Travelling from Montreal to Halifax aboard the VIA Rail Ocean train, Product Manager James shares his experiences of Atlantic Canada.
Moncton to Halifax is a shorter journey than my first Atlantic Canada leg from Montreal to Moncton, so I travelled in economy seating rather than with a cabin. The VIA Rail seats are wider than an aeroplane seat and recline, so after a comfortable journey of only 5 hours, I pulled into the station in the centre of Halifax. As I was arriving by train I had booked into the Westin Nova Scotian which is connected to the station – you really can walk from the station straight into the hotel reception without stepping outside, which is great if the weather isn’t so good. My room had a great view of the city but there are also rooms available with a view over Halifax harbour, where you can sit and watch the many ships that pass through the port each day.
“If you like seafood, you’ll be in seventh heaven in Atlantic Canada.”
If you like seafood then you will be in seventh heaven when visiting Atlantic Canada. I had the pleasure of trying lobster, scallops, mussels, oysters and halibut in my short time in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They were all fresh that day and totally delicious. My first evening in Halifax was spent at a fabulous restaurant called the Five Fisherman, not only the home to some of the tastiest seafood in Halifax but set in a building with links to the Titanic disaster (I will come back to that later). I’d had the pleasure of eating lobster in the past but I had never tried cracking a whole lobster – nutcracker, pick and all – and this was my opportunity.
Thankfully the tools of the trade include a bib, which I would recommend wearing it if you ever get the chance to try this as there is the potential for lobster meat to go everywhere. Some friends who joined me for dinner had done this before and guided me through which parts to crack for the best meat and which parts to avoid – in short, just leave the head well alone. Some people may not enjoy having to work for their supper but I found it a lot of fun and would recommend you have a go if you ever get the chance.
My final full day in Atlantic Canada was going to be a busy one, so a traditional Canadian breakfast of pancakes and bacon with lashings of maple syrup was the perfect start. I wanted to get a sense of how Halifax is laid out and learn some of its history, so I joined a city tour that would take me to all the main places of interest. Locals say that wherever you want to go within the downtown centre of Halifax, it is no more than 20 minutes’ walk from where you are. I can quite believe it as the centre is very compact and easy to get around if you did want to explore on foot. The tour included stops at the public gardens and the star shaped Halifax Citadel which overlooks the city. Here you can step back in time and see how the soldiers and their families lived and worked in the fort. But for me, the most fascinating part of the tour was the city’s connection with the Titanic (I said I would come back to it).
“Fairview Lawn Cemetery is filled with the nameless graves of those who perished aboard the Titanic. It is a very moving experience.”
I am sure you know the story of how the Titanic struck an iceberg in the early hours of the 15th April 1912 but what many people don’t know is what happened afterwards and the important role that Halifax played. Whilst the survivors went to New York, all of those that perished – along with their belongings – were taken to Halifax. Even in death a class system was imposed, and as there was limited space in the city mortuary, only the deceased first class passengers were taken there. The mortuary at that time was in the building that is now the Five Fishermen restaurant where I ate the night before. All of those who perished were given a number as they were recovered, until such time as they were identified by relatives or family members. Unfortunately many were never formally identified and to this day are buried in three cemeteries in Halifax with just their number to mark their grave.
My city tour visited the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where some of those who lost their lives are buried. It is a very moving experience but one I would encourage you to consider when you visit Halifax. If you want to see more about the Titanic including artefacts recovered from the ship, head to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic which can be found on Lower Water Street as they have a fantastic exhibit.
With my orientation of Halifax complete it was time to see some of the surrounding area, so back onto the open road for me. I was heading out to the world famous Peggy’s Cove – possibly one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world – but I needed to make a quick stop en-route for a few souvenirs, and what better than some delightful maple syrup. I had been told the place to head for was Acadian Maple Products, which happened to be on the way so it worked out perfectly. Talk about spoilt for choice – they have all different grades of maple syrup (the grading is done by age and colour), maple infused coffee, maple butter, maple sugar and lots more besides. The staff at the shop were more than happy to explain how the maple syrup is made from the sap of the trees and, for some products, to let you try before you buy. They also have toilets available, which is perfect if you have children with you.
“I was heading out to the world famous Peggy’s Cove – possibly one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world.”
I was taking a circular route to Peggy’s Cove, as this meant that I did not cover the same ground twice and I got to see more of the area. The drive along St. Margaret’s Bay is very picturesque and passes through lots of small towns and villages. It is very tempting to stop when you see a seafront house for sale; it is that beautiful that you can just imagine yourself living there. Peggy’s Cove is not just the lighthouse, it is in fact a tiny village at the head of the peninsula and you have to remember that these are real people’s houses when you are taking your photographs – try not to wander all over their front gardens!
The lighthouse itself stands proudly on the rocky shore and does make a great photograph from any angle. It can be quite busy so you will have to get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon if you want a picture of just the lighthouse without other people. If you fancy a spot of lunch whilst you are here try the Sou’Wester restaurant – it is right next to the car park and the food was simple but really good.
I arrived back into Halifax in the late afternoon and wanted to explore a little more, this time on foot. Just behind my hotel – the Westin Nova Scotian – is the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, which is the original part of the port where some of the early immigrants from Europe landed in Canada. If you have relatives that live in Canada it is a very interesting place to pay a visit to. From here you can walk right along the harbour front and experience its many bars, restaurants, art work, buskers and much more. It is a fantastic atmosphere and real draw for locals as well as visitors. Remember: go where the locals go and you can’t go wrong.
Whilst my visit to New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia was short, and I had only covered a very small piece of what they both have to offer, what I did see was eye opening and undoubtedly a fantastic experience. The people were friendly (aren’t all Canadians?), the food was amazing – especially the seafood, the views were spectacular and the flight to and from Halifax is only 5 hours. What’s not to love?
Miss Part 1 of James’ Atlantic Canada adventure? Find it here.