St. John’s – You’re all growed up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view out to sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Icebergs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the entranceways to the main structure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is sweet on The Rock

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

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

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

Rocky Harbour also caters to the souvenir-hunters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you again soon, wifi permitting.

On the road to Frenchy’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halifax is the next big thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jen, me and Teri.

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

Louise, Helen, me and Joan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The artist posing with one of her paintings.

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Part of the exhibition of Inuit art from Labrador.

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Street art depicting a cross-section of Haligonians.

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

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A pond filled with ducks and turtles.

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And plenty of shady, quiet spots to read.

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

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

 

The Doer and Dreamer’s Guide to Nova Scotia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view heading back is equally striking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And finally – Canada 150.

IMG_0034Like the rest of the country, Halifax was all dialled up and ready to go – concerts, fireworks, pancake breakfasts and parades planned and most of it washed out by steady downpours. The rain has subsided now, but I’m writing this to the beat of a steady fog horn.

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

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

Sailboats, lobster rolls and wild roses: Summer on the South Shore

We lived in Halifax for five years, and returning here after a 10-year absence was one of the most anticipated parts of our trip across Canada. Driving into Nova Scotia from New Brunswick demands that you pay attention. You are given advance warning, but you have just one chance. The road splits right and left; if you miss the turn, you are heading for Cape Breton. We turned right.

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With great excitement, we drove into Dartmouth (across the harbour from Halifax) to stay with our friends Harriette and Mike. We are here for another eight days and there is much to tell about Halifax and our past and present.  But we’ll begin our Nova Scotia stories with a trip to one of our favourite parts of the province – the South Shore. In one day we visited Peggy’s Cove, Chester, Mahone Bay and Lunenburg.

Note to first-time visitors – go much slower and see a lot more. But we’ve been here before and we’re trying to pack in as much as possible.  When we see cottages like this, memories of summers in Nova Scotia come flooding back.

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This frequently-photographed home is right on the bend coming into Chester – a pretty and polished little town which looks very much like Cape Cod and for good reason. It was settled by colonists from Massachusetts in 1759 and is one of the South Shore’s primo sailing and yachting resorts. Just around the corner is the marina.

We used to call these roses “Gaspe roses” – but in fact they grow everywhere down east – tough, hardy and more fragrant than peonies.

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Even in tony Chester, boys are still up to the same foolishness. It was deja vu all over again as we watched a younger version of our sons hitching a ride on his skateboard.

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I would have to do a lot of research to identify the many maritime styles of houses. Architecture buffs will recognize the small porches, pitched roofs, elaborate mouldings, shake shingles and be able to differentiate specific styles. For me, houses are like wine. I don’t know much, but I know what I like.

Another Chester waterview home:

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And this one:

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We headed further south to Mahone Bay, next in the series of painterly seaside towns. Mahone Bay curves around a large crescent cove, and is famous for the “three churches” that line the shore – United, Lutheran and Anglican.

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We visited Mahone Bay a lot when we lived in Halifax; our Toronto friends Don and Anne had a summer cottage here, high on a cliff overlooking the sea. The town has not changed much since our last visit; in fact that is true of most of the South Shore. Shops and restaurants change hands, but the beauty and heritage of this area has remained intact.

One of the newer restaurants in town is Oh My Cod! I had a pound of mussels that I could barely finish, served in a beautiful broth soaked up with grilled ciabatta.  “We got them from Pete”  – a local fisherman  who brings them in fresh every day. Stephen had fish and chips – a menu staple that can be the ultimate in food mediocrity. Oh no – a large serving of plump white haddock caught near Lunenburg, very lightly battered, served with a basket of thin, crisp hand-cut fries and a red cabbage slaw.

What we want to know is this – why is fresh, still-swimming fish and seafood considered basic food here (in availability and cost) when it is more of a luxury item out west?

IMG_0080 Next, a stroll around town for more house-gawking. This bed and breakfast is for sale…

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My grandparents had a root cellar which was fascinating and a bit scary as a child – you would open the door and climb down a few steep steps into darkness. I always imagined the door would slam shut and I’d be trapped, never to be seen again. To this day, the root cellar door still feels a bit creepy to me.

