Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Back on Track

Relive the golden age of locomotion
on Nova Scotia's Bras d'Or

For those of us living in urban areas -- and that's most of us -- trains are no longer the stuff of romantic legends. They are crowded commuters or fast-moving subways, not leisurely conveyances. Scenic train routes or rail cruises have all but disappeared from our society along with 8-track tapes and air-raid drills.

So it was with an air of nostalgia that VIA Rail revived the Bras d'Or, a train route that formerly ran from Halifax to Sydney. Reborn as a sightseeing tour, the Bras d'Or (pronounced by locals like "Labrador" without the "la") leaves Halifax once a week for an 11-hour trip through some of Canada's most beautiful countryside and arrives in Sydney in the early evening. The following day the train takes the same trip back through Cape Breton to Halifax.

The $219 ticket includes breakfast, lunch and entertainment and offers passengers an opportunity to not only view a spellbinding landscape in the comfort of a luxury railway car, but also to experience the culture of Cape Breton.

Before the Cabot Trail's extensive system of highways made rural Cape Breton easily accessible by car, the train was a major means of transportation from the mainland. At the turn of the century, regional train lines such as the Bras d'Or ran all over Canada, but in the wake of highways almost all were eventually discontinued and tracks were ripped up all over the nation.

In 1990, VIA Rail stopped regular passenger service between Halifax and Sydney. Last year, in a partnership between VIA Rail, Nova Scotia, Tourism Cape Breton and Enterprise Cape Breton Corp., service was partly restored with a weekly, seasonal train run. This rail cruise is one of the only ways to experience Canada's classic railways.

Ridin' the Rails
Departure time is 8am Tuesday morning in Halifax. Aboard the short train the mood is jolly, tempered by morning sleepiness. Although the engine is modern, the railway cars date from the 1950s. The bullet car at the back of the train, a glass-domed sightseeing lounge shaped like an artillery shell, is a definite throwback to the streamlined train designs of the first half of the 20th century.

The train leaves Halifax station, rolling quietly between the city's urban east end and the busy cranes and scaffolding of the harbourfront. The city melts away as the train pulls into the countryside, brightly coloured graffiti turns into thick green moss on the walls of rough-hewn rock that line the sides of the track. We snake around the basin of the city's deepwater harbour as fishing vessels and pleasure craft glide by on the cobalt water.

Halifax is soon out of sight and the train's attendants, mostly young Cape Bretoners, are smartly dressed in the Cape Breton tartan. Led by a guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of the route and the Island, they serve breakfast, which is a traditional affair that includes smoked salmon and fish cakes. Surrounded by ocean and riddled with lakes, there's very little that swims that can't be found on a Cape Breton menu.

Although the Bras d'Or is a long trip, its pace never slows. The landscape is in constant flux as we ride past quaint houses beside saltwater lakes, fields with sheep and horses and through the centres of small towns. Our guides make a point of announcing every site of interest and are happy to answer any questions we have about the area.

"For a long time there was no train along this route," explains the guide. "Until we revived the Bras d'Or, there was just a self-powered car that carried milk."

The Bras d'Or rail cruise is especially popular among train enthusiasts, who see it as a unique opportunity to experience one of the last regional lines in operation in North America. Bill Kendrick, a retired state attorney from Indiana, describes himself as a life-long train enthusiast. Since his retirement in 1997, he's been riding every train he can, trying to recapture the spirit of the heyday of railroading. Armed with maps and logbooks, he focuses on the journey in a different way from most of the sightseeing passengers. His mind is in the past, when the steam locomotive opened up pathways to the remote and isolated reaches of North America.

 

"Every run, there are a few of us on board," he says of fellow enthusiasts. The Bras d'Or is considered one of North America's best routes. "I've gone on the Orient Express and overland through China and Siberia, but this is one of the nicest train rides I've ever been on," he explains.

Just before crossing from the mainland onto Cape Breton, lunch is served. In keeping with the seaside theme, the menu includes fresh lobster tail and salmon, salad and white wine.

We stop in Port Hawkesbury, a small seaside town right at the southwestern edge of Cape Breton. Here passengers experience a genuine Cape Breton ceilidh (pronounced kaylie), a traditional kitchen party where coffee, tea and homemade cakes are accompanied by traditional Celtic piano and fiddle music.

Tearooms are a part of the Cape's traditional culture, serving tea, cake and Celtic music in a refined atmosphere. Even Rita McNeil, Cape Breton's very own music ambassador, has a tearoom not far from Port Hawkesbury.

After an hour's stop, it's back on the train for the rest of the journey to Sydney, Cape Breton's largest town. With a delightful musical conclusion to the afternoon, the train staff entertain us on mandolin, fiddle and in the Island's traditional song.

Colonized by Scottish immigrants, Cape Breton was chosen because of its uncanny similarity in climate and geography to the Scottish highlands. A Scotch-style single malt whiskey, the only one of its kind in Canada, is distilled here.

For many of the Cape's residents, life hasn't changed dramatically in 200 years. As we pass over a beautiful gorge on an elevated trestle, the countryside spreads out from underneath us. A kilted Scotsman with a long white beard raises his walking stick and waves at the train from below.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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