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Crossing Canada by train: Vancouver to Toronto on The Canadian

For the longest time I’d dreamed of doing the Rocky Mountaineer. The luxury train called to me from the other side of the world as I imagined how it would feel to see the Rockies for the first time from a glass-domed carriage.

Flash forward and I’m finally looking up at those mountains from a train, but rather than stopping with the Rockies I’m going much, much further as I travel from one side of the country to the other on The Canadian train.

The Canadian exterior with Rocky Mountains, image Via Rail

While guests on the Rocky Mountaineer travel by train by day they spend their nights in luxury hotels. On VIA Rail’s The Canadian we sleep on board in a variety of ways, and as someone who loves sleeper cars on trains I’m excited to be shown to my new home on the rails.

My Sleeper Plus twin cabin has a private toilet and washbasin, with fresh towels provided for the shower at the end of the hall, and a seating area that’s converted into a bunk bed sleeping area by a steward every night.

As I’m travelling solo, the top bunk remains up at all times so I have that extra space, and the steward is happy to leave the bed down on those days when I just want to lie back and watch the world go by.

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After changing trains and cabins mid journey I discover my new F Cabin is larger than all of the others in its class, and when I ask how people can book that special one I’m told it can be requested by calling VIA Rail on a first in, best dressed basis.

The Canadian train Sleeper Plus cabin, image VIA Rail

As well as private cabins Sleeper Plus has some seats with shared amenities that convert into bunks with curtains for privacy at night, and that immediately make me think of the train scenes in Some Like it Hot.

Towards the front of the train there’s an economy option with recliner seats, and at the other end of the scale the Prestige Class cabins offer the luxury of double beds, private showers with heated walls, flat screen TVs and larger windows to see the live show outside.

Prestige class bed, The Canadian train, image VIA Rail

I may not be travelling Prestige Class, but apart from the first evening Sleeper Plus passengers are welcome to have a drink in the Prestige Class bar after 4pm each day and enjoy the view from the back of the train.

It’s here I accidentally drink my first Caesar cocktail, a combination of Clamato juice, vodka, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce in a celery salt-rimmed glass. Something I’d been avoiding for years because frankly the clam juice part of Clamato juice sounds disgusting. But after seeing what I thought was a Bloody Mary and saying ‘I’ll have what he’s having’ I find myself drinking a freaking delicious cocktail.

When I’m asked if I’d like another Caesar I realise my mistake, but by then it’s too late. I’m hooked, and by the time I get back to Australia I’m happy to see we can buy Clamato juice to make our own at home.

While drinks are complimentary for the Prestige Class passengers they’re available at a reasonable price for Sleeper Plus passengers, and I’m surprised to find that spirits and liqueurs, including mixers are C$8.50, which means a Caesar costs less than a glass of wine at C$9.

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The first night may be a private party in Prestige Class but even if I’d been invited you couldn’t have dragged me away from my seat in the Panorama Dome Car.

In this light and airy car the glass starts at my elbow and wraps up across most of the ceiling, and as I take in the view all around and above me with a glass of bubbles I feel that special zing of a travel dream coming true.

Panorama Dome Car on The Canadian Train, image Amanda Woods

When the Panorama Dome Car leaves the train in Edmonton, the best seats for the Prairies and beyond can be found in The Canadian’s original Skyline dome cars where travellers have been enjoying 360-degree views since the 1950s.

The second floor of the dome cars has seating for up to 24 people and laminated glass that can withstand an impact twenty times greater than a car windshield.

It’s here that activity hosts give talks and share fun facts, including the way the train can stop between towns to let people out to go hunting or fishing, and that the baggage car can be used to transport moose after a hunting trip.

Skyline dome car on The Canadian train with mountains background, image VIA Rail

If you haven’t already made friends in the Dome Cars or the bar, meal times on The Canadian are a social affair that bring Sleeper Plus and Prestige Class passengers together in the same dining car.

Here art deco touches and Canadian birds etched into glass partitions are accompanied by white table linen and fresh flowers. Meals are a la carte and use regional ingredients, and include the chance to try a Bison Burger on a wild rice bun after passing a field of bison outside.

It’s also possible to dine in your room, but for me the chance to talk to fellow train lovers, including one woman who has crossed the country on The Canadian 55 times, was too good to pass up for a solo dinner in my room.

The Canadian train dining car, image VIA Rail Canada

As someone who likes to be five minutes early for things, I soon discover I need to release my need for punctuality on The Canadian Train.

The train is notorious for running late, but it’s not its fault. While passenger trains once had the right of way, nowadays freight trains come first as they are owned and operated by Canadian National, which also owns the tracks we’re on.

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Sitting and waiting becomes part of the journey. Sometimes it’s lovely, such as the time I get an unexpected hour to look out at the reflections of the Rocky Mountains on Moose Lake over lunch. Other times it’s frustrating, including the time I lose one of my days in Saskatoon.

It takes The Canadian four nights to travel 4,466km from Vancouver to Toronto and while I would quite happily stay on the train for the long haul it also provides a great opportunity to see a new part of Canada along the way. While Winnipeg was the obvious half way point I’d recently had a few days there on my way to go walking with polar bears and so decided this was my chance to book my first stay in Saskatchewan

But instead of arriving at 4.40am we pull into Saskatoon station eighteen hours later at 10.37pm. VIA Rail Canada’s advice is to not book any flights or tours within 24 hours of the train’s scheduled arrival time, and I would also suggest giving yourself at least two nights on any stopover too.

Thankfully I am still able to enjoy a full day and evening exploring the city as well as a stay in one of Canada’s historic railway hotels, the castle-like Delta Hotels Bessborough.

Then rather than running late, when I join the train again I find myself on The Canadian that defies tradition and arrives in Toronto two and a half hours early, proving you never know just how fast or slow this train will run.

These days it’s a lot faster and cheaper to fly from Vancouver to Toronto, but up there in the sky you don’t get to see the way the countryside changes.

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You don’t get to meet fellow travelers over cocktails or meals in the dining car, and you don’t get to feel the meditative calm that comes from watching the Prairies go by for hour after hour.

When we reach Toronto I almost wish we’d had a few more freight trains so that I could spend even more time on board. And while I may never give the 55 times woman a run for her money I know this is one journey I’d do again in a heartbeat.

Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of VIA Rail and Destination Canada but as usual all opinions remain her own.

The Canadian Train, mountain backdrop image VIA Rail

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