A Travellerspoint blog

Final Two Days of My Train Journey

Finishing in Toronto

October 27, 2022

I had wondered how I would be feeling at this point in my trip, long past the mountains and the prairies, but still having one more night and over 1,000 km to go. Would I be counting the hours, just wanting to get off the train? Surely, I would be tired of trains by this point.

But this trip had been more about movement than anything I was going to see. I had craved, really needed, to be in motion. When I took the Zephyr from Chicago, I felt the vastness of the US and enjoyed the sensation of the train rolling along while I watched the country go past. I was now sensing the same going across Canada. And I gained a certain satisfaction from taking iconic trains from start to finish. I wanted to finish this train ride at the last stop, Toronto Union Station. Whether it was great mountain views, flat prairies, or as I would find on this day, lots of trees, I was happy to be onboard, still rolling along. Besides, I was being treated so well by the staff, the cars were comfortable, the food was outstanding, and I had great company. No, I was not tired of trains.

Although I had lived in Ontario, I never appreciated how big it was. I was interested to learn that we had entered the province relatively early in the night, only a couple of hours after Winnipeg, and would be rolling along all this day and then half of the next before we made it to Toronto.

I also learned that the province is in more than one time zone. The western part, on a line that runs just west of Thunder Bay, is in the central time zone. For air travel, once you leave the ground, the time zone of your destination is all that really matters. You arrive in a matter of hours and then have to adjust. With trains you must adjust to each zone. Your mealtimes are set according to the current location of the train. If you pass into a new zone at night, there are no announcements. I woke up in Colorado without noting the time change and arrived at breakfast an hour early. I woke up in western Ontario, assuming that it was eastern time, only to find out that we were still on central time. I had to wait for breakfast.

Breakfast time did arrive, and I was seated with a mother and daughter. The mother was probably in her 80’s. They travel a lot by train, including to Halifax. There was still no French toast, so I was good and had the cereal again.

A woman on the other side of the dining car heard me saying bad things about Amtrak. She said that she would soon be taking an Amtrak train. I told her that the trip would be fine, just not to expect the same level of service.

I reported to the dome car where I found some of the regulars but also a couple of new people. I found out that the people who left the train during the Winnipeg stopover ended up in bars as there was not much else to do. It did not sound like I missed much by staying on the train.

Our train was on the CN tracks which run well north of Lake Superior. The CP tracks are south and run along Lake Superior. I wanted to phone home, but we had no cell coverage. We were really in the wilds of Ontario or should I say the “sticks”. There were trees, so many trees. A pond or lake would appear and then be gone in an instant, plunging us back into the forest.

There were many stops listed, with names such as Savant Lake, Flindt Landing, and Allanwater Bridge, that were not regular towns. They provided access to recreational properties and lodges and were flag stops. Unless passengers had booked their ride in advance, the train just passes on by. We did not stop.

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One of our new dome car friends was a man who had worked as a CN telegraph operator in his younger days. Those poles were still standing, providing no current function except to mess up photographs.
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We were alerted that our train’s counterpart, Via Rail Number 1, was passing us on its way to Vancouver. We could not see into the windows on the dome cars, so there was no waving to each other.

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We were also informed about a beer tasting in our dome car in the evening, but this was going to be at 7 pm, the same time as the 2nd sitting for dinner, so I would have to miss it.

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The retired pilot pointed out the many beaver lodges in the ponds along the railway. I then struggled to both see them and even harder, take photographs. I think there is a blurry one in the corner of this photo, but I know very little about beavers.

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I was pleased to again be placed with my three young people at lunch. Back in my post about my day in Montreal I mentioned my discussion with the café manager who had been in Ottawa for the trucker protests. The two men are graduate students there, so I asked them to provide their viewpoint. They told me stories about the disruption that it caused the residents, many who had to move out of the area until it was over. The coffee guy had told me that the truckers stopped honking at night. The students said, "No, they never stopped honking".

The town of Hornepayne is a regular stop. We were early, so everyone had a chance to walk around. I now had a cell connection so was able to talk to Po as I walked. Hornepayne originated and continues to be a maintenance stop for the railway. Forestry and tourism are also important. It is not a big place.

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The town is proud to claim its place as the geographic center of Ontario.

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I saw a couple eating ice cream cones just before we boarded the train. I was only a little surprised. This is Canada. We eat ice cream on cold days. I then talked to them in the front lounge car. They had wandered into a store that was selling off its ice cream inventory, so they got a great deal on their cones. Cool weather or not, they could not pass up a bargain. They are from Alliston, Ontario. “Where they make the Honda CRV’s”, they told me. I had to show them photos of Pouch Cove. They actually took notes about our vacation rental property, so I might see them again.

Perhaps I had been talking too much about Amtrak. There was a man sitting beside them who told me that he was booked on Amtrak and wondered if he should still go. I assured him that he should and that I will likely take Amtrak in the future. It was a good thing that my last train was the best one.

I walked into the dining car for supper and on the left side saw two empty places across from the French couple. I did not want to sit there. The waitress seemed ready to put me there, but then pivoted and sent me to the right, back with my young people. I don’t know what they thought about it, but I was quite pleased. It was another enjoyable dinner. I had the pork tenderloin and a couple glasses of wine. At the end I left some cash, both for the wine but also for a tip which was meant for a few meals. One of my dining companions called out to ask if I had meant to leave the money. Tipping had been quite obvious on Amtrak, not so much on Via.

It was announced that because we were running early, we would have only the continental option for breakfast and then either a brunch or early lunch, the final decision to be made in the morning. I wondered if I would ever get my French toast.

I was feeling quite mellow after my meal and the wine. My train odyssey was almost over. I pulled down my bed for the last time.

