Most people have that fantasy of catching the train that whistles in the night” wrote American singer, Willie Nelson

A train is magically evocative, full of nostalgic memories and images of the old steam engines during the golden age of luxury rail travel. Travel by train was rather uncomfortable until the American industrialist George Mortimer Pullman introduced dining and sleeping cars in 1864. One of the most famous trains born of the period is the Orient Express which embarked on her maiden voyage in 1883 from Paris to Istanbul.

In today’s era of fast motoring and low-cost airline travel many of us forget that we can take the train for a leisure break, vacation or business. A long journey by train offers scope for adventure, new experiences, new friends. Robert Louis Stevenson believed the best way to see a country was from the window of a train.

Canada is a land of contrasting city life, natural scenic landscape, history and heritage. The most relaxing way to travel around is by Via Rail Canada which spans the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay.

This is the story of my journey around Eastern Canada by Via Rail, travelling city centre to city centre between Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.  One Friday morning in the summer of 2004, I flew with my partner Ken on the new Canadian airline, Zoom, direct from Glasgow to Toronto where my Canadian adventure began.

Toronto – the world within a city

Everyone talks about New York as the place to party, for its energy, shopping and nightlife but Toronto is a hidden gem of a holiday destination for all ages. Shop till you drop by day and dine well by night. Away from the city streets you’ll find fresh air down by the lakeside with its miles of waterfront, beaches, boardwalks and harbour islands. Toronto is above all a city of superlatives. It can boast the tallest building, the longest street, the biggest underground shopping mall and the largest bookstore in the world. It’s a vibrant multicultural city with lively Italian, Indian, Greek and Chinese communities. Take a stroll through the colourful Chinatown with street vendors selling fruit, flowers and gifts.

A couple of streets away there’s Kensington Market, the home of Portuguese, East Indian and Caribbean communities. Browse around the magical maze of narrow lanes to pick up a real bargain amongst the vintage clothing shops, cheesemongers and bakeries. Torontonians come here to buy giant Bahamian avocados, imported herbs and spices.

Downtown Toronto encapsulates the heart of the city with hotels, restaurants, theatres and the amazing CN Tower. At 553.33 metres high this landmark building dominates the skyline – don’t worry about getting lost when wandering around, just look for the tower to get your bearings. Open daily it’s a must-see visitor attraction so be prepared to queue. Glass fronted elevators whisk you up to the Look Out level in 58 seconds from where you see the entire city and Lake Ontario far below. It’s worth the extra charge to go a further 33 storeys to the Skypod, a flying saucer shaped ring, literally on top of the world.  For those with no fear of heights, enjoy a meal in the world’s highest revolving restaurant, the 360, serving fine Canadian cuisine at luxury prices – but what a view.

One of the best-kept secrets is the myriad of small interlinked Toronto Islands, which do not seem to be widely promoted to visitors. With no cars allowed this is an adventure playground with a sandy beach, parks, marina, kids funfair, cafes and bars. Bring a picnic, rent a bike, canoe or rowboat. Take the 10 minute ferry ride from Queen’s Quay to Central Island – superb value at  $6 round trip for a fabulous day out.

Toronto prides itself on a diverse range of culture and entertainment for all tastes – opera, dance, Broadway shows, theatre, classical, jazz, and popular music. First class concert halls and outdoor amphitheatres tempt many star performers including Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart and Madonna during summer 2004. Visit the Art Gallery of Ontario near Chinatown, with a fine collection of contemporary Canadian, Inuit and European artists. For something a little unusual the Bata Shoe Museum features 10,000 shoes from around the world.

When it comes to restaurants, due to the city’s diverse ethnic culture, Toronto has it all. Tried and tested is Joe Badali’s Ristorante Italiano on Front Street – welcoming and casual with outdoor terrace. Over in the Entertainment district, King Street West is Restaurant Row where Fred’s Not Here serves an eclectic fusion menu with oriental spice and style. Down at the harbour area check out Pier 4 Storehouse, a  Pirate ship styled pub and steak/seafood restaurant right on the waterfront.

For first class shopping, head for the designer stores around Bloor and Yorkville Streets with brand names Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Yonge Street, known as the Strip, is lined with budget fashion, shoe and music shops and the World’s Biggest Bookstore.

During the chilly winter months, shopping could not be more comfortable. Eaton Centre is a five level shopping mall while The Path, the world’s largest shopping complex is a 16 mile underground walkway linking 1,000 stores, shops and restaurants.

