First Stop: Boston
We’d not had a vacation together since a trip to Panama three years ago. So for our 35th wedding anniversary Derry and I decided on a river cruise in Europe, something we’d always hoped to do. And are still hoping.
River cruises in Europe book up 18 months in advance, apparently, so now we needed a Plan B. We’d also hoped to visit the maritime provinces of Canada, but that was supposed to happen when we were based in New York and it wasn’t so far away. But if you had been planning a European trip, Nova Scotia seems quite close.
In fact, this late in the season, according to our guidebooks the whole area would be empty, as it was past tourist season. Better and better. Who needed over-crowded riverboat cruises when we could enjoy quaint seaside villages, take pictures of brightly covered fishing fleets, and patronize endearing souvenir shops? Oh, and seafood. Lots of seafood.
If we were heading in that general direction, it would be best if we could detour to Boston and see June, Derry’s invalid stepmother recently confined to a nursing home.
Hmmm, this was interesting. The lowest fare from Denver to Halifax included a four and a half hour layover in…Boston. No doubt that’s why the fare was so low, because of the long layover.
Could we just sneak out of the airport and take an Uber to the Boston suburbs, have quality time with June, and get back to the terminal and through security in time? It seemed crazy. Probably we should just plan a full 24 hour layover. Oh wait, doing that added a thousand dollars each to the tickets. So I booked the low fares and spent the next two months worrying how we could get to June’s and back without missing our flight.
If everything went perfectly, it was theoretically possible, but here were all the things that could go wrong. The plane could arrive late. There could be a delay getting off the plane. The walk from the gate to outside the airport could be unusually long. It might take more than a few minutes for an Uber to arrive. There might be further delay in the driver finding us. (I’d lost 20 minutes at Tampa airport a month earlier, and the driver had to call me three times, until we found each other.) Traffic could be bad getting out to the suburbs. And then we’d face similar obstacles on the way back: Uber delays, traffic congestion, heavy security lines, etc.
Again, if everything went right it would work, but when has everything gone right, ever, in the history of human civilization? Never, until now. Our plane into Boston was 30 minutes early. We were off it in seconds and in only minutes were at the ride-sharing area. The Uber arrived immediately and traffic was negligible. We had a full two hours with June, which the staff told us should be the maximum anyway. Back at the airport, we found our ongoing flight was itself thirty minutes delayed. We had so much time to kill we exited security and found a seafood restaurant in the main part of the terminal.
If we were going to eat seafood nonstop for eight days, best to start practicing.
A Rental Car “Upgrade”
We arrived at night into the lovely, modern Halifax airport, in which even the baggage claim was nautically themed, sporting miniature replicas of sailing vessels in glass cases. Echoing the motif, Nova Scotia license plates themselves carry an image of a lovely gaff-rigged schooner. I read in the guidebooks: “Lumber powers the area’s economy. But the sea provides its soul.”
Halifax airport by night
A convenient airport hotel provided nicely for our souls and after a good night’s sleep we were back to pick up our rental car next morning.
And here all our good fortune from the day before ran out.
We’d reserved a sub-compact, not just because it was the least expensive and fuel efficient, but because I imagined this would be a trip with lots of driving on back-roads, no doubt pulling off on the shoulder frequently for the sure-to-be-plentiful photo ops, darting into tiny souvenir shops with difficult parking, and getting delightfully lost in the back-alleys of picturesque seaside villages.
“Good news!” exclaimed the friendly sales clerk at Thrifty, after we’d already been forced to wait nearly an hour because cars were being “washed.”
“We don’t have the exact car you reserved, so you’ve been upgraded!”
“Upgraded to what?”
“To a sports car!”
Images of a little red Mazda Miata or Honda Acura immediately danced in my head. Hopefully we’d be able to squeeze our luggage into it, but a tiny sports car would be amazing on all the little winding roads and narrow shoulders.
Reality hit when we discovered Thrifty’s idea of a sports car. It was a vast, beastly Dodge Challenger, with a 485 horsepower V8 engine, and roughly the dimensions of a full-size Lincoln Continental. Most of its ungainly bulk was taken up by the engine itself. The backseat would be cramped for a small child, not that you could easily put anything back there anyway, as the car only had two doors.
To reach the backseat you first had to open one of these doors, each of which weighed as much as, and was nearly the size of, its counterpart on a bank vault. If you didn’t wrench a back muscle, you’d next detach the seat-belt’s shoulder strap from the fitting that held it in place. You then pulled a lever that allowed the seat to tilt forward, albeit not nearly far enough. All this together opened a sliver of access to the diminutive space in the back, which would be filled to overflowing by a pair of sweaters. Then do it all in reverse to complete the project. Lovely.
The trunk was adequate for our luggage, although its lid was so heavy it required two hands to raise—similar to the effort required to open one of the Leviathan-doors.
It probably got six miles to the gallon, highway, on a good day.
Oh, and did I mention the whole thing was hideously ugly, resembling something even a gold-chain-adorned Las Vegas pimp from the fifties would find repulsive. Back then they’d called these tacky abominations “muscle cars,” mostly driven by troubled teenagers needing to compensate for the insecurities of youth.
It was the single most inappropriate vehicle imaginable in which to tour Canada’s maritime provinces. I was ready to march back to the rental counter and demand anything other than this monstrosity.
But we had a lot of driving ahead of us and the day was advancing. Derry had waited an hour and didn’t want to wait another one. “We’ll make it work,” she announced.
“Work” was going to be the operative phrase, every time someone needed to open or shut one of its doors, find a parking place, pull onto a shoulder, or even weave through the other cars to exit the parking garage.
The Maritime Provinces—A Primer
Derry is high maintenance when it comes to hotels. She doesn’t need fancy, expensive ones. She just has strong opinions, and actually refused to stay at two places we’d visited on our honeymoon. So we made a deal. I put Derry 100% in charge of where we would go in Nova Scotia, and where we would stay. I didn’t care where we stayed, and this way if a hotel was not up to Derry’s standards, it would be her fault. The key to 35 years of marriage? Let your wife choose the hotel.
She was gracious enough to ask me what I wanted to see and where I wanted to go before starting to plan, but our interests aligned. We wanted to visit little harbors, see brightly colored fishing boats, and patronize the souvenir and t-shirt shops that were sure to be clustered around them. Oh, and if there were a way to somehow visit all three maritime provinces, not just Nova Scotia, that would be a bonus.
Let’s discuss geography.
Like most Americans, even those who fancy themselves good at maps, Canada’s maritime provinces are confusing. Some are islands, some aren’t. Some are combinations of two other things, and some are stand-alone.
The names are hard to keep straight. For example, Newfoundland and New Brunswick are endlessly confusing, as they both have three syllables and start with N. How can you tell them apart?
Nova Scotia—arguably the prettiest name in the Western Hemisphere—at least has four syllables.
And then there’s Prince Edward Island, which is tiny compared to the others but according to rumor, is a full-blown province in its own right.
Given the hodge-podge of other regional names to sort out, we’re left with a mad jumble that includes—deep breath—Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Acadia, Cape Breton Island, Labrador, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and somewhere around there: the Gaspe Peninsula.
Here’s a quick cheat-sheet.
We’ll get these two out of the way, first:
Acadia – A colony of France established in the 1600’s, and which once included much of the whole area, plus Maine. It no longer exists, although pockets of French-speakers still do.
Gaspe Peninsula – This is merely a piece of Quebec, south of the St. Lawrence, that sticks out towards the Atlantic. We can ignore it for our purposes as its not part of the Maritime provinces, although it is close to them.
Now the important stuff:
New Brunswick — A full-fledged province, and member in good standing of the Maritimes, New Brunswick should be visualized as an extension of Maine. If you drove up the coast of Maine and kept going, you’d be in New Brunswick.
Nova Scotia – Also a full-fledged Maritime Province, but it’s not an island, even though it looks like it should be, on a map. Nova Scotia technically is an isthmus, and can be thought of as an extension of New Brunswick. If you drove up the New Brunswick coast and kept going, you’d end up in Nova Scotia.
Cape Breton Island – It’s a real island, but just barely. Think of it as an extension of Nova Scotia. If you drove up Nova Scotia’s Eastern Coast, and crossed a short bridge at the top, you’d be there. However it’s part of Nova Scotia, not a separate province.
Newfoundland. – Definitely an island, and a big one, roughly the size of Virginia. And it’s remote. If we continue our journey by car up the coast, we’d hop a ferry at the northeast end of Cape Breton Island, and continue over water in that same direction for six hours and arrive in Newfoundland. You can actually do this. Is Newfoundland a Maritime Province? Well, this part’s complicated so pay attention. Not only is it not counted as a Maritime Province, it’s not by itself a Province at all. To achieve Province-status, you have to combine it with Labrador. Then it becomes the awkwardly named: Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. So what’s Labrador?
