Purely Canadian: VIA Rail's transcontinental journey a ride to remember

The Canadian rolls along on its cross-country journey en route to Vancouver. KEVIN HANN/QMI Agency

The Canadian rolls along on its cross-country journey en route to Vancouver. KEVIN HANN/QMI Agency

KEVIN HANN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:40 PM ET

A steady drizzle splashes against the Skyline dome car windows as The Canadian meanders along the banks of the mighty Fraser River.

Passengers in the trailing Panorama car turn from one side to the other, marvelling at the breathtaking beauty of the Rockies.

Suddenly, a service attendant's radio crackles with an alert.

"Bear on the tracks."

An instant buzz has passengers scrambling to one side of the train, hoping to capture a glimpse of the beast. The train slows and a blast from the air horn sends the hulking brown bear ambling trackside to safety.

"They're often on the tracks eating grain that has been spilled from a freight train," explains the VIA attendant.

It's a simple slice of life along the 4,466-km journey from Toronto to Vancouver.

This is not a train ride -- it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And, true to its name and this country's love of hockey, there are three stars: The scenery, the food and the people.

The trip for Sleeper Plus class passengers begins in the Panorama lounge at Toronto's Union Station. They relax on leather sofas, watch some hockey and make reservations for lunch and dinner seatings the next day.

The cabin for two is perfect for one or two people. The unit has bunk beds that fold into the wall and ceiling, two power outlets, an enclosed toilet and sink with hot and cold water and a separate faucet for drinking water. During the day two comfortable leather seats are set up. Changeovers are done by the VIA attendant. Sleeper cars have shower rooms and each cabin is stocked with towels and toiletries.

The CN Tower is illuminated blue and keeps a watchful eye on The Canadian as it slinks out of Union Station on a hazy Saturday night.

Once passengers check out their sleeping accommodations, it isn't too long before there's a steady stream heading into one of several Skyline dome cars spread throughout the train, or the domed Park car bringing up the rear.

Moments later, VIA staff offer up champagne to toast the journey ahead. The dome car is packed with giddy travellers snacking on canapes of salmon with cream cheese and capers, smoked meat and liver pate.

Daybreak and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the Skyline car. Early risers await the sunrise as the train glides into Sudbury Junction. Mother Nature does not disappoint as an orange glow on the horizon greets passengers.

By 6:30 a.m. Sunday, the train has stopped in the railroad hotbed of Capreol, Ont., for refuelling, and the adjacent dining car comes to life.

Crisp white linen drapes the tables set with faux flowers, bone china and gleaming cutlery.

Joe Craig, retired from the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority and living in Cornwall has the chef's special omelette served up by a smiling Sylvie Dube-Forslund. His wife Jan has oatmeal and friend Helen Muir of Montreal has cold cereal.

Severs are quick to refill coffee and tea orders and deliver cold glasses of juice to tables.

"There's no better way to see Canada," Joe says.

The dense woodlands and marshes of Northern Ontario are slowly springing to life after the harsh winter. Scenery captivates its audience as the train slices through rock cuts at a steady and determined pace.

Sleeper Plus passengers are free to roam the train. The Skyline dome cars are stocked with free coffee, juice and muffins, along with magazines and board games. Activities are scheduled in the car throughout the trip.

Two F40PH-2 locomotives are hauling The Canadian's 24 stainless steel Budd-built cars this trip. The Panorama dome built by Colorado Railcar is added at Jasper, Alta., just in time for the Rockies.

At 4 p.m. the train stops at Hornepayne, a town of 1,200 in the Algoma Region. Some walk to a nearby store for supplies while others stretch their legs in the slight drizzle.

As passengers eat dinner, Annick Mabon is busy changing over cabins and berths to sleeping accommodations. It's her second season on The Canadian.

"Meeting people from all over the world is the most exciting part of the job," Mabon says. "We get to give some insight into a new country that many people are experiencing for the first time, so that's rewarding."

Along the way, VIA crew members use the PA system to call out regions and landmarks of interest.

Monday finds Shirl Nadeau of Houston, Texas, in the Skyline dome car around 5:30 a.m., working on a book that will trace the life of a grandmother she never knew. It's peaceful and moody. Overcast.

"I've always wanted to take the train across Canada. It's spectacular. I like the leisurely pace and meeting new people," Nadeau says. "I'd do it again and perhaps find a few little spots to stay along the way."