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A captain’s home, high on the hill, overlooking the ocean.

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On down we went to Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was founded in 1753 by German and Swiss settlers. They made their fortunes from timber and deep-sea fishing fleets and built a fantastically candy-coloured town on steep streets climbing up from the harbour.

Bluenose II was in town and we arrived just in time to watch her take off for a two-hour tour. Bluenose II is a replica of the famous original (immortalized on our 10 cent coin),who was the fastest vessel of her kind in the ’20s, until she sank off the coast of Haiti in 1946.

Bluenose II (built in the ’60s) is one of Nova Scotia’s iconic tourist attractions; based in Lunenburg, but frequently sailing throughout the summer to Halifax, Pictou and any of the Tall Ships events.

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Lunenburg is still very much a fishing town – the busy harbour is filled with fishing vessels and trawlers.

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The boardwalk along the harbour has mementoes of its seafaring days – old wooden fishing vessels and this – a 17-foot jawbone of a whale.

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To walk around Lunenburg is to trip over history – ideally you should have a guide so as not to miss the many points of interest. The Lunenburg Academy used to be the area school – it is now a centre for a variety of businesses and is reputed to be haunted.

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The Lennox Tavern was built in 1791, and had various incarnations as a temperance house and boarding house. Restored in 1991, it is the Canada’s oldest operating inn.

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Across the street, two women were catching up on gossip across the fence; seemingly oblivious to the nosy hordes who peer in their windows and squint at the plaques by their front doors. What must it be like to be part of a living museum?

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The joy of Lunenburg is its devotion to maintaining its priceless heritage. When St. John’s Anglican church burned down in 2001, it was painstakingly rebuilt four years later in all its Gothic splendour.

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This private home is one of Lunenburg’s oldest buildings, still intact. The sign below is typical of signs adorning many of the homes and buildings. They identify the original owner by their name and trade and year of construction.

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Streets are so full of beautiful homes that it becomes impossible to choose one – if you had to. We began the game of  “which house would you pick to live in”, and came up with a few. If we went back tomorrow, we would choose several more.

This would be perfect for me – big enough, but not too big. A pretty view and a small garden. I love the big homes in all their glory, but all I can think of is the maintenance – the endless scraping and painting and landscaping and required adherence to heritage details.

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We wonder if these owners have thrown up their hands – they painted one side and then stopped. You can hardly blame them.

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You’ve seen a few houses. Next post will be about the Atlantic and how it has shaped the people who live here – Laurencetown Beach, with its international surfing buzz, Peggy’s cove and the Swissair disaster.

You know you’re in Atlantic Canada when you see this…

…a sign in downtown Fredericton warning motorists against cutting across traffic to get to Timmy’s.

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Or this, near Florenceville – home to one of the world’s largest frozen french fry producers.

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Or this – a food truck unabashedly dedicated to potatoes, cheese, gravy, chocolate, bacon and Mars bars – most of it deep-fried.

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We LOVE Atlantic Canada. If I refer to this area as “the Maritimes”, I am always politely corrected – we are in the Atlantic provinces (this area was the Maritimes prior to Newfoundland joining Canadian Confederation in 1949.)

We lived in Halifax for five years, leaving for the west coast in 2005. The last time we were both back for a visit was over 10 years ago. It feels long overdue.

People who have never been “down east” can sometimes overuse the word “quaint” to describe it – a word that is inaccurate and a bit condescending. Doilies are quaint. Atlantic Canada is just busting out with life. Still…they do have their picturesque barns.

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And their covered bridges. This one, in Hartland, is the world’s longest covered bridge at 1,282 feet.

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If you are currently renting a basement apartment in Vancouver or Toronto, or have managed to buy your first 450-square-foot condo, houses like this are the stuff dreams are made of – classic style with steep roofs, carved trim, shutters and welcoming front door. We have no idea what these homes are worth, but a quick glance through MLS shows similar homes for between $250,000 and $500,000.

