I’ve always loved trains. There something about them that I can’t pin down. Maybe it’s the little boy in me that still has a fascination with big machines. Maybe it’s the romance surrounding trains and train travel. Maybe it’s that I consider trains to be a more civilized form of travel as compared to planes, where I feel like cattle in a tin can, or driving, where it can take many hours of paying attention while driving to get anywhere. So I’ve always had it in my head to take sine dirty of long train trip across the country.
Last summer, two of my good friends, John and Charlotte, got married. While there, my wife and I ran into an old friend, Kristin, from the JoCo Cruise, who is an avid traveler. I don’t know how we got onto the topic, but I must have mentioned that I wanted to go on a long train ride somewhere, like The Trans-Siberian Railroad. Kristin and I talked in the following weeks and decided that Siberia was a bit much and settled on Canada. It was relatively easy to get to (Toronto or Vancouver, airfare isn’t too bad) and it was a good enough length to not be excessively long: Siberia is seven nights, Canada is four. In March we picked our dates, destination, and booked the train: Toronto to Vancouver in early September. It was a go! My wife wasn’t interested in spending four days on the train, so she would stay home. We, the travelers, asked our newly married friends if they wanted to come along and they said yes, so it was a party!
As the months went by, I decided that I wanted to spend a few days in Toronto to see some friends who live around there and to not have to rush to the train station and to get a chance to see a city that I’ve only ever briefly visited. Kristin was planning to go to Montreal and Quebec City, buy those plans fell through, so she spent three days with me in Toronto.
My first impression of the location immediately surrounding the hotel was one of New York, with small oddball shops with the roll-down grates to secure the store at night. Food places, electronics stores, luggage stores, a few gift shops. And oh, look a strip club. And another. This was the more interesting part of the city. At no time did I ever feel unsafe, however. My second impression of the city was it is big. The last new city I’ve been to recently was Portland and its tiny be comparison. On Sunday we walked upwards of 15 miles and barely made a dent in what we traversed.
On our first day in Toronto, we decided to walk around and explore the city. It was hot and humid for such a northern city, a heat wave they called it. Regardless, we found our way down to (insert park name here) and saw lake Ontario, a cool, old, locked (yes, I checked) lighthouse, and not one but two different ferries! Suffice to say, we did a lot of walking that day. And the next and even some more on Tuesday.Toronto is a pretty sprawling city, and there’s no strict delineation between downtown and not downtown.
Other things that stand out are the St Lawrence Market (who needs three cheesemongers? I do!), the Distillery District and a labor day market they were having, and just general people-watching in Dundas Square near our hotel.
The other place that stands out is an Ethiopian restaurant/coffee house that we found on yelp. It was closed on labor day, but we went back on Tuesday and it was so worth the wait. The lady who owns the place doesn’t have a menu. She just asked about how much heat we might like in the food and prepared whatever she had that day. We ended up with pickled beets, caramelized carrots, lentils, greens, egg and probably something I’m forgetting. It was amazing. I felt like I was a guest in her home while at the same time she seemed surprised and humbled that we were even there. To drink she had Ethiopian tea and Turkish coffee, among others, both of which were delicious.
Then it came time for the train. Well, not really. We received word that the train was going to be two hours late. Then three hours late. Then ten hours late. Via Rail put us up overnight in the nearest hotel since we already checked out of our own hotel. Turns out the closest hotel was there Fairmont. Niiice. We had a drink or two in the Library Bar there, which was good, and it was also paid for by the train. And then we went to sleep to be up early to get our very late train.
Traveling in the “sleeper plus” class on the train afforded us a few benefits. The first was access to the business lounge at Union Station in Toronto. Since the train was late, and we missed breakfast on the train, they had a continental breakfast in the business lounge. Which also had free WiFi. Finally we boarded the train. Woo! And then we say for an hour. Yep. We were now 11 hours late.
At this point I was of two minds. On one hand, I hope they would not make up time because the journey was the point of the trip. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to miss having dunner with my friends when we arrived in Vancouver. In the end, we got a little of both. The train made up about 5 hours, so we arrived in Vancouver in the early afternoon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The train was the longest I’ve been on. It was 24 cars long, not counting the two locomotives. Most of the cars were sleeper cars with cabins of varying sizes and berths that converted to seats in the daytime. Mixed in there were a pair of luxury sleeper cars, two dining cars, two activity/observation cars and the bar/lounge at the end of the train. Our berths and cabin were near the front of the sleeper plus section of the train. The economy passengers had three cars of seats at the very front of the train and a single activity/observation car. But they couldn’t enter the rest of the train. I have mixed feelings about this, the separation of classes. But at the same time, I got the impression that very few people take economy class across the country.
