For many years we’d intended to travel to Japan, for reasons which will become apparent later on. The intention was to do this without flying, one option being to sail to the USA and cross Canada before sailing to Tokyo. Crossing Canada meant travelling through Winnipeg, home of Helen’s cousin, a wartime bride, so that stop was added to the itinerary. Then we wanted to see Beluga whales in Churchill, so that was added. And British Columbia, Killer Whales off Vancouver island. And Inner Passage. And Alaska. And then we had to get home, fully intending to catch a ferry from Japan to China and travel across China and Russia by train, the Trans-Siberian railway.
And then COVID struck. Our daughter moved to Brisbane in Australia. Putin invaded Ukraine and the combination of COVID and Putin meant the Trans-Siberian route was no longer an option.
So now we have an itinerary, created not by logical thought and planning but by whim and circumstance. Our aims: to travel around the world in 330 days without flying, see family en-route, avoid bankruptcy and try to see as many of the natural wonders of this planet as we can.
Trains aren’t currently running across the border to Canada so the only no-fly option was by Greyhound, penance for 7 days of Cunard luxury. This one seemed ready for the knackers yard..
We had 2 days to wander round Old Montreal, the old port area of the city located along the St Lawrence river. Since the 1960s the area has received significant investment and is now the location of top class restaurants, family oriented entertainment and yet still retains much of historical interest. We also saw our first Chimney Swifts, feeding above the hotel rooftop bar.
Atlas Obscura is an app that highlights different things to see across the world. Montreal had an interesting entry called Habitat 67 an architectural oddity built in 1967 that boasts the most expensive real estate in the city. A cube can cost upwards of 600,000CD for a 1 bedroomed monstrosity.
Soon it was time to move on, our sleeper train awaited to take us overnight from the sophisticated metropolis of Montreal, to Moncton, a nondescript town in New Brunswick.
Where we picked up our transport for the next 31 days, not exactly the Mustang requested
The Bay of Fundy is the body of water lying between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia blessed with 3 tourist-friendly attributes; the highest tidal range of anywhere on the planet, fantastic whale-watching and a national park solely devoted to the wide variety of fossils found in the area. We drove down the coastline towards St John, visiting the Fundy National Park.
Although we assume Canada is blessed with huge areas of virgin forest, this is far from the truth and the park was created to protect a large area of forest which had already been cut at least twice, perhaps even 3 times since settlers arrived from Europe and USA. The trees were cut and then shipped from small bays along the Bay of Fundy, the huge amounts of sawdust produced killed off the salmon and other fish and destroyed the fisheries. Even today, with full protection, the salmon fishery has never recovered. As the age of trees in the national park increases the diversity of birds and mammals is slowly increasing. Before moving on we stayed overnight in St John, a town not listed as a tourist-friendly attraction….next stop Nova Scotia!
The ferry from St John docks in Digby, a small town consisting of low, colourful, timberboard buildings and named after the English admiral who saved them from the French. Digby also has the dubious honour of hosting the world’s largest scallop dredging fleet. We were staying in Annapolis Royal, at the Queen Anne Inn B&B. We had a great room in the attic 3 floors up with no elevator and we thought we were travelling light ! With original wooden floors and stairs plus some original 180 year old glass that we were told they have to board up in winter to stop it from breaking in the cold. A great place to stay as it was within walking distance of the thriving restaurants and bars, most of which closed by 8pm. Back to the Inn for coffee and Baileys, I may be a convert!
Annapolis Royal was so named after Queen Anne and is also the site of a massive fortress which overlooks the river. It has changed hands from French to English numerous times over the centuries. It was originally given by the British Government to the British supporters after the end of the American War of Independence as they were being persecuted in the newly formed US. Refugees or Asylum seekers?
Inland from Annapolis is the Kejimkujik National Park, a wonderful, if insect-ridden, area of lakes, creeks and forests originally the home of the Mi’kmaw people for thousands of years, but subsequently deforested by westerners before being designated a national park.
Along the west coast of Nova Scotia lies a long spit, consisting of 2 islands, Long Island and Brier Island, well-known for being the site of whale-watching tours of the Bay of Fundy. The season was too early when we arrived but we took a look anyway, driving as far as the ferry to Brier Island before returning to walk down to the balancing rock, a piece of 20,000 year old volcanic rock delicately balanced on the cliff face overlooking St Mary’s Bay and accessed along a walkway and 247 steps! through a nature reserve. The information boards at the car park and at the rock itself had some interesting information on the location of the rock, how it was formed and why the local fishing industry is now limited to lobster and scallop.
Our next move was across the island to the east coast, finding a hotel at a fantastic spot on what must be one of the best and quietest beaches in Nova Scotia called Summerville Beach. This was next to a harbour called Port Mouton, famous for and named after a sheep that jumped overboard.
