Journey Across Canada by Train
Riding the rails from Toronto to Vancouver is a once-in-a-lifetime smorgasbord of scenery.
I’m an introvert. A real rather-do-anything-than-make-small-talk introvert, not just someone who prefers TV to cocktail parties. So what am I doing having meals with strangers—and enjoying it?
Blame the bucket list. One trip has been on mine for years: a cross-Canada train journey on the Canadian, the flagship of the Via Rail passenger rail system. It promises beautiful scenery, superior service, and an unparalleled way to see the world’s second largest country: 2,775 miles in four days. So I decided it was time to do it.
Day 1: Washington, D.C., to Toronto
At Toronto’s Union Station, Canada’s busiest rail station, I head straight to the Via Rail lounge. The lounge begins to fill up with people and I get my first look at my fellow riders. There are couples, young and old, and a few single travelers like me. There’s an air of excitement and expectation that seems old-fashioned in this age of hurried high-speed travel.
Just before 10 p.m. we’re called to board, and in under 10 minutes I’ve been escorted to my cabin in car 13, where the bed has already been set up cozily for the night. There’s a sink, a separate toilet closet, and, best of all, a huge picture window.
At the rear of the train, in the domed Park Car, passengers are gathering for a champagne “bon voyage” toast. Glasses clink as the train moves out of the station, and we’re off. I stay for a while, then escape for what I’ve most been looking forward to: watching the world go by from my cabin. Leaving Toronto, we pass factories, modern flats, graffiti, lofts, and a greenhouse and then the sky opens up and I can see stars.
Day 2: Sudbury to Sioux Lookout. Ontario
I wake up to the sun breaking over Markham, Ontario, and take about 50 photos trying to capture the color-rich scene. The train pulls into Sudbury Junction in Greater Sudbury, a city built on the mining and lumber industries.
Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 8:30 in the dining car and as is the custom on trains, passengers are seated together at four-top tables. My introvert’s anxieties about dining with strangers are gone in an instant. There’s no nervous milling about, wondering who to sit with or talk to. You’re seated, you make introductions, and the topic of conversation is obvious: Is this your first time on the train? Isn’t this scenery incredible? Any would-be awkward pauses are filled by looking out the huge windows to take in the scenery. We’re passing by lake after lake and fishing camps and cabins perched on islands barely bigger than they are.
At my table are a couple from outside Toronto who are traveling to Jasper and a former gold miner traveling home to Victoria after an extended stay in Sudbury. We’re in moose country, he says, and in the rutting season the frenzied animals sometimes charge the train.
The rest of the day I spend in the domed Skyline Car and my own cabin. I have plans to read the book I’ve brought but the scenery is transfixing. We go through towns with names like McKee’s Camp, Gogama, Foleyet, and Mud River. We pass stand after stand of birch trees, as well as beaver dams and the fallen trees that indicate they’ve been at work.
Before I know it the dinner bell is ringing, and I’m seated with the Scottish couple from breakfast and an Englishman living in Australia who has been traveling in Canada for two months. The Canadian journey, he says, is his “treat to himself.” I choose prime rib with demi glace and potatoes and broccoli. It’s delicious.
While I’m at dinner, the porter prepares my room for the evening. There are three classes of service on the Canadian—economy, sleeper (where I am), and Prestige. Economy travelers are typically “point A to B” travelers within Canada, service coordinator John Matthews tells me, while sleeper passengers are typically here to experience the entire journey. The relatively new Prestige class offers even more luxury: more personalized service, upgraded cabins with double beds, and much more. Goals.
After dinner some folks head to the Park Car at the rear of the train for conversation, coffee, and music by local artists traveling with us. I head back to my cabin, tired from a hard day of sightseeing.
Day 3: Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
I awake to find we’ve moved into Manitoba, one of Canada’s three “prairie provinces.” As the Canadian approaches Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital, we begin to pass homes with gazebos and aboveground pools. This is my favorite part of train travel: moving past back yards, alongside side roads, past towns full of real life.
At breakfast I sit with a young couple from Yorkshire, England, who are traveling around the world. They’re planning on spending a month in Vancouver and then flying to New Zealand, where they’ll work for a year before setting off again.
They talked about doing this for years and heading off to travel the globe. “We can’t imagine working hard all year to travel just two weeks a year.”
Before noon we arrive in Winnipeg, where we have our first stopover, three hours to explore the city while the train is serviced and restocked. Via Rail offers a bus tour of the city but I choose to wander on my own, heading over to The Forks. Named for the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, this section of downtown draws more than four million visitors a year. A main attraction is The Forks Market, an indoor emporium housed in former horse stables. Nearby is the striking Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014.
At Winnipeg the crew switches out, so when we board, it’s to new faces. I spend the afternoon in my cabin, mesmerized by the scenery. The trees and lakes of Ontario have been replaced by prairie, beautiful vast stretches of amber and green laid out under a huge sky. This is my favorite landscape, I think.
