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Orcaella Cruise Ideal Way to Meet the People of Myanmar

25 Feb
School children greet Orcaella guests during a shore excursion. All photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

School children greet Orcaella guests during a shore excursion. All photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

The party was already well underway.

Suddenly, from out of the darkness, an 82-year-old women, her face lined with age, approached IRT Society president Eleanor Hardy. She took Eleanor’s hand.

“Please forgive me for not dressing up. But when I heard you had come, I felt I had to get here as soon as possible.”

Stroking my wife’s hand, she said: “I have never felt the skin of a foreigner before.”

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Burmese school girls pause to say hello.

Impromptu, almost unbelievable moments such as this were common on our recent 12-day cruise in Myanmar (formerly called Burma).

The moments were all the more pleasant, as we enjoyed them from the decidedly Western – and opulent – “Orcaella,” the Orient-Express company’s new 25-cabin river cruiser.

Ironically, we might never have had these moments, were it not for a last-minute, change in plans. Orcaella’s “Gorges of the Far North” cruise on the Irrawaddy River saw nary a gorge. Low water levels and a damaged channel had blocked shipping north of Mandalay.

Burmese Seamstress

Seamstress in local market

So we spent most of our time south of Mandalay, visiting areas off the increasingly beaten Burma track, where tourists rarely, if ever, venture.

Over the course of 12 days, we were serenaded by school children from a remote village, rode ox carts, pony carts, unspeakably noisy, three-wheeled “tuk-tuks,” blasted around mountain curves in tiny trucks to view a shimmering sunset over the Irrawaddy.

IRT guests Orlando & Olga Herrera, left, and Ron Fisher and Evelyn Fitzpatrick make the dusty trek up to Gwe-Chaung fortress.

IRT guests Orlando & Olga Herrera, left, and Ron Fisher and Evelyn Fitzpatrick make the dusty trek up to Gwe-Chaung fortress.

Many of us opted for a dawn “Balloons Over Bagan” experience, an unforgettable journey to admire an aerial panorama of the ancient city’s over 2,000 pagodas in near silence.

Society President Eleanor Hardy with baby.

Society President Eleanor Hardy with baby.

Others enjoyed – or endured, depending on one’s tolerance of riding a bus for almost three hours each way over winding, bumpy roads – a first-ever tourist visit to an elephant camp, high in the hills.

Our trip included visits to bustling Yangon and Mandalay, and their gorgeous pagodas, with an unending array of golden spires and Buddha statues. Buddhism is central to the lives of most people we encountered. One can see it in the immense crowds visiting the temples: families, teenagers, children, old people, monks and nuns.

Young boys dressed like Prince Buddha prepare to become monks.

Young boys dressed like Prince Buddha prepare to become monks.

With few exceptions, we were met by graceful, smiling, shy but proud Burmese. Those in the small villages had seen few if any Westerners.

One day we witnessed a Noviciation ceremony, in which Buddhist monks solemnly welcomed village boys into their order. Dressed in shiny, colorful robes, the boys paraded to the temple surrounded by family and friends, accompanied by loud music. The finishing touch: the monks shaved the boys heads, as proud family members looked on.

Burmese families flocked to their temples everywhere we went. The women wore brightly colored, floor-length skirts. Most of the men wore traditional “longyis,” also floor-length, a kind of wraparound skirt knotted at the top.

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Mother and child in small village market

Burma is one of Asia’s poorest countries. But no one we encountered – and we saw oceans of people – looked underfed, without clothing or shelter.

Granted, we were tourists in country run by a military dictatorship and were unlikely to be led to scenes of squalor. Other parts of Myanmar are experiencing factional squabbling, even violence. And, according to the UN, life expectancy in Myanmar is 68 for women, 64 for men.

And true, their buses were stuffed with humanity. Their quarters were modest. Away from Yangon and Mandalay, one was as likely to find them driving ox- or pony carts as cars or motorbikes.