Port Mouton is close to the other part of the Kejimkujik National Park, the seashore part. This preserves a unique part of the Nova Scotia coastline, with seals and breeding Piping Plover. On entering the park the first thing to see is the following warning:
Walking bravely on, armed only with bug spray, the reserve was a beautiful place to visit.
Also of interest, just north of Port Mouton, is the small town of Liverpool, situated on the river Mersey. The town has a number of very nice mansions, all paid for from the actions of privateers in the early 1800s but has declined ever since, the final blow being the closure of a paper mill which used to support many of the inhabitants.
It was time to move north, to the great metropolis of Halifax via two spots of interest to different members of the family.
One full day in Halifax, primarily to visit Pier 21, the gateway through which millions of Europeans emigrated to Canada in the post-war period, including my cousin Rene who we are visiting in Winnipeg in July.
Firstly, the walk along the waterside is great, full of bars and restaurants and the statue of Samuel Cunard. His family history is interesting and did not involve cruise ships until much later. No Cunard ship in port, but Adventure of the Seas was there, in all its’ glory, showing off 15 floors and water slide.
On to pier 21, firstly, you can go into the archive room and search for family names. There are 400+ Haynes and Broadhurst families that have arrived in Canada and 37 Cleworths (Rosies maiden name). We decided not to investigate further as there are no known immigrants from our families.
We knew that Rene (Irene Marsh nee Haynes) was not on any official list as she had managed to get a last minute place and so is not recorded.
We explored the exhibitions and I wrote a luggage tag for Rene, saying how she had arrived as a war bride and I was going to visit her in Winnipeg.
It was a glorious sunny day so what better way to spend the afternoon than in another museum!
There were 2 really interesting areas, the first about the Titanic and Halifax’s involvement in rescue and retrieval and there were numerous artifacts found floating in the ocean that rescuers had picked up and the second was the history and involvement of Halifax in the Second World War Atlantic convoys and how they learned very quickly how to navigate the waters around the threat of U boats.
Walking through the city we came across a statue of Winston Churchill, in a slightly run-down part of the city. The resident wino, and history buff, informed us this was a rare example of a Churchill statue without a cigar..
A lovely evening in the city at a waterside French cafe and then getting ready to leave for Cabot Trail tomorrow.
Lunenburg is one of the must-see tourist-traps of Nova Scotia.
Home to the famous Bluenose 11 clipper.
Then a request stop to Oak Island, home to the biggest treasure hunt in Northern America immortalised by reality TV. We tried to gain access but…they were filming. We were allowed to drive around the carpark as long as we didn’t get out of the car! Sorry Christopher.
Then an impromptu visit to Hubbards to meet extended family. Phil and Ora are the uncle and aunt of Heidi who is the daughter in law of Gary who is the son of my cousin Rene who we are going to see in Winnipeg next month. They kindly offered us a bed and to be our tour guide in the area but we were on a short time frame before departing Halifax, so we made do with a drink and a chat. We learned some interesting details about Newfoundland, which we will elaborate on later. We also heard about the locals input into the Titanic disaster as boats from the area were involved in the rescue and recovery of bodies and some were buried in the local graveyard.
And then a brief stop at Peggy’s Cove, a beautiful bay with a sad memorial to Swissair flight 111 which crashed into the bay killing all aboard.
Nova Scotia, an island of beauty but due to its location, an island with a history of tragedies.
Cape Breton National Park lies on the northernmost end of Cape Breton Island and is accessed at various points off the Cabot Trail, a circular road which runs from Cheticamp via Pleasant Bay to Ingonish. At various points there are viewpoints and hikes so we stayed 2 nights in Cheticamp in order to explore the western side between Cheticamp and Pleasant Bay.
Cheticamp is a long drawn out community overlooking the sea with a pub, some basic accommodation, a garage, shop and a few places to eat. First night we had to try the local restaurant, recommended for it’s lobster. The staff were very helpful and provided an assortment of tools to fully dissect the crustacean.
We spent the next day making our way north, stopping and looking, stopping and walking at some of the many stop-offs on the route. The best stop was at an amazing look-out overlooking Pleasant Bay where we learnt that by watching the Gannets we could find Minke whales appearing from time-to-time. There was a large information board describing the whales that could be seen and why the characteristics of the bay were so attractive to these animals. As coach parties arrived, people would read the board, peer over the sea and then receive precise directions from the 2 English guides on where to see the whales. It was fun for awhale!
We descended to the harbour at Pleasant Bay, avoided the “Whale Interpretive Center” and sat by the gravel beach watching the seabirds feeding in the rich waters. Nova Scotia has many small fishing harbours and we were beginning to learn that they were, without exception, quiet, quaint and clean with free parking, excellent places to take a sandwich or do a spot of birding.
