From my seat on the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury passenger train that winds its way through Western Canada, I saw mountain goats jumping over canyons, osprey flying from their nests, black bears fishing for salmon, snow-capped Rocky Mountains reflecting off the glacier-fed lakes below. But while wildlife is abundant here, it was the culinary journey that was our biggest adventure as we happily ate our way through half the country.
Our four-day culinary bacchanal through the mountains and cities of Canada began in Vancouver, British Columbia. I met my travel companions at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel to take part in the Fairmont’s Sip + Savour Program at Heron’s West Coast Kitchen + Bar, right off the sun-filled lobby. Started as an alternative late afternoon option (the Fairmont Pacific Rim, the hotel's sister property, offers afternoon tea around the corner), the program offers a tasting of artisanal wines paired with locally produced cheeses and house-made condiments. A jar of the hotel’s own rooftop honey was a sweet accompaniment to the Beddis blue cheese, one of the highlights of the sampling. A tour of the herb and flower garden on the hotel’s third floor rooftop uncovered the source of the fresh honey: six beehives managed by the hotel’s beekeeper and Executive Sous Chef Mark Wadsworth, who conducts daily tours of the honeybee apiary. The hotel’s beehives, home to some 500,000 honeybees, produce 600 pounds of honey each year, which is used in the hotel’s recipes for truffles, vinaigrette, breakfast smoothies, and numerous specialty cocktails.
A refreshing walk through the city took us to Coast, one of seven concepts owned by Glowbal Restaurant Group. A trendy space, the restaurant specializes in all things seafood: oysters, shellfish, whole fish, sushi, steamers, chowders, and more. The best way to taste the offerings proved to be the seafood tower, which included oysters that were so fresh they tasted as if they’d just been pulled from the icy cold waters off Vancouver Island. It was here we learned about the Caesar, Canada’s version of the Bloody Mary, made with the addition of Clamato, which we found on every cocktail menu in the region.
A building away, we stopped for dinner at another Glowbal Collection concept, Black + Blue, a modern steakhouse inspired by the classic steakhouses of Chicago. Billed as "Not your daddy's steakhouse," this is truly a steakhouse for a new generation, with a huge dining room surrounding a gleaming bar and custom-built meat locker displaying in-house aged rare cuts of beef. The pale pink and orange wall lining the meat locker was made of Himalayan salt bricks that purify the air in the low-temperature cooler, naturally removing moisture, dry-aging the steaks and tenderizing the meat for 28-45 days. Our juicy steaks were accompanied by three sauces: chimichurri, peppercorn and a more traditional steak sauce. Favorite sides included Lyonnaise potatoes with caramelized onions and Brussels sprouts flavored with lemon, capers and parmesan. The restaurant, in addition to its extensive wine collection, boasts a cocktail menu that salutes the classics but also offers a selection of originals using fresh juices, house-made syrups, locally sourced brews, and high-end liqueurs.
Vancouver to Kamloops
Picked up directly at the hotel by the Rocky Mountaineer buses, we arrived at the beautiful RM train station (used as a set in a recent episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef”), where the staff sent us off in grand style with a whistle-blowing ceremony. We boarded our GoldLeaf Service car and climbed the stairs to our upper-deck seating, glass-domed cars. Day one on the train included beautiful views of the mountains, trees and rivers. A three-course gourmet breakfast and lunch served on the first-level dining area in our car included fresh local ingredients from two of Canada's most bountiful provinces, British Columbia and Alberta. Menus featured a selection of local specialties (including Alberta pork tenderloin and West Coast wild salmon) and an award-winning list of wines from the Okanagan Valley. The onboard chefs, who are challenged by the moving cars and confined kitchen space, prepared dishes far superior to what I expected on the rails.
The service on the train was gold standard, and the host in our car pointed out good picture-taking opportunities as they occurred. We wove through the fertile Fraser Valley and scenic Fraser Canyon. The highlight of the canyon was Hell's Gate, where we watched the water pass through the canyon's walls at its narrowest point.
