ONLY IN CANADA: A RAILWAY JOURNEY LIKE NO OTHER.Story and photos by Margaret Deefholts It is early evening, and as we pull out of the train station, Montreal's streetlights are drizzle-blurred on my windowpane. I settle into my seat, glad of the warmth and comfort of VIA Rail's Observation Deck car, while sipping a "welcome aboard" glass of champagne.
An unabashed railway addict, I hardly need an excuse to board a train, but this particular journey between Montreal and Halifax has piqued my curiosity. Billed as a Maritime learning experience in Easterly class aboard The Ocean, it offers passengers a "unique understanding of the people, culture and history of Canada's Maritime region."And that it certainly does. Gary, our outward-bound host, wears a bright red, blue, green and gold New Brunswick tartan vest, and fills his role of storyteller well. Along with the rest of the audience in the domed Observation car, I find myself listening intently as we pass by the little Acadian town of Petit Rocher. "Before the English forcibly expelled them, (to Louisiana) this was their home," he says. "And today, New Brunswick is the only Canadian province that calls itself officially bilingual."
The Atlantic Ocean is an intrinsic part of life in the Maritimes, and a couple of fishermen lean forward to watch Gary's demonstration of a lobster trap. Some fishy facts, such as learning how to differentiate between a male and female lobster would seem irrelevant (except perhaps to another lobster!) but, as Gary points out, this is important information for the fishing industry. Mom-to-be lobsters, and egg production are ecological conservation issues that rank high on the Department of Fisheries' priority list.Lobster isn't on our dinner menu-and even if it were, I wouldn't be poking around to figure out whether it was 'he' or 'she'. Instead, I feast on a robust assortment of skewered Atlantic seafood served on a bed of fragrant pilaf rice. The four-course meal winds up with Atlantic blueberries and cream for desert. A note in the attractively designed menu, mentions that this fruit was first grown by the Mi'kmaq First Nations people. They are burst-in-your-mouth juicy with just a hint of tartness. In addition to the privacy of having a cabin to myself, I revel in the luxury of an attached (teensy!) toilet and shower cubicle. But there's also another plus: I return to my cabin after dinner to find that Monique, our solicitous hostess, has turned my bed down for the night. The fluffy duvet is so inviting that just by looking at it, I feel a delicious languor stealing over me! One of the most pleasurable aspects of train journeys is falling asleep to the rhythm and rock of the wheels and I drift effortlessly into dreamless slumber. The next morning is misty, and from the Observation car, the top of the train is a fat caterpillar weaving past small towns, and nosing its way east through tunnels. The horizon is deep crimson, and as the sun bursts over the edge of New Brunswick, Gary reminds me to move my watch forward an hour.
By the time I board The Ocean on my return trip from Halifax to Montreal a week later, the Fall colours are in full shout: copper, flame, gold, russet, scarlet and even a flamingo pink. What an extravagant farewell to summer!Steve is our host at a wine-tasting afternoon session in the Observation car. A stocky guy, wearing the blue Nova Scotia tartan waistcoat, a black thicket of beard and a bluff, hearty manner, he chats about the newly emerging wineries near Sackville. I know little or nothing about wine, (other than its effects) but I try to concentrate on swirling the vino against my palate before swallowing. Others around me are nodding appreciatively, as their palates do the right thing. It is low tide, and mud-flat inlets, like streams of chocolate-coloured sludge, wind by the side of the track. As we cross the border from New Foundland into New Brunswick, we aren't far from the Bay of Fundy, where the waters drains out to seabed level and then swell dramatically by 48 to 50 feet as 100 billion tonnes of seawater surge twice a day into the narrow neck of the Bay. Incredible! As the evening draws in, we jog through small communities with lights gleaming in the windows of homes-and the flicker of a TV screen occasionally glimpsed through a parted drape. In the deepening dusk, a lone bicyclist speeds along a deserted street, the surface shiny and wet from a recent shower of rain. As we approach Montreal early next morning, Monique knocks at my door, a cup of coffee in hand. It's journey's end for now, but someday I'll be back to walk along the ocean floor and race the Bay of Fundy tides to safety, as fast as my legs can carry me! IF YOU GO: The Maritime Learning Experience aboard the Easterly Class of VIA Rail's "The Ocean" operates daily, except on Tuesdays, between Halifax and Montreal from early May to end October. For more information on schedules and rates go to http://www.viarail.ca/classes/en_serv_clas_tour_aloc.html For interactive photographs and links to the Bay of Fundy clips on YouTube, click on http://www.bayoffundytourism.com/ Photos: 1. Steve in Nova Scotia tartan vest pouring champagne
2. Passengers disembark at Truro, Nova Scotia
3. VIA Rail's "The Ocean" Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com
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