Story by Mary Alice Downie
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — It’s one of our favourite trips. We’re heading for Montreal to catch “the B&B on wheels” that will take us on our 20-hour train journey to Halifax. The Ocean, which is what the Montreal-Halifax train is nicknamed, has been transporting people to and from the Maritimes since 1904, following the route of the Intercolonial Railway, which was completed in 1876 to connect New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to the rest of the country. During World War I and II, it delivered Canadian troops to Halifax for Europe — and brought the survivors back.
This time it’s transporting us with our daughter, her husband and their three children for a reunion in Halifax with the Maritime branch of the family.
We meet at 6:45 pm in the lineup for the Ocean, the younger ones clutching small suitcases filled with colouring books, markers, cards and snacks. Although still slightly mournful, Matilda (8) is being brave about missing an excursion to Pioneer Village. We have wickedly pulled them out of school for a week. Sofie (6) is buzzy with excitement, anticipating cousins. Jack (nearly 3) is lying tranquilly on top of his suitcase.
We clamber on board and separate. The younger lot are sitting up all night in Economy Class, a seat sale having made the train adventure competitive with driving. We are heading for the Sleeper Class. Our “cabin” on the Renaissance car has a bench, beside a large picture window. Behind the door is a wc and wash basin that becomes a shower. There are “do-it-yourself” pull-down bunk beds, although the attendant is willing to help with its mysteries.
My husband and I have booked the first sitting for dinner, featuring Maritime Specialties: Chowder or Maple-Seared Smoked Duck Breast with balsamic fig chutney and greens for starters; Alexander Keith’s Beer-Braised Short Ribs, herbed Roast Pork Tenderloin or Cedar Plank-Style Halibut, with a dessert.
Via has struck up an enterprising partnership with Nova Scotia vineyards, and offers a variety of their wines.
Festive Family Fun on Montreal-Halifax Train Ride
After finishing we wander back to find the family comfortably established on seats with high backs, snacks and toys spread out on the table.
“I like the train, Grandma,” Sofie confides. “It’s cool. On the plane your ears pop.”
We babysit while the parents enjoy a night out at the second sitting. They return, looking relaxed after dining with a sunset view. We trek “home” through the silent cars. And so to sleep under a duvet, gently jiggled by the train.
Next morning, somewhere in New Brunswick, we wake up to a moving band of trees and more trees. The long snake of the train curves around a corner, water glints in the distance. We see white birch trimmed with green fir, small painted houses with cedar shingle roofs, hear a musical refrain of rattle, rattle, click.
In the dining car, the gang is already finishing breakfast — Jack still tends to rise at 6 — Continental, Scrambled Eggs and Smoked Salmon Benedict or Blueberry Pancakes.
The morning passes, with much wandering up and down the aisles, games, movies, more snacks. The Ocean staff is uniquely helpful. Perhaps it’s because they spend their working lives travelling through beautiful scenery.
It’s time for lunch: Soup, Primavera Pasta, Fresh Salmon Sandwich with gourmet brown rice crisps or a herbed grilled Chicken Salad and dessert. Bottomless glasses of chocolate milk have the children wide-eyed and well-behaved.
Then naps for Jack and Grandma.
By late afternoon, we pull into the charming Halifax station, with its indoor street lamps and greenery. The cousins — Sam (12) , Nick (6) and their parents — are waiting. Let the festivities begin.
More About The Ocean from Via Rail
Contact: www.viarail.ca or 1-888-842-7245
Schedule: Unfortunately, frequency has been chopped in half. The Ocean now runs only three days a week: Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from Montreal; Tuesday, Friday and Sunday from Halifax.
Tip: Check your luggage an hour in advance and bring only an overnight bag onboard. Bottled water, earplugs, bedtime chocolate, towels, soap and shampoo are provided in the Sleeping Car; blankets and pillow kit ($10) for those sitting up. The train has activity books, videos on demand in the lounge, and special children’s menus in the dining car.
Fares: Prices vary with excellent specials for students and seniors. Meals are included in the price of the ticket in Sleeper Plus (Holiday Season, mid-June to mid-October.)
Halifax: Call Nova Scotia Tourism at 1-800-565-0000 and request a copy of the Greater Halifax Visitor Guide and the Complete Guide for Doers and Dreamers with addresses, dates, maps, admissions and more.