Despite the extravagant promises of the national park literature we completed day 1 without seeing a single Bald Eagle or Moose, but we did identify a frog.
Dinner was back in Cheticamp, nicely timed to conclude with a most amazing sunset
The top of the island is split by an enormous fault line which runs in a south-east to north-west direction, seen by the diagonal split ending at Aspy Bay. Back in the day, before plate tectonics ruined everything, this fault was supposedly continuous with the fault line within which Loch Ness currently sits. The road crossed the fault, seen below from one of the many viewpoints. Note the wild lupins which grow wild across Nova Scotia.
Going off piste we headed up north towards Bay St Lawrence, a beautiful little harbour.
Returning via Cape North, we stopped briefly at a convenience store/liquor store and onto Ingonish, not realising that we were heading into a culinary dead-zone…. Our accommodation for the next 3 nights was a small cabin overlooking the sea, fully equipped with internet and barbeque. The owners of the site were either self-isolating or just hated people as they asked us to email or text them if we needed advice on restaurants or walks or, as it turned out, on why the internet had stopped working…The views were tremendous, especially on the first night when the sun went down on the other side of the island.
We arrived in Ingonish, Father’s Day in Canada. Surprisingly, most of the local restaurants were either closed completely or shut by 6pm, meaning we had to act fast to avoid a night eating digestives and chocolate. Luckily we managed to book a table in the nearby pub, which was heaving and yet still closed at 8pm. In contrast to restaurants, which all seemed stuck in the past with identical fried food menus and huge portions, we found some delightful cafes with interesting and varied fare, albeit closed in the evenings. Food became an issue (or obsession, some might say), such that on night 2 we actually cooked in the cabin and night 3 we were reduced to our cheapest night ever!
The eastern coastline is beautiful, the best place being a headland behind the Keltic Lodge, the more scottish than Scotland hotel & restaurant complex associated with the local golf course. Middle Head was apparently discovered and bought by the eventual owner as he was out walking with Alexander Graham Bell. Behind the greens and golf carts is a superb walk out to Middle Head
On the second evening we ventured by car to Warren Lake where we had been told we might see moose at dusk. All we saw was 1,000’s of black flies and mosquitos and a sign warning there was a bear in the area. We stayed in the car and saw nothing!
To catch the afternoon ferry from North Sydney we headed south from Ingonish, leaving the national park, coming across a newly opened gondola at Cape Smokey, primarily aimed at capitalising on the ski season but equally useful for obtaining an effortless good view looking back across the bay to Ingonish.
Continuing eastward requires crossing peninsulas and valleys, all with suitable photo opportunities and risking meeting wierdos at the viewpoints..
Stopping for lunch we came across a lobster fisherman unloading his catch. The season only lasts 2 months, starting May and finishing mid-July. The lobster pots are baited with mackerel imported from Spain and the lobsters are processed in a local facility and are kept alive until orders are received from as far afield as the Middle East.
The harbour at Little River Road was clean, unspoilt and empty of people, a wonderful place to spend some time.
Finally we arrived in North Sydney to board our ship, the Atlantic Vision. A bit rustier than the Queen Mary 2 but with the advantage of having parking on board. There are 2.5 km of parking available on the ferry and they make the most of every inch. Every type of transport is squeezed into spaces and angles that P and O would be proud of. We set sail, heading for the eastern Newfoundland port of Argentia, 16 hours away..as yet blissfully unaware of how much could go wrong and yet be so much fun…..
At first it looked so easy:
Two bars, not overly busy
Two restaurants, not overly busy
A drink, a meal and then spend the evening planning the rest of our trip across Newfoundland
Bar 1 had a problem with the card machine. The “a la carte” restaurant had a problem with a) waiting times for a table, b) hopeless staff and c) payment and tips, due to the problem with the card machine. We waited an hour for a table and probably the same to be served but whilst waiting in the bar we met some great people including a number who were travelling over to St Johns for the inaugural NASCAR Pinty series, notably an aging Rock Hudson look-alike who insisted on ringing the bell at the bar, signifying he’d get a round in for all of us..this improved the mood no end…
In the restaurant we got speaking to a delightful family who’d been waiting for much longer than us, with 2 young children in tow. They were determined to bring their children up to understand the world from a wider perspective than most Canadians. They had a beaten-up VW camper and had an open ended trip to Newfoundland planned. The only wierd thing was that he was a Newcastle United supporter, a bit of a throwback in this day and age.
Ora had told us about Come Home a festival of sorts celebrated by Newfoundlanders every 5-10 years when they are encouraged home to their communities for a celebration and party.
In the gift shop on the boat were an incredible amount of COME HOME 2022 souvenirs and chatting to the assistant she explained that it should have happened in 2020 but due to the pandemic it had been postponed until this year. It occurs mainly in July so we probably wouldn’t experience anything.
