Runaway trains only happen in action movies, and certainly not on any of the following excursions — all of which are entirely safe — but maybe we could all do with a little less control on our travels. If you can, surrender the steering wheel or the time saved by flying and hit the rails that have criss-crossed and tied Canada together since the 1800s. Trains are at once practical and romantic, modern and nostalgic, and, as this collection shows, there’s a trip for every traveller.
Vancouver to Whistler, B.C., Rocky Mountaineer
Don’t rush up the Sea to Sky Highway in a car; choose a more leisurely and privileged view of precipitous peaks and ocean inlets through wide picture windows on the three-and-a-half-hour Sea to Sky Climb train. Between June and August, Rocky Mountaineer also offers a (more expensive) glass-domed car for the full panorama.
Stanley Park Miniature Railway, Vancouver
After Hurricane Frieda battered the B.C. coast in 1962, the Vancouver Park Board decided to cut its losses (trees, mostly), and a twisting miniature railway was built through new gaps in Stanley Park’s forest. One of the four little engines that runs the two-kilometre track is a model of the Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive that pulled Canada’s first transcontinental train into Vancouver in 1887.
Calgary to southeast B.C., Royal Canadian Pacific
To revel in the Rockies like royalty, take the Royal Canadian Pacific’s six-day signature trip from Calgary through Banff and Yoho National Parks, the Columbia River Valley, Crowsnest Pass, Waterton- Glacier International Peace Park and back to Calgary. The fully restored 1920s-era passenger cars are resplendent with rich period furniture and walnut panelling; service, gastronomy and accommodations are pampering par excellence. Excursions are geared toward a mature crowd (18 and up) with mature pocketbooks ($5,800 and up).
Alberta Prairie Railway Excursion, Stettler, Alta
Vintage steam and diesel trains gasp through verdant south-central Alberta parkland on these themed expeditions. Before rolling into Big Valley, Alta., for a hearty meal of Alberta beef and baked potatoes, passengers enjoy a train robbery or a murder mystery. The saloon coaches are popular, although they enforce a “no doubles on way back” rule.
Winnipeg to Churchill, Man., VIA
There are no roads into Churchill, the polar bear and beluga capital of the world. VIA ’s twiceweekly train traverses 1,700 kilometres of Manitoba prairie, boreal forest and tundra wilderness in two days. Tourists abound throughout the autumn, when polar bear sightings peak, but it’s not unusual to see them (sightseers and bears) at other times of the year.
Toronto to Niagara, Ont., bike train, GO Transit
The stunning (and paved) 56-kilometre Niagara River Recreation Trail is a few pedal-pushes from the Niagara Falls train station. On weekends and stat holidays between spring and late fall stow your cycle on a specially designed bike coach on the Niagara-bound Greenbelt Express from Toronto’s Union Station.
Montréal’s Metro is like a sprawling underground (literally) art gallery. Each of the 68 stations represents the work of a different architect and most feature original art. From the orange line, travellers can return to the surface in cobblestoned Old Montréal, while the green line services the shopping and dining mecca of Sainte-Catherine Street.
Montréal to Senneterre, Que., VIA
You might feel like a modern-day coureur de bois as you step into the lake-speckled northwest Quebec wilderness from a train that started in Montréal. This nearly 12-hour trip terminates in the town of Senneterre, but VIA encourages passengers to stow their kayaks, canoes and camping equipment (up to 5.5 metres in length) and to arrange for special stops at any mileage marker along the way.
Québec to La Malbaie, Que., Groupe Le Massif
Multiple courses of regionally-gathered and -inspired haute cuisine are not the least of the attractions on this new tourist route to the Charlevoix region, a unesco biosphere reserve. The train — classic 1950s engine on the outside, pristine white lines in its comfortable interior — skirts 140 kilometres of Saint Lawrence River coastline at the foot of the Laurentians. Riders have the option of a one-day getaway or an overnight experience with a stay in one of two charming towns, Baie-Saint-Paul or La Malbaie.
Confederation Trail, P.E.I.
In one of the few populated parts of Canada without running trains, the rail route abandoned by CN in 1989 still carries thousands of pedestrians and cyclists along its nearly 400 kilometres each year.