Why you should see Canada by rail
I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. – Robert Louis Stevenson
My first luxury trans-Canada rail adventure occurred in the summer of 1991. I still remember the hiss of the train pulling into Pacific Central Station in Vancouver and idly waiting for us to board. My father, ever the train enthusiast, had decided to pack four kids and our mother onto a VIA Rail train trip across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto. The plan was to spend two weeks journeying across our home country, the first five days by train in VIA Rails luxurious first class sleeper cars. The goal was to visit each province, benefiting from the amazing opportunity to learn about the vastness of this great country while watching the land stretch out before us with many historical and scenic stops along the way. It was ambitious and glorious.
I have flown across Canada several times since; while air travel is the most time-efficient method of travel, journeying by rail is incomparably the best way to see Canada in all its wide reaching splendour and diversity though travelling by coach doesnt do this justice. As a family we had been on many trips before this one but none with such scope or grandeur as this cross-country adventure and none so exciting. We felt like captains of our own ships, hurling ourselves through the vast ocean of our country. Growing up on the West Coast, our understanding of Canada was limited; the world to the East of us felt unconquerable and large and yet here we were conquering it, climbing through the Rocky Mountains and shooting through the prairies like a bullet released from a pistol barrelling through time and space toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The metal bullet of The Canadian seemed a strange steaming dragon as I climbed the steps into our train car to begin what would be a staggering adventure. Despite how we teased my father for his love of train travel, the family journey we took that year would shape all of us, but myself especially toward the romance of land travel itself.
Between the six of us we took up three luxury sleeper cars (really the best and only way to travel on a trans-Canada rail journey). My twin sister and I had the fortune of our own luxurious sleeper suite with bunk beds folding out of the wall and sofa, creating a fabulous private living space during the day and a wonderfully cosy, comfortable bedroom suite at night. It was a true revelation for two eleven year old girls; 4 days of journeying together in our own private room with a whole train to explore (including the magical observation car with a glass dome stretching from floor to ceiling) and the freedom to indulge our imaginations. At this time in my life I was very shy and spent the majority of spare time inside my head creating stories, or staring out the window imagining films from beginning to end (including credits). There is little more inspiring for a young girl enraptured by dreams than to have the opportunity to watch an entire country spill out before her eyes.
Trekking through the Rocky Mountains by train is one of the most pleasurable experiences for any traveller across Canada whether local or from abroad, for me it came with an unfurling of emotion as we trudged carefully through dangerous Rocky mountain passes. The mountains were incredible sharp toothed creatures, full of life and grandeur, a presence all their own. They seemed alive and proud with undecipherable personalities both welcoming and private. We paused in Jasper, visited shops featuring Canadian Jade, and witnessed wild Elk meandering through the town, as nonchalant and commonplace as human residents shopping on the main drag.
The whirlwind tour continued as we chugged on toward Alberta for a quick stop in Edmonton, then onward toward Winnipeg for a 2 hour 45 minute brief tour featuring The Forks, Louis Riels grave, and Assiniboine Park. Our rail journey completed in Toronto where we disembarked to discover some of Canadas more historical sites and exciting cultural treasures. We continued by short train trip and motor home up toward Ottawa, saw the famous Rideau Canal and the Parliament buildings and walked across the bridge into Quebec where we boarded a taxi into Quebec City to witness the old walled city, taste French Onion Soup and try out our French. Montreal took the cake with visits to the field where Canada fought off US control, the historic and gorgeous Château Ramezay. Our trip then took us south to the Maritimes: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.). We tasted freshly caught Canadian lobster and fishing villages, stood on the rocks at Peggys Cove, and visited the Maritime museum, which told of Canadas part in rescuing survivors from the Titanic and other ship wrecks.
We then took a ferry ride to Newfoundland where some of the first Canadian settlers were dropped off and learned to survive the harsh coastal Atlantic conditions with the help of Native Canadians. But the pinnacle of this part of the trip would be a visit to see the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse in Newfoundland which was a turning point in my young life. My father held me tight in his arms to keep the Gail force winds from sweeping my small frame off the jagged cliffs and into the cold Atlantic sea. I distinctly remember the wind tossing my hair across my eyes as I squinted in the sun toward the edge of the cliff which dropped hazardously into the ocean.
As I stood wide-eyed looking out over the Atlantic on the edge of Canada where it all began, I felt my heart shift. No longer was I interested in just sitting down and watching the world go by. I wanted to get out there. I wanted to see the world we lived in with my own eyes. At the end of our cross-country journey I felt a stirring inside me; I stepped out of myself. I became enraptured by travel, no longer interested in staying home and solely dreaming from the walls of my bedroom. A shy little girl from the West Coast saw Canada stretch out before her and discovered the world was much larger than anticipated, and much more beautiful. Later that day I watched my incorrigible older brother swim through freezing waters for a photo on a small piece of iceberg near the shore; he nearly caught pneumonia but still says it was worth it. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, the love of travel comes from simply moving. Travel isnt always about going somewhere, rather it is about seeing, it is about moving beyond ourselves. Travel by land is the truest way to experience this movement and this love.
Travel by air is sometimes necessary and practical but for the romantics and dreamers, and those curious adventure seeking travellers among us, train travel is still the best way to see Canada. I may be biased as train travel is in my blood, but I wouldnt have it any other way.
Peter Richards is a Digital Marketing Manager at Tropical Sky.