Labrador — If you continued north from Newfoundland, via another ferry, you’d find yourself back on the North American mainland, in a place called Labrador. How far northeast is Labrador? Let’s just say if you managed to keep going, you’d be in Greenland. But let’s not. We’re almost done, and saved the cutest for last.
Prince Edward Island – This relatively small island, lying sideways just off the northwestern shore of Nova Scotia, must have had some political pull in Ottawa, because it achieved full Maritime Province status for itself, even though it’s only 1/20th the size of Newfoundland. It’s by far Canada’s smallest province, but it’s a lovely place as we’ll see when we get there. And you can get there by car via a bridge from New Brunswick (western end) or a ferry from Nova Scotia (Eastern end).
The lay of the land. And the water.
Now, the big mystery here is why New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island (which everyone refers to as PEI) are considered Maritime Provinces, and Newfoundland and Labrador are not. I’ve found no answer so here’s my theory: The Maritimes are clustered conveniently right next to each other, and you can drive around them without having to take a ferry. It’s kind of like how we designate New England. Why aren’t New York and New Jersey included especially given their very English names? Well, they’re just not. And while Newfoundland-and-Labrador should be considered part of the Maritimes, they’re just not.
Derry’s Chosen Route (Clockwise from Halifax)
Driving southwest away from the airport, on a beautiful multi-lane freeway, the first thing I noticed was that Nova Scotia is almost uninhabited. Reminiscent of Alaska, forests cover nearly all of it, with the population clustered around tiny harbors on the Coast. OK, that made sense. But was it all forest? Wasn’t there any farmland? Not in Nova Scotia it seemed.
Eventually we left the modern highway and found the curvy, narrow, no-shoulders type of thing we’d expected. The Dodge Challenger barely fit, but it handled well. If a sports car is supposed to have a powerful-for-size engine, good suspension, and tight handling on curves, we were sort of a sports car.
But the primary “sport” was trying to look anonymous every time we’d park and have to ostentatiously emerge from the beast—our heads bowed in shame. We were doing nothing to improve the scenery. It was just the kind of car tasteless Americans would rent, and we knew we’d be apologizing for it constantly.
Our first destination was something called Peggy’s Cove. Derry said it was one of the must-see attractions. Something about lots of rocks to walk around on, and maybe a lighthouse.
We found the rocks—large, exposed masses of granite covering a tree-less, windswept hillside that sloped to the sea. And there was something else here interesting: a monument in memory of the lives lost when Swissair Flight #111 exploded shortly after leaving Kennedy airport in 1998, with no survivors. The nearest land was Nova Scotia, and residents of this area had been heavily involved in recovery efforts for both the plane and the bodies.
One is tempted to think of Nova Scotia as remote, but in terms of flight paths to Europe and access to the Grand Banks fishing area, it’s in a convenient location.
But we weren’t quite to Peggy’s Cove yet. Continuing down the road we eventually came to the requisite small fishing village, and were greeted by a scene from Hell.
Yes, the lighthouse was lovely. So lovely, that every tourist in Canada had descended on it. There were parking lots here, filled to overflowing. Half a dozen large tour buses were stopped inconveniently along the road. Hordes of pedestrians, and hordes is the word for them, spilled out from these vehicles and were covering everything: the pavement, the parking lots, the rocks around the lighthouse, the sidewalks, the little shops. For those like Derry and me who abhor crowds, it was a scene from Dante.
“Let’s get out of here!” implored Derry. We were caught in a slow-moving parade of cars on the loop that went near the Lighthouse. Derry rolled down the window on her side, and I snapped a picture. Mission accomplished. Once freed from the glacial pace of backed-up cars, we fled the scene.
Having escaped purgatory, we were able to once again enjoy the scenery. And not counting the ocean, most of it was again forests. The leaves were close to their peak, and bright splashes of color were warmly sprinkled among the green of the pine trees. The tourists, conveniently, were all back at the lighthouse. Things were improving.
Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse
Our destination for the first day was Liverpool, along Nova Scotia’s “east coast.” Let’s talk about names. Four language sets vie for attention in the maritime provinces: Gaelic, French, Algonquin Indian, and English. So it was not unusual to see in close proximity names like Skir Dhu, Grand Étang, We’kokma’q, and Murphy’s Cove.
Liverpool, obviously, fell in the latter category. There wasn’t anything special about Liverpool, other than it was situated at a convenient stopping point for our tour. According to the guidebook, it was known primarily for a lighthouse, and a few miles away, a beach.
It was also trying hard to be gay-friendly. Many of the little inns and B&B’s sported some form of the ubiquitous rainbow motif that has come to mean “we support gays.” Our little inn, a cute version of a knotty-pined motel from the fifties, with external doors to the rooms and a perfect setting overlooking the water, had a rainbow sign out front as well.
The lighthouse was a modest affair, resembling really just a house, with a room upstairs that apparently contained a large light. But the crowds hadn’t bothered with it, so we found this attraction preferable to anything at Peggy’s Cove, and took far more pictures, just to make the Peggy lighthouse envious.
The beach was nice, but not very useful given temperatures in mid-October. Even so, there were four sets of couples walking along the beach, appropriately spaced out from each other. All were men.
But the best part of Liverpool was the seafood restaurant at the far end of the beach. We chose the fish.
Liverpool lighthouse. Modest, but no tourists.
Couples on the beach
The best part of Liverpool
The next morning we raced across Nova Scotia to the Western Shore to catch the 11am ferry at Digby. There was a national park along the way, with an unpronounceable Indian name, but we didn’t have time to stop. If you linger long enough to enjoy the free breakfast at the Inn back in Liverpool, and hope to be at the morning ferry in time to board, you don’t have time for national parks.
This straight shot from one side of Nova Scotia to the other, confirmed again that the whole place is mostly uninhabited forests. Occasionally we’d come to a town, or rather a sign welcoming us to a town, like Harmony Hills, or Maitland Bridge, but we could never actually find the towns themselves. There’d be maybe a house or two, and often a church with a requisite graveyard and never any parking, and then we’d be back in deep forest again.
It was best we’d refueled, because nothing as commercial as a gas station appeared on this journey. We did pass a painted sign saying: “Gas ahead,” but it lied. There were only trees ahead.
When we arrived in Digby we had no time for that town either, and raced directly to the ferry dock. Cars were queued up and loading began almost immediately. We were directed to a spot beside a semi-truck carrying—predictably—logs. Of course one might ask who’d want to carry logs from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, which would be much like carrying snow from Nome to Fairbanks.
But the ferry ride was delightful. We bought fish at the lunch counter and ate on a back deck protected from the wind. With not a cloud in the sky, the temperature was as perfect as the fish, and here we met a retired couple from the States.
Almost everyone in Nova Scotia seemed to be retired couples—either on vacation or living there. These two, from Michigan, were on lengthy vacation in their motor home. They’d already spent a month (a month!) driving around Newfoundland, and had just finished with Nova Scotia. We discussed our own itinerary and they approved of our plan to visit Cape Breton Island. We would be circumnavigating Cape Briton Highlands National Park on the famous “Cabot Trail” highway.
“It’s beautiful this time of year,” said the husband. “We were there just before the leaves were peaking. I think you’ll hit it perfectly.”
But the wife had a pressing concern.
“Tell me you’re doing the Cabot Trail clockwise. It’s so much better clockwise.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“We’ve done it both ways, but on this trip we went counter-clockwise. I kept looking back over my shoulder and seeing the truly spectacular views. For some reason, you don’t experience the beautiful views so much when you go counter-clockwise.”
Derry and I had to check our route later, before we confirmed that—Thank God—we were doing it clockwise. Dodged a bullet, there, apparently.
Crossing the Bay of Fundy
St. John and “The Reversing Falls.”
One failing of the European settlers in North America was that they named so many things after saints. And John seemed to be their favorite. How many things are named St. John? More than all the other saints combined, it seems to me. There’s an island in the Caribbean. There’s a ghost town in Colorado. A village in England. There’s the capital of Antigua. It’s the largest city in Newfoundland. There are over a dozen in the U.S., according to Wikipedia. Before the British took it over, Prince Edward Island was itself named by its French settlers St. John Island. (Isle de St. Jean.) And here we were coming into the largest port in New Brunswick named, no surprise, St. John.
But the town’s name wasn’t its most boring feature. To be clear, I have nothing against St. John, New Brunswick. It’s a pretty enough little city, with Victorian architecture nestled around a pleasant harbor. Even cruise ships come here, and one was docked at the time. It was named Carnival-something.
St. John is a gateway to all manner of attractions. New Brunswick is similar to Nova Scotia in that it’s mostly forests (the economy), and little fishing villages (its soul). So at least during the warmer summer months, there are canoes and kayaks to rent, bicycle excursions to enjoy, forest trails to hike, hills to climb, and of course plenty of seafood restaurants. But aside from all that, the primary attraction within St. John itself is the famous Reversing Falls.
