VANCOUVER - The gentle swaying of the rail car that lulled us to sleep just a few hours earlier had stopped. The clickety-clack sound steel wheels make when they meet steel rails had been replaced by an eerie silence.
In one of those “where am I?” moments, I peered out the window of my rail car and through sleepy eyes and an early morning mist, I saw two big, black eyes looking back at me.
"Honey, honey! Wake up! You’ve got to see this,” I shouted at my wife, who scurried to the window just in time to watch a massive bear lazily lumber out of the slow-moving Fraser River with a whale of a salmon trapped in its jaws.
For the longest time, we sat huddled together at our wide-screen window soaking up all the high definition wonders on display before us – waterfalls, bald eagles, pristine forest – before the train jolted forward and once again we were on our way, headed for Vancouver aboard Via Rail’s scenic train called, appropriately enough, the Canadian.
Much has been written about this world-renowned service, which has become as much a tourist icon for this country as Mounties and moose. Her sleek silver-bullet cars have been photographed many times snaking through Western Canada’s majestic Rocky Mountain landscape.
Another scenic train that has been causing a lot of excitement in the Rockies in recent years is the Rocky Mountaineer Railtours, whose trains only run in daylight – stopping in the evening to give its passengers a taste of Western Canadian hospitality. The Rocky Mountaineer Railtours is 5-star in every way.
The Canadian truly makes you appreciate this slow moving masterpiece, a leftover from the Art Deco era when train travel was at the height of its popularity. And, judging by the jam-packed dome car we were sitting in for most of our trip, train travel, at least on the Canadian, appears to be enjoying a renaissance.
On our overnight journey from Jasper, Alberta to Vancouver, we met people from Germany, Australia, France, Great Britain, and just about every state in the Union.
The glass-top dome cars – VIA actually calls them Park cars because each is named after one of Canada’s amazing national parks – is the gathering spot for most people travelling on the Canadian. They talk one common language here – oohs! and aahs! don’t need to be translated. In the lounge of each double-decker Park car is where introductions were made and sightings shared. This is where we spent many hours sipping spirits and getting to know our fellow passengers, their countries and customs.
All agreed this was their trip of a lifetime and by all accounts, no one was disappointed. But it would be hard to find fault with what the Canadian provides its guests. The jaw-dropping scenery is a given when you board the Canadian but the service and attention the crew provides makes the experience that much more enjoyable.
The Canadian is like a valium for travellers. It makes you slow down – much like a cruise ship. And, just like the cruise experience, the food aboard the Canadian was gourmet quality, the service white glove and the wine vintage.
The Canadian offers a number of different classes of accommodation – the Silver and Blue sleeper class we enjoyed came with a roomette and all our meals were included. Access to the Park, or dome car at the rear of the train was restricted to these classes and trust me when I tell you it’s well worth the added expense. During the day, our sleeper was transformed into our own private viewing car with two comfy leather chairs. That is where we attempted to catch up on our reading – not an easy task when what is passing outside constantly challenges your attention.
The Canadian travels three times a week between Toronto and Vancouver, a 2,091-mile journey that takes three days. However, you can join the train at one of its major stops along the way. In our case, we elected to fly to oil-rich Calgary, spend a few days playing golf and soaking in spas at two of the most beautiful wilderness hotels imaginable, the Banff Springs and Jasper Park Lodge, before jumping on board.
The beauty of travelling on the Canadian is that you can combine stays at a series of great hotels that were built by this country’s legendary Canadian Pacific railway back when Western Canada was first being settled in the late 1800s. Later, the Canadian Pacific’s passenger service was melded together with that of another and became VIA.
Jasper, a pretty backwater tourist town tucked away in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain wilderness, not far from Edmonton, is where we jumped aboard the Canadian. Soon, we were drifting between darkness and daylight as the Canadian cut through tunnelled mountains. Every so often, the train would slow to a crawl and the conductor would share some local knowledge about what was coming up the track – usually waterfall sightings or historic markers.
For much of the trip, we followed the Fraser River, which flows between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. The river was used by early explorers to map much of Western Canada and provides VIA riders with plenty of Kodak moments. Lots of bear and elk sightings here!
All too soon, we pulled into cosmopolitan Vancouver and bid farewell to our delightful crew and newfound friends. Our Canadian journey was over but the memories it provided will linger for many years to come.
- VIA Rail, which runs 460 trains per week, offers a number of other scenic train services where you can view Canada in all its natural brilliance. Another highly recommended trip is aboard the Ocean, which travels between Montreal and Canada’s Atlantic provinces, home to some of the friendliest people in the world.
- For more information on VIA Rail’s routes and price structures, go to www.viarail.ca