The Bonavista Social Club

With just three days left in Newfoundland, we had two choices – go to Bonavista Peninsula or go to Twillingate and Fogo Island. Since the latter choice involved a longer drive and two ferries, we followed the advice of our friend Ingrid and went to Bonavista. It has been an excellent choice, helped greatly by superb weather and numerous wildlife sightings.
The Bonavista Social Club is the restaurant that everyone said couldn’t work – a custom-built wood-fired oven that serves up pizzas and artisan bread; salads plucked from their large garden and $20 moose burgers.

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Well, in the five years since they opened, the word is out and so are the lineups. Come early or come later, but be prepared for a wait. We were happy to sit and admire the view:
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The food was fantastic, the service polished and the concept brilliant – do something right and you can call your own shots – open six days a week, eight hours a day and just May to October.

Bonavista Peninsula (the next one west of the Avalon Peninsula) is so packed with coves, fishing villages and outports that you could spend several days just driving around and coming across strange sights like this one – horses grazing by the ocean, seemingly miles away from a farm or pasture.

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Or a turn in the road will bring this – an iceberg trapped in a bay.

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Or a sky so beautiful it looks Photoshopped:

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The hiking is scenic and varied – many hikes are between one-three km., so it’s possible to fit in a few in a day. This is a hike near King’s Cove. The church was built by committee in 1884 – every week, the priest of St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church would call 10 names and those folks would be responsible for the labour that week. In two years, the church was built.

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Like most of Newfoundland, there is something for everyone here – history, culture, scenery, geology, wildlife and birds.

Puffins are a huge draw, and they can be found by boat tour or on foot. We drove out to Elliston, where there is a nesting site and walked over this path to get to the main viewing area. They nest in the nooks of the cliffs, to protect their eggs from predators. They will be here until mid-late August, when they take off for the winter, so we felt quite thrilled to see them. There was a sign at the entry office “No drones, no dogs”. Seriously, who would bring their dog to a bird sanctuary? And who would think a drone would not have a negative impact on the experience of others?

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We got to the top of the cliff and saw about fifteen puffins right on the edge. There were hundreds more on another cliff, but a little too far to watch closely without binoculars.  Puffins would fly in and land and take off right in front of us, so we had quite a show. They were completely unfazed by us, but we were all quiet and were a good distance away – about  15-20 feet. It was an unforgettable sight.

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They are so adorable, you can hardly stand it. They’re about 10 inches tall, so smaller than most of us might imagine. They’re very social – we watched them for about 45 minutes and they seemed to be having conversations.

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They mate for life and co-parent, so possibly they also have disagreements from time to time.

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Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we saw whales. Dozens of whales, mainly humpbacks, some minkes, but over the past two and a half days, they’ve been out in full force. We’ve seen a couple of tails and a few roll-overs, but mainly spouting and diving – all of this close to shore. This photo won’t impress you, but I thought I’d add it anyway – there’s also an iceberg in the background – the Newfoundland and Labrador trifecta – whales, icebergs and puffins.

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We were watching whales at the Cape Bonavista lighthouse, when this little creature appeared. Tame, inquisitive – he began to walk towards us and we backed away. A fox, unafraid of humans – is he rabid? Nope – when we asked the Parks staffer, we were told he is used to being fed by humans, in spite of all posted signs to the contrary. Hopefully, we won’t be his undoing.

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We’re staying in the town of Bonavista – toward the top of the peninsula. We booked into an Airbnb – a former parish hall with five guest bedrooms and a warm-hearted and garrulous host.  This is all part of the road trip – the characters we meet along the way.

Bonavista is where John Cabot first landed in 1497 and a replica of his ship The Matthew is on display here. There are a number of historic homes and sites in Bonavista, including The Ryan Premises – a National Historic site that is an example of a large-scale merchant during the cod fishing heyday in the late 1900’s.

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A few scenes from this town:

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The sun setting over the harbour:

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Newfoundlanders have to be optimistic to survive, but in the absence of bidding wars in Bonavista, we wonder how long the owner might wait for a bite on this beauty.

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Trinity was one of our favourite places in the peninsula. An historic town established in the late 1700’s, Trinity has taken advantage of its natural beauty and well-preserved buildings to showcase some of the most notable spots.  We were too late to take the tour, but had plenty of time to wander through the town on our own. It is a gem that should not be missed by anyone visiting Bonavista Peninsula.

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The work is never done – painting, gardening, building new docks.

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Nearby Elliston is billed as “The Root Cellar Capital of the World”, but many Newfoundland properties have these indispensable features – cellars dug into the earth to keep food fresh over the winter. If you look behind the house in this photo, you’ll see a root cellar, ready for this summer and fall’s harvest.

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We stopped to watch the meticulous stone work on this house – the old root cellar was being given a facelift.

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A reminder that life here has often been hard and frequently tragic – the Sealer’s Memorial and Sealers Interpretation Centre in Elliston. This excellent interpretive centre uses displays, artifacts and videos to take the visitor through the history of sealing in Newfoundland. There is an emphasis on the great danger of sealing, with stories from  the unprecedented disasters of 1914. Seventy-eight men from the SS Newfoundland were lost on the ice floes during a vicious blizzard; in the same storm, 174 men were lost from the SS Southern Cross.

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If I ever thought of seal hunting, I imagined a vast sea of solid ice – like a huge rough hockey rink. I couldn’t have been more wrong – we watched a video of frigid ocean water  rolling and pitching. Covered in ice, yes, but changing all the time – solid footing one second later opened to water. It was terrifying to watch – I can’t imagine how exceedingly dangerous and frightening it was to be there. The worst part was the uncertainty – sealing was the only way to bring in cash and the possibility of hitting a big payday was irresistible – worth risking one’s life for.

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In a particularly poignant story, 16-year-old Albert John Crewe was insistent on going sealing: his father Ruben, who had already survived one disaster was less keen but did not want him to go alone. They were among the victims of the SS Newfoundland – found three days later frozen together – the son in his father’s protective embrace. A magnificent bronze sculpture captures them exactly as they were found on the ice.