Let’s note for the record that St. John is on the even more famous “Bay of Fundy,” renowned for having the highest tidal drop of anywhere in the world. It was the Bay of Fundy that we’d crossed on our ferry from Nova Scotia.
The Fundy tides play out differently in different areas, but in St. John they cause a waterfall to reverse course. At least, that’s what the brochures claim. It’s the only place in the world, we’re told, where you can see a waterfall actually change direction.
Well, not exactly. The problem isn’t that the direction doesn’t change. It does. The problem is that it’s not really a falls. It’s just a river going over some rocks. In Colorado we’d call it a Class 1 rapids.
So Strike 1 against the Reversing Falls is the lack of a Falls.
But the tourism industry knows how to spin things, and the public relations maneuver is successful because even tour buses come to the parking lot to see the famous reversing falls. Probably there are day-trip excursions from the cruise ships. Who could resist?
When you think about it, you’d realize there must be tens of thousands of places in the world where a river is periodically reversed as the tide pushes back against the current. In fact, the very words “tidewater” and “tidal flow” are dedicated to this phenomenon. Every section of a river that is within reach of tidewater is going to find itself reversing twice a day. Otherwise it wouldn’t be in tidewater.
So Strike 2 against the Reversing Falls is that it’s a highly common thing.
Strike 3 is also something a person who’d thought about it ahead of time, unlike us, would have realized. A river which reverses as the tide changes, isn’t going to be a very interesting thing to watch. Why? Because at any one time, it’s only going in one direction. So it looks just like any other river. At certain times of day it goes one way. At other times of day it goes the other. But it’s not like watching a dog chase its tail or anything. During that critical moment when it actually reverses—what should be the most exciting climax of the whole thing—the river is simply not moving at all. It’s stagnant, like a pond. So the most exciting moment is actually the least exciting moment. In fact, that’s the problem, there is no exciting moment.
Now you might think Three Strikes would be enough to declare this attraction out, at least out of any reasonable visit to the Maritime Provinces, but it gets worse.
While you can’t blame the tourism industry for this, someone managed to place the largest, foulest, most smokestack-intensive, soot-billowing factory in New Brunswick directly on the opposite side of the river from the parking lot. So all those visitors from the cruise ship, who come out to see the amazing reversing falls, see no falls in any case, see nothing reversing, and enjoy instead a perfectly-framed view of a big factory.
There’s another viewpoint for watching the reversing falls, which requires crossing the river on a bridge, and driving up a small hill. Then you exit your car and climb by foot another hundred feet further. When you’ve accomplished all this, you’re that much farther away from the uninteresting river, and directly downwind of the polluting factory.
“This place stinks,” declared Derry.
But the view of downtown St. John itself, with the big cruise ship front and center, was impressive whether the falls was reversing or not. In fact, downtown seemed a better destination and we discovered there a vibrant area called Market Square with shops, restaurants, pocket parks, a nicely developed waterfront, a cute lighthouse, and even an historical museum.
And did I mention the fish, at the seafood restaurant we went to that night, was very good?
Derry posing before St. John’s #1 tourist attraction
View of St. John from the hill. See if you can spot the cruise ship.
The harbor-front, at St. John, New Brunswick
The Bay of Fundy
You can easily drive from St. John, in southern New Brunswick, across the province and then across a bridge to Prince Edward Island in three and a half hours, thanks to a beautiful freeway. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, we took our nimble little sports car once again on the curvey, winding, roads along the coast so we could focus on the Maritime part of the Maritime Provinces.
Canada is quite promiscuous with National Parks. We’d passed one yesterday without stopping, and suddenly found ourselves entering another: Fundy National Park.
The bad news: We were so late in the season that many tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants and things like visitor’s centers at national parks, were closed. This was surprising since back in the States, New England comes alive during autumn and hotel rates peak along with the leaves.
The good news: The year 2017 is Canada’s 150th anniversary and they’d decided to celebrate by waiving all admission fees to their national parks and museums. Why, thank you Canada! And happy birthday! So we were able to enter lots of parks and museums at no cost, but were not able to learn much about them because the visitor’s centers were closed.
Fortunately the views themselves weren’t closed, and Fundy National Park provided pleasant ones, generally involving—not surprisingly—the Bay of Fundy.
Fall leaves, in New Brunswick
A field covered in…we have no idea what.
Admission was free
Fundy National Park. Information booths: Closed. Views: Open.
The guidebook, at least, yielded some interesting information. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that is officially bilingual. But most of the French speakers are clustered along the northeastern coast where the province meets the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They call this the “Acadian Coast,” as distinguished from the “Fundy Coast.”
The isthmus of Nova Scotia separates the two.
We also learned about the town of Alma, which lies at the eastern border of Fundy Park. Tiny, like all these little villages, Alma has a significant lobster fishing fleet. As we rounded a corner and passed over a small bridge, here was Alma, and here was its lobster fleet: high and dry.
It wasn’t that the boats had been hoisted out of the water. It was that the water had disappeared out from under them. And this happens every day, according to the guide book. When the massive Fundy tides are out, the boats are grounded. Only when the water comes back do they actually float.
It was a very picturesque place, with the colorful fishing boats tied up neatly to the wharf. The only thing missing was an ocean.
Alma, New Brunswick and the Lobster Fishing Fleet
Another highlight of this route was Hopewell Cape. There was another park here, with free admission and a closed visitors’ center.
What one does at Hopewell Cape is walk down a long flight of wooden steps to the beach—when the tide is out—and walk around the various little islands of rock which seem to have sprouted out from the sea floor, and now have grass and trees and such growing out of their tops. We were there at low tide, so for the same reason the Alma fishing fleet was on dry ground, you could walk easily among the mushroom-shaped rock islands. It’s difficult to describe this without pictures, so here’s one I took, and another I found in a brochure showing what it looks like at high tide.
Low tide at Hopewell Cape
High tide at Hopewell Cape (publicity photo)
Derry was nervous walking around these strange landforms. Why? Because attached to the cliff faces about every fifty yards, were coils of rope. This was rescue rope to toss to poor tourists caught by the fast moving Fundy tides. I thought the ropes might have been more useful if they hadn’t been secured with non-removable plastic ties. In an emergency you’d not be able to access the rope without a pair of bolt cutters. But then I remembered the park was closed. So of course the ropes were locked up for the season. Tourists should know better than to get trapped by Fundy tides outside office hours.
Hopewell Cape rescue ropes–safely locked up for the season.
We finally rejoined the big-boy highway and were whisked quickly to the 8-mile-long bridge connecting New Brunswick with the western end of Prince Edward island. If Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were similar—vast tracts of uninhabited forest—PEI is markedly different. Its modest and gently rolling hills are mostly farmland. Perhaps the soul of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is the sea, but here the soul is clearly the earth itself. And the earth, on Prince Edward Island, is red. But the crops—mostly potatoes according to our guidebook—don’t seem to mind. In fact, this red soil produces 25% of all potatoes grown in Canada.
Unlike Iowa, where it seems 99% of the land area has been cleared for agriculture, less than half of PIE is actually used for this purpose. Forests are still very much a thing here, and the result is a lovely landscape that alternates between cleared farmland, and trees.
Prince Edward Island: Forests & Farmland (publicity photo)
Potatoes didn’t interest me, but the name of the island did. A recent devotee of British History, I knew of at least seven King Edwards, and before they were kings they must have been princes, right? The Guide Book had no information on this but Wikipedia came to the rescue. Surprisingly, the island was not named after one of those Edwards, but rather Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent. How did the Duke also happen to be a prince? By being the fourth son of King George III, the one against whom the American colonies revolted, and the one who later went mad. (Well, wouldn’t you, if you’d lost your colonies?)
Anyway, while Prince Edward may not have been too pleased with his father, he did rather well with his daughter, who became the famous Queen Victoria.
We were spending the night in Charlottetown, the capital of PEI, so I had to look that up as well. Which Charlotte was this? Why, it was Prince Edward’s mum, Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, and close friend of Marie Antoinette. By the way, she also gave her name to Charlottesville, Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina, and quite a few other places in North America.
We found a pub downtown, predictably crowded on a Friday night, but with one table to spare. After potatoes, fishing generates PEI’s second largest export. Thus by ordering Fish and Chips, we were experiencing the best of what the island had to offer. And—you can probably guess what’s coming—it was delicious.
Yes, cruise ships come to Charlottetown too. (Publicity photo)
Anne of Green Gables
“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair. People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.” —Anne Shirley
I had it in mind to rent bicycles when we arrived on Prince Edward Island, because for some reason I believed it to be flat. But it’s not flat, it’s hilly. Also, three days of perfect weather had given way to an overcast sky, plummeting temperatures, and a raw wind out of the west. Rain was forecast.
What to do, on Prince Edward Island? Derry had mentioned that the novel Anne of Green Gables was based on a house located somewhere in the tiny province. She hadn’t read the book but was hoping to, so as to get better in touch with her relatives, some of whom were Scottish and had once lived in the area.
