Experience a Scenic Weekend Getaway by Train

Travel through the scenic Rocky Mountains for a weekend escape from Vancouver to Edmonton

Travel through the scenic route of the gorgeous Rocky Mountains for a weekend escape from Vancouver to Edmonton via train

Journey or destination? In our minds, one shouldn’t have to compromise, especially for an extra-long weekend getaway. Road trips can be about camaraderie, but sometimes the idea of cramming into a car loses its lustre after missed turns and stops for gas station coffee. Our new favourite way to get beyond the beaten path: sophisticated slow-travel style by train.

For an extra-long weekend escape (about 96 hours) that’s about both journey and destination, we headed northeast aboard VIA Rail’sThe Canadian train. We set off in the evening from downtown Vancouver, travelling east through bucolic farmland and the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton, where we explored local hot spots in Alberta’s capital city before flying back west.

Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of our slow sojourn…

Day 1: 8:00 p.m. – All aboard in Vancouver

Instant coziness. That’s the vibe when we climb aboard VIA Rail Canada’s The Canadian train, where we’ll bed down for the night en route as the legendary train wends its way to our stop, Edmonton, before continuing to Toronto. An architect or engineer with an appreciation of origami surely designed my private Sleeper Plus cabin, which uses every smidge of space to clever effect. There’s a private bathroom and sink, leather wall-mounted cubbies for stashing magazines, a postage-stamp-sized closet, plenty of task lighting, and a pair of leather lounge chairs the porter will fold away at turndown to make room for the Murphy bed. The pièce de résistance: a massive picture window for watching the ever-changing scenery outside.

Elegant upgrade: For 60 years, Sleeper Plus cabins were considered first-class, but last spring VIA Rail Canada added Prestige Sleeper class—a larger and more luxurious suite with private shower, flat-screen TV and premium service.

Day 1: 8:30 p.m. – Evening service in East Van

After wandering from end to end of the train to check out the dining cars and domed Skyline car, we settle in the cushy seats on the upper level of the Park car for the evening service of sparkling wine and canapés.The Canadian rumbles below the SkyTrain line, skirting past the iconic Monument for East Vancouver, better known as artist Ken Lum’s “East Van Cross.” From our vantage point up in the glass-domed car, it’s an imposing beacon piercing the night sky. We zigzag across the Fraser River and soon the remaining city lights fade to black as great swathes of farmland open up in front of us. It’s time to retire to our rooms and settle in for the night as the train travels a sinuous route past towns like Hope and Haig just before midnight.

Cozy for one: If you’re travelling solo in a two-person Sleeper Plus cabin, ask the porter to dispense with the double bunk beds so you can enjoy the extra overhead space instead.

Day 2: 6:52 a.m. – Daybreak north of Kamloops

Daylight hasn’t fully materialized yet, but the intermittent wifi and Google Maps shows me we’re just north of Kamloops on the edge of Lac Du Bois Grasslands Protected Area. Further research tells me that mule deer, moose and California bighorn sheep make their homes here among the the Douglas firs and aspens.

Train journeys on The Canadian are the ultimate in slow travel, and the gentle humming and swaying of the cars make for a restful lullaby. But the prospect of hot coffee lures me to the Park car’s bullet lounge, where views of the North Thompson River are my only companion in the early morning hours. The river’s cafe-au-lait coloured waters are framed by stands of aspen trees, their leaves glints of gold against the grey sky. Later in the day we cruise past 91-metre Pyramid Creek Falls and during lunch, the craggy caps of Mount Robson come into view, a signal that we’re closing in on Jasper, Alberta.

Stripes spotting: Keep your eyes peeled for Belted Galloway cows. They’re jet-black with a distinctive white band around their middle, earning them the nickname “Oreo cookie” cows.

Credit: Janet Gyenes

Day 2: 4:50 p.m. – Pitstop in Jasper, Alberta

We roll into the town of Jasper with slate clouds making the snow on surrounding peaks shine even brighter. Although we’re here for longer than a whistle stop, we’ll have to visit another time to explore Jasper National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s punctuated by iconic natural landmarks like 3,363-metre Mount Edith Cavell, postcard-perfect Maligne Lake and the 230-km Icefields Parkway. But there’s plenty of time to poke around in some shops, like Our Native Land, a gallery and boutique filled with Aboriginal artwork (think masks, bentwood boxes, jewellery and more) made by artists from within Alberta and beyond. Another must-stop for chefs, hunters or anyone interested in fine craftsmanship is Slice and Dice Knives. All knives are locally made using hand tools and feature handles made from exotic woods or animal horn.

Back on the train, we settle in for the evening hors d’oeuvres service, dinner and animal spotting (a black bear, herd of mountain sheep and a lone elk by the river). The Canadian arrives in Edmonton at about 1:45 a.m. under the cloak of darkness. True, it’s behind schedule (commercial trains get priority on the tracks) but there’s a bonus: more slow-travel time to spend lounging and stargazing, unplugged from city life.

