This spring we ventured on a two-week, 7,000 mile rail journey Eastward across Canada to Quebec, returning home South of the border through Chicago. The Canada portion of the trip was organized by Rail Travel Center. We traveled with a small group (16) of very friendly companions, from Washington State, Oregon, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. We chose this trip to experience the Canadian Rockies in the wintertime, and to explore the cities of Canada's Eastern Provinces. The promise of dog sledding in Quebec was also a magnet. Our rail trip was broken up with days to explore Jasper, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec (City), and the resort village of Pointe au Pic on the St. Lawrence River North of Quebec.
We were able to meet up with two acquaintances from previous rail trips (our 2001 journey on BCRail to Fort Nelson). We had a wonderful dinner and good conversation in the home of Bob & Jan Meldrum in Ottawa. Mike Prinzhorn met us at Chicago Union Station for lunch.
Everywhere we traveled, we stayed in the hotels originally constructed with the railroads. These are now managed by Fairmont Hotels, but most were the original Canadian Pacific hotels. It was quite a treat to detrain and walk just a few steps to your hotel, sometimes through underground passages directly linking the station and the hotel. I'm sure we'll not soon return to hotels as elegant as these - they're a little out of our usual price class. But the architecture was elegant and it was a treat to experience this glimpse into the golden days of railroading in Canada.
We're often asked "which is better - VIA or Amtrak"? Particularly with regard to the transcontinental trains, these two organizations serve very different purposes. VIA's Canadian service from Vancouver to Toronto is clearly intended as a tour, not as point-to-point transportation. It runs three days per week, intermediate stops are few, and services for non-sleeping passengers are very limited. For example, the dining car is open only to sleeping car passengers - traveling coach on the Canadian means you eat in the snack car. Amtrak's long distance trains are aimed more at providing point-to-point transportation rather than a "land cruise". Most of Amtrak's transcontinental services are daily, and with few exceptions coach passengers enjoy the same on-board services as those traveling in sleeping cars. The creature comforts and service levels on the two trains differ accordingly: VIA's meals for sleeping car passengers were magnificent, and the sleeping cars have been refurbished beautifully. Amtrak's meals are quite good (especially compared to the microwave fare of Amtrak's earlier days), but they're more like what you'd get in a good family restaurant rather than an elegant dining experience. It's worth noting that traveling cross-country on VIA is substantially more expensive than a similar trip on Amtrak. As of this writing, VIA's standard fare from Vancouver to Toronto for two persons in a sleeping car is US$ 1,494, while Amtrak's fare for two persons in a sleeper from Seattle to New York City is US$ 862. Both fares include all onboard meals. You get what you pay for.
Most VIA employees were extremely attentive and courteous. That's also true for most Amtrak employees, but there is a measure of professionalism in the VIA staff that I don't typically see on Amtrak. I was especially impressed by the way a special meal request for one of our group was handled. Before we arrived at the station for boarding, a VIA employee recognized that the special meal had not been loaded in Montreal that morning. He sought out the passenger, and made special arrangements to get a meal from local food vendors that would satisfy the dietary requirement. I don't typically see travel employees anywhere taking that kind of responsibility. Anyone who has traveled by rail in North America knows that dining car staff can sometimes be a little edgy - surprisingly, we found that true even on a portion of the VIA trip from Jasper to Toronto. First class service on VIA along the corridor from Toronto to Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec (City) was top rate, and the meals there were excellent, too.
As on our previous trips to Canada, we found nearly everyone we met to be very friendly and helpful. We expected that as we got into Quebec this might change, but at least where our itinerary took us we did not find the French-speaking Canadians to be less friendly. I was especially impressed with the truly bilingual nature of Montreal. I expected at least moderate bilingual capabilities in the hotels and more tourist areas, but even as we wandered off the tourist path in downtown Montreal, we found people able to instantly switch from English to French with no hesitation. A remarkable talent that I much admire. The only place we had some difficulty with the language was during our dog sledding outing in a rural area of Quebec. English there was limited, but we had a helpful bus driver who helped us work things out.
Our tour leader was Jim Frederickson, who worked for many years with the Northern Pacific in Tacoma. He is a prolific photographer, and has published three books of historical railroad photographs. Perhaps especially remarkable is that Jim is 78 years old! He was a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide, and he took excellent care of us. I wasn't fully aware of how relaxing it was to have Jim looking out for our connection arrangements until we had to pick our own way out of Montreal at the tour's end. While we didn't have any problems, it was something of a shock to realize it was now my responsibility to take care of our luggage and make sure we were in the right place at the right time.
Between Mo and me, we took about 500 photographs on this trip. I've "distilled" that down to about 200 on the pages that follow. Click on any of the thumbnails to see a 640x480 version of the image. As usual, the pictures posted to the web are squeezed and scrunched so they can be downloaded quickly with a dialup connection. The image quality suffers as a result: If you want to see any of these pictures in their full resolution, send me an e-mail. Web image size is about 50K (640x480); the original 4MP image is about 1MB (2272x1704). To keep page load times reasonable, I've spread the pictures across several pages.
Page 1....from Vancouver to Jasper