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Trip report: Viarail’s Canadian Toronto to Vancouver plus a little

What: Via Rail Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver viarail.com
When: Sept. 7-17

After I decided I wanted to make this cross-Canada train trip, I began looking at dates and decided on early September. That would be late enough to miss families whose kids would have to start school at the first of Sept. and early enough to hopefully miss snow in the Canadian Rockies.

Via Rail was getting lots of flak over widely varying amounts of timeliness for the Canadian (some arrivals more than 24 hours late) and in 2018 changed their schedules a lot to hopefully improve things. But that meant as I was planning I had to wait to reserve till new schedules came out.

When the schedules came out, I was able to reserve early for a discounted Sleeper Plus cabin, for one senior. A certain number of discounts are available before regular prices kick in. This gave me a private lockable compartment, with a wide seat, large window, my own toilet and sink, and pull down bed, plus all meals. There are both cheaper and more expensive options.

As I was waiting to book, I checked out all the options and decided I wanted a multi-stop trip, giving me 3 nights in Jasper, AB, in the Canadian Rockies. You can stop at the 2 other locations along the way (Winnipeg and Edmonton), as well - but I didn’t have all the time in the world. The train price for multi-stop was the same as for straight through, as long as your choice of cabin was available.

I fly out of a smaller town to DFW to pick up long distance flights and have to fly American if I don’t drive to DFW. It just depends on price and time. For some reason I bought two one-way tickets: home - Toronto and Vancouver - home. As I was leaving I wondered why I did that instead of a multi-city but, for the life of me, can’t remember why. I guess it was a better set of connections and just as cheap. I had decided to check my suitcase since it’s free and I have to valet check it for the first flight anyway. I did pack my carryon backpack well enough that I could get by for 3 nights on the train in a pinch if the suitcase were delayed or lost.

At any rate, I landed in Toronto about 6:00pm and went through customs and immigration. Customs consisted of stepping up to a kiosk to answer questions and getting my print out, then standing in a really long (but very fast-moving) line, showing my printout to one official in a chair (bypassing the typical one at a booth), and then giving the printout to another official after retrieving my suitcase.

I will say it was a fair walk from Terminal 3, where I landed, to catch the airport tram over to Terminal 1 to catch the UP Express. However it was very well signed and easy (“train to town”). Once I was off the airport tram, the sign directed everyone up an escalator to the cash or credit ticket machines for the UP Express ($12.35 for all the way to downtown). And the train was just beyond that, running every 15 min. It makes 2 stops along the way. It was an easy 25 min ride in a nice train with plenty of luggage room. And not crowded - which surprised me, with all the flights that had arrived at the same time as mine.

I had a reservation for a smart double at the Strathcona Hotel - a 5 min walk from the UP Express, just a short block down York Street and almost across from the Fairmont Royal York which faces Union Station. For dinner, I just needed a little something so grabbed a sandwich and cookie from the Tim Horton across the street. I was really happy with the room - it wasn’t large but I have stayed in smaller. And it was nice and cozy, clean, and the bathroom actually had a bathtub, which is always a plus for me - with plenty of hot water. I don’t know if I was just really tired or it was really quiet but I slept all night without hearing a sound.

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Day 2: Breakfast wasn’t included in room cost and I splurged ($20) just because I wanted to. It was a nice buffet with several hot choices that included vegetables; bacon; sausages; eggs cooked to order if you wanted (I didn’t); fruit; yogurt; breads; and a couple of cold vegetable options. I felt decadent and healthy all at the same time. :)

Then it was time for the 5 min walk to Union Station and check in. Since I already had a ticket, was not traveling economy (no bed), and had only my 20”suitcase and backpack, I was directed straight on to the Business Lounge. While you are able to check luggage, you would be hard-pressed to fit a larger suitcase than mine in the compartment (under my seat). I showed my boarding pass at the counter in the Lounge and after checking me off the list, they sent me on down to the other end of the long lounge room to make a meal time reservation for dinner. Available seatings were 5:00, 7:00, & 9:00. Then I grabbed a cup of coffee from the excellent machines that grind your choice of beans and roast and kind of drink.

