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.

Ancient Town Hoi An in photos

This blog posting will be less tell, more show.

First a quick intro: Hoi An was a major shipping port in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Dutch, Japanese and Chinese traders passing by these very walls. It would have become a much bigger city, but in the 19th century, the river silted up and big ships were no longer able to pass through. The town  languished until its 1999 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site turned it into one of SE Asia’s most popular tourist destinations.

IMG_0043The tourists are here in huge numbers, and that is the one critique I have of this town. Ancient Town is a madhouse and as a tourist myself, I am adding to the mayhem, so my criticism is hardly fair. If it is uncrowded streets and mellow moments you are looking for, get here really early in the morning.

IMG_9752Since Hoi An’s tourist life revolves around the river, we will begin there. Boats are for hire, for short cruises at sunset or for longer tours.

IMG_9991While Ancient Town runs back from the river on both sides for several streets, the riverfront promenade provides a natural gathering place and events are held most nights. A Food Festival was on one night, with two intense and sweating chefs  stirring the pot.

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Further down the promenade, we watched two girls wade into the river, which is really filthy.  Here, they’re gathering around to show off their catch – big black snails.

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As the late afternoon turns into early evening, the light and atmosphere on the waterfront is magical. The heat and sun has been replaced with a welcome light breeze.

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There are outdoor art displays, buskers, food vendors and good old-fashioned people-watching.

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These kids were having a great time pushing each other around on this little bike.

IMG_9760This little one was quite unabashedly twirling her skirt and mugging for the camera.

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I watched this beautiful woman for a minute or two – she never moved. Deep in thought or just enjoying a quiet spot away from the tourist throngs.

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Many Vietnamese carry parasols – an excellent idea now when the sun is so hot.

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I was caught by the expression on this mother’s face. She was showing something to her little children and had their full attention.

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There are so many twisty little alleyways – it would take days to explore them all.

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Great boughs of bougainvillea and flowing shrubs hang over doorways – bright bursts of colour against the ocher walls.
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Hoi An has a number of art galleries, with striking contemporary art by young artists.

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This young man was painting on the sidewalk, and took a moment for a smoke break.

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To enter Ancient Town in Hoi An, you must buy a pass (about $8) that entitles you to the entrance of five old shophouses, or assembly halls or museums. That money goes to a foundation to help preserve the old structures.  I took this photo from the second floor of a Chinese merchant hall. The railings and staircase felt a little fragile, and the walls are dark, but we got a good sense of how the town must have felt in its trading heyday.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge is another example of the carved wood and rolled roof design of the structures in Hoi An.

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Tailor shops and  textile handiwork is huge business  in Hoi An. In this room, a number of young women were at work embroidering fabric. They spoke no English, so I was unable to ask them about their work, but I suspect they put in long hours. If you look carefully, you can see two women sleeping on the floor.

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There are hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An, but only a few of them are well-regarded. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.  Many turn out identical garments in 24 hours or less and they can be of poor quality. Having a suit or dress made here requires careful  research and word of mouth recommendations.

We wondered who the target market is for these bouncy and confident suits.

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I stopped to take a photo of the catchy sewing machine display – an homage to one of the town’s big industries. But then, the model caught my eye. Where did they find this Caucasian mannequin with mussy bedhead and a slightly regretful expression in her eyes?

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The food in Hoi An is fantastic, and the range of restaurants is staggering. Everything from ladies selling sweet potato cakes on the street to reservation-only hot spots with American prices. We ate so well, and darned if I did not take one photo of food. I just kept forgetting – the food would arrive, we’d start to eat and make a mess of our plates and then, I’d remember.  You’ll have to take our word for it.  This was our view from a favourite restaurant.

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And now, a sunset and evening tour of Hoi An:

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Lanterns are a big deal in Hoi An. The streets are strung with them, people buy small floating lanterns with candles to launch on the river, and they are for sale everywhere. This display proved to be an irresistible backdrop for a holiday photo.

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The bridge over the river is adorned with two graceful signs –
especially beautiful when lit at night.

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Good-bye Hoi An. Thank you for giving us such a relaxing and elegant vacation.