The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

A chateau sleeper from Halifax (Winter 2007).

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:55 am

Wintertime is a time of many three-day weekends–and lots of low cost deals being offered by airlines, railroads and hotels. If you can tolerate the cold, the short days, and the increased chance of getting stranded somewhere, it’s an interesting time to take a train trip (and cheap too). Researching the situation with VIA Rail, I realized that the Montreal-Halifax overnight train, The Ocean had gone back to running with old Budd sleepers and coaches on one of the three trainsets used on the line for the winter, but the equipment would be taken off in April, possibly never to be used again on this route due to the availability of more modern equipment. Working out the schedule, I quickly started looking for the best deal–due to Amtrak pricing schemes (higher prices on Fridays), it would likely be less expensive to fly up on Friday to Halifax, and ride back home. It looked like two people could make the trip for around $600 worth of rail fare. Meg liked the idea–“can you get a triple bedroom for us on the Ocean?,” she asked. Lucky Meg, I was able to reserve the room online. Once she saw the email confirmation, she became pretty interested. We spend about a week putting the whole trip together, about a week before the departure date–it was pretty easy. Hotels were empty, the trains and planes were offering discounts. Meg was getting excited about this in the manner that only a real bottom-fishing wheeler dealer can experience.

We started out early Thursday morning, and were out of the house before 7 am, only to find all the roads glazed over and traffic moving very slowly. Overnight, the heavy rain from the previous day had flash-frozen, and a light dusting of snow on the roads covered a serious hazard. After about 20 minutes in the non-moving bumper to bumper traffic, Meg and I realized that there was no possibility for us to make it to Philadelphia by car to catch our train to Newark Airport. Making a quick course change, we got on the PA turnpike and drove to Newark from Lansdale, PA. A quick phone call to friend Gary for suggestions on the lowest-cost long-term parking situation at EWR led us to Sky Park, a large off-airport lot next to the Anhauser Busch brewery in Newark. We actually made it to the gate by 10:00 am, and had to wait for an hour and a half.

For those of our friends who never take airplanes–Newark Airport (IATA Abrevation EWR) occupies 2,027 acres of filled-in wetlands, is 18 feet above sea level, is owned by the City of Newark, but leased and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and serves about 90,000 passengers a day. It’s concrete splendor is paled only by the heartgrabbing majesty of the Port of Elizabeth.

The one-way Contintental Airways flight ($180 from Orbiz) put us on an Embraer ERJ-145, a 50 seat two-engine regional jet that provided a rocky and cramped ride to Halifax. The half-filled flight appeared to be filled with entertainment industry folks and business travelers going back home after a few days of work in NYC– not many tourists going to Halifax in January. Taxiing out to the runway, we noticed that the plane de-icers had been working earlier in the morning, though it had warmed up a little, and things were no longer frozen solid.

As we descended through the clouds, it was obvious that the folks there were having a particularly bad weather day–several inches of snow had fallen, and the weather had turned to strong gusts and heavy rain. After going through customs and being sniffed by a beagle wearing a Canadian flag patch on his official little doggie warm-up jacket, we picked up our Hertz car and drove from the airport to town. Halifax’s airport was relocated about 20 miles inland in the 1960s to avoid the frequent pea-soup fogs that plagued the airport’s old location. Strange to believe, but for two people traveling into town, the price was about equal between renting a car and taking the shuttle bus. The clincher was that we could arrange to drop off the car in town on the day of the train departure at no additional cost.

After a brief detour in South Halifax to visit CAA to pick up some maps and an umbrella, we were in downtown in about a half hour. The driving wind and heavy rain made for a miserable and cold afternoon–even the natives were complaining about the weather. Our hotel, the Westin Halifax, was built by the Canadian National Railway and was situated next to the VIA station with a short connecting tunnel. on the eastern edge of the downtown area. After picking up our VIA tickets we went into the hotel and checked in. The hotel was hosting a meeting of Shriners for the weekend, and here were many friendly outgoing Canadians wandering around the hallways wearing fezzes or clown costumes. (Interestingly, no dogs in funny outfits, nor Minis parked out fron considering the large number of people dressed like clowns inside.)

Formerly a CN Railroad owned hotel, the Halifax Westin is about as close as you can get to the station without sleeping in the waiting area.