The Canadian coasts into Winnipeg at 8 a.m. local time. The train will lay over for four hours while crews change, supplies are re-stocked and maintenance issues addressed. Crews hit the platform to wash every window on the train. Dozens of passengers head off on a city tour arranged by VIA staff in the activity car. Others decide to wander. Many end up at The Forks Market behind the station to browse shops.

By mid-afternoon The Canadian is leaving a string of trackside grain elevators in its wake while heading across Saskatchewan. From the dome car, the massive Yarbo potash mine is visible ahead.

VIA attendant Steven Gould is holding a wine tasting in one of the Skyline dome cars. He offers up samples of regional vintages and some history to go with each.

A fierce lighting storm welcomes the train to Saskatoon and by Tuesday morning the train is gliding into Edmonton.

From here on in, the scenery is the star. The Canadian will cross a series of mountain ranges as it skims the Athabasca River (Canada's seventh largest). Somewhere near Disaster Point (named by surveyor Sandford Fleming after his whiskey flask was smashed), a herd of mountain goats watches from a rocky perch.

Bob Harman of Sydney, B.C., enjoys a meal with new friends Diana Wells of Sherwood Park, Alta., and John Douglas of Edmonton.

Wells and Douglas took The Canadian east, then travelled by train to Quebec City for a cruise to Boston. They are now on the return leg.

Wells has taken The Canadian six times and Douglas 40 times.

"I started doing it when it was run by Canadian Pacific," says Douglas, who's retired from Ford. "Even when I had to make a business trip (to Ford headquarters in Oakville, Ont.), I would ask to take the train and pay some out of my pocket to do it.

"Most people would say the mountains are their favourite part of the scenery but for me it's going through the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario. It's very rugged."

Harman started making the cross-country trek in 1944 when he was dispatched to the army's basic-training facility at Camp Borden.

The past four years, he's made the trip at least twice annually to visit children living in Ontario.

"The amount of room you have ... the chance to move about is what I like," Harman says. "You can meet new people at least three times a day (at meals). We have such a beautiful country; there's no better way to see it."

Wells says her favourite time aboard the train is in the fall.

"The colour of the changing leaves is fantastic. I love sleeping on the train. I look forward to just popping into that bed it's so comfortable."

VIA Rail has spent $22 million the past four years to refurbish its transcontinental fleet.


Salmon Rose lunch entree: A Greenland turbot and Atlantic salmon cake wrapped in a thin salmon filet and garnished with a leek and garlic butter. KEVIN HANN/QMI Agency

The Canadian rolls into Jasper, Alta., on Tuesday afternoon. Looming large on display at the station in former CNR mountain steam locomotive 6015, built in 1923. A group of passengers will leave The Canadian for a separate, two-day VIA excursion through Jasper National Park to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast.

Following a two-hour stop, The Canadian chugs into the Rockies past Whistlers Mountain, across the Continental Divide and through Yellowhead Pass, a natural route used by fur traders and gold prospectors in the 19th century. Fog drapes the snowy peaks peaks of Mt. Robson (highest point in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 metres) but the sun peaks through as the train passes the 92-metre-high Pyramid Falls with the engineer slowing for passenger photos. Past Kamloops, B.C., the train crosses 21 metres above the powerful Thompson River on a 258-metre-long trestle. Into the Fraser Canyon, the train will visit Chilliwack, roll past Mt. Baker (which is actually a volcano) and skirt the edge of the Fraser River before backing into Vancouver's Pacific Central Station at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

For John Douglas, trip number 40 on The Canadian is over.

"I've always loved trains; my dad was a model train nut and I always wanted to be a train engineer," he says."On The Canadian, there's a certain amount of nostalgia. There's something comforting about going back to your roots. It's a slower pace of life and the people you meet are from all over the world."

A SWEET -- AND SAVOURY -- RIDE

They are the rock and roll stars of The Canadian.

It takes some culinary wizardry to create five-star cuisine at 100 km/h -- in what is likely the nation's smallest gourmet kitchen.

But, that's life on the rails for VIA Rail Chefs David Colvin and Ken Greenall.

Wielding razor-sharp knives and tending searing-hot grills, they bump and grind through 18-hour days to dish up three-course meals, drawing rave reviews from passengers aboard VIA's flagship train.

