Quebec City: étonnez-moi

Philippe Halsman used that phrase “astonish me!” to challenge his collaborators to greater things. The photographer of over 101 LIFE covers, among many other things, was one of the main exhibits at Musee des Beaux-Artes in Quebec City.  He was a master at unmasking celebrities and capturing their essence. This is one of Marilyn.

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And Alfred Hitchcock.

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Halsman worked on many projects with Salvador Dali, including this famous photo.
Explanation of how this photo was accomplished below:

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This fabulous museum is a must-see, if you have more than a couple of days in Quebec City. It is spread out over four buildings, and requires more than one visit to do it justice.

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The museum focuses on notable Quebec artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, Fernand Leduc, Alfred Pellan and Jean Paul Lemieux. This is one of the latter’s moody paintings.

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We’ve all seen contemporary art that makes us shake our heads and wonder, “Why is a marine blue canvas hanging in a national museum? ” I asked the same question of this one below, knowing with certainty that with masking tape and a few tins of paint (only in far better colours), I too could be an artist of note.

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The explanation of this painting may help clear up the confusion.

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The grounds outside the museum include sculptures and imaginative landscaping, including this “framed painting”. An interesting project to remember for when we once again have a home: plant a shallow box, throw on a frame and prop it on an easel.

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I have so much to show you that I can’t possibly go into all the historical details of Quebec City. We were just there for two and a half days, so we concentrated on just being in the streets and enjoying the show.

A young circus couple busking in one of the squares.

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One of the many caleches riding through the streets of Old Quebec.

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The parts of Quebec City you are likely to visit will be Quartier Petit-Champlain ( the lower part of the city by the St. Lawrence River), Vieux Quebec ( the walled area of the city that includes the Citadel, the plains of Abraham and the Chateau Frontenac), and perhaps the area just outside the walls – Grand-Allee/Avenue Cartier.

A quick story: We had booked a room in Vieux Quebec – just $120 a night (should have been our first clue), with $14 a night parking (standard for Quebec). When we arrived, we were dismayed to find a hotel with dismal lobby, peeling paint, smelly carpets and a room that faced a fire escape and air conditioning that didn’t work. We were offered another room, which was worse.  The hotel owner essentially told us to leave when we complained (which we were happy to do), except that now we were in Quebec City at 4:00 pm with nowhere to go. After a few disheartening stops at other modest hotels, (all full at $250 and $300 night), we located a hotel across the harbour at Levis and were happy to find a spacious, clean, quiet room that gave us an excuse to take the ferry across. This was our view from the ferry:

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The ferry crosses over in 12 minutes and drops you in lower Quebec, which is like landing in Europe, complete with (for us) foreign language.

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Stone buildings and overflowing flower baskets are pretty much a theme here.
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Quebec City is noted for its fabulous restaurants – Lapin Saute is one of them. It wasn’t outrageous in price – a nice lunch would have been about $60 for two.

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Right beside this restaurant was a sweet little park, complete with chairs and shade.

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When we were in Southeast Asia, we were quite amused at how choreographed the tourist photography was – coquettish poses, jumping in the air, etc. This Asian woman was fascinated with the wall mural, and executed a number of poses to mimic each scene. Stephen snapped this photo just before she leaned down to fake a slap shot.

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There are two ways to get to Vieux Quebec (upper) from Petit-Champlain (lower). You can walk up many, many stairs or you can take the funicular. We walked.

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The view from the top, looking down over the harbour and Lower Town.

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At the top, the mighty Chateau Frontenac – the showpiece of the Quebec City skyline.

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The area around the Chateau is buzzing with activity. We listened to music, sat and people-watched and marvelled at a Dali sculpture – such an incongruous sight in front of  this stately grand dame.

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Naturally, we went inside. With room rates running $400-$600, we were surprised that the lobby was not more luxurious. The chairs were a bit worn and the valet was a bit cranky. I guess the gawking hordes of non-guests becomes terribly tiresome – our baby strollers and fanny packs and plastic water bottles don’t set the right tone. Still, the Fairmont Chateaux are Canada’s pride and we all feel entitled to them.

