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.