Travelogue and photos of the rail travel of Steve and his family on the VIA rail Malahat on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Originally we had planned to spend 3 days in the city of Vancouver and 3 days in the city of Seattle. When traveling with my family, I like to try to spend as much time in one place as feasible. With so many people, it is hard to keep packing up and moving everything. Since there were 5 of us, my wife and I, our two daughters and their friend, that made for quite a few bags!
I had thought about the Malahat Train on Vancouver Island when I was planning this trip, but decided against it as being too much for one trip. However, someone else suggested to my wife that we must take the Malahat Train while we were in Vancouver and that got her excited about taking it. So, as long as she wanted to take this train, I certainly wasn't going to pass up a ride on one of the most scenic rail routes in western Canada!
I changed all our plans to fit in a ride on this train just before we left for this trip. Unfortunately, this did not result in the best of plans. I would have done things totally differently if I had planned the Malahat Train into this trip six months in advance like I had planned the rest of this vacation.
What would I suggest to you if you want to make this trip? If you are starting out in the United States, I'd suggest taking Amtrak to Seattle and then a ferry direct from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia. A ferry goes direct from Seattle to Victoria on Vancouver Island. The Malahat Train starts from Victoria. Although the Malahat provides one of the most scenic train rides in western Canada, you book it through VIA Rail as it is just another one of their routes. As a matter of fact, since there is only coach seating, the only way you can book it is as Economy Class! You can get a substantial discount by booking at least 7-days in advance through VIA Rail or your Travel Agent. For a list of travel agents knowledgeable about this train, visit http://trainweb.com/agencies.html.
There is plenty to see in Victoria, so you may want to spend a few days there. There is only one train and it leaves from Victoria at 8:15 AM, 12 Noon on Sunday. The train arrives into Courtenay, BC at 12:50 PM, 4:25 PM on Sunday. It then starts its return trip from Courtenay at 1:15 PM, 5:15 PM on Sunday and arrives back into Victoria at 5:45 PM, 9:40 PM on Sunday. Because of the early hour that the train leaves from Victoria in the morning, you will have to arrive into Victoria the night before. Ferries from both Seattle and Vancouver do not arrive early enough in the morning to connect with the train, except on Sunday. But, if you come on Sunday, the train arrives back into Victoria too late to take a return ferry. Also, most of the hotels in Victoria require that you stay more than one night. So, plan to come the night before your train ride and stay the night after your train ride.
PCL is a bus company that has a bus that leaves right from the Vancouver train station for Victoria hourly. You can purchase your ticket right in the train station, load your luggage on board, and then not worry about it until you arrive into Victoria. The bus goes to the ferry and then the entire bus drives onto the ferry! Once the bus is loaded onto the ferry, you get off the bus and can wander about the ferry. Just before arrival to the island, an announcement is made to have everyone get back on the bus. The bus fare includes the entire trip from Vancouver to Victoria, including the ferry.
A recommendation from the Conductor to those passengers that were making a round trip in one day just for the scenery is that they get off at Qualicum Beach instead of going all the way to Courtenay, BC. He said that all the beautiful scenery is between Victoria and Qualicum Beach and that there is just bush beyond that. If you get off at Qualicum Beach, you can spend about 2 and a half hours there. The train arrives at 11:51 AM (3:26 PM Sundays) and heads through on the return trip at 2:15 PM (6:15 PM Sundays). There is a beach and other things to do there, plus the fare will be a bit less to book a round trip just from Victoria to Qualicum Beach.
Another possibility if you do not wish to take this train round-trip is to arrive into Victoria by ferry, spend a day there, leave north on the train in the morning, and then get off at one of the port stops along this train route. Your ticket entitles you to get off at any stop and then reboard on another day and continue on your way! But, if you get off at one of the port cities further up the line, you may be able to take a ferry direct from that port back to Vancouver or other part of the mainland. In that way, you can avoid all the back and forth and up and down traveling that we did to fit the Malahat train ride into our plans.