Vieux Quebec is contained within thick, high stone walls. The Citadel and Plains of Abraham are to the left of the Chateau Frontenac – we wandered the grounds but did not take a tour – we had done that on a previous visit. We probably walked every street inside the walls, or at least it felt like it. Be prepared with good walking shoes and be ready to climb very steep hills. The rewards are worth it.

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IMG_0188Red roofs, tin roofs, tiny dormers, paned windows, thick wooden doors – the same and yet all so different. Every corner brings another delightful view.

Outside the walls and down Grand Allee is an area well worth visiting. It is still very much “old Quebec”, but is a little more of a neighbourhood.

Who wouldn’t want to live in one of these charming flats? These trademark iron staircases can be found all over the province – hell on moving day, but a space-saver with buildings that come right onto the sidewalk.

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A typical corner store, (or depanneur), selling the essentials – Pepsi, beer and wine.

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Another typical sight – outdoor dining – flower-filled patios tucked in every nook and cranny in Quebec.

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A number of shops were dedicated to furs. With a history of hunting and trapping and long, cold winters, fur coats appear to have made a respectable comeback in Quebec.

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As dedicated as they are to preserving and honouring their past, Quebecers are very much in the present.

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A final photo from Lower St. Lawrence, taken on our drive from Gaspe towards Quebec City. The landscape got softer, the mountains disappeared, and the north shore of Quebec came into focus. It set the tone for arriving in a city that is like no other and a province that is indeed “a distinct society.”

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We have barely scratched the surface in Quebec – a la prochaine.

On to Ottawa to see friends; slowly we are making our way back home.

Gaspé: the Friends and Family Tour

We know very few people who have spent any time in Gaspé; many aren’t even sure where it is. So we were so surprised when our friends Sheila and Ajay and their kids started going down to Coin du Banc, a small village near Percé. After a few years they bought a cottage and after 27 years, have become a big part of that community every summer. Ajay, who is the founder of the Guelph Jazz Festival, has transported his love of music to Gaspé. This year he organized a week-long improv music camp, which attracted participants from all over the country.

We were lucky enough to catch the final concert, held in the old church/museum. I’m a bit befuddled by improv – a woman barking into a tin pail, or rolling on the floor with a piece of rag rug is way over my head, but it was lots of fun and a good reminder that music takes many forms. The big lesson of the week’s camp was “how to listen” – an ongoing challenge for me.

The participants, taking a bow at the finale.

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Our friends Sheila and Ajay – in their element in this beautiful part of Gaspesie. We only had a few minutes to chat, but it was great to see them – the only thing that’s changed is the grey hair.

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As I mentioned before, my cousin Bob came to our rescue when he discovered we couldn’t find a place to stay; he moved to his girlfriend’s place for two days and handed over his apartment to us. We were extremely grateful for that generous and hospitable act and just as grateful to spend a bit of time with him and Phyllis – it had been many years. They treated us to an incredible home-cooked meal, which is so appreciated when you’re on the road and even sent us home with a tin of Quebec maple syrup!
Phyllis and Bob inside the shed they’re building.

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My  cousin Bob and uncle Keith are our two remaining family members in Gaspé. Everyone else moved away years ago, but a number of them still make the yearly migration. Our timing was good this time around – we got see not just Uncle Keith but my cousin Esther, who was down to visit her dad. Sadly, it coincided with my uncle’s wife being in palliative care, so not the happiest time for everyone, but we did manage to fit in a quick visit. Again, so easy to pick up with family and old friends –  Esther and I had not seen each other in over three decades. The passing of time didn’t seem to matter.

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With just two days in the town of Gaspé, we had a lot of ground to cover. First, we headed to L’Anse-aux-Cousins, about 3 km. from town, to see my mother’s old home. We have always pronounced this “Lancy- Cousins”; nicely butchering the French pronounciation. It is properly referred to as “Lonce-o-coozen“.

