IN these days when, in spite of rapidly increasing air fares, many of us are lucky enough to travel to distant continents more than once in our lives, the concept of the “trip of a lifetime” is more an advertising cliché than a reality.
But there are some plans that are so difficult to bring off that they might justifiably deserve that name.
And no, I’m not talking about travel to the remote and unmapped wastes of Russia or Africa, or the politically combustible regions of the Middle East.
You might think that would be easy. It’s right next to America, has been “civilised” for centuries, and has legendary transport links, even though it is so huge.
As a child, I remember quarterly magazines called Beautiful British Columbia arriving by post, and marvelling at the scale of the landscape and wildlife in their pages.
Then there were the “Westerns” we saw on television, with what were then called Indians from all sorts of tribes like the Iroquois and Huron.
And I learned The Song of Hiawatha when I was six. I can still recite it. I won’t bore you with the whole thing but “By the shores of gitche gumee,” it starts.
For O Level we studied the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba corn belt.
So when my god daughter and her husband decided to emigrate to British Columbia, it was the obvious moment to visit the country that had been embedded in my consciousness since my youth.
I bought a few books and a map and worked out what I wanted to do.
I wanted to visit Montreal and Quebec, and then to cross the county, stopping off in various places I remembered. Sault Ste Marie always sounded an interesting name. Then there was Winnepeg and Edmonton, Saskatoon and Calgary.
It would be just like our American trips. We would plan a route, hire a car and set off, and if we met someone who suggested a detour, we’d take it. We’d take time, because this would be a one-off – a trip of a lifetime.
That’s what I thought, anyway.
My first disappointment came trying to hire a car. I contacted all those international car hire companies we’d so successfully and efficiently used before. Only to find that they are NOT international car hire companies but individual franchises, and, in a country as vast as Canada, are neither geared up nor willing to hire a vehicle for a one way trip. Hire a car in Montreal and drop it in Vancouver, and you will have to pay the air fare for a driver from Montreal to come and pick it up.
The “solution” offered by one company was to take a vehicle to the border of one of the states, cross the border on foot and hire another. Don’t think so, somehow.
So the next idea was to contact the Canadian Tourism Office for help.
Why don’t you just fly, they said.
Because I want to visit various places in the country, meet the people, spend money, write about it … I said.
Why not go by train, they said – Canadian railways are run by the government, so that sounded like a good idea.
And better still, those transcontinental locomotives stop in all the places on my list … not quite the spontaneous hint-following I had intended, but a good second best.
I asked about the cost. Go on line, they said.
There is a problem about looking up times and costs on line, if you don’t know the precise date of your intended travel.
And if I couldn’t look at the timings and costs, I couldn’t finalise my travel dates.
That was just one impasse, and it was just the same problem with a specialist Canadian travel company in London, whose staff could not give me information without exact dates. “When is travel the cheapest?” “We can’t tell you that.”
Finally, after a telephone call to Canada, a printed timetable duly arrived by post (even though the UK office said that there was no longer any such thing as a printed timetable).
Eureka. I could work out the dates, the timings and the costs of hopping on and off the train across Canada, could arrange to meet my god daughter, and then book a flight back to the UK from the west coast.
No, sorry, not that easy.
You can board the train at (say) Montreal, and get off at the end of your journey at Vancouver, and you can have “one complimentary stop” on your journey, at more or less anywhere the train stops en route – that’s all the major cities.
But you can’t get on and off when and where you want, even by paying. The fare structure is such that “one complimentary stop” does not mean you can PAY for other stops.
I tried pointing out that the passengers might all choose different places to disembark and re-embark, and that I could pay to get off and get back on with them at those places I wanted to visit, spending time in different cities, meeting people, spending money , writing about the country …..
But it could not be done.
The only thing I COULD do would be to book a number of legs of the journey, each with that “complimentary stop”. OK, fine.
But adding up that series of legs came to almost twice the cost of the overall journey, which in itself is not cheap (or affordable, as they prefer to call it.) And on the shorter journeys you can’t book sleepers, or take anything more than hand luggage without substantial additional payments.
So the only way to do this journey of a lifetime in a reasonably affordable, flexible way is to hire a car from Montreal, unlimited mileage, and drive it on a chosen route to Vancouver, and then (perhaps) cross into America (no extra charge) and drive back via Mount Rushmore and its granite presidents, ferry across one or more Great Lakes, and return the car to Montreal.
And how ridiculous is that?
At the moment I am considering a trip to Shropshire, instead.