What I Learned On My Journey Aboard VIA’s Canadian Train
This summer I was lucky enough to take VIA Rail’s legendary train journey The Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver. It had long been a dream of mine to see Canada by rail so I was extremely excited for the trip. It did not disappoint!
I chose to take advantage of the one free included stop — I got off in Saskatoon and explored the Prairies (more on that awesome adventure in a future blog post).
The first leg of my journey began in Toronto on a Sunday and ended in Saskatoon on a Tuesday. I hopped back on the train when it came through Saskatoon again on Friday and headed to Vancouver.
The trip was enlightening in many ways and I wanted to share my experiences with you as I crossed Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Here’s what I learned on my journey:
The food on The Canadian is worth all the hype
My first taste of what I was in for on my rail trip from Toronto to Vancouver aboard VIA Rail’s The Canadian came just a few hours after pulling out of Union Station.
A friendly staff member had shown me into the impeccable dining car for lunch. Beautifully set tables lined both sides of the car so that all the diners had a great view out the big windows to the rolling scenery. I took a glance at the menu and was shocked to see the quality of the choices: pulled pork sandwiches served open face on warm bread, shrimp and scallop skewers on a bed of lettuce, a pasta of the day and a veggie burger made of brown rice and vegetables. All served with a soup.
I had heard, of course, about the delicious food being served aboard this legendary train excursion between Toronto and Vancouver but it was still so surprising to see the incredibly creative and yummy food — made with locally sourced ingredients — come out of such a small train galley kitchen, meal after meal.
Throughout my trip I enjoyed banana pecan pancakes (some of the most delicious I’d ever tasted), beef tenderloin garnished with a sauce of mixed wild mushrooms, a blueberry crumble pie with vanilla ice cream, breaded tilapia with mashed potatoes and green beans, and one incredible meal with a rack of lamb and garden veggies.
I looked forward to meal times because each creation that came out of that kitchen was absolutely delicious and the staff onboard are well trained on how to serve food while on the move. I was so impressed watching them flawlessly pour hot coffee while the train swished and jostled its way across the landscape.
There are options clearly marked for both vegetarians and those on a gluten-free diet on each menu and the staff is well-versed in allergies. I did not need to have any specific food but I did try those marked for specific diets and everything was of the same high quality.
Train travel is unique & takes some adjustment to get used to
Extended travel by train is not for everyone. This is not a journey you undertake because it will get you from point A to point B in the fastest and most efficient way. Boarding a train and committing to four nights of travel on a moving vehicle is, in itself, the experience.
Even though there are daily scheduled activities (mostly revolving around food, such as wine or beer tastings) and three meals a day to eat in the dining car, there are actually very few distractions aboard the train and time really does slow down.
WIFI is not available yet on the Canadian, although this may change in the future, and there are no televisions in the cabins or berths unless you are in Prestige class.
For those of us who lead busy lives that frequently involve rushing from one place or activity to another, this slow pace can be disconcerting at first. On that first day, I found myself checking my watch often as if I was expecting something to happen.
By day 2, I had settled into the rhythm of slow travel — the lingering over a warm cup of coffee as I chatted with a new friend, an afternoon nap as the sun streamed in through the large window in my cozy cabin, a glass of wine after dinner as I watched the scenery darken and change.
I learned quickly that the train has its own vintage vibe. On no other trip have I ever felt that the vehicle or mode of transportation was such a huge part of the journey. This train had a soul and travelling this way made me feel like I was part of something special.
The scenery is really the star of the show
The train travels for 4,466 kilometres and crosses four time zones, going through parts of the country that cars cannot reach.
The scenery outside is ever-changing and one of my favourite parts of travelling by train was waking up and looking out the window to see where in Canada we were. The staff are really good at reminding people to set their watches to the proper time and often told us to set it the night before so we’d wake up to the proper time. I loved this and always got excited to see what scenery changes await me from one hour to the next.
It was incredible to think of how much territory we had covered in such a short time. Because the train moves through the night, I felt like I was waking up to a new scenic adventure each morning.
The train is set up for viewing the scenery. There are three dome cars on each train, and even though I was travelling in the high summer season, I never felt that I was cramped for space or couldn’t get a spot in one of the viewing cars. The last car, located just past the Prestige class cabins, was my favourite.
It offered a great view of not only the scenery but also the length of the train when it curved. I loved looking at the length of it as it wound its way around a lake. This car is accessible only to Prestige Class until 4pm, but after that all Sleeper Plus Car passengers can access it and I highly recommend heading there for an evening of fun.
Train travel is great for solo travellers
I undertook this journey on my own and I have to say that train travel really showed me a different side to solo travelling. It provided the perfect mix of solitude and companionship.
Let me explain.
I had a cabin for two all on my own — this is possible with a supplemental fee — and so I was able to retreat to the comfort and solitude of my cabin whenever I wanted.
But during much of the day, I was able to socialize and meet people from all over the world. In the dining car, the tables are set for four people and as a single traveller, I was often accompanied by another couple or a group of three that consisted of a couple and another solo traveller. It was great fun to meet new people at each meal!
Sleeping on the train is…interesting
Before I went on this trip, I had little experience with long-haul train travel in Canada. I imagined long, peaceful nights of sleep as the train gently swayed me to sleep.
But the train is actually quite loud and it can be hard to fall asleep. Travellers are provided with ear plugs, which I recommend using, and one staff member gave me a great tip to plug the sink in my cabin bathroom before going to bed. This small step dramatically cut down on the night-time noise level.
The bed in my cabin was surprisingly comfortable and cozy but I did find myself waking up periodically at night. What made up for it, however, was the glorious daytime nap. I don’t know what it is on the train but I found myself drifting off into such amazing and restorative naps!
Delays are possible on the Canadian
Since VIA Rail does not own the tracks on which it operates (CN Rail does), it means that occasional delays are possible and beyond VIA’s control. I had one long delay in Alberta but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the service nor my enjoyment of the scenery. It did, however, eat into my plans in Vancouver.
I’d strongly recommend not making any inflexible plans for the day of arrival and just being prepared for the possibility of delays.
The Canadian is a journey worth taking
From the moment I entered Union Station in Toronto until the moment I exited the train at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, I was blown away by the level of service and caring I received from the staff, the incredible scenery I saw along the way, the coziness of the train and, probably above all, the amazing food I ate that rivalled many restaurants I have eaten in around the country.
If you are considering a rail trip across Canada, I would recommend you look at VIA Rail’s The Canadian. If you’d like more information about this journey and tips on the best cabins, please reach out to us and let us help you plan your dream Canadian rail trip.