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Train rage

Chugging through Canada by train is thrill enough, even when you have to finish your travels in a bus.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000

It was three days before Christmas, and the taxi had just dropped us off at the Canadian VIA rail station in bitter cold. When we flew out of Tampa the previous day, the thermometer read 80, but here in Winnipeg -- "Winterpeg," as the flight attendant had called it -- it was minus 4, Fahrenheit.

But except for the numbing cold in Winnipeg and a very chilly evening in Jasper, our trans-Canada train ride and subsequent stay in Vancouver was relatively balmy, with temperatures varying between the low 30s and the middle 50s. The high plains and mountains were mostly white, but we saw nary a snowflake from Dec. 21, 1999, through Jan. 1, 2000.

We were not concerned about the weather, however, thanks to considerate friends who supplied us with cold-weather clothing.

But we were disappointed this first evening: Our train, which was supposed to arrive at 5 p.m., did not show until after 7. By then, our hopes of seeing anything of interest from our bedroom compartment that evening had vanished because night had fallen before we pulled out of the station.

Still, we were comforted during the wait in the belief that our cozy room would be ready for us when we boarded. Wrong! We sat in a messy compartment for an hour or so until the call for dinner. We were considerably mollified by the excellent roast turkey dinner and the outstanding service.

By this time it was after 10 p.m. and we were ready to call it a day, but even though we had twice reported the unsatisfactory condition of our room, it still was not ready. We turned in desperation to the maitre d', who soon got results.

Before retiring for the night, we did enjoy looking out at the occasional whistle-stop stations and isolated farmhouses on the plains. The unpretentious strings of colored lights over farmhouse windows and lintels seemed to say that rural Manitobans like to display their Christmas spirit, but not to the hysterical degree sometimes seen in the States.

When we finally turned in, the rocking of the train, the clicking of the rails and the drawn-out hooting of the train whistle were more effective than medication. We slept late the next morning but still had time for an excellent breakfast before going up to the dome car.

The landscape we passed was completely white, though few of the countless ponds and streams were frozen over. Occasionally we saw the tracks of solitary animals traced to and along creek banks and ponds. But no wildlife yet.

The engineer had made up most of the lost time during the night, so we pulled into Edmonton almost on schedule, loafed around the hotel and, after a good night's sleep, we were ready for the mall -- the West Edmonton Shopping Mall, proclaimed the world's largest.

It is a wondrous place indeed, containing carnival rides, water slides, trained porpoises, a popular wave pool with sandy beach and, of course, a plethora of shops and boutiques.

We left the mall around 5 p.m., just ahead of an exodus of harried couples bearing beribboned packages and pushing prams occupied by tired and fretful kids.

The next morning, the day before Christmas, it was back on a train headed for Jasper, in the Canadian Rockies. On this leg of our journey we saw deer, elk and bighorn sheep. When we saw them, mostly they would be grazing. And standing around. And grazing. And chewing their cuds.

But the dome car is a great place from which to view whatever takes place along the tracks, and we enjoyed the glorious scenery.

Jasper is a picturesque village, but we didn't see much of it. It was uncomfortably cold this Christmas day, and inasmuch as we had visited Jasper previously, we decided against wandering the streets. We took a cab to our lodging, settled into our cozy room and had a room service dinner.

The day after Christmas, we reboarded the train for the eight-hour trip to Prince George. This was a scenic segment of our journey: The mountains and forests were exactly what dome cars were designed for.

About an hour before our arrival at Prince George, the conductor told us he had some good news and some bad news:

The bad news was that the railroad line we were scheduled to transfer to, British Columbia Railways (called BC Rail), had just been stopped by a strike, and we had no rail connection to Vancouver.

The good news was that BC Rail would pick us up at our hotels the next morning and would move us by bus to Vancouver. Whoopee!

What we learned once we boarded the bus was that except for a half-dozen seats, the vehicle was occupied by a German tour group. This tended to limit camaraderie.

We arrived in Vancouver that evening a couple of hours ahead of schedule and, because we missed one of the three meals we were entitled to, BC Rail gave us a 25 percent rebate on our ticket cost. The company also transported us to our hotel, saving us cabfare. But we had not passed through Whistler, one of the train stops to which we had been looking forward.

We spent the next four days and nights being tourists. We took a trolley tour of Vancouver; we shopped; we enjoyed the local color and cuisine; and we visited a number of the points of interest. But mainly, we did not look at the clock and felt no pressure to do anything in particular.

One aspect of Vancouver, though, distressed us somewhat: the prevalence of so many young, well-dressed beggars. The trick, we learned, was to keep moving and to avoid making eye contact with approaching strangers.

The weather was kind to us; it rained only one day and the temperature was mild. We did not need the borrowed, heavy overcoats in Vancouver at all.

They say that Vancouver has the second-largest Chinatown in North America. I don't doubt that. One day, I went into a grocery store offering many Asian items and asked the Chinese clerk if she had any dried mushrooms suitable for use in chop suey. She looked puzzled and said, "Chop suey? I don't know chop suey. Is that a kind of soup?"

I had forgotten that chop suey is an American invention.

We spent New Year's Eve in our hotel room watching the celebrations from around the world on TV, thankful that we did not have to be among the throngs we saw. After the world's oldest teenager, Dick Clark, brought the Times Square ball down successfully, we reminisced about Vincent Lopez, wished each other "Happy New Year," said goodbye to 1999 and retired.

The next morning, we were flying eastward. That trip was a pleasant one, though we arrived in the wee hours of Jan. 2, ready to turn in for a good night's sleep at home again.

We had a memorable vacation behind us and Y2K before us.

Warren Andrews lives in Belleair Bluffs.

Chugging through Canada by train is thrill enough, even when you have to finish your travels in a bus.

"I g-g-g-guess they were right," I stammered through chattering teeth.

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