It’s North America but it’s not as he knows it. Clark Harding cruises his way through Canada, from coast to coast, without going off the rails.
It’s like I’m floating through a leafy nebula. Colours are whisking by in blurry comets: reds, oranges and hazy yellows. I have a 360-degree view of it all, and I am completely in awe. Up ahead, the colours part down the middle in waves, as if Moses were parting the sea. But it’s not a holy man. It’s the Canadian Prime Minister and poster boy of modern liberal politics, Justin Trudeau. His eyes glimmer and his wavy locks blow in slow motion.
“Hey girl,” he whispers, “don’t you worry, I’ll most definitely cover your pre-existing condition.”
I’m jolted awake. David, my travel buddy, elbows me and points at his phone to show me some Justin Trudeau memes. I stir, look around and find myself sitting in the dome car of Canada’s Via Rail’s ‘Ocean’ train headed West. The foliage is blurring pass, the sun is starting to set magenta and the long train cuts a path through the trees. I must have dozed off again.
We left Halifax just this afternoon to a fanfare of Japanese tourists and other visitors with trigger-happy camera phones. The train is well over a century old and as rail journeys go, this is a pretty infamous one, hence its popularity. The train is documented in the story of the ‘founding’ of the rural Canadian settlements (not to mention some big cities too). The tracks were first laid to transport immigrants landing in the port of Halifax to the new communities. While the era and architecture has changed, I feel a pang of what the country’s early settlers must have felt – it’s a journey into the unknown, from what even back in those days would have been a modern port city, into the msyterious, uncertain, wild and rural Canada.
There’s something about the motion and the repetitive clickety-clack of the train that I evidently find comforting. It keeps rocking me to sleep. At least I wasn’t snoring with my mouth open. David reads my mind, and reassures me (or not) that I was doing just so. My cross-Canada train trip has got off to a great start and now, I’m more determined than ever to stay awake, to avoid ridicule primarily, but also to enjoy this adventure. The dome car on the train is the best place for this. It has a small bar and café that offers the caffeine dosage I need, but it also serves up quite a view, both inside and out. The Art Deco-esque carriage is actually from the Fifties, exuding that ‘golden age of travel’ feel. Stairs from ‘platform level’ lead up to a glass-domed observation area that gives the carriage its name. Elevated above the rails, I’m in a prime position to watch nearly 1350km of track and coast go past. It’s a whole day’s travelling, 22 hours in fact, but it’s just magical. We pass through 28 communities that at first wouldn’t seem out of place in South West England – with names like Truro and Amhurst. As we push forwards, the place names change accent, then language all together: Mont-Joli, Rimouski, Sainte-Foy. In each of these little rural outposts, are distinctive red barns with bright blue roofs; in between these little pieces of parallel-universe England and France, are lighthouse-studded seafront views, red clay shores and verdant forests. This is the sort of journey that forces you to pace down and absorb the world around you, it’s slow travel for the chronically short-of-time.
Honestly, I never thought I’d be travelling across Canada, let alone an entire continent, by train – the phenomenon seasoned slow-travellers call Land Cruising. A jet-setter all my life, I had completely forgotten about this form of locomotion outside of, say, commuter transit. I mean, we all know of Canada, but it being so similar to home, I had never really considered travelling the country. And as far as I assumed, neither did the rest of the world until two things happened: Canada elected Trudeau as Prime Minister; and the U.S. elected Trump.
I was first introduced to the train idea while working a gig in Toronto. Because of certain tax rebates, a huge portion of Hollywood post production have set up facilities in the Canadian provinces. So it wasn’t really by choice that I first travelled to Canada for an extended stay, but after the U.S. election, it seemed as if all of my friends and family were begging me to take them with me. To my utter surprise, Toronto was/is a remarkably sophisticated city: stunning architecture, cultural diversity, the lowest crime rates, unimaginable kindness, and – best of all – a European-inspired train culture, branching out across all the various parts of the province, region and country. It was while I was riding a commuter train to Montreal, that I was struck by the absolute exquisiteness of the Canadian Railway’s business class. As a tragically American capitalist, I have been brainwashed to assume any type of vaguely-socialised-anything would be a terrible experience.
“Au contraire,” this bilingual country would inform me. Everything from the design, to the seats, to the food – even the friendly service – is what inspired me to want to explore the rest of this country ‘on track’.
“So Via Rail does cross-country train trips, eh?” The train conductor told me casually (the accent is very real). “You go the whole way across, it takes about a week, eh?”
I’m elbowed awake yet again. This time I’m in the dining car of The Canadian Liner. After sampling the delights of Montreal (which is a whole other story), we took a 5-and-a-bit-hour train to Toronto. Each time I visit the city, I fall for it a little more. I was reluctant to leave, but that wouldn’t be in the spirit of my ‘Land Cruising’ adventure. So here I am, on the train all the way to Vancouver. The journey is four days of pure ‘Sleeper Car’ realness and that’s only if we don’t stop en route. It’s late in the evening and pitch black outside so at least I’m not missing much. Like a cruise ship, the ‘Sleepers’ assign meal times, and you dine with other passengers at random. It’s slightly unnerving at first but a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and hear their stories: like the Indian priest who wants to meditate on the train, or the dad from Muskoka who hates to fly, or the flocks of exhausted, worn down and brow-beaten Americans who just want to experience the parliamentary principles of “Peace, Order and Good Government.” Although I’m not exactly hearing their full stories because the train keeps rocking me to sleep. Thankfully, the two Singaporean tourists we’ve been seated with seem oblivious. Their reason for visiting is down to the fact that they think Justin Trudeau is hot.
