The Pacific Starlight Dinner Train isn't exactly a time machine, but it offers a perfect get-away to relax and enjoy.
[Editor's Note: This train has been discontinued.]
And now for something completely different. Feel like a short term get-away? The Pacific Starlight Dinner Train travels between May 1st and October 18th and will take you back in time. Call ahead for reservations: this is fine dining that you order and pay for in advance. The price includes a first-rate three course meal, coffee or tea, dinner rolls and flavoured butters, and a spectacular train ride along the Sea to Sky coastline. (The bar tab is separate and COD.) This isn’t just a night out; it’s a night away. The train leaves from North Vancouver, at 1311 W. 1st at the bottom of Pemberton. Meet us there. And dress up!
For the first time ever, Mark has beaten me to our destination and is pacing outside. It is a perfect Vancouver summer evening, balmy, not too hot. A photographer takes a couple pictures of us before boarding for optional purchase as a souvenir of our voyage. A 40’s style band is playing send-off tunes while we find our car. Departure is at 6:15 p.m.
A smiling conductor helps us aboard. Mark asks him how full the train is. He replies that they have a capacity of 400 and that they are at over 300 tonight. Very impressive. Good thing about dinner trains: every seat is a window seat and there’s an ever-changing view. Befitting music is piped into every car. The tables are set in the manner of the most elegant hotel: white table cloths, perfectly arranged silverware, wine glasses with pristine folded napkins. Very nice. As in airplanes, there are two washrooms at the end of each car. They’re kept very neat and have a little shuttered window.
I turn to see a pleasant young lady named Karin. "Hi," she says. "I’ll be your server tonight. We’d like to welcome you aboard. What can I get you to start?" I order a tall vodka soda. As she scoots off to the bar, Mark says, "This really is like the 40’s: I just heard someone order a Shirley Temple." I turn and notice that the scenery is leaving. I forgot: this is a train. We’re leaving. This is so exciting! You know that feeling you get on a plane that’s starting to take off (assuming you like flying)? That’s what this feels like. There’s just something thrilling about transporting on a pleasure trip.
Tonight there’s a doctors’ convention in the next car. What a good idea: there are cruise parties; how about a train party? This bunch has gone all out: they’ve even hired actors to entertain the group. A man and a woman have dressed up in 1940’s outfits and are acting as hosts for their event. On the note of train theatre, on a few select nights in the summer the Pacific Starlight has murder mystery dinners. This I’d like to see. Trains and murder have accompanied each other often in entertainment history. There’s a titillation that comes from knowing that all the passengers are trapped. The ride’s not stopping and there’s sure to be a dark tunnel or two in which to make a move. Agatha Christie set a few of her books on trains, including Murder on the Orient Express. Scoobie Doo solved lots of train murder mysteries. So did Laverne and Shirley. No deaths tonight though; just great scenery. A porter comes to wish us a good trip. His name tag reads Alistair Sim. I won’t ask if the train does A Christmas Carol dinners.
This evening we travel from North Vancouver to Porteau Cove and back. The scenes are like British Columbia postcards. Dinner is served quite soon after departure. This is a three course meal with all the trimmings; we’ll need time to savour it. First up is a mixed baby greens salad with creamy poppy seed dressing. This is served with seaside mansions in West Vancouver, each more lavish than the last, thick green forests, and vast sides of rocky mountains that have given way for the tracks. Might as well have some wine with that. A short list of West Coast wines sits on our table. We go with a California Wente Cabernet. Kind of tinny; I’ve had better.
After about an hour everything goes black. We’ve entered a tunnel. All go quiet. Interesting the effect sudden darkness has. People adjust quickly; after a minute conversation returns. We all have candles on our tables so we can still imbibe. Just when you get used to the dark, the tunnel ends. A mass gasp comes from the crowd as both light and the spectacular scenery return. We are now on a mountainside in Howe Sound. Look down and see big white ferries streaming by on the sparkling water. Thickly forested little islands, more mountains, and a massive blue sky complete the breathtaking view.
Our entrées come next. As I said earlier, you have to phone ahead and tell them what you want. That way everyone gets what they like and there are no extra meals to throw away. I got the pan-seared chicken breast with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables. Mark got bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin with roasted potatoes and vegetables. Both are fantastic. I’m still quite impressed with the train’s style. I love formal. Mark tells me that he used to collect train sets as a kid. He and his best friend had over a hundred between the two of them and they’d play with them for hours. I never had train sets and this is the only time I’ve even been on a real train (the shuttle between San Diego and Anaheim that I took to get to Disneyland once doesn’t count. Neither does the Sky Train).
The train slows down. We’re approaching Porteau Cove. The name is derived from the French phrase porte d’eau - water gate - and it used to be a regular steamship stop until this railway line took over in 1955. Here, we can all get out and walk around. A 40’s style band plays vintage tunes at the station. There’s an inconspicuous souvenir shop behind the band. This is good: too often people get off at ports to have stand upon stand of colourful baubles shoved in their faces. Here, they offer souvenirs, but don't push them. In front of the band is a wide space for dancing. You have to use this; how often do you get to dance to In the Mood? Of course we can also walk to the beach. A beautiful sunset invites you farther. Go on the jetty and see scuba divers. Artificial reefs attract a large variety of marine life and offer interesting things to see. People skip stones along the water, mingle with other passengers, and walk around in the balmy weather. This recess lasts 15 minutes and then we return to our seats. "Mark, you go ahead. I’ll be right there."
