Canadian Railway Odyssey
Living Canada's National Dream:
Train journey from Toronto to Jasper.
By Stephen A. Nelson
Once upon a time - in a land from sea to sea - Canada’s railways were not only the more human way to travel - they were the only way to travel. Trains from the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway ran daily from coast to coast, as passengers carried on their steamy love affair with trains.
These days, it seems, the love is gone. It’s hard not to notice the abandoned tracks and derelict railway stations - strewn across the country like bouquets left behind by jilted girlfriends and forgotten lovers.
Yet - despite Canadians’ auto-erotic relationship with the car and affair with airplanes - travelling by train remains alluring to overseas visitors drawn by the romance of Canada’s National Dream. To them, this Brief Encounter is the journey of a lifetime.
On board the canadian
Chioko Shimizu can barely contain her excitement. Sitting on the edge of her seat in the dome car, she gazes at the 3-D panorama outside with wonderment. The young Japanese teacher’s eyes light up, her face is radiant - as if reflecting some heavenly glory. Her digital camera joins the chorus of electronic clicks and whirs, as passengers rush to capture the Kodak moment on Panasonic cameras and Apple iPhones.
Since I live in Jasper, I’ve seen this before ... and wouldn’t normally bat an eyelid at such a reaction.
But we’re not in Jasper. We're on The Canadian - VIA Rail’s own Orient Express - heading west towards Jasper. Barely out of Edmonton, with Paradise about four hours away, we’re in what I’ve always considered to be the most mundane part of the journey. And yet, here is Chioko acting as if the rivers were flowing out of the heavenly city. Canadians may be unexcited.
Chioko is enraptured.
Cathedral of rail
To many Canadians, there is something so „old fashioned” about train travel.
For me, that’s not a bad thing. Since my dad worked for the railways in England, I grew up thinking of train travel as „the only way to fly.” So when it came time to travel cross-country, I jumped at the chance to ride „the more human way.”
This journey begins in Toronto at Union Station, the „Mother Church” of Canada’s railways.
Like the other great temples and cathedrals of the railways' golden age, Union Station’s Beaux Arts design - with Neoclassical columns and vaulted ceilings - was meant to make you feel like you were taking part in something truly sublime.
These days, the realities of hauling your own luggage through narthex and nave can make the start of a train trip a little more mundane. But once I arrive at the departure area, the VIA „flight
crew” instantly make me feel welcome. This is much better than scurrying through an airport.
I love the sleek „silver bullet” design of The Canadian’s 1950s-vintage railway carriages. Ironically, the style mimics the „ultra-modern” design of the very jet airliners that were destined to replace trains.
But once on board The Canadian, I really notice the world of difference between this and air travel. No rushing, no pushing, no shoving - no one desperately trying to stuff his oversized bags into the overhead compartment.
Instead, the coach-class travellers at the front of the train are making themselves comfortable in a way that plane passengers never can. For starters, they’ve got leg room.
The first-class travellers are already heading back to the Park car - the vintage first-class lounge/observation car - for a champagne reception. And after helping themselves to hors d’oeuvres, passengers flock to the upper level of the dome car to see the night view.
Balancing a drink in one hand and hors d’oeuvres in the other, I climb the steps to the upper level, find the only empty seat and sit down. That’s when I meet Chioko - a young teacher from Japan who’s heading out to Alberta before the snow flies. When she finds out that I’ve actually been to Japan - and can actually say „Good evening” and „Thank you” in Japanese, Chioko drops the Japanese reserve and warms up to me.
She tells me that she has come to Canada just to travel across the country by train and see Canada's Rocky Mountains. Ever since she was a teenager, it has been her dream. And now it’s coming true.
But the Canadian Rockies are three days and thousands of kilometres away, so for now it’s time to say goodnight. I find my way to my cabin and settle in for a good night’s sleep on a real bed.
Something about travelling on a Canadian train makes me think of a song by Canada's famous bard, Gordon Lightfoot: „It’s good to be Alberta Bound.”