We left our bags in our room, and went out exploring the city in the rental car (it was too rainy to walk). Halifax is a city of about 300,000 with four universities and an active regional cultural scene–about the same size and with the same demographics as Syracuse, NY. Halifax is that it has a significant filmmaking industry for a small town (often serves in place of Boston, or coastal New England), and is also home to  busy multimodal port where freight containers are put on transatlantic freighters. In addition, there is the energy business–from our hotel window, we could see across from the bay to Dartmouth, where tall exploratory off-shore well-drilling rigs were moored. The energy industry in Canada is going through a major growth phase these days, but most of the development is occurring in Alberta, and Halifax natives complained that large numbers of young people and industrial development money are heading elsewhere these days. That evening after we drove around for a while, we headed over to O’Carrols down by the historic waterfront for dinner. After an enjoyable dinner of haddock and finnan haddie, and a couple of rounds of delightful locally-produced ales (Fire Plug Scotch Ale and Propeller IPA stood out among the pack), we had an enjoyable chat with the chef, a Vancouver resident originally from the Carribean. One of the nice things about traveling off-season is that people have time to talk. The weather had kept most of the locals away, and the first-floor pub was quiet. The new Provence-wide smoking ban was taking hold, but the weather outside was so bad, that none of the smokers would go out. They just sat there and twiddled their drinks vigorously.

After we finished dinner, the rain had started letting up, and a few patrons started coming out for the Friday night meal on the town. After dinner, we went back to the hotel for the night. It had been a pretty long day.

On Saturday, we drove a few blocks toward town to return the rental car at the Marriot (the Hertz office at the train station is closed on Saturday, but they’ll transfer you for free from the Marriot). On the way there, we stopped off at the Halifax farmers market for breakfast and some gastronomic tourism. In between the salted fish, bread, crates of root vegatibles and bags coffebeans, Meg and I had a chance to try some wine from the Maritimes, as well as a thimbleful of Glenora, the only single-malt scotch made in North America. I asked the representative from the company about where the malt came from and was given the explaination that it comes from Scotland–“Canada has lots of peat, and lots of barley malt, but no one here makes peat malt, so we have to import it.” The Scotch samples being demonstrated that day came from the very first batches that were made at the distillery in 1994, and are now approaching 14 years in age. The Scotch has been resting in various barrels over the years and has taken on a decidedly vanilla and mild smokiness–things have worked out well for them, and the product is available Canada-wide.

VIA Rail Ren Sleeper

Built for a stillborn overnight Channel Tunnel sleeper train service–the Renaissance trainsets were built to a narrow and cramped loading gauge. Inside, cars are comfortable, though cramped.

After the market, we went back to the VIA station to meet up with the train–oh my, what a train. The Ocean that day was made up with two engines, one baggage car (ex UP), two coaches, a dome snack bar car, a diner, and three chateau-series sleeping cars. We were quickly shown aboard to our drawing room in car 20, the Chateau Iberville, a 1954 Budd beauty with three sections, eight duplex roomettes, three bedroom and, and one drawing room (which was waiting for us, and would be ours for the next 20 hours). Meg and I wandered to the drawing room (a double-sized bedroom that sleeps three people),  pulled on our extra-bulky sweaters, stowed our bags on the shelf over the annex, and eagerly trotted out to the dome car.

Viarail Skyline Dome

Built by the Budd Company, the Skyline dome car has an under-dome snack bar and two lounge areas, as well as the dome seating area.

There were four passengers beside us in the dome car as we left Halifax, including a fellow who was a soon-to-retire CN locomotive engineer who had taken a short ride to Halifax from his home in Truro for fun. A youngish father of two small children also joined us for the first part of the trip. The pair of VIA F-40s grumbled while running up the steep grade, and gained speed as the train ran around the big arc that led the train northward away from town. The sky was steely and dull, with ocassional glints of sun coming through from time to time. After a while, Meg started feeling chilly, so I offered to go back to the room and lend her a sweater–it’s pretty tough to get Meg out of a dome. As the train rolled farther north to Moncton, and farther inland, we noticed that all the rain that poured yesterday in Halifax had accumulated as many inches of snow. The train kicked up big clouds of snow as it plowed through gusts, and at every station there was plows and frontloaders parked there after spending hours getting the station opened in time for the trains passage. The sky was darkening for the evening as we approached Moncton, so we wandered down to the diner for dinner.

The diner was very nice–the exact same equipment used on the Canadian, but with an abreviated menu: our choices were roasted chicken or baked haddock. The salads were good, they offered locally-produced beverages including Jost wines, and Garrison’s red ale. For dessert, we had the interesting layered mousse, which went down well with a cup of decaf.  After dinner, we went off to our beds, which had been turned down for us by Gordon our attendant. Gordon warned us that the train is hectic in the morning and suggested that we get up around 6 am if we wanted to have breakfast and enough time to shower before leaving. That night, I rocked away in the large (by railroad car standards) bed, and visions of bears and cariboo staring at us through the darkness as we whisked through the night. The car didn’t rattle much, but our room was a little cold–it was a cold night. I was happy that I packed a pair of sweatpants to wear for sleeping. I woke once at 2 am at Riviere-do-Loup, Quebec but rolled back over and got back to sleep. Next thing I knew, it was dawn and the train was approaching Drumondville. Meg and I got up at the same time, and while Meg was getting ready for a shower, I wandered down to the snack bar to get cups of coffee for us. We put on our “special shower outfits” (slide-on shoes and sweat suits) and Meg showered while I sipped my coffee, and repacked my bag. When Meg came back, it was my turn.

