In April (2002) I took my first trip on Via Rail from Vancouver to Toronto on Canadian, the 4-day trans-Canada train that leaves Vancouver's Pacific Central Station every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
I had booked the trip in December, partly to avoid a possible rate increase and also to be sure of getting a roomette – as this route is popular with tour groups, sleeping accommodation may have become scarce. I also purchased a CANRAILPASS (C$423-$678 low/high season, plus sleeper fare C$694-C$1,102), which allows 12 days of travel anywhere on the Via Rail system within 30 days. The sleeper fare also includes all meals.
In preparation for six days in Toronto, I contacted Connecting Host Marge K (one among several Hosts and Advisers in the Toronto area) and asked her advice. She sent a map and some brochures and asked what sort of things I hoped to do.
After boarding at 5:30pm I went straight to the dining car where I happily discovered an excellent meal and cheerful service. Following dinner the observation car is the place to be. As the train chugged along I gazed at eagles wheeling above the Fraser River ready to pounce on dinner.
The single bedroom was something of an adventure: The "roomette" consists of a seat, sink and toilet that can be covered (makes a good foot rest). At bedtime the bed pulls down from above, covering the toilet, and is secured with a catch. If nature calls in the small hours you release the catch, and the bed springs up enough to use the toilet.
Breakfast was open seating, and I was surprised to see a lineup by 6:30am. Nobody wants to miss the spectacular mountain scenery. Unless the train is extremely late you see the Rockies in daylight either east or westbound.
As four days seemed a long time to be on the train, I stopped in the small town of Jasper, Alberta, the heart of the Rockies, and spent two nights at the Chateau Jasper (C$85 at that time). It's a friendly and comfortable place about ten minutes' walk from the downtown area.
The train leaves Jasper and mountainous country behind, and prairie lands commence as it approaches Edmonton, Alberta.
During the following three days, I passed much of the time in the dome car exchanging travel tales with other passengers, or watching for wildlife. Sightings varied with the landscape. Elk and Big Horn sheep were common around Jasper. Deer and antelope roamed the plains and farmlands of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Bear and beaver lodges might crop up anywhere.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, the train stopped long enough to visit The Forks, a market and park at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers.
To the east of Winnipeg the flat lands end as the train winds upwards again into the wilderness forests and lakes of northwestern Ontario. Here, loons and other waterfowl could be seen floating on the just-thawing lakes.
We arrived in Toronto's Union Station just before dark, and I went to the Days Inn on Carleton Street. It's a large hotel with many tour groups, and few elevators, which made for long waits. However, it has a restaurant and coffee shop and is conveniently located next to a movie theater and subway station. I paid C$80 for a basic room.
Toronto has many fine museums, which I easily reached by subway, including the Royal Ontario Museum, Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Bata Shoe Museum, and the Textile Museum.
I met Marge who was an excellent source of information. She introduced me to many interesting places in the city, including the popular St Lawrence Market, and the vibrant Toronto theater scene.
On my return trip I broke my journey again in Winnipeg, the city that boasts the coldest corner in Canada – Portage and Main – and in April, the cool, windy weather called for warm clothing and a hat.
I stayed at the new Hampton Inn (C$89), a comfortable and friendly place within two blocks of Union Station and within walking distance of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the excellent Museum of Man and Nature, and the Exchange District with its interesting shops and restaurants.
Train trips are not for the impatient, but I found the enforced idleness great for unwinding. As a solo traveler, I was seated with others in the dining car. I could join in card games, bingo, or watch a video.
Marvelous scenery, interesting stops, and a welcoming Connecting Host at your destination – a pretty good recipe for pleasant solo traveling.