Since moving from England two decades ago, I’ve been hopping Canada’s rails at every opportunity. Landscape-hugging train trips are my favourite way to see this country and I’ve developed a hot-list of top routes.
Overseas visitors love Rocky Mountaineer’s (rockymountaineer.com) mountain-stroking British Columbia and Alberta runs. I’ve taken several of their shiny trains over the years and recommend the First Passage to the West route. Its heart-stopping Fraser Canyon stretch exhausts cameras faster than an African safari.
With excellent service and top-notch dining – think cruise ships on rails – fares can top several thousands of dollars for couples, especially for the classy Gold Leaf service and its luxury en route hotel stays. But while basic Red Leaf costs far less, there’s another way to experience the high life without the credit-card hangover.
The cheapest Rocky Mountaineer route – snaking from North Vancouver to Whistler – is the half-day Sea to Sky Climb. From $179, it includes a generous side order of shimmering ocean views and waterfall-veined cliffs: The train’s open-sided viewing car is recommended for the full camera-twitching effect.
But great train journeys aren’t only about scenery. My favourite rail rides combine postcard vistas with a chance to chat with the locals – and that’s where VIA Rail’s (viarail.ca) regional routes dominate the timetable.
Popular jaunts include the overnight Montreal to Halifax Ocean service – for its lighthouse-studded seafront views – and the two-day Winnipeg-to-Churchill run, combining tundra landscapes with a wildlife-watching finale: beluga whales in the Churchill River in summer, and wandering polar bears in October and November.
But my favourite regional route is the two-day Jasper-to-Prince Rupert ride through northern B.C. Its refurbished 1950s carriages – if Airstream made trains, they’d look like this – thread through rolling forest and mountain-framed landscapes. And there are always local characters on board keen to chinwag. Fares start at $124 (excluding a hotel stopover in Prince George).
That brings us to the Canadian, VIA’s flagship route. Using this service, you can connect to the Jasper train from east or west. Or you can simply plunge through the heart of the country on a three-and-a-half-day epic between Toronto and Vancouver.
A cabin and meals for two on this route can top $3,000 (seat-only tickets are much cheaper). But there are Discount Tuesdays offers and tempting Express Deals – plus reductions for seniors and children – available on VIA’s website at viarail.ca/en/deals. Feeling adventurous? Consider an all-access Canrailpass instead.
Quebec’s sleek Train of Le Massif de Charlevoix (lemassif.com) was launched by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier in 2011. The 140-kilometre forest-and-riverside route from Quebec City offers several excursion options – a summertime stop at Baie-Saint-Paul with its galleries and farmers’ market is recommended.
And although I’ve yet to take it, there’s also Northern Ontario’s Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee (ontarionorthland.ca). Despite the grand name – don’t expect to see polar bears en route – it mainly serves a string of remote communities on a 300-km route that sees most tourists boarding in the summer. At the end of the line you can tour the First Nations’ communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory, both old Hudson’s Bay trading posts and locales in Joseph Boyden’s Giller Prize-winning novel, Through Black Spruce.
Heritage buffs should also consider Manitoba’s tiny Prairie Dog Central Railway (pdcrailway.com) or the popular White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (wpyr.com) that trundles from Whitehorse into Alaska. Museum fans will be equally sated by rail attractions such as Quebec’s Exporail (exporail.org) and B.C.’s West Coast Railway Heritage Park (wcra.org).
Surprisingly, a “new” service may also be about to depart. The first train I ever boarded in Canada was Vancouver Island’s two-car E&N line from Victoria. The scenic trundle, with lofty trestle bridges and dense woodland views, has been mothballed since 2011. But a recent announcement promises a return to the rails – see islandrail.ca for the latest updates.
