Gabriola: So you want to move to a Gulf Island?

The first time we drove off the ferry from Nanaimo to Gabriola, we had just driven across the country from Halifax to B.C.  It was 2005, and after decades of living in cities, we were ready to try rural life “lite.” We felt like we had landed in paradise – albeit a paradise lodged firmly in 1973. Gumboots, tie-dye and 20-year-old cars – where had we found ourselves?

We bought this house in part for the view across the street to the ocean – it was incredibly romantic to see the ferries going by every couple of hours. It took a while before we stopped yelling out, “there’s one!“, as though we had just sighted a rare bird.

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In the early days, we still thought fondly of the ferry. Stephen taught at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, and he liked to say he took two ocean crossings a day to get to work. Our ferry terminal:

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…and the lineup:

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During the winter there are at least six crossings that are overloads, so to be assured of a place, you pack a book and arrive 45 minutes ahead of schedule. In the summer, when the tourists arrive and home building crews are in full force, almost every ferry is an overload. If you use the ferry frequently, this situation can make you cranky, resigned, philosophical, or ultimately, it can be a tipping point.

There has been much discussion about a bridge over the years; at times it has been extremely divisive. While bumper stickers with the message “Real Islands Don’t Have Bridges” would be news to those living in Manhattan or Montreal, fears that a bridge would harm the quality of life on Gabriola are considerable.  As well, B.C. Ferries have jacked rates to an almost unsustainable level, and bumper stickers that read ” Waterways Are Our Highways” have fallen on deaf ears. We regarded our ferry costs as a trade-off for having lower property taxes than other municipalities until that was no longer the case.

Still, watching two ferries pass by in the harbour (one the Gabriola Ferry and the other the Vancouver ferry) remains a stirring sight.

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We moved from Gabriola to travel extensively, without being tied to the responsibility of a property and to consider where our next home might be when we land again in a few years. We left behind a community of dear and wonderful friends, as well as a cast of characters that I could tell you all about, but then…I might not be allowed back.

Gabriola is home to the internationally-renowned centre for transformative learning, The Haven, where participants come to take courses, listen to noted speakers and stay for a few days. Gabriola is a safe place for those who need to heal – there are a number of folks who find refuge here, and for some, it has provided a transition and comfort.

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For those whose lives are more manageable, Gabriola is simply a community that welcomes everyone. It takes very little time to join in, make friends and find your niche and that is a big attraction. Whether you are rich or poor, single or a family, there is less of a class or status divide here than in other centres; everyone blends in. The day I found myself shopping at the Village, wearing a filthy gardening shirt and no makeup was the day I knew I had made the switch. I’ve hitchhiked many times on Gabriola, which for a woman in her 60s would be both hazardous and vaguely ridiculous elsewhere, but this is a help-your-neighbour kind of place. Sure, we’ve had break-ins, drunk and disorderlies, domestics, and even a murder, but mainly people here don’t lock their doors. If you get sick, have a fire, lose your cellphone or can’t find your cat, we’re all here to help.

There are so many things I want to tell you about Gabriola that there won’t be room for  photos and backstories about our friends. They have all found their way to Gabriola by interesting and varied means, with wildly different backgrounds and professions. Our friends are artists, graphic designers, writers, musicians, singers, professional chefs, educators, doctors, a former London police superintendent, a figure skater, sculptor, hairdresser, radio producer, radio personality, house builders, publishers, director of a tap dance school, journalists, Emmy-winning writer, retired Anglican minister, jewellery makers, gym owner, actors, potters, sailers and scientists.  I know I’m forgetting someone – there is such a wealth of talent and ability here.

After a nine-month absence, we’re back for a month to housesit and look after a shy, beautiful grey cat and these two little characters – (names withheld to protect their privacy). They have provided us with hours of entertainment and laughter and it will be very hard to hand them back to their owners.

