Getting to St John’s

So here I am, finally in Newfoundland. I'm hoping to find it as inspiring as Annie Proulx. who wrote Shipping News here, to celebrate the island. She explained that her story 'could only have happened in a place where people are kind'.

I've flown in from St Pierre and Miquelon. I pick up my rental car with little bother. It’s huge. That’s good news and bad. I’m not used to driving large cars and will have to be careful judging my distances. But it has an enormous boot (sorry, trunk), and I can spread my case out in it, just ferrying my overnight needs in my backpack. That will save my back. Once I’ve manoeuvred the case in there, anyway.

The roads are fairly quiet, thankfully, as navigation is a little fraught. The rental company have removed all navigational aids and ability to pair my phone with the screen. So it’s wobbling below me. I’ve already been beeped at once.

St John’s, the Capital of Newfoundland

St. John's is the most easterly city in Canada (and indeed mainland North America), the capital and largest city of Newfoundland and Labrador, home to about 40% of the province's population. St John’s is Town to everyone in Newfoundland. If you live elsewhere, you’re a Bayman (You’re still a Bayman if you were born outside the city -‘Once a Bayman, always a Bayman’, I’m told,). If you come from St John’s you’re a Townie. And, I’m warming to it instantly. This place has character.

Rows of timber ‘jellybean houses’ fill the slopes running down to the commercial streets, by the harbourfront, Sadly, I've discovered the joyful colours are nothing to do with sailors finding their way home when drunk, or even people navigating in the fog. This was a 1970s innovation and not all of the houses are particularly old. But it’s a good one.

Lodged above the slope and running down it, are various churches and chapels, the cathedral (two towers) and various museums and galleries and municipal buildings. But the heart of the city lies by the waterfront. Water Street (guides do Walk on Water tours) is the oldest street in North America, settled in the 1600s. And, unlike the other Atlantic cites I have visited this feels lively. Victorian buildings in greys, violets and maroons, rectangular stone facades. And every other place a pub (most of them Irish) or restaurant (or both), extending onto the street, with canopied seating areas. This is said to be the most Irish place outside Ireland and this could, indeed, almost be Dublin, To one end, the imposing greystone justice courts, with a tall tower.

Just above Water Street, two blocks from my hotel, is St George’s, night club central, crammed with pubs and a little stage.


Newfoundland and Labrador - Facts and Factoids

  • Newfoundland (pronounced Newfundlund) and Labrador is the easternmost province of Canada, the fourth Atlantic province (the other three are the Maritime provinces.)
  • The province comprises the island of Newfoundland and the continental region of Labrador, although the much smaller island of Newfoundland (and its smaller neighbouring islands -7,000 in all)) is home to around 94 per cent of the province's population , which is roughly 550,000 (more people live in my home city of Brighton). This is why, until 2001, the province was simply named Newfoundland.
  • The French overseas collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon lies about 12 miles west of the Burin Peninsula.
  • 97.0% of residents speak English as their native language, making Newfoundland and Labrador Canada's most linguistically homogeneous province. Much of the population is descended from Irish settlers. Newfoundland is known as ‘the most Irish place outside Ireland.’
  • Newfoundland has its own anthem, its own dictionary and its own encyclopaedia.
  • The name "New founde lande" was bestowed by King Henry VII, when he was talking about the land explored by Sebastian and John Cabot. In Portuguese, it is Terra Nova. The name of Labrador, derives from the Portuguese navigator João Fernandes Lavrador.
  • Newfoundland is sometimes called ‘The Rock’. But then, so are Jamaica and Gibraltar.
  • Rum is called screech here and there are various initiation ceremonies, in which you have to declaim a vow and drink a rum cocktail. These are called screech ins.
  • Newfoundland is very refreshing. Possibly the warmest, most genuine people I have ever met. Front doors are left unlocked and everyone smiles. The licence plates used to say, 'Canada's Happy Province'.

The Murray Premises Hotel

My hotel is as old and as venerated as the rest of the town. The location couldn’t be better, right on the harbourfront, and just below Water Street. It’s quirky, rather than quaint, and oddly bills itself as ‘Boutique’. The associated shops and restaurants appear to be closed, or undecided as to whether they are closed. The lift is only distinguishable from a cupboard because it has buttons beside the door. I’m on the second floor and when I summon it, it invariably goes up to the third floor, before descending.

I have exposed brick and a wealth of nineteenth century timber, in my room, which might look attractive, but the wood squeaks like crazy when someone enters the room above. And for some reason, the person in that room didn’t spend much time sleeping last night. So, neither did I. I also have an electric ’Glow but no heat’ log fireplace and a jacuzzi bath; that’s actually in full working order and so I can have waves indoors or out.

