Touring Canada by Train: It’s The Way to Go

By Stephen Hartshorne

A porter at the Ottawa Via Rail Station
A porter at the Ottawa Via Rail Station. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne.

I just got back from a nine-day train trip across Canada, and I had a blast!

There’s something about train trips that I have always loved, ever since I was a little boy riding with my grandfather on the club car to his office in New York.

There’s something so relaxing about the rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels and the gentle rocking of the train. And your time is your own. You can take a nap and catch up on your zzz’s or read a book or just sit in a trance watching the countryside whizz by.

Grandpa and his fellow commuters liked to play bridge. In fact, they’d take the local instead of the express so they could get in a few extra rubbers. For me, it was blogging and tweeting and Facebooking about my adventures in Canada.

VIA Rail, Canada’s Train

VIA Rail, the Canadian Crown Corporation in charge of passenger rail service, has invested almost a billion dollars in upgrading service and equipment on their main corridor from Quebec to Toronto, including improvements to their WiFi service, and they invited a group of bloggers from prestigious websites like GoNOMAD to try it out. Along for the ride was podcaster and blogger Gary Arnt, and the world’s top blogger, Nomadic Matt.

In 2006 Via Rail was one of the first transportation services in the world to offer free WiFi to all classes of passengers, and they have put a high priority on connectivity on board the trains and in the stations. They recently upgraded service again, and it’s the best you can get on any mode of transportation in the world.

The historic Chateau Frontenac was built by the Candian Pacific Railroad to attract passengers.
The historic Chateau Frontenac was built in 1893 by the Candian Pacific Railroad to attract passengers.

We visited four great Canadian cities, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec, and that gave us plenty to blog and tweet about — the all-night “Nuit Blanche” festival in Toronto, the Houses of Parliament and the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the Lantern Festival at the Montreal Botanical Gardens, the orchards and vineyards of the Ile d’Orleans in Quebec, and lots of other cool attractions.

Writing on the Train

On the train, and in the comfortable lounges in the stations, we were able to write about our visit, share our photos with the folks back home, and catch up with email back at the office. Since we were traveling business class, we had excellent three-course meals with wine; the hot towels were a nice touch, too.

Rail travel has always been important in a far-flung country like Canada. The Western provinces insisted on the construction of a cross-country railroad before they agreed to join the Canadian Federation in the 1870s.

Around the turn of the century, competing railroad magnates built a series of splendid hotels like the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa to attract rail passengers to Canada, and these hotels offer atmosphere, luxury, and service right out of the Gilded Age.

The Via Rail Station in Quebec, built in the style of the Chateau Frontenac
The Via Rail Station in Quebec, built in the style of the Chateau Frontenac

Quebec’s Famous Frontenac

The historic Chateau Frontenac (now called Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac) towers above the Old City of Quebec and the Plains of Abraham, where the fate of Canada was decided in 1756 in the famous battle between the British and the French.

Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met here to discuss strategy during World War II, and it has hosted celebrities from Charles Lindberg and Grace Kelly to Charles De Gaulle and Ronald Reagan.

For movie buffs it is probably best remembered from the opening scenes of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “I Confess,” filmed in Quebec City, starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden.

The view from the National Gallery of Canada. The Houses of Parliament are on the right and the Chateau Laurier is on the left.
The view from the National Gallery of Canada. The Houses of Parliament are on the right and the Chateau Laurier is on the left.

It was built in 1893 by William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, best known for overseeing the construction of the first Canadian transatlantic railroad.

The Frontenac was booked up when we visited (We stayed at the equally luxurious Chateau Laurier Quebec), but we had a lovely luncheon there with Catherine Lapierre, assistant director of public relations, who gave us the complete tour.

From the roof gardens where their chef keeps his beehives, to the palatial suites, to the commodious conference rooms, the inside of this historic hotel is just as magnificent as the outside.

Not to be outdone, Charles Melville Hays of the rival Grand Trunk Railway began construction in 1909 of a chateau-style hotel in Ottawa, the Chateau Laurier Ottawa. It was to open on April 26, 1912, and Hays was returning from England to attend the ceremony when he perished aboard the HMS Titanic. They held a subdued ceremony a month later.

The lobby of the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, known as the Third House of Parliament
The lobby of the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, known as the Third House of Parliament

Because of its proximity to government buildings and national landmarks in the capital, and because so many important meetings have taken place there, the Chateau Laurier has come to be known as the “third house of parliament.”

Shirley Temple and the Dalai Lama

This hotel has also hosted its share of celebrities including Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrich, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama.

