It is two nights and three days of your life that will stay in your mind forever. It is known, appropriately, as one of the world’s greatest train adventures. ‘The Canadian’ is VIA Rail’s Vancouver-Winnipeg year-round sleeper service that is part of the country’s transcontinental service (it continues on to Toronto). For any train buff, or adventurous traveller, it’s hard to find a better way to immerse yourself in some of Canada’s iconic landscapes while travelling.
Why The Canadian is an icon
On this trans-wonderland journey, you will see the rugged ramparts of the Rocky Mountains out of your window, the valleys and rivers of Canada’s interior rolling by, and then the vastness of Canada’s big-sky prairie country before you reach Winnipeg, Manitoba’s vibrant and dynamic capital, nestled at the junction of two mighty rivers. Then, if you wish, you can jump on the Manitoba-Churchill train, to rendezvous with polar bears, beluga whales and the magical Northern Lights. Combining what is still regarded as one of the finest ways to travel – by rail – with the opportunity to explore beautiful Winnipeg, and then travel north to the Arctic wilderness and its wonders, has no equal. This is how you do it…
A class act
Of course, it’s about the journey, but the train itself is brilliant, too. Each car (except the dining and sleeping cars) features an expansive dome-glassed upper level viewing area that provides an expansive view of your surrounds. (All cars now have upgraded aircon filtration, too.)
There are three ticket classes – Economy, Sleeper Plus and Prestige (these last two very popular with Aussie travellers; read on to see why) – with the Sleeper Plus class including a private cabin (for one or two; this class also has the ability to join two cabins together to form a four-person/family cabin with two washrooms) and all meals, while Prestige includes a private cabin for two and your own concierge (plus meals and alcohol). Both of these classes allow you access to the Skyline Activity car (with its upper dome or lower activity area) and the Prestige Park Car’s bar and lounge (plus beautiful upper dome seating area), as well as the Dining car, where you will go for your meals. Each car – regardless of class – offers great views; we can’t think of much better than waking up to a snow-draped landscape rolling past your cabin window, which makes the autumn/winter season a definite favourite with travellers. The benefit of being free to either relax in your own cabin, or explore the train, on top of all these aforementioned highlights, make these two classes an absolute must.
For those who opt for the top-tier Prestige class, you will be seriously indulged. From the spacious and luxurious cabin (it is 50 per cent larger than Sleeper Plus and caters for two passengers, with an amazing full bathroom), access to the business lounge pre-boarding and aforementioned personal concierge, to priority boarding, Skyline, Park (with reserved seats in the upper dome of this car), and Dining cars access (with an option for reserved seats in the Dining, plus five-course gourmet meals, with all alcohol included), and even a flatscreen TV in your cabin (although we challenge you to watch that too much when there’s that natural spectacle outside your window), it’s a brilliant interpretation of ‘luxury with adventure’. Both Prestige and Sleeper Plus have unlimited tea/coffee/juice/snacks available in the Skyline and Prestige Park lounge.
Sleeper Plus (with business lounge access, priority boarding and access to Skyline, Park and Dining cars) means you only miss out on the in-cabin shower (Sleeper Plus passengers have exclusive access to the showers in their car, however), and Prestige’s five-course meal option (Sleeper Plus get a three-course option, with identical entrée, mains and dessert as Prestige), plus you have to pay for on-board alcohol. And, unlike Prestige, you don’t have access to reserved seating in other cars.
The usual mental picture of ‘Economy’ for travellers is turned on its head for those aboard The Canadian, thanks to comfortable seats that offer plenty of recline and – yes! – loads of leg room. It is, of course the most cost-effective way to travel as well, and you still get those cracking views out the window (and there is an upper seating area with dome windows), plus access to meals and drinks (at your own cost) in the café service car. Economy passengers don’t miss out on even more expansive views, either; there is a separate Skyline car for economy passengers as well.
Enrichment in motion
There’s plenty of time on The Canadian’s route from Vancouver to Winnipeg to not only be captivated by the spectacle of the ever-changing landscape the train rolls through, but also to enjoy good company, or simply chill out and relax by reading, meeting your fellow travel mates, making sure you get off at each stop and check out the local highlight where possible, or even keep a journal of the trip highlights. This is the beauty of train travel – and something so well encapsulated by The Canadian. The train’s excellent Park and Skyline cars, with their upper-level glass dome windows/roof, are a brilliant option for photo- and videographers who wish to document their trip through the various landscapes, and that immense glass roof provides a near open-air experience, with plenty of natural light that makes you feel like you really are a part of the country you’re travelling through.
The different stops along The Canadian’s route also allow for some leg-stretching/viewing time, and with iconic highlights, such as the towering mountains surrounding Jasper, in Alberta (make the most of the one-hour stop here to explore this famous and welcoming town), not to mention the end-point of Winnipeg, in the middle of a prairie sea, to view along the way, it’s a no-brainer to make the most of your out-of-train time at these stops.
If you’re travelling as a family, with young kids, you’ll be surprised just how easily said young folk are kept occupied, exploring the different cars, checking out the gobsmacking scenery rolling by, enjoying boardgames or even keeping their own diaries. If there’s one thing this train journey does, it is that it makes you revert back to the ‘simpler’ more engaging things in life, where people, places and high levels of fun are the priority. This doesn’t mean there’s no ‘connection’ to modern life; Wi-Fi is available at the stations along this route, and if you really need to check emails, etc., you can do so when time permits at these stops. And, if your little’uns need a bit of downtime from all that, they can watch a pre-trip downloaded film or TV show on a tablet (or in their cabin on the TV), before getting them to bed with the promise of another morning looking out their cabin window at even more new and beautiful scenery.
There’s no such thing as the last station
At the end of three days – at journey’s end – The Canadian has taken you through a microcosm of some of Canada’s most spectacular regions. From leaving the west coast hub of Vancouver, through the rainforests of British Columbia, between the iconic spires of Alberta’s wild Rocky Mountains, and past numerous lakes rivers on your way to the vastness of prairie country and then the culturally rich city that is Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital, you’ve seen some of the best this spectacle-filled country has to offer – and in a relaxing, comfortable, well-fed and unique way, aboard this famous train.
You’ll leave The Canadian well relaxed, and most memorably, you’ll leave with far more knowledge of the regions you’ve just traversed than if you flew or drove, thanks to that often hard to describe feeling of immersion that rail travel provides. Your own thoughts, your photos, your words written in your journal, and the extra knowledge provided by the VIA Rail staff, all combine to ensure that The Canadian is far, far more than ‘just a train trip’.
Once more, with feeling!
There’s no doubt Winnipeg is a fitting end-point for our The Canadian journey. But this does not mean the adventure has finished; a few days of exploring Winnipeg’s many highlights is an absolute must, but then, for those keen for more, you can add on another unique VIA Rail experience: the rail journey to northern Manitoba’s wild heart of Churchill.
Churchill is the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ and provides a unique chance to see them up close, in a tundra vehicle or when staying in a wilderness lodge. The Canadian autumn and summer are popular times to tackle this adventure. The beautiful northern summer also means that not only are polar bears still active, but the character-filled beluga whales (affectionately known as the canaries of the sea) are around. Paddling a kayak or SUP on the Churchill River Estuary provides the opportunity to view these majestic marine mammals. Winter offers the chance to view the amazing Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), as well.
All you need to know for The Canadian escape
Winnipeg is excellent and definitely worth a few days’ stopover. See www.travelmanitoba.com/places/winnipeg for all info.
Churchill Is where it’s at for wildlife and the northern lights. See www.travelmanitoba.com/places/churchill