Coffee Crisp and Panorama Cars: Riding and Dining Through the Canadian Rockies

By Erik R. Trinidad

Published on September 19, 2012

I set out from Pacific Central Station, Vancouver's vintage railway terminal, ready for a grand railway journey through the Canadian Rockies. Comfortably seated aboard The Canadian, one of VIA Rail Canada's cross-country passenger trains, I wondered aloud: "Shouldn't we have heard an 'All Aboard!' or something?"But the 8:30 evening departure was off to a gentle start, and I watched the Vancouver skyline disappear from the upper tier of the Skyline car, fitted with a glass observation dome jutting above the ceiling, as the train slowly advanced eastward.

In an age when flights are cheaper and faster than riding the rails, most people opt to zip through the sky rather than over tracks, but there's something to be said for the classic railway journey as a romantic means of travel. There are typically more tourists than local commuters aboard The Canadian, on vacation to admire the expansive Canadian wilderness over a period of one to four days. Nights are spent in accommodations that range from roomy coach seats to the small but comfortable cabins of Sleeper Plus Class (where I slept) with private bathrooms, turn down service, and hot showers down the corridor.

Erik R. Trinidad

The attendance of Canadians may have been lower than expected, but it was still inevitable to befriend a few of them—they are, after all, known as some of the friendliest people on earth. The conversation quickly turned to Candian junk foods: "Coffee Crisp is the quintessential Canadian candy bar," said Cameron, a genial IT professional from Victoria, BC, on his way to relocate to Edmonton. The Nestle product he raved about wasn't available on the train, which only made my American friend and I all the more curious about Canadian snacks—as did his talk of Doritos flavors (intense pickle and jalapeno & cheddar) that you can't get in the States.

Junk food fixations aside, gourmet meals were in fashion aboard The Canadian, and the dining car was accordingly fitted with linen-lined tables, wine glasses, silverware, and a friendly staff. The "bilingual lunch menu" included crevettes et petoncles (shrimps and scallops) with local greens and saskatoon berries, which Chef Jeff Short served in the early afternoon before getting a start on the slow-cooked the prime rib roasts for dinner. Meals were paired with a selection of fine wines, including several from Canadian vineyards in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula and British Colombia's Okanagan Valley.

Of course, the raison d'etre of a railway journey isn't solely a gastronomic one; it's the scenery that passengers come to feast their eyes on, and the western Canadian landscape didn't disappoint. The best views came from inside the Panorama Car, which is like a greenhouse on wheels. Through its huge panes of glass, we saw the Thompson River weave its way through grass fields and coniferous forests as it neared the impressive Pyramid Falls—a spectacle the train slowed down for, so we could all marvel at the view. After a few more hours, the fertile landscape became more mountainous, and we saw the colors of the river change to cooler hues with the glacial water dripping down from the white-tipped mountain peaks in the distance.

At mid-afternoon, we hit the mountain town of Jasper, where several passengers disembarked for the great outdoors of nearby Jasper National Park, or world-renowned Banff, just a couple hours down the road. For me, my traveling companions, and our new Canadian friends, it was just a short one-hour stop to stretch our legs and explore the quaint downtown district of hotels, bars, and restaurants.

Back on the train, the sun set behind us as the eastbound scenery abruptly changed from Rocky Mountains to prairie, and eventually evolved from farmland to suburban sprawl near our final destination, Edmonton. After this 27-hour leg of the route, The Canadian would continue on to Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto. I felt like I was leaving on a high note when I got off at Edmonton—but not without a farewell and a welcome from a friendly face.

"Here, have a Coffee Crisp," Cameron surprised me, holding out an extra Canadian candy bar he bought in Jasper. "As a welcome to Edmonton."

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