For years my husband Stu and I talked about taking a train trip west through the Rockies, although we always thought it would be on the American side. But when we heard from friends here in North Carolina about a great tour on VIA Rail, we decided to go that route instead. The occasion was our 25th wedding anniversary.
We chose an 11-day adventure beginning in Toronto, which included three days and two nights on the train, and stops in the Rockies for another five days in and around Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. A final overnight train ride would take us to Vancouver. The price of the trip included our flight into Toronto returning from Vancouver, meals on the train, nights in first-class hotels, transfer services and sightseeing excursions.
On the day of departure we checked our larger suitcases at the Toronto train station and jumped aboard a revamped 1950s train, The Canadian. We arranged our duffel bags in cubby spaces in the narrow closet by the door of our compartment and on shelves above the sink. As recommended by the attendant assigned to our car, we hurried to the dining hall. Vouchers were being distributed for first, second or third seating lunch. Then we headed for the closest bubble-domed car, two down from ours. When the train pulled out of Toronto's Union Station on Saturday morning at nine, the scene from our compartment was half urban, half industrial. In a short time we were moving through the countryside. Stu and I fell into a relaxed mode, as we watched the scenery change from city to rural, from rock country to barked birches. Some of the route was rugged and angular; other areas were flat.
Over the next three days, we passed through countless scenic villages. We stopped in Winnipeg, then in Edmonton. We stepped outside to breathe in fresh air and stand on solid ground. Oddly enough we couldn't wait to get back on. Besides enjoying the vast areas of countryside, we found the rhythm of the moving train calming and peaceful.
In addition to soaking in scenery, we read, relaxed and sometimes escaped to our own private compartment together and dozed on the extra-wide chairs provided. The seven by seven-foot room included a sink, a closet, a narrow private bath and two bunk beds stored in the wall and ceiling that would be converted in the evening. One large and very clean shower was available in each passenger car.
The bubble-domed observation car that we frequented was the last car on the train. The second level opened to a spacious room with large windows and seats around the edges. It was a spot where travelers gathered and talked about where they were from, what they did in life and what towns in Canada they were planning to see. Coffee, water, tea, and juices were provided. A few steps down and running along one side of the same car was a bar where cocktails and sodas were available for purchase. It was also the only place where people were allowed to smoke. Being a non-smoker, I was grateful that the space was enclosed in glass.
The other main social attractions on board were the three elaborate meals a day. At lunch and dinner a member of the wait staff would walk through the corridor announcing "Seating One, Two or Three." Coming from our English-speaking country, my husband and I enjoyed hearing the announcement repeated in French, "Attention s'il vous plait. Le d���r est servi pour le groupe num豯 un." Those who were scheduled to eat at the time being announced would trail down the narrow hallway toward the dining car.
Standing in the middle of the Art Deco-style restaurant was the headwaiter directing people toward the tables against the large-pane windows positioned on either side of him. The chic d袯r was accented with pastel-colored tablecloths and napkins.
Caesar salad and dessert were offered at both lunch and dinner. Dinner was a five-course meal - appetizer, soup, salad, one of three main courses and dessert. The meals included poultry with a starch and vegetable, filet mignon, pasta or fish. Liquor, beer or wine was extra. A lighter fare was served at lunch, including a choice of bison burger for the more adventurous traveler. Breakfast was available from six to nine in the morning with no reserved seating time needed. There were choices of eggs, omelets, French toast, pancakes, cereals, bacon, ham or sausage. The dining car was another place where we met and sat with people from various countries - Canadians of course, but also Italians, French, Germans, British and other Americans.
After dinner we returned to find our room prepared by our attendant for the overnight ride. Top and bottom berths had been dropped from the wall and ceiling and made into bunk beds. The extra-wide chairs were folded and stored underneath the bottom bunk. The overhead light was turned off and a soft reading light at the head of each bed accentuated moss-green, velvet-down quilts and extra plump pillows. Shades were pulled.
Our attendant warned that we might not sleep soundly the first night because of the jarring of the train over the tracks. But he assured us that by the next evening we'd be so tired we'd fall right to sleep. We were also alerted at the possibility of the conductor picking up speed during the night.
