Winter by rail: A great time to see the sights

When Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, considered the idea of a transcontinental railway, it probably never dawned on him he was opening the gateway to what is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in the world — the great Canadian wilderness.

By forging a rail link joining Canada coast-to-coast — not to mention the many hundreds of communities, big and small, in between — Macdonald not only set Canada on the road to becoming a major economic power, he perhaps inadvertently started a tourism boom that has literally been picking up steam ever since.

Begun in 1871, Macdonald’s rail link took five years to complete, a monumental achievement given the diverse and often hostile terrain over which the line had to pass. Macdonald himself took one of the first trans-Canada trips. Travelling from Ontario to the West, he was joined by his wife who insisted on a better view than the one from her coach. In order to satisfy her wishes — and in doing so making her one of the very first railway tourists — a chair was lashed to the front of the engine, giving Lady Macdonald a front-row seat and an unrestricted view of the scenic grandeur of thRockies.

In the 127 years since, thousands of rail travellers have marvelled at the same scenery — although in greater comfort.

Many of them, wisely, choose this time of year (December to March) to make their journey — a time when Canada is literally transformed into a sparkling winter wonderland. The Rockies, which Lady Macdonald was so keen to seen, are even more spectacular when the land all around them is covered in deep snow, accentuating their Christmas card beauty.

VIA Rail’s trains continue to make the cross-Canada run regularly throughout the winter season. Passengers can board the train in Halifax and travel to Montreal to take in a “winterfest” before switching to a train heading for Toronto. In Toronto, perhaps after taking in a Victorian Christmas at historic Black Creek Pioneer Village, it’s a transfer to another train travelling across the Prairies and Rockies to Vancouver.

The train linking Montréal and Halifax is known as the Ocean and is a friendly, folksy down-east journey. The overnight journey passes through Truro, Moncton, Bathurst, Cambelltown, Matapédia, Rimouski, Rivière-du-Loup, Lévis, Saint-Lambert and Montréal. Between Montréal and Toronto, the train trip is quick, brisk and efficient, carrying both business folks and tourists.

The Canadian, out of Toronto, goes the rest of the way to the West Coast, stopping at Winnipeg, Edmonton and Jasper before arriving in Vancouver. A direct descendant of transcontinental train travel as it was earlier this century, the Canadian is comfortable and elegant, and a perfect place to cozy-up with a hot drink while watching the dazzling white scenery pass. VIA Rail has implemented its unique “Silver and Blue class” on this leg of the journey, fully equipped with modern coaches, comfortable compartments and sleeping cars, dome cars to take in the breath-taking winter scenery, restored art deco decor and excellent cuisine. Combined with the ever-changing beauty of the Canadian landscape, it’s a great way to travel.

So next time you’re planning to travel across Canada and you’re not in a rush, remember this: Planes may be fast, but all you see are clouds and airports. And travelling by car means the driver never gets a chance to really appreciate the country’s stunning scenery (and, of course, many of the major routes can close due to inclement weather!). But by train? Just sit back and enjoy the scenery.