Those of you who follow me on Instagram or on Twitter will know that the last year was an insanely busy one, and on the heels of that, it’s been a busy summer too with a lot of travel involved. It’s how I like to spend my time off – I’m definitely not someone who could head to the beach for weeks on end just “relaxing” – I always feel I need to be busy and “doing things”. For me, the simple fact of not teaching for 2 months (and often, being a student during my own holidays) is vacation enough. As they say, a change is as good as a holiday. But every now and then, a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience comes along that makes you see things differently. My recent trip from Toronto to Vancouver aboard the VIA Rail Canadian train (3 days, 4 nights) as a guest of VIA Rail is one of those experiences and has made me rethink my definition of “relaxing”.
A trip on the Canadian isn’t just any old train trip though. Especially if you are fortunate enough to travel in a Sleeper Plus cabin (I had a double cabin all to myself – complete luxury!). You get a real (bunk) bed to stretch out in and watch the world go by (and the sun rise and set if you happen to be in your bed at those times)
In the cabins, you also have your own private toilet room and sink as well as access to a shower you only share with a handful of people. Three meals a day are also included in the cost of your ticket.
On board the Canadian you’re well taken care of. There is bar service (at an extra cost) every day from 11am in the lounge/ “Dome” cars (lounges on the lower level and panoramic sections on the upper level) and throughout the day, your “Activity Car” attendant will provide some commentary on the passing scenery/ places of note and sometimes even entertainment (that would be Walter, our “Activity Guy” from Toronto to Winnipeg!). At certain stations, upon departure, Canadian sparkling wine is served – a nice icebreaker, considering you will spend multiple days (and meal times) with your fellow passengers.
You basically don’t have a care in the world on board the Canadian and it’s interesting to be a “doer” in an environment like that. I was a little concerned to be honest that I might be bored (for a large part of the journey there is no cell phone signal and there is no Wifi on the train at all). What would I do? It’s been months since I read a book (“I don’t have time”) so even though I loaded up my Kindle, I was actually planning on spending my days editing photos and writing articles. Yay – three days’ uninterrupted “me time” and since I wasn’t travelling with anyone, I might even be able to just get on with my work. Right?
By Day 2 after we’d stopped for a few hours in Winnipeg, I had ditched my laptop, magazines and iPad. Just carried my notebook, phone and camera. I stopped walking up and down the train multiple times a day. Instead, I sat in the Dome car and watched the world go by. And chatted with my fellow “Dining Car B” passengers – there are 2 dining cars on the train and you eat in the one closest to your cabin or berth. Hence, you spend a lot of time with the same people. The majority of folks in my dining car were headed all the way to Vancouver, though a handful left us in Winnipeg, Edmonton or Jasper and a fair number of people joined the train for the last part of the trip from Jasper to Vancouver.
I’m not quite sure what I expected of the scenery but I know I wasn’t expecting it to be so captivating. From the seemingly endless lakes and pine trees across the seemingly never-ending province of Ontario (we all kept checking the map on the first day to discover that we were, in fact, still in Ontario!) to the sunflowers and canola fields of the Prairies to the majestic beauty of the Rockies, the scenery was certainly diverse. And you couldn’t stop looking at it. That might sound obvious to some (i.e. you’re on a scenic train ride, of course you would look at the scenery) but for someone who tends to view travel as simply a way of getting from point A to point B, this was eye opening (literally and figuratively speaking). As I tell my students when we embark on projects (or even when we are making something in cooking club), “it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important.” And that couldn’t be more true on board the Canadian.
As someone who had completely no idea what time it was for 90% of the trip (suffering jetlag and travelling across three time zones, including one that doesn’t observe daylight savings doesn’t make for an ideal scenario in terms of knowing what time it is!), I relied on the position of the sun and the meal time announcements to plan my day.
There are three seatings at lunch and dinner and and I tried them all so I could experience the difference in both the crowd eating at each seating (people with kids tended to eat early, the “bar crowd” later) and for my troubles was variously treated to spectacular sunrise and gorgeous sunset views as well as convivial conversation once the sun had set and it was pitch black outside the train.
At times I had to remind myself to take photos, it was that relaxing. Of course there’s the added challenge of being on a moving train (and there’s no camera setting to account for that!) and the fact that most of my pictures completely do not do the scenery justice at all. More often than I thought I would, I set my camera down and just enjoyed the scenery in the moment. I mean, when is the last time I did that?
Approaching Jasper the scenery was SO gorgeous that I wanted pictures but even the so-called “Panorama car” presented photographic challenges – reflective, curved glass and a band of darker glass across the top of the windows, presumably to provide some shade – and eventually I just set my camera down and sat down to preserve the memory in my head, not on my memory card.
Along the way, I read three (count ‘em!) trashy novels, and finished a pile of magazines I had been lugging around with me since the beginning of August in France. I chatted with my fellow passengers. I looked out the window. I sampled the wines and beers (all Canadian) on offer. I napped. I relaxed. All the while “doing nothing”. A first for me!
Being on the train definitely feels like you’re suspended in time. The trains shuffles along on its own timetable – actually on the timetable dictated by CN, who own the rails, hence, each time a freight train is passing the Canadian has to stop. Which is a lot of times in a 3 day journey. This was frustrating at first but as the journey progressed, we all looked on those “stopped” times as chances to get that photo out the other side of the train. Or to simply sit and ponder what on earth could be in all those freight cars. You do a lot of thinking on the Canadian.
It was with a tinge of sadness that I arrived in Vancouver on the morning of the 4th day (early, even because it turns out VIA Rail pads out the schedule to account for all the lost time waiting for freight trains). Back to real time. Back to cooking and cleaning up for myself. Back to not really being justified in taking a nap every afternoon. Definitely a case of “back to reality”.
For me, however, this journey opened my eyes to a few things. Firstly, I love long-haul train travel (in a cabin!). Secondly, I am capable of doing nothing for more days in a row than I realised. Thirdly, Canada is an insanely large and beautiful country. I know, it looks big on the map but until you’ve done this journey (and in fact, you could take VIA across the country all the way from Halifax if you so chose – now THAT’S a long trip!) you can’t imagine quite HOW big it is and how beautiful and diverse the landscape is.
The VIA Rail Canadian: it’s a different way to travel, focusing on the journey, not the destination, and I think I like it!
Disclosure: My trip on the VIA Rail Canadian, including transportation, accommodation and all meals, was sponsored by VIA Rail. I was not required to write about this trip and was not compensated for doing so. All opinions are my own.