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American Orient Express - Best of the Canadian Rockies

American Orient Express - See the Best of the Canadian Rockies

Tom Wuckovich

What is it about the plaintive sound of a train whistle that evokes such a range of emotions, including nostalgia or melancholy? Oftentimes, I find it also unlocks some long-lost memory relating to my past, and for the most part, it's a pleasant, satisfying reaction.

The quieting comfort of a distant steam whistle relaxed me almost at once during a recent "Best of the Canadian Rockies" sojourn aboard the elegant American Orient Express out of Vancouver, British Columbia. In the late evening of our first day's journey, as the AOE rumbled east toward Jasper, the distinctive sound pierced the chilled night air and I immediately slipped into that feeling of calm euphoria. Stir in the rhythmic clatter of the train wheels and the gentle rocking motion of the cars and you'll begin to understand a few of the reasons for the resurgence of train vacations.

Train travel is a throwback to the days of yesteryear, to a seemingly much simpler time and the passengers, for the most part, are responsible for romanticizing this method of transportation. But make no mistake about it, the American Orient Express does its utmost to glamorize the Golden Age of Railroads. Aboard the AOE, travelers return to a bygone era but with the delightful enhancements of the 21st century. The stylish appointments of the
restored, 16-carriage train include polished brass in the sleeping cars, inlaid mahogany paneling in the dining cars, and ebony, brass and leather in the club cars. There is lavish attention to detail, exhibited in the warm, rich tones of the woods, marble surfaces and overstuffed lounge chairs in the public areas. A classically trained staff contributes to the unique experience of fine dining at intimate tables of two or four that is complemented with expensive linens, china, polished silver and fresh-cut flowers. Chefs are lured from top culinary programs and leading restaurants, ensuring that the selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner are impeccably prepared.

There are five traditional compartments to choose from: Vintage Pullman, with upper and lower berths; Single Sleeper, with a lower berth; Parlor Suite, with two lower berths and an extra upper berth; Deluxe Suite, with two lower berths and a private shower; and Presidential Suite, a double-size compartment with two lower berths and a private shower. All cabins feature a private toilet and washbasin, while each sleeping car sports a comfortable shower room located down the hall. Plush terry robes are provided for
travelers' use.

The AOE is an important piece of American history from the Golden Age of Rail. Each of the cars was in service during the 1940's and 50's streamliner era, and connected to some of the nation's most memorable railroads. As an example, the New York observation car was dedicated in 1948 by Dwight D.

Eisenhower and served 20 years on the New York Central's famous 20th Century Limited. The New York and all the other cars have been completely restored, featuring new air-conditioning, heating, electrical and plumbing systems, state-of-the-art safety features as well as completely renovated interiors. The commitment to authenticity is never more prevalent than in the Seattle club car where an indigo ceiling reminiscent of the twilight sky is speckled with 23-karat gold stars.

While these upgrades don't go unnoticed, it's quite obvious from listening to passengers, or engaging in conversations in the dining or club car, that these erstwhile travelers love trains and would ride them even if it meant giving up some of the numerous amenities. More than a handful of guests on the Best of the Rockies trip were past passengers, identified as such by gold badges with their names on them and worn with pride throughout the 8-day vacation. They were eager to share their experiences and knowledge of the AOE and frequently spoke of future plans regarding new destinations to
be explored.

That loyalty can be traced in part to the quality of service aboard the train and the allure of the various routes offered. The AOE rolls through a variety of picturesque regions throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico when landscapes are at their season's peak. Ten regional and four themed itineraries offer guests myriad venues, including the chance to travel over tracks on some routes that have not seen passenger trains in more than half-a-century. These tracks, called "rare mileage" by train devotees, cover some of the most scenic wilderness areas of North America sometimes only accessible by rail.

On the Best of the Canadian Rockies, I was dazzled by arguably some of the most stunning mountain territory on this continent. The trip begins in Vancouver and continues to Jasper before returning to Vancouver. En route to Jasper, the train stops briefly in Kamloops, once an important cattle center, and situated at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers. The name means "meeting of the waters".

But it is from Jasper, the largest and most northerly Canadian Rocky
Mountain National Park site, that we begin in earnest to explore the region. Motorcoaches are the order of the day, and we drive along the Icefields Parkway to Sunwapta Falls for a photo op. The Sunwapta River, like many other glacial rivers we see, is a teal color because of the silt particles suspended in the water. The Saskatchewan River Crossing, where pack trains of the explorers and fur traders crossed the river en route to the wilds of
British Columbia, is our gateway to a lunch stop at the storied Chateau Lake Louise. The lake is crowded with canoers and kayakers while many tourists milled about taking picture after picture of the lake and the lodge nestled at the foot of snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

Equally impressive is the Banff Springs Hotel, a National Historic Site more than a century old and the landmark most associated with Banff. AOE guests overnight here and it's a pleasant departure from a night on the train. The hotel opened in 1888 with 250 rooms, but now it has expanded to 815. While the hotel is a destination unto itself, it's worth taking about 20 minutes to walk to town and browse the quaint shops.

A couple of days are dedicated to the area around Banff, with visits to Sulfur Mountain and a gondola ride to the top of this 7,486-foot high peak. Later in the day is a SnoCoach ride and tour of the Columbia Icefield and the famous Athabasca Glacier before boarding the train for the trip back to Vancouver. Whistler is on the itinerary, but because the track from Vancouver to Whistler was sold and permission to use it hadn't been granted, it involved another motorcoach drive along the scenic Sea to Sky Highway, a minor glitch in an otherwise stellar trip. The change, however, necessitated bidding adieu to the AOE in Vancouver. I did so reluctantly, but on those occasions when I hear a train whistle, I am reminded of that unique journey.

For more information on American Orient Express and their full line of Deluxe Rail Journeys, please visit: