We leave Les Escoumins (where we had the most enjoyable three days including wonderfully sunny Easter weekend graced with sightings of belugas and fin back whales) on a rainy Easter Monday, by a crowded bus. Our lovely host Mannu sees us off at the bust station and persuades the bus driver to let us off at the turn for the Saint Simeon ferry rather than at the normal stops a couple of kilometres up the road. The bus is packed with people going back to Quebec and Montreal after Easter at home. In Tadoussac it gets so busy that some people need to stand.
As the bus crosses he Saguenay fjord on the small car ferry, the grey skies start to clear and some blue appears in the south and over the mountains.
The driver does as she was asked to and lets us off at the traffic lights in Saint Simeon, on top of the hill from which we can see the ferry terminal and the ferry nearing the moorings. We have about half an hour to the departure and after a ten minute walk downhill we are just in time to see the ferry dock and to walk on with the other foot passengers.
The crossing takes just over and hour, across calm St Lawrence and affords for lovely views of both shores. As we near the south shore and the Riviere-du-Loup terminal, the sun breaks again at one point through the clouds over the Charelvoix mountains and the rays come streaming down, illuminating some hills and leaving the rest in an eerie, sharp shadow.
The ferry itself is a surprisingly substantial and comfortable vessel, with a large salon, small playroom for children, bar and restaurant as well as free wifi Internet.
The terminal at Riviere-du-Loup is, however, not only deserted, but also located at least couple of miles out of town's centre and, considering the annoying Canadian habit of placing bus and train stations on the periphery, probably at least three miles from the Via Rail station.
We get thrown out of the ferry terminal building by a guy that locks it up for the day, but he also gives us the taxi number, and one arrives in five minutes to takes us to the train station, or rather to a burger joint cum patisserie (here is Quebec for you!) about five minutes walk from it. We spend the next four hours in that diner, stretching our burgers, chips, coffee and cakes as much as we can. By the time the diner closes at 10pm, there is still an hour and half to wait until the railway station opens at 11.30pm (our train leaves at six minutes past midnight). It stays open until 3am, six days a week.
There are only two trains that come through Riviere-du-Loup: the one we are taking to Halifax (three times a week it has coaches to Gaspe) and the one that goes back from Halifax to Montreal.
We walk to the station as slowly as we can, but it's still only 10.20 when we arrive. The small waiting room is lit up but locked, and there is absolutely nothing outside: not a roof, not a shelter, not a seat, not even a step to sit on. We place our rucksacks on the ground under the small roof in front of the door and with the children nodding off on the rucksacks we stand around waiting for the guy who runs the station to turn up. Two other people do come, arriving to collect people from the Ocean train we are taking, but 11.30pm passes and the guy is still not there.
He turns up at 11.20 without a word of apology and then spends another 15 minutes doubting the validity of our reservation. I show him the confirmation email on my phone, he complains about small letters impossible to read, I then suggests he phones and when he does things get sorted and our tickets get printed, our rucksacks checked in and in ten minutes the train arrives.
It's big train -proper, solid and powerful looking thing that looks made for long journeys and crossing snow-bound forests. As much as the station experience was an example of once-thriving industry being in what seemed like terminal decline, once we are on the train it all seems completely reversed.
We climb aboard a warm, spacious carriage, led by a smiling, friendly and polite steward, who points us to two sets of two seats and promptly brings pillows and blankets. The seats are huge - honestly, they are wide, have piles of leg room and recline (or rather pull out), there are clever spaces for carry-on luggage and foot rests and similar.
So, we are travelling, again.