Before private jets, the upper crust travelled by train. In the gilded age, wealthy passengers, royalty and politicians rode the rails in private cars appointed with observation platforms, full kitchens, dining rooms and staterooms. Their destination: even more opulent grand hotels and resorts.
In the 19th century, Canada, with its familiar French and British roots married with the romance of its barely tamed wilderness, was a popular draw for wealthy Europeans taking a tour of the colonies. In the 21st century, the New York Times named Canada — the whole country —as its top travel destination for 2017. And what better way to sample the breadth of our 985 million square kilometer neighbor to the north than with a cross-country, first class train trip?
Canada is also celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, a birthday it shares with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, the caretakers of most of the country’s historic railway hotels. To honor this shared heritage, Fairmont and Via Rail Canada are offering a bucket-list luxury train trip package called the Great Canadian Railway Adventure — a 20-day trip that takes passengers from Quebec City to Vancouver, with a choice of pre-curated side trips and culinary experiences as well as stays in some of the grandest accommodations in the world.
If 20 days is too much, you can also tailor a shorter trip between landmark hotels with an overnight in Via Rail’s Prestige class.
On a recent four-day sampling of the 20-day trek, our first stop was the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, an imposing edifice tucked into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains (our concierge informs us that many visitors mistake it for the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” — it is not). Originally built in 1888 near a hot spring, the hotel became a destination for wealthy Europeans who wanted to take to the waters and breathe the healthy mountain air. Today, the Willow Spa offers a mineral pool surrounded by a circuit of waterfall baths to revive the body after a drive in from Calgary.
There, we took a trip back in time with an 1888-inspired banquet. Executive Chef JW Foster prepared a menu of elk and wild boar terrine en croûte, Duck Consommé served tableside, a green apple and Champagne granite — he even carved the pine-smoked crown roast of wagyu beef himself. What makes the Banff Springs a culinary destination is Chef Foster’s commitment to creating authentically local and sustainable resources. The roast was butchered and the charcuteries all prepared in house.
Bellies full, we bedded down in our sweet suites, slept soundly and woke up to a stunning view of the mountains. Then we drove north to the resort town of Lake Louise, Alberta. We stopped off for lunch at Alpine Social, the après ski (or mountain climbing or canoeing) dining room at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, another iconic lodge located in another unbelievably beautiful setting.
Here, Executive Chef Jean-Francois Fortin presented a sampling of Canadian foods. Chef Fortin explains that while most visitors would be hard-pressed to name a national dish, what makes Canadian cuisine unique is the diversity of influences and the terrior approach to ingredients— the environmental factors and farming approaches that affect the flavor and quality of the food.
Once again, we hit the road, this time traveling the Icefields Parkway, a highway that cuts through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, past ancient glaciers, amazing waterfalls and clear lakes. We drove in an armada of state-of-the-art BMWs so that we could make stops along the way to take in the untamed beauty of nature (while still being ensconced in the lap of luxury).
Our next destination was the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge—which might just be our new favorite place on earth. Jasper Lodge, like Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise, is located in a National Park, which means no planes, helicopters, or motorized boats — even drones are forbidden. And because it’s situated in a UNESCO Heritage Site, even guests like Bill Gates or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have to drive or take the train in. Privacy, silence and a night sky uncluttered by light pollution are the ultimate luxury.
Jasper Park Lodge is like the ultimate sleep away camp, composed of a series of rustic cedar chalets and log cabins (albeit with butler service). We stayed in one of the signature luxury cabins, one that hosted King George IV and Queen Elizabeth back in the day. And while the Lodge offers amenities such as a spa, golf, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding and mountain biking, the rooms were so cozy that it was difficult to leave them.
The next morning, we trekked around the pristine Lac Beauvert, spotting mule deer, loons and squirrels along the way. Then we boarded the train for an overnight ride to Vancouver. We travelled in Prestige class on Via Rail’s cross-country train The Canadian—one step above first class with private double sleeper rooms (complete with en suite bathrooms and heated floors) and access to the Prestige Park Car (a bar and lounge where our concierge served up the finest gin and tonic I’ve ever tasted). It’s like an all-inclusive resort holiday on rails.
What made the experience unparalleled was the monumental scenery. As The Canadian winded through valley and mountain passes, each view bested the one before it. At this point in the journey, one wondered how much more natural beauty, and how many more delicious dinners and adventures one could take.
Our arrival in Vancouver provided a well-timed breath of urban air as we checked into the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Vancouver is one of North America’s top luxury shopping destinations, and Gucci, Dior and Omega have boutiques in the hotel. And more and more shops are coming — for example, high-end watchmaker Hublot is opening their first stand-alone Canadian store in the nearby Carlyle district (also home to Prada and Saint Laurent) this spring.
If you’re more adventurous, the Gastown district is a great place to discover homegrown brands like John Fluevog, Oak & Fort and Dutil, as well as well curated lifestyle shops such as Lichtfield, which carries Canadian cult brands like Want Les Essentials. Thanks to the value of the American dollar versus the Canadian dollar, visitors from the Pacific West Coast and the Pacific Rim find it hard to resist picking up at least one precious bauble.
Like many Fairmont properties, the Hotel Vancouver offers the exclusive Fairmont Gold experience. When you stay Gold, you have access to a dedicated lounge, check out and bespoke service. You can also opt for even more elegant accommodations such as the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite, on the 14th floor, best known as the location for the filming of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Opened in 1939, this landmark hotel is located in the city’s downtown core, and has always been a magnet for high society. The late deco building is home to many ballrooms as well as the Notch 8 restaurant, which houses one of the city’s most glamorous cocktail bars. We capped our last night in Vancouver with a signature Canada 150 Maple Leaf, a concoction made of bourbon, maple syrup, lime and apple.
Our four-day taste of the romance of the rails only made us want to try the 20-day excursion even more. If you have the added luxury of time, the 20-day Great Canadian Railway Adventure will blow your mind. This over-the-top indulgence is available until December 31, 2017 and is priced at $9,990 per person.