Down East: Riding The Canadian Rails


Note: This is the second of three articles on eastern Canada. Next week: Montreal’s Jewish food and arts scenes.

“The Ocean,” VIA Rail Canada’s round-trip overnight service between Montreal, Quebec and Halifax, Nova Scotia, is taking me to the city that greeted my late father in 1924.

Like so many Jewish immigrants, he arrived by ship, but I arrive in Halifax, the gateway to Atlantic Canada, in the comfort and style of a modern Canadian train.

We depart on time in the early evening from Montreal and follow the St. Lawrence River Valley past farms with distinctive red barns and bright blue roofs, slipping in and out of villages and later moving through New Brunswick forests until, next morning, we cross into Nova Scotia. It’s the same route, only in the opposite direction, that my father took after he was admitted to Canada and then went by train to Montreal, his final destination.

At Halifax, our VIA Rail train pulls into a historic Beaux-Arts station across the street from a statue of Lt. Gen. Edward Cornwallis, the first British governor of Nova Scotia. A hilly city overlooking the second largest harbor in the world, Halifax is a pretty mix of modern and historic, like The Halliburton, our bed and breakfast in the former 1823 home of Sir Brenton Halliburton, chief justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Halifax is also home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Canada’s Ellis Island.

We tour the museum and observe the trappings of immigrant stories — old clothing and loveable teddy bears in tattered suitcases — and then the staff locates my father’s entry papers, which show that he arrives with $5 in his pocket. (They also find the entry papers for his sister and brother, who accompanied him).

Under “Race or People” he is “Hebrew,” under “Religion” he is “Mosaic,” and the language he speaks is “Yiddish.” He and his siblings arrive in Canada under the sponsorship of the Canadian Colonization Association.

An old railway passenger car parked outside reminds me that many immigrants like them left Halifax for other parts of Canada by rail.

Today, about 2,000 Jews live in Halifax, according to Jon Goldberg, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council, which covers Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island (PEI). The city has three synagogues — the Orthodox Beth Israel in a leafy neighborhood across the street from Dalhousie University, the Conservative Sha’arei Shalom, and Chabad.

Nova Scotia also hosts Camp Kadima, one of Canada’s largest Jewish summer camps, now in its 72nd year. “It has been a place where many of the Maritime Jewish youth have spent the summers,” says Goldberg, “and has provided these children with a Jewish experience they could never get. That’s where many of us were inculcated with our love and knowledge of Israel…” He is referring to Jewish youth from across the Canadian provinces known as the Maritimes. They include New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in addition to Nova Scotia.

Later, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, things take a somber turn with the Titanic, which went down off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1912. Many Titanic victims were buried in Halifax, including Jewish victims laid to rest in the Baron de Hirsch cemetery.

On a happier note, we drive an hour north of Halifax to the pretty Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia wine country, a sort of “Napa of the North.” There we settle into the Old Orchard Inn.

We later ferry to Prince Edward Island, where the capital city Charlottetown marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation; from the historic Rodd Charlottetown Hotel, we join a costumed Confederation Players Walking Tour.

Cavendish, on the north side of PEI, is worth the trip to see the “Anne of Green Gables” farmhouse and walk the spectacular white sand beach in PEI National Park. About 80 Jews live in the provine, according to Leo Mednick, president of the Prince Edward Island Jewish Community.

The community’s secretary, Leslee Sack, was a New York City travel agent before moving to PEI. “I am the PEI ‘poster child,’” she notes. “As PEI is the only Canadian province without a synagogue or a rabbi, we boast an eclectic group of Jews who come together to celebrate what we have in common as Jews: food, children and laughter.”

Having worked across from the World Trade Center, Sack wanted to go somewhere “a bit more … laid back.” So she looked at a map, and when she found the Magdalene Islands, she knew that she had gone too far. She “pulled back” on the map and found an airport in Charlottetown.

“I came here about 10 years ago and never looked back,” she says. “It was almost like the first time I went to Israel — I felt at home. This is a place that reminded me of Brooklyn in the 1950s — everybody talks to you. It’s just a nice place to be…”

If PEI is a place to decompress, I’d say the same thing about VIA Rail, where the Sleeper Plus accommodations include a cozy compartment with seats that convert into lower and upper sleeping berths, and we have a small bathroom, too.

Meals are a big part of Sleeper Plus, as a waiter escorts us to a table for two with a white table cloth in a dining car decorated with iconic images of Peggy’s Cove lighthouse — an afternoon’s drive from Halifax.

Cathy Drozdowski of VIA Rail says that “The Ocean’s” trip is “not just about getting from point A to point B. It’s about the experience,” including food.

For one of my dinners, I order the Maritime Fish Chowder and the Atlantic salmon in old-style honey-mustard over saffron rice and seasonal vegetables, and sample a glass of nice Pinot Grigio from Nova Scotia’s Jost Vineyards.

Back in our compartment, the beds have been made, and the steward has provided requested extra pillows. Funny, but dining stays on my mind as I anticipate morning coffee, which comes with a Latin Omelet filled with red and green peppers and tomato salsa. I doze off to the train’s rhythmic sway as we head toward spectacular Chaleur Bay, one of many incredible VIA views.

On the return trip, VIA’s Francois Cote hosts Nova Scotia wine-and-cheese tasting in the dome car — a Sleeper Plus perk that’s a far cry from my father’s voyage in 1924.