With the train leaving at 9:45, we all left to board at 9:15 together. There were staff available to direct us to the correct car and compartment - nothing hurried or frantic about the process. And we left right on schedule at 9:45. Soon thereafter my car steward came through and explained all the compartment workings. And we were off.

Lunch was actually brunch and you could just show up any time between 10:30 and 2:00. I went about noon. As you entered the dining car, someone directs you to a seat. I ended up with a couple from England and a tour manager who travels this route regularly (she had 60 people on this train). It made for nice conversation, along with my lobster ravioli. In the afternoon, I spent some time in the Dome Car, then listened to a young acoustical musician perform, and skipped the Canadian beer tasting since I don’t generally like beer. Then I relaxed, watched the scenery out the window, and gradually slowed my brain down. I loved looking out at the white bark of the aspen trees (which I don’t have at home), at the rock formations, and at all the water, small and large, along the way. Not boring.

Food: there was always coffee, tea, and small packages of cookies and crackers available. If you have a Prestige cabin (larger, newer, private shower, expensive) for two, the package included alcoholic drinks. Otherwise they were available for purchase.

Days 3 & 4: There was a continental breakfast available in the activities car (muffins, bread, fruit, juice) from 6:30-8:30. Breakfast and lunch were actually brunch: available 9:30-2:00 any time. There were both breakfast and lunch type options. Dinner was the scheduled meal, 3 courses with 2-3 seatings (depending upon the day). There were typically 4 choices: for dinner a beef, chicken, fish, or vegetarian; brunch 2 breakfast type choices, one more traditional lunch, or vegetarian. Typically there were a couple of short stops each day, which allowed us to get off and walk outside for 10-30 minutes (a smoke stop for those who needed it). There were often short talks in the Dome car and one day a wine tasting of Canadian wines (I already mentioned the beer tasting).

Sleep: I generally sleep fairly easily anywhere. So for the most part, I slept fine on the train. The second night we covered a rough section of track, though, that made it more difficult. That just meant I slept later in the morning, which didn’t matter. But I can see for those who are really light sleepers, it might not be ideal.

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For much of the first three days on the train, there was no cell service. And there is no WiFi on the train. I had considered a SIM card but AT&T told me my plan included Canada. I certainly had no trouble with phone calls and texts seem to come through fine when there actually was cell service. People traveling should just be aware that for a couple of days, the train goes through areas with no cell towers - so no one has service. Later in my trip, in locations with service, I had to turn on data roaming if I needed to look something up - we’ll see when I get my bill if that costs me or not.

After three days/nights, I got off the train in Jasper, AB, for three nights in the Rockies. The Canadian doesn’t run every day, so that was the length of time that fit best for me in order to catch it heading on to Vancouver. The train was only 30 minutes late, so it was about 7:00am when we arrived.

Day 5: I had rented a car from Avis, which opened at 8:00 two blocks down the street from the station. I sat in the station for a bit, catching up online with family and work email. Then I wandered down the street for a little breakfast and coffee at the Bear Paw. By then it was 8:15 so I went to pick up my car. It was ready for me, the pick up process was easy, and I was on my way. I used my credit card insurance (which is disappearing soon) but didn’t have to show any proof of it. Since I was only one person, I rented the smallest available - a VW Golf. It came with free 400 kilometers. I think I used 350-375 of the 400.

The day looked to be clearing and no rain, so first I headed to the Jasper Skytram up to Whistler’s Summit. It opens at 10 and I got there about that time. I could hear the people in line in front of me getting tickets ($50) for the gondola at 10:40 and 10:50, but when I walked up as 1 person she popped me on the 10:15. Just time for a bathroom stop and then up to the top without a wait and no crowds already up there! It was an easy and smooth ride up. We had about 20 in our car - but it wasn’t really crowded. There were beautiful views on all sides once at the top and you can walk another kilometer or so up to the summit if you want. I hiked about halfway up, remembering that I also had to come back down. I am not in hiking shape and definitely not used to altitude. I almost bought some collapsible poles before I went and they would have been useful. But there were trails for wandering all along and it’s above the tree line, so views everywhere, even without going all the way up. I had a little lunch at the top and decided since the weather was still fine, that I would do a trail ride in the afternoon.