We’d already visited, with the kids, the House of Seven Gables, in Salem, Massachusetts. So it seemed appropriate to visit another gabled-house. It was either that or tour potato farms. Best of all, according to my GPS, Seven Gables was only 35 minutes away. And our Dodge Challenger with its 485 horsepower V8 engine would make short work of that.
The GPS built into my iPhone failed us only once. Yes, it was aware of the Green Gables house, provided clear directions, and soon our sports car was roaring over tiny country roads to the North Shore leaving a plume of global-warming hydrocarbons behind.
Here was another National Park, appropriately-named Prince Edward Island National Park. Admission was waived, but the visitor centers were closed. Our GPS took us along a forest-shrouded shore road, with nice views of the sea, and right in the middle of this wilderness it declared we had arrived.
But we hadn’t. There were no houses here, gabled or otherwise. The GPS was confused. Fortunately our highway map suggested we were near something called the Green Gables National Historic Site, which sounded promising. We kept driving and in several miles found actual signs pointing to Green Gables. It occurred to me that this must be how people in the olden days found things, by following signs and reading maps and such. It seemed akin to starting a fire by rubbing sticks together. So primitive. But useful in a pinch.
Soon we were pulling up to a large parking area—the kind built for massive tour busses—although there were only three cars here now. Tourist season was officially over. More signs guided us to the House and on the way we passed an admission-fee hut with two women sitting inside, ready to sell tickets. But they had little to do because admission to everything in Canada was free. So we passed them and they politely smiled and waved.
I could imagine the conversation at the National Park Service in the socialized economy of Canada.
“But, sir, if we don’t charge admission in 2017, what will our ticket sellers do? They’ll be out of a job for a whole year!”
“Hmmm, good point. We can’t have that, certainly.”
“OK, here’s an idea. We keep them on the payroll, but instead of selling tickets, we’ll just have them wave at the tourists and smile.”
“Wow, why didn’t I think of that. Brilliant! Make it so.”
And here was the house. At its counterpart in Salem, I’d dutifully counted the gables to ensure there really were seven. Here I just needed to make sure they were green, and they were.
I hadn’t read the book yet, but there were many informational signs around, explaining the important stuff. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908. Its author, Lucy Montgomery had lived in a neighboring house, but had become friends with the owners of Green Gables, and spent time here. Thus she used it as a setting for her famous novel which has sold over 50 million copies, been translated into 36 languages, and spawned films, television shows, and even musicals.
The house was lovely, and preserved as a museum, accurately portraying late-Victorian-era décor and amenities. Outside were signs pointing to things that apparently were featured in the book, such as “Lover’s Lane,” and “The Haunted Wood.”
Let me confess that after the visit, I became curious, downloaded the novel for free on my iPhone’s Kindle App, and have now read it.
I didn’t expect to finish it certainly, imagining it as one of those tiresome, wordy, 19th century novels like Pride and Prejudice, or for that matter, the dark and gothic House of Seven Gables.
I was wrong. The book opens with an attention-grabbing plot. A middle-aged, very staid and unimaginative brother and sister pair, who own Green Gables farm, have asked an orphanage in Nova Scotia to send them an 11 year old orphan boy, who will be useful for them in working the farm, doing chores, and so forth. The orphan arrives but—through a miscommunication—it’s not a boy but an 11 year old girl. At first they intend, of course, to send her back, but…they don’t. Anne Shirley, with bright red hair and freckles, is the most out-of-place, disruptive influence there could be on the hitherto uneventful, plodding life at Green Gables. She’s like a bomb dropped in their midst. And they find her utterly fascinating.
Shortly after publication, Mark Twain himself called Anne “the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice [in Wonderland].” Well, I can see why he would think so, because Anne Shirley is precisely a female version of Tom Sawyer. And she plays off against the unimaginative Marilla (the proprietress of Green Gables) like Tom plays off against the equally-unimaginative Huckleberry Finn.
Anne of Green Gables is the only novel, not written by Mark Twain, that has sent me into convulsions of laughter so intense I’ve had to stop reading. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, A Tramp Abroad, and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court do this as well. I suspect it’s a defect in my character, to be disabled by such humor. Here’s a lengthy excerpt, and it’s where we first learn about the Haunted Wood.
“Anne, I want you to run over and ask Mrs. Barry if she’ll lend me Diana’s apron pattern.”
“Oh—it’s—it’s too dark,” cried Anne.
“Too dark? Why, it’s only twilight. And goodness knows you’ve gone over often enough after dark.”
“I’ll go over early in the morning,” said Anne eagerly. “I’ll get up at sunrise and go over, Marilla.”
“What has got into your head now, Anne Shirley? I want that pattern to cut out your new apron this evening. Go at once and be smart too.”
“I’ll have to go around by the road, then,” said Anne, taking up her hat reluctantly.
“Go by the road and waste half an hour!”
“I can’t go through the Haunted Wood, Marilla,” cried Anne desperately. Marilla stared.
“The Haunted Wood! Are you crazy? What under the canopy is the Haunted Wood?”
“The spruce wood over the brook,” said Anne in a whisper.
“Fiddlesticks! There is no such thing as a haunted wood anywhere. Who has been telling you such stuff?”
“Nobody,” confessed Anne. “Diana and I just imagined the wood was haunted. All the places around here are so—so—commonplace. We just got this up for our own amusement. We began it in April. A haunted wood is so very romantic, Marilla. We chose the spruce grove because it’s so gloomy. Oh, we have imagined the most harrowing things. There’s a white lady walks along the brook just about this time of the night and wrings her hands and utters wailing cries. She appears when there is to be a death in the family. And the ghost of a little murdered child haunts the corner up by Idlewild; it creeps up behind you and lays its cold fingers on your hand—so. Oh, Marilla, it gives me a shudder to think of it. And there’s a headless man stalks up and down the path and skeletons glower at you between the boughs. Oh, Marilla, I wouldn’t go through the Haunted Wood after dark now for anything. I’d be sure that white things would reach out from behind the trees and grab me.”
“Did ever anyone hear the like!” ejaculated Marilla, who had listened in dumb amazement. “Anne Shirley, do you mean to tell me you believe all that wicked nonsense of your own imagination?”
“Not believe exactly,” faltered Anne. “At least, I don’t believe it in daylight. But after dark, Marilla, it’s different. That is when ghosts walk.”
“There are no such things as ghosts, Anne.”
“Oh, but there are, Marilla,” cried Anne eagerly. “I know people who have seen them. And they are respectable people. Charlie Sloane says that his grandmother saw his grandfather driving home the cows one night after he’d been buried for a year. You know Charlie Sloane’s grandmother wouldn’t tell a story for anything. She’s a very religious woman. And Mrs. Thomas’s father was pursued home one night by a lamb of fire with its head cut off hanging by a strip of skin. He said he knew it was the spirit of his brother and that it was a warning he would die within nine days. He didn’t, but he died two years after, so you see it was really true. And Ruby Gillis says—”
“Anne Shirley,” interrupted Marilla firmly, “I never want to hear you talking in this fashion again. I’ve had my doubts about that imagination of yours right along, and if this is going to be the outcome of it, I won’t countenance any such doings. You’ll go right over to Barry’s, and you’ll go through that spruce grove, just for a lesson and a warning to you. And never let me hear a word out of your head about haunted woods again.”
Anne might plead and cry as she liked—and did, for her terror was very real. Her imagination had run away with her and she held the spruce grove in mortal dread after nightfall. But Marilla was inexorable. She marched the shrinking ghost-seer down to the spring and ordered her to proceed straightaway over the bridge and into the dusky retreats of wailing ladies and headless specters beyond.
“Oh, Marilla, how can you be so cruel?” sobbed Anne. “What would you feel like if a white thing did snatch me up and carry me off?”
“I’ll risk it,” said Marilla unfeelingly.
After the part about the lamb of fire with its head cut off, I had to quit reading for thirty minutes. And doesn’t Anne sound exactly like Tom Sawyer? Someone should write a novel in which they get married, because surely they are twin souls.
At the time, I didn’t know what the Haunted Wood was, but Derry and I walked through the whole thing. Haunted or otherwise, the trees were at their peak and it didn’t seem scary. Of course even Anne admitted it was no problem during the day.
Derry bravely walks through the Haunted Wood
Jacques of Green Gables
The Pictou Lodge
Another ferry ride, this one from the eastern end of the Island, brought us back to Nova Scotia and we arrived late in the day at the famous Pictou Lodge. In Pictou. How famous is the Pictou Lodge? Apparently notables from throughout history have stayed there, including Princess Juliana of Holland, King George V of England, and even Condoleeza Rice. And it is just the kind of Teddy Roosevelt, knotty-pine, hunting-lodge type of environment you’d expect famous people to use as a watering hole.