Following the South Thompson River, the train landed for an overnight stay in Kamloops, a small town in central British Columbia. After settling in to our small hotel (owned by the Rocky Mountaineer), we strolled down Victoria Street to The Commodore Grand Cafe and Lounge for dinner. Located in an historic building, the restaurant was restored five years ago and turned into the town’s favorite spot for food and live music. The simple menu of salads, burgers and sandwiches (along with the novelty of built-in fondue burners on the tables), turned out fresh and complex flavors. While being entertained by the acoustic singing of the Johnson Sandwich (aptly named for Mallory and Caitlin Johnson, the sisters who make up the band), we enjoyed an appetizer of beer and cheddar, a traditional Swiss fondue. The chicken club salad was one of the freshest I've had, with artisan greens, sliced grilled chicken, grape tomatoes, bacon, red onion, shaved Asiago, sherry honey mustard vinaigrette, served on naan flatbread. We finished with two chocolate fondue dishes, happily dipping cheesecake, brownies, pineapple, and strawberries into the melted Lindt milk and dark Callebeaut chocolate.
Kamloops to Banff
The route from Kamloops to Banff, Alberta, included majestic snow-capped ridges, sun sparkling off the river and waterfalls spilling down the mountainside. We passed Craigellachie, where in 1885 the last spike was driven that completed the Canadian Pacific Railway. Before crossing over the Continental Divide in Banff National Park, the train travelled through the unique Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park, a remarkable engineering achievement. The day ended perfectly with a sighting of a black bear on a rock cliff directly outside our window.
Better known as a charming ski town, Banff won us over as a great dining destination. After working up our appetites all morning on the "Explore Banff" tour, which gave us an overview of one of the most precious and protected places in the world (including a gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain with spectacular views of the valley beneath, as well as a trip to Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in Banff National Park), we enjoyed lunch at the Maple Leaf Grill. Located in the middle of the quaint town and offering a menu specializing in Alberta beef, bison, elk, fresh fish, and seafood, the lodge-like atmosphere set the stage for a hearty meal including a game burger, game pizza (toppings included bison, smoked duck and venison) and English Bay halibut and chips with mushy pea tartar sauce.
Our trip to Banff included a final stay at The Fairmont Banff Springs. Nestled in the mountains of Banff National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, The Fairmont is truly a castle in the Rockies and it wasn't hard to believe the ghost stories about it. But there was nothing spooky about the five-course dinner that night, prepared by Fairmont's Banffshire Club Chef JP Comte, who featured regionally sourced ingredients, authentically local dishes and Canadian wine pairings for each course. A Burrowing Owl chardonnay was the perfect complement to Noble Farms duck confit, gnocchi and kale, the start to our meal. The second course, day boat scallops with fresh English peas, wild onions and house-preserved lemon, was paired with the Sumac Ridge Black Sage Vineyard white meritage, another wonderful partnership. The highlight of the night was the third course: Fort Mcleod elk loin with brown butter mash, fiddleheads and Douglas Fir-scented jus, a beautiful combination of flavors and scents, perfectly paired with a glass of Mt. Boucherie Summit Reserve, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Although I had to hit the gym when I returned, discovering that one of the best culinary destinations lies just to the north has me looking forward to future trips, where I will most certainly opt to ride my bike through Vancouver as a way to offset the many indulgences found throughout the country.
Depart from the U.S.
Rocky Mountaineer launches its new Coastal Passage route, connecting Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Canadian Rockies, the first time the award-winning rail service will depart from, and arrive back in, the United States. Guests on the Coastal Passage route will traverse the coastal shorelines of the Pacific Northwest and the mountains of the Canadian Rockies from the comfort of Rocky Mountaineer’s award-winning GoldLeaf Service. Coastal Passage will be available August 24 and 25, 2013, both northbound and southbound, with packages allowing for stays in Seattle, Vancouver, and the resort towns of Banff or Jasper, Alberta.
Make the Trip
The Fairmont Waterfront
The Fairmont Banff Springs
Explore Banff Tour
The Commodore Grand Cafe & Lounge
Maple Leaf Grill