Cross-country trip with two young children shows off countrys amazing beauty, rich history
Our summer travel plans of a cross-Canada train trip with our two young children did not evoke the kind of response we had anticipated when we shared the news with family and friends.
The reaction was mostly one of suppressed shock.
There were the approving nods and weak smiles of encouragement, of course, but their eyes read more like "Are you out of your mind?" and "What kind of holiday would that be?"
The impetus for our summer trip last year was to take advantage of Via Rail's Kids Travel Free program - between June 1 and Sept. 15, with the purchase of an adult ticket, a child 11 years of age or under travels free.
This program can also be used in conjunction with Via Rail's Canrailpass, whereby an adult can enjoy 12 days of unlimited train travel over a period of 30 days for one set price. Thus, my wife, Sally, and I were able to buy two adult Canrailpasses in comfort class, which provided free passage for our eight-year-old daughter, Claire, and our five-year-old son, Zachary - a veritable two for one.
Even better was the fact that we were able to redeem Air Miles to offset the purchase price of the two adult train tickets, making the trip that much more affordable. This resulted in an unforgettable trip that would enable our children to see many of Canada's most important and iconic landmarks.
The beauty of train travel is readily apparent from the moment you step aboard. You immediately become relaxed by the casual pace of the train as it slowly departs the station.
Passengers are free to pick up a book, watch the scenery, play a game, or, in the case of those with children, race to the dome car and enjoy any combination of the aforementioned activities. Reading about the Hogwarts Express and Platform 9 - while actually on a train in full view of the stars - made the experience that much more special.
When it was time to stop reading that first night, my kids weren't the only ones to say, "No, keep going!"
Sleeping on the train did have its challenges. Comfort class is really Via Rail's euphemism for economy or coach travel, so we were not afforded fancy sleeping car accommodations with our modest fare.
Our family settled into four seats facing each other, complete with reclining seat backs and foot rests, but this arrangement still had me wondering who in the echelon of Via Rail management had come up with the misnomer of "comfort class." The bump-up to more luxurious upper- and lower- berth accommodations, however, was more than $500 per night, so we had no real choice but to rough it.
Staff on the train did their best to make our sleep more bearable by doling out blankets, earplugs, and sleep masks. My kids were characteristically unfazed by the stops and starts throughout the night, but these supplied items did help us to get a pretty good rest.
My daughter proved the most resourceful as she and another little girl from across the aisle made "tents" by draping the extra train blankets over the dead space between four-seaters, which allowed them to create their own private sleeping quarters without any added expenditure.
The openness of comfort class is perhaps its greatest appeal. It provided us many opportunities to meet people from across the country. There were lots of families on vacation, retired couples, backpackers, and military personnel with their families. The abundance of children on board meant that dull moments were few and far between because there was almost always someone to play with once the kids overcame their initial shyness.
Meals on the train are also an adventure. The prices are entirely reasonable and the dining car staff were extremely accommodating to allow for kid portions and partial substitutions from the menu. Perhaps the only disadvantage was the dining car was only open for very set periods for meals, which required us to be somewhat organized in our otherwise lackadaisical surroundings.
The train gave us the flexibility to embark and disembark practically anywhere we wanted: the historic Forks area in Winnipeg; the CN Tower and a Toronto Argonauts game at the Rogers Centre in Toronto; Niagara Falls and the Maid of the Mist; Parliament Hill and the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and Hull; Old Montreal and Olympic stadium; Old Quebec and the Plains of Abraham for Quebec's 400th anniversary.
We planned most of our train itinerary in advance using the detailed schedules posted on the Via Rail website, but for those averse to planning, the Canrailpass gives you tremendous flexibility in choosing your destinations while your journey is in progress.
A precautionary note: Parts of Via Rail's network are very busy in the summer, which could cause difficulty and require a bit of resourcefulness. For example, we weren't able to get a train from Campbellton, N.B., to Moncton on the day we had hoped to travel. Rather than wait a day for another train, we opted to catch a bus for that small part of our journey, arriving in Moncton eight hours later only slightly worse for wear.
From Moncton, we rented a car for a week and looped around the Maritimes to take in some more amazing locales: Magnetic Hill, Confederation Bridge, the home that inspired Anne of Green Gables, the historic fortress of Louisbourg, the picturesque Cabot Trail, Baddeck and the Alexander Graham Bell museum.
The highlight of the trip for my daughter was our "Anne" day on Prince Edward Island. My wife had finished reading Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic while we were still on the train, and the combination of being at the national historic site followed by seeing Anne of Green Gables: The Musical that evening at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown was magical. The biggest surprise? Even my son enjoyed it.
He would argue that the best part of the trip, however, was seeing 16 moose, the first two sightings along the extraordinary Cabot Trail, and also our impromptu swim in the ocean midway through the drive.
My wife's highlight was eating lobster at the Rusty Anchor along the Cabot Trail. The restaurant is perched on a picturesque part of that amazing coastline and, while eating outside on the patio that glorious evening, we listened to the ocean waves break along the shoreline and watched the sun set.
For me, the highlight of the trip was watching a re-enactment of the 1758 siege of Louisbourg by more than 200 battle-dressed soldiers on the moors outside the historic walls of this former French fortress. It just happened to be the 250th anniversary of this historic event.
A light fog rolled in along the bay as smoke from the muskets and cannons wafted over the observing crowds, which only served to heighten the ambience of it all.
It truly was a family adventure that was incredibly memorable for all of us. My wife and I already had a great appreciation for the rich history and amazing beauty Canada has to offer, but this train trip introduced our young children to the wonders of our country in ways words in books could never have accomplished.
Edmontonians James Kosowan and his wife, Sally, have travelled extensively across Canada as well as to more than 70 countries on six continents.
On the web: To learn more about Via Rail's Kids Travel Free program, go to www.viarail.ca/families. For more information about buying Via's Canrailpass, go to www.viarail.ca/planner.