The first evening, I climbed the ladder to sleep on the top bunk. But when my sensitive stomach started feeling woozy, Stu and I switched beds. After talking and giggling for a while, my husband climbed back down the ladder. We attempted to sleep together in one bunk. Laughing and hanging on tightly to each other, we tried not to fall out of the bed. Since there was no insulation in the walls that divided each compartment, I'm sure our neighbors wondered what all the commotion was about. Between squeezing into a twin-size bed and the bouncing of the train, we were certain that it was safer for Stu to return to the top bunk.
During the three days and two nights of traveling closely with others, the area in the back of the train became a small community onto itself. The group of people included those who shared the same dining and bubble-domed cars. There were four more skyline cars where other communities were developing on our train heading west.
Around 5:00 p.m. on Monday, after our third full day of traveling, the conductor announced that we'd soon be arriving in the last town in the province of Alberta - Jasper. Slowly the train pulled into the station, and everyone snapped pictures of the mountain range ahead. We saw bighorn rams climbing the sides of the hills. Elk, including a large buck, stood at the edge of town. A shuttle met us at the station and took us to our contemporary-rustic and fashionable accommodations at the Jasper Park Lodge.
Lake Louise was our second stop. When we arrived in our room there was a bottle of champagne, compliments of the manager and staff of the Chateau, and a warm message wishing us a happy anniversary and a pleasant stay. Our room, positioned directly in the center of the Chateau Lake Louise, overlooked an aqua-blue glacier lake. Neither Stu nor I had ever seen water that color. At the other end of the lake a snow-capped glacier, which had been dripping into the water, created the brilliant hue. We were more than comfortable with the view, our accommodations, our anniversary dinner in the Fairview Dining Room overlooking the mountain scenery, and the walking paths that we followed the next morning. We hiked along a rugged trail through the serene woods, miles away from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives. We continued to climb the mountain to the top. From there we got an aerial view of the lake and the Chateau. We also got a closer look at the glacier and two swirling clouds against a bright-blue sky. Stu led the way, as we descended a less traveled path that eventually brought us back to the Chateau.
After lunch, we were picked up by van and driven for a two-night stay at the Tudor-style Banff Springs Hotel. The setting of the alpine village against the sweeping, soaring mountains made me feel like I was standing in a postcard. The hotel offered various activities including a spa, walking trails, golf course, dozens of shops and numerous restaurants. Having eaten so lavishly along the way, we opted for a short trolley ride into town and a light dinner at a local pub. We chose one on a second floor so that we could sit higher up and view the glorious Rocky Mountain scene. A gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain the next day put us even higher in the mountain range, which had been the inspiration for our trip all along.
We scooted around Banff, taking in more scenery, pub life, the country-western atmosphere and the famous Banff Center. A local historical museum had photos and displays of the early pioneers who had settled in the area.
Our final jaunt in the region was a sightseeing coach ride back to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. The high point was a stop for a Snocoach ride onto the Athabasca Glacier, where we stepped out of the vehicle and into an early September snow squall.
That evening in Jasper, we walked into town for dinner hoping to see a moose before leaving the National Park region. Our waiter chortled saying that Americans had seen too many episodes of Northern Exposure. "The only mousse you're going to see tonight is the one we have for dessert in the kitchen," he said.
Despite his good humor, we met people on the last two days of our train ride who not only had seen moose, but black bears, more bighorn rams and lots of elk. One night, Stu and I had come within a few yards of two young elk. They had been as stunned to see us, as we were to see them. When they dashed in one direction, we scooted in the other.
After the final night on the train from Jasper to Vancouver, we awoke surprised that we'd had an exceptionally restful night's sleep. We discovered that our train had spent most of the night sitting on the sidetracks letting cargo trains by. We didn't mind, since it gave us more time on the train together and an opportunity to see more of Canada's natural environment including Hell's Gate - the whitewater rapids that move through a narrow gorge dumping 200 million gallons of water per minute.
Our time in Vancouver would be cut short - less than a day to see that grand city - but the wait gave us the impetus to start thinking about our next trip to Canada, and more time away with each other.
Gilda Morina Syverson is a writer, poet and artist living near Charlotte, North Carolina. She is the author of a collection of poems, In This Dream Everything Remains Inside.