Some of the earliest settlers here were Irish, English, Scots and from the Guernsey and Jersey Islands; these are my ancestors. Today most of the peninsula is French, with just a few pockets of English left. Pronunciation of place names depends upon with whom you are speaking.

This was my mum’s childhood home.

The current owners call the home “Twin Brooks” – aptly named for the brooks that run on either side of the property. There used to be a henhouse at the back and a massive vegetable garden at the front – both gone now. So is my grandmother’s beautiful flower garden. Perhaps someone else’s grandchildren play here now.

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The town of Gaspé is considered the birthplace of Canada – this is where Jacques Cartier first landed in 1534 in his exploration of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He planted a wooden cross then, but a mammoth granite cross was erected in 1934, and since then a recreation of village stores and homes as they appeared in the 1900s has been installed at the base of town, in front of the harbour.

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The town of Gaspé (pop. – 16,000+)  is the major centre on northern end of the peninsula; this is where hospitals, schools, an airport, and other forms of employment are located.  Gaspé harbour is a thing of beauty.

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When we were coming here as kids, the main street had a number of souvenir shops and a department store and the usual range of amenities. Now, there are select shops selling foie gras and nice lingerie. The French influence has been a positive thing – Cafe des Artistes has been around for ages.

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It breathed new life into the old post office and brought freshly roasted coffee and bohemian art to the mix.

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A trip to Gaspé is not complete without a visit to Percé, and most notably, The Rock.

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Named Percé by Champlain because the rock is “pierced”, this is one of the primary attractions of the Gaspé Peninsula. At low tide, you can walk right around the rock – you can see the sandbar in this photo. However, in the past few years, there has been so much falling rock and incidences of injury that the pathway is now considered “at your own risk” and signs are everywhere warning of the danger.

We didn’t have time to attempt the walk around the base of the rock – we were between tides, but happy to visit from shore.

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An interesting sidebar to Percé was its counterculture, hippie sensibility back in the ’70s. This building, now closed for some future project, was an artist/cultural centre.

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“Artisans” abound in Percé.  The walking stick carver has probably been hanging out in Percé for years, maybe decades. Funny how time gets away from you.

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This fella is banking on tourists not noticing that he has no woodcarving skills whatsoever, and will buy a piece of “Quebec art” from him anyway.

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The town of Percé has always been filled with tacky little souvenir shops, but that was almost part of its charm. Come for the Rock, buy the T-shirt.

That said, we were shocked by the change in Percé.  That magnificent rock has ceased to be regarded as a democratic natural wonder and has become a ticket to print money. Several municipal parking lots charge $9 for parking. A kiosk leading to a lookout suggests a $1 “donation” to walk up a hill for a better look at the Rock. Mediocre restaurants offer the same dated menus and charge $18 for a club house sandwich with greasy fries. With the exception of a very few shops featuring local artists, the main street is lined with stores carrying the same schlock. Dispirited tourists wander the streets, looking for things to buy. Even the mascot outside one of the stores seemed exhausted by it all.

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In spite of all that, if you visit the Gaspe peninsula, you can’t miss Percé. Here’s another reason to just enjoy the area and ignore the rest:

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A bientôt, Gaspé. We had a very happy detour with you.

On to Quebec City…

Gaspe: The Accidental Tourists

We weren’t even supposed to be in Gaspe on this trip. We had planned to go to the Charlevoix-Saguenay area, but since we left our bookings too late, there was not a room to be found anywhere. Plan B – Gaspe, and what a wonderful Plan B it was.  Both my parents are from Gaspe and we came here every summer when I was a child. Stephen and I came here once with our boys when they were young and then just the two of us several years later. Gaspe’s not where I’m from, but it still runs pretty deep.

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A typical Gaspe scene – this one in Forillon National Park.

