It has been 30 years since the last train rolled past Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. Since then, the old station, once scheduled for demolition, has been transformed into one of Canada’s most unique hotels, The Train Station Inn, where cabooses and boxcars make comfortable, unique accommodation, and a sophisticated dining car offers lunch and dinner, prepared with local delicacies such as rhubarb, fiddleheads, lettuce and edible flowers, picked fresh each day. Nearby, a quirky Farmer’s market, boutique museum and a local craft brewery offer fun, simple activities for young and old.
It is a vacationing family’s dream – but also the culmination of the dreams – and loving toil- of its owner, Jimmy LeFresne, who at the tender age of 5 knew that one day, he would be the stationmaster at Tatamagouche.
“When I was five, the station closed. I was standing right here [on the platform], and I told the stationmaster at the time, I’m going to buy this station“.
That was in 1960, but LeFresne wasn’t able to make good on his promise until fourteen years later in 1974, when CN sold him the station for $500.00. “I was 18. All my friends were buying cars, and I bought a train station”, he tells us. A condition of the sale was that, for reasons of liability, LeFresne wasn’t allowed to use the station until the trains stopped passing by altogether. “I thought it would be a matter of months”, he recalls, “but it was years”. In 1986, the last train passed by, and LeFresne was able to begin creating his dream.
LeFresne still comes to the station every day, often in uniform. Although he claims to have taken a back seat in the management of his enterprise (“I just wear the uniform and pour the coffee”), he is a constant presence, greeting guests, supporting staff in the restaurant and gift shop, undertaking small repairs. Never idle, each deliberate tap of a nail or adjustment of a picture frame is loving gesture, like someone who is caring for an old friend.
Our caboose hotel room – one of 8 cabooses and boxcars- is a child’s fantasy, with two bedrooms, a tiny bathroom and shower, and the original cupolas (pronounced coop-oh-lahs) from when caboose # 79575 was still in service. The cupolas are untouched by refurbishment: the seats still spin; one even has a seatbelt. My nearly-three year old boy spends ages climbing up and down and shouting “I’m a train driver! I’m a train driver!”, while my 7-year old daughter considers her cupola a private play space for her and her Shopkins collection. Each room is unique, and all are very reasonably priced by hotel standards, starting at $129.50 per night, not including breakfast.
For dinner, my daughter and I enjoy a special girls’ night in the dining car #7209. “The Cabot”, which, built in 1928, began its life as a Colonist Car, transporting new immigrants and war brides across the country from Pier 21. I start with a delicious beer and cheddar soup, made with local “Tata-brew” from the Tatmagouche Brewing Company. Although the menu offers local wines, I opt for a reliable Australian Chardonnay, which pairs beautifully with the special of the day: cajun bronzed salmon with a rhubarb compote, served with duchess potatoes. It’s fresh, delicious, and definitely first class.
My daughter orders the Engineer’s Mac n’ Cheese from the Junior Conductor’s menu. It’s a perfect sized serving, served with healthy crudités and dip. The pasta is shape we don’t recognize, and because tonight we are foodies, we ask the helpful server to tell us what the pasta is. “Radaitori”, she says proudly, “and the sauce is homemade”. We discover later that our knowledgeable server is married to the chef: a perfect pairing!
But Tatamagouche is more than a whistle-stop town. Two steps away from the Train Station Inn, families can embark on a cycling adventure by renting a Surrey Bike from Remember Adventures. The pedal-powered quadricycles are a perfect way to explore the Trans Canada Trail, and the tariff is reasonable at a price of $25.00 for 2 hours, including helmets, two waters and two snacks.
New in 2016 is the Tatamagouche Road Train, which locals have already nicknamed, the “Tatanooga- choo-choo”. This road train is the first of kind in Canada, designed not only for tourists, but also to provide a sustainable, scheduled mode of transport for seniors in the village who struggle to get out to do their own shopping (the official name of the road train is “The Foodland Express”). During the summer months, the train departs every 30 minutes from the Foodland grocery store, taking tourists and locals together on a fun hop-on, hop-off journey around Tatamagouche. The fare is by donation.
Only moments down the tracks from the Train Station Inn is Creamery Square, the cultural centre and social hub of Tatamagouche. Within Creamery Square, The Margaret Fawcie Norrie Heritage Centre offers several small but fascinating permanent exhibits including a hands-on butter-making experience for kids and a room dedicated to local giantess, Anna Swan, who stood nearly 8 feet tall!
Next door is the popular and very busy Saturday Farmer’s Market. On our visit, we treat ourselves to a delicious, greasy Farmer’s Breakfast from Deb’s Country Kitchen, washed down with some hot coffee. My husband, a die-hard pickle-aficionado, spots a selection of jams and pickles. “Gordon’s Goodies” are sold by Gordon Woodworth, a retiree who lives between Halifax and nearby Malagash, and grows as much as he can in his own garden. We ask about his famous “Sweet Beer Pickles” and he lets us in on a secret: “They’re bread and butter pickles with beer in the brine. Everything sells better when you put the word beer in it”.
The Grain Elevator is another building saved from demolition with the help of LeFresne and other community members. The imposing, light-filled structure hosts a couple of small boutiques and a charming closet-sized bookstore that accepts payment via an honour system: a great place to stock up on light travel-reading. Travel along the trail for another minute, and you’re back at the Train Station Inn.
One of the best aspects of Tatamagouche is that so many village attractions are within walking distance of each other. Families visiting for a weekend could easily park the car in front of their caboose at the Train Station Inn, and leave it there, picking up the keys perhaps only once to drive to the the warm waters of nearby Rushton Beach for a swim. The other memorable thing about Tatamagouche is its community spirit. Everyone here is ultra-friendly, very relaxed…and just a little bit quirky. Tatamagouche has so much going for it, but overall, it’s this unique North-shore Nova Scotia personality that is to be savoured, until your next visit.
Travelling to Tatamagouche?
Train Station Inn: http://www.tatatrainstation.com
Tatamagouche Farmer’s Market: http://www.tatamagouchefarmersmarket.ca
Creamery Square Heritage Centre: http://www.creamerysquare.ca
Tatamagouche Road Train: http://www.tatamagoucheroadtrain.ca
Surrey Bike Rental: http://rememberadventures.ca
Tatamagouche Brewing Company: http://tatabrew.com
Rushton’s Beach Provincial Park: Nova Scotia.com
History of the Train Station Inn: http://www.tatatrainstation.com/history
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based writer. She was a guest of the Train Station Inn.