Vancouver and rail trip across Canada – Holiday Review

In 2011, my best friend and I decided to fulfil our dream of travelling across Canada. After much thought and research we decided to fly to Vancouver first, spend a few days exploring before heading to Victoria on Vancouver Island and then catching the Rocky Mountaineer train through the Rockies to Banff. Afterwards we organised to fly from Calgary over to Nova Scotia, catch a train to Quebec City and finish our journey in Montreal. We wanted to see as much as possible in the three weeks we had, so to save searching for accommodation on arrival, we pre-booked all the hotels and transport before hand to save us time.

It was the end of May and we boarded our fight from London Gatwick to Vancouver. The flight was comfortable and we had the middle 4 seats of the row to ourselves. The touchdown in Calgary added an extra few hours to our flight time, which we could have quite happily done without and arrived in Vancouver pretty exhausted. There is a regular bus service from the airport to all the major downtown hotels and we got dropped off directly outside our home for the next 4 days, ‘The Pacific Pallisades’. The hotel was in the heart of downtown Vancouver, on Robson Street and was a great way to start our holiday. Our room was huge and the hotel had only opened 6 months beforehand and so was newly renovated and modern. We chose this hotel as the rooms had a kitchenette and we thought we would save a bit of our cash by making our own breakfast and lunches.

The night we arrived we went for a long walk and stopped at a 7-11 convenience store to pick up some cereal and milk for breakfast the next day. We set the alarm to get up early, to make the most of our first day. As I was getting the cereal ready we realised that our kitchen did not have any bowls, but did have large coffee mugs, so my first entertaining memory of our holiday was eating Special-K out of a mug in a very smart hotel room!

I fell in love with Vancouver the first time I walked down the street during the day. You are closely surrounded by all the snow capped Costal Mountains and it’s stunning. There is so much to do and see in Vancouver. I recommend ‘Bridges Restaurant’ on Granville Island, an amazing seafood place that serves a wide variety of different cuisine right on the dockside. The market on Granville Island is interesting to explore and whilst you are there you can see all types of street artists, a bit like Covent Garden. There is a ferry service to take you to North Vancouver and we took a tour to Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain (wouldn’t recommend for those suffering from vertigo) It actually snowed when we were at the Mountain and the views over Vancouver are fantastic – don’t forget your camera.

The best (and cheapest) way to get to Victoria from Vancouver is on the ‘Greyhound’ bus, which takes around 3 1/2 hrs from start to finish. We stayed at the Dominion Hotel, which has since been renovated, but was one of the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in. It was in the ‘dodgy’ area of Victoria between Douglas and Yates St. and our room resembled something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The weather was great and we were only spending 2 nights there so we didn’t plan on spending too much time in the room anyway. Victoria has a very colonial feel; you will see red double decker buses, tea-shops and gardens. It is a great city for fresh seafood and for wondering around the shops. I spent the evenings sitting on the docks, watching the sunset and listening to the local buskers. There is the National Museum, great for a rainy day, and gives you a well-rounded perspective of real Canadian History.

Back to Vancouver for 1 night at the Comfort Inn before boarding the train at 6am. The Rocky Mountaineer is really the best way to see the Rocky Mountains as it takes a route that isn’t possible by road.

The driver will also slow down if there is any wildlife around so you can take pictures. The 2 day/1 night trip can seem expensive but it is money well spent, and is rated one of the ‘most memorable journeys in the world’. To be honest I did think that once Id seen one mountain, Id seen them all, but I was wrong. The landscape changes rapidly, the wildlife is amazing and you are giving a map to follow your route. We were served breakfast, snacks, lunch, snacks and tea on both days and the standard of service and quality of food were outstanding. The seats are spacious and the carriage is designed so that you can see clearly out, even if you are not sitting in the window seat. At the end of the first day the train stops in Kamloops where you are transferred to your hotel (included).There are two classes red leaf and gold leaf. Gold leaf guests receive a better standard of accommodation and have access to the ‘dome’ which is the upper carriage of the train and has even better views of the journey. We however were more than satisfied with red leaf class.

Our journey ended in Banff and we were transferred to the Swiss Village Inn. Simple, clean accommodation in downtown Banff but with no air-conditioning. The peak summer season begins on June 1st, and as it was May 29th the town was still relatively quiet. The scenery in Banff is amazing, being right in the heart of the Rockies, and even though it is a small town there is so much to do and see. We took the gondola ride to the top of Sulphar Mountain, looked around the famous Banff Springs Hotel and went for some adventurous walks (and got chased by an elk!) There is a restaurant called the ‘Grizzly House’ which serves fondue, and is probably the most fun meal I have ever had. Cheese fondue for starters, followed by meat and then chocolate and fruit for dessert. Definitely my favourite place to eat of all time.

