Rockin’ with the Rail Rhythms: A Canandian Transcontinental Train Adventure by Elaine Lee

Longing for adventure, but leery about journeying too far from home? Seeking to experience something different, but your cash flow is abit lean? Then consider a visit to our continental cousin to the north: Canada! Foreign yet familiar, it is beautiful, exciting, safe, pristine, friendly, and you don’t have to learn a new language or leave the hemisphere.
Longing for adventure, but leery about journeying too far from home? Seeking to experience something different, but your cash flow is abit lean? Then consider a visit to our continental cousin to the north: Canada! Foreign yet familiar, it is beautiful, exciting, safe, pristine, friendly, and you don’t have to learn a new language or leave the hemisphere.
For the full Canada experience, I recommend the transcontinental Via Rail, which, with its many stopping points, allows you to control the pace of your journey to play, pause, rewind, unwind and fast forward some of the most idyllic scenery on the planet, from the eastern seaboard province of Nova Scotia with its craggy coastline, tidal inlets and unspoiled beaches; through the Shield, where sprawling flatlands are peppered with thousands of lakes and outcropping of billion year old granite boulders; past quaint towns, vast prairies, bountiful farmlands, lush forests, rivers and cascading waterfalls; across the continental divide into the majestic Canadian Rockies; finally arriving in Canada’s West Coast Shangri-Lathat enchanting mountain and island-clad province called British Columbia. This Canadian land cruise is a welcome alternative to airports, with their shuttles, body searches, interminable delays, cancellations and safety concerns.
Via Rail’s surroundings. Its lounge car, a comfy place to relax, offers a variety of snacks and beverages, and serves champagne and hors d’oeuvres daily before dinner. The activity car is stocked with magazines, games, books and videos. And the elegant art deco style dining car serves three delicious gourmet meals a day prepared by an on-board chef.
My two-berth cabin provided a quiet getaway from the hustle-bustle of the communal cars. By day a sitting room with a large picture window, plush chair and table; by night a cozy haven where I was rocked to sleep by the gentle rumble of the rails. The board, the porters and waiters were gracious, upbeat, helpful and attentive without being intrusive.
Shortly after the first all aboard I must admit, I found myself becoming a bit claustrophobic but after a few hours, the gentle swaying of the train lulled me into increasingly deeper levels of relaxation. And I finally settled into the freedom that comes with captivity—the freedom to relax, kick back, catch up on my reading, writing, needlework and experience myself as a human being instead of a human doing.
My autumnal fall colors cross country rail journey was spread over 14 days and included visits to 7 cities/towns. The trip can be made in a mere 5 days if you limit your stopover time. Better yet, consider Via Rail’s most popular trip, the 3-day jaunt from Toronto to Vancouver.
My journey began with short visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a thriving modern metropolis with an historic air surrounded by the world’s second largest harbor. Bustling maritime/shipping/seafood industries make it the commercial center of eastern Canada, and the world’s largest exporter of lobster. It’s a seafood lover’s heaven. It’s also a cosmopolitan college town. And its charming, hilly, tree-lined streets of Victorian homes reminded me of San Francisco.
Nova Scotia, the final destination of the legendary Underground Railroad, has an indigenous Black population of approximately 20,000, the largest in Canada. Darmouth, Nova Scotia’s largest black community is home to the Nova Scotia Black Cultural Center, and the Black Heritage Tour Company which provide fascinating, informative glimpses of their extraordinary local history.
A short, breathtaking, ninety-minute coastal drive southward is a journey into the past, through centuries-old picturesque fishing villages like Peggy’s Cove, Mahoney Bay and Lunenburg, which delight with their quaint shops, myriad festivals and remarkable seaside vistas.
The next stop on the journey was in the lively city of Montreal, with its sidewalk cafes, outdoor markets, street musicians, fabulous restaurants, art galleries, and jazz clubs. Think of Paris without the jet lag or language barrier a mix of old and new, and of French and English influences. I stayed in a hotel in Old Montreal, a quaint harbor neighborhood where narrow cobblestone streets meander past ancient stone houses, intimate restaurants, and a bevy of boutiques and galleries. Alas, I missed the legendary Montreal Jazz Festival, the largest in North America, held in late June.
Toronto, Canada’s capital and largest city, was next. Home to Canada’s largest Black population (approx 300,000), home to North America’s largest carnaval (held each August), and home to the world famous Toronto Film Festival (held each September). Check out the Irie Food Joint, a hip eatery serving a remarkable fusion, Caribbean/ Canadian cuisine. Its Jamaican born, European trained chef whips up spirited, tantalizing versions of gumbo, jerk chicken and more. The fresh fruits, spices and sauces dance calypsos on your tongue. Its dEcor is an eclectic convergence of modern angles and earthy tones.