I called ahead and scheduled a two hour ride at Jasper Riding Stables at 3:00. That might have been one of the most fun things I did. It was to have been a group ride but one couple called to cancel and three more just didn’t show up. So it was just me and the guide and the horses. We rode down by Patricia Lake and then up a hill, along a slope, and ended up with distant views of the Athabasca River and two lakes in the far distance. Again, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was breathtaking. Riding back into the stables, they said we had just missed the bear “in the yard”. :)

Leaving, I headed to my bed and breakfast to check in and call it a day - but on the way I had to stop for the bull elk who decided he needed to cross the road right in front of me. :)

Jasper is not large and tourism in the summer is huge. Places to stay are limited and not especially cheap. It seems that most of the b&bs list on www.stayinjasper.com. I found a lovely place, Amanda’s Guesthouse, with private entrance off a garden, large private bathroom, very comfy bed, and parking spot, with breakfast items provided - and lovely hosts. Apparently b&bs must be licensed by Parks Canada and, as opposed to hotels, are not allowed to provide a cooked breakfast. My location had fresh bread (and toaster), butter, (cont).....

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peanut butter and jam, coffee pot, milk, cereal, juice, fruit, yogurt, instant oatmeal (and kettle), tea, & hot chocolate, with a small fridge and plenty of dishes, but no microwave.

Day 6: It was another good day of weather. So I decided to spend it mostly outside. I packed a sandwich and fruit for lunch, then headed to Maligne Canyon, the deepest canyon in Jasper Nat’l Park, to do some walking. The hike is spread between 6 bridges across the Maligne River. I think there is parking by 6th Bridge and by 5th Bridge. However the easier area with the most people is between 1st and 2nd Bridges. If you do no more than this, you see the deepest parts of the canyon, with multiple waterfalls and rushing river. It is so beautiful. I also walked to the 3rd Bridge, and it was nothing less than beautiful but not quite as spectacular. I ended up hiking the loop that includes 1st and 2nd twice. I say hiking, but that part was a fairly easy walk. Going to 3rd included a lot more steps and descent (which then meant ascent).

I guess I left this area about 1:00 and headed out on the 45-50 minute drive to Maligne Lake. I had reserved a 3:00-4:30 cruise to Spirit Island. The drive itself was beautiful (I am out of superlatives) and easy. I stopped for a bit at Medicine Lake, driving through some of the remaining evidence of the large fire there in 2015 that burned 1,000 hectares. I was at the lake by 2:00, having eaten my sandwich, and needed to go to the ticket office to have my pre-purchased ticket printed. It was actually chilly outside so I went in the cafe for hot chocolate and a Nanaimo bar - sugar overload and delicious! The boat was fine and again, the scenery was so beautiful. The focus of the trip was Spirit Island and its turquoise waters. It is not really an island now, just a small finger of land that is sacred to some of the indigenous peoples - tourists are not to walk on it. The dock is the furtherest point that a mechanized boat (as opposed to canoes or kayaks) can travel on Maligne Lake. We had about 15 or 20 min - which was enough. They offer a slightly higher priced trip, mainly for photographers, that gives you longer. After that, I drove back to Jasper slowly and saw a mother and baby black bear alongside the road. From my b&b, I walked to the Main Street and ate a marvelous pizza at Famoso Neapolitan Pizzaria (or half of it - I took the other half and had it for lunch the following day). Again, as one person, I was seated immediately at the bar, while others were waiting for a table most of the time I was there.

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Day 7: This, my last day in Jasper, was the day with weather I wasn’t sure about - which is why I saved my drive down the Icefields Parkway. It did rain a bit as I started out but cleared off and was really nice. This is also the day I made one of what I consider the 2 misjudgments of the trip: I thought I would simply be driving along the road and looking out at scenery, so I wore my nice Ecco Soft 7s instead of my heavier duty Keens. I love my Soft 7s and can walk well in them - but.....

As a last-minute-before-traveling thought, I purchased the Icefields Parkway Gypsy app and loved it. I simply plugged my phone in with the car charger I had brought and it would talk to me about what I was nearing. It talked about how the mountains were formed, what makes them different, the 500 year old pine forest I was driving past, the glaciers I was seeing, early explorers, and more - as well as directions to stops along the way. It used GPS, not data (none available on that road - no cell towers). It absolutely made the drive better.