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A fitting way to end our time here – surrounded by the history and character of Newfoundland. We are sad to leave – it feels too soon – so much left undiscovered.
I guess that is their sneaky way of getting us to come back.

On to Cape Breton  – see you soon.

The Avalon Peninsula: city life and wild open spaces

“If you go to St. Vincent’s, you’ll see humpbacks not 20 metres offshore,” we heard from reliable sources.  St. Vincent’s is a small village on the “Irish Loop” – the southern part of the Avalon Peninsula where a majority of Irish immigrants settled hundreds of years ago. The beach is very unusual, as it has a deep drop-off, which allows the whales to swim in almost close enough to touch.

The opportunities to see humpbacks around Newfoundland are ideal for the next several weeks, as the capelin are rolling. Whale-watching boats are in high demand; with most trips reporting great success rates. We decided to follow the advice of our friends and see our humpbacks like the locals – right from shore and at no charge.

We had a full day planned – stop at a number of historic villages down the eastern shore and finish our day with the whales.  About a half hour away from St. Vincent’s, we drove into this:

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Our day instantly changed from warm and sunny to damp, chilly and monochromatic.
As promised, as soon as we arrived at the beach, we saw a whale very close to shore. We ran down and followed along, but this was the best I could do for a photo – a few glimpses of two humpbacks, who then disappeared for about half an hour.

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We stayed on the beach, shivering and disconsolate, until finally we got a second (and final) glimpse of a humpback – the show was over.

Timing with wildlife sightings is everything. We’ve heard stories (possibly embellished) of up to 20 whales at St. Vincent’s – breaching, racing for shore with great jaws open for feeding, thrashing in the water – Discovery Channel moments that we were not destined to have this time around.

Luckily for us, there was much more to see on the Irish Loop and our day began with the Bay Bulls/Witless Bay area about an hour south of St. John’s.  The scenic highway follows along the east coast and covers a number of significant sites.

This oil rig is stationed at Bay Bulls for a servicing before being sent back out for duty.

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There is much to be seen on this coast – The East Coast Trail runs the length of the peninsula and can be hiked in small parts or in multi-day excursions. Every bay and village is steeped in history and geology and natural wonders – it would take weeks just to cover this small part of the Avalon Peninsula. If we had more time, we would have spent the day at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, to observe the whales and puffins who live in this rich habitat.

Since we are on a fairly tight time frame in Newfoundland (three weeks), we are just skimming the surface.  Ferryland (pronounced Furlan) is a very old settlement – founded in 1621.
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We spent a few moments in the cemetery on the hill – the oldest headstones were indecipherable, but many dated back to the early 1800’s.

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Ruins of the original colony  from 1621 were discovered in 1980 and have been recreated as the Colony of Avalon. This is still a work in progress, but the original cobblestone streets, slate walls and a reconstructed garden are in place.

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We drove further south for several kilometres, with views like this one unfolding at every turn.

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A little roadside whimsy – a number of rural garbage bins are decorated to spruce up the contents – the theme of painted houses is a common one.

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The theme of painted houses is also a common one in St. John’s – a city like no other. We are absolutely in love with it – there is something for everyone.  History, architecture, art, music, literature, tragedy, comedy, great food, fabulous sightlines and like the rest of the province – the most big-hearted, open and wonderful people. We were sad to leave and it won’t be too long before we’re back again. Like the rest of the province, it has left us wanting more.

I’m going to try and paint as full a picture of St. John’s as I can. Beginning with Signal Hill National Historic Site  – the original command post for defence of the city, right up to WW II. It is also the site of the reception of the first transatlantic radio signal, confirmed by Marconi in 1901.

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The Queen’s Battery, whose cannons overlook the harbour.

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There are two ways to see Signal Hill – one is to drive up to the top, explore Cabot Tower, wander the grounds and admire the jaw-dropping views.

The other is to walk through the Battery (the collection of homes and boathouses that cling to the side of the cliff) and make your way along the cliffside up to the top. We did both – on different days. On the Battery Road walk, you need sturdy shoes, water and an ability to deal with heights. We started off easily – walking past a beautiful mural depicting this area in its early fishing days.

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We walked past a gentleman who was watering his flowers. When I asked him if  he was responsible for the beautiful flowers, he replied, “Oh no, my dear, they’re my wife’s flowers. I give her the day off on Sundays.” 

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Then the climb began – and the views just kept getting better and better.
There’s a short section where the path narrows to a ledge that wraps around the cliff, with a sheer drop on the other side. The park has installed a chain rope to hang onto until the path widens again.

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We stopped here to watch a few whale blows, but they disappeared behind the point on the right.

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And at the top, the reward: a sit in the famous red Parks Canada 150 chairs.

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Churches are plentiful in Newfoundland, and the Anglican (English) square off with the Catholic (Irish). While there are a number of ornate churches in downtown St. John’s, The Basilica – Cathedral of St. John the Baptist wins the splendour sweepstakes.

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Much of St. John’s is filled with character homes, but most tourists will see the streets that run back from the harbour. What isn’t apparent is that a lot of the downtown homes used to be rundown and uncared for – this was considered to be a slum. There are a number of streets that have not yet been gentrified – modest, but plain. They are likely available for under $200,000 each.

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This home is more typical – right down to hanging baskets that match the paint job. The old shutter door is a charming touch.

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This bed and breakfast is a grand old dame – I wish I had popped across the street for a peek inside.

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Several businesses and shops have been around for decades. Joe’s Barbershop has been operating for over 30 years – a tiny nook with two barbers – both women!

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The Black Sheep is a favourite venue for local musicians. Sunday night is Tom Waits tribute night.

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The showpiece of St. John’s is The Rooms, which dominates the skyline and is a place of pride for the locals. This museum/gallery/cultural centre contains some of Newfoundland’ s best historical, ethnographic and fine art collections. The striking architecture mirrors “the rooms” where Newfoundland families brought their catch. It is simply breathtaking, inside and out, and requires at least 3-4 hours to take it all in.