A stunning and elegant dining room was featured just across from reception. I wandered over to discuss matters with the hostess, but found they had no availability for dinner, until 9:30pm. Too late for us. She volunteered we could have “pub food” in an uninspired windowless room in the back, but some event had recently been held there and the normal tables had been replaced with those horrid 10-person rounds. No view, and awkward seating. This looked like a real problem as the Pictou Lodge was a long way from anywhere, out on a forested peninsula, and who knew where we could find an alternative restaurant. It was going to be a dismal dining experience, stuck in the back, when this glorious view beckoned out front.
Suddenly the hostess looked up from her reservation book.
“Oh wait, I’m wrong. We do have one table available if you can be seated right now.”
I grabbed Derry who was just finishing the check in process, and was ready to head back to the car and haul our luggage up to the room.
“No time for that,” I insisted. “ We’re going to eat, like right now.”
“Really? Before we even get our stuff to the room?”
“Yep, I’ll explain later. This is a dinner emergency.”
We followed the hostess to the very best table in the entire restaurant, right in the middle, by the windows, with the nicest view of all. Surrounding us were elegant couples, richly dressed and fitted out for a luxurious Saturday evening dining experience. And here we were in our slovenly jeans and travel attire, ushered by the glamorous hostess to the best table with the best view, and I’m certain the others looked on enviously—wondering how many months ahead we’d had to make these reservations—and no doubt assuming we were such important celebrities we could utterly ignore the dress code and get away with it.
I was so glad they hadn’t seen our car and had all their illusions shattered.
By the way, the fish was excellent.
The next morning I was anxious to start driving as early as possible, for this would be the longest leg so far. We’d be crossing the bridge to Cape Breton Island, and beginning our circumnavigation via the famous Cabot Highway. Clockwise, of course.
But the view at the Lodge’s restaurant had changed, which slowed everything down. Now there were ten thousand cormorants engaged in some kind of feeding frenzy or mating frenzy or going-crazy-over-something frenzy: wings flapping, heads dipping into the water frantically, flocks of them swarming in from somewhere, and then out to somewhere else. It was Grand Central Station at rush-hour for the Pictou cormorants, with all of it happening just outside our window.
We learned they don’t call these crazed animals cormorants in Nova Scotia. They call them black ducks, which seems dreadfully bland. But I suppose the birds don’t realize they’re not being called cormorants, so maybe it’s OK.
Derry wanted to eat her breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries leisurely, and enjoy the spectacle. It was a very large serving of oatmeal and I watched its painstakingly-slow consumption with increasing frustration, even going to far as helping her with it, just to speed things up. But at last she allowed herself to be talked into our unlovely car—fortunately no other guests were awake to see it—and the birds and the lodge faded swiftly in our rear view mirror.
Prince Edward Island lighthouse
Another Prince Edward Island lighthouse. With child.
Derry on the ferry to Pictou–desperate to escape the horrid car
Even Condoleeza Rice was here…
Elegant dining: Saturday night at the Pictou Lodge
Cormorants masquerading as “black ducks”
Pictou cormorants in a frenzy
The Cabot Trail
Cape Breton Island is separated from Nova Scotia by a narrow sound, only a half mile wide. And you could argue whether its separated at all given there is now a solid bridge connecting it to the mainland.
NASA satellite photo of Cape Breton Island, and the sound connecting it from the northern end of Nova Scotia
But if you want the rugged, mountainous, isolated and most scenic area of Nova Scotia, this is where you go. Predictably, it has its own National Park, the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. I thought that clever, adding the word “Highlands,” which makes a clear statement there are mountains here.
But there’s more to it. Back in the thirties, Nova Scotia premier Angus MacDonald (note the last name) decided to rebrand the province as primarily Scottish, for tourism purposes, and that’s how the word “Highlands” got in there. Very Scottish. MacDonald came up with the name Cabot Trail for the same reason but here the history’s a bit off.
John Cabot does sound like a good Scottish name, but that’s only because it was Photoshopped into present form during the 15th century. Cabot was actually an Italian explorer named Giovanni Caboto, but when he went to London to seek funding from King Henry VII the name was conveniently Anglicized. Certainly the Giovanni Caboto National Park would be unlikely to draw tourists like Derry seeking their Scottish roots.
After crossing the bridge we turned left, not right, to be sure we circumnavigated the island clockwise. And sure enough the scenery was quite impressive going this direction, just as the woman on the Digby Ferry had promised. I felt bad for those misfortunates going counter-clockwise who were missing the whole thing.
The weather was now partly sunny and the leaves were in fact at their peak, also as promised.
Every time we crossed a bridge I had to park the car and run back to take a picture of the river or stream with its pretty leaves. Derry was tolerant of this, although she did mention, after about my 60th time, that the shots were going to be similar.
The colorful parade of Gaelic, French, English and Algonquin place names continued, but my favorite was Chéticamp. The first part looks French and the last part looks English, but in fact it’s a derivative of Algonquin. Wikipedia explains it clearly:
“The name “Chéticamp” derives from Awjátú, meaning “rarely full, the name given by Mi’Kmaq Indians, and which presumably refers to the mouth of the harbor which once had a large dune that grew during low tide.
Yes, well, one can easily see how you might call your harbor “rarely full” if it had a sand dune in the middle, and equally how Awjátú could morph into Chéticamp, the words being almost identical. But the most interesting thing about the town is that it’s Acadian.
As noted, there are still pockets of the original Acadian (French) settlers scattered about the Maritime provinces and this Chéticamp was one of them. We stopped for lunch at a small café overlooking the harbor and heard lots of French being spoken.
“French is the first language for everyone in this area,” our waitress explained, “but most of us can also speak at least some English.”
So MacDonald’s attempt to brand the whole area as Scottish hadn’t been entirely successful.
Tired, yet, of me claiming all our seafood meals were delicious? Well, this café’s for you, because the Acadians—who are mostly farmers—don’t really understand how to prepare fish.
In fact, the only seafood on the menu was “Fish and Chips” which is really hard to screw up and seemed a safe bet. Even so, we were both trying to make healthy food choices and Derry asked if it could be baked, not fried.
I doubted this modest restaurant was equipped to handle special orders, but the waitress surprised me. “Yes of course,” she responded, as if this were a common request and easy to accommodate.
When the meal came, sure enough, the French fried potatoes had been replaced with a baked potato. Get it? Instead of baking the fish, they’d baked the potato. In fairness, Derry hadn’t been clear on that point.
The fish itself was coated in a thick armor of deep-fried batter. We treated it like lobster, and cut open the “shell.” Inside we discovered, in fact, a small amount of overcooked fish which we were able to rescue from its greasy cocoon by scraping it out with forks.
The potatoes, on the other hand, were perfectly cooked and delicious, confirming that Acadians do know more about farming than fishing.
These days tourism is more important than either. We’d parked our vast vehicle in a small parking lot between the café and another establishment. Over on that side was a mean sign saying: “Private Parking. Violators will be towed.”
But it seemed likely the sign referred only to that side of the lot, not the café side. Also, since tourist season was over, the entire lot was empty, and most of the parking spots along the street were as well. Surely no one cared.
Even so, we asked the waitress about the legality of our parking spot.
“Oh yes,” she explained. “The sign only refers to the far side of the lot, but even there you wouldn’t get towed.”
“Why not? It’s a pretty mean sign.”
“Yes, they’re not very nice over there, and once one of our customers parked in the wrong place, and a towing company was called. But the towing company refused to tow the tourist’s car because they said all of our incomes are based on tourists and we’re not going to give them a bad experience when they come to our town.”
Certainly our parking experience was lovely, the scenery was perfect, the potatoes could not have been better, and I adored the name Chéticamp. Now if they could just import a couple of seafood chefs from Halifax you might be able to make something of the place.
Cheticamp’s harbor–a great place to watch while eating delicious potatoes.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Defiling the scenery, one road at a time…
The Keltic Lodge
Two more hours of driving took us around the northern tip of Cape Breton Island and down its eastern side to the village of Ingonish. Remember the tagline for the famous brand of jam, Smuckers? “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.” I wondered if tourism officials here might not adopt it for a similar purpose, because even saying the name Ingonish creates the sound of a watery sneeze.
Name aside, Ingonish is home to the famous Keltic Lodge.
When I first glanced through our Maritime Provinces guidebook back home, a picture of the place had jumped out at me and I really hoped—if we did nothing else on the trip—we could stay there. But I’d forgotten to mention this to Derry who was planning everything, so now—as we drove onto the grounds and I recognized where we were—I was thrilled she’d discovered it as well and made it part of our itinerary.
Scottish branding was in full force, starting with the Keltic Lodge name itself. They kept it going with an apparent fetish for Gaelic words which they’d insert all over the place: at the entrance, at the registration desk, even on the menus in the restaurant.
This was a luxurious four-star place, out of our price range, but Derry made it work by opting for the least expensive room choice: a bungalow away from the main building, in which four bedrooms shared a living room with the other guests. This made it affordable, if not mildly weird.