By the time I reached Toronto, I was sorely in need of a new infusion of books, so I made my way to a wonderful little bookstore A Different Light which carries a healthy selection of books by Black Canadian and Caribbean authors. For gifts and souvenirs, check out the Ashanti Room, which features remarkable array of paintings, sculptures and crafts by Black Canadians.
Jasper, perhaps one of the most scenic venues on the planet, was heaven by rail with its snowcapped mountains, deep cavernous valleys, rushing rivers, natural hot springs, palatial ice fields and wildlife sanctuaries. And its legendary national park is a must-see. I recommend a night or two at the rustic-luxurious Jasper Park Lodge. And whether you’re a fitness buff or not, don’t miss its world-class spa.
The last stop of the journey was Vancouver; a spectacular cosmopolitan seaport town nestled between sea and mountains in British Columbia’s southwest corner, just an hour away from Washington State. Here modern urban living and natural wonders coincide. Pacific ocean inlets reach deep into the city, sandy beaches dot its periphery, and skyscrapers are dwarfed by snowcapped peaks. Open spaces and parks aboundthe largest, Stanley Park, encompasses 1,000 acres of woodlands, gardens and trails.
Vancouver’s natural beauty is matched by its cultural richness. Visit Granville Island, home to a thriving artist colony with working studios, commercial galleries, quaint shops and a raucous and bountiful public market. Check out Vancouver’s Chinatown, the second largest in North America. Wander through Gastown, Vancouver’s historic center, with its numerous cafes, boutiques and antique shops. And if high-fashion shopping is your thing, Robson is the street to beat. Vancouver’s over 30,000 Black Canadians host the Caribbean Days, a major annual event held the last weekend of July.
It would be a shame to visit Vancouver and not include side trips to nearby Victoria and Whistler. It’s a delightful ninety-minute ferry ride to Victoria, a vintage European style city located on Vancouver Island. The magnificent Buchart Gardens alone are worth the journey. After a leisurely stroll through the garden, with its million plus flowers, awesome landscape designs, and fountains and fireworks set to music, take some tea at the fabled Empress Hotel overlooking Victoria’s gorgeous harbor. Time your trip right and you can catch a summer jazz festival and/or watch the whales. For an authentic Canadian first nations experience, consider a day tour of neighboring community of T’Souke where you can check out cultural presentations on carving, legends and food preparation as well as visit local artisans and partake in a cedar-stick salmon BBQ on the beach. (
Whistler, a charming European-style pedestrian village full of wonderful restaurants, surrounded by enormous mountains, and popular for its wide variety of winter activities. Voted the number one ski resort in North America by Ski Magazine for the 4th time, hosted the annual National Brotherhood of Skiers in February. Over 5,000 black skiers from across the U.S. and England came for the weeklong bacchanal. When the snows melt, Whistler becomes a first class haven for mountain bikers, golfers and hikers. But getting to Whistler is half the fun. The supernatural Sea to Sky drive is my favorite stretch of road on earth. This uninterrupted vision of sunbeams piercing clouds, lush islands, forests, mountains and enchanting seascapes will hold you spellbound, making a two-hour drive seem like minutes.
Canada’s proximity and prices make it attractive to Americans, not only for leisure travel, but for business and medical travel as well. Canadian costs for labor, computers, electronics, jewelry, cars, furs, elective surgery and/or sports equipment are all considerably cheaper than in the U.S. Additionally, for African Americans, traveling in Canada provides a welcome relief from sharp racial dynamics present in the States. The issue of race is just not as central to daily life there. As a woman of color traveling solo in a predominately white country, I experienced a definite ease, on the race and gender front. I felt safe and was afforded respect.
As a child growing up in Michigan, I developed a curiosity about Canada from our family’s occasional trips across the border. Over the years it mushroomed into a desire to travel across the whole country. My transcontinental train adventure provided the perfect way to satisfy that yearning, by allowing me to sample and savor the sheer beauty and magic of Canada’s rich and varied terrain, and the original and distinctive charm of its city and village locales, the friendliness of its people, making this trip a refreshing, exciting and satisfying experience that will live on in my memory for years to come.
Travel Tips
Rail fares vary by season: 3-day Toronto-Vancouver train trip, between $1040 and $1600 5-day Halifax-Vancouver $1160-$2230 The Rail Pass provides 12 days of unlimited travel over a 30-day period. ($600-$940) (Two berth sleeping accommodations, meals and taxes are included in the prices.
Best place to find out what’s happening in Canada’s Black communities: east of the Rockies: west of the Rockies:
Best general source of happenings in Canada’s major cities: Where Magazine, free newspaper weeklies, internet and of course the tourist bureaus (Segments of this appeared in Essence Magazine’s 2003 August edition)

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