VIA Rail Canada: “The Canadian”

Thanks for all the great comments on Part One of my rail journey through Canada. I hope you enjoy the second half as much as I did. If I had to choose one or the other, well, for a train lover, Part Two is the “real deal.”

While the Rocky Mountaineer was everything I hoped it would be, from stunning scenery to pampered luxury, let’s face it, it is a tourist attraction. While I wasn’t sure what to expect from the next leg of my journey on VIA Canada’s “The Canadian” I was pretty certain it would feel a lot more like an authentic train journey offering the true railway experience I was seeking. While the Rocky Mountaineer served people from all over the world, everyone on the train had the same purpose for being there – tourism. The Canadian, on the other hand caters to tourists, but there were also Canadian commuters on board.

The Canadian railway network is the fifth largest in the world. It moves a record 75 million people and over 70% of all intercity surface raw materials and manufactured products every year. That’s no fluffy tourist ride. VIA Rail markets The Canadian as an alternative to air travel. “No squishy seating, cardboard food and coolly indifferent service that is the norm for airline travel these days. It’s a more human way to travel.” Two hundred passengers, each with a story to tell. It’s the stuff of novels.

While The Canadian would be a much longer journey with overnights and all meals included for four days and three nights, the price was actually much cheaper than the two day, one night Rocky Mountaineer. First of all, they offer a 10% discount for those 60 years of age and older. And while their last minute booking didn’t coincide with my travel dates, one can actually save up to 50% on a last minute booking through VIA Rail’s “Discount Tuesdays” online offering should one have a bit of flexibility. (I did not, as I wanted to make this journey on my 65th birthday.)

The Canadian offers several classes to choose from; Economy with reclining seats being the most affordable, all the way up to Prestige Class, billed as offering “privileged service,” complete with private wooden paneled suite, murphy bed, private washroom with shared shower, and your own personal concierge.

I opted for slightly left of in between, Sleeper Plus. These berths are open by day and consist of two couch-style seats facing each other. While passengers enjoy their evening meal in the dining car, a cabin attendant makes down the bed into a curtained, semi-private compartment. Passengers use the toilet and shower facilities at the end of each car. I chose this over the slightly more expensive single cabin. I booked a single cabin on Amtrak once from Atlanta to New Orleans, and the small room seemed quite claustrophobic. And though the single cabins have their own toilet, it serves as support for the bed at night, making it unusable while sleeping. So I found the Sleeper Plus class to be the Goldilocks of accommodations for my budget.

Besides, I didn’t plan on spending that much time there except to sleep. There were more optimal public rooms for chilling out during the day. The Canadian has three cars fitted with café-style dining area, kitchen, lounge, and a scenic dome section on the top floor where the windows extend up to the ceiling. Two of the dome cars are open to all the passengers, while the Park Car is reserved for Prestige guests until 4pm, then open to include Sleeper Plus passengers as well.

Meals in the dining car were every bit as delicious as the Rocky Mountaineer. There was always at least two selections to choose from, and three courses; an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. The main difference is alcohol, as it is purchased separately on The Canadian, whereas it was included on the Rocky Mountaineer.

I did have concerns initially about being on a train for four days. Would my muscles atrophy from lack of use? But moving down narrow corridors on a swaying train can feel like a full body workout. I walked the entire length of the train at least twice per day. And it didn’t take long for the walkers to flock together to assemble a “walking group” at station stops.

Coming off the heels of the Port Townsend Film Festival, I had just enjoyed the Gordon Lightfoot documentary, If You Could Read My Mind. Prior to that time, I had been unfamiliar with this work, “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” written in 1967. It is one of Lightfoot’s signature story songs, even commissioned to celebrate Canada’s centennial. So I loaded this song, along with his other top hits on “Gord’s Gold,” to my train playlist, and I was all set to go. Except for one thing….

The Rocky Mountaineer “First Passage to the West” route terminates in Banff. But VIA Rail Canada’s “Great Western Way,” aka “The Canadian” does not pass through Banff. Its closest stop is Jasper. So I would need to shuttle from Banff to Jasper. Fortunately, this passage, the Icefields Parkway, is one of the most famous in the world, so no problem finding a shuttle. Brewster Express operates a “deluxe motor coach” once daily.

