If you have never been to Canada, there are few better ways to experience it than taking a four-day train ride across 60 percent of the country.
Working with Anderson Vacations and Via Rail, I planned a six-day itinerary from Vancouver to Toronto aboard a train called the Canadian. Many travelers prefer the route from Toronto to Vancouver, with the anticipation of seeing the Rocky Mountains at the end of the trip, but peak season made it difficult to find a ticket opening, so I opted to start my journey in Vancouver.
I arrived in Vancouver close to midnight because of several hours of airline delays. However, the delay had one pleasant consequence: As we were landing, I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time, with the setting sun casting a golden and purplish hue over the water. Jim Warren from Anderson Vacations picked me up from the airport and drove me to my hotel as orange lights flickered on throughout the darkening city.
Whistler and the Sea-to-Sky Highway
I spent the night at the beautiful Sheraton Wall Centre hotel in Vancouver. The next morning, Warren picked me up to show me some of the region’s highlights before I boarded the train later that evening. For our first stop, we drove an hour and a half north of Vancouver to visit the picturesque ski-resort town of Whistler. We followed a scenic route known as the Sea-to-Sky Highway that connects the oceanfront to soaring mountain landscapes. Along the way, we stopped by several landmarks, including the old Britannia Copper Mine, the Tantalus Lookout surveying the snow-capped Tantalus Mountain Range and Shannon Falls Provincial Park, which features the third-largest waterfall in British Columbia.
When we arrived in Whistler, the town was teeming with mountain bikers and other outdoor-adventure enthusiasts. Many groups pass through the area to visit Whistler Olympic Park, a remnant of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which features toboggan hills, cross-country ski trails and a biathlon range.
Warren and I took a brief tour of the First Nation Museum, also known as the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. The museum pays homage to the native Canadians who originally settled the land, primarily the Squamish and Lil’wat nations. Afterward, we strolled through Whistler’s cobblestone streets and stopped for lunch at Longhorn Saloon and Grill, where I enjoyed a mouthwatering bleu bacon burger and Vancouver-based craft cider.
Vancouver and Boarding the Canadian
Back in Vancouver, Warren and I spent the remainder of the afternoon driving around the city. There are few cityscapes as vibrant as Vancouver’s, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on one end and sparkling oceanfront on the other. We drove through Granville Island, a colorful shopping and entertainment district near a marina, then stopped in Stanley Park to eat ice cream by the seawall and watch boats sail under the bridge.
We ate dinner at Seasons in the Park Restaurant at the summit of Queen Elizabeth Park, which is the highest point in the city and overlooks downtown Vancouver as well as the distant mountains. There, we met with several representatives from Via Rail, including Ryan Robutka, the company’s senior manager of sales and marketing, who planned to accompany me on the train as far as Edmonton.
Afterward, Warren and I said our farewells at the train station, and I prepared to board the Canadian with Robutka. Before getting on, we made sure to schedule our meals for the following day, since mealtime is typically divided into two seatings.
An attendant showed me to my cabin and gave me a brief rundown on how everything in the room worked, from the toilet to the chairs that are folded back at night to make room for the beds.
There are two main classes of sleeper cars on the Canadian: Manor Sleeping Cars and Prestige Cars. Berths are booth-style seats that convert into semiprivate, curtained bunk beds at night. A cabin for one offers a seat, a toilet and a vanity, which transform into a bed at night. A cabin for two features a toilet, a vanity and two chairs that convert into bunk beds, with some space adjacent to the bed. Suites consist of two combined cabins for two. A communal shower down the hall includes a small changing area.
Prestige Class is an exclusive section at the back of the train that includes private washrooms and showers, flat-screen TVs, heated floors and complimentary bar service.
I had the luxury of staying in a cabin for two. Since my cabin was technically designed for two passengers, I appreciated the space to stand and move around by the bed and sink. It was a retro-style compartment like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, with leather pouches fastened at the head of the bed and other parts of the room for placing items like a cellphone or a book. There was also a narrow closet just big enough to hang a dress or two, and a shelf above the vanity and bathroom.
As the train left the station, I joined Robutka in the panorama car for the Bon Voyage Celebration of sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres. True to its name, the panorama car features a sweeping view of the passing scenery through six-foot-wide glass windows and a six-and-a-half-foot-high glass dome.
By the time I returned to my cabin, the attendant had flipped down my bed over the two seats. Many people had warned me prior to the trip that I would have difficulty sleeping on the train. As I settled down for bed, the variety of noises was disorienting at first, from the rhythmic clack of train wheels to the gentle creaking in the walls, but I was soon tired enough to tune it out. By the second night, I barely noticed the sounds and motion.