Via Rail's Silver and Blue
Photo by Toby Saltzman

Romancing the Rails
In a world where everything moves at nanosecond-speed, a first-class train ride through the heart of Canada recaptures the romance, beauty and excitement of luxury travel.
By Toby Saltzman

Twilight in the Rockies lasts forever. My fellow passengers and I were seated in the sky-lit observation dome of the Canadian, VIA Rail's romantically refurbished train. It was winding its way along a mountainside track into the setting sun, following the curves of a deep river canyon that glimmered below like a surreally luminous ribbon. We were in the last car, with the rest of the train slithering before us like a sleek silver serpent gleaming in the sun's dying rays. As the evening wore on, snowy mountain caps sparkled white, turned pink, then faded to distant shadows in the retreating light. Then, as if by divine order, starry constellations burst out, brilliant diamonds on a velvety sky. Nuzzling closely, a honeymoon couple sighed. Someone gasped, "God, that's incredible." It was a lover's sunset, we were romancing the rails, and being seduced by the glorious landscape of Canada.

I had boarded the train in Toronto for my first sample of VIA's "Silver & Blue" first-class service on the Canadian, running right through to Vancouver. The railroad's brochure had lured me with its promise to restore a bygone era of caring service and elegant comfort. But the trip proved to be far more than just a cushy ride. Along the way, the train became my teacher, the landscape a lesson in geography. And I fell in love for the first time with a country I'd known all my life.

When the Canadian was first introduced in 1955, the streamlined stainless steel fleet was an innovative standard-setter. Its avant-garde art deco design boasted a high-rise, sky-lit dome for panoramic viewing, located inside a bullet-shaped caboose car that tapered at the rear. Today, thanks to a $204-million sprucing up, it has showers in the sleeping cars, a lounge car that presents movies and videos on Canadian history and geography, and appealing interior upholstery and carpeting.

I began my Canadian journey by rail with lunch in the dining car, as the train pulled out of Toronto's Union Station. "You must have solid train legs," I said to the waiter who neatly served seafood bisque and poured tea without dripping on the linen tablecloth. "Do you ever spill?" He laughed and replied: "Only once in 13 years…when the train stopped." He turned and jiggled his bum in a sideways gait, "You have to walk this way."

The view of the Rockies is terrific from
the Canadian's panoramic dome car

Photo by Toby Saltzman

I walked his way along the swaying narrow corridor, squeezing chest-to-chest past other passengers. When I entered the "bullet" lounge it was in full swing, alive with chatter in several languages. Unlike airplanes - which offer businesslike trips from A to B - trains offer something more personal. You get on and stay a while, and tend to socialize the way you might on an extended ocean cruise.

A young Japanese man who was admiring my camera struck up a conversation. "Do you speak Canadian?" he asked. Everyone laughed. We and other passengers compared notes. He was heading for a photo journey of Jasper National Park. A twentyish couple form Sweden was celebrating their honeymoon. Singles from England were "Riding the Canadian dream." A savvy German couple who'd taken many of the world's top luxury trains, including the Orient Express and the African Bleu, were adding the Canadian to their list. A psychologist from North Carolina and his mate had booked the biggest, most expensive drawing room on the train. "We often come to Canada, usually for short fishing or sailing trips in New Brunswick," he said. "But we've always wanted to do Canada in style…this is it, all the way." A couple of retirees, who'd made their fortunes in the sugar-refining business in Houston, said it best: "We couldn't resist. Canadians just do things a little nicer…keep the country cleaner…try harder." "Thank you," I said, beaming on behalf of my country.

We were nibbling complimentary hors d'oeuvres when the train started to cut through the rugged Cambrian Shield, Ontario's billion-year-old rocky base filled with crystal lakes and rushing rivers. My impressions of the scenes that flashed by will last a lifetime: towering pines on rock-island pedestals; red-winged blackbirds and blue jays hovering over wetland marshes fringed with wispy reeds; thick forests of silver birch trees, standing erect like magnificent white lightening rods.

Dinner in the dining car was by reservation. Some guests dressed casually, others wore suits, the psychologist and his mate wore formal attire. "We want to do it right," he said, "and live the golden age of romance on the train."