October 28, 2022

I had a good sleep and headed in for breakfast. I was put with a couple from Kitchener, Ontario. She told some great stories about her trips on the trains as a young girl. Her family had moved to the west for a time and then moved back to the east, travelling by train each time, the CN train in one direction and the CP on the way back. They acquired a puppy which came with them on the return trip but had to stay in the baggage car. She would spend time in the car with the puppy where she had found a handy box to sit on, at least until she was told that it was not appropriate. The crate contained a coffin.

To briefly jump ahead a day, one of my hostesses in Toronto would tell me about a vacation trip her family took on CP Rail when she was a little girl. She remembered having the run of the train and the many activities for children. She still has the menus.

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It was announced that our last meal would be an early brunch. I had finished my breakfast about 8:00 am and could look forward to coming back at 11:00.

I went back to my usual spot, where I found some of the regulars. It was a much more interesting day than the previous one as we were passing through Ontario’s cottage country.

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I stopped at my room to finish packing and went on to the dining car for my brunch. There was no French toast, but there were waffles. I sat with a couple from the UK. They had been to Vancouver for a wedding and decided to return by train.

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From there I went up to the front lounge car. I had never gone up there, instead going every time to the back. I had been told at the start that “my” car had not been refurbished. I had been sitting on cloth for all these days, but this one had nice leather seats.

My young friends were there, so I enjoyed a last visit with them. I knew we were quite close to the end since we were going down the Don Valley, which brought back not so pleasant memories of drives down the Don Valley Expressway when I was returning from clients and about to hit the downtown traffic. I said goodbye to my friends and waited in my room until we arrived at Toronto Union Station. We were an hour and a half early.

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That was it. My big train journey was over. It had been 16 days since I boarded the train in Halifax, and I had no more “real” trains to catch.

However, I was not finished with trains that day. I was going to take another GO train, back to the Danforth Station, the same one I had used on my arrival from Montreal. I walked into the terminal and asked for directions to the GO trains. It took me away from the main hall, so I first went there to take some photos.

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I boarded my GO train and watched the Canadian roll away. I was a bit sad.

Posted by Bob Brink 02:45 Archived in Canada Tagged trains canada via_rail Comments (5)

Through the Prairies


View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 26, 2022

I woke up from my best sleep of all my train rides. Maybe I was getting used to sleeping on trains, but it probably helped that the train was going straight, reducing the amount of squealing coming from the wheels. We had been crossing the prairies all night, and that is what we had to look forward to all this day. The conductor on the California Zephyr had told me that he enjoyed his trip on the Canadian as it rolled past the waving wheat fields of Saskatchewan. But he did his trip during the summer, and it was now late October. The wind might be blowing, but the wheat had been harvested.

I was still up early for breakfast. I vowed to eat healthier this morning but that only applied if there was no French toast. A quick look at the menu told me that it was going to be cereal. I was joined by a nice woman who told me she was originally from Lithuania. I told her the story of my missed Russian train trip. We discussed the present situation in the Ukraine and how it was impacting Lithuania.

We were allowed off the train in Saskatoon. Tyler said it was cold outside so I pulled my warmer coat from the bottom of my suitcase. I walked up and down and established that the train was 400 metres long. Tyler took my photo standing next to my car.
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After our brief stop, I went to the dome car. We had our now established regulars who came and went throughout the day. There were three ladies from San Francisco. They had come prepared with activities to keep them occupied during the long journey. On this day one was teaching the others some type of craft as we rolled along.

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It was a nice day at first. There were no more mountains. Instead, we saw farm fields, grain silos, tractor dealers and a potash mine. Potash is a big business in Saskatchewan.

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And we saw some deer.
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We came to Watrous, a town of about 2,000 people. It has a tourism business based on its hot mineral springs, including some restaurants. The town is a flag stop for the Canadian (the train only stops if there are passengers). You could plan a few days there as part of your big cross Canada trip.
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Just about the time that I thought that it was not so bad to be looking at the prairies, we rolled into the fog.

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I went to the front lounge to get a coffee. There was a notice board with the various activities of the day.
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I took my coffee back to my regular spot in the dome. It was cloudy. but at least the fog was gone.
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After this exciting morning it was time for lunch. I was seated with the San Francisco ladies. They often take trips together and will visit Quebec City after finishing our train ride in Toronto. But they were going to fly.

I had the kebabs with shrimp and scallops. It was as good as it sounds.
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We pulled into Melville during lunch. It is named after Charles Melville Hayes, once the president of the Grand Trunk Railway. He had plans to build a transcontinental train line from Moncton, New Brunswick to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. His struggles with that dream ended when he took a trip on the Titanic.

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With no great photography available, I decided to spend some time in my room. I chatted with Tyler, and he told me that many of the staff on the train would be laid off in the next days, a normal occurrence as demand dips during the late fall and winter. The Canadian and Ocean trains are like resort hotels that employ young people for part of the year. It is much different than Amtrak which had a much older work force. I do not know which is a better business model, and I do appreciate that the Amtrak staff were career employees, but from the passenger viewpoint I certainly preferred the young staff on Via.

I was comfortable in my room but could only sit still for awhile, so I returned to the dome car.
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I stayed until sunset.

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I texted with a Pouch Cove friend and found out that Po had just been at their house for supper. I then got a message from Po. While she was out Zoe had struck again, getting into the dirty clothes, but this time she had only pulled things out and had not done any damage. Maybe the girl only wants my underwear.

At dinner I was seated with our youngest passengers (not counting our one child, a little preschooler travelling with his mother). After the German tourist left us in Edmonton, they seemed to be the only under 30’s on the train. I think the average age of the rest of us was likely over 60. Two are roommates at Carleton University in Ottawa, both are doing their master’s in engineering. They were hanging out with a young woman on holiday from New Zealand. The three were travelling in berths and liked them.

