Posts Tagged: Train

Oct 14

Crossing Canada By Train… Again

train1I don’t know when it stopped being grey outside. Lost in the passing landscape I looked up to see blazing blue skies peeking out from a blanket of grey and white cloud. Cows stood sociably together in a field to chew the cud and flick their tails against the flies. The storm had been exhilarating to watch from my train compartment: the rain thrummed against the windows, the sky bruised black and the clouds raced us on our journey.

train4I’d got on at Winnipeg and asked the steward for my bed to be put down. This wasn’t my first time on board ‘The Canadian’ train which chugs its way between Toronto and Vancouver. The last time I’d travelled had been in 2010 and I’d fallen in love with the Canada beyond my windows. The shining lakes of Ontario giving way to the endless flat land and shimmering corn fields of the prairies before the great tah-dah! moment of jaw-dropping beauty as the train rolls through the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. No, I wanted to see it all again, curled up against pillows and snuggled in a blanket.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA To travel on VIA Rail is to step into a bubble away from the rest of the world, often – thankfully – there is no wifi, those work emails can’t be checked even if you wanted to. Instead there is time to sit and think and watch the world go by. There’s a kind of Holiday Camp cheeriness onboard: live performances in the lounge car from musicians who get a free ride in exchange for their songs, guided tastings of Canadian wine and even a movie night. You find yourself, for the first time in decades, musing over where a jigsaw piece goes in the huge puzzle that’s left out for passengers to complete. Over meals in the dining car you exchange snippets of your life story with strangers from around the world. Train Life, in short, becomes a little more contemplative, a little more self-indulgent and a little more gracious. No wonder people love it.

train3For me, also, it’s feeling that sense of great distance and being amazed afresh at the thought of those first Europeans who tried to make their way across this vast land. Of course, the more I learn of First Nations history, the more that feeling is wrapped up in regret and remorse. We Brits – and the French – have more to say sorry for than I could ever begin to write. But when I see this great land it’s impossible for the heart not to leap and thoughts of adventure and exploration not to immediately percolate through your brain. I love to see how truly huge Canada is: to look at its soaring mountains, its innumerable lakes, the relentless tangle of forest and oh! that endless flat prairie land. To choose to take hours, days to make a journey nowadays is a kind of wonderful indulgence but it’s one that I’d say gives a destination a special sort of meaning.

I travelled as a guest of Via Rail but, as ever, my words are 100% my own.

More info:

. VIARail [Official Site]

Apr 13

All the fun of La Ferme

Looking around, it was hard to believe I wasn’t in in a funky hotel in a major metropolis. Airy spaces, glass and natural materials, clean lines and bold colours screamed ultra-modern design, but cheeky touches like the fabulously decorated life-size cow in the lounge or the farming tools sculpture in reception gave you a clue that Hôtel La Ferme is far from well – anything really – deep in the heart of the Charlevoix region of Quebec in Baie-saint-Paul.

Where urban cool meets painted cow...

Where urban cool meets painted country cow…

The brainchild of Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Hôtel La Ferme is the last piece in the puzzle that he’s been building in this beautiful part of the world that’s remained mostly unknown beyond Canada. Ten years ago, he bought Le Massif, a ski mountain, planning to transform it into a world-class four-season destination. The plan to link the area to Quebec City with a luxury private train stopping off at the mountain and then the hotel, offering top-notch accommodation (145 rooms ranging from the nicest dorm rooms I’ve ever seen to stylish doubles) and dining has finally come to fruition and – judging from my experience there – will put the area firmly on the radar of those looking for something new and deliciously cool.

Cool, clean lines - pastoral scenes

Cool, clean lines – pastoral scenes

Arriving by train, it’s worth noting that check-in isn’t available till the afternoon, so plan to have lunch and explore the small village of nearby Baie-saint-Paul or perhaps book a treatment in the spa. Farm touches are everywhere, tipping a nod to the 100-year old farm which used to stand here, from cow-coverlets in the spa and farm pictures in the room to the whole farm-to-table ethos of local dining in Les Labours restaurant and the Cafe du Marche where you can snack on soups, sandwiches and pastries as well as stock up on local terroir products to take home.

Quite wonderful to see the train from the spa pool

Jump in… warm up

Perfect for the ski crowd in winter and the relaxation-seekers in summer, Hôtel La Ferme also has a full-service spa. I’m a big fan of nordic style spa-ing, gently heating your body and then cooling down, but it always seems so much better when you can do it outdoors and lying back in the steamy huge outdoor hot pool at the Spa du Verger, with snow all around was heavenly. I’m getting better at the cold bit and managed not to screech as I plunged head-under in the icicle-covered cold tub. An indoor steam room and sauna add to the experience, along with a restful lounge area where you can sip herbal tea and look out over the garden.

