Last year I was invited by VIA Rail (the Canadian passenger railway) to test their new wifi service from Toronto to Quebec City. As I’m a sucker for anything with travel and internet, I jumped at the chance.
The trip took place in October and just a month earlier I had driven around eastern Canada on my own and managed to drive almost the exact same route we were taking in reverse: Quebec City to Toronto. That time I was just driving through after having visited Newfoundland, but it still provided an excellent contrast between traveling by car and traveling by train.
Sadly, most American don’t think of Canada when it comes time to take a vacation. Some of that might stem from the current strength of the Canadian dollar, but also stems from our ignorance of things north of the border.
The Toronto-Quebec City corridor is analogous to the Washington-Boston corridor on the East Coast of the US. It is densely populated, the route contains some of the largest cities in the country, and they are close enough together to allow for reasonable travel times.
Our trip started in the Canada’s largest city, Toronto. Despite its size, I often think that Toronto is forgotten by Americans. It is the 5th largest city in North America and larger than every US city other than New York, LA and Chicago.
In Toronto we did the typical Toronto things: The CN Tower, Kensington Market, and Chinatown. We also happened to be there during the arts festival known as Nuit Blanche (White Night). The festival literally goes all night long with contemporary art exhibits located outside throughout the city. In addition to the art, there are food stands and there is of course lots of drinking. This is Canada after all.
Overall, I found Nuit Blanche disappointing. For starters it was cold, so walking around wasn’t a pleasant experience. Second, the art exhibits were spread too far apart. You’d walk for blocks and not see a thing. Finally, what exhibits we did see weren’t that impressive. The coolest thing I saw was a white van with holes drilled all over it and a bright light inside.
Our next stop was Canada’s capital, Ottawa. The trip from Toronto to Ottawa was the longest leg of the trip, clocking in at about 4 hours. The time flew by considering we had a meal on the train and were able to work on our laptops.
I had been to Ottawa several times before and it has always been one of my favorite Canadian cities. This time I was able to stay at the Chateau Laurier, which is the castle like hotel near the historic Rideau Canal and Parliament Hill. The Chateau Laurier is one of the few hotels in the world where I really wanted to stay at some point.
Visiting Parliament Hill is an interesting experience for Americans. There is only a fraction of the security you would find if you visited Capital Hill in Washington DC. Also, there are gargoyles on the outside of the Parliament building in Ottawa, whereas in Washington the gargoyles are on the inside :)
The other part of Ottawa I love is the ByWard Market. Easy walking distance from Parliament Hill, the market is a neighborhood of shops, markets, restaurants, and bars.
Ottawa is also the home of the Canadian War Museum, National Gallery of Art, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization across the river in Hull, Quebec.
Most of the attractions in Ottawa that tourist would want to visit are within easy walking distance of each other.
I had never been to Montreal prior to 2010. On my drive back from Newfoundland I only passed through town for a few hours to have lunch with a reader.
This time, I had much more time to spend in Montreal. It is a very unique city. While in Quebec, it is really more of a bilingual city than a purely francophone city. Getting around knowing English isn’t difficult and is much easier if you even know a bit of French.
While a bit more spread out than Ottawa, it isn’t nearly as bad as Toronto. Exploring the city can be done on foot or via public transportation. Montreal even has a network of bicycles you can rent which are located all over town.
Just as we happened to be in Toronto for Nuit Blanche, we were in Montreal for the Lantern Festival at the botanical garden. This was far more entertaining and photogenic than what I found in Toronto. The lanterns at night were a photographic bonanza and I could have spent the entire evening in the gardens taken pictures.
If you are in Montreal, make sure to take time to vist the world famous Schwartz’s Deli and try their selection of smoked meats. You also have to try poutine, Canada’s national dish too. With french fries, cheese curds and gravy, it is a heart attack on a plate!
Quebec has become my favorite city in Canada, and quite possibly in all of North America. It is the most European city you will find in North America and when you are walking the streets of the old town, you might think you are in France.
Quebec City is the only walled city north of Mexico. The centerpiece of the Old Quebec is the Citadel, which was the French fort in the city. It is also the residence of the Canadian Governor General, who serves as the representative of the Queen as Head of State in Canada.
Outside the fort is the Plains of Abraham, which were not named after the biblical character, but rather the man who used to own the land. It was here that the British took control of Quebec from the French in 1759, in what was a surprisingly short fight. Both French General Montcalm and the British General Wolfe died in the battle.
The other dominate building in Old Quebec is the Chateau Frontenac. Like the Chateau Laurier, these hotels originally build by the Canadian National Railway and now owned by the Fairmont Hotel chain, are uniquely Canadian and can be found throughout the country. In fact, the Canadian pavilion at EPCOT is in part modeled on the Chateau Frontenac.
Train or Car
So, having done the trip by both train and car, which is the better way to do it? The easy answer is: Train.
- Its cheaper. Gas in Canada is expensive. I’m not sure you will be saving any money by driving yourself around. The same goes with the cost of getting to Canada itself. The only exception might be if you live near the boarder in the North East United States.
- You don’t need a car. If you drive a car, you will have to deal with parking in several major urban areas, which is never cheap. All four of the cities I visited had good enough public transportation to get to you most of the major tourist areas you’d want to visit. The one exception was visiting the island outside of Quebec City, which is rural.
- You can work and relax on the train. It isn’t easy to work in a car, and its impossible if you are driving. On the train, you have the opportunity to relax, eat and read.
- No border crossings. Having crossed the US/Canadian border several times in the last year by car, it is something I have no desire to do again. Agents on both sides of the border feel the need to act like total a-holes and depending on the luck of the draw, your border crossing could last a full hour. You wont have these problems if you enter Canada by plane. Avoiding dealing with a land border crossing would be reason enough not to take a car to Canada.
I’d go so far as to say whenever you can take a train for a trip of four hours or less, it is almost always better than driving or flying (factoring in time spent at the airport).
…and how was the wifi?
Oh yes, the wifi, which was the original purpose for the whole trip.
It was good, perhaps a bit better that should be expected for being on a moving train. They were still beta testing the network when I was on the train, so it was available for free for all passengers. As such, I’m not sure how much the network performance was impacted by a lot of people trying to access the internet at once. They were planning to charge for the service once they were ready to go live, so I have no idea how that would effect performance, but even with it wide open, the performance wasn’t bad. I’d say it was on a par with, or slightly better than the quality of bandwidth you’d find on a domestic flight.
At some point on each leg of the trip there was a short period of time when the network would freeze. Based on where Foursquare would locate me, I think the network was switching over from one location to another Foursquare would locate me in different cities after each network freeze. The switch lasted no more than 1-2 minutes.
Toronto to Quebec City is a short enough trip that it can be done by train in 5 days. You will be abel to hit the highlights in each city and have plenty of time for travel.