10 Reasons to Explore Canada by Rail

Aboard the Panorama Car on the Canadian, in the Canadian Rockies between British Columbia & Alberta. Photo by VIA Rail Canada
By Andrea Kahn

Throughout Canada, extensive, reliable train service and a range of pricing options, deals, and travel packages make a vacation by rail comfortable, convenient, and enjoyable. Whether you're planning on enjoying winter sports in the Canadian Rockies, exploring a sleepy coastal town on the stunning Gaspé Peninsula, kayaking with belugas in Churchill, or sampling the vast cultural and culinary offerings of Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, a train can take you there.

Photo Caption: Aboard the Panorama Car on the Canadian, in the Canadian Rockies between British Columbia & Alberta.
View Next Slide
Jasper - Prince Rupert train next to Moose Lake, located between Valemount, BC and Jasper, Alberta. Photo by VIA Rail Canada
Sure, a train is not always the fastest way of getting from point A to point B -- but it may be the most enjoyable. Via Rail (www.viarail.ca/en) offers routes from Montreal to Halifax and Montreal to Gaspé that traverse the St. Lawrence River and the gorgeous Chaleur Bay. On the overnight train from Vancouver to Jasper, you'll fall asleep with the lights of Vancouver receding into the distance and awaken to snowy monoliths and vast stretches of unspoiled wilderness just outside your window. Along most routes, your view from the train will be far more scenic than your view from the highway would be. Dining and lounge cars feature large windows, so you can enjoy the scenery over breakfast or a cup of coffee.

Photo Caption: Jasper - Prince Rupert train next to Moose Lake, located between Valemount, BC and Jasper, Alberta.
View Next Slide
Skiing Marmot Basin, Jasper National Park. Photo by Tourism Jasper
Nestled in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park is a four-hour car ride from the nearest major airport (in Edmonton, Alberta) -- but the train will drop you right in town. Hike the icy depths of Maligne Canyon (www.malignecanyon.com), enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and hiking in the summer, or relax with a world-class spa treatment at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (www.fairmont.com/jasper). From mid-November to early May, take a shuttle 30 minutes up into the mountains to Marmot Basin (www.skimarmot.com), an uncrowded ski and snowboard area where pristine slopes and breathtaking views are uninterrupted by the sprawl of condominiums: This is a national park, so laws protect the mountain from extensive development.

Photo Caption: Skiing Marmot Basin, Jasper National Park.
View Next Slide
Dundas Square, Toronto. Photo by Tourism Toronto
Heading out to Jasper for a weekend in the wilderness? Spend a day beforehand savoring local seafood and enjoying shopping and nightlife in hip, outdoorsy Vancouver. Embarking on the four-day journey across Canada? Plan on spending a day exploring Toronto's vibrant neighborhoods before catching your flight home. Or kick off your overnight journey north to romantic Percé (www.rocherperce.qc.ca/an/acc.asp) with a day or two in Montreal, soaking up live jazz, brushing up on your French, or simply wandering the streets of this bike- and pedestrian-friendly city. VIA Rail allows one free stopover on their cross-country route, so spend a day exploring Edmonton, Winnipeg, or Saskatoon along the way.

Photo Caption: Dundas Square, Toronto.
View Next Slide
Dining Car inside a Via Rail Canada train. Photo by VIA Rail Canada
When you think of overnight trains, you may imagine sharing a tiny berth of bunk beds with five strangers, or snatching a few minutes of sleep next to a noisy seatmate. But long-distance travel on VIA Rail is far from roughing it -- guests can choose between cozy cabins for one to four people with private bathrooms and access to showers; double berths with shower access; and comfortable, relatively spacious Economy class seating. All passengers have access to the dining car, and the meals are top-notch: On the train from Jasper to Edmonton, choose between pecan-crusted halibut with wasabi slaw and pan-seared pork tenderloin with wild mushroom ragout. Best of all: You won't be stuck behind the wheel or wedged between suitcases in the back seat of a car.

Photo Caption: Dining Car inside a Via Rail Canada train.
View Next Slide
The Canadian, which runs between Toronto and Vancouver. Photo by VIA Rail Canada
Unless you're a seriously intrepid biker or hiker, trains are generally the most environmentally friendly form of transportation you can choose -- and on a long-distance trip, your choice can really make a difference. Most studies agree that CO2 emissions for a mid- to long-distance train trip amount to a small fraction of emissions for a trip of the same length by plane or car (depending on the number of passengers, of course). Furthermore, traveling by train uses significantly less energy per passenger than traveling the same distance by commercial aircraft. So when you're viewing polar bears in Churchill or hiking a mountain pass in Jasper, you can feel good about the fact that your choice of transportation is helping to preserve the great outdoors you've come to enjoy.