At the reception desk, the clerks were dressed in traditional Scottish garb, and welcomed us with the standard Gaelic greeting “Ciad Mile Failte.”
“Good news,” said the man in a kilt, “we’ve upgraded you to one of our finest rooms.”
Boy had they. What makes the Keltic Lodge so special is location, location, and location. High atop a peninsula, adorned by sharp cliffs on one side, and a forested, rocky beach on the other, its views are spectacular and our “upgraded” room benefited from them fully.
Room with a view at the Keltic Lodge
Inspired by the hyperactive Pictou Cormorants, I descended into a photography-frenzy as soon as we’d checked in, and had to repeat it the next morning because the lighting was even better.
Our seafood dinner was back to Maritime Province standards, proving that Kelts know more about preparing fish than do Acadians. But I’ll trust an Acadian any day when it comes to baking a potato.
We managed a brief hike in the morning on an intriguing beach with the ocean on one side, and a full-sized lake on the other. Hiking was our only option for outdoor activities on this trip, because the bicycles and kayak rental shops were all closed for the season. But they hadn’t managed to close the beach, which we had to ourselves. For that matter, we pretty much had the Keltic Lodge to ourselves, which is why we’d been upgraded. In fact, Cape Breton Island seemed nearly devoid of tourists. Why there are no visitors to the Maritime Provinces, at the peak of the leaves turning, when the area is arguably at its loveliest, remains a mystery.
Well, maybe not a mystery. Canada conforms to the European foolishness of everyone taking their vacation at precisely the same time: August. And—as with Europe—these vacations are quite lengthy, sometimes up to a full month. Perhaps it’s not surprising that by the time October comes around, they’re kind of vacationed-out, and having to get back to work and earn a living. Nova Scotia is probably a nightmare during August, with bumper-to-bumper RV traffic on the Cabot Trail, and rooms at the Keltic Lodge having to be booked years in advance.
View from our cottage’s front yard
Keltic Lodge main entrance
Rocky beach separating the ocean from a freshwater lake. Keltic Lodge in background.
Being Social At A Bed And Breakfast.
Let’s talk about Bed and Breakfasts. Derry and I despise them. We just aren’t B&B material, because when you stay at one, you’re expected to be friendly and sociable and have conversations with the owners and stuff. Yuck. That sounds like so much work. We like the anonymity that comes with regular hotels, and the ability to just crash for the evening and not make small talk with strangers.
We know this is a failing, and suggests a defect of mean-spiritedness in our souls, but it wasn’t like we hadn’t tried. Twice in our marriage we’d gone to a Bed and Breakfast, just because we felt we should, and both times were disasters.
Our first was a rather modern home south of Buena Vista. We had one-year-old Erik with us who cried all night, disturbing everyone, and—get this—we had to share a bathroom with those sleeping in the next room. Their bedroom had a door into it, and so did ours. If the locking doors weren’t managed properly, you ran the risk of walking into your bathroom when another guest was using it, and if you got confused in the night and exited the bathroom via the wrong door, you’d end up in someone else’s bedroom. Yikes.
It was a decade before we were brave enough to try again, this time in Friday Harbor, Washington. After checking in, we discovered we had a private bathroom all to ourselves, but getting to it was humiliating. There were multiple other guests here, most of them congregated around a central family room—socializing, watching television and so forth. To get to our “private” bathroom we had to walk into this public room and cross over to our bathroom. So you’d have to change back into your regular clothes—just to use the bathroom in the middle of the night!
I was thrilled when Derry freaked out over the arrangement and insisted we leave. They hadn’t been too nice about it either, refusing to refund our payment and making it clear we would never be welcomed back.
Such was our Bed and Breakfast experience, to date. But for this trip, Derry realized that if we merely stayed in predictable brand-name hotels, like Holiday Inn Express every night, we wouldn’t really be experiencing local culture. We could be visiting anywhere.
So she wisely laid out the trip between normal hotels, and then sprinkled here and there, some unique “atmospheric” places, such as the little Inn on the water back in Liverpool, and the historic Pictou Lodge. And—this was brave—one Bed and Breakfast.
“It’s time for a rematch,” she explained. “And it will just be one night. I made sure the room has its own bathroom, and I chose the one room that is larger than the others, with its own little sitting area. That’s one thing I learned, you get to choose exact rooms, and can see pictures ahead of time from their website. So we won’t be super-cramped like most of the rooms in these tiny Victorian places.”
“I’m up for it,” I agreed. “It will be like camping. When you go camping, it doesn’t really matter how uncomfortable it is because it’s just one night, typically. And then when you have a real bed the next night it feels like heaven.”
“Yes, good attitude. We can survive one night of anything.”
We finished our circumnavigation of Cape Breton Highlands National Park at the town of Baddeck (emphasis on 2nd syllable) and our iPhone GPS brought us swiftly to the Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast. It was predictably small, quaint, historic, and Victorian, and the moment we entered the parking lot, an elderly lady with gray hair and dimpled cheeks, came out to greet us. She looked just like Mrs. Doubtfire from the movie, and apparently the socializing was going to begin before we even got out of the car. OK, if we could survive this, we could survive any bed and breakfast. This was the real thing for sure.
I turned off the engine and went to say hello. I could see she was studying the car, trying hard not to comment.
“I have to apologize for our car,” I explained.
“For heaven’s sakes, why?”
“It’s so hideously ugly. But it’s a rental and not what we reserved at all. I wouldn’t want you to judge us by our car.”
“We’re very sorry it has to defile your lot,” added Derry.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. It looks…fine.”
She was very polite about it, and telling the story of how we’d ended up with this car, and how embarrassing it was, broke the ice nicely. She noted that the only policeman in the area had exactly the same car, and he could catch absolutely anybody because it had so much power.
“But I bet he couldn’t catch you!” she suggested, mischievously.
And all this was while we were still in the driveway. Inside, there was even more to talk about because the room situation had issues.
Derry had reserved the only downstairs room, which was larger and more pleasant. It was available since we’d reserved it. But the nice lady (Liz) had another guest coming in who’d suffered some sort of foot injury and they were hoping they might be able to take the downstairs room to avoid climbing stairs. Liz made it very clear it was 100% fine if we wanted to stay in the room we’d reserved. We absolutely shouldn’t feel any pressure.
She showed us the two upstairs rooms and in fact they were both much smaller; even more “bed and breakfasty.” But this was a karma test and we decided we’d roast in hell, not to mention feel guilty for days, if we didn’t yield the downstairs room to the injured person.
Liz was so grateful and so polite and so…friendly.
All the people in Nova Scotia are friendly. Ridiculously friendly. Once we were leaving our room at a hotel and there was a housekeeper in the hall, carrying buckets. “Oh, good morning, how are you! I hope you’re having a wonderful time!” she gushed. “Have a really great day, OK?”
In the U.S., hotel housekeepers don’t even speak English.
Or I’d walk into a gas station to pay the guy at the register. “Why hello there! Welcome to Canada Petrol! I hope you’re having a great day! Isn’t this great weather we’re having?”
In the U.S., most cashiers at 7-11 don’t speak English either.
And so forth.
Anyway, with the karma test behind us (and obviously we’d passed) I asked Liz what one does around Baddeck. It was only 2:30 pm.
“Well, I’m not quite sure what kinds of things you like to do…”
“Outdoor stuff. Anything outdoors.”
When you’ve been sitting in a car every day for hours, outdoors sounds good.
“Oh, well, then you should go see the waterfall. It’s a very nice hike. And the trail is only about 20 minutes from here by car. Then, maybe tomorrow, you should see the Museum. You can’t do both today, the Museum closes at 5.
“Oh, the Alexander Graham Bell Museum.”
Our 485 horsepower engine got us to the waterfall trail in half the normal time, and remember even the town’s only cop would have had a hard time catching us. It was a lovely hike through maple leaves and pine forests and rocky cliffs and so forth. And we made it to the Museum by 4:00. Admission was free because, you know, 2017.
We were done with the Museum before closing time and Liz was going to be impressed we’d managed both activities in just one afternoon. In fairness, the Museum wasn’t all that interesting, although very modern and lavish and with huge parking lots for tour buses. But there was nothing here you couldn’t find just as easily by typing Alexander Graham Bell into Wikipedia. On the other hand I’d never done that, so maybe the Museum did have a role to play. I learned, for example, that Bell was as involved in aviation as he was in telephones. And he’d been part of the team that had flown the first powered airplane, ever in the British Empire, right here at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in 1909. What was he doing up here in the first place? Bell had fallen in love with the area on a visit, and had made it his summer home. Hence, the Museum and so forth.
Back at Heritage Inn, Liz asked when we could sit down with her husband Bob to discuss breakfast.
This was odd. What was to discuss? You just go into the dining room and eat, no doubt helping yourself to whatever’s been laid out. But that’s not how it works at Bed and Breakfasts. Here’s what I learned: Perhaps because the beds and rooms are so small, B&B’s try to make up for it with the second half of their namesake, and breakfasts are a big deal.