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So – Plan B sounded great until we discovered the same challenge – no hotel rooms anywhere.  Quebec is one hot destination – and unlike the Maritimes, where we saw licence plates from all over North America,  here in “La Belle Province” we stick out like a sore thumb. A lot of people don’t make it up the coast, in part because of the distance and perhaps in part because of separatist attitudes towards the “maudit anglaise.” That is an old story – we have encountered nothing but politeness and in many cases, perfect English. My sad attempts at French work in a pinch.

After a couple of frantic hours online, we found rooms for the first three nights and began our pilgrimage up the north shore of the Gaspe peninsula.

The north shore is full of twisty roads cutting through small settlements along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Many of these tiny villages don’t even have gas stations or stores – they are simply a collection of houses. This stretch of road is stunningly beautiful and desolate at the same time.

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There is nothing here for young families, so many little villages no longer have schools. “A vendre” signs are common, as are abandoned homes. And yet, you run across a business  like this – a hostel/cafe run by young Quebecois – fabulous food, cool surroundings, hip young bilingual owners – the hope for the future of Gaspe and such an incongruous sight on this shore.

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And then there are the fromageries. Quebec is noted for its cheese, particularly for the stinky, runny unpasteurized cheeses that cannot be sold out of the province.

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Les fromages.

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This is exactly the same bread my grandmothers used to make – two blobs of dough in a metal pan and voila:

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We sat outside the store on a picnic table overlooking the water and had lunch. We haven’t had whole grains for weeks – you’ve just got to give in to that homemade bread.

Back on the road, the scenery unfolds.

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You’ve got to watch yourself though. In a province where smoking, drinking and tiny Speedos are still encouraged, they are surprisingly stern about their speed limits. The Quebec police are unlikely to be sympathetic to your story and they’re not above hanging out in front of the Catholic church, waiting for sinners.

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A safer form of transportation, perhaps.

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Outside of the big cities, motels are the way to go. They are usually spotlessly clean, affordable and easy – pull in and unload the car. Motel Nanook in Cap Chat was our first stop,  run by the vivacious Suzanne and her charming husband Marc.

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Just before Cap Chat, we passed an enormous wind farm – one of the largest on the coast.

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We headed a few kilometres up the road to St. Anne-de Monts for groceries and wine  and came upon a wharf full of fishers. You see how bundled up they were – it was cold and windy and we needed coats.

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A pretty sunset that night.

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The next day our stop was Cap de Rosiers, where our motel was situated right across the street from a National Historic Site – Canada’s tallest lighthouse (112 feet).

Our motel is that strip on the left of the photo.

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The view from the motel.

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Yesterday we woke up to bright sun and warm temperatures – perfect for a full day in Forillon National Park, at the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula.  Forillon was formed back in the ’70s, amidst great controversy and bitterness among the local residents whose properties were expropriated to make way for the park. Luckily, my dad’s old home fell just outside the boundaries.
Those hard feelings exist to this day – the park has been both a blessing and a curse.   In some ways, Forillon improved and enhanced the experience for locals and tourists. For example, this boardwalk was built to provide better access to the beach, as well as a very enjoyable and practical multi-use roadway for walkers, cyclists, a small shuttle service and baby strollers.

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Grand-Grave is the site where much of the cod fishing was located. I remember fish flakes on the beaches – salt cod laid out to dry. They are long gone – just part of a museum now.

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This is part of the Blanchette farm – the home has also been restored as a heritage site – typical of homes in the area to this day.

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The old Hyman store was in operation until the ’70s – it is now part of the Heritage site. I went to this store and others like it as a child – just walking in the front door brought a flood of memories – the smells are the same.

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Park staff were on hand inside the store to answer questions.

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There are several trails around Grand Grave – it is possible to go for 15 km. out to the most eastern tip and the lighthouse, but we stuck to a shorter hike along this path:

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And as we turned the corner, we saw a lynx staring down a young couple. As soon as we appeared, he slid down under the fence into the shrubbery, but not before giving us one final stare. It was thrilling.

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That is such a part of the attraction of our travels – the chance wildlife encounters. You know they’re there – five seconds can make the difference.

On to Peninsula to see the house where my dad grew up.

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It has changed a fair bit since Dad was a child – the current owners are a young family who were delighted to show my parents through the house when they visited one year. They still exchange Christmas cards. Unfortunately, nobody was home when we drove by, but I felt comfortable trespassing bit to have look around and take photos.

Just down the road, we went back into Forillon to visit Peninsula Point – one of our old swimming spots. I wouldn’t have recognized it – the beautiful boardwalk I showed before, as well as bike rentals, a shuttle and a stand renting standup paddle boards.

The beach and water are the same:

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A trip back to Gaspe is always steeped in nostalgia – I have one foot firmly back in my childhood memories – it is a bit of a parallel universe.  So when I see big changes, it is helpful to recall a story told to us by a Newfoundland woman. She was talking to her grampa about how her childhood beach had changed – the rocks she remembered being there were gone. His reply was eloquent, “Child, everything is product of time.”

Another product of time is Cap Bon Ami – an annual summer destination. The last time we were here was on our trip with the boys – we have a photo of them shrieking out of that ice-cold water.

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You can’t see from this photo, but there are hundreds of cormorants nesting in this cliff.
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Our last night on the north shore was spent at L’Anse au Griffon. We ate dinner at this very typical Quebec restaurant – old wooden floors, an art gallery upstairs and really well-prepared food. I ordered fresh cod and Stephen couldn’t resist the Gaspe sausage with local sauerkraut.

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I asked about the figures lined up along their fence. Each year, the town has a competition to create the most imaginative figure, and some of the winners are on display here. Others can be found through the town, in front of people’s homes.

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A couple of typical Gaspe homes.

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Our sunset last night.

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And one final shot that has nothing to do with Gaspe. We ran into a young family on holiday with their three-month-old puppy, Maui – a Bernerdoodle. Over-the-top puppy cuteness.

IMG_0212We’re on our way to Gaspe today. My cousin Bob lives in town and he came to our rescue. There is a huge music festival on now (hence the fully-booked hotels), so he is clearing out of his apartment for two nights and giving us a home.

Much more to come in a couple of days.

Nascar & troubadours

Tent camping in provincial, state or national parks tends to attract a certain demographic – nature-lovers whose idea of a perfect day is a long hike followed by an evening around a campfire under a full moon.  Tent camping in a private campground can also offer that perfect day, but it provides fertile ground for a wide range of behaviours and holiday expectations. In our second campground, our luck turned.  At first glance, our site seemed nice enough – treed and cozy.

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It all fell apart on our second night – coincidentally a full moon. We had been out for the day and arrived back around 7:30 to hear a strange sound – a high volume wind tunnel that turned out to be drag racing from a nearby track. That went on until 11:00 pm – Rrrrmmm, rrrrmmm – it could have been in the next campsite, except that campsite was filled with drummers and guitar players and singers who spent hours (loudly) mangling Tragically Hip songs. I went over to them at 11:00 and politely asked for a quieter version of the concert. They were our children – mature thirty-somethings who were excessively apologetic and instantly shut down the party. Now they’re the heroes and I’m the grumpy old crank. Lesson learned – be a little more careful when choosing campgrounds – avoid those with mini-golf and swimming pools.

But that is not to take away from the really wonderful week we spent on PEI – as with our other visits here in the Maritimes- it went by far too quickly.  Part of the fun for us was the chance to visit with friends. When we moved to Guelph, one of the first friends I made through our kids’ school was Maureen. We were fast friends for a number of years but our lives took different directions and then we moved and lost touch. After her kids were grown up, Maureen moved back to her native PEI. Last week, we saw each other for the first time in 20 years. Other than our matching heads of white hair, little has changed. She is still as profane and irreverent and funny as ever and as a bonus, her daughter Steph was visiting so we got to see them both.

