by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
As outlandish as it may reverberate, our project to rejoice in the triumph of my partner having attained the noteworthy age of sixty years was initially to fly to the Florida Keys for a celebratory weekend. And to be perfectly frank our shameless object was to consume with gusto the first of the anticipated Canada Pension Plan receipts. Even though I maintain that Florida in the summer is the best-kept secret (the constant breeze off the Atlantic Ocean ensures pleasing temperatures, and everything – flights, hotels, food and limousine drivers– costs less) we nonetheless felt that the time constraint was somewhat overwhelming especially as we “seniors” (at last such a cherished platitude!) have less eagerness for frivolity and festivity. Thus we began rethinking the holiday escape plan and ended by settling upon Montréal, being more within walking distance.
Our choice of Montréal – not to be diminished by its comparative lack of exoticism – did not however rest solely upon its proximity. Perhaps in deference to, or in consequence of, our advanced age we decided to leave the family automobile at home and take the train, a decided adventure.
I cannot recall the last time I traveled by train but I reckon that it was when I returned home from university many decades ago. Lately travel by train has become moderately alluring, all the talk about Amtrak and the Western vistas through the Rockies. Granted it involves a surrender of that highly personal conveyance of the private automobile, but if you are the driver, it is a deprivation one can increasingly bear with ease. More of that business of aging I suspect.
Anyway, bound as we were to make up our minds upon the matter, we booked the tickets (on-line of course – terribly modern for old fogeys!) and printed our boarding passes in advance, scheduled to depart Saturday morning at 9:50 a.m. returning on the following holiday Monday at 12:50 p.m.
There subsequently unfolded an odd encumbrance to our proposed train travel. Because we had to get ourselves from Almonte to the train station (we by the way chose Ottawa instead of Smiths Falls because the train left from Ottawa rather than Toronto so the possibility of delay was lessened) I contacted the Ottawa train station to enquire about long-term parking. I was told that there was indeed long-term parking but one was advised to call one hour ahead of time to ensure there was space available. When I told the clerk that it took us an hour to travel from Almonte to the Ottawa train station, my conundrum fell upon deaf and unambiguously disinterested ears. In frustration (I didn’t want to face the prospect of packaging a 5,000 pound automobile in a handbag) we reasoned that it might be preferable to book a suite at the Château Laurier hotel on the preceding Friday night, leave the car there for the weekend then take a cab to the train station. While this was unquestionable extravagance, the moment of celebration nonetheless warranted it. As a result, that is what we did. We added to the delight of the event by inviting my physician’s son (to whom I fulfill an avuncular duty) to join us for dinner at Wilfrid’s that evening. The dinner could not have been better nor the staff more attentive. There is something generous and inspiring about what I call the “railway hotels”.
The following morning – Saturday, the day of our much anticipated departure to Montréal – after a highly sustainable breakfast in the lounge at the Château Laurier Hotel we commandeered a hack at the front of the blazing brass doors and headed expediently to the train station. The cab driver appeared to thrive upon speed as a mollification of his charge and one was therefore compelled by common decency to throw in the change from a twenty-dollar bill, a small condescension on a dazzling, sunny Saturday morning. We were in the mood!
The experience in the Ottawa Train Station was pleasant enough. We bided our time before departure in the Panoramic Lounge where we effortlessly checked-in and then leisurely scanned our tablets for current email and the morning news. The chairs were comfy but I did not partake of the coffee or juices which were on display at the other end of the Lounge. Those who did, made an uncommon commotion when triggering the contraption that manufactured their early-morning hot drink.
At last we were invited by a broadcast message to board the train, that mammoth structure of steel and strength. “All aboard!” classically peeled the announcement. We boarded, perched our bags, got adjusted and were off! There were no clickity-clackity sounds but we were moving at an impressive speed. In fact we were keeping up with the parallel motorists who I guessed were easily traveling upwards of 120 kms per hour.
The time elapsed pacifically. There were vast open fields, quaint small villages, endless whistle-blowing crossings, greenery everywhere. Not long after a pleasant late-morning meal on board, we approached Montréal and the train crawled cautiously almost laboriously through the darkened caverns into the station below the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel where for convenience we planned to stay for the next two days.
Our resurrection to the Hotel was transparent and the conscription into the Hotel was accomplished without delay.
Many people when visiting a destination oddly insist upon removing themselves immediately from it. This is not our posture. We take the view that, if you are going somewhere why not stay there? As a result we determined to devote the weekend insofar as possible to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel. This had meant not that we wouldn’t venture forth in this marvelous and ancient city but rather that we would restrict our animal needs to the locus normal. We would dine in-house.
We do however have an inclination to exercise in spite of our advancing age and protuberant bellies. After all, “Exercise is Medicine!” As a result, in this short stay in Montréal, in addition to swimming in the subterranean pool and glowing in the very efficient steam bath, on the following Sunday morning we launched ourselves into an extensive walk about the City, the ultimate destination being Schwartz’s, the famous Montréal smoked meat sandwich emporium. Schwartz’s doesn’t begin marketing its renowned smoked meat sandwiches until 10:30 a.m. For those who break the fast late in the day – more especially on a Sunday as this was, this may sound to be a preposterous hour for the consumption of a smoked meat sandwich. We on the other hand – having already investigated the extent of the striking renovations at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel on Sherbrooke Street West – had been up and going since six o’clock in the morning and having walked some considerable distance to this delicatessen were not to be deterred in our appetite.
We were however at the front door of Schwartz’s about an hour before 10:30 a.m. As a result we were obliged to protract our plan by re-visiting the nearby scene of a former dinner (involving by coincidence my physician’s daughter) at Bistro Laloux at the corner of Rue St. Denis and Avenue des Pins Est whence we walked (with no uncommon discomfort due to my failing knees). Our reward upon return to our initial destination was to turn the corner and find the place beckoning and humming with activity. We entered enthusiastically and seated ourselves upon two of the counter perches, near the far left-end. We were promptly treated to the delight of the smoked meat sandwiches, the tangy coleslaw and sour pickles. We declined to have the recommended Black Cherry soda opting instead for water. We were joined at the counter by the society of “jocks” from the United States who had hurriedly muscled into the remaining counter stools to be there for the “experience”. The efficiency of the staff ensured our early satisfaction and we were ushered out of the place in record time. The place was packed from the moment we arrived.
After a prolonged walk back to the Hotel along the many stimulating avenues, boulevards and pedestrian malls of the Old City we regained our current digs. Subsequently on our little trip we enjoyed two exceptional meals in the Hotel. We tried to book an evening at the celebrated Beaver Club but it was closed for business on Sunday evening and we were already booked Saturday evening.
The return home was uneventful, swathed somewhat in that usual regret that accompanies the departure from indulgence and the looming recovery of obligation. On the balance, if one were to ask, I recommend travel by train.