As we pass over the border of Ontario and into Manitoba, David and I excuse ourselves and head to our favourite place, the dome car. Our unsteady use-the-walls-as-balance method of manoeuvring the hallways is always hysterical. Especially since we may or may not have stopped in David’s cabin to sneak a pot brownie for dessert (NOT provided by Via Rail); granted pot will be legal for recreational use in Canada and highly recommended for motion sickness. Rumour has it, when we pass through the prairies at night, we might get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Until then, we settle for the stars.
In this day and age of faces-in-our-phones, it is always heartening to see young people look up from their devices, gather around, and enjoy nature’s wonder – like the sunset, or say, the hues of the foliage and trees. And if there’s one country that beckons to be enjoyed by way of a long train journey – it’s Canada. Each Province is vastly different, yet they all have one thing in common: extraordinary scenery. A cool, sixty(ish)-mile-an-hour pace, Land Cruising across Canada imbues a quiet, thoughtful examination both individual and collective. It’s as if the countryside literally summons you to come sit and stare at it for days on end – nature’s own epic-movie – which is exactly what we did. Our days consisted of waking up, having breakfast, then retiring to our dome car to admire the view with a good book for the times – as we joked – we would tire of the scenery. And cat-napping, it seems, in my case.
We pass through mining villages, station museums and restored locomotives on the way – testament to the central role of the railway throughout Canada’s history. The railway is primarily here because of the minerals under the Canadian Shield contributing to the economy of the not-too-distant past. Today, tourism far supersedes mining along the tracks and it is said that the most beautiful part of the Canadian Shield can be experienced here on the verges of Ontario. Millions of spruce trees stand sentry across the dramatic topography. Bare rock, rivers and lakes appear from nowhere. We pass through the world’s largest game reserve, and our eye-spy game turns to wildlife-spotting – moose, goats, deer. I swear I see a bear causing all the passengers in the dome car to surge to my side of the train. If this was a cartoon, The Canadian would most certainly tip over.
Leaving Ontario, there’s a change of scenery, the forests give way to Manitoban farms – a landscape so flat it is as if you can see all the way right to the horizon. This infinity view is soon shattered by the dense skyline of its capital, Winnipeg. And then there are the Canadian Rocky Mountains. As much as the colours of the East Coast wowed all the passengers, the Rockies stun them. By the time we reach Banff, every dome car is packed and not just the seats, the aisles too. Perhaps it’s because I know the American Rockies all too well that gazing upon the Canadian ones seem different, healthier.
It’s no secret that, since the rise of Trumpism, Canada has become the preferred North American destination, not only from the global community, but from other North American countries as well. Forbes recently reported that the U.S. stands to lose $1.6 billion in tourism dollars to Canada from Mexican vacationers alone. But as I sit on the train, staring out on to British Columbia; it clear that Canada doesn’t need generous immigration, free healthcare or a hottie Prime Minister to attract visitors. The world wants to see Canada because Canada is effing magnificent.
Clark’s journey on Canada’s Great Western Way (between Toronto and Vancouver) and The Ocean (between Halifax and Montreal) was made possible by Via Rail, Canada’s national rail passenger service. The proudly ‘bilingual’ train service operates intercity, regional and transcontinental trains linking over 400 communities across Canada, with an additional 180 communities covered through intermodal partnerships.
- Visit The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. It covers the history of The Titanic and the city’s role in the
tragedy,and encompasses Nova Scotia’s rich maritime heritage.
- Check out Winnipeg, it’s amazing. Once a trading outpost, Winnipeg has blossomed into an incredible city smack in the middle of Canada.
- See Quebec City. After walking around the old town, grab lunch at The Fairmont’s Château Frontenac (
can’t missit, it’s the castle in the centreof town). Bistro Le Sam is a newly renovated restaurant in an old school, art deco, train theme.
- Don’t sleep on the top bunk. The cabin height exacerbates the rocking of the train. There are all sorts of straps to keep you from falling out, but they don’t help you to get a good night’s sleep.
- Refrain from planning too many stops. Canada is gigantic and if you stop in every major city (you’ll fall in love with every one of them) it’ll take a year to get across. It’s recommended to ride the train straight through from Toronto to Vancouver.
- Remember your train car number. All the cars look alike, and one can get lost for hours walking back and forth bursting
in tothe wrong cabins.
The inside track
Scott McQuaig is a Toronto resident, born and raised in Ontario. He works as a Landscape Architect-cum-Entrepreneur and is
Toronto is a global buffet when it comes to food. While in Toronto my hot tip is to head to Pai on Duncan Street for authentic northern Thai food. Some of their dishes are served in coconut shells.
The wonderful thing about Canadian cities is their proximity to amazing nature. Outside Toronto, you can gather
At the end of your train journey, don’t just hop on the plane and head home. While Vancouver may have its share of skyscrapers, you must spend time among the majestic redwoods in the Cathedral Forest of Vancouver Island, B.C.
Photography courtesy of Via Rail