Steve's Rail Travel
on the VIA Rail Malahat
on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
The Trolley has their own web site that you might want to take a look at:
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,
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!
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