The “Bucket List” Journey of a Lifetime
There can be few journeys more iconic and memorable than travelling across Canada on what used to be called the Canadian Pacific Railway; in fact I grew up listening to my parents and their friends talking about how they would love to do this journey, when they retired or had time. Classed along with “The Orient Express” and South Africa’s “Blue Train”, Via Rail’s “The Canadian” as it is now called, is one of the world’s greatest train journeys, and, I lived the dream when I travelled from East to East last September on this famous train. Linking Toronto to Vancouver, via Winnipeg, Edmonton and Jasper, this train journey took me four nights (with a three-day stop over in Winnipeg) to get from Toronto to Vancouver, and was the highlight of all my recent travels abroad – it was simply the stuff that dreams are made of.
I’d like to wax lyrical about the dreamy, fascinating and utterly compelling side of the journey, and indeed watch out for the occasional “awesome”, “amazing”, “stunning and “memorable” mentions, but, if like me you want to know more about this train journey across one of the largest continents, then sit down, pour yourself a large Canadian Club whiskey and let me tell you all about the train, journey, destinations accommodation, food and the all important pricing too. If like me, you are fascinated with trains and train journeys, this IS THE journey that you have to take if you have the opportunity and time…….and no, it DOESN’T have to be that pricey if you book at certain times of the year and with Via Rail’s “Super Saver Fares”, and this was evident with some of the passengers that were travelling, such as “gap year” students and people who didn’t want to fly, but wanted a cheap-ish and comfortable way of travelling from East to West to see family and friends and 60+ passengers who get very reduced rates.
I am a story-teller and I’m not a lover of lists, but, I need to list some of the options, accommodation classes, booking procedure, destinations and more, so PLEASE bear with me and don’t worry, I shall be telling a story, but through my photos and the occasional lyrical sentence, as promised above! This is an epic train journey and so deserves all the information I can share with you……from the moment I sat under the famous clock inside the grand and very opulent Union Station in Toronto, to the moment I stepped off the train in a drizzly but vibrant Vancouver…..(the Union station in Toronto was designed by the Montreal architecture firm of Ross and Macdonald in the Beaux-Art style as a joint venture between the Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Its design was cited in 1975 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as being of “national architectural significance as one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts railway station design in Canada)
So, what do you need to do before you board The Canadian? Do you need cabin luggage, towels and toiletries and what about electrical power points and mobile phone signal coverage etc? I googled so many of these questions before I travelled, and I hope that my personal experience will help any future travellers, as I didn’t find that much information on-line to help me.
How to Travel and Before you Travel
What class do you plan on travelling – do you want and need a bed, or can you manage for four nights in a seat? Here’s a breakdown of the different cabin classes and what’s included:
Economy class – Comfortable reclining seat with table-tray; Complete meals, snack bar, hot drinks, refreshments and alcoholic drinks at affordable prices; Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on sale; Baggage registration service; Access to the Skyline Dome car
There is NO food, beverages, cabin or bed included in this class of travel. I walked through the economy cars and it all seemed very comfortable, but with no privacy. There is NO access to any showers in this class either, but each seat does have an electric power points.
Sleeper Plus Class – Choice of a comfortable berth, a one, two, three or four person cabin or a suite with a roomy armchair for the daytime; Access to the shower in the car; All meals included and served in the dining car (not including alcoholic drinks); Coffee, tea, fruit and cookies offered for free in the Park and Skyline cars; Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on sale; Baggage registration service; Priority boarding; Activities for the children (games, books, movies); Available attendant and bed turn-down service; Privileged access to the departure salons (Business lounge); Access to the Skyline Dome car; Privileged access to the Park car.
Sleeper Plus is the class I travelled with, and I had my own one person cabin with a bed, sink, armchair during the daytime, numerous electrical points, and a large window with a view – not that spent much time in my cabin during the day. I will talk more about the different berths and cabins later on. On both trips, my single room was situated in the Chateau sleeping car. The other sleeping car on The Canadian was the Manor sleeping car.
Prestige Class, new from 2015 – Double cabins with en-suite shower, WC, sink, double bed, flat screen TV, complimentary mini bar, extra-large window for viewing and the price includes all of the above in Sleeper Plus Class. There are two Prestige Class cabins in the Park car, towards the rear of the car and six more in the new Chateau cars, although they are not available on all journeys, you have to check. There is a price to pay for this new class of sleeper, it is ALMOST double the price of the normal Sleeper Plus Class cabins!
