One of the unsettling joys of living in Kingston is running to catch the train after the brief but cheery announcement: "This is your first and last call." And, they mean it! We fling ourselves on board, hoping to be reunited with our luggage in Halifax next afternoon.
We're heading for Montreal to catch "the B & B on wheels," a 20-hour train journey, which leaves in early evening for the 1,346 km. trip to Halifax. "The Ocean," has been transporting people to and from the Maritimes since 1904, following the route of the Inter-colonial 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 summer we had a refresher "Maritime Learning Experience" - perhaps they should run an onboard competition for a zingier title - in VIA's Easterly (sleeper class), initiated in 2006.
"Welcome aboard," said Steve Burlock, our "Learning Co-ordinator," natty in a provincial tartan vest. "Once you're settled, come along to the Park car for a small reception." We stowed ourselves and our bags in our bedroom then swayed along to the Art Deco Park Car, with its Mural Lounge (original artwork by well known Maritime artists, safely behind glass ) the Bullet Lounge, and the Scenic Dome, where we sipped our sparkling wine, munched nuts and watched the small towns of Quebec's South Shore whirling by.
Then it was back to the dining room for a dinner featuring Maritime Specialties. Although there is no longer a chef on board, the meals were tasty and fresh, not frozen: Maritime 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 Plan Style Halibut, with a Sweet Sensation for dessert. VIA has struck up an enterprising partnership with Nova Scotia vineyards, and offers a variety of their wines.
Time for bed after browsing through the Maritime Learning Experience guidebook which provides answers to the vexing questions one always has on a journey if unaccompanied by a computer: "what is the population of New Brunswick?" (729,500) "where are the highest tides in the world?" (up to 17 metres at Burntcoat Head, Nova Scotia.)
The rooms on the Renaissance cars have a bench, beside a large picture-window. Behind a door is a wc and wash basin which becomes a shower in the deluxe bedrooms. At night, there are "do-it-yourself" pull down bunk beds, although your attendant is willing to help with its mysteries. And so to sleep under a duvet, gently jiggled by the train.
Next morning, somewhere in New Brunswick, we woke up to a moving band of trees and more trees. The long snake of the train curved around a corner, water glinted in the distance. We saw white birch trimmed with green fir, small painted houses with cedar shingle roofs, heard a musical refrain of rattle, rattle, click.
At breakfast, (Continental, Scrambled Eggs and Smoked Salmon Benedict or Blueberry Pancakes) people sat with furrowed brows, working out the puzzle on the place mat (Find the Halifax Old Town Clock twice, and three lobsters, the Bluenose three times and two fossils.)
Then it's back to the Bullet Lounge where they serve coffee, tea, fruit and newspapers all day. Steve Burlock was waiting. He gave a brief talk about the fisheries and demonstrated a lobster trap to a surprisingly well-informed group. Turns out, several were lobster fishermen.
After lunch (Soup, Primavera Pasta, Fresh Salmon Sandwich with gourmet brown rice crisps or a herbed grilled Chicken Salad) and dessert, he led us through a wine-tasting, introducing us to L'Acadie Blanc, Jost Vineyards Trilogy. "The Annapolis Valley is like a miniature greenhouse," he told us, "and it's less than an hour's drive from Halifax." It was a spirited introduction to the increasingly successful vineyards of Nova Scotia.
In mid-afternoon, we pulled into the charming station in Halifax, with its indoor street-lamps, trees and greenery, ready for further adventures in the Maritimes. But we felt that we had already had part of our vacation on the train.
Mary Alice Downie writes for Kingston Life Magazine and contributes to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young and many other magazines as well as a food blog, 'Edible Souvenirs' on the website
kingstonlife.ca. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/