Even though we are both Lauries', we realize that reading our travelogue might be a bit confusing. To help clarify this I will use my given name which is Lorraine.
BRAS D'OR - THE TWO LAURIE'S TRAIN ADVENTURE
Our excursion began on Sunday, July 30th in Brockville Ontario. We were full of anticipation as we eagerly awaited the 2:50 train from Toronto. After a further 45 minutes, we finally boarded the VIA first class coach to Montreal. It was crowded and, after some confusion, two separate seats were found, and our meal was promptly served. Drinks were offered, followed by a most tasty salad of tomatoes, feta cheese and roasted peppers. I had the cannelloni, and Lorraine sampled the turkey cutlet. Both were equally delicious, however the dessert of layered wafers and cream proved very difficult to cut. Seats became available in Dorval allowing us to sit together and discuss our great adventure down east.
We arrived at the Montreal Train Station at 6:00 p.m. After a forty minute wait we boarded the "Ocean" the aptly named train that would take us to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our steward, introduced himself as crazy Ron. With great flare he took us to our adjacent roomettes, and explained the features within. The compartments contained both toilet and sink, a wide comfortable seat with pillow, and a large window with privacy blind for great viewing. The bed, concealed during the day, easily folded down from the wall and was clamped securely in place. There was plenty of storage room for luggage below, as well as a large recessed shelf above. Ron also gave us particulars about the dining, dome, smoking, and park car. He explained that our continental breakfast was served in the park car, one car behind, from 5:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. Coffee was available 24 hours a day.
The dining car was full, so we opted for the dome car. Complimenting the unique and marvelous view of the scenery, were several interesting people, many of them avid train buffs. One Wisconsin couple headed for Newfoundland, were great fans of VIA. The diner was still full so we decided to wait in line. Passengers had to squeeze past us in the corridor under tight conditions, but this was done good naturedly, resulting in several humorous quips and much snickering. In particular, one woman commented that while she wouldn't remember our faces, she would certainly recognize our cheeks. This got the most laughs. Finally we were seated. Lorraine selected poached salmon, and I chose the roast beef. This worthy repast was savoured from start to finish. We sat with an elderly woman from Montreal, enroute to Halifax to visit her daughter, and a university student from Switzerland enjoying a two month holiday in Canada. He explained that he had purchased a VIA pass and was travelling from coast to coast.
By l0:00 p.m. we were ensconced in our roomettes. Following crazy Ron's worthy instructions, we pulled down the beds, relishing the privacy of our accommodations. When I closed my eyes, we had just passed the blinking lights of Quebec City. I blew her a kiss then promptly fell asleep knowing we were well on our way. A lurch here and there, a screech from the wheels and the pure pleasure of being aboard wakened me throughout the night in spite of the lulling motion of the train.
Awake at 5:l5 a.m., I had fleeting recollections of waking once or twice during the night, but fell back into a deep sleep. The train was just starting to roll again after uncoupling five cars in Matepedia, Quebec. I decided to start my day with a shower. Each sleeper car is equipped with a shower room, which proved to be very accessible and easy to figure out. A nice touch was the shower kit provided with each roomette. While Laurie slept, I proceeded to get coffee and check out the Continental breakfast. There were five or six people having coffee and chatting. The inviting, relaxing atmosphere made conversation very gratifying. The fresh cherry tea biscuits and coffee tasted wonderful. Scottish oat cakes, cherry and blueberry tea biscuits, cream cheese, butter, and a variety of jams were appealingly arranged on a crisp white linen tablecloth. I excused myself, poured a fresh cup of coffee, and took a variety of biscuits for my travelling companion. Laurie still wasn't up, so I sat in my room writing in my journal. I was just finishing Laurie's breakfast when crazy Ron popped by to say that in the next half hour we would be seeing some spectacular scenery, and to prepare my camera. I walked eight cars forward to the front dome car. Very few people were awake, so the corridors were not congested. My only companions were two sleeping teenagers. Ron was right: the view was breathtaking. Back at my room, Laurie was finally awake and ready for breakfast.
We lingered over several coffees chatting with fellow travelers. This car proved to be our favourite. Our park car was named the Banff Car. Back in the forties they decided to name these cars after Canadian national parks. Much sought after, the Banff car was used in early advertisements promoting rail travel. One of the original posters is framed and hanging in one of the washrooms. Of course we took a picture of it. Comfortable seats line the perimeter of this car, and there are spacious windows on three sides making the view incomparable. One had the sense of openness and sturdiness. From here one ascended the steps to the back dome car to take in a panoramic view of the countryside. We loved watching our train from this vantage point as it snaked around curves and climbed hills ever onwards.