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This time has been both wonderful and bittersweet. By moving away, we have removed ourselves from daily life on Gabriola and all the small routines and hobbies and activities that go with that. Our friends are still our friends, but incredibly, they have carried on without us. In a few days we will take the ferry over to Nanaimo for the last time and not be back here again until next spring.

From that perspective, I offer you my view of Gabriola through the eyes of a visitor. Pick a beautiful day, take an early ferry and drive over. This is some of what you will see.

The main shopping area on Gabriola is comprised of a number of businesses (grocery store, clothing store, gift shop, restaurant, liquor store, library, pharmacy, real estate office), housed in the original Folklife Pavilion from Vancouver’s Expo 86.

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Newer additions to the retail scene on the island were added over the past few years, to include a gym, hardware store, restaurant, coffee shop, outdoor store, architectural office, gift and specialty food store, health food store, jewellery store and tourism office.

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Gabriola is well-served with this state of the art medical clinic that was built entirely through island fundraising. It includes a helicopter pad and has provided much-needed emergency triage for residents as well as office space for additional doctors.

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The new firehall, just down the road from the medical clinic, is another point of pride among the locals. Gabriola has a robust and dedicated volunteer force.

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Gabriola is not that big – about the size of Manhattan. A main road runs around the periphery of the island, with several smaller roads leading to neighbourhoods. The year-round population is around 5000 souls; it grows by several thousand in the summer.

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Gabriola is known as “The Isle of the Arts”, with at least 200 artists of all stripes living here. The annual 3-day Thanksgiving Studio Tour attracts visitors from all over, as artists open their homes and studios to display their wares. It is a stellar event and just one of the many artistic festivals held here each year. The Theatre Festival, the Isle of the Arts Festival, Brickyard Beast, the Salmon Barbecue, Spirit Feast and countless musical performances, plays and movie nights are a staple of island entertainment. The Saturday market (May to October) has grown into a one-stop shop for island produce and crafts, as well as being a guaranteed gossip corner.

Gossip! Gabriola breeds independent thinkers and professional scolds and almost any issue can stir up a level of controversy normally reserved for seriously life-altering events. There is really no subject so innocuous that it can’t provoke dissent within a crowd of three.  So when a local artist suggested that it might be an idea to brighten up the landscape a bit by painting a few poles leading up from the ferry into the village, all hell broke loose.  “Tampering with nature!”  The project was eventually stopped in its tracks, but not before a handful of poles were transformed, including this pencil and notepad, at the NorthRd./South Road intersection.

Yes, nothing says “nature” more strongly than a telephone pole.

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As you drive around the island, keep an eye out for cyclists, who will often be coming around a blind corner. You may also encounter someone on horseback.

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Or if you are hiking on one of the island’s many excellent trails, you could find yourself here. You’re not really “nowhere”, of course, but you do need to pay attention, as people have been known to take a wrong turn and end up on the other side of the island. If that happens to you – stick out your thumb and get a ride back to your car.

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There are too many deer on Gabriola. They have no natural predators and multiply like rabbits. Sometimes they meet an untimely end by losing a fight with a car and once a year a discreet cull takes place. We still want to protect the babies and signs like this one are common all over the island.

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The stunning natural environment is the reason most of us live or visit here. If you are  lucky, you will see whales. Yesterday, a number of us watched this big humpback having a grand time feeding – he was in the area for over an hour.

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We watched a fishing boat go by, and then another, and suddenly we clued in – a massive school of fish (salmon?) are currently in the area. That is Entrance Island in the background – an active lighthouse, complete with a colony of extremely noisy sea lions.

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The humpback obliged with enough fin and tail shots to keep us all happy.

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These folks had tripods set up and in addition to capturing the whale, they were snagging great shots of a sea lion swimming with a fish in his mouth and trying to fend off the aggressive attacks from three seagulls intent on stealing his catch. A bald eagle flew overhead at the same time and our Discovery Channel moment was complete.