The dining room was packed. The staff were working hard, both because of the number of diners but also because they were going to be leaving us soon, to be replaced by a new crew in Winnipeg that would take us to Toronto. We were running early, with an ETA of 8:15 compared to the 10:00 pm scheduled time. That meant that the staff had to have everything cleaned up and ready to be turned over before then. I was quite sad that we would be losing Amanda and Tyler.

I was impressed by the way the staff handled the dining car. There were always polite but fast. They had to keep everything moving, so the dishes were removed as soon as we finished each course. I had the prime rib, and again it was restaurant quality, well above my airplane food scale. The chef was invited out and everyone applauded. There were no bows from the chef on Amtrak. There was no chef.
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We were told that we could get off in Winnipeg, but that we would then have to wait until the regular departure time to get back on board. I got out for a couple of minutes and decided that I was okay with skipping a short walking tour of Winnipeg after dark and would instead stay on the warm train, take my shower when the train was not moving, and get ready for bed before the passengers got back on. Tyler suggested that I wait for awhile since the staff would be filling the water system. I said hello to our new room attendant, a young woman, and goodbye to Tyler.

I was thinking about my choice of booking a cabin. My companions at my two on board dinners so far, three each night, were all staying in berths and found them comfortable, as did another of my dome car friends. I had sat in some unoccupied berths at the back of train and found the seats quite pleasant in the daytime.

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At night they were set up for sleeping with the seat folded out to a bed, and the upper unit came down for another bed. Curtains provided some privacy. The bottom berths looked okay for sleeping, but I think that I would find the upper berths quite claustrophobic.

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The berth passengers had toilets close by and shared the same shower as the “cabin for one” folks. An important limitation of the berths was a lack of power outlets. I often found a phone being charged in the communal washrooms. And anyone sharing an area would have no choice as to when the beds would be made up, so you could not choose your own bedtime like a big boy or girl, which I was so happy about on this train. One of my dome car friends told me that he just had his bed left down since he was never there in the daytime.

When I arranged my trip, I actually changed the direction of my travels and took the train from Vancouver so that I could stay in a cabin. I also had a cabin on the Ocean. For that post I referred to the “delicate topic of toilets”. Both cabins had an ensuite toilet (nice way to put it). It was a foot stool in the daytime and then a support for the folded down bed at night.
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I had mentioned the in-room toilet to people before the trip and they went “ew”. On the Ocean I agreed with my neighbour, it was “ew”, so I used the communal toilets down the hall. They were next to the berth area, which happened to be unoccupied. On this train the toilets were further away and sometimes occupied because the berths were full. My decision was made the first night when I woke up and really needed to go. My options were to get dressed and walk down the long corridor on a moving train or use the facility sitting just underneath the foot of my bed. I used my new skills to let my bed go up into the wall. No more thinking about “ew”, it was just more convenient.

I could also have chosen a larger cabin, officially a “cabin for two”. These rooms had their own toilets and a shower. I found an empty one and took a couple of photos.

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There is a significant difference in price between the sleeping options. The least expensive option, the upper berths, generally cost about $1,300, depending on various discounts such as for old people like me. It is a couple hundred dollars more for the lower berth and a $1,000 more for a cabin. A single in a two-person cabin would be $2,000 more. And that fancy room in the back is almost $10,000.

So, what will I do if I get a chance to take another trip on the Canadian? Will I consider travelling in a berth? I might, especially on a shorter trip, such as Vancouver to Jasper. (Maybe as part of a round trip taking the train to Prince Rupert and then BC ferries back down? Just an idea.) The cabins appeared to be all booked going west, but it was not the same going east. I was surprised that my area of the car was so quiet. I never saw anyone in the cabin across from me. In fact the only people that I ever met in my cabin area were the attendants.

The main thing that I liked about my cabin was the ability to shut my door at the end of each long day, or even sometimes during the day, and have my privacy, such as this night in Winnipeg. I had taken my shower and folded down my bed by the time I heard people getting back on board. I watched Winnipeg pass by my window as we left town, about 1,500 kilometres and 36 hours to go.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:08 Archived in Canada Tagged trains canada via_rail Comments (0)

Riding the Canadian Through the Rocky Mountains

A Magical Day on the Train


View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 25, 2022

I had two big days circled on this trip. The first was my day going west through the US Rocky Mountains and the other was this day, heading east though the Canadian Rockies. If the trains and weather cooperated, the scenery promised to be spectacular. My day out of Denver did not disappoint. The train was right on schedule and the weather was perfect. Would today go as well? There would be mountains, but would we be able to see them? A few weeks before my trip, the town of Jasper was having electricity issues due to a wildfire. Tourists were being asked to stay away. It was now under control but still burning. There was no danger, but if it was anything like my day on the Coast Starlight, I might only see smoke. It could also be cloudy, or worse, raining or snowing.

It had been my fifth night of this journey on a train, my fourth different room. All had been quite similar but also quite different. Just like in real estate, location is important. The train horn was quite loud on my first night on the Zephyr since I was in the transition car, the second car from the front of the train. Because I was well back from the engine on this train, I could not hear the horn. But location within the car is also significant. This room was over the wheels so that added squealing to my nighttime sounds. I had read that I should get decent earplugs for the trip but thought that I could get by with listening to noise cancelling sounds using my phone and earbuds. Maybe it will be earplugs on my next train ride.

I woke a few times during the night and was awake for good by 6:00. I read a little. I was working away at my Pierre Berton’s books on the building of Canada’s transcontinental railway. I found them a bit tedious but had vowed to finish before my trip was over. (I did not succeed.) At 6:30 I used my little basin to shave and went off to the dining room for my breakfast.

