ABOARD THE AMTRAK CASCADES TRAIN — A bald eagle coasted alongside the speeding train — Amtrak No. 516 en route from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., on a recent Friday morning — the bird’s wings spread wide as it rode the wind. The eagle occasionally dipped low, as if to catch a glimpse inside the cars; those on the other side of the windows responded with enthusiasm, hands digging into pockets for iPhones, shoulders jostling for position to snap photos.
Beyond the fleeting glimpses of that majestic bird, the scene was remarkable. Those aboard the Amtrak that morning were treated to the type of Northwest sunrise that makes you feel like you’re living inside a painting: A combination of morning fog and wildfire smoke from the North Cascades gave the light a pinkish hue. Puget Sound was almost wholly still at low tide, a crystalline surface reflecting the mountains above.
Passenger trains have been chugging along the waters off Washington state and British Columbia since early in the 20th century, but Amtrak paused the Cascades route from Seattle to Vancouver at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sept. 26, service finally resumed, with one train running daily between the Pacific Northwest cities. Here’s what the ride was like.
On the train
Maybe the recently resumed service or the serenity of the scene influenced the mood of the train’s passengers. Even as the line for bistro-brewed coffee stretched through the cafe car, people waited patiently and chattered happily with their neighbors. Perhaps it was the novelty of a trip that almost everybody aboard was making for the first time in several years.
Mua Cama had been waiting less patiently than many. She lives in Vancouver, while her sister and her family live in Seattle. Typically, the international border between them is merely a nuisance; during the pandemic, it was a firmer barrier. And although the border itself reopened (with restrictions) last August, it was the train starting back up that finally nudged Cama to head south and see her family.
“My sister was the one who was tracking when it was going to start running again,” Cama said. “‘Oh, you can get on the train again in September!’ ‘OK, I’m buying a ticket immediately.’ It was so nice to see them again.”
A little farther back sat Chris Steer, who was filling out his Seattle Times crossword between pauses to gaze out the window. Originally from Wimbledon, in South London, Steer has lived in Seattle for nearly 40 years and estimates he’s traveled this route “dozens and dozens” of times.
While Cama was heading back home after visiting family, Steer was headed the other way: to Whistler to see his daughter and granddaughter. He was slightly less sanguine about the Amtrak experience — while the train from Portland to Seattle takes about as long as it does to drive, Canadian rail restrictions means a two-and-a-half-hour drive becomes a four-plus-hour train ride from Seattle to British Columbia — he was nevertheless happy to be back aboard.
“It’s not really very quick or efficient, but it’s pleasant,” Steer said, chuckling lightly. “I actually took the bus when the train wasn’t running, and it turned out to be quicker. But anyway, it’s pleasant: just reading the news and relaxing.”
That was the general vibe onboard: Passengers were excited to arrive, certainly, but on this trip, the journey itself was as much of an adventure as what awaited at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver.
The restaurant and social scene in Vancouver feels blessedly untouched by the events of the past few years. For those who were regular visitors before the pandemic, there’s a sense of happy déjà vu, a time capsule where so much of what made this place special beforehand still exists.
Our first stop was a late lunch at Marutama Ramen, after braving the line out front that moved swiftly. Marutama originated in Tokyo, and though it has since branched out around Asia and Australia, Vancouver is the only place it’s available in the Western Hemisphere. The creamy chicken broth — order the spicy version — is worth the trip in and of itself. If we’d turned back south immediately, with flushed faces and full bellies, it’d still have been a Friday well spent.
Fortuitously, for our purposes, if perhaps less convenient in general, Amtrak service has resumed on a more limited basis: just one trip from Seattle each morning and back from Vancouver in the evening. Booking a return package for the following day allows for a full 28 hours or so for exploring, more than enough time to hit many highlights while not feeling rushed.
Biking the seawall around Stanley Park is so commonplace on Vancouver tourism checklists that it felt trite to include; the experience was so exhilarating on such a beautiful fall afternoon that it’d have been a disservice not to recommend it. The leaves changing color on the mountains above North Vancouver, the ebb and flow of waves crashing onshore beneath the Lions Gate Bridge, the smiling faces on what seemed like each and every passerby — all of it was wonderful.
There are bike shops that offer rentals dotted around the entryway to the park. Choose one near the English Bay Beach side, and you can follow your ride with a happy hour drink or two at The Three Brits Public House, a cozy (as the name suggests) English-style pub with tall windows that overlook English Bay. Those come in handy particularly around the sunset.
Although you’ll have to wait until the spring for it to start back up, the Richmond Night Market is worth putting a pin in for first-time visitors and B.C. veterans alike. The market runs on Friday through Monday nights from late April until mid-October; we caught the last weekend session of the year, and the entrance line stretched all the way around the perimeter of the event itself.
The wait was more than worth it: To a visitor from a small town in the States, the scene was something like a county fair, only with a mind-boggling number of food options from around the world. The whole thing was sensory overload: the smells of grilling meat and octopus, snippets of conversation in many different languages, neon lights and multicolored flags hung on every available surface. Highlights included Taiwanese fried chicken tenders, garlic pork belly, lamb as well as steak skewers, plus an egg wrap filled with Spam and cheese.
Day 2 unfolded groggily at first, a consequence of a lingering food coma. A Belgian waffle topped with a heap of sliced fruit plus a well-made latte at Nero provided a helpful jolt.
The rest of the morning was spent at Granville Island, easily accessible by the water taxi stations that dot the waterfront. Because you’re on vacation, feel free to sample the sake flight at Artisan SakeMaker or a cocktail at The Liberty Distillery — or both; the train home doesn’t leave until the early evening. That timetable is ideally for wandering: on the island or back downtown, in luxury storefronts or souvenir shops.
If you decide to stick around on Granville Island, Tony’s Fish & Oyster Cafe is a tasty, greasy way to soak up those boozy samplers. For a later lunch or early dinner on the way back through to Pacific Central, The Flying Pig in either Yaletown or Olympic Village has an inventive rotating menu that rarely disappoints.
Be sure to arrive at the station with plenty of time to spare: The customs check is again on this side of the border, and they shut down early if everybody is processed and the stragglers don’t arrive at least 15 minutes prior to departure.
If you’re lucky, the sunset on the way home will be just as spectacular as the sunrise on the way up. Kick back and enjoy the scenery streaming past, mulling over new memories spent in a one-of-a-kind city a mere train ride away. It’s like you never left.