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Another example of Maritime style:

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And another one:

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Fredericton frequently ranks in the “best-of” lists – prettiest, most livable, best place to retire, etc. It makes sense – it feels more like a large town than a small city – walkable, accessible, with several kilometres of walking and biking trails along the river, and filled with interesting shops, cafes, restaurants and brew-pubs. It has both history in abundance and a face-forward to the future. We visited the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which is currently under renovation for an expansion that will open in the fall. The grounds and sculpture garden set the tone.

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The gallery carries important painters from other countries, but with a focus on Canadian artists for the 150.

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I liked this ceramic of P.E.T, done in 1982. I think artist Joe Fafardi captured the elder Trudeau’s familiar F-U expression very well.

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The Gallery showcases young artists who have been part of their youth program and the current exhibit was by Sebastian Kennickell, son of Drew Kennickell, artist and professor at UNB and New Brunswick College of Craft and Design
Sebastian is 12 years old, but already has a body of work.

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There are numerous buildings of note – the Legislative Assembly, The Fredericton Playhouse, the Library, The Justice Building, etc. Most municipal buildings have the sombre and dignified air that one might expect of their station and era.

City Hall:

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There are numerous significant places of worship – Christ Church Cathedral is one of the most striking.

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The downtown streets are filled with bookstores – we found at least three within two blocks – a rarity in this day and age.  Music also rules – Tony’s has been a mainstay on Queen Street since 1975.

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We passed by a number of men who were panhandling. We usually drop a loony or two in the hat.  And then we saw this – “Kindness” meters placed around the downtown streets.

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The sign asks us to make a change in someone’s life by dropping our coin in the meter instead,and donating to community services that help people in need. It’s a conflict – to walk past someone sitting on a sidewalk and drop a coin in a meter feels like a judgement on them and yet, we definitely get the intention.

We’re not sure the transfer of funds would work that neatly and  think we would still rather say hello to someone and put money in their hand.

Every Saturday, the Boyce Farmer’s market is in full throttle, so even though it was pouring rain, we could not resist heading there. The poor outside vendors – mainly plants and fresh produce – their tents offered scant refuge from the storm.  It didn’t stop the buyers – they were out in full force. We had fun watching this lady – she was mightily annoyed that the market manager hadn’t called it a day and let everyone go home. She was standing guard over her preserves and watching as the puddle in front of her stand turned into a lake.

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Inside, we met up with several very interesting vendors. We talked to Debbie Pugh – she and her firefighter husband Bill have developed a terrific business called Out of the Ashes. They use decommissioned fire hoses and turn them into useful and decorative objects like bags, dog leashes, floor mats,firewood carriers and growler bags.

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We were stopped in our tracks by the display of hand-woven bedspreads, throws, napkins and dish towels.  Tissage Magely Weaving is a second-generation family business – the queen bedspreads for the incredibly reasonable price of  $200, (either wool or cotton), were exquisite. If we had a home, we would have bought one on the spot.

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And last, but not least – The Royal Barbershop. Stephen and I arrived in Fredericton feeling a little road-weary and scruffy. I’ve discovered that one of the challenges of being “unhoused” is that I no longer have a hairdresser. My big thick hair is at the mercy of whomever I find along the way. Lately, I’ve been turning to barbershops (but only the “cool” ones), and it’s been working out well.

We walked by The Royal Barbershop by chance, and got scrubbed up real good. Ashley texturized the daylights out of my hair and did a fantastic job – a fresh modern cut emerged out of a mushroom cap. Stephen came out with a neat beard trim and hair cut.

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Next stop – Halifax. I’ll try and send shorter, more frequent postings – so much to report in the next 10 days.

 

So long Ontario, bonjour Quebec et Nouveau Brunswick

Five bucks goes to the first person who can tell me what a duster is.

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This ephemera is part of the Lorne Katz collection. Another five bucks goes to the person who knows who “Ed” is.