I was joined by a woman from the UK who had come to Canada to spread the ashes of her uncle who had died during early Covid when visiting was impossible. She had decided to see more of Canada and was taking the train from Vancouver to Edmonton. She seemed to be in a good mood while I was still feeling great, just loving every minute of my latest train ride. I ordered the pancakes and asked for some yoghurt on the side, which was part of the continental breakfast. It was no problem. “Of course, you can have some.”
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A man joined us. He was not happy. “I have slept in tents. I have slept in all sorts of places. But I have never had a worst night. I have to get off this train.” I might not have helped when I asked him if he was going to stay so grumpy when I was so bubbly. Yes, I actually said that to him, maybe not the most prudent thing to do. But he was putting off terrible vibes. I was happy to get free of him. I never saw him again, so maybe he did get off the train that day.

I went back to my room, quickly brushed my teeth, and after a quick chat with Tyler headed to the back dome car. A few other passengers had now discovered the car. The same group would be there throughout the rest of the trip, almost like a club as we would greet each other and chat. But it was never full. I would sit in the back and switch sides as required to capture the scenery. Only one time, and then only for a short while, was the car full enough to make me choose a side.

It was just getting light. I had cleaned the sensor, so my camera was working better. The show began. The mountains were wonderful.

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But I did have some problems. The track was lined with trees. For every good shot I got a corresponding photo of a blurry tree. I also got photos of the old telegraph poles which were still standing long after their useful life. We seemed to be going relatively fast, much faster than when we went through Colorado on the Zephyr. My videos would go in and out of focus as the camera tried to refocus on the trees, which it could not do, and I did not want, and then refocus on the mountains. I might have been able to mitigate some of that, but my video skills are pretty basic and rolling through the mountains was not a good time to experiment.

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There was an announcement that we were passing Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. I might have a photo of it. But I could not tell which mountain it was. One of my fellow passengers commented that he would be told that he took a photo of the wrong mountain. If anyone reading this knows which one is Mount Robson, please let me know.

We arrived in Jasper and had an hour to walk around town. I phoned Po. She told me, “Don’t go too far!”, showing her great confidence in my travelling skills. I assured her that I had it all under control. It would have been hard to get lost in Jasper.

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We had to wait at the station until boarding was announced. I was impressed to see that they were cleaning the windows of the dome cars. This did not happen in Denver.
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After reboarding, I went right back to the dome car. The views were equally spectacular on the east side of Jasper.

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We passed an area that had been impacted by earlier wildfires.

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We saw some bighorn sheep, although I assume they were young ones and females since none had the big horns. I called them mountain goats at first. Wildlife experts can comment.

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The great views ended about the time for lunch. I dutifully reported to the dining room and was seated with the French speaking couple. They said hello and nothing else. I tried my very rusty French and found out that they were originally from France and now live in Quebec. Either they were not comfortable in English or simply did not want to talk. I suspected the latter.

A woman was added to our group. She tried her French as well and met with the same lack of success. But now I had someone interesting to talk to. She is a former ice skater/skating teacher who was in the Ice Capades as a teenager back in the 1960’s and told a story about touring in the US South and taking a local bus. She preferred the back of buses and was not aware that white people were expected to sit in the front. The bus sat for some time before the driver finally pulled away. The woman lives in Manitoba and likes to take the train back and forth to British Columbia. She remains a fan despite experiencing a few major delays, including one that lasted two days.

I had the salmon and capers. It was very good. I also accepted some ice cream for dessert. This was the great on-board dining experience I had hoped for.

We were finishing our coffees and about to leave when our nice service coordinator, Amanda, walked past. I had come up with the idea to take a quick video of her saying hello to my friend from the Amtrak trains. I wanted to show her how much nicer the staff were on Via Rail. I told Amanda about my experience with the waiter on the Zephyr, especially how rude he had been to Jeanne and asked her to say hello. Amanda went far beyond that. You can see why I loved her so much.

I returned to the dome car, but since we were now in the foothills the great views were finished.

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I spent most of the afternoon in my room. Tyler walked past and I asked him to take my photo, the last of my sleeper car photos with my Newfoundland Railway cap.
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At supper I was seated with a retired airline pilot. He now lives in BC. His wife was visiting family, so he decided to take the train to Toronto and then fly back. We were joined by my lunch time companion and a man returning to Ontario from BC where he was visiting family. He really enjoys the train and takes it often. All three were staying in berths and really liked them. I would meet more happy berth passengers the next night and will discuss the pros and cons of rooms and berths in my next post. The two men were part of the rear dome car “club”, so I would see a lot of them before we made it to Toronto.

Oh, I had the trout. Thinking I was eating far too much, I managed to skip the soup and left some of my carrot cake. Well, to be honest, I ate most of it.

I took a shower and retired to my little compartment. It had been a really great day. The scenery was stunning. The day on the Rockies from Denver had the great views extended throughout the entire day, but today’s views were more spectacular. The services provided by Via Rail continued to be outstanding. I was a happy camper or maybe I should say a very satisfied “Cabin for One passenger”.

Posted by Bob Brink 17:53 Archived in Canada Tagged trains canada rocky_mountains via_rail Comments (4)

On the Canadian

Saving the Best for Last


View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 24, 2022

It was raining when I woke up, so instead of what I hoped would be another day of walking, I stayed in my room. I made some coffee and ate my remaining fruit for my breakfast. The rain had stopped by mid-morning, so I packed my bag and checked out. I left my suitcase to be picked up on my way to the train station.

Back when Po and I lived in Calgary, we enjoyed a special beef jerky from Vancouver’s Chinatown. We had never actually purchased it ourselves, instead we would ask a friend to pick it up for us. The first time he followed our instructions by simply going to Chinatown and asking people where the shop was that had the good beef jerky. It should be noted that he is an immigrant from Scotland. It was not like he was asking everyone in Cantonese. It was English with a Scottish brogue. But it worked. Then we moved to Toronto. We never found beef jerky that was that good, or at least satisfied Po. Of course, since I was going to be in Vancouver, she asked if I was going to find the store.

