No matter how you look at it, 11,000 kilometres is a long way to go for a cup of tea.
But that’s just what Mark Smith and his family did, travelling by train and ocean liner from Buckinghamshire in southern England to the Fairmont Empress for a cuppa in the tearoom Wednesday afternoon, part of a brief three-day visit to Victoria.
“It was the culmination of our trip,” said Smith, a 54-year-old advocate of train travel who has created a blog dedicated to just that.
With up to one million visitors each month, his seat61.com blog has unexpectedly become his job, he said.
The long journey to the Empress with wife Nicolette, 47, 13-year-old son Nathaniel and 10-year-old daughter Katelijn began at their home in the village of Quainton.
“Quainton by name, quaint by nature,” he said with a laugh.
The first leg of the journey was a train ride to London, then on to Southampton, where they boarded the Queen Mary II for a journey across the Atlantic.
DEPARTURE DAY! I’m at Waterloo station about to travel 7,032 miles for a cup of tea. ‘Tea at the Empress’ in Victoria - that’s B.C., not SW1. .. First up, the 11:35 South Western Railway service to New York... #TeaAtTheEmpress pic.twitter.com/HxhDNxjwIN— The Man in Seat 61 (@seatsixtyone) August 11, 2019
After seven days at sea, they reached New York, spent a night there, then caught the Amtrak Maple Leaf train to Toronto.
From Toronto, the family hopped on Via Rail’s Canadian for a four-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Vancouver.
The trip came out of a family discussion, Smith said.
“We wanted to go on a family holiday and when Canada came up, it was an easy win, a unanimous decision,” he said.
Smith was eager to cross Canada again by rail, after making a similar trip 25 years earlier. “Sometimes it’s portrayed as being all about the Rockies, and what nobody tells you as a visitor is that actually the Canadian Shield, as far as Winnipeg, is fantastic with the lakes and fir trees.
Scenery this evening from the Toronto-Vancouver ‘Canadian’ crossing the ‘shield’ on day 1 out of Toronto (for anyone who thinks the scenery doesn’t begin until the Rockies!) pic.twitter.com/lywOkyhTtW— The Man in Seat 61 (@seatsixtyone) August 22, 2019
Early morning in the Rockies... pic.twitter.com/LIqLHdBjUo— The Man in Seat 61 (@seatsixtyone) August 24, 2019
“And the Prairies have their own scenic interest,” he added. “It really is a transcontinental trip.”
Underlying Smith’s travel practices is one basic fact: “I hate flying,” he said. “I avoid it if I can.”
Plenty of people are on his side, for reasons ranging from the stress of flying to the carbon footprint of air travel.
Over the years, Smith has become known as the Man in Seat 61 — the extended form of seat61.com.
“It’s named after my favourite seat on the London-to-Paris Eurostar,” he said.
The blog began in 2001 as a hobby for Smith, who used to work for the railways, and then for the government in regulating railways. “No one in the commercial world, meaning the rail industry or the travel industry, was telling people how to go from the U.K. to France, Italy, Spain, Greece by train,” he said. “So I thought there was a gap in the market and I thought people needed to be told.”
The endeavour took off, and Smith eventually gave up his day job in 2007 to do the website full time.
The site has grown to cover rail travel worldwide.
“If you want to travel by train in Canada or the United States, it’ll point you in the right direction, explain some of the issues and show you what the trains are like.”
Smith has written two books based on the site and there was even a pilot video made for a possible television series.
Timing constraints because of a late start meant a flight back to England for the family this time — “not something I’m looking forward to,” Smith says — although they managed the train/ship round trip from London to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2010. Next up could be a trip to Switzerland from London by train. “I’ve a couple of key scenic routes I’d like to ride, and winter is a great time to go.”