Ed is Ed Mirvish, the late, great one-of-a-kind businessman who built theatres, restaurants and Honest Ed’s –  a square-city-block emporium to bargain shopping. He helped put Toronto on the map back when it was still competing with Montreal. Shoppers lined up for his specials – such as the one shown – the $6.99 duster. When Honest Ed’s closed its doors last year, among the items for sale were thousands of these signs – each one hand-painted and many of them speaking to an era that is now gone forever.

You have to be at least my age to know this, but a duster is also known as a housedress – garments universally hideous and instantly identifiable by their gaudy florals, often embellished with ric-rac trim and a front zipper.  Long before the days of yoga pants or even sweatpants, women threw on their dusters to vacuum, scrub and…dust. My mother wore them. Another item of note – the use of the word “misses” was for women of average height and weight, while “ladies” indicated a curvier body. I haven’t seen the use of “misses”  or “ladies” for a very long time – “vanity sizing” has taken over.

Back to Lorne and Anne Katz – dear friends from our pre-children days in Toronto. We grew up together.  Eventually we moved west, but stayed close and now one of their sons, Jacob, has a child of his own. Their other son Aaron, just got married three weeks ago in Germany to Vanessa; they are living in Berlin and back in Canada for their honeymoon. We had a fabulous multi-course dinner with them when we stopped by for a night with Lorne and Anne – a lot of laughs, but another reminder of time just flying by.

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I have little to report on Toronto – we’ve been in twice to see friends and I will likely be back again at least once in August. I love Toronto – even though housing prices are now rivalling Vancouver, it is still a city of neighbourhoods and nationalities and has retained enough grit and personality to keep it interesting.  Toronto would require a blog of its own, so my best advice if you haven’t been there yet, is …go! Discover it for yourself. I’ll talk about other things.

Like Farren Lake, in eastern Ontario.  Kris and Gord (whom we met two years ago in Mexico and who are partially unhoused) have the perfect solution. They sold their home in Windsor  and moved to their cottage on Farren Lake, where they live from mid-April to mid-October. The rest of the time they travel. Their lovely cottage, which they describe as “rustic” (it’s not – it is snug, beautifully furnished with unique finds and has a screened-in porch), is my happy place. Rock and floating dock, with pristine lake, loons and canoes. It is iconically “150” Canada – all they need is a Mountie and a jug of maple syrup.

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There was a good wind and a chop on the water – the only one who braved a swim was Stephen. You will never see a photo with me jumping into cold water – that is a promise.

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After a great gab and delicious dinner, we all settled down on the dock to watch the sunset.

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Good-bye to Kris and Gord – a la prochaine.

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The beautiful little town of Perth is just a half-hour away, so we stopped by for a visit. It is filled with stone buildings and weeping willows and reeks of history – a photographer or painter could spend hours here.

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So could architecture buffs. This appears to be a private home (I saw no B and B or municipal signs). Typical of the fine details and stately proportions of many Perth homes, although on a larger scale.

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The River Tay runs through town, with lots of shops and restaurants lining it, and the main street.

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We passed by the statue of Big Ben, the champion show jumper from the ’80s, ridden to victory by equestrian Ian Millar, who owns a stable near Perth.

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Their outstanding accomplishments are listed on a nearby plaque.

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And with that, we left Ontario behind and drove straight into La Belle Province. My family is from the Gaspe coast and I was born in Montreal, but entering Quebec is like a foreign country. It always feels a little je ne sais quois, including my inability to make myself understood in my high school (plus one teenage summer immersion in St. Pierre) French. While in Quebec I feel somewhat ungainly and upon leaving, I resolve to buy only fabulous shoes.

Minor insecurities aside, being in Quebec is a buzz. The following photos are just a preview on our way to the Maritimes. We will spend much more time in Quebec on our way back in August.

We called in at the Fairmont Montebello hotel, located about 90 km. from Ottawa.  The world’s largest “log cabin” was built in 1930 in just three months, in the form of a six-point star, out of 10,000 hand-cut B.C. red cedar logs.