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The view from inside, looking out over the city.

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And another view, from a different part of the museum.

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We were very interested in seeing the exhibit by the late Gerry Squires. He was one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most notable artists, whose prolific work was imbued with his sense of melancholy over the challenges Newfoundlanders have faced for so many years. Resettlement (1977) is a commentary on the  forced relocation of so many small communities during that time. It  features the hunched figure of a government bureaucrat, with gravestones bearing the names of the communities that have been lost forever.

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Another moving painting by Gerry Squires, along the same lines of loss and alienation.

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There were several sections on Newfoundland’s relatively recent history, including the story of Joey Smallwood and his contentious campaign to join Canada.

The cod moratorium in 1992 was devastating, causing over 35,000 lost jobs and created an impact that the province has never fully recovered from.

A memorable quote from the inimitable John Crosbie:

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In the historical exhibition hall, we discovered a few explanations of what makes Newfoundlanders who they are, and why they never really leave “home.” This is true of so many people we’ve met – even if they have lived in Alberta or Ontario for years, they never stop being  Newfoundlanders.

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So much more to tell you, but I’ve run out of steam and you’ve run out of patience reading through all of this.

We’re in Bonavista now – just arrived this afternoon – we have another two full days to pack it all in before we leave Newfoundland.

Till we meet again – Long may your big jib draw.

 

St. John’s – You’re all growed up!

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The last time we were in Newfoundland was almost 40 years ago. A friend was studying at Memorial University so we flew in from Toronto for a week’s visit. That visit involved late nights and alcohol, so our memories are a bit tainted but St. John’s had a rough edge then. Now there’s shiny new buildings and decent restaurants and stores that sell many varieties of olive oil.  People work out – St. John’s has its very own Stairmaster – about 100 steps up from the waterfront.

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These women were completing their ninth run up the stairs when we stopped to talk. (We had just huffed up one time –  after finishing our ice cream cone).  Before we left, they were circling for the 10th and final time.

We’re here for seven nights – staying at an Airbnb and being hosted by a young woman who owns a heritage home close to downtown and rents out two bedrooms.  The advantages : we have the opportunity to meet other people, hang out in a neighbourhood and pay half the going rate of a St. John’s hotel ($68 a night). The disadvantages – we have  five people vying for one bathroom in the morning! So far, it’s worked out well, and as a bonus,  we are right around the corner from our friend Ingrid.

We met Ingrid over 35 years ago. She had completed her studies at Memorial University and was checking out life in Vancouver. It didn’t stick – she moved back to St. John’s and we lost touch.  Life in Newfoundland has suited her very well. She retired from a 30-year career  with CBC, has a son who lives in Halifax and has a happy life hanging out with this town’s musicians and miscreants. We swapped stories, had a beer on her back deck and tried to get the hang of selfies.

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Ingrid is our finger on the pulse of life in Newfoundland. I asked her about getting “screeched in” and got an unabashed and profane response. I figured it for a contrived tourist gimmick and got a sense of that from a few older Newfoundlanders.

Being “screeched in” takes place in a bar and involves tossing on a sou-wester, throwing back a shot of screech and kissing a frozen cod. A certificate is then bestowed on the newly minted Newfoundlander wannabe. There are two perspectives – one of innocent fun and inclusiveness and the other of perpetuating stereotypes of the drunken goofy Newfie. The use of the word “Newfie” is also questionable – offensive to some and yet…we see this sign and wonder.

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Being in Newfoundland can feel like being in a foreign country. Language ranges from clear diction to a charming Irish lilt to an incomprehensible jumble. We were approached today by a gentleman who noted that we were “a far piece from home.”  That came out like, “Yos a fapeezefrawomb.” We managed to figure that out, but the rest of the conversation was lost on us, so we just kept smiling.

St. John’s is famous for its crayon-box homes. We’ve only begun to discover the town, but here’s a teaser:

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Just down the street from us – I love this  home, with its  picket fence, Kraft Dinner paint job and matching flower basket. This is a colour to get you through winter.

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Our first night here, we walked down to the waterfront to get the lay of the land. This is a working harbour – unlike Halifax or Vancouver whose container ships are sequestered away, St. John’s is a little less picturesque. In a controversial move, much of the harbour is now behind a high gate (ostensibly for security reasons) and it prevents pedestrians from being able to walk beside some of the more interesting ships. This was taken through the chain-link fence, and looks straight out to The Narrows.

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St. John’s is one of the oldest settlements in North America, but much of the east end of the city was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1892. Many of the older houses and businesses in the downtown  have gone through a number of incarnations. I love the irony of The Cornerstone Building, which was once a Catholic School for Girls and is now a strip club.

 

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Movie night downtown – “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – chairs, blankets, jammies, snacks – just waiting for darkness to fall.

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Our first dinner in St. John’s – wood-fired pizza, fresh salad and Campari at Piatto – we needed a break from fish and homebaked rolls. A memorable start.

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Next up – the search for the Newfoundland dog. I thought we’d be tripping over them, but according to a number of reliable sources – they have fallen out of favour. They have relatively short lives, cost a lot to feed and no doubt that ever-present slobber is a deterrent. Still, we saw this big guy, Dory, and couldn’t resist – we pulled off the road and accosted his owner, who was quite tickled that we were so interested in him.

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We’re splitting our time between being in St. John’s and heading up and down the fingers of the Avalon Peninsula.  We drove to Portugal Cove and parked beside a lookout. A couple told us we had “just missed” a pod of humpbacks. They are out there in great numbers – we will make sure we see them before we leave this island. Still – the cove was very pretty – we sat and enjoyed the view and tried to figure out how the boat system works. We saw pulleys, but couldn’t make sense of it.

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On to Brigus – one of the oldest settlements in North America and one of the prettiest towns – very New England in its look.

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Homes ranged from modern re-dos of a traditional saltbox (one of my favourites – I love the clean lines and the Lego staircase):

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The Fowler House, one of four Heritage homes left in Brigus and on the market for $184,900. It needs work, but is eligible for a $50,000 Heritage grant.