Traveling through both Banff and Jasper National Parks, the Icefields Parkway is known as one of the most stunning alpine drives in the world. The twisting ribbon of highway passes glistening turquoise lakes, snow-capped jagged peaks, and glaciers spilling down into the valleys below. There are only half a dozen people on the bus, so I have an entire row where I can focus the camera from side to side, craning my neck so as not to miss any of the scenery, though most views seemed to be on the left side heading to Jasper.

Thinking I had already crossed the Rockies once back in Banff, my expectations were not as high leaving Jasper, so I was delighted by the breathtaking scenery leaving the Jasper station through the majestic, snow-covered Rockies. We would continue on across the prairies of unending fields of gold, past reflective lakes and on into the woods respendant with autumn colors, as the changing scenery of Canada unfolded out my window, frame by frame.

My connection between the two trains afforded me two days to explore Banff.

While I rarely pass up the opportunity to soak in a hot springs, the popularity of Banff’s famous pools caused me to take a pass.

The Brewster Express from Banff to Jasper travels along the Icefields Parkway.

The shuttle is nonstop, with the exception of a brief stop in Lake Louise.

This highway offers many opportunities to see glaciers as we pass the Columbia Icefield.

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk experience, a glass walkway that extends out over the icefield. It’s about $27US to walk 115 ft.

Downtown Jasper, across from the train station.

The Jasper Railway station was constructed by the Canadian National Railroad in 1926, and has been declared a heritage railway station.

I am excited to see what I hope will be more fall colors to come.

Inside the Jasper Train Station, there is a billboard posted telling us on what platform each car will be boarding.

We arrived into Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer after dark, so I didn’t get a chance to get any train shots with the Rockies as a back drop. So I am happy to see such gorgeous scenery from the platform.

These notorious stainless steel cars were built back in the fifties. The most iconic with its domed roof and tapered end is the “Park Car,” cocktail lounge and a dome-level observation deck above it. These are called Park Cars, because each one is named for one of the Canadian National Parks.

Using the “cherry picker” to clean the windows for optimal viewing.

Here it is, my living and sleeping space for the next four days and three nights. 😉 (Actually, I only slept here, as the dome car seats were much more comfortable.)

This is the dome level in the Skyline Car. I spent most of my days here, before I moved to the Park Car for Happy Hour.

This is Anthony, our cocktail waiter. He’s passing a round of bubbly to toast our departure from Jasper.

Its quite exciting seeing this view shortly after we leave the station!

Dome cars all offer 360 degree views.

I loved looking down the rooftop of these sleek stainless steel cars.

Bighorn sheep grazing along the fence line, which keeps them off the tracks.

This is the dining car where I spent three hours a day. 😉 Service was excellent, as was the food.

Here is a peek into the galley. I was amazed at the quantity AND quality of the meals that came out of this tiny space, all while swaying to the rhythm of the rails.

Every meal was not only delicious, but visually pleasing as well. This night, dinner is Lamb chops and Bok Choy.

And of course, there’s an equally delectable dessert.

This staircase leads up to the dome level of the Park Car. While the Park Car is typically reserved for Prestige Class passengers, it opens up to Sleeper Class every day from 4pm to closing.

The dome level of the Park Car is just slightly more plush than the Skyline Car. There was hardly anyone ever in it.

This is my Park Car cocktail of choice, “The Maple Leaf,” bourbon, lemon juice, and maple syrup.

Enjoying the Park Car lounge at the end of the train.

Okay, so the scenery can’t ALL be stunning. But the moon over the prairie adds a nice ambiance.

Ninety-five percent of grain exports in Canada travel by rail. One car of grain can be worth as much as $30,000.

The station in Saskatoon was out in the middle of nowhere. Not even a vending machine! But the “walkers group” managed to find a dirt road to stretch our legs.

Saskatoon is the largest city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Though it’s the largest city, it has less than 300K residents. The city straddles a bend in the South Saskatchewan River. Pity the train station was five miles out of town, so we saw it only in passing.

Saskatchewan supplies more than a third of the world’s total exported durum wheat and is the world’s top exporter of lentils and dry peas. While the province’s major industry is agriculture, other industries include mining, oil, and natural gas production.