Young Buddhist monks

Young Buddhist monks

Yet their friendliness and spirituality were infectious. And – courtesy of the good ship Orcaella – we saw the Burmese up close: fishing from their slim boats, bathing in the river, praying at their temples, and, most of all, smiling at us, without a hint of ennui.

In the end, that’s what makes a visit to Myanmar unique. I’ve been in the travel business over 30 years, and never have I encountered such welcoming, warm people.

Of course this can’t last forever. But while it does, it’s a life-changing experience for those lucky enough to visit. And there’s no more luxurious way to do so than aboard the Orcaella.

(For details about life on the Orcaella, please click here.)

For a link to the journey, please see: http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=198

Myanmar’s Orcaella Combines 2014 Comfort, Timeless Charm

25 Feb
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The new river cruiser Orcaella allows passengers to see Myanmar up close as people live their lives on the river, much as they’ve done for centuries. IRT Photos by Owen & Eleanor Hardy

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Fresh flowers are everywhere on the Orcaella

I’d just walked into my beautiful cabin aboard the brand-new, Orient Express riverboat Orcaella, ready for a 12-day cruise on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.

As I opened the door to our private bath and shower, my eyes went straight to the slender silver vase with a single stalk of pink gladioli.

Like the flowers, our 25 Society of IRT clients, Owen & I gradually unwound from up to 24 hours of air travel. By the second or third day, our flowers were blooming – and so were we.

Built in Myanmar, the Orcaella’s not much to look at from shore — it resembles an elongated shoebox. But inside, it’s a showplace, from the gleaming Art Deco lamp sconces in the dining area, to the tasteful regional art throughout to the expertly laid-out cabins.

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Myanmar’s new river cruiser Orcaella is owned by the Orient Express company.

Orcaella is named for a breed of dolphin native to the Irrawaddy (a few of our guests were lucky enough to see some). The ship has three passenger levels. The two lower decks contain 25 cabins as well as the gorgeous dining area (more about that in a moment).

Most of the top deck is reserved for passenger comforts. It includes a wide-open space aft with plenty of room for lounging. The top deck also boasts an outdoor bar and an intimate indoor bar/lounge.

Forward is a small fitness center, with great equipment and a spa center (the massages are wonderful!). Farther forward still is the plunge pool and the brains of the whole operation, the bridge.

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IRT passenger Ron Fisher loved his super deluxe cabin suite aboard the Orcaella. This was perfect for reading, relaxing and gazing at the scenery.

The middle passenger deck contains two balcony suites forward, as well as five state cabins. The third deck contains the state and deluxe cabins, plus the reception area.

I saw all the cabins, and even the smallest (one of which Owen & I shared) is spacious, with floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors. The balcony suites are over-the-top luxurious. Their crowning feature is a private, outdoor sitting area, which affords a captain’s eye view forward as well as amidships.

The super deluxe cabins have a king-sized bed with a large sitting area, plus a huge storage area. The regular sized state cabins have all king-sized beds, walk-in closet, two great wicker chairs for admiring the river and large sliding glass doors.

 Our deluxe cabin had a king-sized bed (two twin beds also are available) ample bathroom and closet.

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IRT passenger David Minnerly talks with Orcaella Executive Chef Bansani Nawisamphan during lunch. Chef Nawisamphan happily accommodated diner’s special requests, such Mr. Minnerly’s Thai green curry.

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Art Deco accent in dining room

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Dining on the Orcaella is a peak experience. Tables for 2, 4, 6 or 8 are easily arranged. Here, IRT passengers from California, Idaho, Ohio and Belgium enjoy a meal.

Now, to the dining room, whose décor is as imaginative as the cuisine. A row of stately Buddha statues, and, nearby, a half-size sculpture of men carrying a heavy gong, greet diners outside the restaurant. Inside, the room is replete with antique statuary set into the room’s rear wall.

The room’s mixture of local and Continental décor mirrors Executive Chef Bansani Nawisamphan’s menus, an interplay between “Flavors of Asia” and table d’hote European cuisine.

Born in Thailand, the young Ms. Nawisamphan was “borrowed” by Orcaella from its older, larger cousin, the Orient-Express’ “Road to Mandalay,” which also plies the Irrewaddy.

