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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

'Cruising' Canada by rail

BY JACK McGUIRE
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

"There are many ways of seeing a landscape, and none more vivid than from a railway carriage."

- Robert Louis Stevenson

ABOARD THE AMERICAN ORIENT EXPRESS - My personal fascination with trains dates back to my childhood. Back then a ride on an airplane was as out of range of our family's skimpy finances as a transatlantic voyage on the Queen Mary. But a coach-class ticket on a streamliner to Philadelphia to visit my grandma and grandpa, and later a journey to California on the Chicago-L.A. Super Chief, planted the seeds of a lifelong love affair with trains. Racing through the night, the moon shining down on some little town - the magical allure of traveling by train has never left me.

Our 10-day Grand Trans-Canada Rail Journey began in Vancouver, where my wife Jill and I boarded the luxury train, heading through the Canadian Rockies cross-country to Montreal, among some of the world's most majestic and historically rich landscapes.

As we snaked our way down the narrow corridors of the train's 1940s and '50s vintage rail cars that first afternoon, I was reminded of classic train scenes immortalized in such films as the Agatha Christie thriller, Murder on the Orient Express, Billy Wilder's hilarious Some Like it Hot, and the Cary Grant classic, North by Northwest.

A throwback to the golden age of rail travel, carriages on the AOE have been restored to the tune of $1 million each. Rich inlaid mahogany paneling, brass fixtures, overstuffed chairs in the lounge cars, and elegantly appointed dining cars help re-create the opulence of a bygone era. Vintage public cars include the two-tiered Observation Car and the new glass-enclosed American Spirit dome car bringing up the rear, both affording unrestricted 360-degree "see level" views of awe-inspiring landscapes.

The first night, Jill bore a striking resemblance to Spiderwoman, as she deftly attempted to scale the walls to her upper berth. I had won the coin toss and got the lower bunk. We found out the next morning, they'd forgotten to give us a ladder!

A colorful changing of the guard ceremony can be seen in Ottawa, Canada. A colorful changing of the guard ceremony can be seen in Ottawa, Canada.
HO Enlarge

Our cozy Vintage Pullman cabin was bigger than a bread box, but not by much.

Larger cabins and suites with two lower beds are also available, all with private sink and toilet and, except for the Vintage Pullman and Single Sleeper, a private shower. "Closet" space in the cubbyhole sleeping compartments is a mere four inches wide. Not feet, inches.

You've heard the old travel clich: "Take half as many clothes and twice as much money." Well, the good news is, you don't have to worry about a lot of extra cash. Just about everything, except tips and incidentals, is paid in advance. As for clothes, unless you've found a way to shrink-wrap your wardrobe, keep it to a minimum. Think mix and match.

Remember, this is a throwback to train travel as it existed more than half a century ago. Expect the unexpected. Adapt. Or, as one of our fellow passengers put it, "Go with the right mindset, and you'll have the experience of a lifetime."

Often referred to as "cruising by rail," comparisons between luxury train travel and life aboard a cruise ship are inevitable. Take food, for example. On the matter of quantity, cruising takes top honors. As for quality, that's something else again. It's one of the high points of the AOE travel experience, with elegant continental cuisine featuring seasonal and regional specialties. Like many cruise lines today, there's open seating with tables for two or four passengers.

Got a special request? No problem. Our first morning at breakfast, Jill noticed "homemade" granola on the menu and asked for soymilk. Minutes later, our waiter, Mark, reappeared with a tiny pitcher of the protein-rich liquid in hand.

Figuring she was on a roll, Jill then asked if they had any natural, non-hydrogenated crunchy peanut butter, another staple of her diet at home. They did not. But the next day, Mark greeted us for breakfast, smiling like a Cheshire cat. "Guess what I've got for you this morning, Mrs. McGuire?" he proudly asked. A tiny dish of peanut butter sat centerpiece on his tray. The chef had picked up a jar in town the day before, especially for Jill.

