If there is one trip that will make you realize just how big, diverse and absolutely gorgeous Canada is, it is going cross-country on Via Rail’s The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. From the dense forests of Quebec and Ontario to the vivid and never-ending fields of the prairies to the dramatic snow-capped Rockies, Canada is absolutely breathtaking and I had the privilege of experiencing this once-in-a-lifetime trip just last week.
A few weeks ago, I was offered to go across Canada with Via Rail along with 4 other intrepid bloggers: Dustin, Jeff, Martine and Valerie. Via’s executive chef Martin Gemme was with us as well and we were to test out the accommodations, the voyage but also the new on board menu which was created a few months ago and has started to be served on The Canadian for only a couple of weeks. I had traveled by train before but only in Europe and, like many of you I’m sure, had never thought of taking the train in Canada. What a big mistake because it is an absolutely terrific way to travel where the journey is as much part of the trip as the destination.
It takes 4 days to reach Vancouver from Toronto and I must admit that I was worried that I would be bored or have a major case of cabin fever while being “stuck on the train”. None of those things happened and in fact, I was sad when the trip ended. Instead of a feeling of imprisonment, I actually felt somehow liberated from having to be constantly “on” and always connected. There’s no WiFi or 3G for a big part of the ride so all you can do really is enjoy the ride and the view, which is always breathtaking! To go to bed surrounded by the dense woods of Ontario and wake up to the prairies of Manitoba is something we don’t experience often in this fast-paced world of ours so it is absolutely charming to be able to slow down and enjoy the journey.
Our days consisted of waking up, having breakfast in one of the 2 dining carts then admiring the view from the panoramic car or perhaps hanging out in the lounge car. Lunch was next and a choice of 4 delicious, well executed and varied dishes was always available. My afternoons were spent reading, napping, watching TV shows on my laptop and not doing the work I had brought with me. Warning: watching the gorgeous landscapes whiz by through the window at the foot of your bed will distract you from your self-imposed obligations, which is a good thing. Getting to know some of the other passengers and socializing for real instead of just virtually was also part of the train curriculum.
Is it time for dinner yet? Being in a sleeper car means that your meals are included and that you can reserve a table during one of the 3 dinner services. Dinner also comes in 4 delicious choices and although not everything is always local, there’s an effort made to use of some of the specialties of the provinces we were in, like Saskatoon berries in the prairies. The wines are also local, from B.C. and Ontario, and a colour-coded pairing suggestion is done on the menu to make things easier for the diner. Included in your meal for no charge at all are the gorgeous views that surround you and will make you gasp at every twist and turn of the tracks, especially in Jasper National Park.
We spent some time getting to know the kitchen staff and their cozy surroundings. Their cooking skills are only rivaled by their organizational skills, which are a must in such a small kitchen where chefs relay each other every four days. Equipped with bar handles to hold on to whenever the train’s jerking gets to be too rough, the chef and his assistant dish out a choice of 4 dishes that never repeated for every meal we ate on board. There was even a brunch once, which we sampled twice, once for breakfast and once for lunch (shhh, don’t tell anyone!). If I were to be completely honest, the only thing I really missed was a good latte, my only serious addiction.
When we finally arrived in Vancouver, our final destination, it had a bittersweet finality. I had a previous engagement in Montreal and was flying back a couple of days later and the thought of taking the plane back was suddenly so… ordinary. I was eager to explore Vancouver but sad to leave the train, as if I hadn’t made the most of my stay on board. And to think I was worried about getting cabin fever! I was more than content in my cozy accommodations but I believe it’s the old school charm of traveling by train, disconnected from the world as we know it today, yet strangely connected to everything surrounding us – trees, animals, rivers and lakes, real stuff – that won me over.
Since my return, people have asked me if I recommend traveling by train and my answer is a resounding yes! This cross-country trip aboard The Canadian should be taken at least once in a lifetime., if only for the views. It makes you appreciate this great country of ours in a very unique way.
To find out more about this once-in-a-lifetime trip, consult Via Rail’s website.
Being on a train for four days, you can’t help but make a few observations:
- In the prairies, there’s a pond for every duck, seriously!
- Taking a shower on a moving train is actually not that bad
- On the other hand, taking a photo on a moving train is actually very difficult (sorry about the blurry photos!)
- There’s a car attendant in every wagon. They will make your bed, leave a chocolate on your pillow and reconfigure your room the way you want it every morning!
- It’s amazing how little space you actually need to be comfortable (albeit for only 4 nights)
- Ontario is a really wide province and it seemed to take forever to cross it
- Yes, you can take 150 pictures of fields of colza out in the prairies (I couldn’t get enough of that view!)
- When you’re heading west, the train moves forward while time moves backwards, which can be somewhat disconcerting
- It is often hard to keep track of what time it really is. You will find yourself asking questions similar to these: have we changed the time? is it really 7pm or is it only 6 still? Is dinner at 7:30 old time or new time?
- The variety of wild flowers growing by the train tracks is absolutely stunning
- The shaking and feeling of motion does not stop once you get off the train. I’m still feeling it more than a week later!
- It takes about 24 hours to detox from an overload of electronic sensory stimulation. There’s no WiFi or 3G for a big part of the ride and unplugging is part of the charm of being on the train (you’ll be ok, trust me!)
For more gorgeous photos of this amazing trip, check out my Facebook album here.
Listen to an interview I did (in French) on Radio-Canada’s Dessine moi un dimanche about my train trip.
Also listen to Dustin and I talk about the food on board the train on CBC’s All in a Weekend