I remember the first time I heard about Rocky Mountaineer. It was in 1995 and my husband showed me an advertisement for a new company that was running a train for two-day journeys into the Canadian Rockies. I remember thinking it was one of those trips of a lifetime, and I added it to my list. I don’t think we called them bucket lists back then.
Fast-forward to 2015 when I finally made my first journey onboard Rocky Mountaineer. I realized it is the perfect collaboration that creates what Rocky Mountaineer calls “life-changing experiences”—breathtaking scenery, world-class service, attention to detail, and a staff that is second-to-none. When I made my second journey in April 2017, I had a chance to go behind the scenes at Rocky Mountaineer. Come along with me as I share with you the people behind the dream. Here are a few of the folks who make the luxury train trip truly a life-changing experience for millions of people.
Your Wishes Realized Onboard Rocky Mountaineer
I met John Campbell on a chilly afternoon in April and his enthusiasm for his job made me smile. He is responsible for all provisioning on the train—making sure it is clean, full of fuel, and has plenty of water, ice, wine, soda, food, souvenirs, and even toilet paper.
We had just taken the ride from Vancouver to Kamloops for what was my second time—it's the first leg of both the First Passage to the West and the Journey through the Clouds routes. I knew from experience that the train’s hosts keep the wine and food flowing, but I didn’t know just how free-flowing until John told us some of the details that day at the train yard in Kamloops.
During the 2016 season, Rocky Mountaineer used 4,000 cases of wine and 200,000 cans of soda—all in just six months. John laughs that Rocky Mountaineer holds the record in British Columbia for the single largest wine order.
But getting all of the wine, soda, and water on the train isn’t all John oversees. He makes sure any special requests are also met, particularly on the second day of the journey. During the night, while the guests are resting in Kamloops, anything the onboard hosts might have noticed or a passenger requested, John and his staff make happen.
On any given night, it takes between 120 and 130 people to get the train ready for the next day’s journey. “We’re often called the night gnomes,” John laughed. “For example, if someone wants a particular alcohol or a child asks for Fruit Loops, we make sure it’s on the train for the next day. We do that so the onboard hosts can do their jobs of creating those life-changing experiences.”
The train arrives at the station in Kamloops sometime between 6 and 8 pm and passengers re-board about 12 hours later. To get everything turned around and ready for that luxury service the next day, everyone has to work together. “Most people don’t know the logistical feat it takes to get it ready for the next day,” says John. “But it works because we are a very tight-knit family. There’s something magical about the train. All of our guests are part of our family and sharing that magic with them is important to each one of us.”There's something magical about the train.
That’s something John says starts with Rocky Mountaineer’s founder Peter Armstrong. “Mr. Armstrong walks into my office and wants to know where his train is and how it’s going. We’re all family.”
Hosting You Along the Rails
Wendy McMichael has been a part of Rocky Mountaineer for seven years and serves on board as a train manager. The Vancouver native spent a decade in restaurant management but wanted to combine her love for travel with her passion for hospitality. When she discovered Rocky Mountaineer, she was hooked.
Most people who come on the train are fascinated with the life of the hosts and how their days work. People can’t figure out how this “railroad life” works. It is seasonal work for the onboard hosts, lasting about seven months out of the year. During the working season, “Our day can generally start anywhere from 5 to 6 am and will usually end around 6 to 8 pm,” explains Wendy. “We work four days on and three days off, so we are generally away from home for 16 to 20 days in a month.”Watching the emotion of our guests as they travel is extremely heartwarming and getting to be part of that is hard to put into words.
Wendy loves that her days include a mix of services, storytelling, and socializing. “Life on the rails means no two days are alike,” she laughs. The opportunity to meet so many people has led to some amazing experiences for Wendy personally, particularly since Rocky Mountaineer journeys are often the culmination of a lifetime goal. “Watching the emotion of our guests as they travel is extremely heartwarming and getting to be part of that is hard to put into words.”
“Each trip we have special moments, but one that comes to mind is when we were traveling in early spring with a full car of Australians. Many had never before seen snow. As we made our way into the Rockies, snow was falling and the ground and trees were covered from the fresh snowfall. There were tears and awe. We started playing Christmas music and celebrated throughout the day.”
Another favorite memory for Wendy was a 100th birthday celebration—made easier because even the bi-level coach for GoldLeaf Service has an elevator for accessibility—where the entire crew made a congo-line through the car singing happy birthday. “I’ve watched solo guests socialize and bond to where they have such a wonderful connection with those they’ve met in their car that everyone bands together to write an ‘ode’ to that individual.”
Wendy loves what she does and loves being close to the guests on each train. “We will be ensuring that you are pampered along the way by seeing to all of your needs, sharing stories and history about the highlights and locations we travel through, and we will never let you go hungry. All your senses will be delighted and engaged.”