Disabled access cabin – Also towards the rear of the Park car is a disabled access sleeper cabin.
What you need to take on-board:
1 x carry on (cabin) bag with change of clothes for four nights;
Personal cosmetics and toiletries, however, a Shower Pack of towels, soap and shampoo IS provided in Sleeper Plus Class. Don’t forget any medication you may need for four days too.
No slippers or robes are provided in the shower pack, so you may need to pack some slippers (or flip flops) and a towelling robe for travelling to and from the showers.
Phone, laptop and chargers with Canadian adapters, HOWEVER, there is NO WI-FI on the train and 3G is VERY sketchy indeed, so DON’T expect to be on-line! There is limited WI-FI in the stations, which I used to keep in touch.
Books, magazines and good conversation! Books, magazines and board games ARE available on the train.
What you CAN’T take on-board:
Checked baggage as in large cases – just like when you fly – these are booked in at the station before you travel, and you collect them at the other end of your journey; Oversize sports equipment; Musical instruments – for Via Rail’s luggage policy check it out here.
On the Train – Service, Facilities, Food and Entertainment
If you are travelling Sleeper Plus Class, you will be met and taken to your berth or cabin on boarding the train; each car has their own Cabin Attendant who will answer all of your questions, configure your armchair to your bed each evening, as well as turn it back to an armchair again next morning and generally look after you as regards to toiletries requirements and safety. (All of the crew change at Winnipeg)
Each car has a name and number, and as there are no maps or layouts of the train on-board, you must remember your car name and number. You can see all of the cars and their layouts here: Via Rail Fleet
If you are travelling Sleeper Plus Class, all of your meals are included; there are up to THREE sittings for each meal, your first sitting is decided when you check in at Toronto station, although you can change your sitting once you are on the train, subject to there being availability in the dining car. For Economy class, there is a Take-out menu and Café Express Menu available. The meals I had were excellent, with the exception of some breakfasts which were just average. The choice of meals was good, given that there was a tiny galley where the chefs had to do their magic, and I was very impressed with the availability of locally sourced ingredients. I opted for the third sitting, as I like to dine late – how very European! There was always the full choice of meals left when I dined, and I found the third sitting more relaxing, plus it didn’t clash with any wine and beer tasting activities that were on offer!
If by any slim chance you get “peckish” between meals, as you are well fed, there is always a choice of hot beverages, juice, water, muffins, biscuits and fresh fruit available in the galley part of your designated activity car.
Each set of eight or so cars (depends on the season) has its own activity car, which is part of the skyline Dome car and dining car, as well as an Activity Manager; the activity managers also offer games nights, tasting sessions with local wines and beers, as well as local information on the history, flora and fauna of each region as we pass through it. On boarding The Canadian, you will be invited to a “Cocktail Party” where champagne and nibbles are served as a way to meet and greet all the crew and your fellow passengers.
At Edmonton, the long-awaited Panorama Dome car is added to the train, and you can watch them linking it up if you wish, from the station. This is the most amazing car for viewing the spectacular scenery from, and is put on just before the Canadian Rockies come into range. The entertainment I got from sitting in this fabulous glass car was amazing and I was reluctant to leave when called for lunch!
Cabins and Sleeping Arrangements
Bunks in the Sections – These are the cheapest of all the sleeper accommodation with lower bunks/berths and upper bunks/berths; these aren’t private and the beds convert into armchairs during the daytime. Your washing facilities are shared, in the shower room at the end of the sleeper car. I met many people who were sleeping in the sections, and curiously enough they all seemed to like them, including a couple of very elderly ladies! The benefits of these berths are the beds, they are larger than the cabins and are extremely comfortable apparently. The beds are made up for the night, by the cabin attendants, and are reconfigured into seats in the morning.
