Sunday, April 16, 2023

My first day on VIA Rail's The Canadian: Toronto to Capreol, Ontario

VIA Rail's cross country "The Canadian" -- four-and-a-half days across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver -- is something that has been on my bucket list for years. I set it as an aspirational. far off goal when I opened my VIA Preference account about 20 years ago. 

I watched a lot of travel YouTubes during the pandemic, especially long-distance train journeys. The Orient Express, journeys from Russia to Siberia, across the Australian outback, and many cross-country Amtrak journeys. And I probably watch every video on YouTube about The Canadian.

This isn't a trip that's about the destination. There are much faster and cheaper ways to get to the Best Coast. It's about the journey. It's about being cut off from the Internet and cellular access for much of the time. About sitting back and watching the varied landscape of Canada go by, and getting a perspective you could never get from flying over. It's about great food prepared onboard, and meeting and getting to know your fellow travelers.

Earlier this winter with a trip to Toronto and back on VIA, I my VIA Preference points reached that aspirational 20 year-old goal. I was going to wait for a bit, but with the program terms changing in ways that would potentially make it harder to redeem, and require me to pay the taxes on a trip that, depending on the season, could be priced around $2.000, I found availability and booked a trip for Easter. Points only for a cabin for one, didn't cost me a dime.

As some background, you can book into either economy or sleeper plus. In the latter, you get meals and some kind of bed. In the former, you get a chair. That's fine for a few hours, but I'm old now and sleeping in a chair for one night, never mind five, is a no-go.

Within sleeper plus there are four increasingly expensive options: a berth, my cabin for one, a bedroom for two, and prestige class. 

A berth is a large seat where you face another person. During the day, the two seats are put together for a bed and an upper bunk with ladder comes down from the ceiling. You're basically in the hall, with a privacy curtain but no door. Only the lower berth has a window; the slightly cheaper upper berth has none. There is a bathroom and shower down the hall. No charging plugs, you need to go go the park car for that.

Next up is my cabin for one. You have a curtain and a door that locks from the inside only for more privacy, with a sink, potable water spout, and toilet/footrest, and a seat. At night, a pre-made bed swings down from the wall. Two power outlets for charging. Every review I watched or read claimed they never used the in-cabin toilet, so I will tow the party line there and say I didn't either. 

Then there's the bedroom for two. It's more space, two seats with an ensuite (separate private) bathroom and shower, with two bunk beds coming down for sleeping.

Finally, the newest luxury service is called Prestige Class. You can a big room with an inclusive stocked fridge, a TV with pre-loaded programming, a large couch in daytime mode, and ensuite bathroom with shower. At night, the couch is converted to a double-bed. They get reserved seats in the observation car, free drinks and booze, and priority dining. But at around $4K in the off season per person based on double occupancy, so $8K and way up for a couple, not at all worth it. It was sold out on my trip though, so there's a market and good on VIA. As one of the train staff told me, it means they get to have a job longer. So that's good.

So back to my first day. We pulled out of Toronto on time and began chugging North, as getting around the lakes and out of Ontario takes the better part of two days. We were quickly behind due to freight traffic, which has priority on the rails. They make the time up by reducing the fresh air stops, and so I didn't make it off the train for a breather until the next day in Sioux Lookout.

I did take a walk around the train though. There were two observation cars, one forward of my cabin and one at the back. The one at the back was the swanky park car, and the front half was reserved for Prestige travelers making it very challenging to ever get a seat. 

It was also a longer trek from my cabin, so I went to the one two cars forward, which is also where the economy and sleeper areas met. It was always each to find a seat here so that's where I hung out, until the new crew that came on in Winnipeg told me it was economy only in that observation car. I complied, but it doesn't seem right to restrict non-Prestige passengers to a handful of seats in the park car.

Anyway, the weather turned rainy as we went through cottage country and I looked for my friends' cabin as we passed by Bala. I had late dining and headed to the dining car for lunch just after Washago.

One of the interesting things about this trip is you are seated with different people. The demographic onboard definitely skewed to older retirees, some doing the trip for the first time and others veterans of many Canadian journeys. I was seated with an older couple that had gotten on in Washago. He used to work in Scarborough, and she was a retired teacher. They were going to Vancouver and then taking the next train back. That's a lot of train time for me. I'd have another meal with them later in the trip.

For lunch, a soup is offered. I didn't always take it, but on day one I did have the cream of mushroom. It was nothing special.

For my entrée I went with the shrimp and scallops, served on a bed of greens and, as most lunches were, a slice of melon. It was good but I didn't notice the scallops at first. As my dining companion noted, they were small and the shrimp was wrapped around them. It was a nice light lunch in what would be days of heavy meals.

And, of course, there was dessert. it was carrot caramel cake and it was divine.

For dinner I sat with a tradesperson who had been doing a contract in Etobicoke and was on his way back home to Edmonton. He wasn't in a hurry, so decided to take the train for fun. We also had breakfast two days later in Saskatchewan.

There was a choice of soup or salad with dinner, I went with an unremarkable onion soup.

My entrée was a delicious beef tenderloin with veg, rice (I could have picked potato) and mushrooms with a brown gravy. It was delicious. I would have liked it with a bit more pink (I'd call it medium well) but cooking it to order for everyone would be pretty impossible. 

As we dined I missed the abbreviated fresh air stop in Capreol, but the desert of salted caramel cheesecake (I misidentified it in the video) was worth staying in the train air.

It was dark at this point so I retired to my cabin to put the bed down and get to sleep. Early to bed, early to rise would be my practice on this trip and it suited me well. 

How was the bed? How did I sleep? I'll save that for next week's report on day two of my The Canadian journey, when we finally leave Ontario behind and cross to friendly Manitoba.

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