Since our plans were made at the last moment, we only had time to spend one day on Vancouver Island. We had planned to go to the island of the first ferry and return later in the day, but the first ferry doesn't arrive early enough for the train ride. Thus, we would have to stay the prior night on the island. Unfortunately, due to a convention in Victoria, all the rooms were either booked or had a minimum stay of at least 2 nights. Instead, we got a hotel room in the nearby town of Sidney By The Sea.
Actually, this turned out great! If Victoria hadn't been booked up, we would not have discovered the seaside town of Sidney. Sidney is definitely a nice town with all the shops within convenient walking distance of our hotel, the Best Western Emerald Isle Inn. If you ever stay here, be sure to explore the town before 5 PM as everything closes up pretty early! (2008 Update: Things sure have changed! Most of the shops stay open every evening until 11 PM or later!)
Although Canada seems almost identical to the United States in most aspects, there are a few differences that stand out. We sort of discovered these as we went along. For example, there were 5 banks within a short walk of our hotel, each of which had 24-hour ATMs. Some even had big signs: "24 Hour Cash!" Do you think this helped me? Not much! All 5 banks had there ATM machines inside their front lobbies with the doors tightly locked. You had to be a patron of the bank in order to have a key that would unlock the main door of the bank to let you into the lobby! I had to assume that is a common way of doing things here since all 5 banks did it this way. Fortunately, my daughter noticed one bank where a patron had forgotten to close the door behind them. I walked in and my ATM card worked just fine. Just as a tip to those of you that travel to Canada: You can use your ATM Card or a Credit Card with a PIN number to obtain Canadian cash. The currency exchange rate will be automatically applied and the correct U.S. dollar amount charged to your account. Don't worry too much about the locked up ATMs. They are available to you during normal banking hours and there are plenty of ATMs out in more public areas in places with a lot more tourist traffic.
One more suggestion if you come by ferry from Vancouver to the island: Use the Peninsula Taxi if you can. Their phone number is 656-1111. They only use Cadillacs which are in excellent condition. That means you get a nice comfortable ride in luxury with plenty of room. The other taxi company on this part of the island uses cars like you will find in most major cities, which means they are not plush and they are in "just OK" condition.
Well, now to get to the meat of my story, what actually happened to us in our attempt to ride the Malahat. The route from Victoria to Courtenay is 225 kilometers, a 4 hour and 35 minute ride with all the climbing it has to do to get through the mountains. The Malahat train boards at 8:00 AM and then departs at 8:15 AM. We arrived at just a bit after 7:30 AM which gave us a chance to pick up schedules for the train and to get some bagels, muffins and drinks from a shop right around the corner at the Marketplace.
When we returned to the station, there were already quite a few people lined up waiting to board, even though the train was not yet in the station. Within a few minutes of our arrival, the two car train pulled into the station from the north. Everyone started to board the train through the only open doors, the ones that were at the center of the train right where the two train cars were connected.
The interior of the cars was like an old parlor. The rugs had a pattern to them and the seats were soft, also with a pattern in the fabric. The seats were in pairs on each side of the car just like in regular coach trains, with a few pairs facing each other. We saw someone turn one set around so evidently the pairs of seats could be turned to face either way. The windows were quite large and without any center bars or obstructions. The cars were obviously old, but the interiors were very well maintained. There was something very inviting about the layout of these cars that I could not put my finger on. I was trying to figure out why the interior of Amfleet and Horizon Cars are not as inviting. Maybe it is the smaller windows or the lower ceilings of the latter. I don't think there is any reason that the Amfleet and Horizon Cars could not have been designed to be just as inviting as these car interiors if the designers had better understood just what does make them inviting!
Two people who were sitting in a seat set up for four were nice enough to offer their seats to our group of 5. Since that common courtesy is not expected from riders on the San Diegans, the Conductor has to put up signs saying "Reserved For Parties of 3 or More" to make sure that smaller parties do not tie up these seats. I have seen just 1 or 2 people sit at seats and tables set up for 4 on the San Diegans and have rarely encountered one that offered to give up their seat even when a party of 3 or 4 would have to scatter all over the train to find seats! This attitude of common courtesy seemed to be widespread throughout Vancouver and we found it very refreshing!