Here’s a look at my bed. Upon returning from dinner, I find it all made down and ready to climb in. It was extremely comfy!

I loved waking up at sunrise and watching the scenery roll by outside my berth window.


Winnipeg’s Union Station. Built in 1908, it was designed in the Beaux Arts style with classical details, with arches and columns topped by a large dome. It is one of Western Canada’s largest railway stations.

We arrive into Winnipeg during the night. By now, I have made acquaintances on the train, so we go out for a stroll. Note the beautiful moon just above the station.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is in Winnipeg. It’s the only museum in the world devoted to human rights awareness and education. Good going, Canada! Wish I could have visited!

The province of Manitoba (capital, Winnipeg) is the most easterly prairie province and longitudinal center of Canada. Its north comprises Canadian Shield rock and arctic tundra and is largely uninhabited. It is known as the polar bear capital of the world.

Always arrive at the dining car a little before seating to insure a good view!

I love these little cabins on this island in the middle of this lake! What a quaint place!

Here, we are meeting the westbound Canadian. It’s fun looking at the approaching dome car windows, imagining there is likely someone taking a photo of meeting their eastbound twin.

The further east we go, the more lakes we see.

The province of Ontario is Canada’s second largest, and boasts around a quarter of a million lakes in total. Sharing shores of the Great Lakes with the US, this makes up approximately 20 percent of the world’s fresh water stores.

Finally we are starting to come into areas thick with those maple trees that give the northeast its brilliant fall color.

I’m not leaving my seat in the dome car for this part of the ride! This is what I have been waiting for!

We spend the whole last day traveling through scenery like this.

Every afternoon, there is some kind of activity in the Skyline car. It’s either wine tasting, live music, or today, beer tasting! This is our Activities Manager. I think she likes beer as much as I do!

Fun to try the different beers on offer, but I was not a huge fan, preferring instead my Maple Leaf cocktail.

We are skirting the edge of Lake Huron. I think we are getting near Bayfield Al’s neck of the woods. I am on the lookout for a Jeep with Pheebs looking out the window. 😉

The Canadian is notoriously late, and at one time we were running quite far behind. However, they made up the time, and we are coming in to Toronto right on time!

First glimpse of the CN Tower, indicating our arrival into Toronto. I am sad to see the journey end, but looking forward to a couple of days in Toronto before I fly back to Vancouver and take the Amtrak back to my awaiting Winnie.

Toronto’s beautiful Union Station reminds me a bit of the grandeur of NY’s Grand Central Station. Opened in 1927, it’s another example of Beaux-Arts design.

St. Lawrence Market, with it’s 200 plus food and artisan vendors, is culinary focal point of Toronto since 1803.

Completed in 1976, Toronto’s CN Tower stands 1,815 ft tall. Its name “CN” originally referred to Canadian National, the railway company that built the tower. CN Tower held the record for the world’s tallest free-standing structure for 32 years until 2007 when it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Toronto reminds me a little of New York, with excellent people-watching opportunities, like quirky people playing chess on the sidewalk.

Toronto’s theater district. I went to see “Come from Away,” the play about Gander, Newfoundland hospitality during those days when planes were grounded following the 9/11 attacks. It was one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long while. Of course, loving both New York and Newfoundland like I to, it was a sure bet!

Thus concludes my rail journey across Canada. I am proud to report that I have now visited all ten of the Canadian provinces (west to east) British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, (pre-blogging days) New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Now, I just have to find my way to the three territories: Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon. I’ll need something to look forward to post-COVID, right??

(Footnote: On March 21, 2020, the Canadian and most other Via Rail services were suspended due to the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic. This COVID-19 suspension will continue until at least November 1, 2020, to also accommodate inspection and repair work as part of its Heritage Modernization Program.)

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer: First Passage to the West

Last October, I finally reached that long awaited “Medicare Milestone.” Since it was a significant birthday for me, I wanted to commemorate it in a special way. But the blog typically runs behind, and I ran out of time to document my celebration before I jumped on the plane bound for my Dragoman tour through Sudan and Ethiopia last December. After that, I never seemed to get the blog caught back up.

So now that I have all this spare time on my hands, freed up by lack of travel planning, I am going back to recreate the narrative and share the photos on how I celebrated my Continue reading