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Set on the Outaouais River, used by the first voyageurs, Montebello is a destination for history buffs.

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I spoke to the very friendly concierges, Jessica and Rosalie, posing here with the very shy hotel mascot, Bello.

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We spent our night in Trois Rivieres, drove over the bridge at Quebec City and up the coast toward Riviere-de-Loup, taking the old highway as much as possible.

Some of the sights along the way:

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Quebec has a tradition of wood carving – everything from lamps to furniture to toys. Must be the long, cold winters.

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Habitant-style homes – dormers, stone or wood foundation and steep roofs to allow snow to slide right off.

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Making our way into New Brunswick (Nouveau Brunswick – the other French province). Beautiful scenery on our way to Edmunston – a stop for many on their way to and from the Atlantic provinces.

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We are staying at Motel Cleo – a combination hair salon, spa and themed-room motel (five rooms appropriately decorated – we are in La Chine; Paris and Rome were booked). Our first dinner in the Maritimes and fittingly, it was seafood – at La Pirate de Mer. Stephen had fresh haddock and chips, and I had a lobster roll – split toasted hot dog roll filled with big, fat chunks of lobster. More great food stories to follow.

 

The Beach, the Bard and Bieber

In the last few days, we have visited our old stomping grounds (Guelph), a teenage beach hangout (Wasaga Beach) and the hometown of Justin Bieber (Stratford). While that town is primarily and justifiably well-known for its world-famous Shakespeare Festival, it is possible to download a Bieber-iffic Map that will show you his school, skate park and favourite ice cream parlour. Just in case you’re interested…

Oh, and soon-to-be-retired Peter Mansbridge lives in Stratford and while there is no Peter-iffic map, he is a familiar face around town.  Apparently his home is “impressive.” Stratford is a town full of impressive homes – I wanted to take more photos, but everyone was out working on their gardens. This home is typical:

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No, it is not celebrity sightings or nostalgia that have taken us to these places – once again we are catching up with old friends. This has been a full and meaningful week.

We lived in Guelph for 12 years while the boys were growing up. It is a vibrant mid-sized city about an hour north-west of Toronto; home to the University of Guelph,  a robust restaurant scene and a thriving music and arts scene. The city’s tree-lined streets are filled with beautiful and still relatively affordable homes.

We lived on a street close to the university. Neither Stephen nor I are handy (beyond being able to paint and hammer a few nails) and in a moment of self-delusion, we bought a derelict student rooming house and spent years renovating it.  It was a labour of love, made all the sweeter because we had such wonderful neighbours on our little street.  Our house has since changed hands a few times and no longer looks well-loved. I put hours into that front garden – it feels a bit sad to see it now.

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Our friends Bob and Trish and their three kids, Fran, Rob and Peter lived down the street and the boys all played together. Seventeen years later, we were back on the street, sitting on their back deck and getting re-acquainted. We were so happy that it was possible for all of them to come together from their various homes to see us. The boys are busy with school – Rob taking his electrician’s apprenticeship, Peter going back for Teacher’s Ed in the fall, and Fran working on her PhD in Music Ethnology. Under the category of “great things one learns from young people”, we found out about “shape-note singing” – something Fran has been involved with for a while now with a group from Alabama. There are a number of YouTube videos or this rather dry Wikipedia explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shape_note

From left: Fran, Rob, Bob, Trish, Peter

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Our time in Guelph was happy – young family, busy with work and friends and home. Driving around the city brings back floods of memories, since very little has changed. There are lots of new businesses and swank little shops and cafes, but the signposts of the city remain – including the Guelph Farmer’s Market. For five years, I had a baking business there – every Saturday morning I would bring my muffins, cinnamon rolls and cookies to my corner stand, and spend a few hours selling and chatting with friends.

My little stand was at the back right, just past the seating in the windows. There was a coffee stand beside me – a perfect draw for customers.