The trip from Toronto to Vancouver takes four nights, three days and covers 4,452 km rolling past the ever-changing mural outside the windows. Since our first night is through Ontario’s industrial heartland, I figure we’re not missing much.
The next morning,we awake to find we are far away from the concrete jungles and rolling our way through the cobalt lakes and lush forests of northern Ontario. Cold steel and glass towers and have given way to the burnt oranges and deep reds of Ontario in autumn.
As I stare out the window, the landscape teases a haunting tune and provocative words from the depths of my memory ... it’s the theme song from the IMAX film „North of Superior.”
„What kind of man will come to this country
To bear the discomfort and challenge his brain?
For it will take him, shake him, remake him ...”
What kind of man (or woman) comes here?
British pensioners who have saved up their pennies for a trip of a lifetime.
Europeans who really want to „see Canada.”
Canadians like me who are living the national dream.
In the days to come, we will traverse the Canadian Shield and the vast expanse of the Great Prairie. There, the blue flax and yellow canola of summer will have given way to autumn's golden bales of
hay, bundled like shredded wheat and sugar-frosted with snow. In winter, it can be like living inside a Christmas card.
Then comes what Chioko and so many others have come for: the turquoise rivers, sapphire lakes and opal peaks of the Canadian Rockies.
But on our first morning, the light dawns on the Ojibway Country of Northern Ontario... and it’s glorious.
Food glorious food
On that first morning, I head to one of the dining cars for breakfast. There I meet Chioko for what will become the first of many meals together on this trip. This is the other great thing about rail travel: you actually get to meet people and talk to them - break bread together.
I’m not used to getting up so early for breakfast and have never been what anyone would call a gourmand. But the Canadian’s Sleeper Plus class and Prestige class service absolutely pamper passengers. The art-deco stylings and silver table settings tell me I'm in for a treat. I feel like I’m on The Orient Express. My company is definitely first-class. The food and service are five-star.
For the next three days, I eat more - and better - than I usually do in a week.
Breakfast options range from the healthy (porridge with raspberries, blueberries and strawberries) to the hearty (Florentine Feta Cheese omelettes). Little jars of jams and marmalade for my toast. Bottomless cups of gourmet coffee. This is a breakfast I can get up for.
Offerings at other meals will be truly Canadian without being clichè. Alberta prime rib roast beef, yes. Poutine, no. The menu is limited. But there are still enough choices to make sure that we won’t have to order the same thing twice, unless we really want to.
The waiters and waitresses are attentive, patient and helpful. The maitre d’ clearly enjoys food, enjoys people and enjoys his job. The philosophy here is clear: „Do only a few things, but do them very well.”
A few days and several wonderful meals later, we arrive at our destination. We’re late getting to Jasper, of course, because VIA Rail’s passenger trains always get sidetracked by freight trains - especially between Edmonton and Jasper.
But before the sun declines behind the blue Rockies, Chioko and I have time for a short walking tour of the town and a last supper together at one of my favourite restaurants in Jasper.
Tomorrow, we will part ways. Chioko will take the Highway to Heaven (the Icefields Parkway) to Banff.
Then I’ll continue my journey on The Canadian, across the great divide to Vancouver.
Along the way, I'll see some of the spectacular scenery - including the imperial Mount Robson - that lures visitors from the far side of the world to take one of the greatest rail journeys on the planet.
But here - on a magical evening in Jasper - the light lingers on the mountains and makes them look like a painted backdrop from a Hollywood movie.
Sometimes I feel like the train really is a magic carpet ride. And just like in the stories, it has taken us to a whole new world.
Chioko looks around, takes a deep breath and says out loud what everyone is thinking, „It’s like a dream!”
Stephen A. Nelson is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer based in Jasper, Alberta, Canada
If you go…
All prices are in Canadian dollars.
All services on VIA Rail trains are bilingual – English and French.
Getting on board
VIA Rail runs The Canadian between Toronto and Jasper (and then to Vancouver) twice a week.