Train school: Onboard the train, the crews give talks explaining the secret language of trains, such as what a “consist” is, the curious system of “blocks” and pose trivia questions such as, How many canoes can the baggage car hold? (The answer: 16!)

Credit: Janet Gyenes

Day 3: 10:00 a.m. – Tracing the Trans Canada Trail, Edmonton

Travel is an ideal time to get outside your comfort zone and I’m channelling my modern cowgirl—on a Segway—getting the lowdown from Michael, a guide at River Valley Adventure, on how to rein in my trusty two-wheeled steed. There’s no saddle, of course, but it’s kinda like riding a horse. Good balance and gentle nudges of the handlebars to the right or left have this beast trained. In minutes our stable of Segways is quickly zipping along the paved pathway at Louise McKinney Riverfront Park, which frames the North Saskatchewan River, and rumbling across the wooden Dawson Bridge. Within an hour we’ve criss-crossed the river, blasted up steep hills without breaking a sweat and stopped to drink in views of Edmonton’s neighbourhoods from vantage points such as Forest Heights.

Explore history: River Valley Adventure’s one-hour tour traces parts of the storied Trans Canada Trail, the world’s longest network of recreational trails, which will be completed in 2017.

Credit: Janet Gyenes

Day 3: 12:32 p.m. – Afternoon cocktails (and lunch), Old Strathcona

Cocktails in the afternoon are mandatory, especially when dining at award-winning chef Nathin Bye’s local hotspot, Ampersand 27. Located on Whyte Avenue in Old Strathcona, the newish neighbourhood haunt specializes in inventive local cuisine and “curative” cocktails such as the Seafarer’s Redeemer. It might sound like a concoction of castaway ingredients (Sailor Jerry rum, port, liquorice root, strawberry, clove shrub and orange), but this tasty tipple reeled us in with its balance of sweet and spice.

Food flight: Afternoon boozing calls for a solid base. Share selections like Chef Bye’s Wild Game Chili (it boasts “beast” after all), the Forest Floor flatbread (decked with foraged mushrooms, house-made ricotta, truffle and arugula) and the revelatory Roasted Cauliflower: the whole head is crowned with Romesco sauce and raisins and paired with beluga lentils.

Credit: Poppy Barley

Day 3: 2:37, p.m. – Handmade shoe shopping, Old Strathcona

A five-minute walk from Ampersand 27 (see previous slide) is the best post-prandial fix: shoe shopping. Started by sisters Justine Barber and Kendall Barber, Poppy Barley has a not-so-secret showroom at its second floor Whyte Avenue headquarters. Here, settle into one of its cushy chairs and start swooning over the chic and comfy (you have our personal guarantee) shoes and boots on display. We’re wild for its new spring and summer selections (dainty Oxfords! sexy D’Orsay flats!) in White Cheetah leather.    

Pop-up shop: Can’t make it to Edmonton? Watch for Poppy Barley’s pop up shops in cities across Canada. Try on styles in person and choose from select footwear you can order in custom sizes for tough-to-fit ankles and calves.

Credit: Janet Gyenes

Day 4: 9:45 a.m. – Morning coffee (and history lesson), Warehouse District

In our books, morning doesn’t officially start until a jolt of java crosses our lips. Transcend Coffee and Roastery offers that and more at its newest locale in the shadow of the massive $2.5 billion Ice District that’s starting to take shape. The sub-street spot anchors the historic Mercer Warehouse building (the Mercer Tavern gastropub upstairs is worth checking out too), delivering a dose of Edmonton history with your morning brew. Sip a cup of Transcend Reserve in this mecca to coffee geekdom where you can sign up for monthly brewing classes and buy coffee equipage like low-tech Chemex carafes and hand-built Technivorm Moccamaster machines.

Night lights: Across the street from Transcend on 104th is Canada’s only Neon Sign Museum. The collection of a dozen iconic signs from Edmonton’s neon past are fixed to a massive brick wall.

Credit: Janet Gyenes 

Day 4: 11:22 a.m. – Couture chocolate, Downtown Edmonton

Food meets fashion at Jacek Chocolate Couture, which had modest beginnings in owner Jacqueline Jacek’s basement before the chocolatier launched her studio and retail boutique in 2012. Jacek’s eponymous handmade confections (truffles, chocolate bars, sipping chocolate and more) are offered seasonally for a limited time—just like fashion runway collections—before they’re retired forever. What’s in season for spring and summer? The H’Art Oozy Salted Caramel Collection. These hand-painted beauties are as ephemeral as clothing couture, so eat up before they disappear.

Fashion fix: Wanna see how these couture confections come to life? Watch self-proclaimed “cocoanista” Jacqueline Jacek at work.