The Canadian: My big sleeper hit

KATRINA LOBLEY
Last updated 12:27 24/02/2014
The Canadian

SITTING PRETTY: The observation deck aboard The Canadian.

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'Doo! Doo! Doo! Hello and welcome to Train Land." It's Walter, the man in the activities car, making another amusing announcement.

The sing-song chimes, which he delivers in a tone as flat as Canada's prairies, are something he copied from another train man, Denis, who works on the Churchill line.

Walter later explains: "I'd always get nervous about making an announcement to 300 people - I'd be trembling for five minutes beforehand and for about 10 minutes after. Doing the chimes makes it easier." It's also practical: people tune in straight away to hear what he's saying instead of halfway through.

It makes Walter a memorable element of the journey on VIA Rail's The Canadian - at least between Toronto and Winnipeg, the prairie hub where the crew changes over.

On this transcontinental journey, tracing Canada's great iron artery westwards, the impossibly long train includes dining and domed cars where there's big-sky viewing for those who grab a seat upstairs.

On my packed summertime train, dining is staggered in three sittings, with lunch starting as early as 11am and dinner at 5pm.

Those who checked in early enough at Toronto's Union Station scored the middle sitting but by day two we swap to early or late slots to give everyone a fair go.

At check-in, I also notice the girl with the guitar who's greeted with: "Ah, the travelling musician." My heart soars.

VIA Rail's artists on board program allows musicians to ride the rails in return for several short gigs on the train. Once I hear that Orit Shimoni, who also calls herself Little Birdie, is a folk musician, I'm even happier.

She doesn't usually do covers but to entertain this crowd she's gathered a few favourites - from the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell - as well as train songs.

"There's nothing like singing 'Going farther down the track' while actually going farther down the track," she says. "That's kind of an intense experience for me."

The train's acoustics are the worst but, unlike a bar where people often talk over a performer, here she's got everyone's attention, including the buff guy who's headed west to start an outdoor adventure degree. He's been knitting socks and put a call out earlier for a knitting circle to gather about him, but now he packs away his needles and listens.

The train will end its journey in Vancouver, but I'm hopping off earlier. For my three-night journey from Toronto to Edmonton, I'm occupying a sleeper cabin for two even though I'm travelling solo. "You never know - you might get lucky," wisecracks the ticket guy in Montreal from where I connected to this train.

Sleeping carriages feature both hard-walled cabins and berths where nothing but a whisk of fabric divides the bed from the corridor. Those in the berths use communal toilets; those with cabins score their own but share a communal shower.

My attendant, Marty, presses the upper bed away, onto the ceiling, to give me more head room. During the day, he flips my bed up against the wall and unfolds two chairs from underneath. It's clever use of the limited space.

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My cabin also features a wash basin, mirrors, fan, lights, wardrobe space wide enough for just four hangers, three coat hooks and a magazine rack. There's even a framed picture on the wall.

The train is remarkably smooth; at night it's more likely talkative neighbours will keep you awake than the clank of wheels on steel. I overhear every word of an argument next door - she admonishes him for not washing his hands after the toilet; he holds firm, claiming he did. Considering the wash basin's in full view of both of them, I admire his bravado.

Over dinners of prime rib, pan-seared duck and sesame seed-encrusted tuna, I meet the other passengers: an English editor working in Belgium who plans to hike in Jasper; sisters from Newfoundland on their way to a granddaughter's wedding in Edmonton; retirees from Washington DC and Ohio simply riding the rails because they can. Several plan to connect with the Rocky Mountaineer.

Outside the picture windows, the changing view is hypnotic.

After pulling out of Toronto at night, day dawns to reveal greenery between meadows, ponds and rivers. Near Hornepayne in northern Ontario, I glimpse the backside of a moose standing in water.

Around Winnipeg, where we have time to stretch our legs and explore the city, the landscape shifts again - trees give way to endless plains punctuated by power lines.

I started out thinking three nights on a train would be plenty, but I fall in love with the routine, with my cosy cabin and with the friendly encounters I have up and down the train.

Pulling into Edmonton, it's with reluctance that I throw my bags down onto the platform and farewell my little home away from home.

VIA Rail's discounted sleeper cabin fares, which include all meals but have refund and exchange restrictions, change seasonally. A one-way, three-night journey from Toronto to Edmonton in winter typically costs $C587.60 ($NZ639) a person twin-share; in summer it typically costs $C1097.23 ($NZ1193.83) a person twin-share. See viarail.ca.

THREE OTHER CANADA TRAIN TRIPS

1. ROCKY MOUNTAINEER

The luxurious way to admire Canada's awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains is by rail. Travel Gold Leaf aboard the Rocky Mountaineer so as to gaze at the scenery of British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies through purpose-built domed windows.

At night, be decanted into a good hotel bed, then resume the rail journey next morning. Pick between four routes of varying length: Vancouver to Calgary, Vancouver to Jasper, Whistler to Jasper, or Seattle to the Rockies. Seerockymountaineer.com.

2. LE MASSIF

If you're heading to Canada's east coast, consider taking the 140km trip along the banks of the St Lawrence River from Quebec City to the Charlevoix.

The Train of Le Massif de Charlevoix, the brainchild of Le Cirque du Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier, is billed as a gourmet experience, so board hungry in readiness for the artful fare. See lemassif.com.

3. WINNIPEG TO CHURCHILL

Polar bears famously congregate in Churchill, Manitoba, each October, waiting for ice to solidify along the shore so they can venture out into Hudson Bay to hunt seals. Once the ice sheets freeze together - usually in mid-November - it signals the bears' departure. Twice a week, VIA Rail chugs out of Winnipeg to make the 1700km trip to Churchill. See viarail.ca.

- FFX Aus

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