But it had been over 20 years since our friend had gone there. Rather than relying on a physical hunt alone, I decided to see what I could find with a Google search. It came up with a few options, but most were way out in the Vancouver suburbs, far beyond walking distance. But I did find one promising looking possibility in Chinatown. I headed that way.

This was a different Vancouver than the tall buildings I had passed the day before.
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I came to the place that I thought had the jerky. It was closed on Mondays. Also, it looked like they did not sell jerky but specialized in Chinese BBQ. That was too bad, but there was a Chinese bakery and restaurant next door, and it was open. Back in my post about my full day in San Francisco I mentioned porridge and donuts. I could see the donuts in the display case. I was offered a seat and a menu. I took the seat but declined the menu. I just asked for porridge. What kind of porridge did I want? I wanted seafood. Oh, and maybe an order of dumplings.

It was great.
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I asked the waitress about the beef jerky. She did not know what I was talking about. I ordered a custard tart at the counter on my way out the door. They are another thing that I miss and wish I could buy in Newfoundland.
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It was time to go to the hotel to get my suitcase and head to the train station.
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With the construction the station was not very photogenic.
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Pacific Central Station was built in 1917 to serve the Canadian Northern Railway. It is now the terminus for Via Rail and as I wrote about in my last post, for Amtrak's trains from the US.

I entered the station and saw a check in line for sleeper passengers. I also saw a café on the other side of the lobby. I chose the latter. I brought my latte back and sat down. The train was not leaving for some time, so I had time to finish my coffee before dutifully lining up. I chatted with a young German tourist behind me who was taking the train so he could see the Rocky Mountains.

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We were both checking in and choosing time for our first dinner. I chose the late meal at 8:00. It was my first meeting with Amanda, the train’s service coordinator. I really liked her then and would come to really love her over the next two days. After my issues with her counterpart on the Zephyr, I was already thinking that this train was going to be different. This train was going to be better.

I was directed into the lounge. The inside part was not big, and all seats were taken.

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But the outside patio had lots of seats and heaters. I guess for most of the year the Vancouver weather would make the outside lounge somewhat comfortable, certainly not luxurious.

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Soon I would be on Via Rail’s flagship train, the “Canadian”. I was excited to be boarding another train but was more excited that I was going to be finishing my crossing of Canada by rail. I was not competing for a prize, so was not concerned that I had done the first legs of the trip heading west from Halifax to Montreal and then Toronto and would now be going east.

In terms of history, I would not be covering the original path of Canada’s first transcontinental train, which took a southern route across the prairies and the Rocky Mountains. The original route was to be the route of this train, but Canadian Pacific Railway had instead built their tracks to the south, through what is now Calgary and Kicking Horse Pass in the Rocky Mountains. The first transcontinental passenger train departed from Montreal and arrived in Port Moody, BC on July 4, 1886. The terminus was soon moved just a little further to what is now Vancouver.

Eventually CPR had competition from Canadian National (CN) and the Canadian Northern Railway, which eventually merged with CN. Fast forward several decades to post World War II and there were two cross continental trains, CPR running on the southern route and CN on the northern one. The original “Canadian” was actually CPR’s southern route which began operations in 1955. CN called their train the “Super Continental”.

Via Rail is a federal crown corporation formed to run passenger trains in Canada. It took over the route in 1978. Initially the Canadian continued to run on the southern route while the Super Continental ran on the northern route until 1981. It was brought back in 1985 but ran only as far east as Winnipeg. This lasted until 1990 when the Canadian was switched to the northern route, and Via discontinued the service on the old CPR line. There is now a private company operating trips on that route that only run during the daytime. Passengers disembark and spend their nights in nice hotels. They also run two other routes that pass through Jasper. Maybe something for a bucket list?

We boarded right on time. I was in Car 210. I would later learn how important it was to remember that.
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I met our car attendant, Tyler. I liked him right away. He was more like Guillaume from my Halifax train than my two Amtrak attendants. A word that came to my mind to describe Tyler and my other new Via Rail friend, Amanda, was bubbly. They were upbeat, energetic, helpful. I would never have used these words to describe any of the employees that I met on Amtrak.

This is Tyler. You have to wait until my next post to see Amanda.

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Tyler showed me how to bring down my bed so I could do it myself rather than relying on him. I could choose my bedtime like a big boy! It was simple, just turn the handle and it slowly falls from the wall. Then make sure it clicks into place. I would really take advantage of this skill since the lowered bed covers up the in-room toilet.

There was a welcome, bon voyage party in the lounge. Since we had been asked to wait for our attendants to cover basic instructions before going there, and I had been one of the last to get my instructions, it had been underway for several minutes by the time that I got there. I sat down across from a French speaking couple. They did not seem interested in talking. I thought maybe someone would be serving drinks, but nothing was happening. I went to look for the free champagne, only saw a pitcher of water and coffee and a big line at the bar.
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I gave up on champagne and went exploring. I passed my room, grabbed my camera, and started walking to the back.

The walk took me from car to car, all identical. Each had three parts. First would be the berths, with seats on both sides of a middle aisle that could convert to beds at night. The corridor then made a turn and went along the windows, with bedrooms on one side. Then you make a slight turn to go through another middle aisle with “sleeper for one” rooms (my kind) on each side, their doors covered with curtains. You exit through a door at the end of each car, pass through the vestibule, and then go through another door to the next car.