I had the chance to stay there, and I have to say it really was a thrill. The grandeur of the architecture, the patina on the paneling, the exquisite antique furnishings, and, of course, the service… It was a trip back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

The first of the grand Canadian railway hotels, the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, opened in 1878 as a symbol of the nation’s new prosperity and entertained the great celebrities of the day including Mark Twain and Sarah Bernhardt. It’s an office building now. In Montreal, we stayed at W, a very hip luxury hotel right on Victoria Square.

Shops in Kensington Market, a distintive multicultural neighborhood in Toronto
Shops in Kensington Market, a distinctive multicultural neighborhood in Toronto

Cosmopolitan Toronto

Our trip began in Toronto, the New York of Canada, where more than 130 languages are spoken by more than 200 ethnic groups. Half the population was born outside Canada. There are five Chinatowns, two Little Italies, Little India, Greektown, Koreatown, and many others.

We stayed at the Delta Chelsea, a luxury hotel specializing in family travel. They have a Family Fun Centre on the second floor with a pool, a teen center, an indoor water slide and a year-round summer camp for kids.

Rockin’ Ronto

Toronto really rocks; you feel so much more connected to the world than you do in the US. We make a show of embracing diversity in the US, but here they’re actually walking the walk. And there are so many ethnic groups that everybody is a minority.

I know a lot of Americans, all members of one particular ethnic group, who are very unsettled by that prospect. I guess they’re just too accustomed to being the dominant culture.

Theresa Archibald, from All About Toronto Tours, who’s originally from Chile, took us on a tour of markets and shops and funky neighborhoods of every possible ethnicity. We went up the CN Tower and then went over to the huge St. Lawrence Market to have a pea-meal bacon sandwich at the Carousel Bakery, which you have to do if you visit Toronto. I think it’s some kind of city ordinance.

Revelers at Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival in Toronto
Revelers at Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival in Toronto

Dining at the Drake

We dined at a cool hotel in the Design District called The Drake where art is such a big part of the experience that they have a full-time curator. Famous and not-so-famous artists often stay there in exchange for works of art that become part of the collection.

That night crowds thronged the streets as part of an all-night art festival called “Nuit Blanche,” an excellent opportunity to carouse with a few million of your fellow humans.

The next day it was off to Ottawa where we toured the houses of Parliament and the famous Rideau Canal, a 123-mile waterway constructed in the 1830s so that, in the event of war with the United States, military supplies could be transported across Canada.

Thankfully, that war never came, and the canal is used for pleasure boats and, in winter, a five-mile stretch in Ottawa becomes the world’s largest skating rink. Many Ottawans skate to and from work.

Detail from the National War Memorial in Ottawa
Detail from the National War Memorial in Ottawa

Ottawa was chosen as the capital of Canada by Queen Victoria in 1857 back when it was just a rough-and-tumble logging camp.

Great Museums

Now it’s every bit the national capital with lots of grand architecture and statuary, as well as dozens of really great museums, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canadian War Museum, the Bytown Museum and the Royal Canadian Mint.

Ottawa is also host to the largest tulip festival in the world which began in 1945 when Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, later Queen Juliana, sent 100,000 tulips to the city to thank the people for providing her family a place of safety during World War II.

So every year, in May, hundreds of thousands of people come to see the tulips in Ottawa that now number in the millions.

We drove by the prime minister’s residence and the embassies of nations around the world. Ottawans were amused when the US embassy, known locally as “Battleship America,” appropriated another lane of traffic to install yet another row of concrete barriers. The US spends so much more money, but Canadians feel so much safer. How is that?

Ottawa's Byward Market
Ottawa’s Byward Market

Ottawa’s Byward Market

We toured Ottawa’s Byward Market, which hosts one of the country’s largest farmers’ markets as well as a diverse collection of restaurants, cafes, shops, and craftsmen, some of them hidden away in little cobblestone courtyards.

The restaurants all use fresh local foods. The waiter at the Murray Street Charcuterie where we dined was able to name the individual farms where their ingredients came from. By the way, be sure to try the duck poutine.

Then it was off to Montreal, where met up with Tanya Churchmuch of Montreal Tourism, who showed us the city’s cool new BIXI bike-share system. One swipe of a credit card at any of the solar-powered “nodes” all over the city and you can take a bike and ride it anywhere you want and just put it back in the rack at another node. And the first hour is free!

Then we had a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique, which you have to do when you visit Montreal — another municipal ordinance.

Mont-Royal Montreal

A solar-powered Bixi bike node in Montreal
A solar-powered Bixi bike node in Montreal

Then we took a tour of Mont-Royal with beautiful panoramas of the city and the St. Lawrence Valley and viewed the Otto Dix exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.

