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Canada: Vancouver to Jasper by train

Canada: Vancouver to Jasper by train
There are quicker ways to travel the 270-miles from Vancouver to Jasper, but none are quite so scenic as weaving through the Rockies on the Canadian, the magnificent stainless steel art deco-style train.
 Think Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, or the Gene Hackman action movie Narrow Margin actually set onboard the Canadian. Your imagination can easily run riot or at least turn to romance, as this trip takes a leisurely 18 hours. It's easy to switch off and contemplate every peak and waterfall, as you get up close and personal with the stunning Pyramid Falls and Mount Robson in a way you just can't from a plane.
The journey starts with a step back in time at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, built in 1919 and retaining the elegance of the heyday of Canadian Pacific Railways. Its laid-back vibe is a welcome contrast to commuter stations. As the Canadian chugs sedately out of Vancouver, you can sigh with relief that there is no rush to reach your destination, and that you're not being whizzed overhead on Vancouver's new automated Skytrain, which you can glimpse from the window as you pass the Fraser River. The Skytrain is an urban monorail wonder, but it's all about getting from A to B as quickly as possible. Now that Amtrak owns the Canadian railroad track, you have to go with the flow on the Canadian, as freight is a priority, so delays are common. In the winter you also need to factor in the snow effect. It's not unknown for a car to skid into the train at a crossing and delay it for four to five hours.
he retro experience continues onboard as the train looks just as it did in the 1950s. It's streamlined and functional with smart neat deco touches – you won't find the frilly opulence of Orient Express carriages just a stylish slice of late-1950s Mad Men realism.
There are two ways to travel on Via Rail's Canadian, and we tried both. Travelling out, we took the cheapest option, Comfort Class, where your reclining seat doubles as a bed, and the steward hands out mini pillows and blankets at night. The seats are are roomy and comfortable. Take a tip from the station guard and sit in the middle of the carriage, away from the wheels and toilets. At £119 one way at peak summer time, the ticket is great value as the overnight trip doubles as a one-night hotel stay. And, like it or not, you get to meet fellow passengers. We were befriended by two men of Kent travelling as part of a package tour; a Canadian couple, returning to Winnipeg after visiting their grandchildren; a Toronto woman who didn't fly; the inevitable trainspotter; a South African preacher and his wife; a Canadian folk singer. And that's without even trying.
Like cruises, eating and drinking takes on more significance on a long train journey. As we observed enviously, Comfort Class passengers tend to pack their own picnics. Foodies are advised to stock up on goodies at Granville Island Market ( in Vancouver before boarding, as there's little to entice at Pacific Central station itself. Culinarywise, it's no Grand Central. You can't pull up at the oyster bar, as there's just a McDonald's and overpriced newsagents selling doorstop sandwiches and crisps. However, there are several options onboard. The dining carriage designated to Comfort class offers two to three sittings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus there's a small concession selling snacks and drinks, so no need to go hungry. They don't allow you to alcohol wine at your seat, which is a blessing, but the domed observatory carriage is pleasant spot for a pre-dinner aperitif (buy your own at the snack bar).
After a night of lightly tossing and turning in our seats, we were eager and up for breakfast at the unheard of hour of 6.30am. The porridge doused in creamy milk and lashings of maple syrup was delicious, ditto pancakes and cooked breakfasts. Even lunch is a much anticipated affair of three courses. Home-made soup is followed by substantial snacks such as chicken wraps, fish cakes or salads, plus a choice of very palatable Canadian wines, followed by a dessert. Considering you're a captive audience the prices are very fair – around £7-£10 a head for three courses, without wine.
Dining in this section is even more of an event, and our evening meal was exemplary. We shared a table with a couple from Spain on a North American tour who, over the three-course dinner, told us of their trip from Toronto to Vancouver (3-days and 3 nights). They were impressed by the comfort of the beds and the high standard of the food – so much better than on American trains. And we can vouch for the quality: for dinner we started with a simple but freshly dressed salad and fish soup, then moved on to tender lamb chops with blueberry balsamic sauce, served with Canadian Inniskilin Pinot Noir and Chicken breast Florentine with another Canadian red – a toothsome Jackson-Triggs Shiraz (wines average around £4 for a small glass, so buying the bottle is much better value). Whites include a Domaine Mission Hill Chardonnay and a Vignoble Cave Spring Riesling. A handsome platter of cheese rounded things of nicely. The chefs source locally en route for freshness and flavour, and no doubt better value.
Food standards are high as the dishes are cooked to order by chefs, apart from puddings which are bought en route. The chefs make good use of their long and busy day by getting as much of the vegetable and sauce prep done in advance. There's very little down time, as after they've served the guests, it's time to feed the staff. There aren't many dishes they can't cook on the train, although soufflés and fried chips are out of the question because of the constant train motion. Watch the two chefs at work and what strikes you is how skilled they get at chopping vegetables with one hand while holding on to the counter with the other.
Without a doubt, the dining interludes are a real highlight, even if you don't relish sharing a table with strangers. We found it added to our anecdote quota. It's not often that you get to dine with a South African preacher who is a big fan of Margaret Thatcher and insists on saying grace before you tuck in. It all makes for interesting table talk.
Plus you don't miss a stretch of scenery as you wine and dine. At lunch, a few hours out of Jasper, the train slowed almost to a standstill, so we could take shots of the stunning Pyramid Falls. The train flows quietly by spectacular sights at a pace that allows you time to take them all in: a few highlights include – Rainbow Canyon, with its Jaws of Death Gorge, Suicide Rapids and Cape Horn; Mount Robson; Moose Lake and Yellowhead Lake and Pass.
What's great about Via Rail's Canadian service is that it caters for all classes – those who want a trip of a lifetime, no expense spared, and those who can only afford a budget trip of a lifetime, who come with their gourmet snacks, a pair of earplugs and an open mind. Whichever you choose, you won't be disappointed. Sightseeing has never been so much fun.
- The Canadian route runs across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver, and leaves three time per week from Toronto and Vancouver
- The trains were built in the late 1950s, and the Silver and Blue Class, now called Sleeper Touring Class, was introduced in 1990.
- Comfort class fares from Vancouver to Jasper cost from £79 off peak; £119 peak per person. Sleeper Touring Class one-way costs, from £289 per person off peak; £459 per person peak time.
Recommended hotels
Vancouver The Listel Hotel ( Chic modern West End hotel, just a 10-minute walk from the shops on Robson St. The lobby and corridor art displays sets it apart from the corporate chains, while it still offers business amenities such as wi-fi, pay-per-view TV and free coffee and tea-making facilities. Rooms from CAD178 for a double per night.
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge ( You just keep blinking at the beauty of this stunning just-out-of-town setting. The lodge and its wooden cabins overlook Lake Beauvert. Fairmont service, the most comfortable beds, and fair-priced bar and lounge food make this luxury affordable. Rooms from CAD180 for a double per night.

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22 April 2010
By: Melanie Leyshon
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