All this time the train is moving quite fast, down the tracks but also rolling side to side. You tend to bounce off the walls. You definitely need to use the walls to stay on course. There is no room to pass on the long window corridor, so you have to wait if anyone is coming the other direction. It seemed to go on forever. Later I would count six sleeper cars.

I finally entered another lounge with stairs to a dome. I walked up the steps. I was amazed. This is what I had been looking for on the Amtrak trains. This was way better than their lounge cars.

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Here is a short video that shows my room, a trip through a sleeping car (in this case going towards the front) and the dome car.

It is ironic that the first dome cars were first introduced in the United States in 1945 and was used on the California Zephyr. CPR then used it on its “The Canadian” train starting in the 1950’s, which ran on the southern route through Kicking Horse Pass. Via Rail has continued with its dome cars whereas Amtrak has their lounge cars. There is no comparison. The dome cars offer a far superior experience.

There was only one person in the car. He mentioned that he worked for Via Rail and was returning from a brief vacation in Vancouver.

I stayed there for a short time but decided to do some more exploring.

I have described my walk through the sleeper plus area. The only place I had not seen was our dining car which was just ahead of the lounge. I had gone through the middle of the train. I did not know the exact numbers at first, but eventually figured out that our two engines were pulling 18 cars. The first was the baggage car. Then came two coach cars and a dome car. After that was the sleeper plus cars (my section) made up of a dining car, a dome car, six sleeper cars and a second dome car. At the back of the train came some fancy cars, the Prestige class, with two sleeper cars, a dining car, and a lounge car.

If you are counting, there is one more car at the very back. I did not know what this one was for, but I have since seen an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about Via running buffer cars as a safety measure on trains that use the old stainless-steel coaches that were built almost 70 years ago. The article quoted an email from Via, “The corporation has added buffer cars at the front and back end of all trains with stainless steel equipment to reduce the consequences in the unlikely event of a train-to-train collision.” The steel cars are being reinforced to make them better at withstanding collisions. Another thing I have learned since my trip is that there was a collision on a section of track between Jasper and Edmonton that we would use on the second day. In 1986 a freight train failed to heed the signals at the end of a twinned rail section and crashed head on with Via’s Super Continental (the train that operated between Vancouver and Winnipeg when the Canadian was still on the southern route). There were 23 fatalities, including the engineers on both trains. Since we were riding in shiny steel carriages, I was glad that I read all this after the trip. Also, does this mean that we in the middle section were safer?

There were three distinct classes of service on the train. The coach passengers were not permitted to come into our area. We “middle class” folks had our own dining room and two dome cars. During the busy summer season, we would not be permitted to go to the dome car at the back of the train. But Tyler had said that because it was now off season, we could go back there.

I had not considered travelling in that part of the train. The service might be amazing. The wood paneling was nice. They had real beds. But the prices are multiples (4 times?) what I had paid. But I decided to check it out.

I first entered the sleeping car section. It had wood paneling. I did not see into any of the fancy rooms.

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I then came to their dining room.

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And finally I found the dome car. I passed through the bar area and made my way to the fancy lounge.
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Although the people seemed friendly, I felt a bit self conscious. These people were paying way more than me. I was greeted and my Penn State sweatshirt was commented on. That seemed to be a pattern on this trip. I was wondering if I was the only person left wearing their college sweatshirt. The man noted that another passenger was a Ohio State person (Fan? Employee? Grad?) who did not say anything. Maybe he isn’t a football fan? Not likely. We had a big game that weekend. I said hello and went up the steps to their lounge. It was quite busy.

I decided that I liked our own place better and went back to my dome car. The same man was still the only person there. I asked him about his job, and he told me that he was an engineer. He lives in Jasper and usually does the train that goes north to Prince Rupert, but sometimes fills in on the Canadian. He had been taking a few days vacation in Vancouver, was returning home, and would be working the next day. He mentioned that the car had not yet been upgraded like most dome cars on the line. We had fabric. They now had leather seats on most of the domes. I thought it was still pretty nice.

I had used the word bubbly to describe Tyler and Amanda. I was feeling bubbly, just having a great time. So, something had to go wrong. It was my camera. My camera has both an electronic viewfinder and a touch screen monitor. Those of us used to high end (or somewhat high end in my case) SLR cameras are used to using the view finder for taking photographs and the monitor for reviewing them. With my new camera I was now using the monitor for both. My monitor was set to activate unless I was looking through the viewfinder. But today it was not working. It would work some of the time, and I could always take photos and videos using the viewfinder, but it was hard enough to take them on a moving train, without having this major complication. I tried to remember if it was still within the warranty period (didn't think so) and if I would have time to visit the camera shop in Toronto.

I still took many photos.

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I stayed in the dome until the daylight began to fade and then returned to my room. Tyler came by with the third call for dinner.

I was asked to sit next to my new engineer friend. Across from him was another railroad man, a retired CN employee. The engineer had also retired from CN and then went to work for Via. Apparently, the western area of Via has many retired CN engineers. He really enjoys the work.

I asked him about driving a train. I hoped that my question did not sound too flippant. He explained about all the signals that the engineers needed to remember. They need to know not only what they mean but where they are located. A signal would give warning of the next signal, such as “Prepare to stop”. He said that on the Prince Rupert line there are dozens of different speed limits. Following the speed limits is necessary for safety and also the comfort of passengers.

A fourth person joined us. It was the young German man I had met at the station. He was travelling around Canada and named some places. One was St. John’s, Newfoundland. But he did not make it to Pouch Cove.

We were given a choice of soup or salad, than a choice of main course. We all ordered the rack of lamb. My soup was good. The lamb was excellent, absolutely better than anything I had eaten so far on my trains. This was far beyond my airplane rating system, more like fine restaurant quality. This was my great train dining experience. I had a glass of wine which I had to pay for. That was a small plus for Amtrak since on their trains we were given one free drink with each meal. For dessert I had the strawberry shortcake which had a cream and strawberry filling. It was also very good.

