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Slow train to Winnipeg

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There is no fast train to Winnipeg. VIA Rail’s meandering service from Vancouver to Winnipeg fits a country that’s meant to be savoured. Yes, you could fly in under three hours, but if you’re looking for a more immersive experience and can spare three days, take the train. It’s not meant to be fast.

Leah and I checked in at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver on a sunny, Friday morning in late July. The forest fires that shrouded most of western Canada were still two weeks away and clear skies beckoned. Friends had been surprised to learn of a rail connection. Almost as surprised as by our destination. True, Winnipeg’s not the first place you think of for a summer holiday, but we live on the Sunshine Coast. A break from tourists would be good for the soul.

Our noon departure left 15 minutes late, but few passengers seemed to notice. Most people were busy exploring their new home for the next two nights; four nights for Toronto-bound passengers.

Private sleeping quarters in Prestige class come with your own concierge.

A large American tour party, each traveller wearing a name badge, patrolled the corridors for the first hour, marvelling at the cleverly concealed shower closets, the premium-class cabins and the viewing cars. With 72 hours ahead of us, we decided to pace ourselves, watching East Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster pass us by before venturing from our seats.

VIA Rail trains come in three classes and various carriage designations. The best views are to be had in the Skyline cars with their scenic dome sections, and the Panorama car, which features windows to the ceiling. The Park car in the caboose is an elegant throwback to bygone lounge luxury and is limited to the train’s Prestige passengers at certain times of the day.

Prestige is the priciest of VIA’s three travelling classes, offering private sleeping quarters and a personal concierge. We travelled in Sleeper Plus, which saw our seats being transformed by a carriage attendant at night into comfy bunk beds shrouded behind a thick curtain. (The attendant reverses the process in the morning while you’re at breakfast.) For Economy Class, picture your seat becoming a La-Z-Boy with pillow and blanket. All meals are included in the price for Prestige and Sleeper Plus.

An excellent three-course lunch, including a sautéed prawn and scallop salad, set the tone for our meals ahead. Duck, rack of lamb, and beef wellington were among the hot, fresh dinners somehow served from a tiny kitchen, which also offered vegetarian options for every dining course. Canadian wines and craft beer choices from Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, were a nice surprise too. We soon got to know our Winnipeg-based crew, who were proud of their hometown and quick with recommendations.

Seats by day transform into bunk beds by night in Sleeper Plus.

Meal times presented a chance to meet fellow passengers – mostly American visitors, including one woman from San Francisco who had been suffering Trump-induced anxiety attacks. “Two days with no news has done me the world of good,” she confided.

There were other little surprises along the way. Complimentary mimosas went down well on Saturday morning while stuck for an hour outside of Jasper. Informal wine tasting with one of the crew in the dome car eased us through the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. Lounge car patrons were entertained by a classical guitarist in an afternoon performance.

The real star of the show though was the view, otherwise known as Canada. First criss-crossing the Fraser River and then the Thompson, the train follows a route largely uncharted by the highway. At dinner on Friday night, heads swivelled to see a series of attractions appearing on or by the Thompson: a solitary eagle, a herd of elk, an abandoned church and a forgotten Chevy truck, circa 1960, all punctuated the dry beige canvas of thirsty cottonwoods and parched underbrush.

Dinner-time distractions as we skirt the Thompson River near Kamloops, BC.

Sun set to be replaced by a full, blood moon. It cast its spell on us as we settled into our bunks and watched it rise, glowing red and irresistible over Kamloops Lake. I fell asleep realizing that after almost 12 hours on the train, I had yet to crack a book or suggest a game of Yahtzee with Leah.

VIA Rail’s not quiet. There were times during the night that I thought a crash was imminent, such was the screeching on the rails. “You’ve got all day to nap,” I told myself as I opened the blind to see daybreak in the Rockies. Our attendant told us we’d made good time overnight, getting up to 80 kilometres an hour, which might have explained the noise.

After a night on the train it was good to stretch our legs in Jasper on the Discovery Trail.

The American tour party alighted at Jasper where the remaining passengers had a couple of hours to explore. In minutes we were walking Jasper’s Discovery Trail, heading towards Old Fort Point. At the first viewpoint overlooking the city, a menacing gang of Bighorn Sheep blocked our path. We hesitated for 10 minutes, taking photos from a distance. The sheep looked less menacing when a jogger breezed right by them.

Bighorn Sheep – not so menacing in hindsight.

It took all day to reach Edmonton. Numerous stops for freight traffic, (which have priority) including a two-hour standstill, put us in at 7 p.m., a few hours behind schedule. We disembarked to skip rope a while on the platform (three solid meals a day and a sedentary lifestyle take their toll) and take photos of the City of Champions in the distance. By 8 a.m. the next morning after a better night’s sleep, we’d caught up an hour or two and were in Saskatoon for another 20-minute stroll on the platform.

Our final day of gazing out of the window introduced us to place names that seemed to herald a story: Punnichy, Ituna, Spy Hill and Atwater – population 30. Potash mines are the only hills on the Prairies, looming on the horizon occasionally like elongated pyramids. The old, wooden grain silos, so iconic to this region, seemed harder to find. Kelliher, Saskatchewan produced a nice one though.