So I ended up with stops at Athabasca Falls - breathtaking (I stayed and wandered for about an hour); at Sunawapta Falls, also beautiful but not quite as dramatic; at a few pullouts with views; and then finally at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center. This is a huge tourist center with lots of parking (also nice bathrooms) and is the departure point for busses taking tourists to spend 30 minutes out on the glacier. I was not interested in that at all (big busloads of tourists) and that’s when I looked across the highway at the parking for the Toe of the Glacier walk. I had read that all this would be busy and full. But as I sat looking at it, I thought, “Well, it doesn’t cost me anything to drive over and just see if there’s parking.” And there was - a spot for me right at the start of the 1.2k walk up the mountain. And since I was there,..... well it’s only 1.2k and no one cares how long it takes me, right? So, of course, I hiked. This is where I really started wanting my Keens (and that pair of hiking poles I didn’t buy). It really wasn’t terrible going up - and I went all the way up. It was SO windy at the top! And cold, except I had plenty of layers. There were markers along the way showing how the glacier is receding - where it was in 1935 and 1982 and 1992 (I have kids born in those last two years, so that was interesting) and so on. Coming down was another story. I went very slowly. One slide and the rest of my vacation would be history. It was all good, though, and a personal victory. :)

On the way back, I stopped at another waterfall and a couple of small lakes the Gypsy app told me about - each a short walk down a silent path amidst the trees and no one in sight. Just glorious. My favorite was Buck Lake. Back in town, I stopped for a final walk through Jasper, a curry buffet for dinner (adequate but nothing special), and some ice cream. Then back to pack and head to bed so I could catch the train the next morning.

Day 8: The Canadian was due to arrive at 6:30 and depart at 9:30, but was about an hour and a half late arriving and about an hour late leaving. I had the Via Rail app, so I could track the timing. On my way to the station, I dropped off my car and walked the 2 blocks on down. Again, boarding was simple and relaxed. A big tour group left the train, so there were far fewer people on the train for this final 24 hours. I dropped my suitcase in my compartment and headed straight for the Dome car so I could watch the Rockies go by - and enjoy the small complimentary glass of champagne they served there. :) I stayed a couple of hours there, then went back to my compartment, thinking I might read but just keep looking out the window. After lunch, there was an hour long harp concert and then a beer tasting, which I skipped in favor of a nap. More scenery, then dinner, then bed.

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Day 9: We were due into Vancouver at 8:00. I had no idea how things would work but decided I wasn’t worried. So I set my alarm for 7:00 and got up when it went off. The train was stopped and apparently we had arrived early in Vancouver. I got dressed and mostly packed, then put my head out in to the hall. All was quiet so I thought maybe I was last off, but lots of people weren’t up and others were down having breakfast, so that’s what I did. I think I ended up getting off about 8:30 and I was not the last. So I guess there’s not a huge rush. Someone said the train was staying for another day to be cleaned and re-supplied for the return trip to Toronto.

For this day in Vancouver, I had plenty of information but no real plan. I had intended to get a Compass Card for public transportation. But I just decided I would treat myself to a taxi to my guesthouse to drop off my suitcase before anything else. It was just easier and I decided I was worth it. In fact, completely out of character, I took many taxis while there - only using the metro to the airport. I think I probably spent an additional $50 (U.S.) over public transport.

At my guesthouse, I regrouped a bit and asked about the bus to Granville Island. The person I asked told me (I was just re-confirming) but said he used to walk it every day in about 15 min. I wasn’t foolish enough to think I could do that; but I thought if it was even 30 min, that would be better than the time it might take by bus. So I walked. And it took nearly an hour. And I wasn’t lost. :) But I was tired. So I stopped for coffee and breakfast.

The reason for going to Granville Island is that I had an early morning departure on a whale-watching trip booked for Day 10. For peace of mind, I needed to be sure I knew where the meeting point was. Otherwise, the morning would have been a complete waste for me. There were quite a few people and lots of shops - and I don’t like shopping in the first place, much less with lots of people. I just did not enjoy it, although I took my time and looked around.

It was still too early to check in, so I took a taxi to Queen Elizabeth Park and the Bloedel Conservatory. This was a win. The conservatory was small (and only $6ish) - full of small colorful birds (all rescues, they said) and lots of beautiful flowers. The park/garden is huge and even in September, absolutely beautiful. I stayed for several hours. After that, I taxied (I told you) to The Windsor Guesthouse, checked in, caught up on email, etc. with family), and basically called it a night.

