People fall in love on trains. Maybe it’s the unhurried rhythm that creates space for connection, the scenery unfurling slowly outside the window, or the nostalgia inherent in the chug and whistle of centuries-old locomotives. On a Zoom call hosted by Rocky Mountaineer, Canada’s luxury passenger train, I learn that a fellow journalist married the woman he brought along on a trip years ago. Another jokingly quipped he’s certain his first child was conceived on one of their voyages, and my own parents met as strangers on a train in France more than 40 years ago.
There is something undeniably dreamy about a train journey. The words “romance” and “train travel” are often whispered in the same sentence. Last summer, I found myself on Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West route on my honeymoon, where the postcard West Coast landscape from Vancouver to Banff reveals itself through a glass-dome coach.
“Who’s celebrating?” asks our Rocky Mountaineer host, Pete, into the microphone as we raise glasses of bubbly while the train pulls out of the station in Vancouver. It turns out we’re not the only ones. We’re joined by two other newlyweds, and a husband and wife in their 50s celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.
We clickety-clack our way through the outskirts of the city, passing bucolic Fort Langley, Mission and Chilliwack. With no driving to do, I’m free to notice the boisterous creeks, yawning cornfields and ramshackle red barns outside the window. At lunchtime, we descend into the lower car for a white-tablecloth meal of baked Pacific salmon and seasonal vegetables showered in shaved fennel and smoked salt, served with a cold glass of pinot gris. Following the frothing Fraser River on a vertiginous cliffside track, we pass through the towns of Hope and Lytton, where Rainbow Canyon flashes its painterly rockface, striped purple and ochre from copper and iron deposits.
Bellies full, we linger on the open-air viewing platform. Fir forests slowly turn to tawny arid hills dotted with heady ponderosa pine as we enter the province’s interior. I catch a whiff of sage on a gust of wind that whips my hair back off my face.
Later that afternoon, the train rolls over a bridge that crosses the roiling North and South Thompson Rivers and into the city of Kamloops – derived from the Shuswap First Nation word T’Kemlups, meaning “meeting of the waters.” Here, we disembark for a night’s rest.
THE NEXT MORNING BEGINS with espresso and a mushroom, potato and egg skillet in the dining car as we continue our journey northwest to Banff. At Craigellachie, we slow to an ambulatory pace to catch a glimpse of a cairn marking the spot where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway was driven in on November 7, 1885. After that, it’s a climb into the mountains, skirting the Selkirks on our left, and later the Purcell Mountains on our right as we near the town of Golden, which was originally established as a CP construction camp
Banff National Park | Rocky Mountaineer
Our ascent steepens and we ride the hem of Yoho National Park – which translates to “wow” in the Stoney Nakoda First Nation language – where monolithic peaks scrape the sky. Shortly after, we shoot into the mouth of the Spiral Tunnels, enveloped in darkness. The serpentine underground passage twists through Cathedral Mountain and Mount Ogden and was modelled after Switzerland’s Gotthard Pass. At the highest point on our route, we cross the Continental Divide, marking the boundary between Yoho National Park in British Columbia and Banff National Park in Alberta. Cloud cloaks the iconic crenelated spires of Castle Mountain, but Banff makes up for it the next day with a dazzling sun.
Downtown Banff | Rocky Mountaineer AS MY HUSBAND AND I WALK along the Bow River, a brilliant bolt of aquamarine water that ribbons through downtown Banff, I imagine couples strolling its banks a century ago dressed in crinoline hoop skirts and waistcoats. Early tourism in Banff was synonymous with train travel, and in the late 1800s aristocratic families would hook up private coaches to the railway cars. William Van Horne, the president of the CP Railway in the late 19th century, spearheaded tourism in the area and famously declared, “If we can’t export the scenery, then we’ll have to import the tourists.”Banff Graze Co | Wild Alpine Image Co
At the river’s edge, a honeymoon picnic by Banff Graze Co. awaits us. We take a seat on white Moroccan poufs propped up by pink velvet cushions and shaded by plumes of pampas grass. A table is set with artful, Instagram-poised platters of artisan cheese, fruit and cured meats. Clinking our elegant, cut-glass coupes together, we toast the magnificent scene before us, the peak of Cascade Mountain soaring up beyond the river and forest. It was vistas just like this that Van Horne commissioned artists to paint in order to promote tourism in the area, and many of the works now hang in the Whyte Museum, which we visit later.
The Rimrock ResortEden Restaurant | The Rimrock Resort
Originally, bungalow camps offered respite to train travellers in the area, and these eventually grew into luxury hotels. While the Fairmont Banff Springs is perhaps the best known, the Rimrock Resort Hotel ups the ante on romantic stays. Our room’s floor-to-ceiling windows frame a view of the dramatic Spray Valley, and the hotel’s Five Diamond-rated French restaurant, Eden, was made for celebrating. The candlelit five-course tasting menu starts with Champagne and ends with a peach and almond confection, with plates like poached salmon and duck ravioli in between.
The hotel is within walking distance to the Banff Gondola, and after dinner we swing up the side of Sulphur Mountain just as the indigo sky blots out the last wisp of an orange sunset on the horizon.
As the town of Banff sparkles like starlight in miniature far below us, I wonder if it’s too soon to plan an anniversary trip.