Our last stop before Winnipeg was Melville, Sask., home of the Melville Millionaires junior hockey team and named after Grand Trunk Railway president, Charles Melville Hays, who died on the Titanic. We rolled into Winnipeg at 8.40 p.m., 90 minutes late but still warm and sunny outside.

We never did play Yahtzee!

 

 

 

 

Exploring Edmonton

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Keeping cool in Edmonton's hot summer means a trip to the Legislature's fountains for many families.

Keeping cool in Edmonton’s hot summer means a trip to the Legislature’s fountains for some families.

Guest blog by Leah Judd

The guidelines were simple enough: find a destination within a 24 hour train ride that didn’t involve many transfers, somewhere safe, warm and relatively cheap. After eliminating San Francisco (Comfort Inn $350USD/night), and Eugene (three transfers) my friend Signy and I narrowed down the choices to Edmonton.  But did Edmonton have any kind of cool factor, something you could brag about on Facebook? Apparently not, as many friends thought we were being sent to Edmonton as a punishment of some kind.  Even Edmontonians were surprised that Edmonton was our destination, rather than just a layover.

Via Rail offers a spectacular and affordable service through the Rockies into Edmonton. Departing Vancouver early Sunday evening, the view along the Fraser River was so different than the one from a car window. Close to the water, we chugged through suburbs and industrial parks where the tracks lay hidden. Our beds for the night were a couple of upper bunks, with more than enough room to spread out and thick privacy curtains. Our “Sleeper Plus” fare included three meals in the dining car, and each meal was a treat. Booking the last sitting for each meal meant we had extra time to enjoy the food and take in the scenery.  The dome car had seats available most of the day, making it easier to spot the moose and the Big Horn sheep alongside the tracks.  We also had an hour to explore Jasper while other passengers unloaded for their visit to the Rockies. Jasper tourism didn’t seem to take advantage of our layover – short term bike rentals,  a quick taxi tour or a guided walk would have helped make the most of our time in Jasper. Instead we wandered around, admiring the Fifties architecture of the shops and wondering about the history of the town.

Edmonton's High Level Bridge offers a great perspective of the city.

Edmonton’s High Level Bridge offers a great perspective of the city.

After 27 wonderful hours on Via Rail from Vancouver, Edmonton was the perfect summer destination. We stayed in Old Strathcona – south of downtown across the North Saskatchewan River – which certainly amped up the cool factor. Bearded and bespectacled gentlemen serving coffee and selling used books convinced us that we had hit Edmonton’s hipster ‘hood. With an original Army and Navy department store and few chain stores, Whyte Avenue had plenty of shops to browse for locals and tourists escaping the heat.  An hour spent at the Wee Book Inn meant my hand luggage was overweight on the return flight!

Walking across the High Level Bridge gave us a great perspective of the city. The Legislature Building sits beautifully surrounded by 56 acres of manicured trees, lawns and gardens. A free tour of the “Ledge” provided great anecdotes from Alberta’s history, but the origins of the palm trees growing in the main dome of the building remain a mystery! Most impressive was the mirror pool in front of the Legislative Building.  Coming from drought ridden BC it was surprising to see kids swimming in the fountains in front of the Government buildings. Not just one or two families letting their kids cool their feet in the pool, but rather whole groups of summer campers enjoying a dip and spraying water guns to boost the fun factor. Everywhere we went in Edmonton locals were swimming in fountains and making the most of summer in the city.

Serenity now at the Mirror Pond outside the Alberta 'Ledge'.

Serenity now at the Mirror Pond outside the Alberta ‘Ledge’.

Teaching Canadian history was my excuse for dragging Signy to Fort Edmonton. Once located in view of the Legislature Building and downtown Edmonton, many of the buildings were reconstructed further down the South bank of the North Saskatchewan River. Fort Edmonton now houses a replica HBC fur trading fort circa 1846, as well as three community streets from Edmonton’s past: 1885 Street, 1905 Street, and 1920 Street. Costumed performers and staff are found in many of the buildings and happily answer questions and share stories from Edmonton’s history. If taking Via Rail from BC wasn’t enough to quench our thirst for rail travel, a steam train transports visitors around Fort Edmonton. It could’ve felt a little hokey, but the Fort did a great job in providing visual insights of how Europeans settled into Canada’s wilderness.

Inside Fort Edmonton.

Inside Fort Edmonton.

Despite being known as “Festival City” Signy and I managed to hit Edmonton in the one week of summer without a festival. But we found some local musical talent in El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, and a John A. Macdonald doppelganger in the Confederation Lounge of the Fairmont Macdonald. Chasing instagram suggestions led us to The Common, a lounge with an attitude. Featuring DJs, locally sourced food and a dance floor, The Common felt like we found Edmonton’s edge, where suits mix with denim.

Travelling with Via Rail allowed us four nights in Edmonton, before The Canadian made its way back from Toronto to Vancouver. Checking in with Via Rail the night before our return trip we found our departure was to be delayed between 12 – 16 hours, a day more than our budget allowed. So after an hour and thirteen minutes in the air and over 1,100km of train track below us, we returned to Vancouver, already missing Edmonton’s joie de vivre.

 

If you go

For all matters tourism, visit Explore Edmonton.

For the latest train details and deals, visit Via Rail.

For a trip back in time, visit Fort Edmonton.

Written by nevjudd

August 17, 2015 at 11:43 am