For our visit to Toronto we stayed at the Delta Chelsea on Gerrard Street. This is Canada’s largest hotel but you would not realise it. Bb33 diner for great breakfasts and Deck 27 roof top bar by night. Kids leisure centre and adult-only pool. Reserve a luxury Signature room with private guests’ lounge.

Monday

From the Delta Chelsea it’s just a ten minute cab ride down to Union Station. The Via Rail train journey from Toronto to Montreal – The Corridor – departs at the rather civilised time of 11.30am. Alternatively you can travel from Toronto to Montreal on the overnight train. The Enterprise leaves at 11.30pm, arriving Montreal at 8am. The first class Constellation sleeper cars are described as exceptionally luxurious with deluxe double bedrooms.

I thoroughly recommend if you are going to travel by train – do it in style and experience the glamorous world of Via 1 first class accommodation and hospitality.  Arrive in good time at Union Station to check in. For your convenience, your suitcase will be stored in the baggage van while you may take hand luggage on board. Then relax in the Panorama lounge where soft drinks, newspapers and magazines are available. Around 11am Via 1 passengers were invited to proceed for priority boarding. Across the station forecourt we were met by a uniformed official and directed up the escalator to the platform. There, in gleaming steel was a monster of a train looming high above us, the engine already chugging away, ready for departure. An attendant stood at each carriage door directing passengers to their compartment. On board, an impeccably dressed stewardess welcomed us warmly, in French and English, and showed us to our superb airline-style seats. The carriage was gradually filling up – a large extended Japanese family, four elderly ladies and several couples of all ages. Bang on time, the train set off and our journey to Montreal was under way.

We were offered an aperitif before lunch which is included in your Via 1 fare.

This was simply excellent and served with care and leisurely pace. First an appetiser of Artichoke, tomato and olive salad with angel hair pasta, then a choice of Beef, Pork or Salmon, complete with potatoes and green vegetables. To finish, chocolate cake and coffee. Wine and water is also served with the meal. The journey is about 5 hours and so by the time lunch was over, we were half way there. We stop at some quaint historic towns across Ontario – Belleville, Brockville and Kingston – passing near the American border before reaching the province of Quebec. Having experienced the Orient Express, I would certainly say that this first class service on Via Rail is verging on the same standard.

5pm and we arrive in Montreal at Gare Centrale. We retrieve our luggage from the carousel and then make our way to our hotel, Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth which is most conveniently located above the station. Up the escalator and we are in the hotel lobby, all shining marble, elegant furnishings and smart people. “Bonjour” says the receptionist, reminding us that yes, this is a French speaking city.  Our suite is fabulous and we soon settle in, looking forward to exploring Montreal.

Montreal – the new Paris

Buzzing with life and oozing with style, Montreal is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world with an entertainment scene rivalled only by London and New York. The city hosts a series of major international comedy, film, theatre and jazz festivals.

Located on the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, Montreal is an eclectic blend of old and new. Vieux Port – Old Montreal – was formerly the original walled town from the French colonial period of the 17th century. The narrow cobbled streets, public squares and old harbour warehouses have been renovated to create an attractive modern market place of galleries, cafes, boutiques and bars with waterfront promenade.

Vieux Port is the place to come and dine as if you were in Paris. Hidden down a side street you’ll find Chez L’Epicier where Chef Laurent Godbout prepares his own contemporary Quebecois cuisine, with Asian and French accents. Apart from the a la carte menu, there is the special Menu degustation, the Chef’s six course tasting menu. With selected wine per course, this is an utterly exquisite gourmet dining experience.

Montreal is certainly gastronomic city, starting with breakfast.  The city claims to have invented the bagel and a visit to St. Viateur Bagel bakery and coffee shop, Avenue du Mont-Royal Est is a must. Founded in 1957 it has a fine reputation for the best bagel in North America. These are kosher, salt-free hand-rolled, twist-flipped into circles, dusted with sesame or poppy seeds and baked in big wood-fired ovens right on the premises. Then choose your filling from a huge blackboard menu – eggs, bacon, cream cheese, smoked salmon or smoked meat & mustard.  This will set you up for a day of sightseeing.