Folk art from all over Myanmar graces Orcaella's public and private spaces.

Folk art from all over Myanmar graces Orcaella’s public and private spaces.

An Asian entrée might include “oriental marinated grilled chicken skewer served with curry peanut sauce” or “deep fried Myanmar sea bass in spicy sweet & sour sauce and steamed bok choy.”

Or, if one so chose, he could opt for “chef cured salmon with fennel salad, orange & lime dressing with herb cheese and caviar,  Australian beef tenderloin or oven-baked duck breast with stir-fried vegetable, spinach served with local honey and orange sauce.”

Well, you get the idea. Everything is over-the-top splendid and guaranteed to make you indulge. As our travelers said about the ship: “WOW!” and “They can’t do enough for you.”

And did I mention? Chef Nawisamphan gladly will make anything you like, provided that she can procure the ingredients and that you give her sufficient time.

Most nights, following dinner, we enjoyed local entertainment on the top deck: dancers and musicians, a traditional puppet show, an amazing young woman risking life and limb while toe-tapping a “cane ball,” a ceremonial elephant dance and – don’t want to spoil this for you – an incredible “surprise” about which I’ll say no more.

And, as if all the above weren’t enough, for those whose DNA requires an internet connection, the ship has WiFi (albeit with limited band width).

Plus every room has a flat-screen TV, which after watching for 5 minutes, Owen and I decided we didn’t need. There was a much better show outside our window.

And herein lies the best part of the Orcaella on-board experience: the ship is an unbeatable platform from which to admire the people and scenery of Myanmar.

View from our cabin window.

View from our cabin window.

Most mornings upon wake-up, Owen and I had coffee or cappuccino delivered to our room. Then, as we sat propped up in bed, we’d draw the curtains to watch the ever-changing scene: little fishing boats tootling past, great barges churning upstream, people bathing at the river banks, others loading containers of water onto their oxcarts, plus a constant parade of golden-domed pagodas.

And, as we interacted with the staff and, even more so, as we went ashore and encountered the remarkably friendly Burmese people, we felt privileged to be getting a glimpse of Myanmar’s awakening into the 21st century.

To go ashore and meet the people of Myanmar, please click here.

For a link to the journey, please see: http://www.irtsociety.com/journeyDetail.php?id=198

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Announces 2014 Istanbul Sales

21 Jun

Hungarian military band greets Paris-Istanbul Orient-Express in Budapest. IRT Photos by O. Hardy

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A Day in the Ukrainian Forest Riding The Carpathian Tram

23 Apr
The authors' narrow-gauge diesel railcar crosses the Mizunka River on its journey into the Carpathian Forest.

The authors’ narrow-gauge railcar crosses the Mizunka River in the Carpathian Forest.

By Bruce Anderson and Yana Kirpel; photos by Mr. Anderson

Deep in the Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk region, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, chugs a little train from another era: the narrow-gauge “Carpathian Tram.”

On summer weekends, this unique, tiny train allows tourists to admire the Carpathian Mountains’ natural beauty, visit remote villages, pick mushrooms, drink mineral water, and experience local Ukrainian culture.

The original line was built in 1873 by Austrian timber merchant Baron Leopold to haul lumber from the forest. Many of the beautiful wood homes in the region are reminders of his efforts.

Originally there were 84 miles of 750-mm track. A 1990 flood reduced that length by about half. Today, the Carpathian Tram is the Ukraine’s only remaining narrow-gauge forestry line in regular use.

The same company that built the railway also developed spa resorts. The region remains a major holiday destination — one that continues to provide passengers for the train’s tourist operation. The tram typically runs from the village of Vygoda to Gorgany, a distance of about nine miles.

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The view from the back platform shows the often twisted narrow gauge course through the mountains

We took our Carpathian Tram tour during spring break. We rented a single railcar for our exclusive use, and we’re glad we did. The railcar’s cozy seats took up the rear three-quarters of the vehicle, with the driver’s compartment up front. That made it easy to chat with our friendly driver. (He even let us blow the whistle!)

