Start to plan a trip like this
Cat's Canada Blog
The Start - Friday 13th May 2016
Catherine Denton, one of our Travel Experts, is currently travelling across Canada by VIA Rail. She'll be sending us her thoughts as she meanders her way through some of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking scenery in the world.
However, she hasn't sent us anything yet. We know its Friday the 13th but we aren't too worried; we suspect its more to do with the bad reception and wireless from her current location. Rest assured though, as soon as she send us something through we'll add it on here straight away so keep checking back.
I am back in Canada to experience something new and travel from east to west. The plan is to start in Toronto and then take a different way other than a flight to get to the west. The train. The Canadian VIA Rail service is considered one of the top ten rail journeys in the world and I am going to see why. This train can depart in either Toronto or Vancouver and it will take you across five provinces to your final destination. What is also attractive is that you can get off in a province of your choice on route for a few days so you can explore and then get back on the train and continue across. For my journey, I am going to stop in Alberta to see the beautiful Rockies.
After a few nights in Toronto, I am in this city for nostalgia reasons as I lived and worked in the city for a year. I explored all the major sites as well as a day trip to Niagara Falls but because the train doesn't depart Toronto until 10pm I was able to use the day as well to sightsee.
About 7:30pm I was ready to head down to the station. Union station is a fantastic example of Toronto's history and the buildings architecture is imposing against the new glass skyscrapers. There are a few ways to get to the station depending on where you are staying. Naturally, the city is full of taxis which you can hail or get the hotel concierge to help if you are not confident. Other ways include the bus network or the subway (it costs $3.25 per person per ride). Or if you feeling fit, you can walk.
At the Union Station, enter by the main entrance turn left and you will be in the main hall. As you enter, look directly right and you will see the VIA Rail ticket and check in counters. You do have at least an hour before departure to arrive but I was early because I wanted to check out the station and to hopefully avoid queues. As it turns out I wasn't the first to arrive. Check in was reasonably straight forward and parted ways with my luggage suitcase.
The cabins or berths are not big enough to accommodate a large suitcase so it will need to go in the baggage carriage (VIA Rail do insist on this )and you take onboard a small suitcase or rucksack. You will not have access to this carriage in the duration so do make sure you have everything you will need in the small luggage before arriving at the station.
After check-in, I was directed to the Business lounge to wait. This lounge is for all Sleeper Plus and Prestige passengers. It is a large room full of comfortable seating. There are complimentary drinks (no alcohol), magazines & newspapers and free Wi-Fi which I took full advantage of because there is no internet available at all on the Canadian.
I was invited to sit on arrival and after five minutes, a member of staff came over to me. After introductions and ticket checks, I was informed of boarding procedures and we discussed the dining reservations for the next day. There are no meals for the first night so do eat before. For lunch and dinner on the train, there are three set sittings to which you choose one, that way it spaces out the passengers coming to the dining car.
The sittings for the first day is as follows:
1st- lunch at 11am, dinner at 5 pm
2nd- lunch at 12:30pm, dinner at 7pm
3rd- lunch at 2pm, dinner at 9pm
I choose the second but I will choose a different sitting for the day after.
Before I knew it, it was time to board. Prestige do go first with the rest of us boarding at about 9:20pm. We were directed to platform 12 and then guided to the different carriages. I am in carriage 110 in cabin 4. I am in a cabin for one which was great as it was my own private space with a door. It was set up for the day but I will go into this more in a bit. Once in the cabin, I could see there was no way I could get my large suitcase in here. There was a storage rack that was perfect for my small rucksack. Other features of the cabin is the small double sofa (which will be folded down for the bed), toilet, sink and a large window. There are also other small storage compartments and shelves. I was introduced to the carriage attendant who was responsible for all the cabins, who went through health and safety and then invited me to go to the lounge car for 'bon voyage' reception. I got to meet other passengers with a glass of champagne and food. After the train got underway, you could see Toronto all lit up.
