A Guide to Taking a Luxury Train Across Canada
Take it from someone who's done it: the undisputed best way to see the Great White North is by riding the rails and staying in the historic hotels along the way
The Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway played a vital role in Canadian tourism in the early 1900s but, despite the fact that the train network in Canada still spans from coast to coast, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves; travelers tend to drive or fly across the country, bypassing the old-world luxury — and sustainability — that traveling by rail affords.
Although the railway offerings have shifted and changed over the past century, there are still plenty of comprehensive lines and routes available that allow travelers to see Canada in a slow and introspective fashion. On top of that, there are still a number of the Grand Railway Hotels that were designed by the CP to offer rail travelers a luxurious spot to drop their bags and relax, while making their way from coast to coast (including the world-famous Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City).
This guide will set you up for an unforgettable journey across Canada — ripe with luxurious accommodations and enough downtime between cities to enjoy the journey just as much as the destination. We tapped into our own experience taking the train across the country in order to offer the most comprehensive rail routes options available and the best accommodations worth checking into as you make your way across the Great White North in comfort.
Getting There and Where to Stay
The railway system runs from coast-to-coast — both westbound and eastbound — but for the purpose of this itinerary we’ve started in the maritime provinces and will be making our way to the west coast by way of both Via Rail and the Rocky Mountaineer train systems. Keep in mind that most itineraries are designed to be completed in a single shot — but if you’re keen to check out a city or town in the middle of the route, you can book shorter hop-off commuter trips between smaller cities throughout the journey.
In terms of overnight stays, the Canadian Pacific Railway designed the coast-to-coast rail itinerary to be as comfortable and practical as possible at the time. The existing Grand Railway Hotels aren’t just the height of luxury in Canada — they’re actually connected to the railway stations by underground tunnels and passageways. In fact, if you wanted to, you could travel from hotel to hotel by rail almost entirely without having to go outside once.
Note that the Rocky Mountaineer itinerary will take care of booking your accommodations along the way, but if you’re traveling by Via Rail you’ll have to book your own hotels depending on where and when you’ll be traveling. Below, the best routes and some of the most noteworthy railway hotels that are within walking distance from the train station.
Halifax to Montreal
Route: The Ocean
We recommend starting your coast-to-coast journey in Nova Scotia where you’ll hop aboard the Ocean route on Via Rail. This 24-hour train trip chugs through the maritime coastline, past Quebec City, and into Montreal. The Ocean isn’t as prestigious as some of the lines further west and functions as a hop-on, hop-off commuter train as well as a longhaul trip, but the Sleeper Plus cabin will make the 1,300-kilometer journey worthwhile. The premium cabin affords access to a variety of exclusive cars — including the stunning skydome car and a private dining car where you’ll find local-inspired fare like regional cheese and charcuterie and a fully-stocked local-leaning bar menu for an additional charge. Sleeper Plus also includes a private cabin and personal service assistant who will take care of setting up your full-size murphy bed come nighttime.
Where to Stay: The Westin Nova Scotian in Halifax
Check into the Westin Nova Scotian on the Halifax waterfront to get a good night’s sleep before your journey begins (bonus: the Via Rail train station is directly connected to the hotel lobby). Be sure to book a harbor-facing room for unobstructed views of Georges Island and the downtown boardwalk or one of the four premium suites for access to a rooftop terrace with views of the city skyline.
Although the modern railway itinerary is designed to chug straight from Halifax to Montreal, we highly recommend making a pit stop in Quebec City and checking into the century-old Chateau Frontenac. Book the coveted Van Horne Suite to get an inside look at the life and history of railway president Sir William Cornelius Van Horne who famously oversaw the construction of the first transcontinental railway in the country and be sure to make time for dinner at the hotel’s five-star Le Champlain restaurant where Chef Hugo Coudurier slings everything from Acadian caviar to Kamouraska lamb and lobster from the Gaspé.
Montreal to Toronto
Here’s where you get to choose your own adventure. There is no designated route that’ll get you through the gateway to the Rockies, so you’ll want to book shorter Via Rail commuter trips based on your interests or timeframe. We recommend taking the Montreal-Ottawa trip and spending a few days exploring the country’s capital city before taking the Ottawa-Toronto and continuing your journey to the west coast. Note that each of these commuter trips are only about six to eight hours and won’t require a sleeper cabin. That said, business class seating is still available on shorter haul trips and we highly recommend it for the priority boarding and extra leg room.
Where to Stay: Hotel Queen Elizabeth in Montreal
The Hotel Queen Elizabeth in Montreal was the last of the Grand Railway Hotels; built in 1958, this city hotel offers a much more contemporary and business-focused feel than some of the older Grand Dames throughout the country. The stylish property is perched directly above the Via Rail train station in Montreal and offers everything you’ll need to freshen up for the next leg of your trip, including an artisanal market with local snacks like wood-fired bagels and fresh salads, a stylish marble-clad spa (book the jet lag massage for an instant refresh) and a rooftop terrace with breathtaking views of downtown Montreal.