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We bumped into a charming man who had recently returned to Brigus after a couple of decades in Colorado. He was sitting on the dock and struck up a conversation with us – he was finding his way back to Newfoundland and seemed pleased that we were enjoying his home province so much. He took this photo of us.

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The view out to sea:

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Just down the road is Cupids, another very old settlement in Newfoundland. They have an excellent interpretive centre there and an imposing harbour. At the top of a hill, we found this home – a stately command post.

This home reminded me of  one of the famous Newfoundland and Labrador ads we have all grown to love – shot against a backdrop of water and blue sky. However, most locals are telling us this that sun and heat is not typical of a Newfoundland summer and we’ve been very lucky to have a full week of it.

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We found out today that Newfoundland in July can be foggy!! We drove two and a half hours to reach Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve – one of the largest northern gannet colonies in the province. Since this area gets 200 days of fog a year, we weren’t surprised but a little disappointed that our visibility was not ideal to view these nesting birds.

Walking toward the interpretive centre – an idea of the range of visibility we had.

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The 1.4 km. walk out to the nesting site is well-marked with orange markers, to prevent visitors from straying off the path and plunging 100 metres to their death. With all potential hazards out of the way, we enjoyed the atmospheric stroll out to the cliffs, punctuated by the steady sound of the fog horn.

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Finally – to the edge, and the first glimpse of the birds.
If you look closely, you can also see razorbills – they are black with white tummies, like miniature penguins.

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Stephen took a brief video to capture the sound of 10,000+ birds. The smell was just as overwhelming – I’ll leave that to your imagination.


One final image – Newfoundland’s famous potholes. Some of the major highways are well-paved, others are not, and still others are no better than a back road in Mexico. There are many theories – from the severe weather, to the damaging effects of the snowplows to the “Jeezley” politicians who have misspent funds, but whatever the reason – Newfoundland roads can be hazardous. We were way more afraid of ripping up our tires or breaking an axle than we were of hitting a moose.

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On a typical 10-km. stretch of road, you might drive around hundreds of potholes like this and worse.

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See you again soon – lots more St. John’s and area to explore before we leave.

Icebergs!

We were not holding out much hope of seeing them – their peak time is early May to mid-June, with a few trickling into early July. However, this year has been a banner year for icebergs and a cautionary tale for mankind, unless you are a climate change denier. They are a thrilling but bittersweet sight. This smaller iceberg was our first glimpse –  it was hanging out so close to shore at St. Anthony we could almost have reached out and touched it. The next day – it was gone.

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St. Anthony is almost at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula, and first in the line  of “Iceberg Alley”,  as the icebergs break off each year and make their way south. This year, over 1000 icebergs have been spotted, but the season is winding down – possibly a week or two left to see them.

One of the many fascinating thing about icebergs is how quickly they move and change.  We spoke to a woman at our campground who had taken a boat tour out to over 15 icebergs. One week later when we took our tour, we could only access one berg and an ice pan – the rest had drifted south or further out to sea.

This was our view from shore the day before we took our boat tour; half a dozen small icebergs within easy view.

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This was our boat, Gaffer III. We were lucky enough to get one of the few seats upstairs.

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The 2-1/2 hour boat trip was billed as an “iceberg/whale-watching” tour. The challenge with this is that we were on the very tail end of iceberg season and the humpbacks have only begun to come into the area. Our delightful guide tried very hard to make it exciting – he was knowledgable and folksy and charming, but he’s not a magician. We saw the backs of a few minke whales and a pod of dolphins who were feeding and therefore not wanting to play. Right at the end we saw a small humpback, but again – no dramatic breaches or showy tail-flaps. While we would have loved more marine activity, the main draw for us was being able to see an iceberg up close. Our first stop was an ice pan that happened to have a harp seal basking on it.

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We headed out for about half an hour to the main event – the one large iceberg that was currently still in range. Two other very large icebergs had been part of the tour the day before and 24 hours later they were too far out to access.

Still – this one was awe-inspiring and a little bit scary to be so close. Seventy-five feet high and 265  feet underwater. Translucent white, with greenish tinges and fissures with rivulets of water dripping into the ocean – this iceberg was alive. It had already rolled over a couple of times – indicated by the smooth parts of the iceberg. According to our guide, it was “anchored” – meaning it was stuck in that spot for a while – luckily for us.

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Another view:

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And a nearby piece, probably fractured from this iceberg. Our guide told us the ice pieces around were a good hint that the big iceberg was going to break up. Those ice pieces are also called “bergie bits” – apparently anything smaller than a house or car is not a full-fledged iceberg.

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We were treated to iceberg chips – the purest (and oldest – over 10,000 years old) water on the planet. Iceberg water is well marketed – iceberg beer, iceberg vodka, even iceberg doughnuts (for a very brief time during Iceberg Festival) at Tim Hortons. Our guide dropped a net into the water, hauled up a good-sized bergie bit and broke up pieces to sample. Surprisingly, the ice did not taste of salt – it was as pure and clean as the driven snow. Icebergs are so dense they do not easily absorb sea water.

(Please excuse my rough manicure – “camping” fingernails.)

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It was an unforgettable experience, but we missed the main event – seeing dozens and dozens of icebergs at their largest and most majestic. Another time, we would plan our visit to Newfoundland for early June.

Of course, the other reason we were way up north was to visit L’Anse aux Meadows. This UNESCO National Historic site (absolutely free this year with our  Canada 150 pass!) was the first European settlement in North America, c. AD 1000.  It was authenticated in 1960 and is believed to be Leif Ericsson’s Vinland camp. The site begins with an excellent interpretation centre with displays, movies, artifacts and a scale-model of a Viking boat.

Hiking paths wind around the site – one of them along the coast.

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This showpiece sculpture by Luben Boykov is the visitor’s first introduction to the site.

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Most of the site are grass-covered mounds, with explanatory plaques – a house, a barn, a foundry etc. They have been excavated, but not recreated.

The main area is comprised of a few reconstructed sod buildings, of peat construction and bolstered by wooden frames. They are not actually built on the original site, but just off to one side.

