By the time the train pulls into the station at Revelstoke, B.C., it is nearly 4 p.m. and my companions and I are hungry. It's been five hours since breakfast (scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and lemon-chive creme fraiche) was served, a couple of hours after the Rocky Mountaineer left Banff, Alta., at 9 a.m. It's amazing the appetite you can work up just sitting in the bubble of a domed coach while the towering mountain scenery swallows you whole.
Our group of six travel writers has drawn the second sitting for lunch which, like the train, is a couple of hours behind schedule. Lunch, late as it is, more than makes up for the inconvenience. The four-course meal is exquisitely presented. I choose the sesame-seed crusted halibut with wasabi barley risotto paired with a Pinot Gris from See Ya Later Ranch in Okanagan Falls. There is also a prawn salad appetizer, a cheese course and raspberries and cream for dessert. Each course is accompanied with a different Okanagan wine.
A taste of things to come. This is a press trip and we six are enjoying a preview of two additions to Rocky Mountaineer's roster of rail explorations in the mountainous splendour of British Columbia and Alberta. The company, which bills itself as the largest privately owned passenger train service in North America, has been navigating the snowcapped passes and river valleys since 1990. Last year, it launched a new "themed experience" -a wine tour of the Okanagan Valley.
Since I have been known to enjoy a glass of wine or three, this sounded like the theme of my dreams. My comrade at arms is Sarah Doyle, a thirty-something wine writer from California. As soon as our train reaches Kamloops, Sarah and I, Richelle from Rocky Mountaineer and Patti from Okanagan Wine Tours will set off on a two-day road trip through the Okanagan Valley that would best be described as Wine, Women and Scenery. We are doing the tour backwards - from Banff to Vancouver - when in fact the wine-tasting tour begins on the coast and ends at the Banff Springs Hotel.
Never mind. I'm sure that the snowy reaches of the Continental Divide (at 5,339 feet, the highest elevation we reach) and the ice-blue tumble of the Kicking Horse River (we cross it seven times over the course of 39 km) are impressive no matter what direction you are going. I'm sure the cute Cinnamon bear will still be there sitting by the side of the tracks just outside Field, drunk, according to one of the knowledgeable on-board attendants who explains that the bears feed on the grain that falls from the freight trains and lies fermenting in the sun. And I'm also sure that the stellar accommodations and spa services that we experienced at the Banff Springs Hotel are even more welcome at the end of the trip.
Lunch over, the train finally gets underway again doing what is known as the "Kodak crawl," a lilting clackety-clack slow enough that passengers can lean out from the breezeways between cars and photograph the unfolding vistas -thick forests of spruce and aspen, shrouded marshlands dotted with beaver lodges, rivers and more rivers, and of course the enduring mountains. We pass through Craigellachie where the Last Spike was driven in 1885, over the 342-metre-long Columbia River Bridge and, as darkness falls, along the shores of Shuswap Lake (the "Houseboat Capital of Canada") where ospreys and golden eagles nest.
So much for the scenery. We spend the night just outside Kamloops at the South Thompson Guest Ranch. Llamas graze in the corrals outside a sprawling family-run inn decorated in what could be described as early Southfork. The breakfast is hearty and folks are friendly, gathering on the covered veranda to bid us farewell as we set out on the Wine and Women portion of our tour.
The Okanagan Valley is home to more than 130 wineries, many of them small boutique operations with names such as Dirty Laundry, Laughing Stock and Misconduct. The vineyards cling to the sloping shores of Lake Okanagan, a 145-km-long body of water shaped like a sausage that stretches from Vernon in the north to Penticton in the south. More wineries (Blasted Church, Forbidden Fruit, Oliver Twist) cluster in and around Oliver and Osoyoos near the U.S. border.
We hit seven wineries in two days -during which I learned a good deal about wine and even more about spitting.
Our first stop was Grey Monk, owned and operated by George and Trudy Heiss since 1972. Sarah and I tasted 13 vintages over the next hour (according to my notes), ranging from a 2008 chardonnay (no oak, celery) to an off-dry rose (cranberry, great with turkey) to a Merlot (strawberry, made to age). Sarah spat. I swallowed. But five wines into the tasting, with bottles lining up on the counter, I realized there was no way I was going to be able to keep this up. Sarah, with the insouciance (and remarkable delicacy) of a real wine writer, was relieving herself of each mouthful into a stainless steel bucket. As a wine lover who could never see much sense in the practice, I finally got it when my head started to spin. And so, with wine No. 6, a nicely balanced Gewurztraminer, I defied the prohibitions of my well-bred mother and my own inclinations, and I spat in public.
Nevertheless, the remaining day and half is a bit of a blur. I recall architect Tom Kundig's classically inspired Modernist Mission Hill Winery set on a bluff overlooking Lake Okanagan where we sampled the Affinities Menu in the alfresco dining room: a dozen more wines, each one accompanied by a small plate chosen for its affinity to the grape -as in, Kushi oyster with citrus pearls and sea asparagus served with a sauvignon blanc that Sarah pronounced "the best sauvignon I've ever tasted." I bought a bottle.
Then, after a quick shower and change at Kelowna's Cove Lakeside Resort, where we stayed, we gathered for dinner at Quail's Gate Estate Winery (more food and wine). And that's where my note-taking ends. The funny thing about eating and drinking is that no matter how much you overdo it, the next day you only want more.
And a good thing too, because Day 2 took us to Sumac Ridge, Hillside, Tinhorn and finally Nk' Mip (pronounced "Ink Meep"), a Native-run winery in Osoyoos where we spent the night. By the end I was spitting with aplomb, though sadly I have come to realize that I will never be a wine connoisseur. After five or six spits, I can't tell a cab sauv from a pinot noir. Which means I intend to swallow from now on -one glass at a time.
And the Women part of the tour? Let's just say that when you have four girls (previously unknown to one another, aged 34 to fiftysomething, two of them slightly tipsy) piled into a big white SUV touring the Okanagan Valley, well, they have a lot of stories to tell. Kind of like Thelma and Louise, only with good taste -and a happy ending.
If you go
The Rocky Mountaineer Winery Tour is a 8-day, 7-night trip, with 2011 departures on June 16 and Sept. 8. Prices start at $4,699. For more information and to book, visit rockymountaineer.com.