At it approached 11pm, it was time for bed. When the bed is lowered in the cabin, it dies cover most of the room so you do need to be ready before hand but there are washroom facilities located elsewhere in the carriage just in case. I was shown how to lower the bed as I requested to know so I could do it myself rather than call a busy attendant each time. It was simple but it does take some muscle as you turn the handle and lower down. Once lowered it needs to be clicked into place so it doesn't raise up again. The bed is already made up with sheets and pillows, the mattress is very comfortable. With that I am going to sleep.
Day 2 - travelling through Northern Ontario
Upon waking at 6am, I opened the blind and was treated to the wilderness of northern Ontario. The scenery of the forest and lakes were wonderful and a great way to start the day.
Breakfast was at 6:30am so I made my way to the dining car. The dining car was set out with tables of four which does mean that you will be seated with others. As a single traveller this does help to break the ice and I have met some incredible people as a result.
After breakfast, I took the advantage of going to the dome car to enjoy the scenery in the morning light. Sitting in the dome car means that you get to enjoy the views from a higher level in comfortable seating. It can get busy but with movement not restricted on the train, people do move about and with this particular train, there was more than one dome car so it is likely you will find a seat. As a note there is a dome car in economy if the sleeper plus ones are full. I will admit that the chairs in the dome car aren't as nice but the views are the same.
Before I knew it was time for lunch as my dinner seating was announced on the talloy. It will start to feel that you will eat continuously which is not a bad thing. Staff will also go through the carriages to inform passengers. You are required to arrive as promptly as possible. Lunch and dinner are both three courses so yes, you will not go hungry on this train. Tea, coffee, juice and water are provided but alcohol is an additional charge so please keep this in mind.
For those who are worried that you will be stuck on the train for how ever long. There were a couple of scheduled stops that we were let off the train for a short period of time. For my journey, I was able to get off at Capreol and Hornepayne to walk about.
I won't bore with that I just did a few things in the afternoon but I will talk about what happened after lunch. I went back to my cabin to find my cabin locked. The cabins are not able to be locked from the outside. On the inside, there is latch that locks the door. The door does slide shut and there is also a curtain that you can zip down incase the door does fly open due to the train movement. For those who are security conscious, in the cabins is a safe that you can use for valuables. This story is not to worry others or to give concern over the train's maintenance, this is my example of the staff professionalism. I come back to my cabin and I can't open the door. After double checking that I was in the right carriage and the right cabin, I found an attendant who wasn't responsible for my carriage but was happy to assist. She also got my carriage attendant and they examined the door. It would appear that due to turbulence of the train, it had caused the door to open, slam shut and lock with the latch. It can happen and what the staff do is slide a flat tool in and unlatch. What is unusual in my case- a VIA Rail first I have been told- us that the door had shut tight so you couldn't even slide anything in the gap. They told me the problem and they were going to get the service manager to solve the problem. They recommended that I take a seat in the lounge or the dome car until the problem is solved. I sat for a while but out if concern I went back even though I knew they would find me. I found four people fixing the door. They had to unscrew the handle to get in and they fixed the latch as they said it was sticking so that's why the door was stuck. They apologised even though they didn't need to and joked how this was a first for them- I really hope this is the only incidence on my part.
It is not a great entertaining story but I was impressed by how it was handled and how quickly it was resolved with my feelings taken into account. As it was such unlikely incident, I should have brought a lottery ticket or something.
I will finish off the day by showing what dinner looks like on board
Here are a few images of the scenery- sorry the weather was a little unpredictable.
The animals I saw today was a moose but I heard from other passengers that there were deer, beavers and birdlife but I would recommend that to bring binoculars if you have them but they are available for purchase on board as well. There were more sightings but were so far away that you couldn't confirm.
Day 3 - Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Upon waking up, we were at Winnipeg station and it turns out that the train had arrived early. After breakfast of the following:
Blueberry pancakes are the best.
I will quickly mention at each meal, the menu will change from the day before (breakfast will change only slightly).