In the evening we went to the Magic of Lanterns exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Gardens and later at the Restaurant Garde-Manger in the Old City, I had the most delicious meal I have ever eaten: tender bison steaks with an egg on top and foie gras on top of that then scallops with bacon. Not hard to see what punches my ticket!

From there we took another relaxing train ride to Quebec, where we checked into the luxurious Chateau Laurier Quebec, where everything was exactement comme il faut. You know you’re in French territory when you can buy a glass of wine from a vending machine by the elevators. We dined at Restaurant Le Pain Béni, where I had the most tender and delicious venison I have ever eaten.

The next day Sharon Frenette of Quebec Tourism gave us a tour of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the spectacular Montmorency Falls which tumbles 272 feet into the St. Lawrence river.

Vineyards on the Ile d'Orleans in Quebec
Vineyards on the Ile d’Orleans in Quebec

Then we took a tour of the Ile d’Orleans, the ‘Garden of Quebec’ known for its strawberries, its maple sugar, and its apple orchards and wineries. It was like touring the French countryside. We stopped to sample cider and wine and liqueurs made from black currants.

On my last day in Canada I spent the whole day wandering around Quebec, and it’s a lovely city for wandering.

I reconnoitered the Plains of Abraham, where the fate of Canada was decided two and a half centuries ago, and descended one of the staircases down the cliffs that have protected this strategic city against every assault over the centuries, except for one.

Legend has it that the British general who led that one successful assault in 1756, Major General James Wolfe, got the idea when he saw women climbing down to do their washing. His troops scaled the cliffs in the early morning, taking the French by surprise, and the rest is history.

Donald Beaulieu was our engineer from Ottawa to Montreal. He's been an engineer for 29 years with Candian National and then with Via Rail.
Donald Beaulieu was our engineer from Ottawa to Montreal. He’s been an engineer for 29 years with Candian National and then with Via Rail.

Both Wolfe and the defending general, Montcalm, received mortal wounds in the battle, which gave Great Britain control of Canada.

But while the British did govern here for 150 odd years, take it from me, Quebec is still French and always will be. And it’s great to have a piece of France right here in North America so we can go abroad without the trouble of crossing the ocean!

About Via Rail

Via Rail is a Canadian crown corporation that took over passenger service from the Canadian National Railway and the Candian Pacific Railway in 1978.

It’s both a public and a private enterprise because, besides operating routes in the busy Toronto-Quebec Corridor, Via Rail also provides an economic lifeline to many remote communities on routes that do not generate enough revenue to cover their direct costs.

The company carries about four million passengers a year on 480 trains running on more than 8,700 miles of track, serving eight of Canada’s ten provinces (all but Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island).

Luz Raquel, originally from the Dominican Republic, was our stewardess. She used to work for an airline, but says she prefers working on terra firma.
Luz Raquel, originally from the Dominican Republic, was our stewardess on the train to Montreal. She used to work for an airline, but says she much prefers working on terra firma.

Outside the Toronto-Quebec corridor, the company operates The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver three times a week and The Ocean from Montreal to Halifax six times a week, as well as other routes that contribute to tourism in both eastern and western Canada.

Last year the company’s on-time performance was 83 percent, and Via Rail President Marc Laliberte says he’s determined to increase it to 90 percent in the next few years.

While government support for Via Rail has been up and down over the years, like its US cousin Amtrak, since 2007 Canada has invested nearly a billion dollars in passenger rail service, and there’s every indication this trend will continue as public support grows for sustainable policies and practices.

The Train is Green

Because traveling by train is the green way to go. The entire transportation sector in Canada, Laliberte reports, generates 27 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of that 27 percent, 84 percent is from road transport, while only three percent is from railways, and passenger service accounts for only a small fraction of that.

At an environmental conference in Vancouver last month, Laliberte outlined Via Rail’s ambitious plans to make Via Rail even greener by reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and creating green teams to work on projects like waste reduction and recycling.

He said the company is also working to provide “seamless transfers” to other modes of transport.

“Intermodality, or the way that different modes of intercity transportation complement each other and provide passengers with relatively seamless transfers from one mode to another, is still not very advanced in North America compared to Europe and Asia,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction, though.”

“For instance, in some cases, the transportation providers share the same facility such as in the Vancouver and Quebec City train stations but have no agreement between them for selling each other’s tickets. We are working to make that better.”

Via Rail also works with the hospitality and tourism industry throughout the country to design tours and packages for vacationers in various regions. You can design your own package at their website.

The railroad also has a virtual tour guide named Vivian who writes a fun blog called Vivian is Virtual. It’s a great place to get ideas about vacations in Canada, listing all kinds of fairs, festivals, cultural events and other attractions.

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