The amenities were nice. The two daytime seats in our berth seated for people comfortably, and if requested, the staff could put a table between for reading, activities or games. Or you could put your feet up, gaze out the window at the scenery outside. During dinner (I’ll get to the food in a bit) our attendant would convert the seats into an upper and lower berth. The to section would fold down which contained both mattresses. The seats would fold flat and a matters would be placed on top to create the lower berth. A ladder then hooked onto the side to get to the upper berth. Both were quite comfortable, though the upper berth has no window at all. The heavy curtains blocked out most of the light and the motion and noise of the train helped to lull me to sleep.
The activity/observation car is sort of divided into three sections. The front section had booths with tables with a chess/checker boards printed on them. From here, the stairs leading to the observation Deck went up. The middle section was two floors. Below was the kitchen/galley and above was the observation Deck. The third section was more tables, but these have cafe-style chairs. Again, a place for games, activities, and even watching movies that they played in the evenings after dinner.
Finally at the very back of the train was another sort of car, similar to the activity car, but this one had a proper bar, an observation Deck and a lounge at the very back of the train with windows all around. This was the Bullet Lounge and though it was nice, we didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a long walk. From our car (about #8 or #9) we had to walk through fourteen cars to get to the end. And nine of them were sleeper cars. All the same. Like you were stuck in some sort of sleeper-car nightmare. Or a national lampoon movie (“look kids, it’s Big Ben! “)
On the train were two dining cars. They are unable to seat everyone at once, so we ate in shifts. This was vaguely reminiscent of dining at my grandmother’s for thanksgiving when there were way more people than the mere ten seats at the dining room table. On the train, we opted for the most popular second seating, which was around 6:30pm. The dining tables were, due to the nature of being on a train, a bit smaller than we americans are used to. Elbows were bumped easy, so it’s a good thing that the four of us were dining together every night. The tables were well appointed and the food was excellent. Every night we had a choice of four entrees and soup and/or salad and then usually a choice of two desserts. I’m not going to go into details of what we ate, but everything was quite pleasing.
And of course the view out of the very large windows at the tables was excellent. That’s one thing we could always count on, something interesting to see outside of the train. We traveled through four distinct terrains. The first was most of Ontario, which looked to be a bit hilly, lots of green and birch trees, and many, many lakes. The second was the prairie which stretched on for as far as the eye could see. In some cases there were rolling hills as one would expect, but lots and lots of sky. (Speaking of which, for the most part, the weather was good during the whole trip. No rain, not that I would have minded, and only some clouds.) Then came the Rocky Mountains, most of which we missed due to the delays of the train, and finally, on the way out of the rockies, we followed a river valley all the way into Vancouver. It was definitely almost desert-ish in places, and very rocky. As I mentioned, we didn’t get to see much of the Rockies, despite having attempted to make up time throughout the trip across the country. We just couldn’t do it. Since we kept getting bumped by the freight trains, we kept losing time. So we started the climb into the mountains at dusk and didn’t really get to see anything. On the other hand, we did get to see the trip down the Thomson and Fraser rivers into Vancouver, which normally happens at night. The highlight of that was getting to see what’s called Hell’s Gate, which is a narrowing of the Fraser river where the width is only about 35 meters or 115 feet wide. It’s quite a spectacular view and the train even slowed down so we could all see it. Perhaps they were making up for us missing the mountains. Our arrival in Vancouver was ultimately six hours late, which means we gained five hours as we crossed the country. The bulk of that time was achieved after we passed the mountains, at which point there were two complete rail tracks, one for northbound trains and one for southbound trains. Despite the schedule having extra padding built into it (that is, there may be four hours on the schedule between cities, they can actually cover that ground in an hour if the way is clear) we simply didn’t make up the time. I wasn’t complaining, really. This time, the journey was the destination. Finally, I should make a note about the staff. They are simply great. They are friendly and helpful and pleasant and very good at their jobs. Regardless of whether they are the folks in the business lounge in Toronto helping us arrange a hotel room, or our cabin attendants who worked every morning and night to raise and lower our berths (which take about 20 minutes each!), or the engineer we spoke to who drives the train between Edmonton and Jasper six times a week, or the man in charge, the service manager, who was very friendly and happy to talk about everything train-related, they were all great and I look forward to hopefully seeing them again the next time I take the train.
And I will. Maybe in the winter. It was that fun. But this time I’ll go from Vancouver to Toronto.