A noon whistle blast, in fact, signaled our departure. Soon we were on our way, winding and climbing along the bank of the Mizunka River. We would cross four of the line’s more than 30 bridges during our day-long adventure.

We made several stops en route. The first was to sample mineral water from a natural spring. This water is said to have healing properties and is highly recommended for good health.

The co-author and her son Kirell enjoy a typical Ukrainian breakfast in the Carpathian countryside.

The co-author and her son Kirell enjoy a typical Ukrainian breakfast in the Carpathian countryside.

A bit further down the line, a local resident invited us to her house for a typical Ukrainian breakfast: bacon, potatoes, bread, herbal teas and vareniki (a Ukrainian specialty of dumplings filled with meat, potatoes and mushrooms). There was also — of course — vodka, made in part from the local mineral water!

A log train makes its way along the Ukraine's only remaining forestry railway.

A log train makes its way along the Ukraine’s only remaining forestry railway.

During our breakfast, a real, working, narrow-gauge log train passed us on its way down to the mill.

Our last stop was at a small hanging bridge where we walked across the river to pick flowers and admire the natural beauty of the region.  We wanted to go further. But all too soon, we had to return to Vygoda to end our trip before dusk.

Practical Information:  Vygoda is about two hours’ drive south of Lviv in Western Ukraine; it can only be reached by car over very rough roads. However, it’s very easy to arrange a private transfer from Lviv for the day. Cost for the tram is about $19 per person, not including the breakfast. We charted the entire railcar for about $125. Summer trips typically last a bit longer, running from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with more stops along the way and an open-air car included.  For further information, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers.

(Bruce Anderson is a frequent IRT contributor. His friend Yana is a resident of Kiev.)

The Ukraine by Sleeper Train: Kiev to Lviv in Cozy Comfort

19 Nov
Ukrainian Railway Station

A local train at Lviv Station. Photo by Bruce Anderson

Picture this:

It’s 8 in the evening at a large metropolitan railway station. The departures board shows multiple tracks of sleeping-car trains bound for various locations throughout the country – and beyond.

Is this North America in the 1950s? No, it’s Kiev’s main railway station a few weeks ago. It’s crowded with passengers heading for their cozy compartments for overnight trains to faraway places both in the Ukraine and beyond. With my friend Yana from Kiev, I boarded Train #13 bound for Lviv (also spelled Lvov) in western Ukraine.

I counted at least 15 sleeping cars of various configurations, all appearing to be full.

The boarding process is simple. Locate your track, and head down the stairs. The train is platformed 45 minutes before departure (Amtrak, are you listening?)  Once on board, the stoic car attendant, no doubt a holdout from Soviet days, takes your tickets and offers tea or coffee, which he brings to your room. The next day’s wake-up call is provided by the attendant without asking, 30 minutes out. Beds are typical Soviet style: narrow and with a small space in between the two in our first-class compartment. Facilities are down the hall.

Our arrival into Lviv was on time at, gulp, 5 a.m. It’s just enough time for a good night’s sleep on smooth, broad-gauge track.

Citidel Hotel

The author’s friend Yana stands before Lviv’s Citadel Hotel, a converted 19th-century fortress. Photo by Bruce Anderson

Unlike most Ukrainian cities, Lviv was untouched by the war and has wonderful architecture dating from the 13th century. Not to be missed are the Coffee Museum (Lvivska Kopalna Kavy, Rynok Pl. 10), located in an old salt mine, Opera House, and, if you like chocolate, the most wonderful store full of every type imaginable (Lviv Chocolate Factory, 3 Serbska Street).

Our last meal was at the secret Kryivka  (secret place) restaurant, which is devoted to the WWII insurgent Ukrainian army called UPA – you can’t get in without a password. (Sorry, I can’t divulge the address on line!) Our return to Kiev on Train #144 over a slightly different routing was much the same, with a 20-minute early arrival.

