May 28-31, 2010: Back on the train for the three night trek to Toronto. My first thought was to call this piece Cruising Canada, on the grounds that there were some similarities between a long distance train and a cruise ship. You are, after all, confined on a means of transport with a lot of other people. You sleep in a small cabin (assuming you aren’t toughing it out in coach class). You periodically arrive at a stop for a too brief visit. And meals are an important social as well as gastronomic event.
But it was just a passing conceit. For starters, you have something to look at other than water. I quickly get bored on boats, but I was never bored on the Canadian, even when we were crossing the prairies. Then there was no casino, no floor shows, no skeet shooting – although there was a wine tasting and a couple of films.
I was more interested in how it compared to Amtrak’s California Zephyr. For starters, my roomette, although nearly the same size, was designed as a single, and included a sink and toilet. The showers and bathrooms were similar, and the water was nice and hot. But the dome cars felt more cramped, and threw worse reflections on my photos. Then the Canadian was much more clearly a tourist train, carrying a number of tour groups.
Where the Canadian clearly scored was with the quality of the food. Amtrak had served adequate breakfasts and lunches, and good dinners, but Via Rail served good breakfasts and lunches and very good dinners. The last night the rack of lamb was unbelievable for a meal prepared on a swaying train: perfectly cooked and with a delicious sauce. The cheesecake with raspberry swirls was so good I ate it three days running. One could gain weight…
In general I found the passengers more reserved than those on the American train, aside from one hard-drinking and partying British tour group. I ran into some of them outside the Fort Garry Hotel when we stopped for a couple of hours in Winnepeg, and was glad to join them in the bar. I also ate dinner a couple of times with two interesting women using the train as transport between Jasper and Montreal.
About dinner… Four delicious courses take a while to serve and eat. Unlike Amtrak, which staggered meal times, Via Rail seated the whole dining car at the same time. With three seatings that gave a choice of 5:00, 7:00 and 9:00. With most people wanting 7:00, the staff rotated the times. Word of advice: when you board at Jasper, join the queue that will form inside the station. It’s the line for dinner reservations…
Still, I was riding the train for the scenery, the food was an unexpected bonus. I had had the best of the mountains between Vancouver and Jasper, and the prairies did go on for rather a long time, but I was surprised by how interesting I found the Canadian Shield. We rolled for mile after mile through a stern, northern land of evergreens, water and grey granite outcroppings, empty but beautiful. High clouds were reflected in flat, blue lakes, and the horizon stretched far into the distance. A great setting for stories of trolls and dwarves and Scandinavian princesses with long blond hair.