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Trip Report Montreal to Halifax: Showing My Parents A Smidgeon of My Favourite Things in Eastern Canada

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QUEBEC
My parents, who live in northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. recently drove up to my recently purchased condo in the Plateau Mont-Royal district of Montreal. In thanks for their anteing up 25% of the cash down on my place (and thereby making my life and mortgage easier), as a part of their visit as a treat, I bought them tickets on VIA Rail from Montreal-Halifax.

I’ve lived in Montreal for quite some time now, but in different parts of town, and I’d been looking forward to introducing them to my quartier, which happens to be my favourite neighbourhood anywhere, the Plateau. I can’t tell you how pleased I was when Mom fell for the living, breathing charm of it all, especially loving the ambience of the Parc Lafontaine, whose “pond” was far bigger than she’d imagined. She told me she felt transported to Europe, with people sitting on benches relaxing with friends, with the music of guitarists and woodwind instruments suffusing the air. She felt she finally understood why it was that I seemed so hell-bound on living in the area!

The Quebec portion of the trip, Montreal again won my parents hearts not only through their stomachs as usual (they enjoy the superior, fresh breads), but also from a day trip to Mont Saint-Hilaire, only a 40 minute drive from the city. Although I’d heard Mont-Saint Hilaire was nice, (being my first time here also), I expected mostly pleasant wooded paths through forest. As a result, I was surprised when the exit from the Autoroute leading to the Centre Nature lead us by some attractive, charming Richelieu River-front homes, a silver-steepled church and some handsome orchards along the way. Once at the Centre-Nature, I was again surprised at the beauty, as a 0.5km wooded path lead directly to Lac Hertel, where we felt almost transported to the boreal wilderness as the picnic tables we sat at and the paths arriving were the only sign of man’s presence around the circumference of the lake. My Mom, an active birder, had a special treat since while we were admiring the frogs, tadpoles and little fish swimming hither and thither, the rare (in Virginia) rose-breasted grosbeak perched on a branch maybe 6 feet away from all our eyes for a good 2 minutes. Even know-little-about-birds ME felt it was a special moment.

Next installment: my parents see Maritime Canada for the first time in their 68 years on this Earth.

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    My parents are actually a pretty well-travelled bunch and have lived in Europe, East and West Africa; just happens that theAtlantic Provinces is one region their travels have missed. Anyhow, my Mom especially had talked about how she’s wanted to go to P.E.I. and Nova Scotia for years now, but as with many dreams we all have, these ones never seemed to materialize into anything concrete. So, I proposed that this visit to Montreal they would combine with a train ride to Nova Scotia and the parents were game.

    For those who have taken the Ocean train to Halifax in the past (such as myself), it’s worth noting that there are a few changes since when I went in 2003. We went VIA Rail’s Easterly class double bedroom out to Halifax and comfort sleeping class double bedroom on the way back. These trains use the “Renaissance” cars, which are a different layout from the old stainless steel cars… for example, not all the cars have inroom showers, and this time each of the bedrooms has an attached separated bathroom. Unfortunately, berths are not available on these trains, which were a more affordable option (relative to the cheapest sleeper option, which is now double bedroom) for single sleepr car passengers on this route… I’ve written VIA in the hopes that the situation will change.

    The Easterly class was a terrific experience, with a real Maritimer Learning Coordinator (Steve) who regaled us with many facts about Maritime Canada in the panoramic-view dome car as we passed various places throughout the journey. Chocolates, a detailed route guide and an elegant snack mix await passengers upon boarding. Meals and initial glass of champagne are complimentary and orange juice & coffee are always available in the Dome Car. As we entered Nova Scotia, Steve would conduct a wine-tasting experience for Easterly passengers, showcasing Nova Scotia-produced vineyards. I learned much about each region as we passed through it.

    Highlights on the journey parents and I agree were
    1) Matapédia Valley (you must get up early for this…the smell of this region is so distinct, fresh with pine and birch, Steve said the smell should be bottled), with the sloping coniferous sides surrounding the Restigouche River. (QUEBEC)
    2) The ever-widening mouth of the Baie des Chaleurs with the hilly shores of the Gaspé opposite. Terrific sunsets westbound here are possible!
    3) Small villages, churches, barns and pastoral settings that dot the entire journey
    4) Mud flats in the tidal basins of the Bay of Fundy near Sackville NB/Amherst NS
    5) The lakes approaching Halifax proper

    Mom was wondering how we were going to manage THREE whole days in Halifax, as Dad had decided not to rent a car to avoid the hassle at the last minute. Looking at the pictures of Halifax in the Frommer’s 2003 guide, Mom thought Halifax was going to be too “big city” as the glassy skyscrapers of Casino Nova Scotia are shown front and centre on the cover, despite my assurances that that cover page, to me, did not depict Halifax accurately, she was concerned.