What about a relaxing stroll around the Botanical Gardens.?  It’s the second largest in the world including 30 separate gardens, greenhouses and Insectarium. The highlights are the beautiful Shanghai Dream Lake and the Japanese Zen garden, perfect for quiet meditation.

Another must-see for all ages is the Biodome, a living museum of plants, birds and animals in recreated natural habitats from rain forest to polar icescape.

For the culture vulture do make time to tour the Museum of Fine Arts and also the Museum of Contemporary Art featuring some stunning Canadian artists as well as Picasso and Warhol.

If you like a bit of a thrill and don’t mind getting wet (very wet), then you must experience the Lachine Rapids Jet Boat ride. This is not just a local institution but a symbol of the spirit, history, fun and adventure that makes Montreal a world class tourist destination. Jet boat passengers are given a sweater, boots, yellow oilskins and life jacket – but you’ll still get soaked to the skin. This one hour wet and wild adventure on the St. Lawrence river is unforgettable and should not be missed.

Montreal by night offers lively bars, French and English-speaking theatre, opera, dance, concerts, jazz and comedy clubs. The Just for Laughs comedy festival each July is world famous. Now 20 years old, it presents 2,000 artists performing for an audience of 2 million. Together with great shopping, Montreal can certainly claim to be the New Paris: stylish, vibrant, youthful, it offers unique and diverse attractions for everyone. No wonder the ultra chic W Hotel brand decided to create their first Canadian hotel in Montreal. The W opened in October 2004. This sparkling, sophisticated, glamorous 21st century urban palace featuring sleek, leather cocktail bars and luxury penthouse suites, will be the place to stay and be seen.

Wednesday night

Au Revoir Montreal. 6pm and it’s time to board the Via Rail train to Halifax.  From the lobby at the Fairmont hotel it’s just an escalator ride down to the train station. We are booked in Easterly Class with a sleeping berth cabin for the 22 hour overnight, 836 mile journey. This is the famous Ocean route through Quebec to New Brunswick and on to Nova Scotia which celebrated its centenary year in 2004. Our suitcases are stored in the baggage van while we may take a small overnight bag with us. The first class departure lounge is packed with passengers and it is difficult to get a seat. The train is called but then we have to stand in line to check in and book dinner reservations. This takes a while so be prepared to wait. But soon we are boarding the train and wander down the carriage to find our cabins. Stewards introduce themselves to let us know about the call button for assistance and continental breakfast which is served in your cabin.

The daytime sofa turns into a bed by night with a second bunk bed above so it is a bit of tight squeeze for two people. There is an ensuite toilet and wash hand basin but no shower.  We set off half an hour later than scheduled but soon we’re on our way as night falls.

We had booked dinner for 8.30pm so decided to freshen up and change then explore the train to find the bar for a drink. Unfortunately Easterly Class on this Ocean route does not offer the same first class luxury service as The Corridor from Toronto to Montreal. We found a small lounge which was fully occupied but at 8.15pm the bar was not open. About twenty people were waiting for the second sitting of dinner so we decided to go back to our cabin and come back later. By 9pm the dining car was open. Simple, everyday cuisine with a choice of about two or three dishes per course. Salad or soup, chicken or salmon with vegetarian option. The kitchen had run out of bread rolls. Service was slap dash as the waiters were rather pressurised to serve everyone. The good news is the menu is budget priced.

Having got over the disappointment of below par first class train compartments, we began to settle down to the journey ahead. We had books to pass the time. To bed quite sharp as it had been a tiring day and we didn’t think we would sleep too soundly in the rolling, rollicking train. Little sleep, it is true, but the experience was fun, moving through the night to a new destination by the ocean. Breakfast was served in my cabin around 8.30am – cornflakes, orange juice, croissant, coffee. Only later, when we went for a “walk” along the train, did we find that the restaurant was serving a hot breakfast. People were digging into scrambled eggs and bacon, toast and pots of coffee. What a shame our steward failed to let us know about this. Now you know.

The two small lounge cars on either side of the restaurant were usually full all day – couples and families with children – so difficult to get a seat. We thought there would be an Observation car but no, not on this train. We enjoyed staring out the window at the changing landscape, fields, rivers and forests, passing through small towns and villages such as Petit Rocher with just 2,000 inhabitants.