Fellow passenger Barbara Squibb, a Captain's Table habitu after 22 years as a cruise director on a variety of cruise lines, ventured the opinion that, "the food and deluxe service onboard this vintage train are as good or better than on any ship." The San Francisco resident's views were shared by virtually all of the passengers we spoke with.

On the AOE, wine at dinner and soft drinks anytime are complimentary. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that on the train and during day excursions, bottled water (along with assorted snacks) is free, compared to a shocking $6 per-bottle price tag for water on a recent cruise.

On the other hand, entertainment at sea, with its obligatory stand-up comic, juggler, and splashy Las Vegas-style shows, is oceans above this train's novice piano player performing in the lounge car during cocktail hour and after dinner.

But the big attraction on the AOE is outside its picture windows. Mother Nature's chromatic extravaganza - the deep greens of untouched forests, the blinding white snow-capped peaks set against the backdrop of an azure sky - is painted in magnificent strokes for all to see.

Vancouver, the starting point of our trip, kissed by sea breezes and fringed by the Coast Mountains, is one of North America's fastest-growing cities. Even within the limits of a quick motor coach tour (included in the AOE program) it was easy to see why this cool village-metropolis has been tagged by U.S. filmmakers as "Hollywood North," site of innumerable shoots.

We spent most of our first full day on board with a front row seat in the Dome Car, as the AOE wound its way through the majestic, snow-capped Canadian Rockies, each scene more enthralling than the one before. The North Thompson River flowed rapidly alongside, then under the rails, as we rumbled across narrow trestles, plunged into long, inky-black tunnels, and traversed scary hairpin curves.

At one point, the engineer slowed down long enough to give passengers a close-up view of the cascading waters of Pyramid Falls, seemingly within arms reach. Jill and I stood in the open vestibule between two cars, the brisk mountain air and mist from the adjacent waterfall like a refreshing spritz against our faces.

The grandeur of towering Mount Robson, the Canadian Rockies' highest peak, suddenly springs into full frame view. You've hardly absorbed its dramatic impact or had time to change a roll of film when you're confronted with a virtual parade of sublime views, the bleak, rugged beauty of secluded summits, stately stands of towering pines, and alpine ridges.

The sleepy little frontier town of Jasper, Alberta, was little more than a jumping-off point for an optional Lake Louise Tour, or, in our case, an inclusive motor coach ride up to the Columbia Icefield, average elevation 10,000 ft. - one of many "ooh!" and "ahh!" moments of the trip.

A breathtaking walk on the 400-year-old Athabasca Glacier, a gigantic frozen reservoir more than 1,000 feet deep (imagine standing on a mound of ice as high as the Eiffel Tower) conjured up visions of a frigid Lost Horizon landscape.

The refreshing taste of a cupped palm full of pure glacier water melted from ice that fell as snow 150 years ago capped this unforgettable interlude.

As we pulled out of Jasper, I found myself sitting in the back row of the Dome Car, craning to catch a last glimpse of the Rockies, which were quickly fading from view. Rolling through Saskatchewan, the landscape changes dramatically, from peaks to prairie.

Near Saskatoon, we paid a visit to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, with its visual and hands-on exploration of 6,000 years of Northern Plains native culture. Then on to Winnipeg, Manitoba, our next stop for a city overview and a glimpse into the history of the province, with a tour of the Museum of Man & Nature, and Thunder Bay, Ontario, for a trip back in time, to an early 1800s fur trading post, Old Fort Williams.

After a final day of train travel across the tall grass prairies to Ottawa, Canada's capital city, we witnessed the pageantry of a colorful changing-of-the-guard ceremony, complete with marching band and precision drills.

Our rail journey ended in Montreal, where we spent a couple of extra days exploring its heritage of narrow streets, five centuries of architecture, unique neighborhoods, and some of the most appealing little cafes in North America.

There are faster ways to traverse the 3,200 miles of Canada's wild frontier, but none quite as intriguing as this fabulous expedition aboard a luxury train.

Jack McGuire is a Chicago-area freelance writer.



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