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Our other friends on PEI were the MacDonald clan – Fred is an Islander, but we know them from Nanaimo and have been friends for years. Our time on PEI coincided and we were able to stop by their cabin and enjoy a visit and supper together. It was as fun and full of laughter and good food as back in B.C., only now transplanted to their island home.
Stephen, Larissa, Katya, Fred and Irene

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The beaches – temperatures range from bracing to balmy.  North Rustico beach was a few notches above bath water and we had the place to ourselves.

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Basin Head was a different story. The particular attraction here is the swift river that flows into the ocean and the bridge that crosses over it – a tantalizing prospect for young people who are drawn like lemmings. The game is this: climb onto the bridge or leap off the side of the wharf. Ignore the sign that prohibits you from doing so. Ignore the lifeguard who seems oblivious to the sign she should be enforcing and the potential for disaster. We watched for a while – it was hugely entertaining and mildly frightening as bodies hurtled to the water with little regard for others. It brought back memories of our own young sons who leaped from this bridge (although perhaps not while executing a backward flip).

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After leaping into the water, the current hauls you out and dumps you on the sand bar, where you swim back to shore and do it all over again.

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We sat to the left of this little boy with the pail. Like a border collie with a frisbee, this kid must have filled his pail 20 times – back and forth, back and forth.

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Our lifeguard, exhibiting the universal “bored lifeguard” pose.

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Further down the road we went – to East Point Lighthouse – complete with a still-active fog house and fog horns.

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On to Charlottetown – a photogenic, leafy and highly walkable small city. Our self-guided wanderings brought us to some beautiful sights. Brick is as common as clapboard in Charlottetown.

Part of the Heartz O’Halloran Row – one of the finest Victorian row houses in the province.

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A popular restaurant row downtown.

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St. Dunstan’s Basilica. This church had 18 bells manufactured in France and ran for 50 years.  After some structural damage, they were refurbished, reinstalled, and rang again for the first time on Canada’s 150th birthday – July 1, 2017.

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Stephen having a chat with the “Two Grays” – two delegates (strangely both named John Hamilton Gray) in the 1864 Charlottetown Conference.  They believed in confederation, both were pro-railway and both were active in the military. Interesting to ponder how their perspectives may have contributed to the shaping of our country.

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Right behind them, the lineup of homes and businesses that are now part of the Great George Hotel – most of them in the hotel business at one point or another since 1812.

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To end on a high note – Cows Ice Cream, an institution since 1983 – homemade ice cream   served up with groan-worthy puns – Wowie Cowie, Cownadian Maple – adds up to line-ups out the door. Worth the 15-minute wait.

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So long PEI – we’ll be back again before too long.

Back from the dead

Not us – we’re fine. My computer was having “issues”, but it is back on track, purring like a kitten thanks to the nimble brains at Combat Computers in Charlottetown.  It had been giving me problems for a while – a MacBook Air  glitch was fixed this winter in Vietnam, but about a month ago, it started acting up again. It crashed five days ago and I crashed along with it. I was starting to upload photos from Cape Breton and poof – gone and not coming back. Device anxiety – how did we not see this coming?

Now we’re in PEI, so in the interest of staying in the present and trying to catch up, I’m going to skip our Cape Breton adventures, other than to say – the 300 km. Cabot Trail is every bit as dramatic as their advertising claim, “One of the most scenic drives on the planet.” Here’s a teaser photo. The famous coast road is that ribbon on the left and the Skyline walk is on the right – a 6 km. hike down to a cliff overlooking the ocean – one of dozens of hikes in the Cape Breton Highlands. If hiking is not challenging enough for you – we passed by countless cyclists, grinding their fully-loaded bikes up and down those hills for the 300-km. trek.

Cabot Trail highway/ Skyline Trail
We drove from Cape Breton to PEI – choosing the Confederation Bridge over the ferry. At eight miles, it is the longest bridge over ice-covered waters in the world and takes roughly 12 minutes to cross. For those with a fear of heights, not to worry – it is curved with very high sides – for much of the drive the only view from an average-sized vehicle is a sliver of blue water on either side. This was our approach to PEI:

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And this is a view of the bridge from PEI looking back to Nova Scotia – that line of land you can see under the bridge at the right of the photo.