The guesthouse is similar to one I stayed at in Windsor, UK: an old house charmingly turned into rooms. I had a single on the 2nd floor in the former attic (2 flights of stairs and no elevator), with a shared bathroom, very nicely done. Breakfast is served 7-8, cooked in the actual house kitchen - the only time I saw staff, except at check in (and I had to wait a bit on the really nice front porch for a bit for that). I had a code for the front door and a key for my room. Very easy.

Day 10: This was my last full day. On Day 9, I had downloaded the Yellow Cab app and used it to call for a taxi this morning (decided against walking or experimenting with the nearby bus). It worked just like Uber (no Uber in Vancouver) - it said the cab would be there in 11 minutes and it was there in precisely 11 minutes. $10 CAD for the ride door to door.

I had booked with Prince of Whales for the trip to Victoria. There are a lot of companies that offer whale-watching trips and and I finally made my decision based on the fact that Prince of Whales was a fairly close departure and sold a package for the boat and a return to downtown Vancouver at a time of my choosing by seaplane. I have neither water nor seaplanes in West Texas, so I was as excited about that as about potential whales (we don’t have those either).....

(Cont)

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The boat was nice. There were about 30 of us and it could have held triple that. We were not far out of the harbor area when they spotted a pod of Orcas: a mom, her adult son, and two younger siblings. We probably stayed and watched for nearly 45 minutes and at one point, the pod changed directions and came up close enough to us (engines were off) that we could hear them blow, as well as see it.

After that it was off to the islands nearer Victoria, with stops to see bald eagles, harbour seals, and a small island where cormorants nest. Then we were in Victoria, which is very charming. The weather by this time was sunny and beautiful. I wandered slowly as I headed to the Legislative Assembly building, where I arrived just at the perfect time for the 1:00 free English tour. The building lovely and the tour was just right - about 30 minutes long. By 2:30, I was standing in the 30 min. line for fish and chips at Red Fish, Blue Fish. Totally worth it on a nice day. I had a piece of cod and a piece of salmon - had never had salmon as “fish and chips” - and both were delicious. I stood in line and ate with a girl about the age of my daughters from Germany in Victoria visiting friends. Just a really nice afternoon.

Then it was time to check in with Harbour Air for my 4:30 flight back to Vancouver. I loved it. :) There couldn’t have been more than 15 passengers and I was in a single seat right behind the pilot. It was just fun and the plane flies at a height that you could watch islands and boats below. About 30 minutes and we were back in Vancouver, next to Canada Place, where the cruise ships stop (there had been one earlier but it had already left, so none in port). As I walked back toward the metro, I stopped for dinner of 3 scoops of gelato and a glass of wine - maybe one of the stranger dinners I have had. :) Outside the metro, I decided I didn’t want to walk stairs and so caught a taxi back.

Day 11, Departure Day: This was really the only day you could say it rained. And it let up to a sprinkle for me to walk to the metro. I took the Canada line to the airport - very easy and comfortable. My only question was about what ticket to purchase. I thought there was a $5 charge beyond the zone charge, but there was no choice that allowed for that from the ticket machine - and no staff to ask. So I bought a Zone 3, which was the max (and the airport is the end of the line), tapped in, and tapped out at the airport. So I guess it was all fine.

I was flying American and had checked in the previous day but it would not send me my boarding passes. Sure enough, I was randomly selected for the lovely extra screening. This was not nearly as elaborate as when it happened at Heathrow or Vienna. Other than the normal shoes off type stuff, I had to take my iPad and iPhone out of their cases. I had checked my suitcase and didn’t even have a 311 bag with me. The whole process was really fast, even with the extra. The rest was just flying. :)

This was a great trip - my first (hopefully of many) solo vacation. I did a lot of preparation but made few firm plans ahead of time. For me, the train was an easy mix of alone time and people time, with amazing scenery. I had some really great mealtime conversations, especially on the train. It has also been interesting how many people I know have said they have been thinking about the train trip - far more people asking me about it than my normal European trip. And it is also interesting how many of my friends and acquaintances, even those who do travel, have said they would be afraid to go alone. I was a little afraid, also, but not a bit willing to just stay home or wait for someone else to want to do what I want to and how I want to and where I want to. As an aside, the Man in Seat61 and his family did the train portion of this trip about 2 weeks before me.

