Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nova Scotia Trip by Rail (Day 7-12)

Day 7, 20 (The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historical Site, NS)

Todays visit to the Fortress of Louisbourg was both interesting and educational. The Fortress is located on the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island. It was founded in 1713 by the French who relocated from Newfoundland. Louisbourg was a seaport and a fortified stronghold, established for the protection of French interests in Atlantic Canada. The fortress also served as an important base of fishing for the mother country and an important center for trade. The first lighthouse in Canada was built here in 1734. In the 1740's, the civilian population grew to 2,500 with an additional 700 military personnel. While the population was predominantly French, there were also Germans, Swiss, Irish and Africans at the Fortress during this period. In 1745, and again in 1758, the British and New Englanders attacked and captured the Fortress from the French.

Although the Fortress was completely destroyed by the occupiers as they withdrew in 1768, the Canadian government created a National Historical Site, and starting in 1961 rebuilt over 25 buildings to original specifications. An interesting sidelight is the information that when the Fortress was originally built, 3 copies of the architectural plans were drawn up with 2 copies remaining in Canada and 1 copy retained in France. When the Canadian government decided to rebuild some of the original structures the only plans still in existance were those in France, nearly 250 years after they were drawn up.

The structures present include period homes, garrisons, bakery's, and inns. Throughout the site are people dressed in period garb and basically reinacting the activities of the time. There are people at each structure and in the streets to provide descriptions of what you are seeing. Both French and English are spoken. Farm animals are present at some of the structures. Occasional events are staged for the entertainment of visitors, and in one case we witnessed the punishment of a servant who alledgedly stole a bottle of wine. She was marched through the streets with a military guard and a barrister? announcing her crime and punishment. The local residents shouted insults at her and the officials. Following this she was tied to a "carcan" (post with chains) on the edge of the settlement where she remained for 2 hours. Quite a show.

We enjoyed a typical period lunch at one of the inns in the Fortress and spent most of the day touring the site and photographing the many interesting sights. All-in-all, we had a great time here and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Nova Scotia. Plan on at least 6 hours at the Fortress, since a leisurely pace is required to take in all there is to see and do. The Fortress is open from June 1 to September 30 each summer with full "animation and services". (By animation I assume they refer to the presence of people and animals.) Reduced animation and services are available during the first half of October, and in May and the second half of October, escorted walking tours are available, but no animation or services are available. Additional Images

Day 8, 21 (Miners Museum; Alexander Graham Bell Museum)

This is our last day on Cape Breton Island, so we selected 2 attractions that we felt would be the best use of our time. The Miners Museum is located on the northeast coast in Glace Bay, NS. It is at the site of one of the many coal mines present at one time or another in Nova Scotia. We were not expecting much here, but our museum tour turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The museum is actually located at the entrance to one of the abandoned coal mines and access to the original mines is available from within the museum structure. We chose to sign up for the complete package which included a walking tour underground into a 1932-era "room and pillar" coal mine, as well as a virtual tour of a 1992-era "longwall" mine. Our guide for the trip underground was a former miner here, Abbie, who had worked in the mines for over 30 years. Abbie provided a very colorful and interesting description of mine operations and his personal experiences as we went along on our tour.

We donned hard hats and capes for our walking tour underground. Abbie led us through a tunnel leading to the actual mine. As we entered the mine, it became clear that we would not be walking upright for most of this tour. The ceiling in the tunnels was only 5 feet high or less, and so for the time we were underground, were walked in a stooped-over fashion. You could hear the occasional clunk of someones hard hat making contact with the ceiling or support timbers. Needless to say, it was VERY dark and damp down there with only an occasional dim light bulb to light the way. Claustrophobic people need not take this trip.

Abbie led us through the 1932-era mine explaining the various features including the ventilation system and series of doors intended to minimize the buildup of methane gas, the bane of miners. We entered one tunnel where Abbie stopped us to explain the method for moving the mined coal in the early days of mining. He described the use of "Pit Ponies" to pull carts full of coal around in the tunnels. Many of these animals spent their entire life underground, never to see the light of day. As Abbie was talking, a loud neighing sound came from the darkness and some of the visitors reacted with fright, banging their hard hats on the ceiling. Of course, the sound was a recording that Abbie had triggered as he was talking. One could tell that Abbie was delighted by the reaction. Further up the tunnel was a replica of a Pit Pony and cart from where the sound had originated.

Abbie then instructed us to proceed ahead of him as he shut down the Pit Pony "exhibit". As we approached the next side tunnel, all the lights went out and we were in total darkness. After a short time the lights came back on, and it was never quite clear if that was a planned event or not. Mining equipment was set up in the next side tunnel, and Abbie described it's operation before demonstrating how it worked. The main tool was pneumatically operated, so in the confined space of the tunnel, the unexpectedly loud noise was a bit disconcerting to some. After completing his demonstration, Abbie, apparently in a story-telling mood, told of his experiences with the rats that lived in the mines and about the pranks that the miners played on each other in the darkness. Following the mining demonstration, we were taken to a garden of flowers growing underground where we sat around in a circle and listened to stories of Abbie's experience in the mines.

After returning to the surface and the museum, we were taken to an area where they had a "man rake" (a box that took the miners underground) and a theater screen. We were all seated in the man rake and shown a film which virtually took us underground in this more modern, 1992-era, mine. Of course, this was less exciting than our underground tour, but it was educational. As I mentioned, the visit to this museum was one of the highlights of our trip and we would highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Cape Breton Island area. Initially, we were a bit hesitant about going underground, but with all the other visitors and Abbie along, we were perfectly comfortable. In fact, one of the couples in our group had been to the museum before and had returned because the liked their first experience so much.

The Alexander Graham Bell Museum, located in Baddeck, NS, is a National Historic Site operated by the government of Canada. Bell had a mansion in Baddeck, although he lived in the US most of the time. His descendents still live in the mansion in Baddeck, but it is not open to the public. Baddeck is in the opposite direction from Glace Bay, so we returned to our hotel for lunch before heading to this museum. The museum, which is located on the shore of Bras d'Or Lake, has many of the tools that Bell used in his experiments, as well as some of the devices and vehicles he developed. There are several video/film presentations that describe the areas that Bell delved into during his lifetime, including his work with sound and the deaf, telephone experiments, aeronautical phenomena, marine hydrofoil development. We found the museum to be interesting, but a bit confusing in it's layout. Possibly because it was laid out in topical fashion as opposed to a chronological layout. This was not one of our most memorable experiences of the trip, but hey, you can only have so many highlights, right?

Day 9, 22 Sep 2001 (Drive from Sydney to Halifax, NS)

First thing this morning we packed up all our dirty clothes and a few other items in one of our suitcases and took it to a Mail Boxes Etc in Sydney for shipment back to PA. No sense in carrying all those things we will not need for the remainder of our trip. The less we have to carry on board the train from Halifax to Montreal, the easier our rail trip will be. (BTW, the suitcase arrived at home on 28 Sep, the day after we returned.)

After dropping off the dirty clothes we headed for Halifax, driving through the back roads of Cape Breton Island along the Bras d'Or and onto "mainland" Nova Scotia to complete our drive primarily on the Trans Canada Highway through Antigonish, New Glasgow and Truro and on to Halifax. At this point I should mention that our destination was not exactly Halifax, rather it was Dartmouth which is located across the Narrows from Halifax harbor. We actually were staying in a Holiday Inn in Dartmouth due to an inability to get reservations in Halifax because of a Lions Club convention that weekend.

We arrived in Dartmouth in late afternoon after driving through a terrible rain storm for the last hour or so of our drive. Accommodations in the Holiday Inn were very nice. Another suite of rooms much like we had in the other hotels on this trip. Guess someone was looking out for our interests, eh? We decided to hold off on going into Halifax this evening--exploring a new city in the darkness is not one of our favorite things to do--and instead took a drive out Portland Street in Dartmouth to Boomarangs for a decent meal.

Day 10, 23 Sep (In Halifax, NS)

Air Cushion Tour BoatWe were up fairly early today in order to have breakfast and to drive across the Narrows to Halifax for the day. So we arrived in the Halifax waterfront about 10:00 AM and were amazed that we were able to park on the main road directly across from the Maritime Museum. Our first stop was the Museum which we wandered through for an hour or so before moving out onto the waterfront boardwalk. Our admission fee to the Museum was good for the day and that came in handy when we needed to use the facilities several time during the day.

Grand Derangement

We walked the waterfront trying to decide what we would do this day to experience Halifax--take a harbor tour on an air cushion boat or a sailing ship, visit the shops and waterfront sights all day, take a boat to Peggy's Cove for a lobster dinner, etc. Decisions, decisions. As we walked along the boardwalk we noticed several large white tents that were obviously set up for some kind of temporary activity. Further investigation revealed that this activity was an Acadian Festival, "Le Grou Tyme" with crafts, food, souvenirs and most importantly, music. That made the decision for us on what we would do for the rest of the day. We visited the craft tent and then parked ourselves in a good location to enjoy the music. What a wonderful experience! Of course, the words being sung were in French and we didn't understand a bit of it, but it really didn't matter. The groups ranged from a girls step-dance group, Danseuses Dixacadie, to a soft rock/Gaelic/French group, Grand Derangement and folk singers to boot

Note: I won't attempt to explain the term Acadia in detail here except to say that it is my understanding that it applies to a region of Atlantic Canada, and perhaps New England, where French immigrants had settled in the hundred or so years prior to the British conquest of Canada. With the occupation of that region of Canada by the British, many of the French settlers were rounded up and shipped off to Louisiana Territory and elsewhere. That's where the Cajuns came from. Even today, there are French in Nova Scotia and elsewhere who recall that time some 250 years ago with great discomfort as many families were split up by this event--the Grand Derangement. Having said all that, I am open to any corrections on my interpretation of the terms Acadia/Acadian.

As an interesting side note, I asked one of our sleeping car attendants if she was French-Canadian, because she had an obvious accent, and her response was that she was French-Acadian. Suggesting to me that she felt no particular connection with the French-Canadians of Quebec. That was an interesting point to me since as many of you know, my ancestry is in large part French-Canadian and I assumed that the people of French extraction in Canada were all considered French-Canadian.

So anyway, following the concerts we drove back to Dartmouth. However, on the advice of the hotel desk clerk, we returned to Halifax for an outstanding dinner at McKelvies. Guess we should have just stayed in Halifax since we had to pay the bridge tolls again.

Days 11-12, 24-25 (Halifax to Montreal on VIA #15, and drive to MA)

Our morning today was very relaxed. The Ocean, our train back to Montreal, did not depart Halifax until nearly 1:00 PM. So we lounged about in our room, had a nice breakfast, and completed our packing chores before driving over the Narrows to Halifax from Dartmouth at mid-day. Our rental car company was located in the Westin Hotel adjacent to the train station, so it was very convenient for dropping the car. I should mention here that if you plan to take the Bra d'Or train to Sydney, you can rent a car from National there and drop it off in Halifax or elsewhere without a drop off charge. And there is no daily mileage maximum with this rental. However, when you arrange the rental, make sure you mention that you are arriving on VIA Rail. Otherwise you will not get this special rate.

Aboard the Ocean: The train departed precisely on time and we walked back to the Park Car lounge for a sandwich and drink. The dining car would not open immediately and we couldn't wait. Turned out to be a bad decision since the sandwiches were outdated and not very tasty. Anyway, we eventually went up to the observation dome for views of the countryside before returning to our sleeper before dinner. The domes are nice for viewing the sights as you travel along, but the windows on some are cloudy and/or dirty so that the view is less than optimum. In addition, if the sun is out it can get a bit warm up there.

Dinner was in the dining car and it was very good as is usually the case with VIA Rail meals. Not up to those meals on The Canadian, a tourist-oriented train that travels between Toronto and Vancouver, but they were considerably better than what we had experienced on our Amtrak trips. And the staff in the dining car was far superior to that on Amtrak as I have mentioned in my previous trip reports.

Our sleeping car attendant, Carole of "French-Acadian" descent, had reconfigured our sleeper around 9:00 PM, and we basically went into the bedroom mode--Bertie read and I peered out the window into the darkness looking for any signs of life. We had difficulty sleeping on this train due in part to the stopping and starting and to the rough trackage in some sections. A note about the Ocean is appropriate in this regard. When the Ocean leaves Montreal on it's east-bound run, it actually consists of two trains on some days-The Ocean and the Chaleur. The Chaleur cars are split off in Matapedia and continue on to Gaspe, Quebec, while the Ocean cars continue on to Halifax. This transaction and I suspect other such operations take place in the middle of the night resulting in much lurching about by the train. Sufice to say, when your bunk is being shook by this forward and backward movement, you will likely wake up. This process is repeated in reverse on the westward run of the trains. Then you have the fairly frequent stops and starts at sidings due to passing freight trains, all of which have priority on the trackage requiring the VIA Rail trains to, as the British say, give way.

In any case, we had an early and decent breakfast in the dining car although a complimentary continental breakfast of sorts was available in the Park Car. We just wanted to have a full breakfast considering that immediately upon the early-morning arrival in Montreal we were going to retrieve our car from the Queen Elisabeth Hotel parking garage and drive to our daughters place near Worcester, MA.

The Ocean arrived just a few minutes late, and with the length of the train resulting from picking up the Chaleur cars at Matapedia, our car was actually outside the station in the rain. We quickly headed for the Queen Elisabeth which is located directly above the train station. I cancelled the reservations I had originally made for that night before we had changed our plans, and we took the escalator down to the parking garage. After paying for the parking, which turned out to be about $11USD/day, we drove out of the garage, made 2 right turns and that put us on the freeway across the Saint-Lawrence River and towards the Vermont border.

In less than 2 hours from the time our train arrived in Montreal, we were at the US border crossing station with 4 cars ahead of us. The line moved fairly quickly and after answering a few questions the border guy told us to proceed. We had absolutely no delays or problems at the border despite the horror stories we had heard following the terrorist attacks. After all, a couple of geezers like us don't fit the profile (bad word, eh?) of would-be terrorists or smugglers? The remainder of our drive back to MA was uneventful except for a few periods of driving rain. Not fun to drive in for sure.

This completes the reports of our trip. We hope you have enjoyed them. We would highly recommend a trip to Nova Scotia and particularly to Cape Breton Island. Next time we visit there we will likely drive to Maine and take one of the ferrys to Yarmouth. But then again, that's not a train is it?

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