    It turns out that our stay in Halifax was just magical and Mom agreed that Frommer’s front-and-centre picture, while perhaps appealing to some Chamber of Commerce somewhere, totally missed the boat on the essence of Halifax. Mom would have picked a street with gaily painted wooden Victorian homes lined one after the other like on the street where our B&B lay.

    More Halifax to come... I see somewhere new that I really fell for in the Halifax Regional Muncipicality...

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    Arriving on a Monday evening and leaving on Friday around 12:30, we had essentially only 3 full days in Halifax. Our bed and breakfast(Garden View) was in a lovingly appointed old Victorian home right near the Commons and was well-situated for exploring the city; evenings we enjoyed just sitting out on the porch. A common theme with fellow train passengers and guests at the B&B seemed to be: spend a night in Halifax and then move on to Cape Breton, P.E.I., the South Shore, etc… We either walked downtown or took one of the quite regular (#6 or #20) buses into downtown for further exploration.

    Day 1 was spent first at the Citadel ($10 entry), then down at the Waterfront. Mom also thought the gaily painted wooden fishing shacks at the Waterfront would have been a more à-propos-to-Halifax choice for a front cover picture; she was charmed watching the glassblowing (one of the oldest facilities in North America) near the ferry terminal. We had a fish & chips lunch at Little Fish on Argyle near the Grand Parade (seafood paté was excellent here; beer-battered fish was a little too fried and heavy for my tastes although I’m sure some would like). We moseyed down to Spring Garden Road and up to the Public Gardens, which my Mom thought was very pretty. She couldn’t believe the rhododendrons were still in bloom, loved the weeping elm and prevalence of benches.

    Day 2 we caught the #9 bus out to Point Pleasant Park where we had a picnic lunch. Shocking how the park has been devastated by hurricane/spruce longhorn beetle since 2003, but nevertheless the views of the Northwest Arm from the rocks and the water from the tip of the peninsula (War Memorial Park) make you just want to sit and savour the beauty. I’d been before and both my parents loved the feel of the place and were glad I’d recommended the park for our itinerary.

    Day 3 was predicted rain all day, but luckily after a bit of a downpour became just overcast late morning. Since cheapskates that we all are, we decided against a bus out to Peggy’s Cove ($40 each); I’d never been before so suggested we all go out to Fisherman’s Cove instead ($1.40 each on Metro transit Senior’s rate; $2 for adult). We took the ferry across to Dartmouth and caught the #60 bus out to Fisherman’s Cove. At first I doubted my decision to do this, as the bus passes by oil refineries and some somewhat run-down areas of Dartmouth. But it turned out that Fisherman’s Cove was one of our favourite excursions (and the most charming). While perhaps less dramatic than Peggy’s Cove, the setting is scenic, and the colourful wooden fishing shacks with lobster traps left impression of what we imagined to be true Nova Scotia flavour (even though there is a tourist information center here, it did not seem terribly touristy). Somehow the boardwalk seemed more appropriately Nova Scotian that misty, overcast day and wind whipped up the water and the boardwalk offered up lovely views of McNab’s, Lawlor’s and Devil’s Island (with lighthouse and lifeboat station to be seen) out in the Harbour. Best of all the haddock at one of the restaurants (Wharf Wraps) was divinely tender, thickly white and fresh…Mom said the haddock was the best she’d had anywhere.

    As we took the Dartmouth Ferry back toward the Halifax waterfront, the sun crept out and the view from the upper deck was magnificent of the harbour (love George’s Island with its lighthouse), a wonderful final touch of my parents’ introduction to Nova Scotia.

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    Daniel, I always enjoy your posts & am so happy that you & your parents have had this special time together. I grew up in Nova Scotia so I am smiling as I read about your travels. So beautiful.

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    Re-reading what I wrote I realize that one important aspect of the Ocean train ride I forgot to mention that if one takes a double bedroom and does not go Easterly class (it's called Comfort Sleeper Class), that although the rooms are essentially the same as Easterly class and one has access to the dining car, that meals, juice and coffee are no longer complimentary with your ticket ($18 for supper in dining car). Also, a major difference in a comfort sleeper is one does not have access to the panoramic view Dome Car, wine tasting or the complimentary glass of champagne and mimosa. We went Easterly class out to Halifax and Comfort Sleeping Class on the return trip.

    Thanks cmcfong and Wow for reading and your kind comments.

    Wow-- I'm glad I don't live too far from the province you grew up in. While what I've seen I might not describe as mindblowing or breathtaking scenery, there is such a simple, peaceful beauty that pervades Nova Scotia that I truly love and find myself reluctant to pull myself away (that I hope Nova Scotians won't bulldoze in the name of "progress"). I was so pleased to be able to introduce my parents to "Canada's Ocean Playground" and look forward to returning.

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    Hi Daniel, taking off my lurker's hat for a moment to tell you how much I (as a former Montrealer and now Maritimer) enjoy your reports and everything you share on this board. I am sure your parents had a wonderful time with you as a guide.

    Cheers.

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