We had reached New Brunswick and stopped for half an hour in Moncton to uncouple four sleeper cars. This put us four cars closer to the dining car. We left the train briefly to stretch our legs. Ron made this entirely entertaining as he playfully teased a young fellow traveler and the two Lauries about age. Of course we reciprocated. It would be safe to say that the two Lauries got the better of Ron with an unrefuted comment about his age. Reboarding, we headed to the park car where we met and enjoyed the company of Cynthia from California. She was crocheting a sanity blanket. It was as if we'd known her forever and we chatted at length.
We left behind the remote, treed terrain and noticed that the soil became increasingly red as we sped on towards the Bay of Fundy. We skirted some flats approaching Fort Beausejour. Cows grazed the farmlands and silvered flocks of birds fluttered upwards from the lush green tidal flats that will be covered in water just hours later. It is the Bay of Fundy with the highest tides in the world. We are told that the amount of water flowing into the bay each day would more than fill the Grand Canyon. Impressive.
Cynthia, her husband Sherman and I lunched on tasty, creamy alfredo pasta with vegetables and forsacia bread. Lorraine's roast beef was declared most tender. Ron invited all within earshot to the rear dome car half an hour before our arrival in Halifax. He pointed out landmarks, gave a brief history lesson of the area and, with fliers and maps in hand, directed us to the many famous Halifax sites. He answered questions and told of the little towns with their unique offerings, especially a Church supper where the food is good, the price is right, and, besides say Ron, "they need the money too." What a great goodwill ambassador of Nova Scotia you are, Ron.
The train arrived in Halifax at 4:00 p.m. Luggage gathered, we said our good-byes and headed for the station. Our destination was the Westin Hotel, conveniently situated beside the train station and connected to it by a short hallway. Our hotel room with two double beds is on the eleventh floor. We unpack and chose to eat in a cosy cafe across from our hotel. We enjoyed our meal, but were both tired so decided to call it a day. We retired at l0:00 p.m. but the two Laurie's laughed late into the night sharing personal stories. She is a great travelling companion.
The wake up call came at 6:00 a.m., and we bounded from our beds because our train was leaving at 7:30 a.m. Inadequate water pressure and a shower head firmly directed toward the wall tempted me to lean my head on the wall and doze, but we had a train to catch.
We descended to the station at 7:05 a.m. and were met by friendly and personable Heather who was wearing a Nova Scotia tartan vest. Stepping onto the train we were greeted by Stephanie and Mary Rachelle, both wearing Cape Breton tartan kilts. There were l9 passengers on board and the train pulled out on time.
Breakfast was served shortly after departure. The trays were wrapped in Nova Scotia tartan napkins and placed on our fold down trays by Rolande and Heather. Pascal followed with coffee, juice and tea. We noticed that all three VIA attendants were wearing smart looking Nova Scotia Tartan vests. Breakfast consisted of cold cereal, yogurt, muffins, croissants, a dish of fresh sliced fruit, and the ever present coffee and tea.
The train whistle sounded as we skirted the edge of Rocky Lake. The trip, though newly begun, was enchanting. A mist enshrouded the land as we left Halifax behind. This was the thirteenth trip for the Bras D'or train. We travelled on the C.N. main line track to Truro where we changed to the Cape Breton Central Nova. Now we heard the clickety clack.
At 9:00 a.m. we were invited to the park car to partake of Cape Breton culture. Stephanie and Mary Rachelle distributed song sheets and entertained us in a sing along of Cape Breton tunes. The passing scenery of water and tree-lined hills was breathtaking. Stephanie led the singing, playing her guitar. We admired her beautiful voice. Mary Rachelle braved a step dance on the moving train. Jeff, also in kilt pointed out the local landmarks. We immensely enjoyed his commentary during our ride. His in depth knowledge of the history and people of Cape Breton was both enlightening and entertaining. Did you know that Antigonish is the home of the world's oldest Highland Games outside Scotland itself ? We were all in the mood of the Maritimes and these three, were definitely worthy ambassadors for Cape Breton.
Today, at noon, I experienced my first taste of " Gost wine" made in Nova Scotia. Both red and white were equally delicious. From the three luncheon choices, Laurie selected Lemon Pepper chicken consisting of white breast marinated in lemon sauce, roasted vegetables and rotini pasta salad. I indulged in the Bras D'or Brunch of mixed greens, roasted vegetables, cheese, olives, tomato stuffed with couscous, and rotini salad. While Laurie was seriously trying to decide her preference in wines I ate both wonderful blueberry cobbler desserts. After coffee and tea refills we were stuffed to bursting.
