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Vacationing to the North


We recently traveled to Canada, about 60 miles north of Toronto. We stayed in a resort that offers skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, golf, hiking and mountain biking in the summer.

We were near Barrie, a lakefront town of about 130,000 people. The area is rural, agricultural and tourist, with shorelines on Lake Ontario.

We could have been in the U.S.; they drive like we do, there is just about every chain restaurant and big box store you can name., and the people are friendly.

But what Barrie has that we don’t have is a fast and efficient train. In Barrie’s favor it sits on the terminus of a line that runs to Toronto, a city of 2.7 million ringed by multi-laned highways. Early in the week we were warned that traffic can be nightmarish there, a warning we remembered while locked in late-night gridlock on a return from a later road trip to Niagara Falls.

So we took the train, the best decision we made other than to make the trip in the first place.

We took an early train, leaving Barrie just after 7 a.m. We walked into a small terminal, bought reasonably priced tickets, and waited a few minutes for the train to arrive. It was composed of 10 comfortable, long, double-decker cars with big windows; the upper deck is a designated quiet zone, where talking is discouraged. As ours was just the second stop, the train was practically empty.

Most of the passengers were regulars; while we watched the pretty countryside roll past, they dozed or stared at phones or pads; earphones were plentiful.

The trip was scheduled for about two hours, with multiple stops. The train was fast and efficient, slowing quickly at each station to let passengers in and out. A polite but firm message quickly warns that the doors are closing, and in just a minute or two the train is moving again.

At each stop we took on more and more passengers, some stations marked by acres of  jammed parking lot. We could also see people walking or riding bikes from dense housing projects full of condos or townhomes, which seem to be big in Canada.

By the time we reached Union Station in Toronto, ahead of schedule, almost every seat was filled. The station is a labyrinth of rail lines bringing commuter and long haul trains from across the region, the country and the U.S. We followed our fellow passengers from the underground platforms up to the terminal and city streets.

We spent the day in the city, riding the hop-on, hop-off tour buses, looking down  from the 150-floor CN Tower, walking the streets and having an excellent lunch in a restaurant that justifiably boasts about its corned beef.

In late afternoon we came off a harbor tour boat in the heart of downtown, walked back to Union Station, easily found the next train to Barrie on the electronic schedule board, followed the stairs to our platform and took a seat.

The return trip was the reverse of the morning commute: the train was jammed, gradually thinning at each stop. At each station people raced for their cars in full sprint; there are only one or two street exits from the parking lots, and experienced riders compete to be at the front of the line.

The trip home was fast, daylight lasts a long time in northern climes, and we had time to walk the lakefront and find a good meal before driving home. It was a very civilized experience.