Winnipeg was a kind of halfway point. The train crew will change and the everyone is invited to visit the city for a a couple of hours while they service the train. I opted for the city tour as I have never been to Winnipeg before and you can sign up the previous day. It costs $30 for a two hour tour that takes in the Forks River, St. Boniface, Legislative Building and Assiniboine park. It was a quick tour with a couple of stops so you can get out. We did also pass the Canadian Museum for Human Rights but didn't stop but our guide did discuss it. The tour was excellent as an introduction to the city and our guide was so knowledgeable, I would highly recommend especially as it kept in time with the train. You can walk around by yourself as a lot of passengers did but do keep an eye on the time, also to save on disappointment do check when the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is open because it wasn't when we were there. A lot of passengers were not doing the tour because they wanted to see the museum and so were saddened that they could not do so.
Getting under way, you could say that these two provinces are the boring parts of the trip but that is a matter of opinion. Yes, in some places it can be flat but there are a lot of farms, lakes and tree lines. You do have the occasional joke with someone when you do see a hill but it is the contrasts from the previous day to today that is fascinating, this is Canada and it is diverse.
Today I was on the third sitting for lunch and dinner. Lunch is at 2:30pm and dinner at 9:30pm. I honestly don't know if I would recommend this sitting to anyone as it is late. With the tour of Winnipeg and everything, I would say if you can do the first or second sitting do it. But it was nice to be see a late sunset even if my stomach was eating itself. This is the food i had today so you can see the wait was worth it.
It was a very relaxed day with a stop not only in Winnipeg but also in Melville in Saskatchewan to stretch your legs. It is an ambition of mine to set foot in each province so I can tick two off my list even if it was short.
Animals that I saw today include deer, beavers, a possible coyote and alot of birds. I would say and other passengers would probably say the same that these two provinces are good for birdwatching so keep your eyes peeled and again bring those binoculars.
Day four- Alberta
Through the night we past through Saskatchewan and made our way into Alberta. So by the time I was getting ready for the day we were close to Edmonton. This was to be a particular stop as they will be attaching the panorama car for the Rockies. This will allow passengers to enjoy the scenery in spacious seating and look through much larger windows. At Edmonton, we were allowed to disembark to stretch our legs before having to clear some of the platform for the next manoeuvre.
I was starting to notice now that on solid ground I couldn't help but sway a bit as I walked. After three nights I have train legs.
I do apologise now that I don't have the train lingo so bear with me. They separated the carriages between the dining car and the accommodation beyond, and the train pulled forward. It then reversed to a separate time line where the panorama car was waiting and it was attached. The train moved forward back on the main line before reversing to attach the other carriages. It sounds incredibly boring but it was interesting to watch from the station I had to wait in while they did all this. But hey presto we have an lovely addition to the train.
Quick note on Edmonton, it is surprisingly smaller than what was thought as well as being out of the city centre so any passengers wanting to travel here will have to arrange onward transport.
Back on board and as today a lot of the passengers will be getting in Jasper, there is no breakfast or lunch but brunch.
After brunch I made my way to the panorama car to wait for my first glimpses of the Rockies as we were about an hour and a half away. A bit of a tip it might seem that sitting in the right side of panorama car has the best scenery and it does for a while but you will see the Rockies approaching on the left.
The train will also announce the arrival and you will be greeted by mountain ranges, forest, lakes and rivers. I was completely stunned by the beauty of it all that I didn't move from my chair until they made announcement about the town of Jasper. As I went back to my cabin to make sure I was ready to get off the train, we went over the Athabasca River and it was lovely.
What was great about this part of the journey is that we made our way through Jasper National Park for about thirty minutes or more before arriving at station. It does feel that because we are on the train we are experiencing something a little bit more than those who are driving.
We did arrive into Jasper late due to the freight trains but only about two hours. I got to enjoy the scenery in daylight and that was the important thing.
Arriving at the station I got my first glimpses of the town and it was smaller than I imagined. leaving the train, I thanked my attendant and made my way to the station to reclaim my suitcase. Basically, I did have to go past the barrier and then wait near the baggage reclaim. They bring the bags down the platform on a luggage trolley, unload them and then they will open the gate and you retrieve your suitcase. I forgot this much my weighted. I went through the station interior which is small and out the other side. There are buses, taxis and transfers if needed but my hotel was a 10 minute walk and I wanted to regain my balance as I was still swaying slightly. I will be back at the station for the final leg of the trip from Jasper to Vancouver but for now i am off on my Rockies adventure.
