TORONTO — It was a bucket list trip, but not in the way you might think.
The Via Rail train journey across Canada was not about my do-before-dying list but about the Earth’s, about seeing the natural wonders before they’re swallowed up, burned up or chewed up by climate change or humans.
Now that that grim part is out of the way, here’s the fun bit: about 3,000 miles, five days and four nights in May, from Toronto to Vancouver, aboard the Canadian.
I traveled with Lisa, a good friend from high school. How good? We ironed each other’s hair back when that was Joni Mitchell-chic, and nothing says “trust” like letting someone get inches from your face with a searing-hot iron.
Anyone who grows up in the jet age must feel some yearning for the age of rail; mine was from stories of Sherlock Holmes shuttling across England in pursuit of malefactors and from an Irving Wallace article about the history of the fabulous Orient Express in an anthology called “The Sunday Gentleman.” I’d taken the TGV train from Paris on a few short-haul trips, but its charm was incidental to speed and working toilets.
I suppose in my heart of hearts, I really wanted “Murder on the Orient Express” with a mustachioed detective but without the bloodshed. Maybe that’s a different travel package.
Those romance-novel Gordon Lightfoot songs about riding the rails came back to me when I realized this was a working train, not a tourism-only train.
Canada is the second-biggest country in the world, after Russia, and some Canadians aboard were using the train as a speedy bus to commute from Manitoba to Alberta, the Canadian version of what coastal Americans call flyover states.
In the abstract, I knew this would be an unplugged journey. I wasn’t just prepared to go Wi-Fi-free; I welcomed it. If there are some among you who delude yourselves every time you say, “Oh, my phone? I can take it or leave it,” this is your 12-step test. It was liberating and challenging.
Several times a day, we — the people traveling in my car — pooled into a mind-hive collective to figure out the answer to a bit of trivia that had popped up: Who was that actor in that movie? How does that song go? Who said that thing about, you know, that thing?
Lisa and I had chosen to travel first class, called prestige class because really, who’ll need a 401(k) anyway, with the Earth burning and melting? First class on the Canadian means staterooms — I love that word — with en suite bathrooms, huge windows, daytime sofas and a TV that never seemed to work, but who cared? There was so much to see, so much to do — especially nothing at all.
For most of the day, first-class travelers had the Skyline car to ourselves. It’s the windowed car at the very back of the train, right next to a first-class bar and with a curved staircase up to the glass-surround observation car.
Sitting there with a mimosa in hand — it was cocktail hour at almost any hour, if you wished — was the best way to see the lakes, waterfalls, forests and slow approach of the trip’s pièce de résistance, Mt. Robson and the Canadian Rockies.
One staff member told me this was the train’s first westbound trip on a new schedule that took us through the Rockies in daylight. It sounded nutty that a train trip that featured the Rockies on virtually every piece of promotional material I saw would take passengers through the main attraction in the dark, so if this was new, it was about time.
We were aboard the train on May 10, which was the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike, joining the United States’ first transcontinental railroad tracks in Promontory, Utah. First-class passengers have their own concierge aboard the train, and concierge Kevin and I concocted a Golden Spike cocktail to commemorate the event. I recommend that Via Rail Canada add it to its railroad-theme cocktail menu; just send me $5,000 and a self-addressed envelope and I will share the recipe with you.
Many of the first-class passengers were aboard for the duration. Some changed trains to take the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury train that wends its way north through the Rockies. A few people stayed with us: an Arizona couple — the wife turned out to be the poker partner of the mother of a Times colleague; a San Diego couple who’d taken the Art Deco Blue Train across South Africa; two young newlyweds who understandably were barely in evidence; and Richard and Heather.
The last pair were traveling to a needlework conference in Vancouver, where they would also see their son. Heather had farsightedly brought two sets of needlework with her: one to do on the smooth part of the trip, the other when the going got bumpier. Richard entertained us with “The Black Fly Song,” an unofficial Canadian anthem about Canada’s unofficial national pest.