One person sleeper room/cabin – This was what I was allocated; it was a fully lockable small room, with a fold down bed for the night – which was a wide single and very comfortable, although please note, the bed folds out and OVER the WC, so make sure you have been to the loo before you go to bed, or you will have to use the public WC at the end of sleeper car. The bed then folds back into the wall for the daytime, and converts into a large and roomy armchair. There is a WC in the room, a sink with drinkable water and a few handy cubby holes to store bits and bobs. There is also a mirror and two electric points for charging, as well as two sets of lights. I found the room very tight on space once the bed was down, but it was cosy and more importantly, private. The bed linen was clean and you are given two pillows. The cabin attendant is on call to configure the bed and reconfigure the seat for daytime, but I managed to do it myself.
Two and Three person sleeper room/cabin – are obviously bigger than the one person rooms, and also have a private WC, which is en-suite and not in the room. The beds are bunk style, with one up and one down. The rooms for three people are simply two cabins joined together, and therefore you will have two WC’s. They are very limited.
The new Prestige sleeper cabins – as mentioned above, these are new to 2015 and comprise: Double cabins with en-suite shower, WC, sink, double bed, flat screen TV, complimentary mini bar, extra-large window for viewing.
Note: I was initially shocked at how small the sleeper rooms were, but, I soon came to realise that the journey is NOT about where you sleep, which was more than adequate and very comfortable, but the whole experience of “The Journey” – and I spent VERY little time in my cabin.
A cabin for one is designed for one person.
Room size: 6 ft. 5 in. x 3 ft. 7½ in. (196 cm x 110 cm)
Private toilet (bed covers toilet at night)
Sink over toilet and full mirror
Access to shower at the end of the car
Daytime: sofa chair
Night-time: lower bed pulls out from wall and upper bed pulls down from wall
Door locks from inside only (no individual keys)
Baggage space is a small area
Window with blind
Other amenities: fan, shoe closet, air-conditioning, drinking water, paper and towels, pillows, sheets and blankets supplied, 110 VAC outlet
My Personal Experience of The Canadian Toronto to Vancouver Train Journey
Now to the best bit, my personal experience of this spectacular train journey; it was EVERYTHING I expected and so much more – days merged into one in a delightful way, and instead of working, as I had planned to do for part of the journey, I met people from all over the world, fed my eyes with stunning scenery out of the windows, had the most amazing food, with lots of locally sourced ingredients and recipes being on offer. My favourite was the Pickerel, a lake fish that is similar to Pike, and a speciality of the Great Lakes region in Canada, where it is also called Walleye. I was also treated to lobster ravioli, bison burgers, roast Crown of lamb and prawn and scallop skewers with Saskatoon Berry Jam. The Dining cars are reminiscent of a bygone age with an air of Art Deco about them. But, my favourite car was the fabulously Hercule Poirot style Park Car, right at the end of the train, where I spent most of my time…..it was refurbished in the style of the old Park cars with an abundance of chrome and rounded edges, it was sleek and not known by the majority of passengers who tended to stay towards the front of the train…..it took me a good ten minutes and fifteen cars to get too, but I loved the atmosphere and the views that you got from the back of the train were simply spectacular.
The journey was punctuated by the most stunning scenery, from the Great Lakes to the heartland of Canada and the Prairies, and then onto the magnificent Rocky mountains, every moment of each day was filled with spectacular views of the passing countryside. I spend most of my time taking photos, chatting with the crew and fellow passengers, and work just went out of the window along with the views! I never picked up the book I brought with me once, and the only reading I did was to read the menus and the journey route leaflet, which fascinated me……this is a trip of a lifetime, and as well as my window gazing, I met fascinating people from all over the world, of which I am still in contact with some; each night I was sent to sleep by the gentle swaying of the train, and on waking up in the middle of the night, (when the train had stopped, to give way to freight trains which have priority) I would open my blind to see a little “stop” bathed in moonlight, and sometimes with new passengers boarding, which you can still do in Canada if you let them know in advance.
One night, in our Skyline Dome car, we had a young lady playing the fiddle and singing Canadian folk songs – the train trundled on through towering mountains with the sun setting like a huge red ball over them, casting an eerie pink glow over all of the passengers in the car, and as I listened to her songs of turmoil and joy, I knew that this moment would be one of those “cameo memories” that I would revisit many times in the future – it was a moment of pure magic. The call came for dinner, and I joined my new friends for what was to be an evening of revelry and friendship, as we all swapped travel tales from home and abroad, from other continents and other times in our lives…..this was a snapshot in time of something very special, and all brought together by one the most iconic train journeys in the word. As I lay in bed that night, I decided to leave the blind partly open, so I could connect with the country I was travelling through, and feel at one with the train and the vastness of this fabulous place……..I was lucky, the moon was full and it glowed over each small town and settlement – I saw freight trains lumbering by, and a glimpse of half hidden log cabins and railway buildings.
