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A Cozy Conquest OF Frozen Canada


© St. Petersburg Times

It might seem at first like a nutty idea, but adventurous travelers are discovering the delights of visiting Canada in the dead of winter.

When I say Canada, I mean most of the country -- starting out from Toronto in the east and going all the way to British Columbia on the Pacific Coast. And making this 3,000-mile trek in winter -- when the temperatures are often below zero, the snow thick and the lakes solidly iced over -- is a big part of the adventure.

This isn't as daunting as it might seem. We're not talking about camping out in tents, scaling snow-caped peaks and the like. You won't need a wardrobe of Arctic-weather gear, just a heavy parka, long johns, a sweater or two and a pair of thick gloves.

That's because the trip I have in mind includes enjoying first-rate accommodations, good food and truly magnificent scenery while traveling in total comfort.

The secret: Take the train.

I know, Americans have a thing about trains -- as in avoiding them. When the destination is a few hours away, we take the car; anything longer, we head for the airport.

For many of us, spending three nights and the better part of four days cooped up in a pitching and swaying train seems like a bum idea, not to mention a colossal waste of time.

In Canada, you will learn to get over this hang-up. The trains here are clean and well-maintained. The cars don't pitch and sway, and the onboard service is as good or better than what you'll find in many first-class hotels or restaurants. Taking the train across Canada isn't just a way of getting from point A to point B, it's a highlight -- maybe even THE highlight -- of the vacation.

This is especially true when the train is as good as The Canadian, the mainly first-class express that makes the four-day run from Toronto to Vancouver. On the way, it goes through some of the best scenery you'll find in North America, most notably Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies.

For a journey this long, it's worth considering a "roomette." Despite the name, the ones on The Canadian provide a spacious, easy-chair type seat by day and a comfortable single bed by night. The roomettes are private, with locking doors, and there's a huge picture window to let you enjoy the scenery.

Until April 30, Canada's Via Rail, which operates The Canadian, charges $516 one-way from Toronto to Vancouver for a roomette with its own washup facilities and a toilet. A larger room for two goes for roughly twice that.

Bigger cabins and even suites are available for traveling families. The prices include a bathrobe, slippers and toiletries for using the well-appointed shower at the end of each car, all meals and a lot of TLC.

Before you conclude the price is a bit steep, keep in mind that you'd be spending almost that much for three nights and four days of hotel rooms and meals. And meanwhile you are being transported across a vast continent to arrive in Vancouver, one of the most enjoyable cities in North America.

Now about traveling in the "dead of winter", when tens of thousands of Canadians, nobody's fools, are heading south for the Florida sunshine. I had been to Canada many times before, but always in the summer or early fall. It was time to see what a full-fledged Canadian winter was like, time to find out what my Canadian friends have been putting up with every year.

Though I now understand why they like Florida so much, Canada in the wintertime is not to be missed.

When I started my train excursion in Toronto, it was bitterly cold -- about zero degrees Fahrenheit, with a good wind making sure you felt it. But I was staying in the Royal York Hotel, just across the street from the train station and connected to it by a heated underground passageway, something most bigger Canadian cities have in abundance.

After ticketing and baggage check-in a special lounge for first-class passengers -- no hassle, no lines, complimentary coffee -- it was onto The Canadian and settling into the roomette. A few minutes later the train is on its way.

Within a few hours, the train is winding its way between hundreds of frozen lakes and ponds, each with what looks like dozens of oversize outhouses on the ice -- fishing cabins set over holes chopped through the ice. It may be below zero outside, but the anglers inside the cabins are kept warm by oil or wood stoves that allow them to cook their catch without even getting up from where they caught it.

Six hours after leaving Toronto, the sun has set and The Canadian eases to its first stop for supplies at a rail crossing called Capreol. The stop is for 15 minutes so there's time to get out and walk around. It's 15 below zero outside -- as cold as anything I'd ever been in before -- and everything in sight seems encased in ice. The walk along the track siding is brisk and brief.

Shortly after we get back under way, it's time for dinner in the dining car. The meal is a four-course extravaganza with a choice of meat or fish entrees. I choose a veal dish and red wine to go with it. It's worthy of a very good restaurant and except for the beverage, all included in the ticket price.