We passed the time with amusing banter that strangers engage in. We read books. Lisa and I played games of no-scorekeeping Scrabble just to be able to put down the most outré words we could think up.
I was never bored. The concierges were amused at how Lisa and I gawped and stared as the landscape out of Toronto unfurled; for two women from Arizona and California, all that water! Pools of it, rivulets of it, lapping lakes and freshets of it, in a green and timbered landscape — our eyes were always thirsty for the sight of it.
Concierge Kevin had worked aboard the train for at least a dozen years, and even the hours and hours of dry wheatlands stirred him. One night I wandered out to the bar area, and there he was, at a window, gazing into the undifferentiated darkness. He thought he was alone, and I heard him say, with no irony in his voice, “Oh, the prairies.”
It was Kevin who knew where we’d see the nests of bald eagles and ospreys. Now and then, the news would ripple back from the locomotive: “family of five bears, ahead on the left! Moose up on the right!” And from the dining car to the observation cars, passengers swarmed left or right. If we’d been a ship, we might have capsized.
The bears knew to come when the train stopped in some forest clearing to get treats tossed by the crew. Deer knew to graze alongside the tracks after the eastbound wheat-laden trains had passed, scattering fodder behind them. It was wondrous, but a little sad too, that this iron thread through the country had changed their ways.
I wish the stops had been longer, but that would have meant a different and considerably longer trip. I wish we’d been in Winnipeg long enough to visit Canada’s new human rights museum. The leg-stretching pause I did like was a whistle-stop prairie town where Richard and I hurried to the closest building, a hardware store, where many of the shelves were devoted to ways to exterminate varmints such as the black fly and one to a line of car waxes and polishes named “California.”
The travel package I bought included hotel stays for two nights in Vancouver and Toronto. May was the ideal blooming season in each — daffodils and tulips in Toronto, lilacs and roses in Vancouver. The gardens perfectly bookended the wild landscape.
In Toronto, I had one of the best meals I have ever had, at David Chang’s Momofuku Kojin restaurant. My vegetarian meal was like some kitchen sorcerer’s handiwork; somewhere in there was a corn flatbread like manna and mushrooms that certainly tasted magical to me.
From LAX, Air Canada, American and Westjet offer nonstop service to Toronto, and American, United, Delta, Westjet and Air Canada offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $352, including taxes and fees.
Via Rail Canada offers three classes of transcontinental service: economy, sleeper plus and prestige. Prestige class is priced per shared cabin for two people.
Many September dates for Prestige class from Toronto to Vancouver are sold out; for available August trips, the rate is $10,640, not including taxes or discounts. The fare includes two nights’ hotel stay in Toronto and Vancouver, as well as onboard meals and other amenities.
That brings me to the food on the train, served on white napery in two seatings in a dining car ornamented with tall etched-glass panels of Canadian birds. Here all the passengers mingled. I found myself sitting variously with an American woman living in Costa Rica, a woman from Turkey and her husband from Glasgow, Scotland, and a man with metallic blue nail polish so coruscating that that’s all I can describe about him.
They served Canadian wines, mostly from British Columbia, some from Ontario, and a few sensational Canadian treats, including Saskatoon berries with brie and maple-cured salmon bites that were so well received that fistfights might have broken out in first class if there hadn’t been enough to go around.
As a vegetarian, though, I was hoping for a bit more imagination or perhaps just an understanding of the difference between vegetarian and vegan. The recurring vegan hash got a little wearisome, although I understand that it could be expensive preparing separate vegetarian and vegan dishes. As a protein fallback, there were always warm nuts in the bar, part of a daylong panoply of food and drink.
After five ta-pocketa-pocketa days and four cradle-swaying nights across a continent, the second-hardest part of the journey was recovering my land legs in Vancouver. The hardest part was leaving the Canadian altogether.