The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

‘A flip book of landscape postcards’

En route from Halifax to Montreal, the Ocean train takes in the coast’s best scenery and flavours, from just-landed lobster to wood-fired bagels. Mike MacEachera­n steps aboard


Three times a week, typically around lunchtime, a westbound train rolls out of Halifax’s downtown harbour, skirting lobster boats, wholesale fish markets and boardwalk restaurant­s which, once past the suburbs, gradually give way to the inland lighthouse­s of New Brunswick and the sugar maple forests of Quebec. This is the oldest continuous­ly operating passenger train in North America, having travelled many hard miles along narrow-gauge lines, and it is like Atlantic Canada itself: a passport to largely unknown places, to towns where stones remain unturned and to where the traffic jam has never truly arrived.

Rail travel is on the up, but the Ocean train has been on the go for nearly 120 years. It has lived through the Great Depression and D-Day, 21 Canadian prime ministers and 137 Celine Dion singles. This is a train that will go on. And appropriat­ely, for an overnight odyssey that covers 836 miles, three provinces and two time zones in 22 hours, there are legions of stories to tell on and off the rails. It is a lot to digest and there is one extra thing guaranteed to make this train ride better than most: good-mood food all along the way.

To begin, Halifax has an extraordin­ary larder and serves up a rarefied lobster feast. Consider chilled rolls, steamed dinners, poutine, chowder, bisque, mac and cheese, pasta alfredo, plus creamed lobster on toast, lobster mashed potato, lobster dip doughnuts and lobster eggs benedict. No one seems to object to the overkill, mind – possibly because the crustacean is a source of elation and among the cheapest you will ever eat. Perhaps a bigger success is the cracked lobster meat on a buttery croissant with chips at Salty’s, right on the wharf.

Over two days, I sampled Digby clams and crunchy oysters the colour of mother-of-pearl, both morsels of loveliness and like a slurpable day at the seaside, if such a thing were possible. Across on the eastern shore at Renée Lavallée’s the Canteen in Dartmouth, I was told to get a “crobster” roll – a high-flown marriage of double-decked snow crab and silky lobster on a submarine bun. Always, they say here, the sea provideth.

My westbound train for Montreal left at 1pm. Under the warm midday sun, the stroll along the waterfront peeled back the strata of time. Pier 21, the ocean liner terminal turned museum anchored behind the railway station reminds you that, in spite of its long First Nations history, this is a country built by immigrants; up until the 1970s, the hanger handled nearly one million refugees fleeing economic depression, revolution and war. The rehabilita­ted station has the whiff of Europe about it, with a colonnaded entrance, plus a wrought iron ceiling and skylight, as do the chatty staff who helped me board the train.

Onboard, in a twin-berth ensuite cabin with a Lilliputia­n shower, wardrobe and non-stop entertainm­ent (pressing my forehead to the window, I watched a showreel that brought to mind Anne of Green Gables), we moved through a flip book of landscape postcards. By the Bay of Fundy, the tracks were a portal to half-drowned lands and superlativ­e tidal surges. By Kouchiboug­uac, a Mi’kmaq word meaning river of long tides, moshing waters flowed inland creating all kinds of weird nooks. In the highlands later, the ground still heavy from a late spring blizzard, I swear I held the gaze of a moose caught in a trance outside its woodland buffer.

If you ever dreamed of a quiet place somewhere in the woods, then this might not be the trip for you. There are hundreds of pretty cabins and just as many weathered huts playing peekaboo along the forest-choked tracks. It helps create the impression that life surrounded by timber is as rosy pink as a side of salmon. Even so, it is worth it for the everyday moments most of us tend to overlook at home. Watching the world outside silently fall asleep, gazing at dawn yawning through open curtains, day-dreaming just for the hell of it. At times, between the scheduled stops – Truro, Amherst, Sackville, Bathurst, Campbellto­n, where the curious echoes of old England and empire were never far away – it almost felt like a railway to nowhere, a Snowpierce­r rumbling through swathes of bauble-free Christmas trees purely to keep passengers warm, fed and full of wine.

Fittingly, the galley kitchen bridges the divide between sea and land. Lunch, served on linen-dressed tables, was a juddery clam chowder, followed by grilled salmon with redskin potatoes. The soup was fleshy, thick and unctuous; the fillet hardly the normal fare you expect aboard a train. For dinner, a smoked fish amuse bouche, followed by a wobbly pot roast with Parisienne potatoes and a slab of pecan pie rosetted with cream, was also better than it should have been. The taste: comforting, like a hug. The sights: a slow blur of white spruce and a march of javelin-thin birch. Out the window later, the Miramichi River began to light up with reflected stars.

The next morning, now 17 hours into the journey, I alighted in time for breakfast in Québec City. I was headed to Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a grown-up Hogwarts hotel that is the legacy of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which powered the golden age of transconti­nental train travel by uniting the Maritimes with far-flung British Columbia. Queen Elizabeth stayed several times at this hilltop address, which is all you need to know about how regal it is.

At the city’s heart is food, and when Michelin finally makes it to Quebec, expect Stéphane Modat’s Le Clan on the street opposite the fantasy Frontenac (where he once worked) to be rightly heralded. The walleye from Lake Champlain was another of Quebec’s terrific stories, one more reason to rubber-stamp an off-train excursion.

The final stretch of railway took me a further three hours west to Montreal. Somewhere in the forests out the window were sugar shacks with copper pipes and tarnished red roofs, their distillati­on of tree sap harvested from sugar maple and red maple making the province one of the sweetest places on earth.

Montreal, a city further in spirit from Halifax than it is in miles, is made for eating. Thom Seivewrigh­t has made a career of feeding people on walking tours and his front line is the Mile End neighbourh­ood, mostly because it is a stew of cultures. Among the sublime eats and treats here are Jewish pastries (at Hof Kelsten), gnocchi (Drogheria Fine), ice cream (Kem CoBa), coffee (Café Saint Louis), maple syrup beer (Brasserie Harricana) and fried baloney sandwiches with a yellow mustard smear (Wilensky’s), all of which brought out pangs of envy that I didn’t live closer.

Belly full, I left in the hope that none of this would change. On the other side of Mount Royal, the city’s namesake, a train would later begin its slog back east across Atlantic Canada, along the great arc of the St Lawrence River to another time and place where the salt air would waft back in. The truth is, I have always loved Canada – a country so big you will never fully understand it – and now, thinking of the places I slept through and my mind running through possible future moments, I wished I could get back on again. To eat, drink and meet the ocean, but mostly to just be.

The galley kitchen serves hardly the normal fare you expect aboard a train

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 ?? ?? ii Departure point: Halifax, Nova Scotia, where kayaking is among the ways to savour the great outdoors
i The Ocean train at one of the stops on its 836-mile route
j ‘Good-mood food all along the way’: Mike MacEachera­n samples the on-board dining
ii Departure point: Halifax, Nova Scotia, where kayaking is among the ways to savour the great outdoors i The Ocean train at one of the stops on its 836-mile route j ‘Good-mood food all along the way’: Mike MacEachera­n samples the on-board dining

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