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Travelmom, what a great report and trip. Thanks. Of course, as a Canadian, I am a little prejudice about the beauty of our country, and as a West Coaster most of my live, BC and the Rockies have a very sentimental place in my heart. I grew up in Victoria, so know those islands pretty well. I have done the trip from Toronto to Vancouver a couple of times - back when we had 2 rail companies - so one route went north through Edmonton and Jasper and the other went through Banff, Calgary and met at Winnipeg. Some find the long flat prairies between Calgary and Winnipeg to be boring, but if you are open to nature changing shape and colour, the play of sun and cloud, the chance to see prong horn antelope, then you are never bored. It sounds like Via Rail offers extra activities to try and keep boredom at bay. Good to know when one considers the costs. It is not a cheap trip, but when you consider it to be 'all inclusive', you may see it differently.
I love your Vancouver additions. Vancouver has a lot to offer a variety of folks - shoppers and nature lovers alike. The weather is so conducive to a very long garden season. Mom used to eek out a rose bud for Dec 15th for my brother's birthday and by late January, the snowdrops are in bloom so seeking out gardens is always a great diversion.
I am also a solo woman traveler. When one plans well, one has a good sense of what to expect. When others hear about it out of the blue, they have no research or even any context and it seems that media's constant doom and gloom causes fear in them for our safety - but it is a rare time that something goes wrong. Let's face it, every one of us at some time in the week leaves their house, goes about their business, and does a multitude of things on our own and rarely are afraid. It shouldn't be any different when traveling. Alternatively, they need to respect the traveler's sense of fear may be quite different to their own...and be quiet about it. If you are amenable, have any social skills and are comfortable in your own skin, there are plenty of ways to balance people time and solitude. It sounds like you found your own personal balance with this. That's great. I hope this is just one of some more solo trips in your future.

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Thank you, Maria. It truly was a trip filled with beautiful places! I had only been to Canada once before - a few days north of Winnipeg with a friend. And there is still so much to see. Yes, more solo trips to come. :) I will be 5 weeks in Scotland/England in the summer and excited!

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Great report, thank you so much! We're looking at Canadian train travel, & you made it come alive, with great details & info.

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Travelmom, glad it was a great success for you and you have more plans to come. I haven't made it to the 'Isles' yet, so look forward to reading that report too. I love the details.

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We took a BC and Alberta trip a year ago, gorgeous scenery and a wonderful vacation. We were told at the time that there was no cross-country rail trip anymore, so I was excited to read your report. It sounds like a lovely time, many thanks for writing up the trip report! We can put this trip back in our Bucket😊

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Thanks for sharing your train adventure, something we have considered doing. It is very helpful.

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Thanks, everyone. Luvtotravel, I had to wait several months to book while new schedules were being set. They came out in early November. But I think the trains continued to run - maybe all the routes don’t. The Rocky Mountaineer is another company. It’s more expensive, I hear, but has several routes in the west - like between Vancouver and Jasper or Banff.

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Thanks for this report!

It's funny which trips trigger fear in others. I almost always travel solo, and the one that got the most people to say how afraid they'd personally be to do it alone was ... Australia! Of all places, a fully developed country, where English is the native language, is not the one I'd expect to make me look "courageous" to visit.

My next trip is in 4 days, to Japan, and that's another one that has "triggered" some people (despite my assurances that I was there 22 years ago and found it easy, and that I've done lots of research, and that modern translation apps and internet mean that it's much easier than in the past).

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Lol, Harold! Australia! Well, there’s no accounting for fears, for sure!

I hope you have a great time in Japan! I lived there for 8 years (not military) and my two oldest were born there, so Japan feels almost like home to me. I haven’t been back since 2009 and lots has changed (most of the train system), but it’s so orderly and peaceful and safe and beautiful.

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Wonderful trip report. I am bookmarking this for future reference as some of the train trips I have looked at before stopped daily and you stayed in a hotel each night. Gelato and wine sounds like the perfect dinner to me :)