Canada: Railroad to the Rockies

By Anthony Lambert

There's no better way to cross Canada than on a train, says Anthony Lambert.

The Canadian is a gentle way to traverse the vastness of Canada.
The Canadian is a gentle way to traverse the vastness of Canada.

The most relaxing and convivial way to cross the immensity of Canada is on the Canadian, the flagship of VIA, which runs the national passenger service. Its sleek, silver cars dating from the 50s are redolent of the golden age of rail. Uniformed attendants wait beside each car to welcome you to your seat or compartment.

During the 4500km journey between Toronto and Vancouver, the five-day, four-night journey across four time zones offers extraordinary contrasts of five provinces, from empty boreal forest to vibrant cities, from prairies of wheat and grass to soaring mountains.

Leaving Toronto's Union Station, the train passes the CN Tower, which was the world's tallest structure when completed in 1976. There's a monument to the Chinese workers who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Once the commuter stations end, the forest begins. The train criss-crosses the Trent-Severn Canal before reaching the distinctive landscape of the Canadian Shield, which covers more than half of Canada. Its thin soil supports dense boreal forest broken up by bare rock, rivers and a multitude of lakes.

Moose, deer, mountain goats and even bears can be glimpsed during the journey.

The occasional smelter reminds one of the mineral riches beneath the Shield, and station museums and even steam locomotives and cabooses on platforms testify to the role of the railway in Canada's history.

Ontario's forests give way to the farms of Manitoba and it almost comes as a shock to see the Winnipeg skyline. The pause there gives time to admire the magnificent station. Its rotunda has provided a setting for concerts.

Passengers explore the Forks public market: cafes and restaurants in a historic warehouse at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, a trading spot for millennia.

Past Saskatoon, the country becomes hillier; oil refineries appear, and then Alberta's provincial capital, Edmonton. Landscapes on a gargantuan scale start beyond Hinton, with the appearance of the Miette Range, a great phalanx of bare rock, flecked with snow even in summer, rising above the carpet of spruce and pine.

Cameras click constantly as the train heads into the mountains, slowing to allow snaps of the most spectacular waterfalls and tall bridges.

Jasper is a popular place to break the journey but for onward passengers there is time to take a stroll along the main street.

Every twist in the track opens an enthralling landscape. Among so many peaks, it is hard to identify particular mountains, but the tallest in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson (4000m) can be seen. Shortly after Kamloops the Thompson River widens into Kamloops Lake, which attracts mallards, spotted sandpipers and ospreys.

As the railway squeezes past Hell's Gate, you may glimpse white-water rafters battling the swirling waters of the canyon, and fish ladders built to help spawning salmon battle upstream.

At the mouth of the canyon is the huge black rock named in 1861 after Lady Franklin, widow of the explorer who disappeared in the high Arctic wastes shortly after the gold rush. The train emerges into a softened topography, the fertile gardening area and dairy farms of the Fraser Valley.

Journey's end is at the old CNR terminus, which opened in 1919.

Vancouver, built on water and with mountains as a backdrop, has one of the world's most spectacular city settings - a fitting climax to the journey.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies directly to Vancouver.

Details: Sleeping-car compartments have en suite lavatory and washing facilities, and the train includes vistadomes, lounge car, showers and dining cars serving freshly cooked food.

Further information: See canadarail.ca.

- Telegraph

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