Via Rail, Canada's Amtrak, has introduced a new class of service. Is it worth the higher fare?
Since 1904, Canada's longest-running train, the Ocean, has been picking up passengers in Montreal and taking them on a 21-hour journey through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, finally depositing them in Halifax. This summer, VIA Rail, the Amtrak of Canada, launched a new level of service called the Easterly class, promising redecorated cars with a Maritime Provinces theme, two meals featuring local cuisine, and something called a Maritime Learning Experience. The idea was to attract more tourists to the eastern provinces, where foreigners currently only account for 10 percent of VIA Rail riders.
Now, if you're willing to spend the time and money to travel by rail, you've probably got a bit of a nostalgic streak. Call me a romantic, but my dream train is a pastiche of ones from old Hollywood movies, where Marilyn Monroe strums a ukulele in a Pullman berth and Orson Welles lurks in the corridor, ducking passport inspectors. I'm grateful for any anachronistic touch a train company can offer to nourish my fantasies. Eager to see what VIA's Easterly class was about, I booked a Double Deluxe cabin for me and my girlfriend, Erin.
My first impression was disappointing. Rather than behemoths of steel wreathed in steam, the cars were diesel work-horses--narrow and brand-new. Our tiny cabin's "Maritime theme" translated to one photograph of the lobster boats of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The shower, for which I'd paid an additional $42 by upgrading from the Double cabin, was just a nozzle mounted on the bathroom wall--perfect for hosing down the toilet.
Things looked up as we pulled out of Montreal. At the back of the train, the double-decker Park Car instantly satisfied my longing for retro. All stainless steel and elegantly curved windows, it felt like a '47 Pontiac (make that a '47 Pontiac being towed by Hyundais).
We'd booked a table for the second dinner seating, at 8:00 p.m. The diners at the 6:30 p.m. seating had eaten all of the pan-seared Atlantic halibut, so I took the vegetarian option, a plate of steamed zucchini and spinach risotto, and paired it with a pint of Propeller Bitter, a dark, Halifax-made microbrew with butterscotchy bottom notes. Though the waiters insisted the gluey risotto was tortellini, they made up in charm what they lacked in expertise. "Attention!" shouted our waiter, Ron, after the lights flickered off. "I'm taking up a collection. We've forgotten to pay our power bill again!"
Dodgy lights weren't the only problem. Several members of the staff candidly mourned the loss of the stainless steel HEP cars (for Head-End Power). Until recently, the entire train had been of the same 1950s vintage as the Park Car. The Renaissance cars that replaced them were built for the Chunnel. Tailor-made for European executives in search of a quick nap before a meeting, the Renaissance cars weren't nearly as comfortable for almost a full day's occupancy.
In addition to the amiable staff, the Ocean's major draw was the scenery we passed. I returned to the Park Car shortly after dawn to watch the spruce forests of New Brunswick unfurling. After crossing the pink Tantramar salt marshes on the isthmus that links Nova Scotia to the Canadian mainland, we entered a more verdant landscape patched with farms, lakes, and wildflower-dotted fields.
A VIA employee named Gary Frenette led the Maritime Learning Experience, which he animated with a grab bag of props. Different tartans, Gary said, represent the Maritime Provinces, and he pointed to his own vest: The forest green stood for lumbering; blue for water; and gold for wealth. He then led a lively Q&A about local food using a rubber lobster as his aid. Erin and I found it a little lightweight, but the kids onboard enjoyed themselves. Plus, Gary was game to go off topic and answer questions about passing sights, such as Springhill, Nova Scotia, site of one of Canada's worst mining disasters.
A couple of hours outside Halifax, the air conditioning broke down. As the temperature inside neared 95 degrees, several passengers informally exchanged impressions. In spite of the glitches, the consensus was that the scenery was beautiful, the staff friendly, and the food quite good. The Renaissance cars, however, were a disappointment. The quarters were so cramped that wrestling with a suitcase made you feel like you were in a Marx Brothers skit.
"Train travel reminds you how big the world is," observed one passenger, a British Airways pilot. "As opposed to airplanes, which fool you into thinking it's very small." The sentiment resonated. After 22 stops and several breakdowns, the Ocean had been one of the pokiest milk runs I'd ever been on. But I'll never forget the experience--in distinct contrast to the 90-minute flight home.