Via Rail makes tracks through
Canada's vast countryside

Photo by Toby Saltzman

After dinner I made my way to my bedroom. It was compact but not confining, equipped with a private bathroom, vanity, two chairs, and a fold-down bed with enough place for a desk or a meal from room service. I snuggled in bed, my head propped against the window, intending to watch the northern Ontario sunset. This plan was not to be. The soothing rhythm of the train quickly rocked me to sleep.

When I opened my eyes we were traveling through the small pulp-industry town of Sioux Lookout. The view whizzed by in split-second frames. Hearty black spruce forests bordered the Sioux. Later, in Minaki, a graceful young moose waded knee-deep in water, nudging his babies forward with his antlers.

Rob, my attendant, opened the window of the vestibule, the little compartment where one car joins another. He kept me company as I stood, camera ready, to shoot back toward the rear of the train and capture the speeding 'bullet" car on film. When I leaned forward, the train suddenly entered the black void of a mountain tunnel. I grabbed Rob's arm and held my breath. Outside again, the air was free and pure. Birch trees were flying by. Chubby bear cubs were frolicking on a rocky hill. I knew that moment I'd caught the feeling - the rush of pride that this indomitable land of jagged granite, clear waters, and wild creatures is mine.

Once in a while we passed simple wood-frame station houses that sat at the back doors of little towns and villages. No longer in use, they remain as proud testimonials of a time when the railroad built the nation and they were the sole links between communities.

Just before Winnipeg the landscape shifted. The craggy shield and lakeland gave way first to bushland, then to undulating prairie grainfields. Toward Saskatchewan, the prairies flattened into calm stretches of fertile land interrupted only by the occasional lonely grain elevator. The prairies were never boring: the vast space and even horizon gave them importance and power.

When it started to pour rain, Rob invited me into the vestibule. "You'll smell the sweet prairie soil," he said. "It's best when it rains." The other passengers were happy in the dome, but I was thrilled to be in the open air, inhaling the country perfume.

Premier dinner service on the Silver and Blue

The next morning, our first sight of the rolling forests and broad rivers of Alberta charged the air with a palpable new excitement. The Canadian wound a stunning elevated route along the river's edge, through the snow-peaked ranges of Jasper National Park. We saw flocks of Canada Geese soar over waterfalls in the Victoria Cross Range and horned elk nibble woody grasses at the edge of chilly Moose Lake. And we were dwarfed by Mount Robson, whose majestic crest was misted by clouds.

Along the way the Canadian's personnel had changed shifts. My new attendant, Jan, was a Vancouver mother of three children. I couldn't believe her consistent cheerfulness on the job. I asked her, "Don't you ever get bored of the ride, tired of your routines?" "Never," she answered, " the railroad's not a job. It's a way of life. And each time somebody new enjoys the train, we know we can keep it going."

In the morning we arrived in Vancouver, the end of the line. It sat like a welcoming jewel in the harbor at the base of the Coast Mountains. The trip had been grand. By then I was totally derailed, riding high on the tracks of a serious lover affair with Canada and the luxury train that had made this love come true.

Traveling Information
The Canadian crosses between Toronto and Vancouver in three days. You may disembark anywhere along the line for a stopover.

Prices in the "Silver & Blue" first-class service vary according to sleeping arrangements and distance traveled. Consider these special packages: Romance by Train: Offered on the Canadian from Jasper to Vancouver (or visa versa), the romantic getaway features two bedrooms converted to one spacious suite, fresh flowers, "His" and "Hers" washrooms, and a complimentary bottle of champagne. To boot, there's a big fluffy duvet covering the bed and a bed tray for breakfast in bed.

The Totem Class day trip experience, offered aboard the Skeena from Jasper to Prince Rupert, offers Premium service featuring regional cuisine served at your seat. Totem class gives passengers exclusive access to the Park Car and panoramic 360-degree view. The train stops overnight in Prince George and then continues the next day to Prince Rupert, ensuring daylight viewing of the Rockies, Mount Robson, the Skeena valley and totem poles. (Although VIA is does not handle the overnight reservations in Prince George, passengers can call Prince George 250-562-3700, and Prince Rupert 250-624-5637 for hotel reservations.)

The train is comfortable but compact. In terms of dress, anything goes. But think "minimal space," and concentrate on essentials to pack smart. Handy things to take along: your favorite magazines or books, a Walkman or CD player, a diary or journey log, a camera.




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