Lviv estate

Pidhirtsi Castle near Lviv. Many of Lviv’s fine old country estates and manor houses are being renovated. Photo by Bruce Anderson

I highly recommend traveling by train in the Ukraine or in any former Soviet country. It’s an efficient and relatively inexpensive alternative to internal flights on sometimes questionable airlines.

A trip to the Ukraine would be a great add-on to a Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express journey or Black Sea cruise. For more information, call The Society of International Railway Travelers® at (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. or Canada; (502) 897-1725 elsewhere.

Al-Andalus: Whirlwind Tour Through Southern Spain, Part II

3 Jul

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Ms. Walker’s adventures, please click here.

The staff on the Al-Andalus is gracious and attentive, including the manager, Marcelino, who was careful to note the occasional kink in the trip for future improvements (we were traveling on the first consumer departure since the train’s refurbishment, so kinks were not unexpected!). Announcements are made in Spanish, English, and French. All staff members could speak basic English (and most spoke excellent English), which was a relief to the monolingual on board.

Dinner on board the Al-Andalus

A main dinner course on the Al-Andalus: tuna with small pieces of crispy Iberian ham and vegetables.

Our on-train meals –breakfast daily and four other multi-course dinners – were delicious, though not for the health conscious. Some travelers may wish to request half portions or other dietary needs before departure. Off-train meals in top-notch restaurants gave us a taste of the local Spanish cuisine, where aromatic pork and delicious fish dishes abound.

The musical acts that performed in the Al-Andalus lounge car – an excellent singer on the second night and a lively trio of traditional singers and flamenco dancers on the last night – were extremely entertaining and a real highlight for most passengers. The musicians did not begin playing until close to midnight, which proved too late for some early-to-bed passengers. But late nights and long, leisurely meals are part of experiencing the “Spanish way.”

Al-Andalus staff

Staff members of the Al-Andalus line up to say goodbye to passengers.

The weather in late April was consistently warm and occasionally downright hot. I’d recommend traveling on the Al-Andalus no later than early May and no earlier than September to avoid both the heat and the crowds. Off-train tours will sometimes run a bit long for some passengers, and a good deal of walking is involved, but almost all sites we visited were well worth the exercise.

In short, the Al-Andalus is a great choice if you want to take in a wide sweep of southern Spain and are prepared for the occasional long day of touring in order to do so.

You will be well tended in the process – both onboard and off.

For more information and for reservations on the Al-Andalus, visit The Society of International Railway Travelers’ website or call us at (800) 478-4881.

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part II

25 Jun

Third Class local passenger train at Nam Tok station. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Editor’s note: To read Part I of Mr. Anderson’s adventures, please click here.

After deciding to book the Epic Thailand trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express (persuaded by Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog), I opted to add the short Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my adventure so that I could experience and see even more of this fascinating South Asian region. But unexpected hiccups while en-route to Bangkok left me wondering whether I’d make my primary Epic Thailand departure…

Eastern & Oriental Express at sunset. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Our Singapore-Bangkok itinerary was thrown off course first by a stalled local train in Malaysia and then by an engine failure just across the Thai border (the E&O is contracted by law to use only Malaysian and Thai Railway locomotives), putting us significantly behind schedule, so much so that the side trip to the Kwai River Bridge was abandoned so that we could make a more timely arrival into Bangkok. So although I’d be able to join the IRT group departing on the Epic Thailand tour the next morning (Phew!), I was disappointed that I’d missed seeing the famous Kwai River Bridge.

E & O observation car with bartenders Sopa & Andrek. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

My disappointment, however, was short-lived. The Eastern & Oriental Express staff arranged a complementary private car and guide to drive me out to Nam Tok upon my return to Bangkok, following my week-long Epic Thailand adventure. This was just one more shining example of the E&O’s outstanding commitment to customer service and satisfaction.

Despite Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, the trip to the Kwai Bridge was worth every exertion. Once across the bridge, I saw the two plinthed steam locomotives on site and had time for a brief visit to the cemetery before our return trip to the capital.

For more information and for reservations on the Eastern & Oriental Express, visit the Society of International Railway Traveler’s website or call us at (800) 478-4881.

