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Longboat Key Thursday, Apr. 30, 2009 13 years ago

Riding the rails

by: Stuart and Lois Scheyer

We all know that most air travel today is as exciting as a taking a Greyhound bus through Nebraska in the ’50s. But, there are some railroad lines that equal or exceed the great service that we fondly remember from that same era. Rocky Mountaineer (RM) is one of them. Last fall, we merged three days on that line with five nights at Fairmont hotels in western Canada, and the result was an explosion of great memories and photos. This is an easy trip that everyone can enjoy, from now until the late fall — and we want to emphasize the easy part. Service is extraordinary, and no one need be concerned about the travails of travel.

Our trip began in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with one night at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a dowager in excellent condition. This beautiful city really deserves much more than one afternoon for sightseeing, and it was one of the few times that we regretted moving too fast.

We left early the next morning on the Whistler Mountaineer for a half-day trip going straight north to — you guessed it — the year-round vacation resort of Whistler, British Columbia. This was the first of three days on trains. One of the unique characteristics of RM is that the trains travel only during the day, and passengers spend nights in hotels. So, we checked into the Fairmont Chateau Whistler in the early afternoon and strolled the streets of the town, which is similar to Aspen, Colo. Both are winter ski resorts that have built a summer clientele. The tram to the mountaintop provides an exciting ride and beautiful view of the valley. You will not be surprised to find every type of souvenir shop and haute couture designer within close proximity.

The next morning we boarded an even more elegant train with superb and spacious relining seats in the upper dome and a full dining car below. Anyone who remembers the 20th Century Limited or California Zephyr in the ’50s will understand what a first-class dining car can deliver. Breakfast, lunch and snacks, along with superb wines, presented lovely interludes between the scenic treasures we were passing. On this second day on the train, we headed north through the western Rockies to the small town of Quesnel (pronounce kwe-NELL). After two nights with Fairmont, we were somewhat spoiled, but the local Sandman Motel was quite adequate.

The third and last train day produced even more spectacular scenery, and the dining car continued to surprise and excel as we traveled east through the Rockies and ended in Jasper, Alberta, Canada. Because we arrived late in the evening and Jasper Park was new to us, we stayed two nights in the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

As some train buffs might know, the Canadian Pacific Railroad built a small group of luxury hotels in Canada to attract tourists who would obviously use their trains — this happened so long ago when railroads actually catered to passengers. Facing the reality of competition from an increasing number of upscale hotel chains in recent years, the railroad turned the properties over to Fairmont to gain more international marketing skills, and it became apparent that these skills extended to how to treat a customer. The service that we found in the Fairmonts in Vancouver and Whistler were demonstrated again in Jasper. It was soon evident that every employee was trained to call you by name. From the time you engaged the reception desk, concierge, telephone operator or member of the wait staff, every comment was preceded by “Yes, Mr. and Mrs. … ”

Jasper Park is a treasure located north of its more popular cousins: Banff National Park and Lake Louise Park. Another exciting aerial tram provides inviting vistas. Most importantly, starting or ending in Jasper provides a 143-mile drive on the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise, a route that National Geographic names “one of the most beautiful roads in the world” — and indeed it is. As we traveled and enjoyed the many magnificent scenes, at each turn we found another sight that was even more breathtaking. The excellent highway can be traveled comfortably in just more than two hours, but almost every traveler feels compelled to stop frequently to enjoy the remarkable scenery. We took more than 100 photos, and each brings back a smile.

We concluded the trip by being welcomed (by name, of course) at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for one night. On the last day, we drove to and through Banff and on to Calgary for our flight home. Of all the stops, Banff is the most touristy, and your time should be spent elsewhere.

In our most recent column, we wrote about a five-star fishing resort that deserved three stars. This time, the Rocky Mountaineer rail line and Fairmont hotels have been granted five stars by these Energetic Travelers, because they remind us that luxury travel does still exist. One word regarding the cost of luxury: RM has two classes of service, and, in this case, the higher-priced GoldLeaf Service really makes the 20 or so hours spent on its trains quite elegant.

Stuart and Lois Scheyer are in their 70s and are Longboat Key residents. They each log more than 100,000 air miles a year. E-mail any travel questions to them at [email protected].

By the numbers

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations features two railroad lines: the Rocky Mountaineer and the Whistler Moutaineer.
30 — number of miles per hour at which the trains travel
20 — number of years the company has been in business
2008 — the year the company welcomed aboard its one-millionth customer
74 — number of miles the Whistler Mountaineer train trip covers

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