Colvin has been with VIA for 14 years and Greenall for 16 years. They work six days on the road, back and forth between Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Both chefs are Red Seal certified by the Canadian Culinary Institute, allowing them to work inter-provincially.

"We've been together for so long we can read each other's mind, which is helpful working at such a fast pace in close quarters," Colvin says. "Preparation is the key and keeping in tune with the train's movements has become second nature."

VIA's Annie Lupien says The Canadian's menus were developed through a "creation challenge" (winning recipes at viarail.ca/en/menu-creation-challenge) led by VIA's head chef Martin Gemme.

The results are stunning.

For breakfast, they've taken some traditional favourites and added some tasty twists.

Like the stuffed French toast filled with a cheesecake centre and topped with a warm berry compote and whipped cream. Or the Benedictine Duck, with duck confit draped over poached eggs and hollandaise sauce on wild rice cakes. Of course, you can have bacon and eggs, too.

Lunch and dinner are served at three sittings in the train's two dining cars.

Lupien notes the wine menu is colour-coded to suggest pairings for various entrees.

Diana Wells scans the lunch menu and chooses the Salmon Rose dish -- a Greenland turbot and Atlantic salmon cake wrapped in a thin salmon filet and garnished with a leek and garlic butter.

"I've always been so impressed with the food on The Canadian," she says. "It's one of the highlights of the trip."

Other lunch choices include an Angus burger; a quinoa salad served with roasted garden vegetables, feta cheese and herbs all tossed in a citrus vinaigrette; and lobster-stuffed ravioli topped with lump crab in a light alfredo sauce.

There is a vegetarian option at each meal, like the Veggie Stack -- a pyramid of sauteed vegetables, baked lentils and crisp baby greens layered between toasted corn tortillas.

The mouth-watering dinner menu on a recent trip featured a 10-ounce veal chop rubbed with Cajun spices and served with tomato-infused demi-glace; horseradish-crusted pickerel served with an onion, caper and herb vinaigrette; chicken breast stuffed with butter and over roasted; honey and soy-glazed duck breast with gastrique blackberry and vanilla sauce; and beer-braised beef short ribs with pearl onions, parsnips and maple-smoked bacon.

And the desserts are beyond decadent.

"We use real quality products and the clientele seems really pleased," chef Colvin remarks. "We get a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day when we get great customer feedback."

PRESTIGE CARS HAVE RETRO-COOL VIBE

They'll be calling it the Ritz on Rails.

VIA Rail unveiled its classy new Prestige Class cars during a recent travel and tourism event at Central Pacific Station in Vancouver.

The new cars -- to run on The Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver -- will be phased in over the next year beginning Aug. 19.

"This is by far the nicest product I've seen in 27 years," said VIA's Pierre Santoni. "It features the first fully accessible car to allow travel across the country."

Prestige Class cars are Budd-built 1950s streamliners that have been totally refurbished inside. VIA has replaced the traditional look of metal and plastic with dark wood tones, soft lighting and enhanced amenities including flat screen TVs, video players and stocked mini-bars.

Among the cars on display was Laurentide Park, the first fully accessible sleeping car in VIA's fleet, complete with a wheelchair lift. Each retrofitted Park car -- a domed lounge bringing up the rear of The Canadian -- will have a bedroom for three with push button controls for room entry, a roll-in shower and washroom, plus ample daytime living space.

"My father was in a wheelchair so, for me, the transformation is a must," says Dean Rockhead, VIA's senior manager of products.

The new Park car lounges will feature pub-type tables and seats along with a granite-topped bar. New lighting creates an upscale ambiance.

The Chateau Denonville has been retrofitted from a traditional sleeper car to one comprised of just six large cabins for two. Each cabin for two in Prestige Class provides 50% more space than the current cabin in Sleeper Plus class. Each unit will have its own shower and bathroom, flat screen TV with video player, windows that are 60% larger than the current sleepers and a stocked mini-bar.

"The Prestige market is marginally more upscale," Rockhead says. "We're planning no discounting on this.

"Very specific people are looking for train travel and there's a responsibility to expand to meet that demographic," adds Rockhead. "There's been great anticipation for this product that's been building over the last three and a half years."

Prestige Class cars are designated by a black band above the window line in contrast to the solid blue stripe.

BOOKING

The Canadian runs three times a week during peak season and twice weekly off-season. For more information, visit viarail.ca or call 1-888-VIA-RAIL (1-888-842-7245).


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