Travelling from Montreal to Halifax aboard the VIA Rail Ocean train, Product Manager James shares his experiences of Atlantic Canada.
‘West is Best’ is always a statement I lived by when visiting Canada, but the opportunity to see the Canadian Maritimes was too good to pass up. This trip to Atlantic Canada would prove a little bit different as I would be travelling by train and car rather than flying, and it would only be for a few days, so there was a whole lot to see in a short space of time. Boarding the VIA rail ‘Ocean’ train in Montreal, I checked into my cabin for the overnight trip to Moncton in New Brunswick.
You can only take an overnight bag into the carriages with you as your larger cases are kept in the luggage car (this is rail travel after all) so I was told to “plan carefully and don’t forget your pyjamas”. Whilst the cabins are compact, there is plenty of room for two passengers to comfortably sit and watch the beautiful Canadian scenery pass by, plus a full bathroom including a shower. Once I headed off to dinner, the carriage guard converted the cabin into my bedroom for the night. One or two single bunk beds drop down from the walls depending on how many people are travelling, so if there are two of you toss a coin to see who gets the top bunk. A must for today’s traveller, Wi-Fi is available in selected public areas on the train and the service is very good, but it is not available in the cabins.
“Sit comfortably and watch the beautiful Canadian scenery go by.”
The next morning I woke to a picturesque view from my cabin window of the stunning New Brunswick countryside.
It was very easy to just lie in your bed and watch the Chaleur Bay and forests pass by…but remember to pull the blind when you travel through the many towns en route, especially if the train makes a stop! Breakfast is served in the dining car and there is a wonderful selection of hot and cold items to choose from to start your day off right. Once breakfast was finished it was time to head up to the park car at the very rear of the train. This is a bi-level coach with a raised seating area and large panoramic windows for even better views of the surrounding country side, plus an armchair seating area to relax or chat with other travellers. Hot drinks are available during the day but there is also a small bar in the evenings if you fancy a little tipple after dinner.
“The scenic Bay of Fundy coastal drives takes you through beautiful towns, small ports, national park and stunning coastline”.
By lunchtime I arrived into Moncton; time to disembark and to start exploring New Brunswick! I headed straight out onto the open road but I wanted to avoid the big highways as much as possible, so I followed the Bay of Fundy Coastal drive. This scenic route takes you through some beautiful small towns and ports, Fundy national park and, in some places, along the coastline. First port of call on my road trip was the amazing Hopewell Rocks, where the tides rise and fall by as much as 52 feet twice daily – that’s the height of two houses!
Depending on the time that you visit, you can walk across the ocean floor (low tide) or kayak the coastline (high tide). Whatever the time of day, the interpretive centre is worth a wander. Kids will love it and the family ticket is an excellent price, plus your ticket entitles you to return and see the opposite tide to your first visit for free. For the perfect pit stop, a friend had recommended I take a break in the town of Alma and head to Kelly’s Bake Shop – home of the best sticky buns ever, and they didn’t disappoint.
“The vibrant city of Saint John is the perfect base for exploring the varied Fundy Coast.”
My first night was spent in the port city of Saint John; a vibrant city that is the perfect place to base yourself to explore the Fundy Coast. My hotel during my stay was the Hilton Saint John, which sits on the harbour and some of the rooms have great views of the Saint John River. The hotel is also located within walking distance of some fabulous restaurants and bars, where I was made to feel welcome at every turn. I chose the East Coast Bistro for dinner and what a great choice it turned out to be. Owners and head chefs, Tim and Kim (yes really) have a fabulous bistro style menu to choose from, with all of the seasonal ingredients locally sourced or made in house – really tasty food!
I spent the next morning exploring Saint John including the port area and a visit to the indoor city market, which is the oldest market in North America. Open 6 days a week, this wonderful old building is built on an incline and runs for a whole city block. There were stalls for country vendors and greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers, souvenirs and craftspeople, plus some great little cafés which were perfect for a spot of breakfast. Time to head out for more exploring – this time to the Fundy Trail parkway, which was only a short 1 hour drive from Saint John. The parkway is a 12 mile drive that hugs the Fundy coastline as it takes you through the 2500 hectare park.