At dinner I meet a married couple from rural Vermont who are traveling to Seattle for a bar mitzvah. We talk politics, religion, and socks, and laugh our heads off. I have found my people.
Day 4: Edmonton, Alberta, to Kamloops, British Columbia
Before breakfast I head to the Park Car, where I find two couples from Scotland in conversation. The atmosphere in the car is easy and comfortable; everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s the kind of familiarity that would take much longer in normal life.
Everyone is eager to arrive today in Jasper, the crown jewel of the journey. The small mountain town is part of Jasper National Park, the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, and it promises amazing views. We’re starting to get our first glimpse of snowcapped peaks in the distance.
Then it’s time for breakfast. The food in the Dining Car is fantastic, cooked fresh and to order in a small but remarkably efficient kitchen.
Before noon we pull into Jasper and we have some time to explore the town. It’s a beautiful day and the postcard-perfect town is framed by mountains. Everything is within easy walking distance of the train station, and I head straight for coffee at a nearby bakery. Fortified, I stroll down the charming streets, window shopping. It’s a lovely break from the train, but I’m eager to get moving and go deeper into the Rockies.
Once back aboard the Canadian, I settle into the domed Skyline Car and watch the scenery shift to lakes and streams, then close-up forests of pine and spruce, and finally, mountains. The views are stunning, and the car is filled with oohs and aahs.
Day 5: Vancouver
On the last morning of the trip I meet fellow Americans in the Park Car for coffee and exchange information, promising to be in touch. I mean it, too. It’s the magic of the train.
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP
When to Go: Anytime. Warmer months are the most popular times, but each season has its own delights.
How to Get There: The westbound Canadian leaves Toronto three times a week at 10 p.m.; eastbound, the Canadian leaves Vancouver at 8:30 p.m. The journey takes four nights and three days. Sleeper class berths start around U.S. $1,000. Cabins and Prestige class accommodations are more expensive. Check the Via Rail site for frequent sales and deep discounts, especially on Tuesdays.
What to Bring: A small overnight bag (you can check larger bags) with the essentials: comfortable clothes, a book or two, some snacks for your cabin, flip-flops for the shower, and some downloaded movies to watch at night. Before you arrive, clear off space on your phone for all the pictures you’ll take.
Know Before You Go: Forget about wifi. There’s none on the train and it’s very spotty in stations.
EXTEND YOUR TRIP
Schedule a day (or more) in both Toronto and Vancouver to get a feel for these Canadian cities, each with its own charms.
24 Hours in Toronto
Don’t miss the CN Tower, one of Canada’s most visited attractions: It offers unparalleled views of the city and Lake Ontario—from 1,136 feet up. Head up to the panoramic LookOut and its glass floor, and if you’re really brave, strap in for the outside EdgeWalk. For a taste of local color, stroll through the Kensington Market neighborhood, a warren of local boutiques (no big brands here) and ethnic eateries.
Book a room at the art-filled Gladstone Hotel for a unique night’s stay. Originally built in 1889, the hotel has 37 rooms, each designed by a local artist. It’s also dedicated to sustainable practices. In the heart of Chinatown is the Hotel Ocho, a textile factory-turned-boutique hotel. Design is the focus here, with soaring ceilings and exposed beams setting the stage in the lobby.
Head to Toronto’s Distillery District for an Instagram-worthy night out. Once a Victorian-era industrial site, the area now houses restaurants, bars, shops, and tons of charm. You can’t spend any time in Canada and not try poutine, fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Get the best at Poutini’s House of Poutine.
24 Hours in Vancouver
Spend the morning in Stanley Park near downtown: Rent a bike or stroll the Seawall walkway that forms part of the world’s largest waterfront path. Then explore the rest of the park’s offerings, which include lush forests, gardens, lakes, First Nations totem poles, and more. In the afternoon, check out Gastown, a historic neighborhood where cool shops and chic restaurants line the cobblestone streets.
A 15-minute walk from Gastown is the Fairmont Pacific Rim, a waterfront hotel that has panoramic views of Burrard Inlet and the snowcapped North Shore Mountains. A Vancouver landmark, the Sylvia Hotel sits on English Bay next to Stanley Park. There are 120 rooms in the 1912 brick-and-terra-cotta building, part of which is covered by lovely Virginia creeper.
Foodies shouldn’t miss the Granville Island Public Market, a covered emporium that’s home to some 50 vendors and artisans. You can pick up some prepared eats like goat cheese, macaroons, local produce, and more. In Gastown, try the Salt Tasting Room for cured meats and artisan cheese, or try Pidgin, a stylish restaurant offering a unique menu of French-influenced Asian Fusion cuisine.
Nancy Gupton is freelance writer/editor and former National Geographic digital copy desk chief. Follow her journeys on Twitter.