If you’ve always wanted to check into Hogwarts, the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa comes as a pretty decent consolation prize. The castle-inspired railway hotel is a bit of a trek from the train station — about 10 minutes by taxi — but the stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows and limestone and copper facade on the banks of the Rideau Canal makes it well-worth the commute. You’ll want to be sure to book the afternoon tea experience; the multi-course tea menu includes plenty of fresh finger sandwiches and savory bites, classic scones and sweet pastries with clotted cream and of course champagne, which you’ll enjoy while looking out onto downtown Ottawa and the parliament buildings.
Toronto to the West Coast
Route: The Canadian
The Canadian route on Via Rail is going to be the longest itinerary on the list; running four nights and 4,000 kilometers from Toronto all the way through the Rocky Mountains and wrapping on the west coast in Vancouver. That’s why we highly suggest opting for the highest level of service: the Prestige Sleeper Class. The old-world luxury experience takes cues from the likes of the Orient Express and the Golden Eagle with personalized concierges at your beck and call and a queen-size murphy bed complete with your own private bathroom and fully functional shower. Prestige travelers will also have access to the private train bullet lounge which offers exceptional panoramic views and complimentary bar service with everything from draft beer to champagne.
Where to Stay: Fairmont Royal York in Toronto
The city of Toronto is flush with five-star hotels and accommodations and the Via Rail train station is conveniently located right in the middle of the largest hotel district, but it’s the Fairmont Royal York you’ll want to check into for the authentic railway hotel experience. This Grand Dame hotel was built in 1927 and hasn’t changed its chateauesque facade or interior much since; with original woodwork and Romanesque-inspired decor on display throughout the lobby and into the five hotel bars and lounges. Drop your bags in your room and head to the luscious velvet-clad Library Bar for a Birdbath Martini, which is served tableside using the hotel’s bespoke QUILL gin or vodka and a variety of savory accouterments.
Winnipeg has an antiquated reputation for being a flyover city, but the tides have turned on the prairie town in the last decade or so and the city has become a hotspot for trendy restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Plan to spend at least one night in Winnipeg and check into the Fort Garry Hotel — a classic example of the stunning chateauesque architecture that the railway hotels were known for. The 246-room property was built in 1913 by famed architect firm Ross & MacDonald who took inspiration from the Plaza Hotel in New York. The opulent hotel has positioned itself as a luxury wellness retreat with plenty of ways to refresh after a long train trip, including onsite yoga classes, a state-of-the-art gym equipped with Peloton and Echelon Reflect Smart Mirrors and a world-class spa featuring Canada’s only co-ed Turkish Bath.
The Rocky Mountains to the West Coast
The Rocky Mountaineer offers two distinct routes once you get into the heart of Western Canada: the First Passage to the West takes you from Banff to Vancouver while the Journey through the Clouds weaves its way from Jasper to Vancouver. This first-class adventure is one of the highest rated luxury train trips in the world and offers an authentic glimpse into the exact style and level of service that travelers from a century ago would have experienced — from the expansive custom-designed glass-dome coaches that weave through the heart of the Rockies, to the multi-course, local-focused meals served in the skydome, including everything from fresh avocado toast and spinach and cheese souffle for breakfast to Alberta beef short ribs and Lois Lake steelhead salmon for dinner. Another major perk that comes with the Rocky Mountaineer is the daylight-only schedule; the multiple-day journey stops at one of the Grand Railway Hotels each night so you won’t have to worry about securing a private shower or trying to sleep on the train.
Where to Stay: Empress Hotel in Victoria
Although the Empress Hotel in Victoria isn’t connected to the railway system, it’s still considered one of the most revered of the Grand Railway Hotels and is easily accessible via ferry service from Vancouver (at the end of the Rocky Mountaineer line). The stunning chateauesque hotel was built in 1904 as a terminus hotel for Canadian Pacific’s steamship line and was rebranded as a tourist hotel in the early 1920s when leisure travel in Victoria started to flourish. It continues to be one of the landmark establishments on the Victoria skyline. The harbourfront hotel is still well-known for its old-world luxuries — from afternoon tea, to al fresco dining on the front lawn — but we suggest stopping by the Q Bar to sample the housemade Empress 1908 Gin; a curious purple-hued spirit made using butterfly pea blossom, local juniper and the signature Empress Hotel tea.
The Adventure Routes by Via Rail won’t take you from coast-to-coast but they deserve an honorable mention for those looking to experience the lesser-visited corners of Canada. The Winnipeg-Churchill route is particularly noteworthy; the two-day trip takes you through the northern landscape to Churchill — the town with the most polar bears in the world. You’ll also spot beluga whales in the summertime and get the chance to see the northern lights (which make a dazzling appearance on average 300 days out of the year).
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