The Champagne Charlie Chronicles: Riding the Rails Around North America


Everyone says it looks like we’re getting married here but Richard Carras (left), who helped put it all together, is just showing us where to sign on the contract!

The best laid plans … My good intentions to document a few memories of In the Footsteps of Champagne Charlie have been derailed by a trip to London last week. But never fear, we’re back with Charles Heidsieck in hand to regale you.

First, a little more background. The challenge was to race around the world using only ground transportation, and even then, car or taxi trips had to be kept to a minimum.  The trip required vast planning, including drawing up a detailed itinerary of trains and ships that spanned the first 50 days of this adventure. With a huge amount of luck, Day 51 would find us in Tokyo. And there all scheduling ended, as we had been unsuccessful in securing a vessel to take us on to Hong Kong, the next required destination, and then to Singapore.

Charlie business card smThere were seven teams (from Australia, France, Germany Japan, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Canada) taking part in the race, which included official stops in 20 cities to participate in promotional events. Along the way we were required to check-in with “Base Camp” in London as well as collect proof of our visit (such as local wine lists showing Charles Heidsieck) and stage a suitably themed event.

A toast, the first of many—with (l-r) Richard Carras, Nancy Wong, Joy Metcalf, Tim & Heather, and Fred Lawlor, Hotel Vancouver GM

A toast, the first of many—with (l-r) Richard Carras, Nancy Wong, Joy Metcalf, Tim & Heather, and Fred Lawlor

We presented an operetta-styled performance (conceived and sung mainly by Heather) documenting the adventures of Champagne Charlie—played by me. She played Champagne Charlotte to my Charlie. And was the undisputed star of the show.

Mara Gottler (who’s since gone on to design for such luminaries as Robert Lepage and is lead costume designer for Bard on the Beach) made our dazzling costumes, which had to pack down into one very portable suit bag for dashing between trains. Heather found my collapsible top hat at an antique store. It’s the style that snaps flat, which gentlemen would wear to the opera but remove, so as not to block the view, and store it under their seat.

Even though our race started at noon the next day, our adventure really commenced with an amazing send-off Champagne soirée on August 31st, 1993, hosted at Hotel Vancouver’s The Roof.

Having barely finished packing, we were utterly exhausted. But it was still a wonderful evening, with all our friends around us. The evening was capped with a toast outside on the parapet, with flutes of Charles Heidsieck under a rising blue moon. Jack Wong’s photos are still brilliant: It really was that beautiful a night.

On the Hotel Vancouver roof, with Charles Heidsieck CEO and president Trevor Bell, who flew in for the occasion (Jack Wong photo)

On the Hotel Vancouver roof, with Charles Heidsieck CEO and president Trevor Bell, who flew in for the occasion (Jack Wong photo)

We left the Hotel Vancouver on the stroke of noon, to the strains of the Oh Canada horns. To set the tone for the trip we embarked by horse and carriage, before transferring to a Chinese junk in False creek and then changing before getting our ‘real’ ride, the now defunct SeaLink to Victoria.

Along the way, we discovered we weren’t the only ones developing a taste for Charles Heidsieck. As we were standing for a photo in front of Gerry O’Neil’s vintage carriage, one of the horses poked his head around and stuck his tongue right in my glass.

Gerry laughed and said: “Champagne? Oh. they love it…” And proceeded to pour the bottle of 85 Brut Reserve right into the horse’s mouth. And drink it he did. About half the bottle, to be precise.

It was the start of many adventures to come!

Amtrak's Coast Starlight—the first of a score of train trips around the world

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight—the first of a over a score of train trips around the world

By mid September we had successfully navigated the rails around North America to wind up in New York. On Amtrak’s Coast Starlight we marveled at the California Coast, before hopping the Sunset Limited to El Paso, Texas. All smooth sailing up until this point. However, two weeks later this train was involved in one of the deadliest wrecks in U.S history, at Big Bayou, in Alabama.

Crossing the border at El Paso, we spent the best part of a day negotiating our way on a train from Ciudad Juarez to Mexico City. It was all very complicated, until, that is, we agreed to write a letter (right then and there) to the state governor, saying how helpful everyone was… Magically, we were whisked aboard.

All the frills on the Mexican train—including a Mariachi serenade!

All the frills on the Mexican train—including a Mariachi serenade!

It was a 36 hour run, sitting up all the way. (We had ‘First Class’ seats, although they didn’t actually recline more than about two inches.) But the people were wonderful…. most of the time: at one point I woke up to find that my inflatable pillow had been stolen from around my neck while I slept.

“No problem,” winked our friendly attendant, adding “I’ll get it back for you.”

And he did just that, returning with it in minutes!

We had only one day in Mexico City, where we had to check in with base camp, and saw (some of) the sights, before we returned—on the very same train.

When the crew saw us coming they thought we were nuts!  But they welcomed us all the same and we wound up climbing outside the carriage to reach the locomotive—which Heather was invited to drive.

The rest of us enjoyed a beer, as we raced the trucks on the parallel highway, madly sounding our horn to theirs. Ah, yes, the joys of Mexican rail travel.


Next up: crossing the Atlantic on the (original) QE2.

By | 2018-01-21T15:05:24+00:00 September 23rd, 2013|Uncategorized|4 Comments

About the Author:

Tim has been covering the food and wine revolution for about 20 kilos. Count 15 kg alone thanks to the blossoming cuisine and wine culture of British Columbia, Canada. Tim’s hallmark is seeking out and recommending value wines from BC and around the world that offer quality at every level. He also scopes out noteworthy restaurants that live up to their promises—and often over deliver. Readers depend on the Hired Belly for his “Belly’s Best” and “Belly’s Budget Best” picks to help them find the right wine for the occasion. He writes, tweets and shoots his own images for columns in the Vancouver Courier and North Shore News. He also contributes to WHERE Vancouver magazine, as well as to several other publications. They include Taste magazine, Tidings Magazine, and Montecristo. His columns are frequently picked up by major newspapers across Canada. Tim is a frequent judge for wine competitions, such as Vancouver Magazine International Wine Awards. He is a founding judge of The BC Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Wine. He is frequently invited to judge at The BC Wine Awards, and others. Tim has traveled to taste in many of the world’s leading wine regions, most recently in Burgundy, Argentina and Chile.


  1. LaDona September 24, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Oooh – what fun! To read, that is. And to do, I’m sure.

    Do post more memories.

    Obviously, Heather would be the star of the show … 😉

    And the travel bug is stirring …

  2. Tim Pawsey September 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Heather and I were talking about this early phase last night. Actually the Mexican border crossing and buying train tickets was incredibly stressful, as everything seemed to be going wrong. First of all we crossed into Mexico with just a wave: no papers = Not a good idea. Then we had the wrong currency, after being told US$ would be just fine. And, last of all, nobody really seemed to understand how the train tickets were / might be sold, or if there were any left. We wound up buying commuter tickets all the way to Mexico City. But we almost lost three days right there. And Juarez (even in those far less dangerous, pre-drug cartel times) was not a place you wanted to get stuck in! I think I’ll summarize all those kinds of challenges in just one post… at some point!

  3. LaDona September 26, 2013 at 8:35 am

    … and do post about the incident on a ship where where you invited some incredibly wealthy passengers UP to your room for drinks …

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