Luxury, intrigue & mystery

In Canada, rating a trip through the Rockies for scenery, service, and cuisine

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2005

Luxury Jaguars, streamlined Porsches, perfect suspensions tacking through the tightest of curves -- that may be your thing. It isn't mine.

Give me whistles in the night, the clicking of wheels on tracks, and unpredictable lurches that brush you and bump you along paneled hallway walls.

I want to travel by train. Real train. Not Amtrak with its mystery delays, its 100 percent unchallenged absence of style. Along with corridors and conductors, a train has got to have its lounge car like the New York Central in the 1940s. It needs a dining car with tablecloths, porters with towels, and passengers with, you'd wish, an air of intrigue like Hercule Poirot.

Is this a pipe dream from somewhere deep in the past? Well, not completely. On this side of the Atlantic, I found a few companies that try to capture the atmosphere I want: railroad travel at its retro best.

Two of these trains, the American Orient Express and the Royal Canadian Pacific, jumped out. Each offered a choice of scenic routes, bragged about its happy and pampered passengers, and mailed me glossy brochures picturing "exceptional" accommodations and "world-class" food. Each also rivaled pricey cruise lines like Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas when it came to cost.

OK, I thought, it's a toss-up. But for me, there is something about the north. The mountains in Alberta and British Columbia have more mystery than ours, and I had been told about snow-melt Canadian lakes that glow green as if lighted from below.

Ignoring my bank balance, I decided to check out these things by rail. I would sign on for a six-day Canadian Rockies trip on the Royal Canadian Pacific and pretend that the glory days of trains were here and now. I would revel in my nighttime bumping and bouncing, and rate the trip in terms of scenery, service, cuisine, railroad ambiance, and more.

Retro railroad coolMaybe it's that we board in Calgary to the drone of bagpipes, or that the train had screeched in right next to a life-size replica of an old-time vaulted station, but immediately I realize that Royal Canadian Pacific (which is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and has run trips since June 2000) is keen on history.

The cars on this train were built between 1916 and 1930, but they are encouragingly clean. Lionel-bright, as seen from outside. Interiors have an Edwardian warmth instead of the Art Deco flash I had expected. China cups start clinking as we begin to move (passengers are waiting for tea), and the last-car lounge is upholstered and lamp-lighted like a set from the Alfred Hitchcock classics "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) or "Strangers on a Train" (1951).

Royal Canadian Pacific passengers have included Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II, and photos of the most historic and royal are arranged along one paneled wall. Even the buttons on attendants' jackets seem to have popped out of the past. They were saved, I am told, from the uniforms of long-ago CP engineers.

Grade: A+

Trackside touringMy RCP train complains of arthritis -- it snaps and groans -- as we begin our westward climb into the Rocky Mountains. Despite the train's sway and puffing gusts of wind, we are allowed to stand out on a gated platform at the rear as if on a ship's deck at sea. Everyone does, and shutters snap at the scroll of disappearing track.

You can pick from specialized RCP trips focusing on fly-fishing, golfing, cooking, wine, and music, but I'm glad I'm taking it straight -- chugging for Banff (which shows us beds of flowers and nearly vertical views) and Lake Louise (which, just as they say, is an indescribable milk-glass green). Who wants games, or decks of cards, or books? Our hobby is what we see through windows: craggy tips of rock, dizzy slopes, and deep-pile carpeting that is made of trees.

Later, across the border in British Columbia, we try panning for gold at historic Fort Steele, and I end up with about a $6 flake. Another passenger, Bernie Trabin of Los Angeles, keeps asking our guide, Don, if we'll be "going through any prairies or flat valleys." Huh? says Don. You're not enjoying the peaks? "Well," replies Trabin, "I was thinking it would be an ideal time to shave."

Grade: B+

Dinner in the dinerBraised wild sockeye salmon with papaya salsa relish. Herb-encrusted rack of lamb Cinzano. Grilled quail with sauted oyster mushrooms and Madeira sauce. No, it's not the end-of-the-trip farewell banquet, it's a taste of daily dinner fare.

Every passenger I talk to agrees: Menus don't just sound good, they are carefully, superbly produced and well served. Wines like the Chateau de Chamirey Mercury 2002 flow freely during meals (i.e., they're on the house) and even when it comes to afternoon gin-and-tonics or a cognac nightcap, RCP does not charge.

Among his other skills, the RCP chef, Pierre Meloche, has a flair for painting interesting pictures with his sauces, and even his pointillist dots taste good. Let's see, what's for dessert? Would you believe a coconut and cinnamon tulip with strawberries Romanoff? Waiter, bring me a double.

Grade: A+

Are you being served?I had read that on long-distance trains like New York Central's 20th Century Limited, your porter would come by in the night and buff your wingtips. With the snappy, bustling attendants on this trip, I am sure that if I had any wingtips, they'd be looking their best. As a guy who goes around in beat-up sneakers, however, I am spoiled in other ways: with extra pillows, extra towels, and constant tidying of my mahogany, marquetry-trimmed cabin.

One downside of many tours and cruises is the selling, and selling some more, of logo souvenirs. Then at the end of your trip there are, of course, the upturned palms for tips. Lo and behold on Royal Canadian Pacific, there isn't a single display of jackets, no playing cards, no ashtrays, and no tipping envelope at all. We are told that tipping is "not expected." But wait a minute, we say, passing around our own: You guys are going to get tipped, like it or not!

We've ridden in an elongated Ritz of the rails with (how did they do it?) fully-equipped hotel-style bathrooms attached to every room. We've soaked up a lot more luxury and attention than most babies, and we have almost never had to whine. Two big pluses of Royal Canadian Pacific: There are fewer passengers per trainload than on American Orient Express or other luxury train lines. And you are fussed over with a Canadian-style kindness that feels honest and unforced, not designed. Now, about those souvenirs . . .

Grade: A

Peter Mandel is an author of children's books including "Planes at the Airport" and "Boats on the River," both from Scholastic. He lives in Providence.

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