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One of the entranceways to the main structure.

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Inside, we found two young women in costume, sitting demurely with needlework in their laps. Suddenly a bearded man appeared, all swashbuckling cape and gruff demeanour. I am most uncomfortable with historical reenactments – I always worry I will be picked out of the crowd and compelled to speak with an accent or indulge in play-acting as a bar wench or scullery maid. Thankfully, there was none of that but we were invited to pick up helmets and swords and try them on. Stephen, who is not at all worried about being centred out, obliged. Not the most fearsome Viking around, but a good sport nonetheless.

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We spent a few hours at L’Anse aux Meadows – the landscape is ancient and barren and it lends itself to imagining historical events from so long ago.

The Northern Peninsula has a dramatically different feel from  the mountainous, heavily wooded terrain of Gros Morne. It is all rock and  water and wind.  A bright day in mid-July still feels like winter is just around the corner. Not a place for the faint of heart, but   there is such beauty here.

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There are two distinctive features in northern Newfoundland that speak to the resident resourcefulness – the roadside garden and the monster woodpile.

We kept seeing gardens either in the ditches beside the roads or just back a bit, but they were all similar – neatly planted rows of vegetables, fenced to keep the moose out.  The roadside plantings began years ago when the roads went through and the fill was cast off to the side. Families plant these gardens, amend them each year with seaweed and reap the rewards of a year’s worth of root vegetables.

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And the woodpiles – unbelievable piles of firewood, right by the side of the road. We became so curious: were these community piles – come and help yourself? Or a business – call and place your order for three cords of wood? We asked the park staffer at our campground  about this.

These piles are all  cut by individuals or families with a permit and set out by the road to dry. In the fall, the locals haul their wood back to their  homes for the winter. We were incredulous – does anyone steal this wood? Apparently not – that would be unneighbourly.

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So many interesting differences with both people and place here. We’re in Musgrave Harbour tonight – enroute to St. John’s tomorrow. We’re staying at a motel overlooking the ocean and we just came back from dinner at their restaurant.

At one of the tables was a couple who had worked 25 years in Fort Mac, and 11 years ago left friends and family and grandchildren back in Alberta to “come home.” That is such a common story.

The longer we are in Newfoundland, the more we understand how hard it must be to leave.

Life is sweet on The Rock

So we’re finally here – in Newfinlan, affectionately known as The Rock. It takes exactly five minutes to figure out why – this island is built to last. After we landed in Port au Basques, our first destination was Gros Morne National Park – about a four-hour drive up the western coast. There is a fair bit of road construction going on and I imagine the going is a little slower than other parts of the country. Now these are rocks – we drove for about 50 km. beside these massive boulders, and watched two-storey drills trying to break them up.

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We’re camping about 6 km. from Rocky Harbour, one of the Park’s main little towns.

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Rocky Harbour offers all the staples one might need – ice, basic groceries, liquor and fudge. A number of “home-cooking” restaurants feature notable Newfoundland specials such as moose burgers and stew, toutons (deep-fried bread), and cod au gratin (pronounced gratten).  Newfoundland is not noted for its delicate or innovative food – this is a cuisine based on what is available – anything that can be fished, hunted or grown. It is basic scoff served with walloping sides of hospitality.

Rocky Harbour also caters to the souvenir-hunters:

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Our campground is very well-equipped, with spotless showers and washrooms, laundry and a shelter with big wood stoves and twin sinks for washing dishes. We appreciated the shelter the first day, as it poured rain for most of the morning.

There is no wifi at the campground  and I’m writing this from the Visitor’s Centre, which is a bit spotty. Wifi is an issue on this coast and will get worse the further north we go. My next couple of blog postings may reflect that with fewer photos and less narrative.

Gros Morne Park cannot possibly be “done” in just four days, but as an advertising blurb goes, “we’ll just have to come back.” It is a staggeringly beautiful area – I felt a little choked up on our hike yesterday; it is a privilege to be here.

Gros Morne was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unique geological features, and while there are a number of museums and local festivals, most tourists are here for the great outdoors.

There are over 30 trails, ranging in length from 1-16 km. as well as a multi-day backcountry hike. We managed to fit in five of them.

Green Point was a remarkable site. We were lucky to run into tourists from Virginia who could explain the rock formation in layman’s terms. Basically, the earth tilted and went sideways (millions of years ago), and shoved up the many layers of rock into the air. This was once the bottom of an ocean, and is the world geological benchmark for the start of the Ordovician period. (and no, I have no idea what that means).

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The simple act of driving in the Park is a delight – there are no bad views. Motorcyclists are in heaven – they are nimble enough to dodge potholes and often have the road to themselves. We spoke to a man from Scotland yesterday – he was taking three months to  ride his bike from Nfld. to Vancouver Island.

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The skies are pure drama. We’ve been lucky with the weather in our four days – three out of four have been clear. Weather forecasts are almost pointless – you know what weather you’re getting when it arrives. Clouds like this are a good indication that it’s time to pull out your raincoat.

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If it is picturesque fishing shack photos you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. They are abandoned…

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…and in full use.
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We went to Norris Point on our first morning here, in search of an indoor activity, since it was pouring rain. The Bonne Bay Marine Station was a hit; a young biologist took a group of us around the tanks to see blue lobsters, explain how crabs regenerate missing claws, and showed us tiny jellyfish (that grow to 100 feet in the ocean). As we left the building, the rain was just letting up.

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Norris Point is one of a number of towns with this designation. I like it – it matches perfectly the appearance of most towns – not fussy, not overdone, just…tidy.

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We took a hike out to Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse. It is so quintessentially East Coast, it looks Photoshopped.

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It is the original light keeper’s home and has been redone to demonstrate the heritage of the place – right down to the (new) wood stove from Elmira, Ontario! One of the park staff brought out an ugly stick and encouraged one of the spectators to hold the songbook so she could sing and play. A stout stick has dozens of beer caps attached, with a rubber boot on the bottom and a Carnation milk tin on top – the player bangs a stick on this contraption and sings, and bingo – a kitchen party.

