If you ever dreamed of a long-distance rail journey through forests and along lake shores, stopping at picturesque little towns, then repairing to your cabin to watch the scenery go by, here's a tip from friends over the border: That experience is closer and less expensive than you think.
While most people associate luxury long-distance train excursions with Europe and Asia, Canada's VIA Rail service has been expanding into the luxury travel sector for years. VIA Rail is Canada's national passenger rail service, and as such, has benefitted from $1 billion in government funding since 2007. Upgrades are currently underway in 50 stations nationwide, and many of VIA Rail's most picturesque long-distance routes are now serviced by luxury passenger trains—but its ticket prices remain affordable, because it's still a public transportation service.
With gas prices hovering around $3.50 a gallon and airfares rising as we head into summer, savvy travelers—especially those with kids in tow—are thinking of ways to make the most of their vacation budget. And VIA Rail offers a range of adventures starting just over the Canadian border, and with packages that combine rail travel, hotel stays, boat tours, and even driving days if that’s the preference. Additional new programming enhancements launched just in time for summer 2012: a new gourmet menu onboard the flagship Canadian trans-continental route, chair massage on board select luxury routes; and a brand-new Panorama Lounge in the Toronto station.
In terms of vacation length, options range from overnight quick getaways to 12-night cross-Canada adventures. Prices start at around $200 US per person, and climb upward to $4795 for a luxury 12-night parks and mountains experience that combines two train journeys, a motorcoach tour and multiple nights in the Banff/Jasper region.
VIA Rail’s website is a bit tricky to navigate, with pages of itinerary options that change according to your departure point and date. But the homepage always promotes the specials du jour—at present, for example, a front-and-center banner advertises a 50% off deal for kids age 2-11. And to guide further exploration of the many holidays on offer, here are a few favorite itineraries:
Quick, quick, music lovers of Cascadia (AKA the Pacific Northwest). The city-to-city route is, for five days only, about to turn into a mobile rock show. Leading up to the NXNE Festival, VIA Rail—which is sponsoring the festival and taking care of band transport—will be hosting a series of mini-shows on station platforms all along the Vancouver-Toronto route, and onboard the flagship Canadian as well. It’s going to be one heck of a pre-party, with performances by the Belle Game, Adaline and other top Canadian bands. Best of all, train ticket prices are discounted by 10% during the special “musical journeys;” meaning, if you were planning to travel from the West Coast to Toronto for the show, this is the most cost-effective way (as well as the coolest).
There are plenty of reasons to opt for train travel over automobile when it comes to touring Quebec. For one thing, who wants to drive when you could be concentrating on the glorious scenery? For another, who wants to drive when you could be tasting the famous ice wine and cider? And finally, who can deal with researching all the attractions and planning the day-to-day schedule? Quebec is Canada’s largest province, an epicurean delight, a cruise ship destination, and a giant outdoor playground. The only thing better than its unspoiled spaces are its two gorgeous cities, Montreal and capital Quebec City. VIA Rail tour options include a two-night Montreal Garden Tour, a nine-day Rail-Sail, and our recommended itinerary: a four-night Gems of French Canada package with New York departure as an optional add-on.
There are a lot of ways to experience this salty maritime corner of Atlantic Canada. Though it’s a tiny province (only neighboring Prince Edward Island is smaller), it’s one of the most densely populated—and there’s much more going on there than an outsider might guess. From arts appreciation in capital city Halifax to fresh lobster at Peggy’s Cove to the Reversing Falls of New Brunswick, tourists have a lot to take in, and VIA Rail offers many ways to do it. Recommended itinerary: the five-night “Atlantic Adventure” traveling by coach and train private cabin.
One luxury getaway package for this route is called Lakes & Mountains. Perhaps for lack of room, the rivers, forests and waterfalls don’t get a mention, but they’re spectacular, and easily visible during the leisurely moments when the train chugs along the spine of the Rockies. And if the Rockies and beautiful Banff call to you, our recommended itinerary is the four-night “Peaks & Glaciers” rail/drive combo package which travels from Vancouver, BC to Alberta (or in reverse) and includes an overnight in a sleeper car. Visit VIARail.ca to learn more.