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 maneuvering 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.
“Passing through the prairies at night, we might see the northern lights.”
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.
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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.
Photography courtesy of Via Rail
Get out there
… 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 miss it, it’s the castle in the centre of town). Bistro Le Sam is a newly renovated restaurant in an old school, art deco, train theme.
… 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.
… plan 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.
… forget your train car number. All the cars look alike, and one can get lost for hours walking back and forth bursting into the wrong cabins.