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We headed south to hike the area around Woody Point – about an hour’s drive away. By the time we got there, the skies had closed in and the winds were picking up, so our plan to hike the 9-km. Green Gardens trail was cut a little short – we did a total of 6 km. – didn’t quite make it down to the beach, but it was still a fantastic hike. In many places, the trail was very steep and muddy, so it was our most challenging hike.

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The highlight for us was the Western Brook Pond hike and boat ride. Western Brook Pond is a freshwater lake with billion-year-old  650-ft. cliffs. , accessible only by a 3-km. hike in, on lovely soft paths and boardwalks. On either side of the boardwalk is peat – five meters deep.

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The boat has 99 passengers, but only room for 45 on the upper level, so we lined up in order to make a rush for the stairs. We had a perfect view, and for two hours listened to our guides talk about various points of interest. It was a mesmerizing experience.

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The guides were fantastic – on the way back one of them pulled out a guitar and got the crowd singing and clapping. One woman leaped to her feet and danced a jig for the entire length of “Eye’s the Bye” . Someone called out and wondered where all the moose were, and the quick-witted response, ” If you’re not a Newfoundlander, they’re not interested in you.”

So that explains it. We’ve had eyes peeled since we arrived, but have seen nothing more exciting than a chipmunk.

Our last hike today was a lovely coastal stroll for 6 km. – first through a forest canopy.

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All too short  a time here, unfortunately. I suspect that will be the case wherever we go. We pack up camp tomorrow (in the rain – it is raining right now) – to make our way north to St. Anthony’s. We’ll check out the Vikings, and hope for whales and iceberg sightings.

See you again soon, wifi permitting.

On the road to Frenchy’s

Even if secondhand shopping is not your thing, a trip to Frenchy’s is a must-do.  This uniquely Nova Scotian ode to bargain shopping has spawned bus tours and inspired a book. Founded in 1972, the chain has a dozen or so stores that dot the province. Goods, both new and secondhand, are brought in by bale from the U.S. – many of them high-quality apparel and some of them with the original tags still attached.  New clothing that was once priced at $50 and $150 can be found for just $5 or $10. I shopped here regularly, with great success.

When we left Nova Scotia in 2005, this was one of the many things I knew I would sorely miss. When we parked outside this Frenchy’s in Digby, I was so excited I practically ran from the car to the front door.

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Clothing, shoes and household goods are set out in bins; fresh merchandise is added hourly. There is a certain protocol in place – pick a spot in front of your desired bin and start digging and piling. Don’t throw your discards on someone else pile. Toss your desired item in your basket and move on to the next bin.

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We came away with two pairs of pants and a top for me and a brand-new jacket for Stephen – all for $20.
We were on the “Valley” tour and by now it was lunchtime, so we headed into town for a big bowl of fresh chowder – lobster, haddock, mussels and the famous Digby scallops. Accompanied with a homemade white bun and lots of butter.

The waterfront in Digby is both pretty and workmanlike – this is very much a fishing town.

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The town is compact and well-laid out – two or three streets climb back from the harbour – filled with an interesting mix of clapboard, saltbox and Victorian homes and buildings.

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The Annapolis Valley runs along the Bay of Fundy coast and is Nova Scotia’s breadbasket. The land is incredibly fertile, and sunnier and hotter than the rest of the province.  Nova Scotia’s tiny wine industry has grown immensely in the past several years to 43 wineries and most of them are located in the valley.

While parts of this region are prosperous, other areas are struggling due to lack of employment. We saw a number of abandoned homes like this one.

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The town of Annapolis Royal is well-preserved and  historic and – Fort Anne is situated here.

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We walked around the grounds, then strolled around through the town’s back streets. Although the homes are lovely and well-kept and the main streets are filled with charming cafes and specialty shops, Annapolis Royal is far enough away from big centres that the young people are forced to leave for work. This is a problem all throughout Nova Scotia – gorgeous small towns and rural areas that are suffering stagnating financially and are dependent upon tourism.

For the price of a luxury car, you could buy this home. Listed at $75,000.

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Annapolis Royal is filled with handsome bed and breakfasts. This one even has a widow’s walk.

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Saltbox homes are typical of Nova Scotia – with their steep roofs and sturdy shingles, they are built to withstand the wind and the weather.

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The Bay of Fundy is most notable for having the highest tides in the world. There are many places to visit where the drama of these changing tides is easily visible and Hall’s Harbour is one of them. We arrived at 4:30 pm, about one hour after the lowest tide. The boats were still lying on the ocean bottom, just waiting for the tide to bring them back up 12 feet off the ground.

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We sat out on the end of the pier and watched the water begin to move in. There was a spit of sand that disappeared in about 10 minutes.

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Our final stop of the day was Wolfville. Enroute we passed by miles of fields of corn, apple trees and grapevines.

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Wolfville is a tiny perfect town. Situated on the bay, surrounded by fertile farmland, in spitting distance of dozens of wineries and breweries, and possessing several very good restaurants and charming shops, it is also home to street after street of absolutely fabulous homes. The crown jewel of the town is the picturesque Acadia University, which also supports excellent sports facilities, a theatre festival and a number of other university-related activities. Like the tides, the town population swells in the winter and drops in the summer.

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We ate dinner at The Naked Crepe, one of the many attractive and delicious restaurants in town.

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I loved this sign in one of the shops – typical of the rather wry honesty you will find down here.

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Just past Wolfville on our way back to Halifax, we drove through Grand Pre – home to one of the province’s  first wineries and also home to one of the first fair trade coffee roasteries in Nova Scotia. Just Us (justice) Coffee was around when we lived here and it has grown and expanded a great deal. They have a finely-tuned social conscience as well as very good coffee.

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And with that – our time in Nova Scotia is sadly over. We will miss this place and our friends here very much.

Halifax is the next big thing

According to a recent article, Halifax is going through a bit of a boom and it has a lot more to do with its desirable lifestyle than with the proliferation of (building) cranes on the waterfront. As major Canadian cities become increasingly unaffordable and unliveable, this is a city that knows how to look ahead to the future without sacrificing its heritage and way of life.