OUR READERS WRITE
- The Hudson Bay line from Winnipeg to Churchill is the Trans-Siberian Railway of North America. One of the few lines on permafrost. It’s an adventure. @j_recks
- The Missinaibi River train ride [aka the Polar Bear Express] home from Moosonee to Cochrane – we’re going this summer. @CanadianVoyage
- Agawa Canyon out of Sault St. Marie Ontario is beautiful. Rocky Mountaineer in B.C./A.B., any route, or the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver Silver and Blue Class. Tom Doyon
- I suggest Via Rail’s “Ocean,” the Halifax to Montreal route. The trip along New Brunswick’s Bay of Chaleur is worth the ride on the rails. Rosalind House Cross
- The Yukon and White Pass in Yukon, B.C. and Alaska. For the history and also the scenery – when it’s not in the clouds. @krmccoll
- The VIA Rail Budd Car from Sudbury to White River, Ontario. It’s Winnie’s hometown – as in Winnie-the-Pooh. @boomergirl50
- Vancouver to Toronto stopping in Jasper and Winnipeg. Especially the part where it goes through the Rockies: mountains and lakes, bears, elk and eagles nesting. And sitting up in the observation pods at night talking. Train travel is a unique freedom. @sophontrack
- Winnipeg to Churchill. Watching the transition of the landscape to tundra and the shrinking trees. A train meditation. @lorihenry
- Jasper to Prince Rupert: cloud-wrapped peaks, totem poles and maybe a trackside bear. @karlazimmerman
- Vancouver to Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer – best way to see the Rockies. @LynnGervais
- VIA train from Montreal out to Gaspé. Love the stretch as the track winds around Chaleur Bay – if it’s back running again. @chibeba
- One of the most underrated train vacations in the country is the Agawa Canyon Tour Train in Ontario – for the towering trestles and the one-hour stop in the Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park where you can view four waterfalls. @ehCanadaTravel
- I wish train travel were more affordable in Canada, then I’d have a lot more favourites to choose from. So far I’ve only done the Toronto to Montreal corridor, especially the Toronto to Kingston leg. Would love to head to Jasper @Tours_By_Locals
- The Rocky Mountaineer from Banff to Vancouver in spring. My favourite sights are where the Thompson and Fraser Rivers meet – and the blooming tulip fields in Agassiz. @Proud2bCAD
- Not sure if still available, but the E&N on Vancouver Island was lovely. @margymaclibrary
- Hard not to love the Rocky Mountaineer – it was beautiful and our car host was great. A must. @Wine_Wrangler
- My first will always be my favourite: North Bay to Toronto after a stay on Lake Nipissing. As a Brit, I thought it was amazing. Going through little communities in Ontario, the train was so old and had such atmosphere. So different from the UK. @TriptoesCanada
- Can’t beat the Canadian. It gives you a genuine sense of the sheer size of Canada and its jaw-clanging scenery. Also it’s a fun way to meet people. Food is delish and then there's the sight of coming through the Rockies after the endless flat prairies. It made me want to move to Canada. @nikkibayley
- Vancouver to Jasper with Via Rail: for the mountains, watching the scenery change and the people on the train @WanderlustMegan
- Short but majestic: the Whistler Mountaineer [now named the Sea to Sky Climb]. The views start in West Vancouver’s waterfront and continue to Whistler – waterfalls, professional service and a rare fully open car @advcardio
- The Whistler Sea to Sky Climb for the views of crystalline waters and mountains. Both are powerful forces in nature for me as an urban dweller @PitchWitchPR
- The heavy commuter routes are best: better service and amenities, and relatively few tourists (a big plus) @seanminogue
- A few trains that cater to the traveller in search of an experience plus travel: The Algoma Central Railway offers day trips to the scenic Agawa Canyon from Sault Ste Marie every summer, in addition to a year-round wilderness train to Hearst through Group of Seven scenery. The VIA Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver is well worth the highish fare and the time it takes – or rather – gives. The equipment is a classic art deco streamliner and the on-board service attentive and distinguished. Passengers are from all over and are generally very good company. The Train du Massif which runs from east of Quebec City to the Charlevoix mountains is a rolling epicurean treat. Views of the St. Lawrence River are direct and constant from this modern spacious conveyance. Harry Gow
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