The beginning of our Eastern Canadian VIA Rail adventure is a little underwhelming.
We arrive at Montréal’s Gare Centrale to collect our tickets for the overnight journey to Halifax on the Ocean rail
service and learn there is no booking in the system. Our dreams of dining in style at sunset as we cross the St Lawrence River abruptly evaporate. We also begin to question the wisdom of online bookings, period.
But we’ve not reckoned on the persistence of Sue, our new best friend in ticketing, who plugs away at her computer, telephones a supervisor in Vancouver – and finally retrieves a confirmation and, even better, our boarding passes. These entitle us to an Easterly class package, which includes a sleeping car, dinner, breakfast and lunch and, best of all, a ‘Maritime Learning Experience’ with one of the hosts in the ‘superdome’, the double-story viewing carriage at the end of the train.
There is one further surprise in store when we learn that there has been a derailment on the line, and we will take a goods train route for part of our journey. The detour is scheduled for some ungodly hour in the morning, so is of little concern.
Montréal to Halifax is not quite 1000 km as the crow flies, and 1346 km by train.
The rail line was first built two years after confederation in 1867, and the service was named the Ocean in 1904. This was the train that took Canadian troops to Halifax to depart for Europe during both world wars – and brought back the lucky survivors. The service now operates between Montréal and Halifax twice a week in both directions, taking 22 hours.
The Ocean offers a very special way for first-time visitors to encounter New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, the three provinces on Canada’s eastern seaboard known as the Maritimes. Part of the appeal of this journey is the opportunity to experience such diverse scenery – mountains, plains, forests, rivers and sea – from the comfort of your own cabin, the dining or lounge cars, or to take in a 360-degree view from the scenic dome.
But travelling Easterly class also means you are in the hands of a specially trained Learning Coordinator who, donning a different plaid waistcoat as you traverse each province, will share with you the history, culture, folklore and insider knowledge of these regions.
As we enter New Brunswick, our Coordinator, Peter, produces a wooden lobster trap and a plastic lobster and proceeds to demonstrate how locals catch this succulent fruit of the sea. Entering Nova Scotia inspires Peter to more conviviality – we are enticed to the lounge car and served a variety of local wines with farmhouse cheese, creating a great excuse to bond with fellow travellers.
All too soon the sun has emerged from behind the clouds, we see a sparkling blue harbour – and glide quietly into Halifax railway station. We’ve laughed a lot, learnt a lot, enjoyed pristine scenery, slept like babes, dined like royalty and met many new friends, including Peter.
VIA Rail offers a number of specials for travellers aged 60-plus. To check what’s available, visit www.viarail.ca
For great deals on all VIA Rail adventures visit www.railplus.com.au