In case the two washrooms on our car were occupied, I decided to use the port’s facilities. Two other women are also in here. They do their thing and leave. I’m the last one. So here I am putting the cap back on my lipstick when all of a sudden the washroom door opens, a hand slips in, turns off the lights, and locks the door from the outside. I leap to the door, slam my hand against it, and yell "Hey!" The door rapidly unlocks, opens, and the lights are turned back on by a thoroughly embarrassed Alistair. "I’m so sorry! I thought it was empty," he explains. Then he leaves me alone to finish whatever I was doing. I laugh to myself, grab my purse, and leave the washroom. It’s all right: a simple light switch is by the door and the lock easily opens from the inside. On my way out, he’s still there and offers more apologies. I gave him a mock Hmph! and look up to see Mark laughing from his seat. After I board the train and we start moving Alistair comes back and apologizes again. He is beside himself. I jokingly say that I would have caught a ride back with the band. You know, sit on a tuba or something. Then they could have turned this trip into a mystery dinner after all--with The Lady Vanishes as the theme.
We’re on our way back and it’s time for dessert. This is also ordered in advance. I could get used to pre-ordering. It’s nice to have your courses brought to you automatically. There’s a psychic quality in that. I am having the Apple Peach Crumble, served warm with cream and a vanilla wafer. I love country desserts. They’re so comforting. This one could have used a bit less time in the oven, though. I have to make several steam vents and wait a while to eat. Mark gets the decadent Chocolate Fudge Pave, with a hint of espresso and raspberry coulis, irresistible to chocoholics. Coffee and tea service is next and, like any restaurant, we can order dessert wines and special coffees. I have a Spanish Coffee. Mark orders something he learned from me. You see, I never used to like coffee. I had my first cup when I was 23 and only developed a taste for it a couple of years ago. Back then I always envied cozy looking coffee drinks that people ordered. I’d get one of those, I thought, if I could stand the taste. So I made my own hot special drink: steamed milk with Frangelico and Kahlua. It’s fantastic. Waiters and bartenders have never heard of it and would often ask me to repeat my order. But when I got it everyone at my table wanted a sip. And they’d all order the same thing for their next round. If anyone reading this is going to add my invention to their drink list, I insist on credit. Name it after me. Pretty soon people will be ordering the Mina all over the world. Our drinks come with a side of waterfall and a rushing stream on our side of the train.
I wonder what the other cars look like. I know that there are two types of seating we can reserve, salon or dome, and we’re in the Continental salon. Let’s take a tour of the others. Excuse me, ‘scuse me, pardon me. Just passing through. Every car is different and nice. The roof of one has glowing stars. We finally get to the infamous dome. It’s lovely, but since the price is more than salon, let’s do a point by point comparison: dome has booths and a rounded glass ceiling that extends the view. Salon has wider aisles and tables with individual chairs. Your choice. But when we get back to our table I am glad to see that though all of the cars are different, none are better than the others and I am perfectly happy where I am.
It’s almost 10 p.m. and we’re approaching the station. There are comment and questionnaire cards for all passengers and the staff of the Pacific Starlight eagerly wish you to fill them. They’d like your feedback. Like all fine establishments, especially relatively new ones, they wish to give the best experience possible. They ask detailed questions: how you found the temperature of your car, your food, the service, the music, everything. Thanks for asking; it’s nice to be heard.
We’re here and all the staff line up outside to say goodbye. It’s been a wonderful journey and I already know I’ll be back. On our way out we see the pictures that were taken of us before boarding, now in a Pacific Starlight frame. The photographer took two of us and I am blinded by the excellent quality. I take both, though on hindsight one would have sufficed. Farewell, Pacific Starlight. And thank you for an enchanted evening.
Mark asks where our next stop is. I’m not ready to go back to the future yet, so we go to Babalu, where the jazz era is alive and well.
Babalu nightclub is evidence that Sinatra, the Gypsy Kings, and swing are cool. The dance floor is packed with young people who used to be accused of laughing at such tunes. Even the Riverdance comes on. We are surrounded by art deco-ish ceilings and velvety booths, a sunken bar, and a stand that hosts bands in the earlier nights of the week. Tonight they play all the songs I love, songs that are rarely offered for dancing. I find a friend - Mark won’t dance - and have a ball. Though Babalu is the top bunk of the Babalu/Fred’s Uptown Tavern bed, there’s no back-‘n-forthing. I do need a bathroom break, however, so after my latest dance, I go downstairs to the Baba-loo’s - as the sign says - and find the first stall empty. I come out to a line of girls waiting to use the toilets. One quickly replaces me. I powder my nose at the mirrors and with my other hand reach behind and hit the middle stall door, which I knew was empty, and made it swing back to reveal its vacancy to the line-up. A series of What?! Ohmigod! I thought they were full! I just assumed… follows. See, I knew that these doors naturally went back to the closed position when left alone. Moral of the story: look for feet. You never know.
Time traveling has been a blast tonight. You know what’s really great? I can do it again and again. I wouldn’t do it for real, though. Even if a time machine was invented that could transport us to any time in the past, there’s no way I’d leave today. The good ol’ days are here and now. Places like the Pacific Starlight Dinner Train and Babalu offer the best and leave the rest. That’s perfect for a little get away.
The Pacific Starlight Dinner Train: 604-986-2012 1311 W. 1st St. at Pemberton, North Vancouver, BC, Canada Babalu: 604-605-4343 654 Nelson at Granville, Vancouver, BC, Canada
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