A Tale of Two Cities – Halifax & Montreal linked by VIA Rail ‘Ocean’ Service
Having enjoyed many USA road trips, Canada seemed to be calling my husband and I.
Our plan was a few nights in Halifax, Nova Scotia, followed by the overnight VIA Rail service to Montreal where we would stay for a further 2 nights. We were keen to discover two very different cities and enjoy the changing scenery through the region known as Maritime Canada.
Just 6 hours flying time from London is the compact city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Not much bigger than a large UK town, Halifax is capital of Nova Scotia and Canada’s important Eastern gateway with an impressive harbour. As your plane prepares to land you may find yourself asking – ‘where is this city?’ Mile upon mile of tree covered wilderness, with no buildings in sight is a bit concerning. Never fear, at the last minute Stanfield International Airport appears – welcome to Nova Scotia where you will never be far from a pine forest.
On arrival you will be relieved to find that it doesn’t take long to clear immigration, the bonus of a small airport. Pick up a rental car or take the airport shuttle bus and in about 30 minutes you will be downtown.
Halifax has a laid back and relaxed atmosphere which appealed to us. It has a strong maritime history and all the main city hotels are within easy reach of the historic waterfront. This was by far my favourite part of town whatever time of day. The 4km boardwalk has fabulous views over the ocean with thoughtfully placed traditional Adirondack chairs and inviting hammocks available along the way. At the southern end is the Cruise Terminal where the visiting liners dock for a day or two of sightseeing. Here you will find the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A fascinating place where you can follow the timeline of immigrants, arriving from all over the world, who helped make Canada the successful multi-cultural country that it is today.
Halifax Seaport Farmers Market is just next door and a great place to pick up a coffee and locally baked cinnamon roll whilst browsing local crafts and produce.
Follow the boardwalk towards the centre of town and you will come to pop up food vendors offering the local delicacy ‘poutine’ (chips with curds and gravy) and the famous lobster rolls. I know which I prefer! In the summer you may come across an outdoor concert; our visit co-incided with the annual Mac n’Cheese Festival – quite an experience!
Also on the waterfront is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a fascinating insight into the seafaring history of Halifax. Discover the emotional stories of both the Titanic Disaster, and the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917 when nearly 2000 people lost their lives. Follow the part that Halifax played in WW2 as a major port for the North Atlantic Convoys and understand shipbuilding over the ages.
A 2-day stopover doesn’t give you time for everything and Halifax boasts some great museums and galleries, immaculate Victorian Gardens and the Citadel – a national historic site. This star shaped fort is situated on the top of the hill overlooking the harbour and was built by the British to defend the city. The grounds inside the fort are open all year with guided tours available from May to October. Be prepared for the daily firing of the ‘noon day gun’, a tradition dating back to 1857.
VIA Rail Canada
From Halifax we took the VIA Rail overnight ‘Ocean Service’ train to Montreal. 24 hours on a train is quite an experience and made a change from driving. VIA Rail offers two main fare options – a reclining seat with access to a buffet car to buy snacks and light meals, or a sleeper cabin which includes meals and also gives access to a lounge with free WiFi and, of course, the iconic viewing car. Our cabin was bijou – I think that is the word to use! Swinging cats was not really an option but it did have full ensuite facilities and was very comfortable. We had been advised to check our suitcases into the luggage car and just take a small overnight bag on board, great advice.
Our steward welcomed us on board at 1.00pm and explained how everything worked and we were soon feeling at home. Lunch was served within 15 minutes of us leaving Halifax, a full 3 courses including a rather delicious dessert! During the afternoon we joined fellow passengers in the viewing car, we swapped stories over complimentary snacks, coffee and tea, and enjoyed watching the countryside change from pine forests, across rivers, over vast plains and through small rural communities. Our route took us north through Nova Scotia, into New Brunswick and finally Quebec. A 10 minute stop in Moncton gave us the chance to stretch our legs, then back on board for a delicious 3 course dinner. Meanwhile our cabin was being expertly transformed into bunk beds, complete with complimentary chocolate on the pillow. We drew straws for the top bunk (he won) and were soon rocked to sleep as the train sped through the night. Breakfast was early as many passengers disembarked at Quebec. Freshly cooked eggs, bacon and all the usual fare plus fruit, pastries and lots of coffee. All too soon Montreal came into sight as we left the countryside behind and headed for the high rise buildings on the horizon.
Train travel is a really great experience especially in Canada, and VIA Rail didn’t disappoint. You have total relaxation for 24 hours, WiFi is available if needed but it was a treat to just ‘switch off’.
This is one sassy city where French is widely spoken, and that includes signage and public announcements. Montreal is a complete contrast to Halifax with its streets shaded by towering skyscrapers in the downtown area, and an atmosphere of hustle and bustle. Suddenly we were back in the land of the big brand stores, designer boutiques and familiar restaurants.
With just 2 days at our disposal we soon worked out how the Metro worked, it is very straightforward and great value at just CAD10 for a 24-hour ticket. We hit the ground running and after dropping our bags at our very central hotel our first stop was Montreal’s historic old town and a ride on La Grande Roué, Montreal’s big observation wheel. It was a perfect late summer day with a clear blue sky, and we enjoyed views in every direction. Having just arrived it was a good way to orientate ourselves with the different parts of the city. From the wheel we walked into Vieux Montreal, the old city, an area of cobbled streets, bars and cafes bedecked with flowers. The elegant and historical building that houses the Bonsecours Market showcases the best artisan shops and galleries with original artwork and crafts on sale.
The following day, with the skies still blue, we took the Metro to the Olympic Park, much of it is currently closed for renovation but we did enjoy a ride the funicular to the top of the observation tower. Famous for its 45-degree tilt, it is the tallest inclined tower in the world.
A short walk away are the Botanic Gardens and this for me was the highlight of Montreal. There is so much to see that you need to put aside plenty of time and pace yourself. You will find seats hidden away that entice you to rest for a while, overlooking lakes or gardens or just in quiet corners. Explore the expertly maintained specimen gardens, the gloriously colourful Chinese Garden or sit by the lake and watch the many species of birds that make the gardens their home. Planting changes with the seasons so there is always something new to enjoy.
Our last morning we explored Mount Royal, a small mountain that is now an extensive area of beautiful parkland overlooking the city. In summer the park is host to open air concerts, picnicking families, hikers and cyclists and in the winter it becomes a winter sports playground. We were just content to sit and admire yet more views from the massive terrace in front of the Mount Royal Chalet. The long walk back downhill was just what we needed before setting off for the airport and the flight home.
We flew from London Heathrow to Halifax with Air Canada and booked car hire with Avis. We were able to drop the car off in Halifax downtown before the train, and we didn’t need a car in Montreal. We flew back to London with Air Canada from Montreal.
The advice and help we had from Frontier was invaluable as their staff know the area so well.
ViaRail schedules, fares and routes are at www.viarail.ca/en
Where to stay
In Halifax we were fortunate to be guests of the Prince George Hotel and Discover Halifax. The hotel oozes understated elegance and has spacious rooms with pretty patio areas to enjoy a light lunch or evening drink. The property is ideally situated just few blocks from the waterfront and surrounded by restaurants and bars. A secure underground car park facility is a bonus in any city.
In Montreal we chose the quirky Auberge le Bon Matin. This charming B&B is made up of 3 historical townhouses in the centre of downtown just across from a Metro Station. The rooms are spacious; ours had a private patio which is hard to find in a city centre. As with many private B&B’s, we enjoyed the most delicious home cooked breakfast each morning.
For more ideas of holidays in Canada contact Frontier Canada for expert advice and suggestions.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier Canada.