Keeping Rocky Mountaineer On Time and Safe
It’s easy to see what John and his team do as we eat the gourmet meals using the food stocked on board—and created by the culinary team under the direction of Executive Chef Jean Pierre Guerin—and to sip the wine or take home those fun souvenirs. We hear the stories and feel pampered all day long by Wendy and her fellow hosts as we ride the rails onboard Rocky Mountaineer. They slow down to show us the wow moments of the Canadian Rockies.
But, there is more to keeping those trains going—and much of it happens even during the off-season. I spoke with Dwayne Dergousoff, Senior Director of Rail Operations, about the safety, maintenance, and daily operations of the trains and had a chance to go behind the scenes in Kamloops.
Dwayne is what those in the industry call a “railroad man”. He came to Rocky Mountaineer two years ago after a 23-year career at Canadian Pacific Railway—working there as a conductor, locomotive engineer, and then in management. He knows all of those stories about the tracks and the trains that people seem to find fascinating.
Working at Rocky Mountaineer has been different for Dwayne for two reasons—there are two distinct seasons (one with guests and one primarily for maintenance) and the culture at Rocky Mountaineer empowers workers to create a real team to ensure the ultimate guest experience. “It starts with our founder, Peter Armstrong,” says Dwayne. “He helps create an environment that makes you want to be part of the team.”
Dwayne says that team carries over to the customers. “We here at Rocky Mountaineer are creators of life-changing experiences. If you’re really looking to connect with great people and experience wow moments on your journey, this is it.” Dwayne says it actually happened to him.
Before taking his current position, Rocky Mountaineer offered a ride to him and his wife to see what the experience was all about. Although he had been with Canadian Pacific for 23 years, his wife had never been on a train. She wasn’t sure what the hype was all about. At the start of the second day, he realized his wife was more relaxed and even wearing a train hat. As they pulled into their final destination the end of that second day, she told him the experience—talking to the other guests, sharing stories, connecting in a personal way—really was a life-changing experience. “It makes you want to be a better person because of what you experience on the train,” she explained. He knew then he would take the job and loves helping others find those memorable moments in time.It makes you want to be a better person because of what you experience on Rocky Mountaineer.
Insider Favorites on Rocky Mountaineer Journeys
Since it began in 1990, there have been more than two million passengers onboard Rocky Mountaineer. There are now more than 65 different vacation packages you can book, creating unique journeys over four different routes. I’ve done the First Passage to the West from Vancouver to Banff and the Journey through the Clouds from Vancouver to Jasper. Each was unique and offered amazing “wow moments.”
I loved the countryside outside Vancouver, especially this past April when it had been raining.
Mount Robson inspired me on that journey, so strong and mighty standing against the sky.
But the second day of the First Passage to the West, from Kamloops to Banff, was probably my favorite. The sheer beauty of the mountains and the spectacular thrill of going through the Spiral Tunnels was one of my favorite life experiences.
I decided to ask the Rocky Mountaineer team about their favorite wow moments—and discovered they had just as much trouble picking out their top experiences as I did.
John agreed with me. “Banff is a beautiful trip with those majestic views, but I also really enjoy Vancouver to Kamloops. You go through so many climate changes and it is so diverse.”
Wendy says she loves all the journeys with specific highlights on each one. “Going to Banff, there are the Spiral Tunnels and the Yoho Valley, traveling the Vermillion Lakes and getting your first sight of Mount Rundle, or passing Craigellachie where the final spike went in for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885,” she explained. “But if you go to Jasper, the highlight is seeing Mount Robson on a clear day, or rolling by Pyramid Falls.”
Wendy also mentioned one of the newer routes that I haven’t yet experienced. Coastal Passage starts in Seattle, crosses the US-Canadian border to Vancouver, and then continues into the Canadian Rockies. “This leg from Seattle is stunning, with us hugging the coastline for most of the trip. My personal favorite is going through Teddy Bear Cove in the Chuckanut Bay.” I think that is a must-do on my personal bucket list!
Dwayne also prefers the Kamloops to Banff journey and the Seattle/Vancouver route that runs along the coast. “The coastal views are stunning,” he says, agreeing with Wendy.
If You Go—Riding Rocky Mountaineer
As Wendy says so eloquently, “Be ready to be amazed. With our landscape, everything is far more grandiose than you anticipated.”“Be ready to be amazed. With our landscape, everything is far more grandiose than you anticipated.”
This is one of the most epic journeys I’ve taken as I’ve traveled the world. All you have to do is sit back, relax, and let the world melt away.
Rocky Mountaineer operates mid-April through mid-October with four journeys: Coastal Passage from Seattle to Vancouver and into the Canadian Rockies; First Passage to the West from Vancouver to Kamloops and on to Lake Louise or Banff; Journey through the Clouds from Vancouver to Kamloops and on to Jasper; and Rainforest to Gold Rush from Vancouver to Whistler to Quesnel to Jasper. The journeys fill up in advance, so now is the time to start planning for your trip of a lifetime. Find out more online at RockyMountaineer.com.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with travel, accommodations, and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.