So you want to cross Canada, eh?
You could take a plane, but that's not exactly fun -- especially given the frequency of delays at Toronto International. You could take a car and drive on the Trans-Canada highway, but that is a serious commitment and a seriously long road. You could even take a boat, but the Northwest Passage is notoriously hard to maneuver.
I propose a simple solution: Take the train. VIA Rail Canada has a number of lines throughout the country, but it's signature route crosses the country from Toronto to Vancouver.
Here's why it's all the fun without the fuss.
5) The Beautiful Scenery:
In the States, particularly for those of us who grew up in the south, there's a belief that Canada is a cold, snowy land, full of polar bears and big-eyed baby seals. But, anyone really familiar with our neighbor to the north knows that the Canadian landscape is actually quite diverse -- prairie plains, boreal forests, snow-capped mountains, temperate rain forests, maybe an abandoned town or two. The domed-windows of the train's observation cars offer great vantage points for checking out the scenery, especially when heading deep into forests and mountains where cars can't go.
4) The Food's Pretty Good:
When considering travel and food, a couple things come to mind: sad, shrink-wrapped airplane food and greasy, paper-wrapped fast food being among them. The beauty of the train is that unlike on a plane -- and probably most fast food outlets -- there is actual cooking going on in the kitchen. According to VIA rail chef Jeff Short, pre-prepared meals would take up way too much space in the tiny kitchen. VIA recently revamped its dining car menus (as did American counterpart Amtrak), incorporating local tastes like Canadian lake trout, Saskatoon berries and, of course, maple sugar. Because the food is actually cooked to order, those with special diets and allergies can be accommodated. Try that at the drive through.
3) The Friendly People:
The VIA staff is incredibly friendly, but that's to be expected considering they're getting paid. I'm talking here about fellow passengers -- there seems to be something about having freedom to roam about while traveling that makes people more pleasant. On board, the lounges, dining rooms and viewing cars become places where passengers of all stripes mingle to sip coffee, swap travel stories and brush up on that high school French. That, or give the dirt on what the best thing is on the menu that day. (It was no coincidence that on my train nearly everyone had an omelette on their plate.) Taking part in this sort of mobile community makes the time pass much more quickly: I thought my 27-hour ride was much less painless than my 5-hour flight to get the train. Sorry, Air Canada.
2) Kicking Back:
Sure, it might take longer to travel by train than by car, but just think about all those hours that can be spent relaxing with a good book or sipping an ice cold beer instead of willing yourself not to fall asleep as you drive the seemingly endless Canadian prairie, as my new friend from the train pointed out. It's not just all sitting around and staring out windows, either. The staff does its best to keep passengers busy with games, contests, movies and even wine tastings. Though, if you're really into the license plate game, this might not be the way to go.
1) Polar Bears:
All of Canada may not be a tundra, but some of it is and that means that lucky travelers may get to see polar bears. Get off the Canadian in Winnipeg and hop the two-day line north to Churchill, which boasts no roads. (There is an airport, but it's only serviced by two regional airlines.) Once in the "polar bear capital of the world," there are excursions to visit the cute fuzzies in their natural habitats.
You can kayak with beluga whales as well.
A twilight departure from Vancouver's Pacific Central Station
Morning in the foothills
Abandoned along the tracks
Like going through a tunnel of trees
Passing Pyramid Falls
In the dining car: seared shrimp and scallop skewers on salad with Saskatoon berries and wild rice
Ravioli with grilled chicken breast and basil-blended ricotta, mozzarella and asiago cheese, roasted garlic and rosemary served in duck ragout
A cloudy Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies
Looking out from the upper-level of a lounge car
Pit-stop in Jasper
Coming out of the Rockies and heading towards the plains