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Journey Across Canada by Train

Riding the rails from Toronto to Vancouver is a once-in-a-lifetime smorgasbord of scenery.

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A Via Rail train carries travelers through a scenic Canadian landscape.

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 breakfast with three 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 (4,466 kilometers) in four days. A month ago I decided it was time to do it.

Day 1: Washington, D.C., to Toronto, Ontario

After arriving to Toronto’s Union Station, Canada’s busiest rail station, from Washington, D.C., 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.

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Light shines through the SkyWalk connecting Union Station to the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada.

Just before 10 p.m. we’re called to board, and in under 10 minutes I’m 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.

The appeal of the Canadian journey, veteran senior service attendant François Castonguay says, is its romance. “It’s traveling back through time almost. It’s the complete opposite of high-speed travel.” I agree. Traveling west by train, I feel like a pioneer setting out to explore a frontier, armed with power outlets and espresso machines.

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 and make pleasantries, 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.

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The sun sets on downtown Toronto.

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, spotting 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 couple from breakfast and Bob, 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, potatoes, and broccoli. It’s delicious.

While I’m at dinner, the porter makes up my room and prepares it 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. It’s too dark to see outside so I curl up with my laptop and watch a couple of episodes of The Americans before shutting off all the lights and watching the stars in the huge sky until I fall asleep.

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 pass homes with gazebos and aboveground pools. This is my favorite part of train travel: moving past back yards, side roads, and towns full of real life.

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The Museum of Human Rights rises above downtown Winnipeg.

At breakfast I sit with Bridie and Tom, 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.

"We've talked about doing this for years," Bridie says of heading off to travel the globe. "I 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 was created as a place for visitors to “engage in discussion and commit to taking action against hate and oppression."

At Winnipeg the crew switches out, so when we reboard, 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 an immense sky. This is my favorite landscape, I think.

At dinner I meet Linda and Joyce, a married couple from rural Vermont who are traveling to Seattle for a bar mitzvah. We talk politics (the U.S. election is the next day), religion, and socks—and we 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 Joyce in conversation with two couples from Scotland. 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.

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The Athabasca River flows through Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.

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. “You get used to cooking on a train,” says chef James McArthur, who has worked on the rails for 16 seasons. “You fall into a rhythm. If you don’t get cut or burned, it’s not a trip.”

Before noon we pull into Jasper and we have some time to explore the town. It’s a beautiful day, unseasonably warm for November, 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.

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Cars park in front of shops along Highway 93 in the town of Jasper.

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 we wake up to news of the U.S. election results. (There is no Wi-Fi on the train and rarely any cell service, so we’ve been blessedly free of news coverage.) I meet up with fellow Americans Joyce and Linda in the Park Car for some lively conversation about the results.

The weather has changed, too. Every day of the trip so far has been spectacularly sunny, with bright blue skies. This morning it’s gray and gloomy, rain spitting against the windows. My new friends and I drink 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 offers its own charms.

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 a thousand U.S. dollars. 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 a few 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 Wi-Fi. There’s none on the train and it’s very spotty in stations.

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