My overall experience of The Canadian was one of wonder, education, exploration and adventure, an it comes as no surprise to me that Agatha Christie wrote one of most popular books about a train journey – there’s just something about the whole experience of throwing a hundred or so strangers together on a long train journey, and as far as I am concerned, THIS is the way to travel – as a lifelong train buff, I rate this journey across Canada as one of the most amazing experiences of my life – if you have a chance to do this, DO IT! Karen
- Remember to check the time, as you cross through four-time zones on the Toronto to Vancouver train journey.
- Freight has priority over passenger trains, so allow extra time at your destination for travelling onwards; the train I was travelling on, was at one point FOUR hours late.
Toronto ► Winnipeg ► Vancouver
Vancouver ► Winnipeg ► Toronto
|Distance:||The Canadian||The Canadian|
|0 km||Toronto depart:||22:00 (day 1)||Tue, Thur*, Sat||Vancouver depart:||20:30 (day 1)||Tue, Fri, Sun*|
|1,943 km||Winnipeg arrive:||08:00 (day 3)||Thur, Sat*, Mon||Kamloops North arr/dep||06:35 (day 2)||Wed, Sat, Mon*|
|Winnipeg depart:||11:45 (day 3)||Thur, Sat*, Mon||Jasper arrive:||16:00 (day 2)||Wed, Sat, Mon*|
|2,702 km||Saskatoon arr/dep:||23:32 (day 3)||Thur, Sat*, Mon||Jasper depart:||17:30 (day 2)||Wed, Sat, Mon*|
|3,221km||Edmonton arrive:||06:22 (day 4)||Fri, Sun*, Tue||Edmonton arrive:||23:00 (day 2)||Wed, Sat, Mon*|
|3,221km||Edmonton depart:||07:37 (day 4)||Fri, Sun*, Tue||Edmonton depart:||23:59 (day 2)||Wed, Sat, Mon*|
|3,600 km||Jasper arrive:||13:00 (day 4)||Fri, Sun*, Tue||Saskatoon arr/dep||09:25 (day 3)||Thu, Sun, Tue*|
|3,600 km||Jasper depart:||14:30 (day 4)||Fri, Sun*, Tue||Winnipeg arrive:||20:45 (day 3)||Thu, Sun, Tue*|
|4,052 km||Kamloops North arr/dep:||23:44 (day 4)||Fri, Sun*, Tue||Winnipeg depart:||22:30 (day 3)||Thu, Sun, Tue*|
|4,466 km||Vancouver arrive:||09:42 (day 5)||Sat, Mon*, Wed|
* IMPORTANT: The thrice-weekly Canadian was cut back to running only twice a week in winter in 2012. The Thursday departure from Toronto only runs between 5 May & 15 October 2016. The Sunday departure from Vancouver only runs between 1 May & 11 October 2016.
How much does it cost?
Toronto to Vancouver, one-way per person
Economy Class – reclining seat: Can$434 to Can$596
Sleeper Plus Class – “section” sleeper: Can$955 to Can$1,541
Sleeper Plus Class – bedroom: Can$1,440 to Can$2,324
The fare varies by time of year, higher from June to October, lower Jan-May & Nov-Dec.
Just go to www.viarail.ca to check fares for your date of travel in your chosen class.
(If you live in the UK, Ireland or elsewhere in Europe, you can buy VIA Rail tickets by phone from International Rail, call 0844 248 248 3. From outside the UK +44 844 248 248 3. Lines open 09:00-17:00 Monday-Friday)
Disclaimer: I was the guest of the Destination Canada, Keep Exploring Canada, and Via Rail, as well as various hotels, provinces and restaurants that I will mention in my individual posts: all my flights, transfers, train journeys, accommodation and meals were included, as well as all trips, excursions and special cookery sessions with local chefs. With profound thanks to all the people and organisations that looked after me and made my trip so memorable and exciting.
This trip could not have been possible without the following person, as well as others already listed above:
Links to my other Canada posts: