Oh, Canada! – Traveling on the ‘Canadian’ was scenic, relaxing
This is the first of a two-part series
by Stan Kistler
Special to The Union
For many years my wife and I had wanted to make a trip to the New England states to see the fall colors. Neither of us care to fly, so we opted for train travel, utilizing rental cars or taxis at our destinations. We planned the trip for late October, 2004.
I have been a longtime aficionado of rail travel. I made it a point to ride the premier passenger trains here in the states in the 1950s and 1960s when they were still operated by the various railroads, and service was still conducive to enjoyable trips. I planned all of my trips myself, using the timetables furnished by the railroads and planning my layovers and connections.
Now with the Internet, it was a snap for me to plan this trip to the East Coast and back. Our goal was twofold: to ride the “Canadian,” a transcontinental premium passenger train between Vancouver and Toronto, and to see as much of the fall colors as we could squeeze into the time we had available.
“VIA” is the Canadian equivalent to “Amtrak” in the U.S., a government subsidized rail passenger network. The “Canadian” operates three days a week between these two cities, covering the scenic route in just over 72 hours. It follows through southern Canada on the tracks of the Canadian National Railway. Main cities en route are Kamloops, B.C.; Jasper and Edmonton, Alberta; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Sioux Lookout, Sudbury and Toronto, Ontario.
VIA offers a special first-class fare to seniors in their off-season (late fall and winter) called the “Silver and Blue Class.” This provides full sleeping car accommodations, all meals, 24-hour dome lounge cars and superior service. Fares are deeply discounted so that one of us paid the full senior fare and the other paid only 25 percent. The service and amenities were beyond description. We both felt that we were on a “cruise ship on rails” by the time our journey came to an end in Toronto.
The “Canadian” was to leave Vancouver at 5:30 p.m. We had arrived at 11 a.m. by train from Seattle to allow some time to look around Vancouver. At the Pacific Central Station we found the VIA gate for boarding our train and a uniformed attendant asked to see our tickets. He noted our car number and sleeper space, asked for our luggage and gave us receipts. He then said that our luggage would be in our rooms on the train when we returned before departure and to enjoy Vancouver.
We arrived back at the station after a delightful lunch and a brief look at the outskirts of Vancouver by way of their excellent SkyTrain rail transit system. We were directed into the Silver and Blue lounge where light libations and snacks were being served and a musician was playing for our enjoyment. The boarding gates were opened after a short time and we proceeded to our car, the fourth car from the rear, named “Butler Manor.”
The train is a sleek stainless steel and blue streamliner, very much like the passenger trains I had ridden in the U.S. 40 or more years ago. The cars all came from the Canadian Pacific Railway, which used to operate this service before VIA. They have all been refurbished in the past 10 years and were “new” throughout with modern amenities and handicapped access. There was a round-end observation car at the rear. In it was a lounge area with movable chairs at the rear of the car that was tastefully decorated in fall colors with colorful leaf garlands draped above the windows. The center of the car was in two levels. Above was a domed seating area with windows front and rear as well as above and to the sides that would hold about 24 people. Below this was a bar and another seating area with small tables. The front of the car contained four sleeping rooms.
After we had checked into our sleeper and met our car attendant, we wandered back to the lounge for the departure. As we and the other passengers began getting acquainted, the attendant passed around champagne and finger sandwiches, which he indicated were made “especially for us” by the dining-car chef. The experience was a delight and what a pleasant way to start a train trip.
Our sleeping car attendant had asked us for our preferred seating in the dining car, early or late, and we opted for late that first night out. The dining experience was excellent. We were seated by the steward at a table with another couple. The dining experience on a train is an excellent way to get to know your fellow travelers, and we met some interesting people at our four dinners on this train by the time our journey was over.
The steward and waiters were extra courteous and skillful in handling food on a moving train. There were five or six choices in entrees each evening, and they varied every night. A variety of wines was offered. The food was prepared right in the kitchen on the car, served hot, with generous portions and presented as if in a fine restaurant. We enjoyed every meal to the fullest.
After some more conversations and reading in the lounge car it was time to retire. Imagine our surprise when we returned to our sleeper to find our beds made up for the night with a down comforter, a fresh bottle of water beside the bed and a chocolate candy on the pillow! I must say that these older sleepers have much thicker mattresses than the cars in present use on Amtrak, and the beds are slightly wider, making for a comfortable night’s sleep.