Derry and I took our places solemnly in the Victorian drawing room. A local newspaper was laid out on a doily-infested table: “Lobster Dispute Heats Up,” said the headline. I began to wonder what the lobsters were disagreeing about but couldn’t think of a thing.
In came Bob, an elderly and distinguished-looking gentleman, in jeans. Of course he couldn’t jump right into such an important topic as breakfast right away. He had to lead up to it slowly.
“So, how’s your day going?”
We allowed it was going quite well.
“I understand you were able to fit in both the waterfall hike, and the museum. That’s pretty impressive for one afternoon!”
Derry explained that we like to walk fast. I was tempted to add: “And we like to talk fast, too, especially about breakfast…” but I held my tongue.
“Looks like it will be nice weather tomorrow…”
This went out for maybe ten minutes, until finally he was ready to discuss the serious business of the day.
“So, about breakfast…”
We stayed dutifully silent, playing our role of taking this quite as seriously as he was.
“We have three choices. Now the first is Liz’s specialty. She invented it. It’s a kind of a breakfast casserole, consisting of bread, egg, cream cheese, milk, wild blueberries, and maple syrup.
I was thinking it sounded way too sugary, but Liz herself had joined the conversation and—as if reading my mind—added hastily “It’s not a sweet dish. It has one and a half eggs in it.”
One and a half? Can’t the cook just decide to go with one egg, or two eggs? Do eggs really need be cut in half? And how do you do that exactly? Do you first cut the yoke in half. And then cut the white part in half? Or do you somehow place the whole thing in a bowl and then cut it in half all at once? And how in God’s creation do you do that while it’s raw? Or do you cook it first, then cut it in half. And what do you do with the second half of the egg? That must be a terrible bother each morning. There must be a zillion pots lying around in the kitchen, each containing only half an egg.
OK, I was probably overthinking this, and forced myself back to Bob’s fulsome explanations. By now we’d consumed so much time discussing option #1, that at this rate, it would be time for dinner before we finished the conference. Fortunately options 2 and 3, cheese omelet and blueberry pancakes, respectively, went quickly.
“So,” I began judiciously, wanting to give the matter the solemn consideration it merited, “the egg casserole thing, do I understand that Liz invented it, and thus it’s only available right here. This is the only place in the world where it can be experienced?”
“Indeed it is,” confirmed Bob.
“OK, I have to go for it. I can have an omelet or pancakes anywhere.”
Derry concurred. After all this build up, it would be an insult to the chef if we turned down her signature creation, available nowhere else on the planet.
“Very well,” pronounced Bob. We then proceeded to the equally important topics of when we’d like breakfast served, our preference in coffee vs. tea, type of milk or cream, and other choices that went on endlessly. The breakfast discussion consumed nearly forty-five minutes, certainly far more than would the actual eating of it.
Ah, but here was another, older, couple coming in from the driveway. They joined us in the sitting area, and I immediately apologized for our car
“Yes, we wondered who might be the owners of that…interesting car,” said the woman, now understanding we weren’t to blame. They were from Maine, and we chatted sociably for another half hour, getting into the spirit of the Bed and Breakfast lifestyle.
But eventually it was time for dinner, and Liz provided suggestions. The first was a tiny place built actually on one of the docks extending out into the water. I drove up close to the door and Derry rushed in to check it out.
“Horrid,” she declared. “It has zero atmosphere and no windows. You can’t even see the water!”
It was one of my pet peeves: restaurants that have fantastic views, and then place their windows in the opposite direction. Or in this case, don’t have windows at all. Perched on a dock overlooking the ocean, and no one had thought to have windows? It was almost worse than the Pizza Hut in Leadville, Colorado, with a fantastic view overlooking the Sawatch mountains, but with windows facing the opposite direction, towards a coal yard.
Choice #2 was crowded, noisy, and expensive.
But we lucked out at the Silver Dart. Perched high on a hill outside town, and connected to a very upscale lodge, the dining room had lavish views over the bay with surprisingly-modest prices. Silver Dart was Alexander Graham Bell’s airplane, the first one flown in the British Empire, which I knew thanks to my Museum visit.
Tell me if you’ve heard this before, but the fish was excellent.
We sat alone in the dining room at 7:30, needing to make quick work of breakfast, and hit the road. But you don’t make quick work of breakfast at a B&B. The meal was served leisurely, beginning with coffee and conversation. Bob noticed I’d brought some reading material down—a book called “The Year of the Three Kings.” It took place at the end of the War of the Roses. As a British history buff, I’d noticed there was a whole bookcase in our room devoted to British history. So maybe we’d chosen the best room after all.
“I see you brought down that very interesting book to read,” observed Bob, approvingly.
“Yes, the Year of the Three Kings. Let’s see, I assume that would be Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry Tudor—King Henry VII,” I stated confidently.
I knew my British history, especially around the fifteenth century.
“That’s actually not quite correct,” said Bob, who apparently knew British history even better—and of course would know it better since he had a whole bookcase on the subject, while in truth I had only one book. And British History For Dummies was probably beneath him.
“You forgot Edward V,” he explained politely, warming to the subject. “The year of the three kings was Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. The Tudors arrived a couple of years later.”
“Edward the Fifth? You mean the princes in the Tower?” (Evil Richard III had imprisoned his two nephews in the Tower of London, where they were eventually murdered, almost certainly on the king’s orders.)
“But that Edward was never crowned! You can’t count Edward the Fifth!”
“Never crowned, that’s true. But he was technically king the moment his father died.”
We went round and round on this technical point while Liz served the breakfast casserole.
She was wrong. It was horridly sweet, made even more so by a generous topping of powdered sugar. Who puts sugar on eggs? I was glad this dish was available nowhere else on the planet, because that meant I’d never encounter it again. Next time, go for the omelet.
We dispensed with breakfast quickly, perhaps to our hosts dismay, and began hauling bags out to the car. Just as we’d finished and come back to say goodbye, we found all the other guests—that being two other couples—were now sitting around the table. Breakfast was apparently an important social event, and we felt guilty to be missing it—as if doing so was a mild insult to the others. But who wants to be social at breakfast? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Liz introduced us to the one couple we hadn’t met, and the woman with the damaged foot thanked us profusely for our room sacrifice. I once again apologized for our car and everyone politely laughed, understanding our shame. Even so, we retreated swiftly and soon were on the road, our 485 horsepower engine putting appropriate distance between us and the oh-so-petite Heritage Inn.
We’d survived our “night of camping” and decided Bed and Breakfasts were tolerable if you don’t think of them as normal hotels. You’re paying to be a houseguest in a private home, where there are other guests, and all of you will be chatting and socializing. It works best if you decide to be not just friendly, but gregarious. You have to out-socialize the socializers. Do that, and you’re no longer on the defensive, trying to sneak away to your room or whatever. When you’re the life of the party, the party’s more fun.
This reprised a lesson I’d learned when I moved to Dallas ages ago and encountered my first major-city traffic. You just have to drive faster than everyone else and that way you only have to concentrate on what’s in front of you. When you drive normal speeds, you’re having to pay attention in too many places, such as behind you. OK, maybe it’s not exactly like that, but it’s always true that the best defense is a good offense.
In any case, sacrificing our autonomy one night out of ten was no hardship, and tonight we’d be back at a normal, modern hotel, in the delightfully-named town of Antigonish. I knew one thing for sure: next morning my eggs would not have any sugar on them.
Heading south from Baddeck meant we’d be leaving Cape Breton Island, although we spent the morning detouring through some side roads along the coast. Nova Scotia had so far delivered on beautiful scenery, leaves at their peak, uber-friendly people, lots of cute and quaint architecture, wilderness forests, lovely rivers, and stunning coastlines. The only area where we’d been shortchanged was on fishing villages with picturesque boats in bright colors. Derry cared less about the boats, but was hoping for the “Mystic Seaport” experience with irresistible souvenir shops and maybe some place to buy a sweater lovingly knit by Scottish descendants speaking Gaelic and using wool from a highlands longhaired sheep raised in the Faeroe islands.
That kind of place.
And we’d found nothing of the sort. Away from the pockets of tourism and the infrastructure to support it, like around Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, Nova Scotia was almost deserted. The “towns” were small collections of houses. Very few people were walking around and visible, and those who were all seemed to be retired folk with gray hair.
They say Victoria, British Colombia consists of the “newlyweds and almost-deads” meaning young adults and retirees, with nothing in the middle. It was the same in Nova Scotia, but without the newlyweds. Wasn’t there supposed to be a vibrant fishing industry here? Where were they obtaining all the delicious seafood? Maine? Would it kill them to station a few pretty boats in some picturesque harbors? OK, there were half a dozen in Alma, back at the Bay of Fundy. We found a few hauled out for the season near Cheticamp. And a few more at Ingonish. But other than that…crickets.
