Oh, Canada! Traveling Coast to Coast by Luxury Train

We could have flown from Toronto to Vancouver in five hours (catching glimpses of the countryside miles below through the clouds), but Canada—the second largest country in the world–deserved a closer look. And, having experienced luxury trains in Australia and Peru, we were eager to travel on VIARail’s The Canadian, ranked among the world’s top 25 train journeys by the Society of International Railway Travelers.

Canada also holds its flagship train in high regard. The country has poured more than $22 million into improving the passenger experience in recent years—and even put the train on the new $10 bill. At a time when many sleeper trains are vanishing, it’s enough to make one sing, “Oh, Canada!”

Train image 1My friend and I booked a double sleeper cabin, which included meals in the elegant dining car, plus snacks, drinks, wine tastings and other events in the Park Car lounge. We also had priority boarding from the private waiting room in Toronto’s downtown Union Station–a 1920s Beau Arts edifice with a cathedral-like Great Hall. There we discovered that our fellow passengers included rail buffs from all over the world–folks who collect train trips the way we do refrigerator magnets.

Shimmering in the dim light of the loading platform, the silver train stretched into the darkness in both directions. Engine idling, it trembled as if eager for its 10 p.m. departure. On board, our steward led us to our cabin, where we flipped a coin for the lower bunk (I lost). We rejoined the others in the Park Car for a champagne reception and, from the observation level, watched the train snake its way out of the city past the iconic CN Tower, once the tallest structure in the world.

In our cabin the arm chairs had been stowed, the beds turned down, and a chocolate placed on each pillow. In no time the rocking of the train lulled us to sleep.

The next morning we swayed along the aisle to the dining car, passing curtained berths that, of course, reminded us of Marilyn Monroe’s adventures in the 1959 movie “Some Like it Hot.” We said as much to the young Australian couple we were seated with, which led to explanations across the generation gap. Breakfast, like all the meals to come, was perfectly prepared using fresh Canadian ingredients. Crab and avocado benedict, anyone? There’s a chef on board, and he earns his stripes.

Train-image-3-72Outside the big windows, the spring landscape reeled by–spruce forests, frozen lakes, rivers and rugged rock outcroppings. Canada geese bobbed in the lakes’ thawed patches. Snowmobile tracks and ice-fishing huts hinted at the winter subsistence of those who lived in the infrequent rough cabins we passed. The train stopped once in the middle of nowhere to drop off a passenger, who was picked up by snowmobile.

As the hours passed, the vastness of Ontario began to sink in. They were pleasant hours, filled with reading in our cabin, learning about the country from the activity coordinator, and chatting with fellow passengers. It was a “bucket list” trip for most of us, including newlyweds from England, a group of school chums from Australia, a New Zealand couple visiting family in the U.S. and an 83-year-old Portland woman returning from being feted in Philadelphia. As she worked on her needlepoint, she said she loved reliving the days of “civilized” travel. Amen to that!

During the night, Ontario’s forests gave way to the immense prairies of Manitoba, but we awoke to the sight of skyscrapers in the provincial capital, Winnipeg. With a couple of hours to stretch our “train legs” (think “sea legs”), we explored The Forks, the city’s biggest tourist attraction. Where two rivers converge, Aboriginal people once met to trade. Today it’s home to a riverside park with entertainment and more than 100 ethnic shops.

Throughout the day we passed through rolling fields punctuated with an occasional farmhouse, herds of livestock and bands of elk. From the Park Car we watched as our long silver bullet hurtled toward a blazing sunset. When the glow faded, the stars took center stage, unhampered by light pollution. We had entered Saskatchewan, another “bread basket” province.

After a peek out the window in the morning, we scrambled for our cameras. The Canadian Rockies were upon us in all their glory, with Mt. Robson—the region’s highest mountain—hiding in clouds, as usual. But the other peaks, glacial lakes and rushing rivers put on a constant show, along with mountain goats, elk and bald eagles. A moose scratching against a tree paused to gaze back at us.

We reached Jasper shortly after lunch, and had a couple of hours to explore one of Canada’s most charming tourist towns. Like Banff to the north, it’s a vibrant center of outdoor sports winter and summer, but a bit more laid-back. An outrageously entertaining and (apparently) wealthy Vancouver couple disembarked there, bound for the historic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

In the morning, as the train crossed from Alberta into British Columbia and slowed on the outskirts of Vancouver, we abandoned our cocoon of a cabin for a hotel room on English Beach, within walking distance of the city’s famous Stanley Park. Spring was in full swing, as were the bikers, joggers and dog walkers. Vancouver has a Healthy City Strategy—no kidding–and it’s catching. We tried to walk off a few pounds before boarding The Canadian for the return trip to Toronto, settling back into the “civilized” (read pampered) way to travel.

Train-image-4-72If you go

Every year, more than 100,000 passengers make the three-day, four night, 2,775-mile journey between Toronto and Vancouver on VIARail’s The Canadian. High season is May-October, but spring and fall are great travel times, too, because the weather is moderate and there are bargain fares to be had. Traveling east to west you gain an hour of sleep whenever the train enters a different time zone. Each sleeper cabin has its own sink and toilet, with a shared shower in each car (about six cabins). A word of caution: The government-owned VIARAIL uses tracks owned by the Canadian National Railroad (CN), so it pauses on sidings to let freight trains pass. This can cause delays. Visit www.viarail.ca and click on “Rockies and Pacific” or call 888-VIA-RAIL (842-7245).



About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.