Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nova Scotia Trip by Rail (Day 1-6)

Day 1, 14 Sep (Worcester, MA-Montreal, PQ)

In any case, we arrived in Montreal in mid-afternoon Friday amid traffic jams and after finally finding the parking garage for the Queen Elisabeth Hotel we are now in our very nice suite. (Can't explain why we rated a suite, but who's to complain. The room has 2 bathrooms and 2 TV's just what we need, eh?

We had dinner with our friends from Toledo, Ohio at a nearby pizza restaurant. We had met this couple on our last train adventure across Canada and the US in September 1999, and have maintained communication with them since. When they heard we were planning another trip to Canada, they decided to do the same and they planned their travels so as to meet up with us for a couple of days together in Montreal. They have been to Ottawa and Quebec City already, and will be heading to Toronto on Monday. All their travel within Canada is, or has been, by the Canadian passenger rail service, VIA Rail.

Day 2, 15 Sep (In Montreal)

We started our day by having breakfast with our friends from Toledo at our hotel restaurant. Today, we decided to take a 6-hour bus tour of the city, which included visits to about a dozen sites including the Biodome, the Botanical Gardens, Mount Royal Park, Olympic Park and Tower, Old Montreal, several historical Catholic churches, as well as other locations. Our French-Canadian tour guide spoke excellent English and was well versed in the history of Montreal, providing continuous commentary as we drove to all parts of the city. I would advise anyone coming to this great city to take such a tour as a starting point for his or her visit. Additional images

Day 3-4, 16-17 Sep (Montreal-Halifax, VIA #14-The Ocean)

Our train doesn't leave until 6:40 PM today, so we met up with our friends, had a late breakfast and then went underground. Montreal has a vast network of multi-story shopping malls, which are connected by underground passageways. We had never explored the underground before so we spent about 4 hours walking through some of this maze window-shopping. In winter, many of the citizens of Montreal use the underground passageway to travel between their place of work and residence, never having to venture out into the cold. From all appearances, the economy of Canada is in good shape, as people are dressed well and affluence is evident everywhere we went in Montreal. Rear Window on the Park Car

So anyway, after our dinner snack, Allison reconfigured our sleeper and we crashed about 9:00 PM EDT. For some reason, I didn't sleep very well this time. As I recall from our last trip, it took a night or so to get accustomed to the rock and roll, and the stop and go. But we were up early and headed to the "Park" car for the complimentary continental breakfast. The Park car, also known as the Bullet Car, is a kind of lounge with a bar and an upper dome for viewing the scenery. The car is the last car in the train and it has wraparound windows in the lounge for viewing the Canadian countryside. In chatting with fellow passengers, we discovered that some of them were taking the train to Halifax versus flying, some by choice and some of necessity due to closure of several airports. As I write this we are arriving in Miramichi, New Brunswick, running about 15 minutes behind schedule, but expecting to arrive in Halifax pretty much at the scheduled arrival time of 4:10 PM.

Day 5, 18 Sep (Halifax-Sydney, NS; Aboard the Bras d'Or train)

Today we traveled aboard the Bras d'Or, a train touted as a "rail cruise" by VIA Rail, from Halifax to Sydney, Nova Scotia. This train truely is a first class experience. This is a once-a-week train that travels to Sydney on Mondays and returns to Halifax on Tuesdays. The route takes the train through eastern Nova Scotia onto Cape Breton Island where it skirts the Bras d'Or Lakes. (Bras d'Or, pronounced something like "brid or" or "bra door", is French for Arm of Gold. This is an enormous series of salt-water lakes with connections to the ocean.) We departed Halifax precisely on time at 7:30 AM and arrived about 30 minutes past the scheduled arrival time of 6:15 PM. The train consisted of an engine, baggage car, 2 coach cars, a Skyline dome car and a Park car.

Both coaches were nearly full. According to the VIA Rail person in charge, the ridership on this year-old plus train route has been very good this summer. Enroute we were treated to a better-than-average continental breakfast and a delicious lunch which were delivered to our seats, airline style. As we traveled along, we were treated to historical commentaries on many of the locations we passed. For those less interested in the train trip per se, there were skits in the Skyline and Park cars from time-to-time, and a supply of games and reading material were also available. The service personnel were ourstanding--pleasant, helpful and knowledgeable. This experience was actually better than we had expected, and since this segment of our travel was a prime focus of our trip to Canada, we feel that our trip has been a success.

After arrival at our hotel, we were even more pleased. Again, we were given a suite which consisted of a living area, kitchen, bedroom and bath--a very comfortable accommodation to say the least. Before arriving in Sydney we reevaluated our itinerary and decided it was a bit too ambitious and we were tired of having to repack almost every day and travel to a new location. Our original plans required a considerable amount of road travel and little time to really see much other than scenery. We want to spend a day at the Fortress of Louisburg, for example, a restored early French settlement and military facility in North America, but our original schedule didn't permit that. So we decided to make the hotel in Sydney our base of operations through Friday night. Saturday we'll head back to Halifax for the return train trip to Montreal on Monday/Tuesday. Additional images

Day 6, 19 Sep (On the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Island, NS)

The Cabot Trail is a 190-mile loop road that parallels, for the most part, the northern coastline of the island. Fishing villages dot the route, and the views of the ocean are breathtaking. The views are reminiscent of the California coast highway between Carmel and San Luis Obispo. Our drive of the Trail was interesting and I took many photos of the wild life and ocean scenes. Since arriving in Nova Scotia, we have seen eagles, sea lions, foxes, and the ubiquitous white-tailed deer. Also, we learned why the loon is portrayed on the Canadian dollar. This part of Canada is literally teeming with the graceful bird with the recognizable, haunting call. I would rate this drive as a must do, especially if you have never driven the California coast highway. Tomorrow we head to the Fortress of Louisburg for a day of discovery.

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