And our detour along the coast yielded nothing in the colorful-boats-and-souvenir-shops department. Still, these drives were pretty and we were certainly seeing Nova Scotia.
We arrived in Antigonish around 3pm and found it to be an actual town, with banks, supermarkets, and even a small university. But Antigonish was set back a bit from the water and was certainly not a seaport. No boats here at all.
There was a marsh. The guidebook recommended it for hikes along the water, so we did that—the high point being an eagle, perched in a tree about 200 yards from the path, which Derry insisted I photograph. But without telephoto capability, it was indistinguishable from a branch.
Hmmm, what to do in Antigonish? Finally we set out to find Cape George which was ten miles north, and distinguished by a lighthouse. Half way there we discovered instead a pretty beach which photographed far better than had the eagle. And hadn’t we already seen plenty of lighthouses so far on this trip and done enough driving? We turned around and enjoyed an early dinner at an Italian restaurant back in town. No water views here, but the seafood was amazing. Lord knows where they got it, perhaps FedExed in from Boston.
Look closely and you can see an eagle in the marsh
The Maritime Provinces always have two ways to drive from place A to place B. You can take the inland route, which typically means a very modern and well-maintained highway, sometimes even divided and with multiple lanes. But doing this means you’ll only see endless uninhabited forests.
The second way is to take the curvy road along the coast. Any coast. Pick a coast in Nova Scotia, and you’ll find a curvy road running along it. This lets you enjoy the more interesting scenery, and lots of ocean views, but it triples the time.
Even so, this was our last full day in the Maritimes and if we had any hope of finding the proverbial fishing village with boats and shops, we’d have to stay along the coast. Our last night’s hotel was the one near the airport in Halifax, Derry wisely choosing this so we’d have zero traveling the morning of our flight.
Highway maps of Nova Scotia show the “scenic routes,” almost always along the coasts, with yellow highlighting, and that’s how I’d chosen to go from Antigonish to Halifax. This would neatly convert a one hour trip to three hours, and with stops for lunch and at all the little bridges to take the requisite picture of the river, that meant four or more hours.
We were pulling our hair out as we entered the outskirts of Halifax, knowing all chance of finding that Shangri-La fishing village was over. We’d done our best. We’d taken every “yellow” scenic route that had been available. We’d carefully checked every harbor and cove we came to. Total number of boats we’d discovered in ten days? Maybe ten. Obviously all those brochures that show the standard Nova Scotia shot of “fishing-boats-in-cute-harbor” were a fraud.
Deep into Halifax suburbs, we were passing condos, chains stores, apartment buildings, shopping malls and it was sure to get worse. I was tempted to give up and plug the coordinates of our airport hotel into the GPS so we could head directly there. But we weren’t quite to the end of the yellow-lined road and we might as well see it through.
We kept going, to the point on the map where the yellow line ended and there, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, was…(drumroll)…the Platonic-ideal of a picturesque fishing village. Not only did it contain several dozen fishing boats in all the right primary colors but, oh my God this was almost too exciting, a plethora of tiny souvenir shops!
Speaking of God, he was intervening directly, because the only rainy day of our trip, which was today, suddenly changed completely. The clouds vanished, the afternoon sun came out, and the entire fishing village was illuminated as if for a pre-arranged photo shoot.
Welcome to “Fisherman’s Cove” said a sign.
“Photography first,” I screamed to Derry, “while we’ve got this lighting. Then we can attack the t-shirt places. We’ve got to hurry!”
An hour later my little iPhone was overheating with a thousand new photographs safely captured in its bowels, and I was beginning to calm down a bit. I’d only keep a few dozen pictures but those I kept would be worthy of National Geographic. It was that kind of village, that kind of fishing fleet, and that kind of lighting. We’d even managed to sneak past the “do not sneak past here” sign, or whatever it said, and enter the true industrial area of the harbor, where the fishing boats were being worked by crews, nets being reeled in, decks swabbed, and fish sorted. The camera went crazy all over again.
A grizzled old fisherman on the wharf—I assumed he was a fisherman, he was certainly old and grizzled—struck up a conversation, and began by asking us where we were from. When he learned it was Colorado he had to bring up the fact that a local boy from just a few miles up the road was playing on our Hockey team.
“Nathan McKinnon landed a spot on the Avalanche,” noted the Fisherman approvingly. “A good boy. We’re all very proud of him here.”
I confessed that neither Derry or I followed hockey but that our son Alex was a fanatic and would probably knew all about Nathan.
“Nate’s a good lad. A local boy. You treat him well, down there in Colorado, ya hear?”
We learned other interesting things. The boats that were here were taking advantage of the herring season. “Fishing season’s mostly over,” the man explained. “But right now herring’s running, so that’s what these boats are trying their luck at.”
“So, I guess this is the harbor where all the fishing boats in Nova Scotia are based,” I noted approvingly. “We haven’t seen many in all the other places we’ve been. Glad we finally found this village. I’m guessing nowhere in Nova Scotia has more fishing boats than right here.”
The man looked at me oddly. “Well, I guess you’d be wrong about that. The fishing fleet is based in Yarmouth. You want fishing boats, I guess there are about ten thousand in Yarmouth. Even these here in the cove are home-ported in Yarmouth. Only the few dozen you see. Nova Scotia’s boats are in Yarmouth.
I discussed it with Derry as we walked over to the souvenir shops.
“Yarmouth! That’s the one place in Nova Scotia we didn’t go.”
“Darn!” agreed Derry. “I screwed up.”
“Not your fault. It’s not the kind of thing you can see from a map.”
Nova Scotia is divided between the regions known as Bay of Fundy, North Shore, Cape Breton Island, Eastern Shore, Halifax, South Shore, and Yarmouth. We’d managed to visit every one except Yarmouth.
Beginning in Halifax, our route had taken us to South Shore (Peggy’s Cove and Liverpool), Bay of Fundy (Digby and the ferry), North Shore (Pictou Lodge and Antigonish), Cape Breton Island (Ingonish and Baddeck), and Eastern Shore (our four-hour drive today). Now we were back in Halifax district, where miraculously we’d found what we thought was the entire fishing fleet of several dozen boats.
But the mother lode was in Yarmouth, down at the extreme southwest end of the peninsula. Granted, it’s not so easy to get there. But we’d have found a way if we’d known that’s where all the fishing boats were hiding.
On the other hand, weren’t thousands of pictures of fishing boats enough? Nothing could be more scenic and picturesque than what we’d found right here. Yarmouth might actually be overwhelming, and I didn’t want my little iPhone camera to actually melt.
“It just gives us a good reason to come back,” noted Derry, philosophically, and correctly.
The souvenir shops themselves were here in abundance—several dozen of these as well. But the tourist season was over so only about a third were open. That was sufficient. Derry now indulged in a souvenir-shop frenzy to match my picture-frenzy, and soon we were both satiated.
Our seafood dinner that evening was especially rewarding, knowing we’d finally found the only fishing-boat-and-souvenir-shop cove outside of Yarmouth. A young couple sat near us and when they heard it was our 35th wedding anniversary trip, the woman insisted she take our picture.
“I’m a professional photographer,” she noted.
It was a perfect way to complete our circumnavigation of the Maritime Provinces.
Fisherman’s Cove, near Halifax.
But we hadn’t quite finished. Next morning we drove to downtown Halifax for the first time, finding it an actual city, with tall buildings and so forth. Not surprisingly, there was a “Waterfront Boardwalk” district and we walked around admiringly, enjoying the several ships and tugboats tied to the wharf, or cruising up and down the harbor.
There was even a Maritime Museum here, with a section devoted to the Titanic. After the disaster, the survivors were brought to New York, but not many know that the dead—and hundreds were recovered—were brought into Halifax. Several cemeteries in the area now have special areas where these bodies are buried.
Another appalling thing happened only a few years later, during WWI, when a ship containing munitions accidentally collided with another in the harbor. The resulting explosion leveled Halifax, leaving over 2,000 dead, 6,000 injured, and no buildings left standing. Those who did survive had no homes, and a major rescue effort had to be launched from other parts of the province, just to keep the living from succumbing to exposure.
By the time we were back at the airport, through security, and waiting for our flight home to the states, we realized we’d accomplished absolutely everything we hoped for on this trip—except for one thing. We’d never had lobster.
No worries. A tiny lunch shop with tables was here in the waiting area, and on the menu was…lobster roll! “No mayonnaise” I insisted, and when it arrived I was able to eat fresh lobster meat right out of the roll. Who needs the full thing in a difficult-to-break-into shell? And I wouldn’t want to be covered with lobster juice as I boarded the plane.
On the other hand, returning to Denver from Nova Scotia, and smelling like lobster, might be the best souvenir of all.
Anyway, I knew we’d be back here soon. Yarmouth’s fishing fleet was expecting us. And up in Baddeck, it was even money the lobster dispute had been resolved. One can only hope.