Jane Williams travels from Toronto to Vancouver in deep winter and encounters one or two unforgettable experiences that weren't in the brochure!
What brings 26 people - couples, friends holidaying together and single travellers like me - to gather at Heathrow a few days after Christmas? In the following days I learn that for some this trip is 'a journey we always talked about', for others 'an anniversary present to ourselves'
Toronto & Niagara Falls
For me, it's a chance to see a favourite country in a different light - gripped by winter under real snow. So when our city tour of Toronto proves to be more grey than snow-white, I'm concerned.
But the next day the white stuff is not in short supply as we head for Niagara, visiting an 'ice wine' vineyard where bunches of wrinkled grapes, each with a snow duvet, still hang on the vines. Niagara-on-the-Lake, an upmarket little town, is dressed with evergreens, and then it's off to lunch in the Sheraton's spectacularly-located restaurant overlooking the Falls.
In the afternoon, some of us are content to stroll beside the thundering water; others enjoy the insight (and hot chocolate) at the Visitor Centre. Four of us splash out on a helicopter ride over the Falls - a fantastic Canada winter holiday experience!
The Canadian adventure begins
The next day we board the Canadian, just across the street from the Fairmont Royal York that has been our luxurious Toronto hotel. The real adventure starts now! Simply packing the recommended 'carry on' bag is the first challenge: our suitcases travel to Vancouver in the train's luggage car.
My single compartment on the Canadian is schizophrenic. By day it boasts a comfy leather seat beside the picture window, with a foot-stool and a corner wash-basin. The foot-stool turns into a loo, while the seat disappears when the bed is pulled down from the wall. How clever! It helps to be a bit of a contortionist, because once the bed is in place, there's little space to do anything other than read and sleep. Us singletons also have to trot down the corridor for a shower, but it is warm, efficient and stacked with fluffy towels, so no real hardship. And I hasten to say that the twin compartments are positively palatial by comparison and have proper en-suite toilets!
Since it is winter, the Canadian is far from full, which means less demand for seats in the 'Park Cars' observatory decks which provide the best views of the passing scenery. There seem to be more Canadians than tourists and dinner conversations with pleasant fellow-travellers add to the enjoyment.
Crossing the Canadian Shield
Heading across the Canadian Shield, snow falls thick and fast adding inches to the already-impressive depth. Slender birches stand around lakes that are now flat white saucers. As the day goes by, pines replace the birches, their needles holding the snow in great clumps weighed down to breaking point. Just the kind of scenery you hope to see on a winter holiday in Canada!
The low afternoon sun shows up dozens of animal tracks: rabbits, foxes, but no moose or grizzlies. A small herd of deer in a snowy meadow is my best wildlife sighting. Apart from the surprise that was just around the corner, of course.
An unscheduled stop...
Human tracks - and signs of life - are few and far between. At 4am an absence of movement wakes me: we are in middle of nowhere, but a lone passenger is getting off the train. This is a Flag Stop, a 'request' stop not on the timetable. And then, disaster! At breakfast, our jovial train manager tells us a 23-car freight train has derailed up ahead. Because much of this the line is single track, we cannot get past the accident. Our unscheduled stop is in the one-horse town of Armstrong. One horse perhaps, but also boasting one bar, one diner (with one public phone), one store and quite a lot of Whitesands First Nation locals.
I can hardly wait for permission to 'de-train' the Canadian, though at minus 20 it's like hitting a cold glass wall despite wearing boots, gloves, hat and scarf. But the sun is shining, the snow squeaks underfoot and the air is bone dry: this is definitely not 'the wrong kind of snow'.
A brisk walk up Main Street, turn left at the tepee and I come face to face with a wolf. Well, it looks like a wolf. Thankfully while I'm registering panic it trots past, leaving large paw prints in the snow.
That evening one of the passengers - an astronomy professor - invites us to stargaze with him. A few yards from the train there's no light pollution: I have never seen so many stars including red and blue ones. In this magical half hour icicles form on my lashes and ice crystals in my nostrils - but a hot toddy in the bar soon warms me up.
By lunchtime next day, the Canadian's supplies are apparently running low. Not that we have noticed, because the dining car team is still serving up tasty choices at every meal. There's plenty of discussion behind the scenes. Will VIA Rail send coaches to 'rescue' us? Can we extend the trip and change our flights? As Great Rail Journeys' passengers, we're oblivious to all the phone calls, the Plans B and even C being made by our Tour Manager. We're too busy having fun: snowy walks, fiendish quizzes, stimulating conversation, good books and a permanently open bar!
The Canadian on the move again!
At last, 32 hours behind schedule, we're all aboard the Canadian for Manitoba. As we pass the de-railed train we realise what a major operation this has been: a road bulldozed through virgin forest, huge cranes lifting crumpled railcars, new track laid. And in below-freezing temperatures. We applaud the workmen as we trundle through.
Back on track we cross Saskatchewan's vast plains and Alberta's Indian country, climbing the Rockies after only a short stop in Jasper - the Canadian is trying to make up lost time. The views are awesome but monochrome under skies promising more snow.
Dropping down toward the coast the change is obvious: warmer, damper Vancouver welcomes us with drizzle as we leave the Canadian for the last time. Although our stay in the city is curtailed, we still manage to pack in Stanley Park's totem poles, Gas Town, the Capilano suspension bridge (which brings out the child in many of us) and the colourful market on Granville Island, but I resist the lure of the shopping mall in favour of Vancouver's excellent Art Gallery. Our farewell dinner is in a revolving restaurant high above the city - a dizzying way to end a memorable Canadian winter holiday. We part, vowing to hold a reunion in Armstrong in five years' time!