We went past a number of very scenic spots on both the right and the left of the train as we continued to head north out of Victoria. However, we seemed to have made a couple of unscheduled stops out in the middle of nowhere. This train does make "flag stops" at many locations. That is, it stops if someone wants to get on or off at one of the listed stops, but the train does not stop at those places if nobody is waiting to get on or off. But these two stops that I am talking about were really in the middle of nowhere! There was nothing but trees around us! There were no roads, no paths, and no houses.
I think the second of these two stops might have been just a bit past Shawnigan. The train got under way again, but the Conductor came through telling everyone that this train would terminate in Cobble Hill due to mechanical problems. Each train car had its own power and the one that we were riding in had a broken drive shaft. I later heard that the train had this same problem the prior day and that it had been in the shop all night to get that problem fixed. Evidently it didn't get fixed enough!
I also heard the Conductor mention that they could disconnect the 2 cars and continue on with just 1 car. However, each car can only handle 60 riders. Standees are not allowed. There were a total of about 80 passengers and that would have been too many to transfer to one car.
So, that was the end of my attempt to ride the Malahat. I've now been on it, but just for the first 50 km. Next time I plan this trip, I'll be sure to spend a few days in Victoria just to make sure I get the opportunity to ride it all the way even if it takes me a few tries over those days!
The Conductor came through again telling everyone that there would be buses to take everyone on to their destinations. However, they realized that those onboard just for the scenic train ride might not want to go on. They went through the train to take a survey of how many would be going back to Victoria. We had no desire for a 450 km bus trip, so we indicated our intention to return to Victoria. 22 of the 80 people on board opted to return to Victoria. At first they told us that was enough people to get a bus to take us back. 6 of those people must have changed their mind before we got to the next stop as they then said there were only 16 going back and there would be taxis to take us back to Victoria!
Once the train arrived at Cobble Hill, we got off to wait for the taxis. Anyone that wanted to stay onboard until the taxis arrived was welcome. This gave us an excellent chance to photograph the outside of the train cars and the area surrounding the tracks. I found the tracks to be quite unusual. There were 2 sets of tracks at this station. The station itself was just a couple of back to back bench seats with a wooden roof over them to protect waiting passengers from the sun and rain. The tracks themselves were very overgrown with weeds! Our train had been traveling along tracks that in places had weeds that had grown 3 or 4 feet high! Looking down the tracks I saw trees on both sides separated by a small field of tall grass. There was so much tall grass that you could not see much of the tracks beyond a few feet! With just one train up and one train back each day, I guess that is not enough rail traffic to prevent the plants from growing in the middle of the tracks. I don't know if there is any freight traffic on this line at all as it just goes up and down part of the island.
At Cobble Hill there was a country grocery store and a restaurant. I didn't see anyone go to eat at the restaurant, probably because the taxis and bus were expected at any moment. Some people needed to use a restroom, but a couple of people said the facilities in the restaurant were disgusting. So, I don't think actually anyone did use them. Several people did get drinks and snacks from the country store, including my kids.
We waited about an hour at Cobble Hill before the taxis arrived. There were only 4 of them, but that should be enough for 16 people. One of the taxis were large enough to hold 5 people in addition to the driver. Two people had already stepped into that taxi, but they were nice enough to switch to another to let our party take that taxi.
The taxi took about 40 minutes to drive all the way back to Victoria. The taxi fare was over CAN $70, but VIArail took care of the cab fare. I gave the cab driver a good tip.
We wandered about Victoria a bit and purchased a few souvenirs. We had lunch at the Milestone Restaurant and the food was very good. The hamburgers were excellent, though they strangely tasted a bit like hot dogs! Even though we ordered the hamburgers well-done and they didn't have any red showing, they were still very tender and juicy.
After lunch we took a taxi back to Sidney where we had left our luggage at our hotel. We wandered up and down Beacon Street for a while exploring all the quaint little shops, especially the used bookstores. There was even a Radio Shack where I managed to buy an adapter so that I could feed the radio scanner audio into the video camera. The kids purchased some candy and ice cream at one store while my wife and I purchased some coffee from Starbucks.
We then returned to the hotel and picked up the luggage that the hotel was holding for us. We took a taxi to the port and then took the very next ferry back to Vancouver.