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When we lived here, one of our favourite things to do was to cycle or walk from our house down to this area, called Orlebar Point. We would sit on this bench, watch for whales or dolphins, solve the problems of the world and head back home. Best therapy in the world.

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Equally beneficial and head-clearing were our swims at Clark Bay. There are many great places to swim on Gabriola, but we stuck with this one, as it is a sheltered cove that about five or six weeks of the year is not freezing.  I was always the water chicken in our group – the barometer for acceptable water temperature (“Ginny’s in, it must be warm.”)

We had an amazing experience a few years ago – we swam with a pod of orcas. There was a raft out toward the point, and as we were swimming toward it, we became aware of a commotion – a school of about 10 orcas were passing by, just past the point. A family on a sailboat were lucky enough to be right there, as the orcas surrounded their boat. We were lucky enough to be right in the same water as the whales, just metres away from them. It is an experience I will never forget. 

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A popular beach on the island is Twin Beaches  – one side facing toward Nanaimo; sandy and shallow for young families. The other side faced out to the ocean – perfect for longer swims and kayaks.

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The water around Gabriola is busy with marine traffic – ferries, tugboats, Seaspan container ships,cruise ships, kayaks, canoes, sailboats, motorboats, fishing boats, and this – a log boom being carefully guided to the sawmill in Nanaimo.

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There are a number of restaurants on the island, including the two waterfront restaurants that have helped to define Gabriola’s dining-out scene for years.  If you lived in the south end, you went to Silva Bay (although you won’t for a while – they just had a serious fire), and if you lived in the north end, you went to the Surf Lodge and Pub. The big draw for the Surf was the view – set back from the ocean, it was the place to have a burger and beer and watch the sunset.

The Surf Lodge has a long and storied history – at one time it was a full-service resort (complete with pool and waterskiing), and it has changed hands a number of times since then. Mainly, it works well – we have attended weddings, birthday parties, funerals, plays and musical events in the lodge and enjoyed many a night gabbing with friends at the pub.

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There is a challenging and scenic  9-hole golf course on Gabriola, with a dedicated group of golfers who have been keeping it alive for years. Sadly, as that group shrinks, there are fewer and fewer young people to take up the sport and its future remains uncertain.

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A story about Gabriola would not be complete without a mention of Mudge Island, which is situated between Gabriola and Vancouver Island.  About halfway down the island, there is a parking lot for Mudge Island residents and visitors. There are about 60 full-time residents whose only way on or off their island is to row their boats across the Narrows and its sprightly current to Gabriola. Everything is carried on and off the island by boat (including their garbage), which requires Mudge-kins to be highly organized and dedicated to this lifestyle.

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This is a long posting and I could make it even longer – there is so much to say about island life.  Gabriola has a big piece of our hearts. It is complex, maddening, limited, limitless, rich in scope; at times claustrophobic and at times absolutely elevating. We may follow in the footsteps of people who move away and then return, or we may find our next home in a place we don’t even yet know exists.

Until next time,  I’ll leave you with a final, iconic and much-photographed image – Entrance Island framed by an arbutus tree.

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We’re on our way to Nanaimo for a two-month housesit – I’ll pop back again in a while to tell you about that area. After that – off to India for a few months.

Taking the slow road back home

We’ve been on the road for over 100 days and 21,000 kms, and now…it is coming to an end. What an amazing trip it has been – sketchy motels, rained-out campgrounds, run-over skunks, less-than-healthy road food and all. Every single day has been an adventure and travelling through Canada has often felt like being in a foreign country. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Our first stop heading west from Quebec City was Ottawa – to visit our friends Jon and Linda. We met them years ago on Gabriola – at Linda’s summer home. They split their time between homes on Gabriola, Ottawa and Jon’s cottage in the Gatineau Hills. We have now visited them in all three places. It was a gorgeous drive out to the Gatineaus from Ottawa – another area of Quebec we want to return to.