The morning passed by and then time for lunch. Again a simple affair, pizza and salad. This is cafeteria food , not restaurant standard.  Just as we had finished lunch, the train came to a stop. Technical problems. The power had failed so the restaurant had to close, no air conditioning and it was a hot day. After an hour, the train slowly moved off and cool air began to circulate. It is a long journey but watching the world fly by to the rhythm of the wheels is entertainment enough. You may not even open your book. The train has been delayed along the way and we eventually reach Halifax two hours late around 6.15pm. We are rather weary but it has been great fun.  However, more comfortable accommodation, a shower, quality cuisine, a bar and a more personal, attentive service by staff would have made this a fantastic railway journey to remember.

After a short wait, we collect our luggage off the carousel and walk through the station to the far side where our next hotel, The Westin Nova Scotia is located, a two minute walk from the train. We are greeted by a kilted bell boy at the door.

Halifax – the first British town in Canada

Halifax, capital of the Atlantic provinces, preserves a fine sense of heritage and tradition reflecting Acadian French roots and the Celtic cultures of the Irish and Highland Scots. The city’s fascinating history is captured in world-class visitor attractions, the Harbour Waterfront, maritime museums and Citadel Hill, the star shaped fortress which dominates the city. Visitors are taken on a tour of the castle, reliving the period around 1869 when the 78th Highland Regiment was stationed here. Costumed soldiers dressed in Mackenzie clan tartan kilts, feathered bonnets and bright red doublets create a colourful sight. Good tip: Entrance to the Citadel  from October to May is free. $6 /$4 during the summer months.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic down at the Waterfront is well worth a visit. The story of Halifax and the Nova Scotia coastline is documented from the days of fishing boats and tall-masted schooners as well as tales of shipwrecks, hidden treasure and wartime disasters at sea. Learn about Samuel Cunard, born in Halifax who founded the famous Cunard line offering luxury steamship travel around the world. A major attraction is the commemoration of The Titanic, the great liner which sank on the maiden voyage in 1912 when she hit an iceberg. While the survivors were taken by the rescue ship to New York, the bodies were taken to Halifax, the nearest port. This is a most moving exhibition featuring photographs, passenger lists, menus, crockery, ephemera and also the only intact deckchair in existence.

Canadians may be interested to trace their ancestry at the Pier 21 museum. Between 1928 and 1971, one million people emigrated to Canada and their first port of call was Halifax. It’s a superb multimedia and interactive presentation.

Nova Scotia is a natural playground for outdoor sports, walking, cycling, golf, fishing, diving, surfing, sailing, canoeing, bird and whale watching. For fabulous scenery, old fishing villages and unspoilt beaches, visit Peggy’s Cove, Fisherman’s Cove and Cape Breton Island. Take a Lighthouse tour around the rugged coastline or walk the Cabot Trail across the Highlands National park. In winter months you can skate on the frozen lakes and enjoy ski-ing near Windsor, about an hour from Halifax.

Right along the Waterfront you’ll find coffee houses, bars, bistros and restaurants. Many are renovated old warehouses where you can enjoy a meal while admiring all the boats and naval ships moored along the jetty. For the freshest seafood including mussels, Atlantic salmon and deep sea scallops, do book a window or outdoor patio table at Salty’s – fine food and lively atmosphere.

Downtown Halifax is easy to explore on foot around its quaint old streets and the Waterfront with its arts, crafts and gift shops. Take a British red double deck bus or Harbour Hopper tour to see the sights. Halifax has several theatres presenting drama, dance, musicals and concerts. You’ll find a lively nightlife with pubs and cabaret bars as well as a Casino. The sports calendar too draws the crowds for ice hockey, boat festivals and sailing events – Halifax has frequently hosted the magnificent Tall Ships.

The diverse community celebrates its multicultural society through music festivals, folk art and craft fairs, Highland games and Ceilidhs. There’s even a statue of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, in the public gardens.

It’s an astounding fact. There are now as many Scots in Canada as in Scotland. Canada has a population of 32 million, of which 4 million claim to have Scottish roots. A large proportion of Scots Canadians live in Ontario and Nova Scotia – Latin for New Scotland named by the immigrant Scots who were the first British settlers followed by the Irish in search of work and a better life. Halifax was founded in 1749 as the first British town in Canada, a military stronghold and, with its huge natural harbour, an important port – the Gateway to Eastern Canada.

Photo credits – Ken Scott and Via Rail Canada

Visitor information

www.torontotourism.com www.tourism-montreal.org  www.halifaxinfo.com  www.viarail.ca

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