Canada in 2013  -- Second Thoughts: Conclusions and Recommendations
All pictures, unless otherwise noted, are copyright 2013 by John A. and Elizabeth B. Lucas. All rights reserved.

Vancouver/Victoria Kamloops/Banff/Lake Louise/Jasper Toronto/Niagara Falls Montreal Quebec/Baie 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 Tracks Canada
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 Australia.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Pan 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.
  3. The 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 situation.
  4. Fairmont 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:

  1. (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 enjoyable.
  2. 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.

Moderate hotels:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 menu.

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 way.

  1. 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 bad.
  2. VIA 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.
  3. VIA 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.
  4. 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.
  5. VIA 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.

Tour Companies:

SunDog 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:

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 Canada.