Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 23, 2017

© Gary Crallé

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The great Canadian rail adventure

Celebrate our big 150 on a train trip from coast to coast

Trains have always been magical. They can take you far, far away from life’s daily concerns. Cocooned in a timeless capsule, passengers glide effortlessly through panoramic landscapes, changeable weather and childhood dreams. Luxury trains are in a class of their own, land cruises that offer one of life’s great escapes.

There are only a handful of places on earth where this experience can be enjoyed and Canada, celebrating its 150th birthday this year, is among them — reason enough to explore the country that built a railway to build the country.

Take one part adventure, add a whiff of nostalgia, mix with anticipation, gently fold in a dollop of romance and another of mystery, blend thoroughly with a colourful history, place amid picturesque scenery. Adjust seasons to taste and let the good times roll.

The track that binds

It’s remarkable that eastern and western territories came together somewhat tenuously as one country bound by two skeletal sinews of steel stretching 6000 kilometres from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As the CPR website proudly states, “the Canadian Pacific Railway was formed to physically unite Canada and Canadians from coast to coast.” That was accomplished November 7, 1885 when the last spike was hammered into place at Craigellachie, BC by railroad financier Donald Alexander Smith, co-founder of the CPR and president of the Bank of Montreal.

Since the mid 1970s, the great Canadian coast-to-coast train trip has been conducted by VIA Rail, a Crown corporation with a mandate to provide intercity passenger service. The full journey incorporates three segments: The Ocean train runs from Halifax to Montreal, The Corridor connects to Toronto, and The Canadian/Le Canadien runs west to Vancouver. East to west or west to east, the pleasure’s the same.

In 2010, my wife, Lis, and I made a lengthy trip west from Toronto that began with The Canadian to Vancouver and continued with a BC ferry boat north through the Haida Gwai inland passage islands. For the next leg, we boarded The Skeena train from Prince Rupert to Jasper, Alberta, and then headed back east to Toronto on The Canadian once again. VIA’s accordion-style tickets were almost as long as the train. With lengthy stopovers along the way, the 41-day odyssey covered a total distance of 11,779 kilometres. What a trip!

CPR’s William Cornelius Van Horne who said, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,” initiated the tradition of luxury rail travel in Canada in the late 19th century. He then followed up with a series of grand hotels including the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, Alberta’s Banff Springs and The Empress in Victoria.

Three ways to do it

There are three basic comfort levels on a VIA Rail trip. Prestige offers a private cabin with bed, chairs, wash basin, toilet and shower. Sleeper gives you a berth (bed) and access to public showers and toilets. Prestige and Sleeper classes include meals. Economy provides a seat for both day use and sleeping.

Trips include mini presentations such as wine tastings, talks about the region and performances by solo musicians. Of course, never-ending scenery and conversation with fellow travellers are always available at no additional charge. Onboard dress code is casual, which can mean anything from hiking boots and jeans to jackets, trousers and skirts.

Passengers can opt for a custom-made itinerary, which includes hotels and local guided tours at several destination stops. Or make your own land arrangements, with layovers wherever your fancy takes you. We chose the latter and, glad to say, it worked perfectly, giving us experiences that were unique, unexpected and most of all, fun.

In the mood to party big time? VIA’s Commemorative Bundle to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday is a lux 23-day package that includes train, hotels, tours and extras such as a Canada by Train book, a Tim Horton’s gift card (eh!) and a 1⁄2 bottle of Veuve Clicquot. There are two-day stopovers in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, and a three-dayer in Halifax. Prices start at $12,396 per person (freshtrackscanada.com/vacation/pancanadian-coast-to-coast).

All VIA trains offer Internet service and onboard entertainment on your own electronic device, which includes news, TV shows and movies. Carry-on luggage of up to 11.4 kilograms and an additional bag of up to 15 kilograms are free of charge.

Although our trip was done seven years ago, everything mentioned, unless otherwise noted, has stood the test of time and is currently available. Would we do it again? Just two words: “All aboard!”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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