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We’re here for a week and had booked a campsite at Twin Shores for four nights and at Cymbria for three nights – to give us a chance to experience two different parts of the island.
Our campgrounds of choice are national or provincial, with well-treed private sites, quiet neighbours and an emphasis on nature. With those parks long booked up, we decided to give Twin Shores a try (actually, we got the last campsite and felt lucky at that). As soon as we drove up, it became apparent that “nature” might be down the list of things to do. This is a full-on family resort, with a theatre, library, fitness centre, shuffleboard, massive children’s playground, huge grocery store, candy depot, cafe and rec centre with theme nights – karaoke, bingo, poker. Last night was poker night, with five tables going full-tilt.  We were allowed to use one corner of the rec centre to access the wifi, if we promised to provide snacks.

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There could be as many as 2000 campers here – over 700 sites. Camp staff buzz around in golf carts and kids buzz around on bikes. The line-up for soft-serve ice-cream is steady.

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We talked to a number of people who have been coming here for decades – they are multi-generational campers, and a whole slew of them are from the U.S. –  Americans love the Maritimes and they especially love PEI. At first we felt a little grumpy about it all – we sat down to dinner the first night listening to someone else’s (loud) music and from a distance – “B-5”, “O-11” (bingo). But it didn’t take long for the sight of  a small army of excited kids with unbridled holiday freedom to soften us up, and by 10:00 pm. everyone was quiet.

Our beach is one of a series of gorgeous PEI beaches – warm, salty water, soft sand and sand dunes. Since we spent our days sightseeing, we would stop by the beach late afternoon for refreshing swims and watch the shadows deepen the colours of the red cliffs.

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The wind was up the second day  – perfect for kite-flying.

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And the sunset was perfect.

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As most of you know, PEI has three huge claims to fame – miles of warm beaches, Anne of Green Gables and potatoes.  We likely won’t make it to Anne-land (we’ve been there before), but the potatoes are everywhere. PEI is just about as pastoral a place as it is possible to be – gently rolling landscape dotted with farmhouses, herds of cows, fields and fields of potatoes, corn and canola and mustard seed and never very far away – the water.

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Stephen having a Field of Dreams moment.

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Fields of giant Weetabix.

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A typical “green gables” farmhouse and barn.

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Our campsite is just a hop away from Malpeque, home of the world-famous Malpeque oysters. We will be eating plenty of them before we go, but PEI mussels are also high on the list. On our second night here, we stopped by for a treat – mussels, homemade bread and a bottle of local blueberry ale – PEI’s very own 20-mile diet.

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The owners of the restaurant, O’Neil’s Gallery, are a charming and talented couple from Essex, Ontario, who moved to PEI five years ago and with an admirable sense of vision, bought a wreck of a house and transformed it.  This is the end result:

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Scott O’Neil is an artist who has a gallery in the house and a studio out back for his art classes. He was just putting the finishing touches on this painting as we showed up, before hurrying around the corner to his studio to prepare for his students.

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Like much of the Maritimes, living here requires an entrepreneurial spirit. Well-paying jobs are few and far between and the ability to carve out a desirable life ( really affordable homes, walking distance to the beach, fresh seafood, community), depends upon one’s own talents and resourcefulness. It makes for some interesting neighbours.

The beach is not the only story in PEI – there are many sweet small towns to explore. Victoria-by-the-Sea is on the south shore; a postcard-pretty spot filled with gabled houses, shops and restaurants.

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Steep red roof, grey shingles, mussy garden.

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And if grey shingles are not your thing, why not paint your house this colour?

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Victoria’s harbour – home to beachcombers, kayakers and fishing boats.

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We’re on our way to Cymbria Campground for three nights. More in a few days – lots to report, including a trip to Charlottetown and two great visits with friends.

 

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.

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.