Sunday, August 26, 2012

Crossing Canada by train: Part 1

Travelling across Canada by train. To some, it may sound romantic. To others, thinking of how vast the country is, it could seem daunting.

I didn't have any preconceptions before VIA Rail's Canadian pulled out of Toronto's Union Station at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night earlier this summer en route to Vancouver's Pacific Central Station. I just knew I was fulfilling my mother's dream to make the journey.

And VIA's half-price sale made it much more affordable. My mother's lower sleeping berth cost $1,084 while my upper berth went for $922.

From the moment we entered Union Station's recently renovated Panorama Lounge before boarding, to meeting our porter Ron who oversaw our Sleeper Plus class berths, to our host Vern who served free champagne to passengers in the skyline car as we departed, it was already a more civilized experience than flying.

The immensity of Northern Ontario came into clear focus the next morning at breakfast -- where I enjoyed pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon syrup, thick slices of ham and melon -- and realized we wouldn't cross into Manitoba until 5 a.m. the next day. There wasn't a lot to see from the skyline car where we spent almost all of our time when we weren't sleeping, being very well-fed in the dining car or playing Bingo or sampling free wines in the activity car.

Throughout the day we passed freight trains going in the opposite direction and were surrounded on both sides by forest, with the occasional rock outcropping, river or small lake intermittently coming into view. There were no animals, very few birds and just the occasional sign of potential human habitation via run-down hunting and fishing cabins before we made a 40-minute afternoon stop in the small town of Hornepayne, where we could get out and stretch our legs, smokers could get their fix and I could pay a quick visit to the liquor store for supplies.

We elected to get off for two days in Winnipeg before the next Canadian came to continue our journey, and we made the most of our time in the Manitoba capital. The Marlborough Hotel was built in 1914 and was once one of the city's classiest hotels. It still looks that way from the outside and in the lobby and dining room, but the guest rooms are a bit run-down and in need of refurbishment. But it's centrally located, reasonably priced at $95 a night (including tax) and comes with free wireless Internet and hot breakfast and features an indoor pool with a relatively large waterslide.

Museum of Human Rights

The Museum of Human Rights was supposed to open this summer but is over budget and behind schedule and now isn't expected to open until 2014. But what's completed looks striking. We walked across the Red River via the Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge to the French-speaking neighbourhood of St. Boniface, where we admired its city hall, fire hall and main cathedral, where controversial Manitoba founder Louis Riel is buried outside in a small cemetery.

We returned to walk around The Forks -- a park, historic and retail/entertainment site where we embarked on a 30-minute, $10 narrated boat ride on the Red and Assiniboine rivers via Splash Dash Guided River Tours that extended from the legislative building to Fort Gibraltar. After a beer on the fifth floor rooftop Tavern United across from the MTS Centre, we dined on ribs and steak on the patio at Moxie's Classic Grill and I later ventured out for a pint of locally brewed Half Pints Little Scrapper IPA at the King's Head Pub.

Two city bus rides the next morning got us to expansive Assiniboine Park, where we spent two hours wandering around the zoo observing a variety of birds, bison, deer, monkeys, lynx, musk ox, kangaroos, camels, zebras, Siberian tigers, stone sheep, takin and more. We continued on through the park's picturesque Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and the English Gardens, past the duck pond and Lyric Theatre and over a foot bridge that returned us to Portage Avenue, where we caught a bus back downtown.

After a pint of Half Pints Stir Stick Stout at the King's Head patio, we wandered around the historic Exchange District, which features numerous well-preserved examples of late 19th and early 20th century Chicago-style architecture. The impressive Manitoba Museum featured a wide breadth of informative and interestingly designed exhibits on the geography and history of the province, and included a beautifully crafted replica of the 17th century ship, Nonsuch.

We stopped at the Winnipeg Free Press Cafe patio for a bottle of Half Pints Bulldog Amber Ale and then browsed in Toad Hall, a large but quaint store with toys, hobby and magic items from 50 countries. A local friend invited us for dinner at his house and we ended the evening with a nightcap at the Marlborough's Regal Beagle pub. Unfortunately, there were no Jack Tripper, Chrissy Snow or Larry Dallas sightings.

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