Canada in 2013 -- Second Thoughts: Conclusions and
All pictures, unless otherwise noted, are copyright 2013 by
John A. and Elizabeth B. Lucas. All rights reserved.
Introduction Vancouver/Victoria Kamloops/Banff/Lake
Louise/Jasper Toronto/Niagara Falls
St. Paul Halifax Wildlife Second Thoughts Technical Details
This page is opinion, biased by our habits, personalities and
experiences. It is not a comparative assessment of choices at any
given location as we did not stay at multiple hotels in any city,
nor experience the breath of dining that any city provides. Your
satisfaction and experiences will be different.
Travel Agent -- Fresh
We normally plan our own trips, directly researching and then
booking all of our transportation and accommodations. We used
Fresh Tracks who absolutely delivered what was promised.
Everything went like clockwork -- all reservations and vouchers
worked, transfers were always there and on time. The fact that the
trip lacked flexibility and included choices we would not
ourselves have made is entirely our doing and not something that
Fresh Tracks could have done with the information we provided.
We strongly recommend their services if you want an all-in
planned vacation. If we had to do it again with the same time
constraints, we'd use them. If we had the time to research and
plan, we'd have done it ourselves as we did in the UK and
All were clean, quiet and comfortable. That is what we
look for, first and foremost. The rest are the things that
distinguish one hotel from another. In the cities on our own,
we'd try to use the strategy we used successfully in Melbourne
but that assumes we would be using a car rather than a train
-- choose a hotel at the end of a metro line and ride into
center city. This certainly could be done in many but not all
of the cities. Montreal is a case in point because it does
have a metro and is within a day's drive from our home.
Large luxury hotels:
- Rimrock Resort
Hotel (Banff): Head and shoulders above the rest
and not just for the view. The staff were not merely
helpful and courteous, they were friendly. The dining
was reasonably priced. The room key also served as a bus
pass on the municipal loop buses, so taxis or other
arrangements were unnecessary in Banff.
Pacific Hotel (Vancouver): Our first dinner may have been
our best. Eat at the Five Sails Restaurant in the hotel -- fine
dining and a view from sea to the mountains IF a cruise ship is
not docked right in front of the restaurant.
Westin Harbour Castle (Toronto): Construction in the
street outside the hotel made access even by foot let alone
vehicles a real issue. Obviously this isn't a permanent
Chateau Lake Louise: A beautiful view but monopolizing its
own scenery. An older hotel with too many tour buses staying
even that early in the season. Long check-in and check-out.
Staff busy and less engaged with the guests. Difficulty
reserving dining if not done early in the day and cost of dining
higher for comparable quality. Our recommendation: visit don't
stay but your experience may vary.
Small "boutique" hotels:
- (tie) Auberge
du Vieux-Port (Montreal) Beth gives a slight edge to
Auberge du Vieux-Port.
71 Hotel (Quebec City) We liked both of these hotels. The
staffs were helpful and friendly. The adjoining restaurants were
comfortable with good food. Very different characters but
- The Halliburton House
(Halifax) We may have been tired as it was at the end of the
trip. Having "the best place to eat in Halifax" is no inducement
if you can't book a reservation (not being there on a holiday
weekend might have helped). A lack of elevator to help with the
luggage was not a pleasant surprise. Frankly, staying at The
Westin Nova Scotian would have been preferable -- right next to
the train station (we had to go through the lobby with the
chauffeur and the luggage as their office is in the lobby) and
might possibly have gotten a harbor view.
- Sawridge Inn
(Jasper) We give the edge here for two things -- the restaurant
and the laundry room. Laundry is a fact of life on extended
trips. Having guest-accessible machines is preferable to laundry
service when you need to renew a dozen complete changes for each
of us. Sawridge was one of the few or possibly the only hotel on
the trip that had this and it was close to the halfway point.
- Hotel 540 (Kamloops)
This was assigned by the Rocky Mountaineer Company and was
determined by which car we had been assigned. It was OK and like
many of the hotels in Kamloops, set up to deal with the arrival
and departure of the train several times a week. We ate across
the street because we wanted to walk about and that is not a
comment on this hotel's restaurant. We didn't even look at their
All of these trains suffer from the same problem that afflicts
passenger trains in the US. The train operators are not the same
companies as the ones that own and maintain the track and operate
freight trains. Thus, passenger trains take the siding for all
meets with oncoming trains, a delay that occurs every half hour or
so in our experience in Canada. It wouldn't be any better going
east to west -- you'd just meet different trains coming the other
- The Rocky
Mountaineer If you do one thing we did on this trip, do
this! A great train running through spectacular scenery. A
staff that is friendly and even entertaining, superbly fit for
the tourism business. The derailment of a freight train on the
CP route was hardly their fault. Their contingency plan did work
and we did see Hells Gate which we would not have seen as well
from the train. The company offered a complete do-it-again
journey within 12 months as compensation -- extremely generous
for something not in their control. We were unable to accept the
offer as we were already promising a UK return trip in 2014. Too
Rail Rockies and Pacific (Jasper to Toronto) This was a
comfortable experience. The sleeping compartments while cramped
were fine as was the dining and observation lounge. The staff
were good, too. If traversing the Prairies and the Canadian
Shield isn't your thing, then fly into Calgary (closer) or
Edmonton then enter or leave the Rockies. Beth did postcards.
