Across Canada by train from Toronto to Vancouver

Across Canada by train from Toronto to Vancouver

by Karen Burns-Booth 19 September 2016

Karen Burns-Booth travels across Canada and finds a country rich in regional food and drink on one of the most iconic train journeys in the world, taking her from Toronto to Vancouver over four nights and three days.

Karen Burns-Booth is a freelance food & travel writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a passion for local, seasonal ingredients.

Karen Burns-Booth is a freelance food & travel writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a passion for local, seasonal ingredients. She is a member of the prestigious Guild of Food Writers and regularly contributes to a variety of print publications and online recipe sites, as well as creating bespoke recipes for numerous major brands and supermarkets in the UK and Europe. Key brands Karen has worked with are: McCormick, Organic UK, Maille, Cath Kidston, Churchill China, Le Creuset, Le Parfait, Tala, John Lewis, Celebrity Cruises, Asda, Waitrose, Aldi, Sainsbury's, Tesco and many more. Karen specialises in preserving, baking, seasonal fare and healthy low-calorie recipes having recently lost weight on the 5:2 intermittent diet. In addition to writing for her own site, the award winning “Lavender and Lovage” blog, she also writes for Great British Chefs and runs a seasonal cookery school in SW France. When she is not in the kitchen she can be found travelling the world with a camera and notebook, searching for new ingredients and recipe inspiration.

From the moment the clock struck a nocturnal ten o’clock in the grand and opulent Union Station in Toronto to the moment I stepped off the train one sunny but misty morning in West Coast Vancouver, my journey was filled with stunning scenery, fabulous food and fascinating people, as well as moments of pure wonder and joie de vivre. This was a ‘bucket list’ journey and I could hardly contain my excitement as I climbed up the steps to the train that would be my home for the next few days.

The VIA train that crosses Canada is known as The Canadian, although many people of my generation might also know it as the Canadian Pacific Railway. The train has always been steeped in mystery and wonder for me, as I remember my parents and their friends discussing the journey when I was little. The journey is part of the canon of ‘Great Railway Journeys of the World’, with The Blue Train in South Africa and The Orient Express in Europe being members of that exclusive club.

When you board the train at night, there is very little to see outside the windows but that’s exactly as it should be, as this is the ideal time to meet the train staff, your fellow travellers, explore the train and of course check into your accommodation. Once I dropped my hand luggage off, my cabin steward told me where to go for the meet and greet Champagne cocktail party, which was a lovely idea for the first night.

After a good night’s sleep, the next morning dawned early and as I opened the shutters, I was able to see part of this great country unravelling before me; the flat plains of Ontario opened out onto a vast horizon which was punctuated with languorous winding rivers and limpid lakes. My small but comfortable sleeper cabin bed was positioned perfectly for a lazy lie-in and window viewing before I had to make my way down to the dining car for breakfast.

The Canadian food
The food on The Canadian is of the highest quality, representing the local area's culinary heritage
Incredible sights can be taken in from the train's observation cars, which have glass walls for a panoramic view

When you travel as much as I do, and when you are a foodie, as I am, then food is a very important element of any journey; and the cuisine on The Canadian did not disappoint. The Canadian dining cars are sleek stainless steel as a nod to the bygone era of Art Deco and luxury travel. They also offer fabulous views of the unfolding scenery as well as providing regional Canadian food of a very high standard. I never had a bad meal on board and I was constantly amazed how they managed to cook food to such a high standard in the tiny galley kitchens.

From local bison burgers, lobster ravioli, roast crown of lamb to pickerel (a local lake fish that’s similar to pike), scallops and peameal bacon, each and every meal I took on board was beautifully cooked, regionally sourced and indicative of the province we were travelling through at the time of serving. And it wasn’t just the food that was paired with the local provinces; each day we were treated to tastings of local wines and beers too, whilst sitting in one of the Skyline Dome Observation Cars.

As the tapestry of the Canadian landscape was laid out before me, each and every day offered different scenery as we snaked our way across this great continent; one night, a lady entertained us before and after dinner with her soulful folk songs, and as the prairie lands disappeared out of view and the start of the mountainous area started to dominate the skyline, we listened to stories of pioneering hardship, hope and love. It was a magical moment that I will never forget.

Canadian beer
It wasn't just the food that was regional – even the beers and wines changed depending on where the train was
Canadian breakfast
A full Canadian breakfast includes ham, peameal bacon, eggs, hash browns and mushrooms

On leaving the vast wheat lands of Manitoba and Alberta behind, the local beverages became more wine orientated as we approached British Columbia and breakfasts veered away from hearty full Canadian’s (which comprised peameal bacon, ham, eggs, hash browns, mushrooms, tomatoes and breakfast sausage), taking on a lighter, more West Coast healthy feel where fruit, yoghurts and vegetable omelettes were in the spotlight.

The famous Panorama Car had now been added to the train at a recent stop in Edmonton, and as we approached the magnificent Rocky Mountains, this comfortable glass viewing car was my daytime home (in between meals that is!) Armed with my camera, I snapped my way through the spectacular landscape. Towering mountains, cool dark green pines and flame-hued maple leaves shone bright outside the windows, and we often saw bears and moose ambling alongside the tracks.

If the local fauna and flora influenced our daily viewing so did the food, and along with the introduction of more British Columbian wines I noticed that after leaving Saskatoon we were treated to bison steaks, wild salmon and an assortment of Saskatoon wild berries in general. Viewing outside the windows whilst dining was now spectacular, as glaciated deep blue lakes and mountains crowded our panoramic viewing screen. Canada continued to amaze me with its stunning autumn clothing and sheer natural beauty.

This was undoubtedly the most beautiful part of the train journey, and the part that most people look forward to, but I had been captivated by all the scenery I had passed on my epic journey. From the vast plains of Ontario, the windswept prairies of Manitoba and the patches of woodlands that was the preclude to the Rocky Mountains, I felt I had truly experienced Canada first-hand. The people I met on the train, with all their different stories, will sustain my imagination and interest for years to come.