Silver and Blue
Photo by Toby Saltzman
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.