The romance of the rails

There’s no shame in being a cult traveller when your inspiration is a delicious screwball comedy rife with hilarious adventure. And there’s no mischief in using a romantic icon to lure your partner on a lively jaunt destined for plenty of cuddles with beautiful scenery on side.

So with Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like it Hot – the movie voted Best Comedy of the Century by the American Film Institute – I convinced my honey that a trip to the Rockies aboard The Canadian (Via Rail’s romantically refurbished train) would tickle our fancies.

If you recall, Some Like it Hot tells the tale of two Prohibition-era jazz musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and try to elude the mob by slipping undercover (dressed in drag) to cross the country by train with an all-girl band. One scene – where they squeeze into an upper berth with the voluptuous Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) – is the quintessential farce of a topsy-turvy tease.

That scene plus two promises – not to sing Monroe’s mantra I Wanna Be Loved by You off key and not to kick my guy off the upper berth – clinched our trip to Jasp.

Mind you, I had to sell him on Via Rail’s “Silver and Blue” service. When The Canadian was first introduced in 1955, the streamlined stainless steel fleet was an innovative pacesetter. Its avant-garde art deco design boasted a panoramic sky-lit Dome car located inside a bullet-shaped caboose. Today, after major refurbishing, it has comfortable interiors, showers in the sleeping cars and designated “romantic rooms.”

Via Rail delivers on promises
After boarding The Canadian in Toronto, we checked out our “romantic room.” Sure enough, as Via Rail’s brochure had promised, the spacious suite (converted from two bedrooms with a good-sized double bed and “his” and “hers” washrooms) was elegantly set with complimentary roses and sparkling wine.

We dashed to the Dome just in time to gaze up at the CN Tower as we pulled out of Toronto’s Union Station. After lunch, the Bullet Lounge was in full swing, alive with chatter.

A young Australian photographer, admiring my camera, struck up a conversation. “For great pictures while at high speeds, angle your camera against the window, looking forward or back, not straight out,” he suggested. Soon everyone was comparing notes. He planned to hike in Jasper National Park.

Singles from Italy on a cross-Canada tour were “riding the Canadian dream.” A savvy German couple who’d experienced all the world’s luxury trains, including the Orient Express and the African Bleu, were adding The Canadian to their list. A young couple from Brockville, Ontario made everyone chuckle when they flipped a coin to see who would sleep on the upper and lower berths. “Tails, I win. Heads, she loses,” he said, insisting “the upper is more fun.” Soon talk turned to upper berths, then that flirtatious scene from Some Like it Hot and the movie’s universal acclaim.

We were nibbling hors d’oeuvres when the train began cutting through the rugged Cambrian Shield, Ontario’s billion-year-old rocky base filled with crystal lakes and rushing rivers.  Scenes that flashed by will last a lifetime: towering pines on rock-island pedestals; red-winged blackbirds and blue jays hovering over marshes fringed with wispy reeds; forests of silver birch trees, standing erect like white lightening rods.

Dinner that night was a dazzling affair. The crew had transformed the dining car with royal blue chair covers and tablecloths. After dining on filet mignon and salmon, we cuddled in the Dome under starlit skies. Never once did I succumb to temptation to croon a tune or mimic Monroe’s “Boop boop de doo.” Later, as we snuggled under plump duvets, the soothing rhythm of the train rocked us to sleep.

While we breakfasted on omelets and pancakes, the view whizzed by in split-second frames.  Hearty black spruce forests bordered the small, pulp-industry town of Sioux Lookout.  Later, in Minaki, a graceful moose waded knee-deep in water, nudging his young forward with his antlers. Nearby, a fisherman raised his trophy pike for all to see. 

Land of natural beauty
The train suddenly entered the black void of a mountain tunnel. Outside again, birch trees flew by. Chubby bear cubs, frolicking on a rocky hill, stopped on their hind legs as we whizzed by. A group of British retirees, on a “trip of a lifetime” started raving. “Canada is spectacular… Canadians do things so nicely…try harder…The Canadian exceeds our expectations” Thank you,” I said, beaming on behalf of my countrymen in the Dome. At that moment, we shared the pride that this land of jagged granite, clear waters and wild creatures is ours.

Once in a while we passed wood-frame station houses.  No longer in use, they are proud testimonials of an era when the railroad built the nation and they were the sole links between communities.

Just before Winnipeg the landscape shifted.  Craggy shields and lakes gave way first to bushland, then to undulating prairie grainfields. Rolling toward Saskatchewan, the prairies flattened into calm stretches of fertile land interrupted only by the occasional lonely grain elevator. 

After another sumptuous dinner, we relaxed in the Dome as The Canadian rode a mountainside track into the setting sun. Following the curves of a deep river canyon, the train slithered before us like a sleek silver serpent. The sky turned pink, then indigo. Starry constellations burst out, diamonds on a velvety sky. “Mmm. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” I demurred, picturing Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  

Early next morning, the rolling forests and broad rivers of Alberta charged the air with palpable excitement.  The Canadian wound a stunning elevated route along the river’s edge, through the snow-peaked ranges of Jasper National Park.  Flocks of Canada Geese soared over waterfalls.

Then, absurd as it seemed, especially from its distant position in British Columbia, Mount Robson suddenly dwarfed us in the Dome, its majestic snowy crest glistening white in sunshine.  A reference to Via Rail’s complimentary Log to Western Canada verified: “The Canadian will be in sight of Mount Robson for 16 kilometres before turning sharply south (mile 65) and continuing to descent.”

As The Canadian rolled through the foothills of the Rockies, a parade of elk ambled along the tracks. Without budging, they cocked their antlers with an indomitable spirit that dared the train to stop. People gasped. But fright turned to glee as, at the last second, they stepped aside in unison, letting the silver bullet whiz by. 

As we pulled toward Jasper, with views of the Athabasca River and the vast expanse of the Maligne Valley below, I envisioned the blond bombshell sashaying down the aisles of the train as it rolled towards the location of a less humorous though equally sizzling film. I bet there was no uproarious cross-dressing on the set when she and Robert Mitchum trekked through the Maligne Canyon to film the River of No Return.

Long after we disembarked, Marilyn Monroe flashed through my mind again as we strolled around beautiful Lac Beauvert on the grounds of the legendary Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge – the fitting place to stay after romancing the rails. This time I saw her giggling, arm in arm with Joe DiMaggio, as she swayed, in her inimitable style, toward an idyllic log cabin tucked among the fragrant pines. Two would be more comfortable here, I imagined, than three in an upper berth.  

For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at