Nova Scotia, part 1: Journey to the Ocean

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Nova Scotia Journey
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Fishing boats in the village of Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

A trip to Nova Scotia, Canada’s ocean playground

I travelled to Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic coast of Canada, on The Ocean train. My journey took me deep into the Canadian past in the historic port city of Halifax, along the authentic and undiscovered Eastern Shore and to Cape Breton Island and the spectacularly scenic Cabot Trail. Follow along this 3-part series and get to know the people and places of Nova Scotia.

IT’S THE OCEAN THAT DREW ME to Atlantic Canada. The calming, invigorating expanse of blue water, bright blue skies overhead scudded with fast moving clouds. The feeling of walking barefoot on the sand, the cry of seagulls, the smell of the salty air, tinged with scents of seaweed and fish.

There’s a promise of adventure when the sea spreads out in front of you, and a profound feeling of calmness and peace. This is part of the special charm of Nova Scotia. One of the Atlantic Canada provinces, Nova Scotia is ringed by the ocean. From one end of the province to the other, you see iconic images of lighthouses and lobster boats, rolling green hills and rugged cliff faces, and all of it buffeted by the wild north Atlantic.

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Iconic symbol of Canada, the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse near Halifax, Nova Scotia


Nova Scotia (which means New Scotland) looks like it broke off the coast of Scotland. Which in a way, it did. This is where European and Scottish settlers first arrived in Canada in the 17th century. The Celtic culture of the Scots is deeply rooted here, it runs like a melody through the province, and the sea-faring tradition is part of the fabric.

East coast music, fresh seafood, salty air, deserted beaches, long and winding roads … and people who are as down-to-earth as you can get. These are some of the reasons I was drawn to visit Nova Scotia. Plus the role Nova Scotia played in the founding of Canada. Read on to find out about my journey.

Call of the sea

I feel like I keep getting drawn back to Nova Scotia. When I was four years old, I went on a road trip to Atlantic Canada with my family. We drove east from Montreal, where we lived, across Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI in one of those big 60s sedans with the bench seats. My memories of that trip created an indelible impression that has stuck with me all these years. The maritime scenes of fishing boats and lobster traps, bright red, freshly cooked lobsters spread out on a picnic table and a whale skull on a wharf.

From then to now, I have been drawn to the Maritimes, that part of eastern Canada that borders the Atlantic Ocean. About 18 years ago, after my Mother died, I flew to Nova Scotia and drove around the coast by myself. I needed the gentleness of the place to console me, and the ocean to absorb my tears of grief. It was my first experience with solo travel, and I picked Nova Scotia knowing I would be in good hands.

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The dining car of the VIA Rail train The Ocean as it passes Chaleur Bay

Taking The Ocean to the ocean

My Nova Scotia journey started in Montreal, where I boarded The Ocean, a VIA Rail train. This is a very special train. With luxurious sleepers, a dining car and a route that takes you past ocean bays to the eastern edge of Canada, The Ocean captures the romance of long distance train journeys. ‘

I slept well in my comfortable room, and woke once in the middle of the night as we pulled into the town of Rimouski, Quebec. An empty town square with quaint old buildings was illuminated by streetlights, and I fell in love with the charming scene. As we pulled out of town, I saw fireflies in the dark bushes right outside my window.

Fireflies are nature’s way of reminding us that magic is the essential stuff of the universe, I wrote in my journal.

The next day at lunch, as I was sitting in the dining car, we passed by Chaleur Bay, a large ocean bay in New Brunswick. I sat transfixed as the tracks ran alongside the water. All you could see outside the window was grey, misty ocean and sky, blending together at the horizon. It was magical.

In the afternoon, I sat in my room alone, reading and watching the Canadian countryside go by. For much of the trip you are in rural Quebec and New Brunswick and see very little aside from miles of green, occasionally interrupted by small towns and large rivers.

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My comfy and cosy sleeper room on the VIA RAil train The Ocean

The Ocean runs three times a week between Montreal and Halifax, and the trip is almost exactly 24 hours. Each has a dining car, a club car with a dome roof and several sleeper cars. My sleeper had two very comfortable seats by day, and two bunks at night. A private washroom with shower and lots of amenities like a small closet, a blow dryer, and a folding table made it very comfortable.