After getting dressed, we headed for the diner for breakfast, which unlike dinner, was complimentary (Gordon took care of us). We debated about returning to the dome for the last half hour of the trip into the station, but decided instead to spend our last few minutes in the room. While we were eating, Gordon had remade the beds with clean sheets, and gotten things ready for the next patron.

Arriving in Montreal, we grabbed our bags, and went hunting for the RESO (pronounced “reseau”, which is the French word for a large and confusing network of tunnels). The system is connected to Underground Montreal, and comprises over 20 miles of tunnels which connect more than 60 commercial and residential buildings. This system has been cobbled together over the last 40 years, and there are lots of hidden entrances and unexpected jogs and turns. Not surprisingly, we got lost immediately, and wound up taking the Metro (that’s a French word for rubber-tired subway cars made out of fiberglas), to Square Victoria and the W Montreal Hotel, where we would spend Sunday night. After checking in we were given our room key, with special instructions for getting to the RESO and Metro from inside the hotel–one of the two elevators accessed the second sub-basement, and the door was straight ahead (our hotel room card key was required to open the door from the outside, and to operate the elevator to that level).

Thanks to “Starwood extra-special folks” status, we were upgraded from a “Wonderful” room to an “Orgasmic Experience Room”, which was a kind of strange experience. W Hotels, are one of Starwood’s many lines of hotels (Westin, Sheraton and Le Meridian being other more well-established brands). Targeted at young hipsters, the hotels are famous for their martini bars, youthful staff, postmodern interior decorating which can be somewhat unique (our room had translucent nighttables that glowed blue when the room lights were turned off), and particularly large and comfortable beds. Needless to say, we’ve never stayed in a room like we had at the W in Montreal–someone apparently forgot to install the wall between the bathroom and the bedroom. This is not the hotel to stay in if you are traveling with a railfan buddy (unless the buddy is of a different gender). Oh well, the toilet was in it’s own separate little room.

After a brief rest and cleanup, we were off again–this time to the Atwater Market, a farmers market a few blocks south of the Metro station at Lionel Groulx (what a scrabble word, I wonder what it means). We could see the market a couple of blocks south, and being it was 11 degrees there (very sunny, but very cold), we caught a bus that just happened to be turning the corner and was heading in the direction we wanted to ride in–big mistake, this bus zoomed right past the market, and got on the highway. It was the strangest experience riding that bus, not being able to talk to anyone and not sure where we’d wind up. We looped around and headed north on the highway out of town. Fortunately for us, we did not wind up in Toronto–the but was a regional feeder that ran passengers to a bus terminal at Dorval, and we only had to wait about twenty minutes in order to catch a bus back to to Lionel Groulx. “Next time, we’ll walk,” Meg retorted.

The Atwater market was really great–very French. The French love food, I must be part French. Meg got three incredibly stinky pieces of cheese for $10, I was able to find two bottles of a French Saison not sold in the US, and a French Biere de Garde, that I’d never heard of that was remarkable going down. We picked up a baguette to eat with the stinky cheese, and decided to go back to the hotel to have lunch. After lunch, we did some shopping on Rue St. Denis (Meg picked up some really wooly gloves and a hat, and I found a pair of shoes), and after a few hours of walking in the cold, we were ready for dinner at the Sargent Recruteur, a small brewpub that also serves unusual pizzas, and has an awful lot of young women hanging out there for a brewpub. Later that evening we wandered down Saint Laurent back to the hotel.

The following morning, we got up early to catch our train back to New York City, and our car parked in Newark. This time we successfully navigated the RESO all the way from Square Victoria to Central Station, and managed to go about seven blocks without having to go outside.

The Amtrak train was a typical daytime train with a few coaches and a snack bar. There was a PV at the rear (the Sierra Hotel), but none of the crew was in sight so we didn’t have a chance to chat with the owners. It looked like snow all day as we rode home. We arrive in NYP about thirty minutes late (8:20 pm), and immediately got on an NJTransit coast line train for the ride to Newark Airport. We had to pay the $5.50 surcharge to enter the airport, but took the monorail back to terminal “C” (we left from there on Friday). In a few minutes the Skypark shuttle bus picked us up and carried us back to our car.

Montreal in Winter:

It’s very cold in Montreal in the wintertime, and you may not want to go out. You could always spend part of the day exploring the RESO (pronounced resseau,  (the Montreal underground). Most of the downtown hotels are connected to Central Station by way of public walkways through office buildings, and underground passageways. The signage is poor, and the maps are very good, but we’re talking about adventure travel here.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress