I learned that although the Ocean travels back and forth on that route six times a week all year, the Easterly class is more than just a train ride. It’s a relatively new concept called the “Maritime learning experience,” and is loaded with perks and special activities.
I had fond memories of taking a train 40 years ago from Halifax to Winnipeg and back. At the time I was 21, teaching, and had volunteered to chaperone a group of students on an exchange program. Such fun! But I hadn’t boarded a train since. Not sure why. But I tucked that little bit of information about the Easterly class in the back of my brain.
Last spring when I had occasion to go to Ottawa, that conversation immediately popped into mind. It turns out that the Easterly was about to start the same week I was headed for Ontario. I could sign up for that class on the Ocean and continue the journey from Montreal to Ottawa on a regular run. I thought, “Why not!” and decided to try the train one way — and fly back just in case it wasn’t my cup of tea.
It turned out to be a magical journey.
The minute I walked into the old train station in Halifax, I felt a “shift.” It was like stepping back in time. Mahogany doors, brass doorknobs and fixtures, 25-foot ceilings, ornately carved pillars — it spoke volumes of a time when royalty, politicians, and famous people travelled across the continent by train. But I quickly realized that it wasn’t so much that I was stepping back in time … I was simply taking time to be in the moment.
Unlike travelling by air, I didn’t have an anxious muscle in my body. I wasn’t worried about making my “connection,” losing my baggage, being squished and cramped en route, or fussing about where my next meal would come from.
And so it was that I sauntered down the platform, heading for Car 24 and Room #5. Research had indicated that in 1904, "The Ocean Limited" was started by the Intercolonial Railway to provide first-class passenger service between Halifax and Montreal … and the Ocean was continuing to do the same thing, over a century later!
Walter, the service guide, introduced himself and gave me a quick run down on where things were in my room, how they operated, and encouraged me to take part in the welcoming reception. I didn’t need much coaxing.
From the get-go I felt as if I was part of a large family heading out on an expedition. Daphne (officially called the “Learning Coordinator”) put us as ease by telling stories and weaving into her narration some local history and cultural vignettes as we passed through towns and villages. En route, we watched a fascinating movie about The Great Halifax Explosion that devastated the city in 1917.
Later, a wine-tasting session featured some of Nova Scotia’s award-wining wines including selections from Domaine de Grand Pré, Jost Vineyards, and Sainte Famille Wines. At some point Daphne brought out a lobster pot and proceeded to enlighten everyone on the importance of the lobster industry and how these critters are actually caught.
Most of the get-togethers took place in the “Park Car,” the last car of the train. There’s a large common area much like a living room, and a smaller more intimate room that also serves as a bar. But the best was yet to come. Upstairs, I discovered a panoramic section or observation deck, surrounded by windows. I spent a lot of time there, mesmerized by the view. It was particularly thrilling when the train went over a bridge. I felt as if we were mere millimeters away from the beams, and swear that the air whooshed by my scalp.
I also enjoyed watching the train as it curved around parts of the landscape, especially after dark. All the windows were lit up and it seemed as if a giant yellow-patched snake was slithering ahead of us.
The other thing I discovered is that on a train, you can keep to yourself and have lots of privacy or you can be as social as you want. By times, I appreciated the quiet of the observation deck and chose to sit by myself. Yet when I felt like having company, it took no time to meet someone and strike up a conversation.
I met some interesting people, like Nelson, who lives in Montreal and frequently visits friends and family in Halifax. He actually spent 42 years and eight months working as a porter on a train. Imagine that! I loved hearing about his long journeys from one coast to the other, especially in the days when trains were powered by steam engines, and the many trips he took with troops aboard westward bound heading for the Korean War.
Nelson loves to cook and he especially loves fresh fish so he often buys 50 lbs of seafood just before he heads back to Montreal. He shared a couple of recipes with me and they’ve been a huge hit with my family.
I also met Dale, a retired computer scientist/systems analyst who is fulfilling his dream of owning a bookstore (Dale’s Books). The interesting thing is that he operates from his home, and has over 4000 select non-fiction books to sell. Dale has a real phobia about flying and he’s tried very hard to overcome this but he’s just not been able to bring himself to board a plane. The irony is that his wife works for an airline and she’s never been on a train. They travel separately and meet at the destination. Who knows? Could be a recipe for a good marriage.
Food-wise, trains have it hands down over planes. What a treat to be served a three-course meal on real plates, with silver and fine glassware! And on this particular run, there’s an emphasis on Maritime foods, so a Taste of Nova Scotia ™ (Canada’s oldest “taste” program) showcases the province’s long and diverse culinary history. The entrée I had — Rustico Bay — featured plump juicy Digby scallops skewered with tender shrimp and fresh haddock, served on a bed of fragrant rice. The bonus for me was to have fresh fiddleheads, a vegetable-like delicacy (actually a fern) that grows wild in some parts of Eastern Canada and is a real harbinger of spring.
Now, getting around on a train can be a little tricky. After my first attempt at taking a walk through a few cars and getting my hips and elbows banged up, one of the staff gave me this tip: relax your knees; turn you left toe to 10 o’clock and your right toe to 2 o’clock. It worked! I waddled along without lurching into walls.
Alas, 20 hours flew by and the trip was over way too soon. I debarked in Montreal and had a pleasant couple of hours in the lounge while waiting to catch a train to Ottawa. In the lounge I discovered comfortable leather chairs, lots of beverages, an excellent selection of newspapers and magazines, and lovely greenery (real plants, not those horrid look-alikes.) To top it off the lounge is tastefully decorated with original artwork and I felt as if I were in a mini-gallery. I was also struck by handsome artistic renderings high overhead on the walls in one section of the train station. The relief patterns are unique and depict the Canadian mosaic in a most unusual fashion.
That was a little less than a year ago and I have another trip to Ontario coming up in two weeks; the annual conference of the Travel Media Association of Canada. This trip will be longer and will take 30 hours to get there but I didn’t even think of flying this time. I am booked on the train — both ways!
Tips For Train Lovers
For a taste of what Nova Scotia has to offer click here.
in Love Again
English author and critic, Edward M. Forster, once said “Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.”
It’s funny how serendipity slips into out lives, steering us in unexpected directions.
About a year ago, I was dining at The Five Fishermen in Halifax with fellow travel writers (a memorable meal by the way — check it out if you visit Halifax) and somehow the topic of conversation turned to trains. Our sommelier, Sean Buckland, told us about a new service that was initiated by VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger railway service.
Called the Easterly class, it’s part of VIA Rail’s service on The Ocean, which travels between Montreal and Halifax.
All photographs Sandra Phinney