The Al-Andalus: Whirlwind Tour Through Southern Spain

9 Jun

IRT writer Angela Walker and traveling companion Shawn Bidwell enjoy dinner on board the Al-Andalus.  IRT photo courtesy of Angela Walker.

Embarking on the Al-Andalus for the first time from Seville was a bit of an adventure, as my traveling companion Shawn and I had to feel our way around the Santa Justa station in lieu of proper signage. But once on board, the train was a welcoming and luxurious oasis that was well worth the initial confusion.

View of the Alhambra from our wonderful local restaurant in Granada. IRT photo by Angela Walker

Al-Andalus passenger Shawn Bidwell disembarks the train in Granada. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

After being welcomed with champagne in the lounge, we settled into our Superior cabin, equipped with a lovely golden couch – which folded into a comfortable and roomy double bed at night – a writing table and chair, a spacious closet, and a full en-suite bathroom. The modern touches, such as vacuum toilet and individually controlled air conditioning do not take away from the beautiful Belle Époque design – striking sconces accentuate the carefully crafted inlaid wooden flower designs throughout the train.

Most of the Al-Andalus sleeping cars were built in France in the late 1920s, as were all four public cars: lounge, two diners and bar car, which are as comfortable and beautiful as the sleepers. The dining and bar car is lovely in tones of red and gold, while the lounge car is a more muted gray with large welcoming couches.

We could have spent a week enjoying the comforts of the train alone, but the many stops along the way – Cordoba, Baeza, Ubeda, Granada, Ronda, Cadiz, Jerez, Sanlucar, and Sevilla – provided an exciting and whirlwind six-day tour through southern Spain. Granada’s stunning Alhambra, built by the Moorish rulers in the 14th century, was among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites we took in on our journey, as was the famed Seville Cathedral – third largest in the world.

The staff of the Al-Andalus is always at the ready with hot coffee and tea during daily breakfast on board. IRT photo by Angela Walker.

Some stops were difficult to navigate with a group (the small and winding streets of Cordoba, for example), but the Al-Andalus guides did an excellent job of keeping everyone lively and on track. Most travelers on our departure were Spanish-speakers – but not to fear. As we were two of only three English-speakers on board, Mercedes, our fantastic translator employed by the train, became our de facto personal guide. She was patient with any questions we had and made us feel quite at home.

For Part II of Angela Walker’s adventures on the Al-Andalus, please click here.

Thailand’s “Death Railway”: Adventures on the Eastern & Oriental Express, Part I

4 Jun

The Kwai River Bridge. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Since its inception, The Eastern & Oriental Express has been on my bucket list of trains to ride. But it was IRT President Eleanor Hardy’s Track 25 blog that finally made me book the trip. And as long as I was going halfway around the world, I decided to add the standard E&O four-day Singapore-Bangkok route to the beginning of my trip.

Unlike their semi-annual one-week tours (ours was Epic Thailand), this route runs regularly during high season and continues on a less frequent schedule throughout the year. In fact, the journey is more like a scheduled train than a tour, as stops are made to entrain passengers at the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lampur and Butterworth.

The train is much more than “general transportation,” however, and is every bit as impressive as outlined in Ms. Hardy’s blog. The staff is top-notch – attentive but not overbearing. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by name by bartender Andrek asking if I was ready for my iced tea! How did he know? Of course, preferences were indicated on the booking form, but those are often a formality soon forgotten.

The War Cemetary at Kanachanaburi. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Conductor on local train. IRT photo by Bruce Anderson.

Off-train tours are offered in the colonial Malaysian city of Georgetown and to Kanchanaburi, site of the Kwai River bridge. I, however, had planned to venture out on my own, leaving the E&O at the Kwai River Station and continuing by local train to the end of the line, 45 miles north at Nam Tok.

This track is what’s left of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” constructed by allied prisoners of World War II and made famous by the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Allied War Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, with over 6,000 graves, lies in silent testament to the horror of what transpired there.