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I could not stop telling everyone how much better this train was than Amtrak. It might have been a bit tiresome for my fellow passengers to keep hearing that, but just think if I had done the trip the other way. If I had seen this level of food, service, facilities first, could I have kept my mouth shut when I saw what Amtrak was like? Not likely.

Amanda came by to ask for our reservations for the next days lunch and supper. I chose the late sittings, 2 pm for lunch and 7 pm for dinner. I asked about breakfast time, wanting to make sure about any time changes and was told that we would still be in British Columbia. Lunch would be in a new time zone.

I left the dining room to go back to my room. It should have been a quick trip since I was in the first car. I just had to pass by the berths and bedrooms. It had not occurred to me that I was so close, especially after walking up and down the train before dinner. I walked right past my room. As I wrote earlier, the cars all looked the same. I was looking for car number 10. But the cars actually had two numbers, this particular train's number and a number that I assumed stayed with the car. After missing the first car I kept on going. I went all the way back to the dome car. Then I knew I had missed it. I was annoyed, but only a little bit. I was not worried. I was still on the train so could only be a little bit lost.

After I finished my exercise I decided to take a shower. This is an area where Amtrak is a bit better, at least for those of us in the cabins for one. We either had to go down the long corridor past the bedrooms or through the vestibule into the next car. I chose the long corridor. Just like on my other trains, there was a small changing area and a separate shower stall. The water was hot. I was fast and then managed to get dressed again (the hard part on a moving train).

I was happy to have a cell data connection to investigate my camera problem. I determined that my monitor was fine, instead it was likely the sensor that determined if I was using the viewfinder. The sensor was known to be a fussy and could easily be blocked by dirt or condensation. I could also push a button to activate the monitor. It was a relief and left me feeling properly bubbly again. My first hours on the Canadian had been fantastic.

I was also happy that I could choose the time to put down my bed, which I finally did, since I wanted to get up before daylight. Tomorrow would be a big day since we would wake up in the Rocky Mountains.

Posted by Bob Brink 13:04 Archived in Canada Tagged trains canada vancouver via_rail Comments (1)

Cascades to Vancouver


View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 23, 2022

I needed to get up early to catch my 7:45 train, but certainly not at 3:30. I managed to get a little more sleep but finally gave up. I never sleep well before an early flight, and I guess this applies to early trains as well. My first four trains had all been in the afternoon or evening, so I had not yet tested that concept, and this will be the only test since my train from Vancouver was scheduled for 3:00 pm. I hope to have more opportunities in the future to test this.

Although I had the option of several departure times to Vancouver, my reservation was for the only train of the day. All the other departures were for buses. In fact, I was lucky to even have a train ticket since Amtrak had only reinstated its train to Vancouver in late September. In the past Amtrak had run three or four trains each day between Seattle and Vancouver, but those were cancelled at the start of the pandemic.

I have not discussed my planning for this trip, but since this was the day for my only international train, perhaps this is a good place to provide some details. Cross-border trains had been a big issue when I began my trip planning; I wanted my train travel to be a full circle, all by train, with no flights.

I had started my train trip planning by contacting an agency that specializes in train travel. I had a great chat with an agent who took all the details of my trip, especially my desire to not fly into the US, and after several minutes said it was best to get back to me with a quote. I never heard back from him. I then tried the Amtrak travel branch. Again, I had a great chat, gave all my details including the no flights to the US stipulation, and again he said he would contact me with a quote. I was ghosted a second time.

I finally decided to just do everything myself. I then discovered the issues that my two agents had encountered and perhaps convinced them that I was not worth the effort. I had read marvelous reviews about the Montreal to New York and Seattle to Vancouver trains but did not know that they were not in operation. Amtrak had to cancel the cross-border train at the start of the pandemic since travel between the US and Canada was restricted. Then when the border reopened, they did not have the equipment nor the staff to restart those trains. That explained why my agents could not get me everything that I wanted. It does not explain why they did not tell me.

In addition to the cross-border train issues, I had quickly established some other things I had to work into my planning. The Ocean from Halifax only runs 3 times a week. I could not get my preferred sleeper roomette on the Canadian leaving from Toronto to Vancouver; they were only available going the other way, from Vancouver to Toronto. And the Canadian only runs twice a week, so 3 or 4 days in between departures. Lastly, the connection in Buffalo between the New York bound train from Toronto and the Chicago bound train from New York was several hours.

I guess this was too complicated for the guys at the travel agencies. I had to work in some compromises such as my flight to Chicago, skipping a stop in Utah, and assuming I would have to take the bus from Seattle.

I did all my reservations on the Amtrak and Via Rail websites. I booked the four main train rides right away and left the day trains (or bus), from Montreal and Seattle, for later. There are several trains each day from Montreal to Toronto and four buses each day from Seattle to Vancouver.

When word came that Amtrak was restarting the Vancouver train service, I began a daily check of train seats for October 23, but still no train would come up, only the buses. On September 6 the train finally appeared, and I tried to book it. But the system would not let me finish. After the shortcomings of the travel agents, I was similarly not impressed with Amtrak reservations. They had a phone number, but it was a computerized system that just sent me back into the on-line system. I sent through a request for help, but nothing came. I rebooted my computer and finished the booking. Amtrak tech support replied on October 2 with a “sorry to be taking longer than expected” email. That “longer” was almost a month.

Back to my travels, I needed to pack, including the things that I had washed and were not quite dry. I finished my room coffee and headed out. It was a quick walk to the station, much faster than my round about trip when I got here. It was still dark and damp but at least it was not raining. I was joined by a couple who left the hotel at the same time and were obviously headed to the station as well.

