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The VIA Rail train adventure

Last year, Catherine Hill won a trip to Canada to travel the country from west to east. But her blog from the road reveals, so far, she's travelled on everything but a train...

Travel Canada with VIA Rail

Day one: the beginning

Three weeks on and off the train from Prince Rupert to Halifax: what an adventure!

But to begin, downtown Vancouver, where we're getting over the jetlag, is chic and genial. And warm: the sunshine brings out the smiles and the skateboarders. On the waterfront the big cruise liners are in town, and we love watching the seaplanes as they drone and splash, like a swarm of oversized maybugs.

We chose our guesthouse because it sounded fun, and it is: a quirky old house untouched by the demolition and development around it. Its dark-wood interior is covered in an eclectic gallery of old maps, pastels, prints and mirrors; breakfast is an easy 'come and sort it out yourself' affair.  There's the essential blackboard and coloured chalk in the loo for those contemplative moments...

It feels a million miles from the immaculate steel and glass corporate hotels, even though they're just down the road.

Day two: Annie get your skis

Route 99 to Whistler beckoned today; we'd heard of the grandeur of the scenery and decided to check it out. 'Scenic route' barely does it justice; it was hard not to rubberneck through that spectacular backdrop of mountains, forest, rivers and lakes.

And on to Whistler itself: think Heidi meets Morricone....? It was hot and sunny, and the resort bustled. Hard to shake off the feeling that all of us – sightseers, walkers, bikers, skateboarders – were but bitpart actors in a crowd scene, and any minute now someone in a big hat would jump up and shout “Cut!”

Back on to Route 99 and to the Nairn Falls; a couple of kilometres' walk through a blissfully shady forest along the absinthe-coloured Green River was rewarded by the tumble and roar of a waterfall. Down by the river there was a congregation of those little stones piled into figures – inuksuk? They symbolise welcome, and yes, we feel so very very welcome at the start of our journey.

Days three and four: The Pacific Rim

This is west coast Tofino on Vancouver Island, and the sea fog coming in from the Pacific is wrapping the little town in a shawl of fine drizzle. We're three or four hours' drive from Nanaimo along another spectacular and occasionally scary scenic route (watch out for the logging lorries bearing down on you through the narrow passes!).

It's always an odd feeling when a sight or sound opens the lid on the Pandora's box of earlier memories, and it's happened a couple of times today. The mournful sound of the foghorn as our ferry from Vancouver negotiates the fogbanks, and later on the lap-lapping of the waves rhythmically slapping the sides of a moored dinghy in Tofino instantly recall my Jersey childhood on an island often fogbound and always dominated by the sea.


The two guys in the pickup had three things to say. A: were we really planning to take a walk down this lane through the woods to the salmon hatchery? B: in that case did we know the woods were full of bears and they personally would not recommend it? C: you dummies! (this last unspoken). In our defence, walking through the woods was exactly what we had been advised to do, but, always happy to take on board the most up-to-date information, we gladly got back into the car and drove slowly down the gravelly road.

We had been told that bears were drawn to the rocky streams around the Ucluelet hatchery to feed on the salmon; today no bears as the tide was high and the salmon too sparse, but in two or three weeks close encounters could be pretty much guaranteed, apparently.

Day five: cruising the Sound

I don't care what you're doing – you have to stop now and get yourself to Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands Archipelago cruise. All right – maybe next season when the whales are about in greater numbers, but you have to do it. Toddy and Alan, our hosts-cum-skippers on the Raincoast Maiden, were knowledgeable and entertaining by turn (and in turn), and, joy of joys, the motor yacht had stabilisers...

A grey whale toyed with us in a rather leisurely way, and, further out, a humpback played us more energetically.

Do the tail! Do the tail!

It did the tail. And yes, the black shadow slipping among the rocks on the shoreline was a bear, turning over the stones for crabs. All this against the picturebook backdrop of Barkley Sound, with warm sunshine and a blue sky – but it would have been just as beautiful had there been west coast wraiths of mist and low cloud.

Day six: small trees, tall trees

We should have left the Pacific Rim early to get back to Nanaimo, but there's too much to distract: the Shorepine Bog, for instance. It's a surprise; the dry weather has tipped the small twisted pines and stunted shrubs with gold so that the whole reserve seems tinged with it. There's sphagnum moss yellowing under the shrubs and late-flowering plants, and the twisted shapes of the bent trees turn the landscape surreal. These little trees may be only a metre or two high, but some of them have been struggling to grow for over two centuries.

Then we find giants. The highway between Port Alberni and Nanaimo goes through an old grove of Douglas Fir and cedar – tall tall trees, venerable and stately. The grove is aptly named the Cathedral and whether it's the name or the quiet atmosphere these giants induce there doesn't seem to be much facebook-inspired clowning around with a camera. Too disrespectful!

Day seven: Port Hardy and beyond

The coach from Nanaimo was due to leave for Port Hardy around 11am and take about seven hours to get there, so of course I stocked up on nibbles. Drat – it's a Greyhound; no consumption allowed. But the driver could sense the onset of low caffeine levels, and we stopped often enough for comfort. High up in the mountains we pulled in at a filling station in Woss (I think that's right...).  In among the bagels and sweets was an array of large and fearsome hunting knives and assorted weaponry.

Hmmm – two coffees and a gutting blade, please...

The ferry to Prince Rupert left at 7.30am the next morning. Two hours' check in meant getting up at silly o'clock, but we managed it. The next 15 hours were to take us up the famous Inside Passage through beautiful and remote wilderness. This was the last daylight sailing of the season; how sad if we'd had to travel through this spectacular scenery and stunning wildlife in the dark!

The ferry had all the comforts and viewing opportunities of a mini cruise; humpbacks, eagles and a dolphin obliged, and yet again we were favoured with clear skies and great visibility. So remote and so sparsely settled is this area that the least likely landmarks created interest: a disused and tumbledown fish cannery on the shore once housed 400 people, but now only two are left.

I wanted more – who are the two? Why do they stay?  How do they get by in such a remote spot?

Day nine: cows and canneries

Prince Rupert is a great place – a working town, a busy port and plenty of bustle and activity. We had two days there before catching the train, and could have used more. A stroll around Cow Bay and the harbour was pretty good (maybe just a little too much in the way of Friesian Decor). We took a bus to Port Edward and the old North Pacific Cannery there – now very much a museum, but an evocative tribute to the past and old ways of going about an industry of huge importance to the region.

Canneries are closing down even now – just two will be left in British Columbia after this season.

And then the excitement of boarding the VIA Rail train – first stop Prince George, and then on to Jasper...

In March 2011, we asked Wanderlust readers to write 250 words about an adventurous train journey they'd been on. We saw stories from Japan's east coast, Varanasi and Morocco, but our winning tale came all the way from a nostalgic Catherine Hill on Australia's Ghan. Read her winning experience online now.

In September 2012, Catherine Hill finally embarked on her prize trip across the breadth of Canada on VIA Rail's extensive train network. Look out next Wednesday for more of Catherine's adventures – where she'll finally catch a train or two!

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