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Although we loved Nova Scotia, we left after five years for a number of reasons. We could not see a future for our boys here and we could not shake the feeling of being CFA’s (come from aways). I remember my heart breaking a little when a lovely new neighbour told me we couldn’t be friends because “I don’t have time for any more friends.” It wasn’t a brush-off – it was her reality – extended family on both sides, combined with friends she and her husband had known since grade school left no time for new acquaintances. We did meet wonderful people and made friends, but since we were not surrounded by our own circle of multigenerational family with roots here, we often felt quite alone.

Twelve years later, much has changed. CFA’s are moving here  attracted by affordable houses, small-city charm, and a half-hour drive to the beach. And jobs…there is a steady demand in the construction trades and the tech sector is bringing in Ontario refugees. As the article said, “The spotlight is on Halifax.”

With good reason – this is the house we lived in – it would probably sell for around $400,000 right now.

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The Regional District of Halifax is Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and surrounding suburbs. Halifax and Dartmouth square off across the harbour, and Dartmouth possesses the same leafy streets and gorgeous homes as Halifax for even less money. We’ve been staying with our friends Harriette and Mike, who live in a charming home right on Lake Banook. Stephen worked with Harriette at NSCC (Nova Scotia Community College) and we’ve remained friends ever since. They have been treating us to their very own brand of maritime hospitality, including a ride in their convertible, which is way more fun than our station wagon. Here, Mike striking a pose.

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We’ve been having a grand time discovering Dartmouth. On Canada Day, we walked a 3- km. pathway that skirts Lake Banook. Not sure how necessary the Moose Crossing signs are, but we kept our eyes peeled, just in case.

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Lake Banook has a very active rowing club – this was taken on a misty Canada Day.   Right now it is bright and sunny and I am watching kids puddling around on little kayaks and leaping in and out of the water.

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Further down the street – a veterinarian with a sense of humour.

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And beyond that a former school turned into loft apartments with a sense of style:

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The Dartmouth Saturday market on the waterfront was a delicious diversion.  Wineries, cideries and craft breweries are exploding in Nova Scotia, along with scores of new restaurants. With such a healthy marketplace, food entrepreneurs are testing the waters at their local markets, before going bigger.

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Riverview Herbs has been around since 1988 – cheeky comments are free with all purchases.

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The thing we enjoy most about the people here is their humour. Maritimers have humour in spades and if they’re not naturally funny themselves, they still love to laugh. If you can’t take a joke at your own expense, don’t come here, but you will be expected to give as good as you get.

We dropped by to see Cheryl, another dear friend of Stephen’s from the NSCC days. She and her husband visited us on Gabriola a few years ago after a cross-country motorbike ride and it was like no time had passed.

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That’s been the case with the rest of our Halifax friends – the catch-up and connection has been immediate.

We stopped by for a delicious dinner with Deb, her sister Dianne and her niece Lauren. Deb is a chef instructor at NSCC – she and Stephen also worked together.

While we lived here, I went back to school and became fast friends with two young women, Teri and Jennifer. We have kept in touch over the years and met up at Jen’s place for dinner to meet for the first time in a decade. In that time, Teri met and married Jordan, and Jen and Glenn had two kids, Ava and Carson. It is so satisfying to meet up with friends years later and realize you like their partners and families as much as you like them.

Jen, me and Teri.

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And finally – my friends Joan, Louise and Helen.  I had the opportunity to teach communications at NSCC and I had never been so terrified in my life.  These three women were my stalwarts – reassuring, sensible and funny. I don’t know if I would have survived without them. We met up for coffee and once again, the years peeled away. They are as dear as ever.

Louise, Helen, me and Joan

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So now – on to Halifax. We did as many tourist-y things as possible. Ten days here is not even close to being enough time, but I’ll take you through a snapshot of our time in the city.

Bud the Spud – don’t miss this food truck. They have been in business for three decades, and are a Nova Scotia institution. Their french fries defy description.

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Nova Scotia Duck Toller – cutest dog ever. We ran into this one on the waterfront –  her owners were besieged by admirers of 12-week-old Belka.

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Pier 21 – the site where over one million new Canadians arrived by ship. A National Historic Site and  a must-see for any visitor. Staff is available to help trace your ancestors. Soon all immigration records will be housed here, regardless of point of entry.

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The exhibits are touching – Ariella’s small suitcase of clothes on display with a pictorial account of her family’s arrival from Naples.

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Many exhibits are wrenching reminders of what people left behind. This young woman, an ethnic Albanian, is saying goodbye to a family in a Macedonian refugee camp that she may never see again.

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Most importantly Pier 21 informs us that, with the exception of First Nations people, we are all immigrants. All of us arrived here from somewhere else.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is another important stop.
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The Halifax Explosion and the Titanic are prominent events in Halifax’s history and both are well displayed. Intricate models of Cunard ships as well as full-scale models of typical boats can be found here. The waters off Halifax’s coast are a diver’s delight – filled with hundreds of shipwrecks and treasures that still lay hidden beneath the waves. Every red dot indicates the site of a shipwreck.

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The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has Maud Lewis’ tiny home and paintings on permanent display.  She was a beloved and well-known folk artist in Nova Scotia, who was extremely prolific in spite of her crippling arthritis and challenging life. 

Her home was moved from its site and reconstructed in the art gallery.

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The artist posing with one of her paintings.

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Part of the exhibition of Inuit art from Labrador.

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Street art depicting a cross-section of Haligonians.

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And…the Public Gardens.  Halifax is filled with green space, including the huge Point Pleasant Park, overlooking the ocean at the southern tip of the city. The Public Gardens are right in the centre of the city, providing Haligonians with an easy and instant nature fix. Surrounded by wrought iron fences, and encompassing four entire city blocks, the Public Gardens are one of my favourite Halifax destinations. It is a showpiece of specimen plantings, dozen of benches and seating areas and twisting pathways.

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A pond filled with ducks and turtles.