My ticket specified that I was taking the Amtrak Cascades train, but unlike my previous two named Amtrak trains, this one was for a route that includes several trains and buses and goes from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, B.C. But no train goes the entire route. This particular train only goes between Seattle and Vancouver.

The King Street Station serves three different Amtrak routes, the Coast Starlight that brought me from Emeryville two days before, this one I was leaving on, and the Empire Builder which goes to Chicago. The station was opened in 1906 and served the Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railways. Over the years, the station had suffered from lack of use and funds. There had been poor attempts at modernization. Fortunately, the station was restored about ten years ago at which time many of its features were uncovered, including the beautiful ceiling.

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There were two lines, one for business class and another for coach. They were checking passports. Business class passengers could go right to desk. The rest of us had to wait. It took us about five minutes longer.

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We were called to the platform to board. The conductor told us the train was going left. It is funny how disorienting it can be when you are in the middle of the train and try to understand which way the train is going. My preferred side of the train was left. I had two coaches to choose from, so stayed with the left theme and went that way. Some seats were facing forward and some backwards. I wanted forward but more so wanted window on the left, so sat down in the first empty place. I ended up having both seats to myself. As I had found on the Via Train to Toronto, train seats in coach are quite comfortable, on par with business class seats on planes (what I imagine anyway, since I never get to sit in them).

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We left on time, at first down the road that I had been on the day before.

The train went along the water for most of the route with the with the occasional inland shift. Sometimes it seemed we were almost in the water.
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It was not a perfect day since the mountains were mostly covered in clouds, but the water was quite nice.

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I had a pocket full of US change so decided to go to the café car and get a coffee. I had been in the US for 8 days without drinking a Starbucks coffee, even in its Seattle birthplace. But Amtrak served Starbucks. There was only one employee, so service was slow. Everyone was paying with their cards and the person in front wondered if they even took cash. But they did, so I got my coffee and got rid of the change.

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We crossed the border into Canada. They had told everyone at the last stop that the next one would require the border formalities. But for now, we just enjoyed the view. The tide was out. There were lots of people walking along the sand, many with their dogs.
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We approached the Fraser River. I took a photo of the Skybridge that carries the local transit trains, SkyTrain.
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We crossed over on a different bridge a few minutes later.
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We made good time until Burnaby, which is about 15 minutes from the train station. We then sat for a long time. We were told that there was some issue with the signals, needed to change tracks, and that someone had to come to help us do that. I was texting a friend in Vancouver. He asked what time I was arriving. We were almost at the station, but I could not tell him. I had read that train passengers should not make big plans for the time of their scheduled arrivals since trains are often late. I thought that applied to cross country trains, not just getting in from the suburbs. He told me to text him after we arrived. We ended up an hour late.
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When the train finally did arrive at Pacific Central Station, the business class passengers were allowed to go first to Canadian immigration. I was still not convinced that it was worth it to upgrade, especially after I went through in about 5 minutes. I put down my passport and explained my train trip to the agent. She asked me how it was and sent me on my way.
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The station is just east of False Creek. The first big structure is Science World with a big ball which hosts a giant OMNIMAX Theatre. It was built as part of the 1986 World’s Fair. Just beyond is BC Place Stadium, home to Vancouver’s soccer and football teams (using North American definitions of the two). It was my landmark to help me find my downtown hotel.
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I took some photos of the Terry Fox Memorial. I assume all my readers know who he was. If not, please stop reading this and google him.
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I texted my friend, Chris, who owns a house in Pouch Cove but spends most of his time far away working as an engineer (not the train kind). At the present time he is working in the mountains of BC during the week and living in Vancouver on the weekends. A few weeks ago he was back in Pouch Cove when Zoe and I met him on our morning walk. In fact, Zoe saw him and took off running to see him, going as fast as her old man (me) could keep up (she was on a leash). When I had told him about my trip, he mentioned that he would be in Vancouver the same day that I would arrive.

Chris suggested lunch. He had previously suggested some urban hiking as well. We started walking. I took some photos.

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And we kept on walking. I was getting hungry and was starting to wonder when we might stop. Chris had a specific Korean restaurant in mind. He had fallen in love with the cuisine ever since he visited his daughter while she was working there.

We finally arrived. It was quite busy even though it was now mid-afternoon. Chris suggested one of the soup dishes. I chose the squid and bulgogi and some dumplings. The food was fantastic.

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It was sizzling.

We continued with our walk after lunch. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The streets were busy. We stopped at the “A-maze-ing Laughter” sculpture. The sculpture is composed of 14 statues and was created as part of the Vancouver International Biennale in 2009 and portrays the artist in a state of hysterical laughter.

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Chris took my photo. I was not hysterical.
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We worked our way down to English Bay.
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There I said goodbye to my friend and continued my walk along False Creek towards my hotel.
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I stopped at a supermarket near my hotel to buy some fruit and yoghurt. I made a point of picking up a plastic spoon for the yoghurt, but when I got back to my room I found that the cashier had not put my spoon into the shopping bag that I had to buy to carry my things. I now had a thick Greek yoghurt and no spoon. I did not want to go back to the store, so went down and asked at the front desk and was sent to their sports bar/restaurant. It was busy. It was loud. But I needed a spoon so stood in line with the patrons. When my turn came, I told the nice hostess that I just wanted a spoon, not a table. She told me to wait until she had seated some people and came back with a spoon for me. She did not want it back.

The yoghurt and fruit became my supper. After my big lunch, which had finished after 3, and a long walk I was tired and decided to just stay in. I had 4 nights on a train coming up, so enjoyed my quiet hotel room and soft bed.

Posted by Bob Brink 16:11 Archived in Canada Tagged trains amtrak via_rail Comments (1)

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