In the morning we awoke to the sights of the Canadian Rockies and it was snowing. It had started to get light just after we left Kamloops, and by the time we had dressed and gone into the diner for breakfast we were near Valemount. Breakfast was the usual fare and we were joined by yet a different couple than we had met at dinner. In the observation lounge at the rear of the train, complimentary coffee, milk, juices, muffins, fruit and croissants were spread out on a table for all to partake, particularly those who opted for a lighter breakfast. Oh, yes, coffee had also been offered to us in our sleeper by our car attendant.
About midday we stopped at Jasper, Alberta at the northern end of Jasper National Park. The train is serviced here for over an hour and passengers have an opportunity to get off and explore the town. Some of the shops had closed for the winter, but others welcomed us with their warmth (it was about 25 degrees outside). Soon it was “all aboard” and we’re on our way again. Another fine lunch in the diner and we found ourselves struck by the beauty of the Rockies in winter. Huge mountains loomed up around us and there were lakes everywhere. The dome was “the” place to be to watch the scenery unfold, and we took advantage of it all afternoon as the snow continued to fall. We arrived in the city of Edmonton in the early evening where there was a foot of snow on the ground. Some new passengers joined us here as others departed.
After departure from Edmonton it was back to the diner for another fine meal. Later, my wife did some reading while I took up the front seat in the dome. As our train hurried through the night I sat and watched the snow come down and the green signals ahead of us turn to red as we passed. For visibility, this kind of dome is akin to being right beside the engineer in the locomotive (and in fact that’s how they were first conceived by a railroad official in the 1940s).
Once again it was time to retire to our very comfortable sleeping accommodations. We each had a separate “roomette” as they are called on VIA. They were directly across the aisle from each other. Each roomette contains a big picture window, two seats for daytime travel, a small sink, a commode, a closet and lots of fresh terry hand and bath towels. Also there was a complimentary pouch containing bath soap, shampoo and body lotion. The bed folds down from the end of the room for sleeping, and all of the bedding is out of sight when the bed is put away. There is a sliding door and a curtain on the aisle side. Each car of the “Manor” series like ours has a spacious private dressing room and a shower stall near the center of the car and it is available for all of the passengers to use, and times can be reserved by asking the car attendant. There were also six bedrooms and three berths in the car.
During the night we passed from Alberta into Saskatchewan and, just after dawn, into Manitoba with brief stops at Brandon North and Portage la Prairie as the snow began to let up. At 11:20 a.m. we arrived in Winnipeg. Here again we had an hour as the train was serviced and we said good-bye to our onboard service crew that had been with us since Vancouver. A new crew took over and would be with us until the end of our journey in Toronto. We looked around the stately station, built in 1911 and designed by the same architects who had created New York’s Grand Central Station, then went outside for a little stroll in downtown Winnipeg. This is a beautiful city, as I recalled from a previous, albeit summer, visit over 40 years ago. It was cold and overcast this time, so we soon opted to get back into the warmth of our train and partake of lunch in the diner, which was served upon departure.
That afternoon we raced across the prairies of eastern Manitoba to our next stop six hours later at Sioux Lookout, Ontario. We crossed numerous rivers and the upper reaches of Lake of the Woods but settlements were few and far between. Spruce forests abounded as darkness overtook us. We enjoyed another fine dining experience in the dining car, again meeting new travelers at our table and exchanging train travel experiences.
Following our meal, we decided to see what was happening in the “activities” car. This was a car where an attendant supervised games for young and old alike, and where video movies were shown at various times during the trip. There were ample magazines and books, also a small kitchen/snackbar, and a dome accessible for all passengers to enjoy the views.
During the night we were crossing southern Ontario province through sparse settlements that sprung up to service the steam locomotives for years before the Diesel-electric came into use. Early in the morning of our last day on the “Canadian” we made a brief stop at Hornepayne, and around noon at Capreol. We reached Perry Sound in late afternoon, and after another sumptuous supper and farewell to an outstanding dining car staff, we arrived right on time at 8 p.m. in downtown Toronto.
The rest of our journey would be by train, rented car and air, taking us to parts of New England and New York before returning to Grass Valley. But that’s another story.
This relaxing train trip across Canada was a pleasant experience all of the way. We would highly recommend it to anyone who has the time and the inclination to be pampered in such a way as to equal the best cruise lines and see a lot of beautiful scenery from the ground.
For more information, go online to http://www.viarail.ca, or call 1-888-VIA-RAIL (1-888-842-7245).
Stan Kistler is a photographer who lives in Grass Valley.
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