The train cars that make up The Ocean were made in England for the chunnel. When it turned out they didn’t fit, Canada bought them and put them on the Montreal-Halifax route calling the train The Ocean, as it runs alongside the ocean in New Brunswick and ends its journey at the Halifax Harbour, on the eastern edge of Canada where it touches the Atlantic.

On a smaller scale than The Canadian, the iconic train that runs between Vancouver and Toronto, The Ocean has many of the same features. The noticeable differences are smaller sleeper rooms, pre-prepared food in the dining car and the size of the train. (Read An epic journey across Canada by train.)

On The Canadian, there is a real kitchen, with chefs preparing the food as ordered. For someone with dietary restrictions — like me, having to eat gluten free — a real kitchen with a real cook is preferable. But I have to give the staff A+++ for the effort they took to make sure I ate delicious and filling gluten-free meals throughout the trip.

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Sailboat at sunset on Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia

The historic city of Halifax

When you arrive in Halifax, Nova Scotia on The Ocean, the train pulls into the downtown station and drops you right at your door. Across from the station is the water front and the harbour, and right next door is the Westin Nova Scotian. Literally. You walk through the train station and there’s a short corridor to the hotel. Everything is right there. From your cozy sleeper room to your comfortable hotel room is virtually a five-minute walk.

I loved my room at the Westin Nova Scotian. With corner windows, I had a sweeping view of the Halifax Seaport and the harbour. In the mornings, I jumped out of bed to watch the sunrise over Georges Island and the boats, ferries, and tug boats criss-crossing the harbour waters like insects on a pond. One morning, the harbour was completely socked in by fog. Though I could see virtually nothing through the mist, I could hear the evocative wail of the fog horn, and see the lighthouse beam. One of the reasons I love Halifax is that you really know you’re by the ocean.

The waterfront boardwalk in Halifax is the epicentre of tourism, with a lot to see and do in a very compact area. There are loads of bars and restaurants, distilleries and brew pubs, lobster shacks and ice cream stands and a farmer’s market in the Halifax Seaport. My top two recommendations are the Maritime Museum and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Halifax played a major role in the story of the Titanic sinking. It was the closest major port to the site of the disaster and the recovery operations were largely staged from the city. I was in Halifax for the Titanic Centenary in April 2012 and wrote The people of Halifax are Titanic Heroes. The Maritime Museum has a permanent Titanic exhibit, which includes artifacts recovered from the ship, such as the only remaining deck chair.

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Pier 21 museum opens a window into the Canadian immigration experience

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is Canada’s Ellis Island. From 1928-1971 about a million immigrants from all over the world arrived in Halifax and were ushered into the large buildings at Pier 21, on the harbour, that are now home to the museum. Here they were “processed,” waiting in cavernous halls to be welcomed to Canada, eventually walking across a covered bridge to another large building where they bought railway tickets to points west across the vast nation.

I found the Pier 21 to be very moving. “We make a lot of people cry,” marketing coordinator Leanne Tremblay said. In these days of refugee crises and anti-immigration sentiment, it’s frankly incredible to see the immigration experience acknowledged, honoured, and celebrated.

Nova Scotia, Canada, trip, journey, explore, visit, ocean, sea, Halifax, Pier 21, Immigration, museum, suitcaseBut if you think a visit to this museum is some dour duty, like a school trip on a bad day – you are in for a surprise. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is Canada’s newest national museum, and the only one in Atlantic Canada. Previously it was run by a private society, but last year, in 2015, it reopened as a completely renovated, state-of-the-art national museum.

It knocked my socks off.

The Pier 21 Story exhibit takes you through four stages of the immigrant’s journey: Journey, Arrival, Belonging and Impact. Each one provides visitors with interactive experiences and both thought and emotion-provoking displays and stories that are creative, innovative, and remarkably thoughtful and sensitive.

You can do things like pack a suitcase to help you understand what sacrifices immigrants make, and what they leave behind. You can play with a huge interactive map that shows waves of immigration from 1604 to today. You can read and hear stories from immigrants themselves.