The Canso Causeway loomed into sight. Ten million tons of rock and gravel were used to connect Cape Breton to the mainland. Numerous people waved to the passing train, making us feel truly welcome. Even a man perched precariously atop a ladder turned to wave a friendly greeting. Pascal explained that rail passenger service was halted ten years ago. This is the only passenger train on these rails today. The Bras D'or travels weekly, leaving Halifax Tuesday morning and returning on Wednesdays. In its heyday there were six passenger trains, and upwards of twenty freight trains daily. Local people are gratified to see its return, and for the first few runs of the Bras D'or many people waved banners. I felt a rush of Canadian pride at this comment.
During an hour stop in Port Hawksbury we visited several shops crammed with crafts and mementos of Cape Breton. I purchased an antique baby buggy. The proprietor is very accommodating. On the return trip tomorrow it will be packaged and ready for the train. Wonderful.
Back on board soft drinks and snacks are served. The train brushed the trees as we passed by. The whistle blew a three part discord of notes, purely the sound of the quintessential train, and everyone on board loved it. We passed through Orangedale and caught sight of the quaint railway station, now converted to a museum. The station was made famous by the Rankin Family who wrote and performed a song called "The Orangedale Whistle." The last leg of the journey seemed to go quickly as we passed through North Sydney and Sydney Mines, disembarking at Sydney. Nine hours had really gone quickly on the Bras D'or, and although the ride was very relaxing and over all too soon, it would be nice if the train made a few more short stops. All agreed , a visit to the Orangedale museum , where we could experience a bit of the past , would be most welcome. We understand that all rooms in this old station have been restored , some with period furnishings. There is also a museum gift shop. Just a thought. A five minute taxi ride took us to the Delta Hotel. Taking advice from our taxi driver, we headed downtown to eat first hand in the bowels of a restaurant he recommended. This was our worst meal (the Thousand Island dressing had gone bad) but..... there was plenty of it. The Delta was lovely and looked out over the water. We strolled downtown, window shopping along the way, but tired quickly so retreated to the hotel.
We were up at 5:30 a.m. to shower, pack, and reserve a taxi for 7:00 a.m., as we wanted to arrive at the station early to take pictures. As we were heading for the elevator, Laurie was maybe ten feet behind, and I was following an elderly gentleman. His wife was holding the elevator door, and when he entered I said "my friend is almost here." My comment went unheeded and they pushed the button to close the door, staring down at their feet. We were stunned. To add insult to injury, when we arrived in the lobby they had taken our taxi. Definitely not rail passengers: we checked.
We boarded the Bras D'or at 7:30 a.m. for the return trip. Twenty six passengers were on board creating a festive mood. By now, the staff felt like family and we joked and talked as such. Hats off to the crew: The very sociable Heather and Rolande: Pascal, the rascal, ( who knew how to pour wine): Jeff, the incredible history buff,: and the lovely and very talented Mary Rachelle and Stephanie. You were excellent hosts and hostesses.
Retracing our steps (or should I say tracks) we once again enjoyed a delicious breakfast, and some entertainment in the park car. Honeymooners from Connecticut, were thrilled with the train. They cuddled in the dome car making everyone smile. Such a romantic setting. The weather was perfect, the water calm as we paused at Port Hawksbury to allow our fellow travelers to saunter through the shops. I was granted an unexpected favour, and was invited to the engine for a viewing and photo session. I waved from the window, pretending to blow the whistle and drive off. Then off we went to retrieve my parcel and put it into baggage. Re-boarding, we were served lunch. I ordered the Nova Scotia Seafood Trio which included seared filet of halibut, salmon and lobster meat, served with rotini pasta salad. Lorraine had the Lemon Pepper Chicken. Wine accompanied the meal.
Jeff announced that we were now traveling over the "worlds scariest bridge." We all held our breath, then laughed. (Grand Narrows Bridge) The train traveled at various speeds, from a slow of maybe twenty miles an hour to a top speed of fifty five miles an hour. This we found, gave texture to the ride. From re-boarding until departure at Halifax we enjoyed moving about the train. The staff mingled with travelers throughout the various cars. Laughter and conversation floated everywhere, spreading a warm sense of closeness. We said warm good-byes in Halifax, thanking and complimenting the staff. We headed to the Westin for one more night's stay. We had supper in the Westin's "Tradewinds." The decor was pleasing and the waitress friendly, but the food slightly let us down.