And so to bed in a cabin with no windows but we both slept really well. Woke up to announcements, we were docking in 45 minutes, at 9.30 am which didn’t correspond to our watches or phones. Another interesting quirk of Newfoundland is they have decided to be 1\2 hour ahead of the rest of eastern Canada.
We were greeted with our rather daunting first view of Newfoundland
Plan A was to drive south to Cape St Mary but the heavy fog ruined that idea so we found a cafe just outside the port and enjoyed a breakfast of bacon, eggs, fishcake, home-made beans and fried bread dough…our introduction to the wild and wacky world of Newfoundland cuisine. We then set off to the capital, St John’s..
A great base to explore some of the sites down the east coast, a former stronghold of the temperance movement and a beautiful city in its own right, St John’s was to be our home for 3 nights. St John’s is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador and combines being a busy port (much of which is servicing the oil rigs out in the north Atlantic) and trendy city with, according to the tourist guides, the highest density of pubs of anywhere in north America. Also, the place for tourists to undergo the traditional screech-in. The oil industry might be contributing to the overall wealth of the locals, a common sight and sound were the processions of 5L Mustangs and Harleys cruising the streets at night.
There was a music festival going on somewhere in the city but the only advertisements for it were the weirdly dressed people walking around in an array of costumes? Surely not their everyday dress code or maybe it was. Headphones with bunny ears for all! It reminded me of Winchester train station when Boomtown was on!
Finding restaurants was fast becoming a regular headache as we travelled the east part of Canada and despite being in the capital, and within walking distance of the centre, St John’s was no different. The city was full of NASCAR fans and officials, all the nearby places were fully booked so we ended up at a pizza place on a dodgy looking side street just outside the centre. There were weeds growing outside, the windows were impossible to see through and the inside was a little off-putting but what a welcome, what an array of beers! The best meal for weeks. Turns out they have a dispute ongoing with the authorities who wouldn’t let them build a patio, so they are refusing to cut the grass as it obviously belongs to the city. They’re losing a lot of custom but they didn’t care. Take-away was going well!
On our first day we travelled south to Witless Bay, a reserve comprising 4 islands used by millions of seabirds for breeding, feeding off the rich seas in the area. The numbers are astonishing with half a million Atlantic Puffin, over a million Leach’s Storm-petrel and millions of Common Mures (guillemot in English), Razorbill and Kittiwake as well as the attendant predators Greater Black-Backed Gulls and Bald Eagles. We took an O’Brien’s boat tour from Bay Bulls; these are licenced to travel out to the islands to view the spectacle at very close quarters. One characteristic of Newfoundlanders is the constant need to remind the world of how Irish / Scottish (delete as appropriate) they are so the boat arrived in harbour from the previous trip with the tour guide singing an Irish song and music was a common theme throughout the trip (and all other boat trips we did). When it mattered, however, the crew were fantastic and showed us some superb sights. They shared a harbour with two huge cable-laying ships
As an example of how close we got, the following photos show Kittiwake, Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill. Guillemot exist in 2 forms, with and without the ring round the eye and eye-stripe (bridled).
The most amazing thing, however, was the sheer numbers of birds around us at all times
The ship’s crew offer a screech-in for any passengers prepared to pay. As this involves wearing a yellow hat, drinking a tot of screech rum, repeating some words to prove mastery of the Newfoundland dialect and kissing a codfish, your intrepid but world-weary reporters decided against making complete tits of themselves.
As we arrived back on-shore, an Osprey made an appearance, hunting in the harbour
Wise to the restaurant scene by now we had pre-booked a tapas bar in town. Remarkable only for the fact that our waitress was moving job the following week to work on an oil rig. They gave us a 30% reduction on the food as we had to wait so long but made up with it on our bar bill while we waited.
One of Newfoundland’s most iconic sites is Signal Hill, site of the first transatlantic radio transmissions by Marconi as well as much French / English rivalry. Within walking distance of the hotel this was a superb place, the history, nice cafe, great views over the city and walks all round the coastline, a great way to spend the day. As we were walking round the top 3 Bald Eagles flew past..
The cafe was housed in the visitor centre and we chose to share what turned out to be the smallest sandwich in the world, let alone Canada. This also was the only place we were asked if we wanted chocolate coated chips with it (crisps to us). No thanks.
The visitor centre had a small museum and showed a short historical film about life on Signal Hill in the past. Soldiers and their families lived up there in all weathers. Ventilation in the huts was nil, especially in winter when all doors and windows had to be closed. There were a lot of fatalities from respiratory diseases. The officers who were not affected as they lived down in St. John’s, wisely decided to move the families down to St Johns as well. Life improved, except for the soldiers left on the Hill on guard duty.
We had again reserved a restaurant table near to our hotel for our last night, portions were larger but otherwise it was unremarkable.
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