After we arrived back to the mainland, we headed for our hotel by taxi. We stayed at the ITT Sheraton on Burrard St. right in the heart of downtown Vancouver. We fell in love with the room the moment we stepped in! Unlike the other two hotels that we had stayed in on this trip so far, this was a "Family Room" instead of a room with two double or two queen beds. There were two totally separate rooms inside our hotel accommodation. One room was a very large living space with a desk, coffee table, two double beds, and a dresser with a television set. The other room had a king size bed with night tables and a television set. So, for the first time on this trip, my wife and I had room to ourselves and the kids didn't have to squeeze 3 to a bed! To top that off, the room was on the 10th floor and the view of Vancouver was spectacular! Because our room, #1005, was situated on the corner of the building, almost half of the walls in both rooms were windows, all with a tremendous view. From one window we could see all the way down Burrard Street and even see a bit of the water. Mountains could be seen beyond the buildings out just about every window. When you come to Vancouver, I would recommend this as a place to stay, the ITT Sheraton Wall Centre. At CAN $205 per night, the price was comparable to the other hotel prices on this trip where we got a lot less for the money.
Actually, we liked this place so much that we totally changed our plans around to spend two more nights at this place instead of in Seattle! My wife decided to stay here with the kids until Friday morning. Because of the timing, we would all have to take the bus from Vancouver to Seattle instead of the train. I would leave on Thursday on the 12:30 PM bus which has a guaranteed connection to the Empire Builder that I would be taking to Spokane, Washington. They would take the 9:30 AM bus the following morning and arrive into Seattle just after noon. That would just be a couple of hours after my return Empire Builder would arrive into Seattle if it arrived on time. In any case, we should both be arriving into the Seattle Amtrak Station within a couple of hours of each other.
Instead of trying to change our tickets around, we just purchased new tickets to ride the bus from Vancouver to Seattle. After a quick inquiry, we realized what I had feared: To make a change would cost us far more than buying just new tickets because of Amtrak's penalty policies.
July 1 is "Canada Day". We went to Stanley Park which is not very far from downtown Vancouver. We took a tour of the park by horse drawn carriage. The wagon has benches, holds about 20 people, and is pulled by 2 very strong horses. This tour is a great way to see much of the park. You might be familiar with the "Stanley" that this park is named after. It is the same Stanley as in the "Stanley Cup." There are many great views overlooking the water and gardens from this tour and it is narrated to give you an idea of the history behind the park. We paid about CAN $36 for the tour, but there is also a free shuttle bus that will take you around the park and let you get on and off anywhere that you wish.
After we finished the tour of Stanley Park, we then went to the Aquarium. If you are familiar with Sea World, the Aquarium was much like that, just smaller. They had a killer whale show, dolphins, and many other live aquatic exhibits. If you make it to Stanley Park, then it would be worth your while to also take in the Aquarium.
From Stanley Park we took a taxi to Gastown. This is an old section of town where the buildings have been restored and it has become a center of tourist activity and shopping. Gastown is famous for its Steam Clock, street cafes, and many street artists and performers.
As we reached the end of Water Street and Gastown, we came upon the tall building with the revolving restaurant at the top called "The Top Of Vancouver." This restaurant is very much like the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, the major difference being this one is at the top of a tall building while the other is at the top of a tower. Both have revolving restaurants that take about an hour to turn through 360 degrees and both have an additional observation deck below the restaurant for those that just want a view without the food. "The Top Of Vancouver" is a "must do" in my opinion. The meals were excellent! However, I would also recommend that you skip desert. Our table ordered the cheesecake and the Black & White Cake and neither of them had much flavor at all. But, the main entrees where so good that it is worth it to go to the "Top of Vancouver" restaurant just for that!
This was probably one of the most unique days to be at this restaurant. There is a fireworks display at 10:30 PM every July 1 to celebrate "Canada Day" at Canada Place, right across from this building. Thus, we had a very unique view of the fireworks close-up without any crowds! A few jokes were made about the revolving restaurant tipping because so many people left their seats to go to the side of the restaurant facing the fireworks. When it was time for the "grand finale" of the fireworks, our table had turned to that side of the building and we were able to enjoy the end of the fireworks from our seats!