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The next day we drove to Cambridge to visit Robert and Marilena. Cambridge is a small town west of Guelph, close to Kitchener-Waterloo. Southwestern Ontario is a series of  small towns and cities punctuated by great swaths of cornfields, dairy and beef herds and markets. This is also Mennonite country – the back roads are shared with Old Order Mennonites riding horse and buggy.

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We met Robert and Marilena several years ago in Sayulita, Mexico. They are also friends with Piotr and Ela, our friends from Portland. We would all arrive in Sayulita around the same time – sometimes for 2 weeks, sometimes for longer. It was a time and a place – a lovely shared memory of a favourite destination in Mexico before it became touristy and overly developed. We have all agreed we are unlikely to return there, but we are grateful for the lasting friendships from that time.

We visited Robert and Marilena at their beautiful home in Cambridge – we know our paths will cross again before long.

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Back to Stratford. Stratford is a gorgeous town, set on the Avon River. If it did not have the Stratford Festival and the Stratford Chef School, it would still be beautiful, but the tone was set 60 years ago when Sir Alec Guiness performed from a tent on the banks of the  Avon River and the Festival was born. As it developed in size and stature, the Stratford Chef School moved in, and innovative restaurants began popping up. High-end shops followed, along with luxe bed and breakfasts and boutique inns.  The Stratford Festival runs every year from April to November; set in several theatres and offering a good mix of modern and traditional theatre.  Theatre-goers come from all over North America (and beyond) to watch world-class performances. This is the main theatre:

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It overlooks the Avon River, home to a famous bevy of swans. I had heard they were bad-tempered and snappish, but I did see one being hand-fed, so perhaps they’ve received the memo from the tourism bureau. I maintained my distance and admired from afar:

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Stratford is also home to our friend Dorothy, who has lived here for many years. We all met when we were young, working in restaurants in Toronto. We have more than a few stories of mischief and foolishness before we were all forced to grow up. Amazingly, we have not seen each other since those restaurant days. And yes, of course we have changed, but our 20-something spirits prevail – a good thing, I think.

Dorothy was always brutally honest, witty, and super-smart. I call her Dorothy Parker. She still smokes, unapologetically. We are so happy to have her in our lives again.

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And finally, to Wasaga Beach. Wasaga Beach was party central when we were teenagers – a scuzzy hangout for bad bikers and their girls. Tiny little cottages and chip trucks. Tiny little bikinis and the boys that followed them around. Naturally, we wanted to go there.

Sooner or later, everything gets gentrified, including down-and-dirty Wasaga. Forty years after our teenage-hood, my dear friend Nancy moved there. I have known Nancy since Grade 9, which makes her my oldest friend. We were friends, roommates, confidantes and co-conspirators. She is like a sister.

When Nancy told me she was moving to Wasaga, I was a bit aghast. However, she was not the only one with that idea – there are many Toronto transplants and recent retirees, as well as our mutual friend Lisa. The bikers are still here, but so is artisan beer. The little cottages are still here, but so are new resorts and golf course subdivisions. And who doesn’t love chip trucks?

The big attraction, then and now, is the beach. Part of Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, it is 14 km. long – the largest freshwater beach in the world. It is divided into several distinct beach areas – with the party crowd cordoned off into a couple of packed and noisy sections and the rest left for strolling and bird-watching.

Both of those activities have been curtailed somewhat this year due to record high water levels in Ontario lakes. This beach used to go out at least 100 feet further.

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We had a very pleasant chat with Braden, the park warden who was cruising the beach. Among his duties were making sure the flats of beer flying out of the liquor store on a Friday night would not interfere with everyone’s peaceful and lawful enjoyment of the beach.  He was fully kitted out in boots, flak jacket and baton, but my money would be on the crowds of drunken yahoos if they decided not to play nice. A residue of the old Wasaga still exists.

Braden and my friend Nancy.

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Tomorrow is Father’s Day. Lucky me – I will spend it with my dear dad and my dear husband – two very caring, involved, supportive and loving fathers.

To everyone who is a dad, or who has a dad, or who will be remembering their dads – Happy Father’s Day.