We slept until 8:00 a.m. the next morning. We took a saunter on the boardwalk down at the Halifax Harbour. It had rained overnight and the air was now humid. We marvelled at the docked ships and watched several smaller tugboats leaving shore. From some distance off a ship's horn sounded, breaking through the misty air surrounding a small lighthouse on an island close by. We boarded the "Ocean" at l2:35 p.m. A cheerful Allison greeted us and directed us to our roomettes. We were assigned the fourth car from the end of the train. The train departed Halifax station at l2:55 p.m.
We decided to have lunch before touring the train. An empty dining car greeted us but by the time we had ordered, most seats were occupied. Laurie ordered a vegetable sandwich and a bowl of seafood chowder. She raved about the chowder and excellent sandwich. I opted for fresh vegetable soup, very hearty and tasty, and the best turkey sandwich I've ever eaten. The chocolate haystack for dessert was scrumptious. The coffee however was horrible. A fresh cup was brought and it was equally undrinkable. The waiter apologized and, as we were leaving the car, I overheard other diners complaining. A minor glitch.
In the dome car we met Eric Devanney, a VIA engineer/conductor, and his wife Marion who were headed to Kingston. We also met an engineer/maintenance gentleman (I'm sorry we didn't get his name) but he was most helpful to us in the Montreal Train Station. He was bound for Hamilton to visit his wife (she was on course), and was taking her a huge Montreal smoked meat sandwich. The two gentlemen told us stories and details about their jobs. Every inch of the line from Halifax to Truro they knew by heart and we soaked it up along with many humorous tales. There was a recount of four youths hitching a ride atop a train many years ago. We all stared at the cars ahead feeling the story first hand. Amazingly they actually survived the caper. Everyone listened intently as they explained turns, speed limits, whistle signs and anything else pertaining to trains. Surprisingly, suppertime had arrived and I sat down to roast beef with chowder entree, and Lorraine had cannaloni with caesar salad. After a mouth-watering meal we were simply too full for dessert. After supper we chatted in the Banff car. The conversation was relaxed, as our companions talked of their destinations and the various train excursions they had taken. Many of these seasoned travelers have viewed numerous countries from a railway car. However, they all agreed that Canadian rail service is by far the best of any country.
Our last night on the train we retired at l0:00 p.m. The next morning while dining in the park car, we were informed over the intercom that the train was running two hours late. This caused several travelers to squirm with worry over catching connecting trains. The car was quite crowded and the attendant was having difficulty keeping up to the appetites on board. Several late risers were plum out of luck.
We arrived in Montreal around l0:30 a.m. only to discover that our connecting train had left. We inquired where and when our next train departed then waited in the comfortable first class lounge and enjoyed a cold drink from the courtesy cooler provided. We comforted a woman from Bridgetown who had news of her sister's passing. Since travelling from Halifax together, we had become very fond of her.
We boarded our train about l2:30 p.m. It was somewhat confusing and crowded. Consequently there were no seats in first class for many of us. We took refuge two coaches away. An exasperated attendant informed us, while awaiting lunch, that we will not be served a meal but will be reimbursed. A snack cart made its way slowly down the aisle toward us. We could smell those peanuts, but alas, with the cart two seats away, we were told we must get off in five minutes. This train will not be stopping in Brockville, so we must exit in Cornwall.
We bade goodbye to Roberta from Bridgetown after exchanging addresses, then out the door we went, tired and peanutless. At Cornwall Station we were parceled (literally) into three taxis with six other passengers and driven to Brockville. The driver took pity on us and shared his peppermints. We arrived in Brockville at 3:00 p.m.
In closing, trains are all about travelers riding the rails with a common interest. Like a track we link together if only for a short journey. Something ties us together and we, the two Lauries, experienced this on the Bras D'or run more than any trip we have undertaken. A rewarding train journey involves captivating scenery, interesting companions, great service on board, and co-operating weather. Combined, this creates unforgettable memories, and this we have.
P.S. It was difficult to gauge the different speeds the Bras D'or traveled, and those posted in our travelogue are our best estimates. A comparative might be: if the Bras D'or was travelling at its slowest speed, on a slight decline, Laurie, riding her bike, could have overtaken the train. At the fastest speed, she could not.
Below are the photo highlights of this journey.
Below are all the sets of photos taken on this journey.
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