After the end of the fireworks, we left the restaurant to head back to our hotel to rest up for another day of touring Vancouver tomorrow.
In the morning we took the Trolley Tour of Vancouver. I've taken a number of these Trolley Tours in various cities around the United States and have found them to be a great way to kill time during long layovers between trains. In most cities these Trolley Tours do stop at the train stations. The tours are usually about 2 hours long. You pay one amount for your ticket, but you are allowed to get off at any stop and then reboard without paying again. Most of the time the trolleys are about 30 minutes apart. Thus, when the trolley stops at an attraction that interests you, you can get off and then board the next trolley 30 minutes later ... or take longer at the attraction if you wish. One fare entitles you to one complete round-trip, no matter how many times you get off and on. I know they have them right at the train stations in Washington,DC, Chicago,IL, and now Vancouver,BC. Don't get excited if you are a trolley fan. These are not real trolleys. They have wooden seats, large flat glass windows that slide open, and look like a small trolley inside and out seating about 30 people. But it is really a bus type vehicle on rubber tires.
We took the trolley from right in front of our hotel. They usually stop at most of the major hotels. The trolley went to about 16 of the major attractions throughout the city. One of the stops was the train station. I got off there with my luggage while my family continued on for the last 30 minutes of the tour back to the hotel. They said the train station stop was just added recently and was a "courtesy stop." I don't know exactly what "courtesy stop" means. It could mean that they only drop-off and pick-up on request at the train station. Thus, you might want to call them in advance at 1-888-451-5581 (604-801-5515) if you want to make sure they will be at the train station to pick you up. This could be a convenient way to combine transportation to your hotel with an introductory tour of the city!
The Trolley has their own web site that you might want to take a look at: www.vancouvertrolley.com. I have noticed that a lot of businesses, especially tourist related businesses, in this part of Canada have web pages, more so than I have noticed in southern California. As I get a chance, I will try to go back through this travelogue and supply web addresses of attractions, hotels, transportation, etc.
Once I got into the station, I went to the VIArail ticket office and purchased the bus ticket from Vancouver,BC to Seattle,WA for which I already had a confirmation number. When I made the reservation over the phone last night, they would not accept a pre-pay on it. Thus, I had to present my credit card to purchase the ticket at the window. The VIA agent had to go to another part of the ticketing area to print my Amtrak tickets. I hadn't thought about it until I arrived, but it made sense that he probably couldn't print out Amtrak tickets on his VIA computer system. When he came back, he handed me an Amtrak ticket that was identical to what you would get at any Amtrak Ticket Window in the U.S., which is different from what your travel agent or Amtrak Vacations will give to you.
The agent told me that the bus leaving at 12:30 will be a Trailways Bus and will stop right out in front of the McDonald's that is in the station. I found that a bit interesting. Amtrak must be using Trailways under contract for their thru-bus service in Vancouver. There don't appear to be any other Trailways buses serving this station even though there are many Greyhound buses that do. Greyhound and other bus lines use the special bus loading docks and kiosks around the side of the station. The Trailways bus loads out front as if they were not welcome to use the regular bus loading area like Greyhound and the others do.
The bus started loading about 15 minutes before departure. The bus driver said we would make Seattle before 4:30 PM and maybe even earlier if traffic wasn't too heavy. I hope traffic isn't too heavy as this bus is suppose to connect with the 4:50 PM Empire Builder!
The bus isn't very crowded. There are only about a dozen people on the bus. At the border, they took all our luggage out from under the bus and put it by the entrance to Customs. They had us all get off the bus and carry all of our luggage through Customs. They had two desks operating. Two at a time we went through declaring anything we purchased and showing proof of citizenship. Most people were able to go right through without having to open up any of their luggage. A few needed to show their bags and a bit more needed to fill out additional forms for the purchases that they needed to declare. We then re-boarded our bus on the other side of Customs and continued our journey to Seattle. Though the schedule allocates over an hour for this process, it seemed like it took very little time. I hope that means we will be getting into Seattle very early!