Last spring, was led through Hope, Hell’s Gate, and the Jaws of Death all in the span of eight hours. I’m not looking for sympathy. This was a journey I had long looked forward to making, and for the duration of my trip I enjoyed pleasant company, three-course meals, fine regional wines, and the comfort of a well-padded reclining chair. In fact, I emerged from the experience feeling more relaxed and refreshed than I had felt in weeks. Credit for my contentment lay, as it so often does when one is traveling a long distance, with my chosen mode of transportation–in this case, a glass-domed, double-decker coach on the Rocky Mountaineer. As it makes its way from Pacific Central Station in the sea-level city of Vancouver, British Columbia, through the fertile Fraser River Valley, and on toward the Rocky Mountains, the streamlined 70-passenger coach provides travelers with picture window views of some of the most spectacular natural scenery on earth. This is the historic stretch of western Canada explored by natur alists and gold miners, fur traders and fortune seekers, train robbers and Victorian gentry on holiday. Once, the train was the only way to get here. It’s still one of the best.
True, you can generally reach your destination faster if you fly. And the automobile affords independence from mass transit’s restrictive schedules. But when one is in the mood to simply sit back and absorb the scenery, a smooth-cruising rail tour–slower paced and congenially eye to eye with all that surrounds it–remains the sightseer’s best bet.
Through the oversized windows or open-air observation deck of a train, local landmarks–like the town of Hope, Hell’s Gate tunnel, and Jaws of Death gorge–become more than poetically named points on a map. New terrain rolls before the eye like scenic film footage, as the train travels at a pace slow enough to crystallize visual images into memory, and fast enough to cover several hundred miles by nightfall.
Considered the ultimate modern marvel 150 years ago, the passenger train has matured into a means of transportation that most North Americans now take for granted, if we take it at all. Those of us who ride the rails with any regularity tend to view train trips as convenient shuttles for urban commuters, students on holiday, nondrivers, and nonflyers. But scattered among every group of practical-minded passengers you’ll find a few die-hard romantics–committed rail enthusiasts for whom train travel represents a gentle journey back to a time when life’s pace seemed mercifully slower and significantly more elegant. It is for these romantic souls that today’s luxurious rail tours are designed.
Among the most sumptuous “land cruises” are those offered aboard the United Kingdom’s Royal Scotsman. With a fleet of meticulously maintained Pullman cars refurbished with inlaid mahogany paneling and antique brass fixtures, the Scotsman evokes an era when well-to-do men and women traveled the world
with steamer trunks filled with silk dresses and dinner jackets. With two dining cars, an Edwardian-style observation car, and sleeping compartments with twin berths and private showers, the Royal Scotsman comes convincingly close to re-creating a style of rail travel unseen since the days of the Grand Tour. From the time passengers rendezvous in the first-class lounge of Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, everything on the Scotsman reflects elegance and efficiency. During a four-day journey, the train will cover some 600 miles of track, giving travelers not only a taste of Scotland’s pastoral landscape, but of the past itself.
Meals served aboard the train rival any stationary restaurant’s–a feat that seems all the m ore remarkable when one considers that the kitchen is the narrow galley of a moving vehicle. Every window captures views of heathered moors and lichen-covered boulders, grazing sheep and barley fields, blue lochs and trout streams, whitewashed stucco cottages and gingerbread-trimmed train depots. Daily side trips might transport passengers via motor coach to a fishing village or a Scotch whisky distillery, a manor house or a woolens shop.
Lulled by the comforting rhythm of the train and with little to distract them from the scenery–there are no telephones, faxes, television, or radios aboard–passengers fall into a mellow rhythm, playing cribbage or writing postcards, taking tea in their cabins or sipping Champagne in the observation car. Because the train remains stationary at night, passengers can expect to sleep in comfort (provided they are not much over six feet tall, in which case they will find the berths a bit too short). Overall, the mood and amenities reflect the atmosphere of an English country ho use, where every guest is made to feel completely welcome and pleasantly spoiled.
While rail tours supply welcome relief from workaday stress for many, they may not suit every traveler’s personal style. Those who suffer bouts of cabin fever, those who favor solitude, and most children under 12 would probably prefer a faster or more physically active route to relaxation. But for folks eager to experience life at a slower pace, the rail tour offers a window onto a gentler world, and takes them along tracks less traveled.