Onward to Vancouver
Well it is raining today in Jasper and the clouds are hanging low over the mountain range so it is not a great last day in the Rockies but I am optimistic that it could change.
The train, unfortunately is late by about an hour and a half but what can I do? Nothing...well except go and get some lunch. There is no point stressing myself out over something I have no control over. It is a pity about the weather as the delay meant I could spend more time in Jasper especially as I was able to drop off my suitcase early so I didn't have to drag it around town.
After lunch and a look around the local shops, I arrived back at the station at about 1:30pm, half an hour earlier to when VIA Rail asked me to return but the weather wasn't getting any better. I know what will happen I will get on the train and the sunshine will come shining through.
The Canadian arrived and as it was being serviced, our tickets were checked and we requested our seating for dinner. It is just dinner and breakfast for this trip. I went for my preference which was the second seating at 7pm. After 20minutes it was time to get on-board, this time I was in carriage 121 and in cabin 3.
With a glass of champagne in hand, as a welcome on board, I made my way to the dome car to enjoy the view. Despite the bad weather which lasted 15 minutes into the journey, the scenery as we go through Jasper National park is still lovely to look. Going past Moose Lake and Mount Robson are certainly photo opportunities, but be quick as the trees can get in the way. The track at times do follow the road but also has its own route (sometimes on a single track so no side has a spoiled view) through the forest which gives it that special feeling of being off the beaten track. I loved seeing the snow on the mountains especially as it contrasts on the green of the forest. It had snowed in the during my stay in the Rockies so some of it was fresh.
There are families onboard for this trip which was great to see. The excitement of being on and sleeping on a train is just not for adults but an experience for kids as well. Trying to spot wildlife, the scenery and there are board games etc in the activity car are some of things that will help entertain.
I stayed in the dome car until I thought it would be a waste to not visit the panorama car so I tested my train legs going through six carriages to get there. It wasn't busy so I had the pick of the seats.
The people near me had food that smelled so good and I was getting hungry, checking the time I made my way back to wait briefly for the second dinner call. As before I was seated with other people which made for good conversation.
After dinner, I headed down to the Park Car at the end. It was a decision at one point that this area would only be accessible for Sleeper Plus during certain hours due to the car's location in Prestige but thankfully this was reversed. This is a great place to visit, have a drink and watch the scenery at the end of the train. As it is in the Prestige area, the car has that quality to suit the surroundings.
This journey is taken in May and at 8pm it was still light so there is no concern of missing any of the scenery before calling it a night.
I can't believe that my train adventure is coming to an end as we travel deeper into British Columbia. It was an early start this morning to get ready and have breakfast before getting my things together. As we get closer nature gives way to residential areas with glimpses of Greater Vancouver before finally reaching the city itself, Vancouver. The final destination of the Canadian.
The train arrived into the station on time so despite being late, the Canadian picked up speed in the night to make up time and they did.
Stepping on the platform, I thanked the staff and made my way to the main building to wait to retrieve my luggage. Luggage retrieval is located on the right as you enter where there is a straight carousal along the right wall. I hope you don't need to rush off as it will take about 20 minutes for the luggage to be transported from the train. Do note that the carousel line is quite short and there is a lot of passengers so it is up to you whether you are part of the crowd or you wait a little bit longer until the level of passengers has thinned out.
After being reunited with my case I decided on my way downtown. There are taxis, buses and the Sky train is only about a five minute walk. Sky Train is my best option and so off I go.
Before I end my narrative, I want to say a huge thank you to VIA Rail for this experience. It is one that can't be forgotten nor do I want it too. The staff onboard were friendly, professional and made me (a single traveller) feel comfortable.
After I wrote the above, I went for a walk to Canada Place to look around when I was approached by a lady. She (I am really sorry I didn't get her name) was a member of staff onboard the train from Jasper to Vancouver and even she wasn't my carriage attendant, she still recognised me.She enquired if I was finding Vancouver and recommended things to see. She was off duty who could of walked by but she stopped to enquire how I was enjoying Vancouver so far. To me, that is amazing because you don't see that these days. I do wish I caught her name.