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And plenty of shady, quiet spots to read.

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Our last image of Halifax is the iconic Citadel,which dominates the downtown sightlines.  It is well worth the climb up the hill for the visit and the view.

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Our last Nova Scotia posting will be the Bay of Fundy coast, with stops in Wolfville, Halls Harbour, Annapolis Royal and Digby.

 

The Doer and Dreamer’s Guide to Nova Scotia

For a number of years before we moved to Halifax in 2000, we sent away for the NS Tourism annual guide, “The Doer and Dreamer’s Guide to Nova Scotia.” It was better than the Christmas catalogue, filled with activities, events, festivals and photos of lobster suppers, lighthouses and crashing ocean waves. It’s the crashing waves that got to us and changed forever the way we want to live.

We’re fascinated by the treacherous power of the North Atlantic, with its long history of shipwrecks, fishing disasters, hurricanes and rogue waves, to say nothing of epic tragedies like the Titanic and the Ocean Ranger.

Our ocean visits this year have been quite benign – even Peggy’s Cove was like a millpond the day we stopped by. I feel faintly sheepish being part of the throngs of tourists who invade this tiny fishing village on a daily basis. There are two huge parking lots and hundreds of people spill out from buses and cars and start clambering over the rocks. Millions of photos are taken. A gift shop engorged with fridge magnets and saltwater taffy can barely keep up with the demand.

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And yet, we are all here for the same reason:

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The setting is expansive and in spite of the crowds it is possible to find your own quiet moment here and savour the view. It is always a mesmerizing sight, but even more exciting if the wind is up and the waves roll in. There are archly-worded signs warning people to keep a safe distance.

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The poor old lighthouse is in need of a fresh paint job and a little TLC. When the Harper government declared a number of lighthouses to be “surplus”, Peggy’s Cove was among them. An eleventh hour private buy-out saved the lighthouse, but it doesn’t seem right that such an iconic tourist attraction does not fall under some governmental jurisdiction to ensure enough funds are in place for regular maintenance.

There are countless ways to photograph Peggy’s Cove – everyone who has visited has variations of the following scenes:

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Just up the road is a memorial to the 229 people who lost their lives in the 1998 Swissair 111 plane crash, in the waters offshore from Peggy’s Cove. The crash location is roughly the mid-point between the arches. Just right of this photo is Bayswater, an area where a number of fishermen first responded to the rescue call.  There is a memorial there as well, with all the victims names engraved.  The locals and the families of the victims wanted the memorials to be exactly what they are:  simple, sombre and moving.

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Peggy’s Cove is not all about the lighthouse. This road is perfect for a bike ride.

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A familiar sight in Nova Scotia are the lupins –  roadsides painted in broad strokes of purple and mauve and pink. They can be found just about everywhere, but especially close to the sea.

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Lawrencetown Beach was one of our favourites when we lived here. After a scenic 45-minute drive from Halifax along the eastern shore, this was the dramatic entrance:

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The view heading back is equally striking.

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You don’t come here to swim. The water at Lawrencetown Beach is unimaginably cold – there are no coves or bays to shelter from the wide open Atlantic. The “beach” is made of large flat rocks that are challenging to walk on without turning an ankle. And yet, this has become a major surfing destination.  The day we visited the surf was quiet, but that did not deter this young man; especially since he had the beach to himself.

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Just waiting in the wings was another young man with a van full of wetsuits and boards; another week or two and his business will be brisk.

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Closer to home, our encounters with the ocean have been our outings on Halifax Harbour. We are staying in Dartmouth with Mike and Harriette, so there are two choices to get over to Halifax: take the little 10-minute ferry across or drive over the bridge.  Either way, the views are fantastic.

The Halifax waterfront is a reflection of the city –   a mix of old and new, historic and under-renovation – one foot in the past and one in the present.

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Walking along the boardwalk is a treat for the senses. Great people-watching, good food, a harbour full of marine traffic, and funny little moments.

This wave has been a kid-magnet for years – our boys climbed it when we first visited here. There is a sign that makes a limp effort to show some level of concern – it is soundly ignored.

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Segways are a popular attraction – they make covering the length of the boardwalk a breeze, especially  now before the weather gets too hot and the summer crowds hit.

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Of course, boats are the big attraction. This is a very busy working harbour, with coast guards, ferries, container ships and tugboats plying the waters. In addition, cruise ships, the Tall Ships, and international ships are frequent visitors.

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in Halifax harbour a few days ago to great fanfare. It is one of the largest aircraft carriers in the US arsenal,  at over 333 metres long, with over 6000 men on board and the capacity to carry 60 aircraft on board.

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Keeping it company were two massive cruise ships docked at Pier 20. The ship with the blue hull was quite luxurious: visible from the rear were two-storey staterooms.

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Less luxurious and quite controversial was a Tall Ship, the 400-ft. Chilean Esmerelda, reportedly used as a floating prison and torture ship during Pinochet’s regime.

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The marina at one end of the boardwalk is always a delight – tiny boats, big yachts, sailboats – fun to check out the flags to see who is in town.

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Halifax used to dump their raw sewage right into the harbour; making a boardwalk stroll far less pleasant. Ten years later, the water is clear and clean; the transformation has been remarkable. This is water you can now paddle in, as demonstrated by this crew on their way to the launch.

If you look closely, you can see Theodore the Tugboat just over the top of the kayak.

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And finally – Canada 150.

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We celebrated Canada Day by  going to the Dartmouth farmers market in the morning, walking around Lake Banook in the afternoon, stopping to listen to some blues (with about 12 other soggy souls), munching on a bag of Halifax’s famous and incomparable Bud the Spud french fries, then heading back to the dry cover of Harriet and Mike’s deck to listen to Canadian tunes. We led out with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sung by k.d.lang. We tried to get a rousing discussion about all things Canadian but gave up as it felt a little too earnest. We were polite about it though. Harriette treated us to an exceptionally fresh and delicious haddock chowder for dinner.

A fantastic way to celebrate being Canadian, being with friends and having the freedom to do what we do.