Jon’s newly-acquired raft – exciting playtoy for the grandkids and Stephen. It didn’t stay this calm for long.  In true terrorize-the-kids fashion, Stephen swam up behind the raft to grab little toes – lots of screaming and shrieking ensued.

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Cottage memories in the making.

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Back in Ottawa, we did the obligatory pose beside the poker-faced guards. I asked one of the RCMP officers about the guards – they change every hour ( challenging to stand for longer than that in those hot, heavy uniforms), and no, I would not be able to make them laugh unless I was a family member – their training runs pretty deep.

Below: Stephen, Jon, Linda and me.

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We were only in Ottawa for a day, and like so many other places, we will have to return for a longer period of time and really explore the sights, especially their fantastic museums.

Jon and Linda took us to see the MosaïCanada 150/Gatineau 2017, presented by Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montreal, and built in a park in Gatineau in honour of Canada 150. At first, I was lukewarm about the idea (“some structures made out of flowers and plants”), but this exhibition blew us away. We walked through an old train station (made of plants) to see this:

Canada’s first CPR locomotive to bring travellers right across Canada, #374.

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This exhibition was constructed in Parc Jacques Cartier in Gatineau, and is open until October 15 – entirely free! There are 33 works of art, covering the 10 provinces and three territories, as well as some memorable Canadian moments, like the big goal in 1972.

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Before the exhibition, Parc Jacques-Cartier was simply the usual city park – grass, trees, shrubs and pathways. It is so completely transformed that it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t always looked like this. The work of over 100 horticulturists, including some from Beijing and Shanghai, used 3 million plants (80 different varieties of hardy, seasonally-changing flowers) for their creations.

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The plants were effectively used to create not only the figures, but landscape and sea.

This may be familiar to many Canadians – the sculpture of a killer whale done by Bill Reid in front of the Vancouver Aquarium, called Chief of the Undersea World. Not a bad replica.

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Or this – the image by artist Nathalie Bertin, used on The Royal Canadian Mint’s $10 silver coin. A lone wolf howls against a backdrop of northern lights.

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The puffins, cute as ever, with a mouthful of capelin.

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I loved the effect achieved  on the muskoxen, how the shaggy grasses match their real-life shaggy coats.

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And these extraordinary sculptures, by well-known U.K. artist Heather Jansch are known as “ecological art” – made of driftwood. Jansch carefully selects branches that do not require cutting or altering to fashion her creations – many of them take over 6 months of finish.
The mare Odyssey and her colt Hope.

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Our trip west from Ottawa involved two more visits with friends. We spent a couple of days again with Kris and Gord at their cottage at Farren Lake and this time the weather cooperated. We had beautiful swims, long walks and a trip to nearby Westport, one of the scenic small towns on the Rideau Canal system.

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Our final night on the road was spent in Toronto with Lorne and Anne – a relaxing dinner and gab and possibly a bit too much wine.

Now we’re in Fergus, staying with my parents for a few days until Stephen leaves for a quick overnight in London with his dad and family and then his westward trip begins. He’s driving through the U.S. – the land of cheap gas, well-designed highway rest stops and a whole different landscape to enjoy.

It will be another adventure to look forward to – solo driver, no  ongoing commentary and editorializing to keep him company, and an iPad full of tunes and audio-books.

I’ll be with my folks until September 12th and then fly back to Nanaimo, where we’ll be based until the new year. We’re looking forward to a couple of housesits to get our feet back on the ground and our animal fixes in, and are grateful to be in our old stomping grounds to re-connect with our friends there.

Our plans are to travel through India and Sri Lanka for a few months, beginning in January and we will resume our blog postings then.

Our heartfelt thanks for following along and helping to keep us connected to you all. It has made all the difference to know you’re there.

We may post occasionally before January, as we gather our thoughts about what it means to have no home and how we plan to go forward over the next few years. We’ll share our decision-making strategies, our (rough) financial plan on how we’ve made it all work and lessons from the road.

A final iconic image from our Canada 150 trip.

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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.

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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.

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.