It's possible to arrange for a layover for a few days in some towns and cities. I recommend Winnipeg, Manitoba and Jasper, Alberta. Sometimes it's best to book through a travel agent.
Considerable discounts are available when you book online; especially in fall and winter:
Toll-free Tel: 1-888-VIA-RAIL (1-888-842-7245)
Information on meals available: https://www.viarail.ca/en/travel-info/onboard-train/meals#the-canadian
Information on the different classes of service: https://www.viarail.ca/en/travel-infos/classes-and-services
Souvenirs and Guide books
Friends of Jasper National Park Gift Shop
Parks Canada Info Centre
Tel: +1 780 852-4341
Jasper Yellowhead Museum,
400 Pyramid Lake Rd.
Tel: +1 780 852-3013
Baroko Jasper Cafe and Gifts
Jasper Heritage Railway Station
607 Connaught Drive
Tel: +1 780 931-2913
Where to stay:
The St. Regis Hotel
602 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver
Rated as one of the best boutique hotels, the St. Regis is first-class.
The staff are friendly and helpful.
Located in the heart of the downtown, its perfect for business travellers.
But with free international long-distance phone calls and complimentary breakfast, it's also a great place for visitors on holidays.
Online rates start at $189
Phone: (604) 681-1135
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
900 West Georgia Street, Vancouver
Built in the chateau style as a first-class hotel for railways passengers,
the palatial Hotel Vancouver is grand hotel overlooking the downtown.
Close to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the city's famed Robson Street.
Online rates start at $239
Toll-free phone:+1 866 540-4452
Making Waves Boatel
539 Queen's Quay West, Toronto.
Rated as one of the best boat hotels in the world.
Hosts Ted and Diane offer completely comfortable cabins and high-class hospitality.
And a great breakfast. It's right in the heart of Toronto's waterfront, not far from Union Station.
Online rates start at $219
Phone: +1 647-403-2764
Clinton and Bloor B&B
390 Clinton Street, Toronto
A wonderful place that is warm, welcoming and immaculate. Conveniently located close to the subway but away from the traffic chaos of the city core. The rooms are comfortable, clean and cosy.
And proprietor Albert Tan makes a wonderful breakfast!
Online rates start at $209
Phone +1 416-538-0417
Hotel X by Library Hotel Collection
111 Princes' Boulevard, Toronto
The hospitality at Hotel X was excellent. Everyone was exceptionally friendly, helpful and welcoming. Absolute luxury. Stunning views of Lake Ontario. Free shuttle to downtown Toronto, including train station.
Online rates start at $284.
Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square
75 Bremner Blvd, Toronto
The Hotel is conveniently located in downtown Toronto - just a stone's throw from Union Station. The staff their gave me a warm, friendly welcome and were very helpful. The rooms are exquisite. The hotel also offers a free shuttle-car service to places in downtown Toronto.
Online rates start at $249.
phone: +1 844-508-3385
Alt Hotel Toronto Airport
6080 Viscount Rd, Mississauga
Comfortable. Modern. Convenient. Virtually across the street from Toronto's Pearson International Airport. But it's quiet. And you can easily get to the airport by free commuter train or free shuttle car.
Online rates start at $179
Phone: +1 905-362-4337
Fort Garry Hotel
222 Broadway, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Located in the heart of downtown Winnipeg, the Fort Garry is very close to the train station and many of Winnipeg's attractions – including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It's a classic chateau-style hotel, designed to make you comfortable and feel like royalty.
Online rates start at $172.
Phone: +1-204- 942-8251
Radisson Hotel Winnipeg Downtown
288 Portage Ave, Winnipeg, Manitoba
An upscale hotel in downtown Winnipeg. It's just 7 km from Winnipeg's airport and about 1 km from Winnipeg's railway station. It's close to the Manitoba legislature and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
It also has many amenities and offers a complimentary breakfast.
Online rates start at $148.
Phone: +1 204 956-0410
Toll Free Phone: 1-800-333-3333
Redaktion: Frank Becker