The museum also honours stories of immigrants and refugees who have struggled. There’s a large photo of the Komagata Maru victims, Indian refugees who were denied entry to Canada in 1914. And a mural of Baltej Singh Dhillon, who won the right for Sikh RCMP officers to wear turbans in 1990.

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Exhibit honours the Indian refugees who were turned away from Canada in 1914

The story of Zain Alarakhia

The story that moved me the most was from a woman who came to Canada from Uganda, Zain Alarakhia. In 1972, then President of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of people of Indian origin, giving them 90 days to leave the country. Fearing for their lives, this woman and her family moved into a hotel and applied to the Canadian officials who had set up shop in Kampala to process refugees. When they were approved, an official came and put a Canadian flag sticker on the door of their hotel room, marking them as “safe.” That Canadian flag is on display, beside a monitor of the woman telling the story. By the end of her story, I joined the many who have shed tears at Pier 21. I don’t think I have ever felt prouder of Canada.

I can’t begin to tell you what that flag meant to us.” Zain Alarakhia

Canada took 6,000 Ugandan refugees, the second highest count after Britain, which took 27,000. One of those refugees is now my Member of Parliament (MP), Arif Virani, Parkdale-High Park. Arif is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. From being a refugee from Uganda as a child, he is now assisting immigrants and refugees to Canada. To me, this is Canada. This is a great Canadian story that celebrates the soul of Canada, and expresses the country’s highest ideals and values.

Thanks so much to Kristine Kovacevic, Interpretation and Visitor Experience Manager, for giving me a personal tour through the museum. Below Kristine talks about what the museum means to her and why it’s an important part of the Canadian story.

Kristine Kovacevic talks about the importance of the museum

After my tour the museum I stopped in at the Soctiabank Family History Centre on the main floor. The centre is staffed with specialist who help visitors search through online archives for their own family histories of immigration to Canada, whether their ancestors came through Pier 21 or not. This remarkable service is absolutely free of charge. And very popular with visitor.

We buy our tissues in bulk,” Cara MacDonald, Reference Services Manager

With Cara’s help I discovered that my grandfather Charles Ward came to Canada from Britain on a ship called The Kingston in 1907, and landed at Quebec City. He was with a group of boys, all part of the “Home Children” immigration scheme. He was 12 years old. I will be writing much more about him in my upcoming Britain series. I also saw a copy of my great-grandparents marriage certificate – and noticed that both my great- grandfather and great-great-grandfather listed their professions as “Traveller.”

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Canada’s official motto “from sea to sea to sea” expresses the importance of the western, eastern and northern coast lines that border the country. I’ve taken the iconic VIA Rail train “The Canadian” from Vancouver to Toronto. And on this trip I took a train from Toronto to Montreal where I boarded the VIA Rail “The Ocean” to Halifax. Together, I’ve travelled across the vast landscape of Canada from sea to sea by train.

I ended my train journey in Halifax, founded in 1749, and one of the oldest cities in Canada. It’s also one of my favourites. The history, culture and vibrancy of this small port city make it a great place to start your Canadian journey, and your trip to Nova Scotia. From there, I took a road trip along the Eastern Shore and up to Cape Breton Island. Please follow along for the next post in the Nova Scotia series and get to know the people and places of Canada’s ocean playground.

Note: Thanks to VIA Rail and Nova Scotia Tourism for hosting my trip. As always, my experiences and opinions are my own.

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2 Responses to Nova Scotia, part 1: Journey to the Ocean

  1. Sandy August 16, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    What a great post, Mariellen! Love the descriptions of the sea air/beaches and everything else I love about Nova Scotia. Your post brought me back there for a brief few moments and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had never heard of the Canadian Museum of Immigration. It sounds fascinating! My ancestors arrived on Canada’s shores from the UK…and likely landed in Halifax. I must admit your trip on the train looked fabulous. I’ve traveled by train before – just not overnight. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us. You’ve made me long to head back to one of my favourite provinces!
    Sandy recently posted..Homemade Pet Safe Treats ~ Advice From Dr. Ryan LleraMy Profile

  2. Michelle August 17, 2016 at 11:59 pm #

    Wonderful post. I would love to take the ocean train someday.

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