Backpacking and living in Europe in our early twenties created a passion for the trains that has never dulled. The train is romantic, nostalgic and magical. It’s an experience that adventurous spirits can’t resist.
Halifax to Toronto takes about 26 hours via train, and the journey from Toronto back to Montreal takes another 5 hours. Add three kids, plus a healthy dose of hockey-fever, and you’ve got a great family getaway to two of Canada’s most vibrant cities.
Inside the historic Halifax Via Rail station, you get the sense your vacation is going to be something unique. It is not crowded and there is a lounge area where you can sit on the sofa and enjoy a complimentary beverage while you wait (for sleeper class ticket holders). You won’t find any security officers or scanners, just an old fashioned ticket window and people sitting on wooden benches, chatting, waiting for their adventure to begin. I almost expected the train conductor to lean out the window and yell “all aboard!” when it was time to leave, just like in the old movies.
Sleeper Class tickets include access to the observation deck – a dome-shaped car made completely of glass for optimal viewing located at the back of the train. We spent a lot of time relaxing in the observation car which is conveniently located just above the bar. The kids delighted in ordering drinks and snacks and putting them on our “tab.”
By day, the observation car offers views of interesting sights and beautiful landscape; a place to take it all in. Our kids became our official photographers, capturing scenes on their cameras that we would never see from a car or a plane.
At night, the unlit observation car is pitch black. With few lights in the countryside, you see only the train lights illuminating the track ahead. It’s a feeling similar to laying on your back in a grassy field and gazing up at a dark starry night. Magical.
Train travel lends itself well to socializing and making new friends. The kids loved having the freedom to leave our little room, move around the train and explore. The observation car is the ideal place to sit and have a drink, play a game of cards or chat with the other passengers. We met some fascinating people and made some lovely friends during our train trip. These connections are among the many experiences that make the train so special.
Family Fun Awaits in Toronto
On arrival in Toronto, the fun continued. The Ripley’s Aquarium was even better than we anticipated. The Dangerous Lagoon, the aquarium’s largest exhibit, was incredible, featuring a moving walkway inside an underwater tunnel tank of sharks, sting rays, turtles and more. It can be extremely crowded though, so try to get there early and on a weekday, if possible.
The Ontario Science Centre can fill an entire day with learning and fun. There is something for everyone at the centre, with 500 interactive exhibits including live science demonstrations, a natural rainforest and Toronto’s only public planetarium. If you are short on time, make sure you don’t miss the planetarium where you will be guided by a staff member on a journey through the universe. Lying on bean bag chairs in the dark, for optimal viewing of the dome shaped ceiling, was enchanting.
Tip – The Toronto City Pass offers discounts on these and many other popular attractions!
It wouldn’t be Toronto without hockey. My husband and 10 year old son enjoyed an NHL game while in Toronto, which lent itself to huge bragging rights with his friends back at home.
The Hockey Hall of Fame was a highly anticipated attraction for my family of hockey players. Aside from viewing the large collection of memorabilia, taking photos with the Stanley Cup, they especially enjoyed making video clips of themselves working on TSN Sports Desk.
Eating out in Toronto offers so many easy and delicious options. The bustling Marché – a European (Swiss) concept restaurant in the downtown core where home cooked food is served up in an upscale market venue – was our family’s favourite. The onsite indoor playground is a bonus, keeping kids entertained while adults can enjoy a meal at a slower pace.
Montreal Never Disappoints!
After four fun nights in Toronto, the kids were thrilled to re-board the train for a short hop to Montreal – a favourite city for our family because of its European feel. For us, Montreal’s food, culture and fashion are all fun reasons to visit.
The Hyatt Regency, which sits atop Place Desjardins, an underground mall with a multicultural food court, European style cafes, grocery store and a liquor store, was home base. A huge draw for families at the Hyatt is the incredible over-sized pool with collapsible doors that open to the outside during the warmer months.
If you enjoy skating, head to Atrium Le 1000, a public rink surrounded by 15 restaurants, located in an upscale building – an unusual spot for a rink. Being avid skaters, our kids enjoyed the novelty of this rink.
A new favourite Montreal restaurant is the authentic Italian pizzeria called Il Focolaio serving wood fired pizza. It’s located centrally in Rue Du Square Phillips just off St. Catherine’s Street and just few blocks from the Hyatt. The place was packed, but service was swift.
Our delicious wood-fired pizza left us with an appetite for… more hockey! No visit to Montreal is complete for any hockey fan without a stop at the Montreal Forum, the iconic former home of the Montreal Canadians which is now an entertainment centre with cinemas, memorabilia and more. The kids enjoyed trying out the original seating from the famed hockey rink and the old-school video arcade.
Our magical train vacation ended in Montreal, when we boarded the plane back to Halifax. The kids have already begun asking when we can take the train again. For now, we wait patiently on Sunday afternoons, in a parking lot overlooking the train tracks in Halifax at about 1:15pm, for a glimpse of The Via Rail Ocean, headed to Montreal. The kids gesture to the train conductor to sound his whistle as he passes. He obliges and they giggle with excitement and fond memories of their recent adventure.
Heidi Brooks developed a love for offbeat excursions that began in her twenties when she worked her way around the world. Now a school psychologist and mother of three, Heidi spends her summers camping and exploring the natural beauty of the maritime provinces and beyond. She hopes her writing and photography will inspire other families to seek their own adventures.