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North America

Canada, All Aboard!

Jonathan van Bilsen



February 5, 2012

Canada, All Aboard!

The conductor yelled "All aboard", and the train slowly began to chug away from the Vancouver Station. For many years I had wondered what travel on Canada's famous Rocky Mountaineer would be like and finally, last fall, I had an opportunity to experience it. The Mountaineer is only a two day journey, but I combined it with Via’s ‘The Canadian’ and spent two weeks exploring a side of Canada I had never experienced.

My adventure began with a three day stay in Vancouver and of course a one day trek to Victoria. I have been to B.C.’s capital numerous times, but am still in awe by the scenery from the ferry. In Vancouver I spent a day trekking up Grouse Mountain and struggling to cross the Capilano suspension bridge. 

It was an early morning start to board the Mountaineer. Transportation from the hotel was on time and breakfast was served on board and. It is important to note there are two distinct levels of service: Red Leaf and Gold Leaf and although the view outside the train is the same, the level of service is quite different... as is the price. The two day journey to Jasper (per person) is about $800 for Red Leaf and $1500 for Gold. It is a fair amount of money, but a small price to pay for being pampered beyond your wildest dreams for two solid days.

Most people I spoke to were surprised to learn you do not sleep on board the train. Instead you are whisked to one of two superior hotels in Kamloops, depending on your class of service. 

Breakfast on board was excellent. Eggs cooked any style, several types of meat, crisply cooked potatoes and of course a chilled glass of mimosa. All of this while sitting in comfortable seats in a dome car, looking at views in every direction. The Red Leaf service offers prepackaged meals and no domed viewing car, but the food is acceptable and the service is second to none.

As a photographer I preferred the windows in the Red Leaf cars, as they were flat and clean. Most of the photos I took from the Gold coach were hindered by the reflection from the curved glass (I spent much of the time on platforms between cars).

Another big difference between the levels of service is the luggage restrictions. In Red Leaf you are allowed only one carry-on, which you must take to your hotel (the remainder of your luggage stays on a separate car). The Gold Leaf passengers have all their suitcases delivered to their hotel. 

Many people have seen the Rockies, albeit in most cases from automobiles and RV's. I found a distinct difference between the views from the train and those I have seen many times from the road. The pristine remoteness is evident. There are few roads, even fewer buildings and seldom do you see people. Every turn offers an unimaginable postcard view.

After a few days in Jasper I continued my journey aboard Via Rail's 'The Canadian'. Expecting a lesser level of service than I experienced on the Rocky Mountaineer, I was pleasantly surprised at what I considered to be equal to the Mountaineer’s Gold service, although alcohol was extra. The only thing missing were the views. Once you leave Edmonton the countryside becomes fairly flat and, as spectacular as the Prairies are, they are not the Rocky Mountains.

If you have the opportunity to take ‘The Canadian’ there are a few things you need to know. There are three types of accommodation (yes, you sleep on the train). I would recommend you stay away from the berths and sleeper seats, instead opting for a cabin. The berths, although comfortable, are nothing more than seats flattened with a curtain to separate you from the aisle. The sleeper seats are great for students or commuters, but offer no privacy. Expect to pay about $1600 for a cabin.

I have slept on trains in Egypt and Europe, and found ‘The Canadian’ to be much superior.  There were several things I learned the hard way. During dinner the bed in my cabin was lowered and it takes up most of the room. This was not a problem, except it rests on the toilet, which means once the bed is down you cross your legs.

The cuisine was mouthwatering. Steaks and vegetables were cooked to perfection and a good selection of vintages made dining a memorable experience. Conversations with newfound friends passed the time and a nightcap (or two) in the dome car was enjoyable. It was late and I was tired and it was only moments until the gentle rocking of the train lulled me into a deep sleep.

My shock came the next morning. I awoke to bright sunlight and realized I had forgotten to lower the window shade (it was, after all, pitch black outside when I went to sleep). Through sleepy eyes I looked out the window (which was at the same level as the bed), only to realize we were pulling into the Saskatoon station. I scrambled to find the shade and clumsily tried to lower it as passengers on the platform looked on laughing. Needless to say I avoided most people that morning.

The train is divided into two or three sleeper cars, a dome car and a dining car. Six or seven such sections make up the entire train, but passengers are limited to their own areas. Each sleeping car has one shower. I made sure I was the first one to use it each morning, even though it is cleaned thoroughly after each use.

There is a lot to be said for sitting at linen-covered tables, enjoying a made to order breakfast, while a moose swims by in an untouched lake. The trip gives you an appreciation for the size of this great country of ours. I have often flown from one end of Canada to another, but the train adds a different perspective.

The world offers fantastic locales and fortunately, many of them are in Canada. Several British passengers, whom I met en route, summed it up nicely. “It was a trip of a lifetime.”

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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