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Luxury Suites Get Pre-Launch ‘Debut’ on VIA Rail’s Canadian

4 Feb
VIA RAIL CANADA INC. - VIA Rail Canada unveils new Prestige

VIA Rail Canada’s new “Prestige Class” includes double beds and cabins 50 percent larger than standard. Photo courtesy VIA Rail Canada

Want to impress your partner on Valentine’s — or any other — day? Book a new Prestige Class bedroom between Toronto and Vancouver on VIA Rail’s famous Canadian, one of The Society of IRT’s World’s Top 25 Trains.

VIA recently introduced its up-market luxury service on a limited basis — something IRT Society travelers have wanted for years.

On my recent departure from Toronto, I found this beautiful, stainless steel sleeper waiting for me at the top of the escalator, coupled to a rebuilt round-end dome/observation car at the rear of the Canadian.

These cars soon will be joined by several more rebuilt sleepers, each with 6 spacious bedrooms. (The dome car also carries a handicapped room with entry directly off the vestibule).

VIA's round-end observation / lounge is a prime spot on its signature Toronto-Vancouver "Canadian." IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

VIA’s round-end observation / lounge is a prime spot on its signature Toronto-Vancouver “Canadian.” IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

There are many differences between Prestige Class and regular sleepers. Rooms are 50% bigger than a “one-up, one-down” cabin for two in the Sleeper Touring Class. And the window is 60% larger.

Each cabin includes a full, en suite bathroom. (For the first time on the Canadian, travelers will not have to share a shower with others.)

Not only is there a private shower, sink and toilet, there is a flat-screen TV (with a selection of videos) and a spacious L-shaped sofa that turns into a double bed (not a queen bed) at night. There are also many extra services that are provided including:

  • Unlimited free drinks, including alcoholic drinks
  • 24-hour butler service
  • First choice for meal sittings (if you prefer to eat early – or late – this is a great benefit, especially in the summer when the train is crowded.)
  • Separate greeting in the first-class lounge, and private escort to the train
  • Turn-down service
  • Free off-train tour in Winnipeg for westbound passengers (but only if the train’s on time)
  • Fully stocked mini bar and fridge

Official rollout is planned for summer, but bookings already have started.

Refurbished sofas in the observation / lounge. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Refurbished sofas in the observation / lounge. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Prestige Class is great for a couple needing more space and who don’t want to risk climbing into an upper bunk. The higher levels of service and privacy –especially the private, en suite bathroom – will appeal to IRT guests.  The 24/7 room service sounds great,too.

Of course all this comes at a price: up to $2,000 more per cabin for the Prestige Class compared with the regular first class sleeper cabin.

Here are the six legs available for Prestige Class and the costs:

  • Toronto – Winnipeg, and vice versa:   $4,104 CAD (About $3,228 US at today’s exchange rate.)
  • Toronto – Jasper, and v.v.:         $5,534 CAD (About $4,354 US at today’s rate.)
  • Toronto – Vancouver, and v.v.: $7,394 CAD (About $5,817 US at today’s rate.)

(All prices given here include taxes and are subject to change.)

Please note: the cost of Prestige Class has varied every time we’ve contacted VIA’s reservations desk. Two reservation agents told us Prestige Class prices are fixed throughout the year, while another said they fluctuate depending on availability. So stay tuned!

VIA Rail's "Canadian" trains feature stainless steel cars made by the Budd Company, Philadelphia, PA in 1955. Prestige Class marks the train's first major renovation. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

VIA Rail’s “Canadian” trains feature stainless steel cars made by the Budd Company, Philadelphia, PA in 1955. Prestige Class marks the train’s first major renovation. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

For IRT travelers, the most popular way to ride the Canadian is on the Toronto-Jasper leg of our tour, Trans-Canada Rail Adventure: Toronto-Vancouver. (The Rocky Mountaineer covers the Banff-Vancouver leg; the Jasper-Banff leg is covered by a motorcoach on the Icefields Parkway.) For availability and pricing using Prestige Class on the Canadian on this and any other tour, please contact our office: call (800) 478-4881, (502) 897-1725, or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Meanwhile, here’s some not-so-good news about the Canadian: no longer can you book the Romance Package — two double cabins remade into a suite with a double bed. And the triple bedroom no longer is available.

Bad news also for solo travelers: if you want sole use of a Prestige Class cabin, your cost will be the same as for two people.

Nevertheless, Prestige Class is a big deal. The Canadian Pacific Railway introduced the Canadian in 1955, albeit over a mostly different routing. Prestige Class is the train’s first major upgrade.

The service should be wildly popular. However the pricing works out, the busiest times for travel, such as summer, mean it’s smart to book quickly. So contact IRT ASAP!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_7385

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.

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.

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).

Vic Falls’ Steam Dinner Train Delights Cape-Dar Traveler

2 Dec
Victoria Falls Dinner Train

Dining Car Wembley, built in 1926. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Victoria Falls is one of the great natural wonders of the world. I’ve seen it four times and never tire of the magnificent views.

But while the Falls has been called “the smoke that thunders,” few are aware that smoke of another kind can be found just across the bridge from the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zambia.

Steam Engine Class 12 of the Royal Livingstone Dinner Train

Steam engine 12th class 204, built by Northern British Locomotive works in the 1930. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

Nestled in a remote corner of town next to the Livingstone Railway Museum is the Royal Livingstone Express, a true throwback to the days of Rhodesian Railways’ passenger services. I had a chance to sample this vision of the past during my recent Rovos Rail trip to Dar Es Salaam with the Society of International Railway Travelers®. The Cape Town – Dar itinerary includes a overnight stop at the Falls.

Rovos groups stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, on the Zimbabwe side. The hotel is beautiful, but it makes the trek to the dinner train a bit problematic. Getting there — one-way— included two van rides, the purchase of a double-entry visa at the Zimbabwe-Zambia border and a six-mile bus ride. But the trouble and expense are well worth it.

It is indeed quite a train.

Its five cars all have been either restored by or purchased from Rovos Rail. They include a kitchen car and two dining saloons, one of which was the unique, pillared diner “Wembly,” built in 1926. Rounding out the consist are a lounge and, bringing up the rear, an open-platform observation car.

The Royal Livingstone Express Dinner Train

The Royal Livingstone Express Dinner Train. IRT Photo by Bruce Anderson

The train’s route first took us through Livingstone, where the entire township seemed on hand to wave, with the younger set chasing after us as well. We spent the rest of our time spotting elephants as we chugged through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. True, most of our journey was in winter darkness. But the real attraction was what was happening inside the train.

The train’s two chefs turned out a five-course, freshly prepared meal worthy of a fine dining restaurant. It was served while the train was stopped at the far end of its five-and-a-half-mile run. Our entrée, lamb shoulder, was delicious, with the meat just about falling off the bone. A vegetarian option also was available.

After dinner, drinks were served in the two lounges during the train’s return to Livingstone. Train enthusiasts in our group were treated to the sounds and smell of a Class 12 steam locomotive. For the return trip, it ran tender first, coupled to the back of the train’s observation car. It was just about the closest one can get to a working steam locomotive without actually being on the foot plate.

Cost for the train including transfers (but excluding visas) is $160 U.S. and can be booked through The Society of IRT. Dinner runs usually are made Wednesdays and Saturdays with a minimum of 20 passengers required. Dress code is smart casual. I would highly recommend this unique experience, particularly for a second-time visitor, as I was, who has previously done some of the area’s more well-known tourist activities.

For more information on the Royal Livingstone Express, or on Rovos Rail’s Cape Town – Dar es Salaam tour, call (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. and Canada. Elsewhere, call (502) 897-1725.

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