John took notes on an course in archeology he is about to
propose. We also had our MP3 players loaded with audio books and
as much BBC radio programming as would fit.
Rail Corridor Service (Toronto-Montreal-Quebec) Efficient
corridor coach service with a pleasant even funny staff. IF you
aren't driving, this is the way to go between these three
cities. Traveling Business Class was a real plus with the
departure lounges and the included meals and beverages.
- The Train of Le
Massif de Charlevoix (Baie-Saint-Paul) This was the
one-day out and back trip down the St. Lawrence shoreline.
Better weather might have helped, at least by enabling a
helicopter ride to provide some additional views. The food was
good but not exceptional. The assumption that people were going
to buy extra-cost tours from the locals in Baie-Saint-Paul was a
surprise. There was little else to do in the town with two hours
or so to spend. Quite a few passengers were setting out on
hiking or kayaking expeditions but that wasn't something we were
going to be doing.
Beth comments that perhaps if we had been staying in Quebec for
a while and if we had not been doing so much traveling by train,
we might feel more favorably.
Rail Atlantic Canada (Quebec/Charny to Halifax) This
really wasn't a pleasurable experience. The state of the CN
roadbed and track in this region is deplorable. We were two
hours late because the wind and rain had blown the grass down
onto the tracks and the engines could not pull the train up a
hill. If CN wants to be green and not spray the vegetation, then
it ought to at least mow the meadow between the tie outside and
inside the rails. John was also astounded to see a portion of
bad-order trackage (slow to walking speed) where the rails had
bowed by a foot or more within the space of a couple hundred
feet. They were still parallel or we would have derailed, but
this was plainly visible out the rear window of the observation
car as the train finally speeded up.
The cars are also not as spacious as on the western trains (as
is also true in the US). Smaller compartments, shorter berths
with less headroom (John is over six feet), a bench rather than
two chairs. If you're traveling between Quebec and Halifax, fly.
Transportation and Tours is in a class by itself. It
operates in the Canadian National Parks with all that scenery
and wildlife. Having said that, however, their
driver/guides actually sounded like they cared, were conversant
with recent wildlife sightings and on all four segments delivered
a pleasant and stimulating experience. We highly recommend them if
you aren't going to drive yourself through the parks. Our tours
were two to about a dozen people.
For the city tours, John has to admit his disappointment when saw
as many tours were with Gray Line franchises. John has taken Gray
Line tours in the US, Japan, Australia and Germany. The ones that
have worked have been the ones to destinations outside of the
cities (Tokyo to Mt. Fujiyama, Munich to the Alps). The city tours
have generally been a disappointment and the Canadian Gray Line
tours were no exception. To a certain extent, Old Québec
Tours also suffered from this syndrome of driving up and
down every block, seldom stopping, and sounding like the talk had
been given many times before.
Were we to do it again, we would have swapped or dropped all of
the city tours for more focused ones to a few specific sites.
Special mention should made about:
- Landsea Tours and
Adventures (Vancouver): We had both a city tour and the
day-long trip to Victoria/Vancouver Island. We thought that
these were well done, even if the city tour was the first given
by that particular driver/guide. Perhaps that made it better as
it certainly wasn't the case of his delivering the same spiel
for the hundredth time. He did well. The more experienced driver
took us to Victoria and was more polished but he didn't have to
keep the patter up as we were on our own during the ferry rides,
lunch in Victoria, and going through Butchart Gardens. We
recommend Landsea if you're touring Vancouver.
- Niagara Airbus
(Niagara Falls day trip from Toronto): We saw what were supposed
to see. The driver/guide did not have as good command of English
as all the others. The buffet lunch at the hotel was OK but
hardly the sumptuous spread the marketing text implied. We were
dumped at Niagara-on-the-Lake with not much background and no
map or guides. On the shorter trips to Niagara by this company,
they use this as the luncheon stop but for us this was
mid-afternoon. Could have been better.
Limousine/Executive Car Service Companies:
There is little to choose among these. All were punctual,
pleasant, comfortable experiences.
We might give a slight edge to Service de
Limousine Guy Sampson in Quebec only because the same young
man drove three of our four transfers in Quebec. He escorted us
into and out of the hotel every time. We learned from the hotel
porter that until two weeks before he had been the valet driver
for the hotel so he was making sure that his former colleagues saw
him! He shyly admitted it after we teased him about it.
We had a great time. We could not have improved the weather by
going a week earlier or later. The same wet weather had prevailed
in Canada for much of a month as it had done in the Northeast US.
Just bad luck. We were tired when we got home but everything had
worked throughout the trip. Canada is a great country and we can't
explain why it took us so long to do this, especially to Eastern