Photo Caption: The Canadian, which runs between Toronto and Vancouver.
View Next Slide
Whale watching tours are popular in Churchill, Manitoba, known as the beluga capital of the world. Photo by Travel Manitoba
Situated on the shore of the Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba and widely known as the "polar bear capital of the world," Churchill (http://everythingchurchill.com) is a wildlife lover's heaven. The waters off of Churchill are home to thousands of beluga whales, with whom you can get up close and personal on a kayak or boat tour (some tour operators provide passengers with hydrophones so they can eavesdrop on these garrulous creatures, often nicknamed "sea canaries"). Tundra vehicles and wilderness lodges offer safe opportunities to view polar bears, as well as the 250+ species of birds that pass through Churchill every spring and fall. Churchill is also regarded by scientists as one of the top places in the world to view the aurora borealis (northern lights). The only way to reach this subarctic paradise is by train or plane -- no roads connect Churchill to the rest of Canada.

Photo Caption: Whale watching tours are popular in Churchill, Manitoba, known as the beluga capital of the world.
View Next Slide
The Rockies, through the windows of The Canadian, on VIA Rail. Photo by bryanh
The comparatively high price of train versus plane travel has long been a deterrent for travelers, but VIA Rail's range of pricing options can make a trip by train relatively affordable. Browse their site for "express deals"; significantly discounted fares are available if you're flexible about your departure date. Discounts are also available for seniors, groups, and travelers under 26 years. Travelers devoting several weeks to seeing Canada by train should consider purchasing a Canrailpass, with which they are entitled to seven one-way trips anywhere in Canada or along the Québec City-Windsor corridor, respectively, within a 21-day period. VIA Rail also offers a variety of travel packages that include accommodation and city tours.

Photo Caption: The Rockies, through the windows of The Canadian, on VIA Rail.
View Next Slide
VIA Rail Canada deals to Château Frontenac, Quebec City. Photo by VIA Rail Canada
Most of VIA Rail's overnight trains allow three checked bags and two carry-on bags per passenger free of charge, so you have significantly more flexibility in terms of luggage than you would on an airplane. Most trains between Toronto and Quebec City are equipped with bike racks, which is welcome news for cyclists looking to experience Montreal or Toronto by bike ($20 fee per one-way trip; check their website to confirm). Complimentary Wi-Fi is available on all trains along the Québec City-Windsor corridor and in major stations along the cross-country route, so you can stay connected throughout your trip; their website provides detailed information about Wi-Fi availability to help you plan ahead.

Photo Caption: VIA Rail Canada deals to Château Frontenac, Quebec City.
View Next Slide
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge overlooking Beauvert Lake. Photo by Tourism Jasper
Most people don't associate train travel with luxury hotels, but in Canada, the rail system and the world-famous Fairmont (www.fairmont.com) hotel and resort chain share a common history. Many historic properties now operated by Fairmont were built by rail companies along rail routes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge began as a cluster of luxury tents on the shore of Lac Beauvert in 1915; today, it's an iconic spa and resort property unrivaled in elegance and rustic charm. VIA Rail offers a number of travel packages that include accommodation in Fairmont and other classic railway hotels; visit their website for more information.

Photo Caption: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge overlooking Beauvert Lake.
View Next Slide
Gaspèsie National Park, Gaspe Peninsula. Photo by Jean-Pierre Huard
Canada's network of train routes is big on convenience, in terms of connections between major cities, but it's also big on natural wonders. In the summer, take the train from Jasper up to Prince Rupert (www.visitprincerupert.com), a fishing town steeped in First Nations culture that's popular among wildlife enthusiasts for its whale-watching, grizzly bear viewing, and other outdoor activities. In eastern Canada, take the overnight route from Montreal to the rugged and beautiful Gaspé Peninsula, which offers a wealth of hiking, biking, and bird- and whale-watching opportunities. Explore the quaint coastal village of Percé (www.rocherperce.qc.ca/), home to famous Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island; take the train to the picturesque harbor town of Gaspé (http://cctgaspe.org/); or hike the flat-topped mountains and wooded valleys of Forillon National Park (www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/qc/forillon/index.aspx), where stark cliffs plunge to meet the sea.

Practical Information for Percé: The small town of Percé is a pedestrian's paradise: Its major attractions are easily accessed on foot from the majority of its lodging facilities, and most hotels provide shuttle service from the train station (10 km outside of town). To visit Forillon National Park from Gaspé, you will need to rent a car.

Photo Caption: Gaspèsie National Park, Gaspe Peninsula.
View Next Slide
advertisement
advertisement