“The Fundy Trail Parkway is a trove of hiking trails, hidden waterfalls and secluded coastlines.”
Along this scenic drive there are 20 lookout points where you can park your car, variously offering stunning views of the coastline, waterfalls to be discovered and a suspension bridge, which was good fun to walk/bounce across. There is plenty more to discover, especially on the hundreds of miles of hiking trails that cross the park or follow the coastline. There are different lengths of hikes to choose from depending on your fitness level but around every corner is the most beautiful scenery that keeps your camera clicking.
After a full day exploring, I was looking forward to enjoying another evening in Saint John and another recommendation – this time a restaurant called Port City Royal. Voted No.2 in the list of Canada’s best new restaurants, it was easy to see why. With its relaxed atmosphere helped along by music from the record player behind the bar (no CDs here) and its own take on favourite recipes, it was a very enjoyable meal full of flavour, and they even let me look through their record collection. If you like a pub offering a wide choice of beers, I enjoyed a stop at the Saint John Ale House, where they have a huge selection of ales and specialty beers on tap. The wine list is also pretty extensive, making it the perfect spot to relax after a hard day on the trail and enjoy a great dinner.
“St. Andrews by-the-Sea is a really special town, and very easy to fall in love with.”
Leaving the city of Saint John behind the next morning, it was time to head further down the Fundy coast to the seaside town of St. Andrews by-the-Sea. This is a really special town that is very easy to fall in love with; a quiet sleepy place in the winter that comes alive in the summer. The main street is full of small artisan shops and locally owned restaurants with beautiful views of the port.
The port is alive with boats offering trips out to see the marine wildlife that call these shores home during the warmer summer months, including many species of whales. I joined one of the Zodiac boats run by Fundy Tide Runners, but before I could climb aboard with the other eager mariners, I had to put on the correct outfit. It can get chilly out on the water, even in the summertime, so everyone is provided with a bright orange survival suit to help keep you warm; think bright orange Michelin man and you have the idea of how I looked.
Small and fast is the best way to describe a Zodiac boat but they are a lot of fun, especially as they zip their way across the bay in search of whales. This can sometimes take a little time, but it is worth it. The best time of year to see whales is September but they tend to start appearing from June onwards. There is nothing to describe the first time you see a whale breaking the surface of the sea – you are normally so awed you forget to have your camera ready. These slow, majestic creatures know how to put on a show and usually make sure you have plenty of time to get that treasured photograph after you have got over the initial awe. Besides the whales, this area is full of history and your boat captain will be more than happy to tell some of the many stories of how immigrants settled in the area and made it what it is today.
“There is nothing to describe the first time you see a whale breaching.”
Back on dry land, it was time for a slightly slower pace with a visit to Kingsbrae Garden, named one of Canada’s top ten public gardens. Offering 27 acres of glorious gardens to explore there is a lot to discover, including an original Dutch windmill, strange works of art, alpacas, peacocks and over 50,000 perennials in the many themed gardens.
Kingsbrae is not only well known for its gardens but its two restaurants: the Garden Café and Savour in the Garden have both received countless accolades. Overseeing everything culinary at Kingsbrae Garden is award winning Chef Alex Haun whose menu is created from produce grown in the garden and all across New Brunswick, so the flavours are very local mixed with the influences of Alex’s many travels. If you want to have dinner at Savour in the Garden, book in advance as it is very popular.
For my final night in New Brunswick and St Andrews by-the-Sea, I stayed at the Algonquin Resort (not to be mistaken with the Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario). This grand hotel is open all year round and sits atop a hill overlooking the rest of the town. The facilities are second to none in the area, with an outdoor and indoor pool for that early morning swim, a waterslide for the kids to play on, a fabulous spa for some well-earned TLC and a wonderful veranda for sipping classic cocktails at the end of the day. I stayed in one of the Patio rooms which have their own private balcony overlooking the hotel grounds – a great spot for some quiet reading or watching the sunrise.
After a good night’s sleep in my very comfortable bed and a hearty breakfast, it was back on the road to Moncton to re-join the VIA rail Ocean train for the next part of my journey in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
To read part two of the adventure, click here.