Long and luxurious: Our author traveled through Canada by train - on the venerable The Canadian, of course.
Cancellations. Lost luggage. Endless check-in lines and Covid screening. Flying has tested the patience of even the most seasoned traveler. So, I decided to take a train. A slow one. A long one. A trip that would recapture the glamour and romance of a bygone era. I booked myself a ticket aboard the “Canadian”, a 4,500-kilometer journey from Toronto to Vancouver.
Don’t let the prosaic name fool you. The Canadian ranks as one of the great train journeys along with the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Express and India’s Maharajas’ Express. So put it on your bucket list. Four days and four nights on a journey spanning four time zones, the Canadian offers a once-in-a lifetime luxury experience through some of the most spectacular landscape found anywhere in the world.
Travel writer Paul Theroux described the allure of rail travel best: “Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories.” No wonder trains have inspired classic films including Agatha’s Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” Ian Fleming’s “From Russia with Love” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.”
I decided to take my trip in the fall, when nature’s palette explodes into a blaze of vermilion, orange and yellow. The deciduous trees of Ontario are a leaf-peeper’s dream, especially when seen from the train’s glass-domed observation cars. It’s amazing how much more you can see from this elevated vantage point than sitting in a standard carriage. Fall is also the best time to cross the majestic Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, when the rivers are teeming with fish swimming upstream.
Our trip started on a sunny Sunday morning in late October from Toronto’s newly restored Beaux Arts Union Station, boasting a barrel vault with coffered ceiling, and clerestory windows. I checked my bag in less than one minute (the counter is about 30 paces from the car drop-off point) and proceeded to the VIP lounge for some pre-departure pampering, surreptitiously stuffing my bag with apples and muffins, a habit learned from years of execrable of airline food.
I needn’t have bothered. The trip turned out to be a non-stop flow of gustatory delights. Within minutes of pulling out of the station, stewards began passing around hors d’oeuvres of salmon mousse, humous, foie gras on crackers, washed down with champagne and mimosas.
Barely had I brushed the crumbs from my lap and headed upstairs to the observation car for an unparalleled view of the autumn foliage, when we were called to lunch.
The dining car had white tablecloths, bone China, vases with flowers and smartly dressed waiters, some of whom I later learned, had worked in some of Canada’s best hotels. Each meal comes with four choices of entrees, and the menu changes daily, complete with vegan options, cod, local salmon and trout, Alberta sirloin steak and rack of lamb.
Passengers are seated to ensure that each table is full, and I found myself sharing my meal with three complete strangers. But there is something about trains that makes people want to talk, and by the end of lunch I knew more about my fellow diners than I ever learned sitting next to someone on a 16-hour transpacific flight.
Though there was no Wi-Fi on board and cell phone service was intermittent, we had no trouble keeping entertained. There were tastings from local vineyards and craft brewers, lectures on geography, and trivia quizzes. The games car was a place to gather to play cards, board games, work on jigsaw puzzles, or take part in that perennial crowd pleaser, bingo. Or just staring out the window at ever changing scenery.
The journey was also a chance to practice the ancient art of conversation. I met a jovial giant from Edmonton who described himself as a poet farmer, a widow in her seventies heading home to Vancouver after touring eastern Canada for three months with a folding bicycle and a tent. There was a brooding German teen on his gap year, a Ghanian-born divorcee from Toronto on her way to see her son in college in British Columbia. One couple was taking the trip 40 years after the husband first proposed it to his wife as a pickup line when they were both at university in Boston. A Mexican marathoner had just finished a race in Toronto and was planning to run another once we reached Vancouver.
Wilderness does not even begin to describe northern Ontario. For hours you see nothing but trees and lakes and spectacular rock formations a billion years old. The province has more than 250,000 lakes, accounting for one fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, and its boreal forests are one of the largest carbon sinks on earth.
Though I booked my ticket two months in advance, the only option left was an upper berth along a corridor. It reminded me of the uproarious scene from Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 comedy film “Some Like it Hot,” where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (both in drag) party with Marilyn Monroe in the sleeping car.
Our folding beds were made up with fresh linen each night while we were at dinner, then taken down again at breakfast. My bunk was wider than a standard European couchette, with a heavy curtain for privacy and noise. It was cozy, and I slept like a baby.
The train stopped several times along the route, giving us a chance to stretch our legs and sightsee for a few hours. In Winnipeg Manitoba, I met a friend for dinner in the beautifully preserved Fort Garry Hotel that was walking distance from the station. It was one of a string of grand hotels built along the route more than a century ago so that travelers could break up the journey.
Our longest layover was scheduled for five hours in Edmonton Alberta on the night of the third day, after crossing the endless prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A woman in the bunk below me had planned to take an Edmonton Oilers hockey game, but the train got into town too late because we had to stop too many times to let freight trains pass.
At dawn on day four we pulled into Jasper, a charming town 80 kilometers from Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 meters. As I wandered the streets, I stopped a local resident to inquire about the source of the round pellets I saw everywhere on the ground. I was told they came from elk, (prolific defecators who drop their scat on average of 13 times a day). These beasts roam freely around town, can weigh as much as 500 kilograms, and are best avoided, especially during mating season when the antlered males can become extremely aggressive.
The mood was dampened at our last scheduled stop just as the sun was setting in the town of Kamloops, British Columbia, by the knowledge that only months before, unmarked graves of hundreds of children from Catholic run “Residential Schools” was discovered nearby. This cruel policy of assimilation involved forcibly removing indigenous children from their families and relocating them, often hundreds of kilometers away from home.
Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald was elected in 1867 on the promise to build a trans-national railway from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. It took 18 years to complete and caused the deaths of at least 4,000 of 17,000 Chinese immigrant workers, as well as the displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous people.
When the train slid into Vancouver at 6:00 a.m. after 96 hours, most people stayed on board for one last meal together. When we finally got off the train, my fellow passengers lingered, reluctant to bring our shared journey to an end.
There were selfies and hugs and promises to stay in touch on social media. My cousin, who was waiting to pick me up at the station, said the scene reminded him of picking up his kids after summer camp. I knew exactly what he meant.