new route connecting Seattle WA and the Canadian Rockies - it's the company's first rail journey to and from the US.

Rocky Mountaineer has extended its early booking bonus, offering travellers a discount of up to $1356 per couple on their 2014 holiday if booked before December 20, 2013. See: rockymountaineer.com 

WHEN TO GO: The Rocky Mountaineer runs from late April to early October.

The writer was a guest of Rocky Mountaineer, Canadian Tourism Commission, Destination British Columbia and Travel Alberta.

- AAP

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