Brilliant witty touches in the farm-friendly treatment rooms

Witty touches in the farm-friendly treatment rooms

I tried a candle massage – a deeply relaxing therapy that used the warm melted wax of a  candle as massage oil. You get to keep the candle afterwards – although they don’t provide an expert-fingered therapist to take away too. I wish I could say I remembered a lot about this treatment, but once I’d settled down from cooing compliments over the cow-cover and milk stool in the room, and relaxed into the sensation of warm wax drizzling over my back, embarrassingly enough, what I remember most is snoring through it – which, I guess is probably one of the highest accolades you could give to a relaxing massage, so let’s skate over that…

The best seats in the house...

The best seats in the house…

I woke from a post-massage snooze hungry and ready to tuck into dinner at Les Labours. I sat at the bar, the best view in the house, to watch the chefs do their thing. I had a four-hour, slow-braised shoulder of lamb, which came with the best lentils I’ve ever tasted. I should have asked how they do them, I never seem to get puy lentils right at home and these were so great, they’d be worth flying to Quebec to eat again.

I took time to explore before leaving in the morning, I watched a family ice skating in what would be the garden in the summertime and chatted with one of the staff about the impressive eco credentials of the hotel – sustainable development, geothermal energy, reusing rainwater and reducing food miles by using local suppliers. “It’s all about respecting the environment” she smiled and it makes sense – if you live somewhere as beautiful as the Charlevoix region, of course you want to protect it.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Charlevoix and Hôtel la Ferme. As always – my views are 100% my own.

Find out more: Tourism Quebec

Mar 13

All aboard Le Massif de Charlevoix train

I’m a sucker for a good train journey. I fell in love with Canada on a four night, three day, 2,775 mile journey from Toronto to Vancouver onboard The Canadian on the wonderful ViaRail a few years back. It was a transformative journey in so many ways for me; it was the first time I’d been to Vancouver and I just knew that the city and I would get along (and yes, two years later we moved in together…) it was also the first time I met Marie-Julie Gagnon, a French-Canadian blogger, writer, TV travel pro and all-round splendid woman.

The start of a beautiful friendship...

The start of a beautiful friendship…

We’d been at the same travel writers event in Toronto, not met at all and then spent the next few days delightedly discovering that we were absolute sisters under the skin, writer-soul mates with a love of food, spas, cocktails and laughing very loudly. I’ve probably spoken to her almost every day since then and we try to co-ordinate travelling together whenever we can. So yes, I try to see Canada by train whenever I can and if I can see it with Marie-Julie, so much the better. The train which travels to Le Massif de Charlevoix in Québec is quite different from the ViaRail train. This is a privately-owned train which runs on privately-owned tracks, which means, that unlike other train journeys in North America, which are subject to what can be hours of delays as they have to give way to freight, this train runs to a tight timetable. It’s a beautiful shiny, neat train. Huge picture windows so you can watch the impossibly beautiful landscape whizz past. 


A few minutes before boarding

A few minutes before boarding

We boarded at Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, just 15 minutes drive from downtown Québec City, at 8am we’d arrive at Baie-Saint-Paul at 1045am. Along the way we were served breakfast and got to see the astonishing sight of the frozen Saint Lawrence river and the beauty of the Charlevoix landscape blanketed in snow.

Frozen waves

Frozen waves

I’ve never seen a frozen river before; the waves had carved the ice into tiles, scattered on the frosty surface. It seemed unthinkable, impossible, that a river so wide – so vast that I couldn’t see the other side – could freeze, but here it was. The houses on the other side of the river told a story of warm summers ahead though; almost every home had a round blue swimming pool, topped with white snow. Little wooden porches with benches below told me that it got so hot they needed shade and sat out often. We trundled along and I sipped hot coffee and thought about the people who lived out here, far from the city, under this thick blanket of snow, in a climate that was cold enough to freeze waves in a vast river, but had a summer of soft nights and long meals outdoors and all the good food of the region to look forward to.

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

You can stop off at Grande Pointe and ski, or, do as we did, and get off at La Ferme, a modern gem of a hotel that made me feel like I was in the heart of Soho in London, rather than miles from anywhere in the frozen east of Canada. If you don’t want to stay, you can hop back on board at 330pm. Plenty of time to explore the quaint little town of Baie-Saint-Paul, stop to taste its craft brewed beer at MicroBrasserie Charlevoix, have a bite by the fireplace at Chez Bouquet or pick up some art at one of the many galleries and still be back in Québec City by 645pm.

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

I’d love to see how it changes in the summertime, to follow the curves of the tracks as the sun sets, there’s a great twilight gourmet dinner package which runs from May till August, with an ‘exquisite terroir meal’ created by the kitchens of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, picking the finest, freshest produce of the region.

We arrived bang on time. That’s the pity of the private track, I’d happily have sat there, watching this natural wonder for hours. Stunning scenery, great company and no need to worry about driving or getting lost.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Québec – my views are 100% my own

Find out more:

Hotel La Ferme

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