But all was not going according to plan. Would I make it to Bangkok in time, I wondered, to join the 19 other IRT travelers leaving on the Epic Thailand tour?

For part II of Bruce Anderson’s adventures in Thailand, please click here.

VIA Canadian Winter Journey Unveils Top Train’s New Décor

11 Jan
The Canadian

VIA Rail's Toronto-Vancouver Canadian. Photo by Bruce Anderson

Vacations during the holiday season often conjure up images of someplace warm, perhaps celebrating some foreign country’s unique New Year’s traditions. My traditional New Year’s trip is on VIA Rail’s Canadian across Canada, often paired with my other passion: NHL Hockey.  I collect hockey arenas the same as I do rail mileage and train journeys. This time, my trip took me to Winnipeg to see a New Year’s Eve game.

It was also my 50th trip on the Canadian since 1977.
What I rode is not the much ballyhooed — and delayed — luxury service which will include completely revamped cars with dedicated attendants, larger accommodations with showers and flat screen TV’s. While waiting for that to materialize, now tentatively scheduled for 2013, the existing train has received a complete makeover. Although rooms remain the traditional Pullman size, where else except in a private railroad car can one ride a train straight out of the 1950′s?

It has been argued that today’s train isn’t the “real” Canadian, since it now mostly follows the more northerly Canadian National routing. But my consist, with the exception of one ex-Amtrak re-built coach (Amtrak, are you listening?), was made up entirely of original Canadian Pacific equipment.  All interiors have been updated with new carpeting, wall coverings, seat fabrics and lighting.

Before and after: Above, the refurbished and redecorated diner on the Canadian. Walls and ceiling are white, making the car much brighter than before. Chairs have gone from pink to dark gray. Square plastic lights have replaced the art deco ones. The dark blue seat covers for dinner also are gone. Below, the Canadian's diner before the refurbishment. Photos by Bruce Anderson

The diner, previously pretty in pink, is now brightened with white walls and ceiling with dark grey seats. The famous original etched-glass partitions have been retained. Food is of the expected high standard and service is provided in a professional manner.

Dining car on the Canadian before the recent refurbishment.

The Park Car has been darkened with dark grey ceiling and frames around the dome windows, giving a warm appearance, which draws more attention to the view outside rather than in. And if you get tired of the northern Ontario scenery, movies can be screened on a new flat screen TV in the lounge beneath the dome.

The rear Park Car on VIA's Canadian

The Canadian's Park Car, looking down from the dome stairway to the lounge area. Photo by Bruce Anderson

While accommodations are the traditional Pullman size, the Cabin for One (ex-Roomette) and Cabin for Two (ex-Bedroom) provide a cozy atmosphere in which to sleep. Unlike Amtrak, all rooms have en-suite toilet and sink; however, the shower is down the hall. Sections or “berths” also are available, the only train left in North American where they can be found. (Sections were made famous in the “naughty” sleeper scene by Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.”) While sleeping accommodations on the Canadian are generally priced higher than Amtrak, fares in winter are about half those in effect during peak summer season.

Some may question traveling in winter through the “Great White North.” But I enjoy the lower passenger counts, and there’s plenty of heat. Besides, what could be better than sitting in a front dome seat at night, watching the signals change from green to red as the train passes by, the moon illuminating the snow-covered ground?

The schedule is heavily padded, so arrival is likely to be on time, as it was for me in both directions. But I wouldn’t advise booking a same-day flight at trip’s end, at least not in winter.

While not the Orient Express, the Canadian is in my opinion the best we have going in North America.

Editor’s Note:  When the new luxury service debuts, the equipment and service as described above will still be available on each departure at traditional pricing, according to VIA.  The Canadian runs three times weekly in each direction between Toronto and Vancouver. The Canadian is one of The Society of International Railway Traveler’s World’s Top 25 Trains for 2012; The IRT Society’s 13-day “Trans-Canada Rail Adventure” includes three overnights on the Canadian.

Author’s Note: (I traveled to Winnipeg to see its new MTS Centre and team host the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sadly, the mighty Detroit Red Wings don’t play in Winnipeg this year).

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