The roomette bunk bed is turned down when I get back from dinner and the bed is surprisingly comfortable. I read a magazine article and watch a few dim cabin lights disappearing in the distance. Life is good, and within minutes I fall asleep.

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausages, juice and coffee the next morning, it's time to explore the train.

The Canadian turns out to have three double-level, glass-roofed "dome" cars, one of them the boat-tailed lounge car at the rear end of the train. Sitting 15 feet or so above the track bed, you get a panoramic view of the countryside and critters, including elk, moose, rams, coyotes and bears scampering into the birch and fir trees as the train roars by.

"All the coyotes along the track are fat," says Steve Godsell, the train's assistant engineer.

I'm visiting Godsell and chief engineer Vick Cantera in the diesel locomotive cabin as they take The Canadian up to about 65 mph through Manitoba Province. After a pause to sip some black coffee and adjust his throttle settings, Godsell explains that a speeding train isn't able to do much about avoiding animals on the track. Every few minutes, he points out a dead elk or bear just off trackside.

"That's why the coyotes are fat. The buzzards, too," he says.

Going back to one of the dome cars and enjoying the scenery over a mid-morning cup of coffee, the track kill isn't so evident. What is are the vast white spaces of what's known as the "Canadian shield," the glaciated flatlands that make up most of central Canada.

Nancy Abu Haydar of Wellesly, Mass., is up in the dome car as well and is having trouble getting through her novel. There's simply too much to watch out the window to keep your eyes in a book.

"This is a real vacation," says the 72-year-old. "It's a way to get away from all the normal things in life."

Coming from somebody who spends half the year in Massachusetts and the other half in Beirut, Lebanon, where her husband works at the American University, this is a real testament. Abu Haydar knows about different.

"Compared to most of the kind of traveling I have to do, this is something completely different," says Abu Haydar. "It's so tranquil, so relaxing. It's a world all of its own. If more people rode trains like this we wouldn't need mental hospitals."

The train rolls into Winnipeg for a half-hour stop, long enough for me to scout around downtown.

In the station, a Via Rail employee tells me there's an old saying in Manitoba: "It's not cold unless your spit freezes before it hits the ground."

I bundle up in my parka, gloves, knit cap and scarf and go outside. It's 30 below zero; there's a brisk wind and I hold out for about five minutes before deciding that a cup of hot tea inside my well-warmed roomette might be a better idea. Downtown Winnipeg will have to wait for another visit, in spring or summer.

It's almost as cold when we arrive the next day in Edmonton, capital of the western province of Alberta. Edmonton is a big town, one I'd decided beforehand to explore for a few days. One reason is that the city has the biggest, most bizarre indoor shopping complex in the world, the West Edmonton Mall. Another is that Alberta is known for its steaks -- Canadians claim they're the best in the world.

The West Edmonton Mall is indeed stupendous. Not too many places have full-scale indoor roller coasters and underwater submarine rides, beaches and wave pools for the kids, and more than 800 stores for the grownups.

As for Alberta's steaks, they are as good as any I've had in North America. The only steaks I can think of that might have a slight edge are those served in Buenos Aires.

It's finally time for the last leg of the trip. The next Canadian comes through the Edmonton station and I catch it for the climb over the Rockies, the scenic highlight of the trip, and the run into Vancouver.

The best part of the trip is Jasper National Park, high in the Rockies and on the border between Alberta and British Columbia. Rolling into Jasper, which doubles as the park headquarters, we notice that the tracks as well as some of the town's streets are crowded with elk, hundreds of them. We're warned that even though the elk are relatively tame, it's not a good idea to approach them.

The Rockies are stupendous, especially when the snows are deep and the skiers are out in force. Seeing them from the dome car of a moving train just adds to the enjoyment.

After a few hours of this, the sun begins setting, the landscape flattening and it's dinner time, the final dinner before we hit Vancouver the next morning. A decent bottle of red wine with dinner makes it just about perfect as the mountains fade in the distance. If you go The prices noted are for the winter season only. They go up in spring and up again in summer. It is a good idea to book well in advance; contact Via Rail at (800) 561-9181, or consult a travel agent.

Originally published February 23,1997

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