After the airport shuttle transferred us to Calgary we flew to Halifax via Toronto. We left in the early hours of the morning and arrived mid-afternoon, local time. We checked into the 4* Delta Halifax hotel. Again, great room, great location within walking distance of downtown and the harbour front. The main tourist season doesn’t begin until July in Halifax, and we were a little surprised that it was so quiet; it almost felt like walking around a small fishing town, not a city. It was really relaxing to wonder around the harbour and after all our travelling it was really our first break. Nova Scotia is such a contrast to British Columbia and Alberta, almost an entirely difference culture, different accents, different scenery and way of life. The following morning we walked down to the harbour to find somewhere for breakfast and were completely overwhelmed by the contrast to the previous day, there were literally thousands of people around, lots of companies advertising tours and all the restaurant prices where higher than yesterday. It was surreal to say the least; it had gone from a quite and peaceful harbour front to a bustling, noisy street. As we walked on, somewhat perplexed we saw a Cruise Ship docked and then it all made sense. It was the first cruise ship of the year in port and that explained the vast numbers of tourists, the tours and inflated prices. So we took the opportunity that day to visit the Citadel which is slightly out of town and explore the countryside. The next day we took, what turned out to be an unsuccessful whale watching tour. We didn’t see any whales or sea life and I got very sea sick, not one of the best moments of our trip, however we did see the filming of ‘K-19’ as the submarine was being filmed close by.

From Halifax we boarded ‘The Ocean’, the direct train from Nova Scotia to Quebec which runs through the rolling hills and forests of New Brunswick. The scenery was awesome, the train was not. It rattled vigorously and although we had booked an overnight sleeper cabin, it was virtually impossible to sleep. The bunk-beds were equipped with safety belts to strap yourself into whilst sleep (not very reassuring) and we were both exhausted when we got up at 4:30am to get off the train in a small town just outside Quebec City. A French-Canadian taxi driver took us to our hotel, he spoke no English, and as this is common in Quebec, I would recommend brushing up on your French before you travel, or at least investing in a phrase book. As our train was re-scheduled in Halifax, we arrived almost 12hrs before planned. This meant our hotel check-in wasn’t until 4pm. It was 5am, and we were at the reception of the 5* Chateau Frontenac (the best hotel in Quebec) two very tired girls, looking pretty rough with our backpacks asking to check in almost 12hrs early. The front desk manager was great, she said she had space for us to check in straight away and didn’t charge us any extra. After a saga with our key card we finally got to our small but beautifully furnished room with a view and slept most of the day away.

Quebec City is quaint; it’s just like being in a small inland French town, such a contrast from the rest of Canada. You can eat superbly for great value by British standards and the city has such an amazing atmosphere you can just wonder around all day soaking up the atmosphere. On our last night there was a huge thunderstorm and I have never seen lightening or heard thunder like it. I have to say that being on 12th floor was a little disconcerting, but watching the lightening light up the water and city was pretty spectacular.

The next morning it was another train ride to Montreal, this time on Via Rail (Canada’s national rail company) and although there wasn’t much to see the train was much more comfortable and modern than ‘The Ocean’. After a few hours we arrived in Montreal and decided to walk from the station to our hotel, as it looked like it was just around the corner on the map and we couldn’t locate a taxi anyway. The Quality Hotel, was a good 20mins walk away and on arriving in downtown we realised why there were no taxi’s to be found. I should have known, being a big F1 fan, but it was the day of the Montreal Grand Prix. The race had just finished, and there were Ferrari, McLarren etc; posters everywhere and the city was packed with people celebrating. That night we waited almost an hour to get into Planet Hollywood, which seemed to have the least waiting time! By this time, we were starting to feel the effects of being on the road for so long and after succumbing to an organised city tour we did some last minute shopping and went to the cinema. A word of caution, Montreal city drivers have no mercy on pedestrians and you really need to keep your eyes open or you could find yourself in a nasty accident…I wouldn’t even consider renting a car in this city, public transport is reasonable and taxis are frequent (except during the Grand Prix) Again, Montreal is mainly French-speaking, whilst unlike Quebec City you will find most people do speak English and it is not essential to speak French here.

Our three weeks were over, and it was time to go home. I love travelling but was looking forward to some home cooking and not living out of a suitcase. I enjoyed Canada so much, that I decided to move there in the September of the same year and have spent the best part of the last three years living in Manitoba and British Columbia. Canada is a country of contrasts and it is impossible to see everything in one trip, but for first time travellers I would recommend travelling to Vancouver and the Rockies, you can actually fit a lot into a two-week holiday, whether you prefer to do a package or have a tailor-made journey.

Thank you to Global Holidays for organising such a fantastic holiday

1 thought on “Vancouver and rail trip across Canada – Holiday Review”

  1. This is a trip that I have always wanted to take. Its amazing that as a Canadian I haven’t even seen all of my own home, but when I finally do, it will be by train. It’s funny you are absolutely right about Montreal+driving. And I agree about Vancouver being an absolute jewel.
    I am glad you enjoyed our beautiful country! Thanks for the great read David.

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