Eating in St John’s - a Fishy Experience

Plenty of eating places doesn’t guarantee quality. The hotel has a booklet full of recommended eating places. I can only assume the pubs paid to be included. Some of the food is mediocre at best. It’s a sin to overcook fish - especially scallops and mussels. Everywhere serves up fish and chips - as if Newfoundland invented the dish. And here it comes in a variety of guises. Often fried in breadcrumbs (panko) or with scrunchions (tiny lumps of pork fat) in the batter, I’ve even seen it offered with a salt and vinegar crisp coating.

RDF - Rain, Drizzle, Fog

Newfoundland is noted for its RDF (rain, drizzle, fog) and it’s doing all three today. And my back is hurting, from lack of sleep, so I’m opting for a boat ride. There’s a strong suggestion that whales, icebergs and puffins will be included. None of them feature. The icebergs are slow in coming south this year, the captain says. The whales haven’t really arrived yet. And it rains the whole time.

But it’s interesting to chug down the deep channel which makes up St John’s Harbour, admiring the city, the basilica dominating, and out through The Narrows (61 metres at its narrowest point). St John’s is one of the closest points to continental Europe. in North America. This is why, above, on Signal Hill, we find the Cabot Tower, commemorating Cabot’s first North American landing, (actually further north) in Newfoundland. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmission here - hence Signal Hill. And Alcock and Brown chose St John's Airport to take off, for the first transatlantic flight.

Beneath is Quidi Vidi, the old slightly crumbling jellybean fishing port. On the south side, is Fort Amherst, but there is nothing left of it except a plaque. There is a lighthouse…....The coastline here is spectacular, with high folded striped volcanic rocks, crags and caves. Bald eagles, guillemots, terns and sundry other seabirds inhabit the many crevices.

We sail south to Cape Spear, which is Canada’s most easterly mainland point. It also has the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland and Labrador. Then, we head out to sea, nodding on the swell for five minutes, before turning back. Men clad in oilskins are lifting dripping lobster traps out of the sea. Queues of gulls wait patiently beside the small boats, bobbing up and down. The cages are baited with herring, which the fishermen catch in special herring nets.

There’s a commentary, alternated with bouncy Irish jigs, We can’t hear much of it outside, but the crew are exceptionally friendly and several of us huddle behind the captain, after being ushered into the wheelhouse, through the door that says, ‘Crew Only’. He sets the steering to autopilot, puts his feet up and hands out sweets.

Avalon

Back on the road, with my Toyota Camry. I stop at Walmart’s to buy a phone dashboard stand. There are about 20 on offer, so I select the cheapest. Back in the car, I remove it from its packaging and can’t for the life of me work out how to attach it to the dashboard vents. I decide it’s my own fault for being cheap and am about to abandon the project, when I notice another small part that has fallen on the floor. Ah, that does the job. I pop the phone in, connect it all up and voilà. The Google map appears on my car navigation screen. So I didn’t need the stand at all.

Now, I’m heading north east, back on the Trans Canada Highway (TCH), from St John’s and into the top part of Newfoundland’s southeasterly Avalon Peninsula. It’s named after the microcontinent Avalonia, which I assume derives from Arthurian legend. It’s all idyllic enough.

Brigus

First, a diversion to Brigus (Brickhouse), a delightful historic fishing village on Conception Bay, with a stream, a lagoon and a small beach, with a picnic area. There’s also a little tunnel, blown to give easy access through the rocky shore, to the ships. It was home to many iconic seafarers and the Park Service have opened up Captain Bartlett’s white clapboard house, giving information about some of their exploits. Bartlett was an ‘Arctic Hero’, who sailed with the American explorer Isaac Israel Hayes and also with Admiral Robert Peary.

Avalon to Bonavista

Next, a side expedition into the first finger of the Avalon peninsula. Cuper's Cove (modern day Cupids) was the first English settlement in North America, established in 1610 by John Guy, on behalf of the Bristol's Society of Merchant Venturers. Halfway up the coast of the peninsula, through Bay Roberts and Spaniards Bay to Harbour Grace. This is another very old settlement, but it’s more famous for its airfield. Many aviation pioneers, among them Amelia Earhart and Thor Solberg, made their crossings from here, again due to its proximity to continental Europe. Out in the bay, there’s the tilting wreck of SS Kyle, a steam ship that ran aground here, in 1967.

Lakes and forest and across to the far side and the villages of Hearts Content, Hearts Delight and then the town of Dildo. I’ve no idea if the names are connected, but there are great views up the coast from here.

Back on the TCH, across the long three mile wide stretch of land, the Isthmus of Avalon, which connects Avalon to the rest of the island of Newfoundland. The highway travels through the Terra Nova Park. More forest. more ponds, and at least some pull offs to admire them from. Then. I’m picking up the Discovery Trail north, onto the Bonavista Peninsula.

Historic Trinity

The seascapes here are stunning, with incredible rock formations. And Trinity is an exceptionally cute and historic town. The harbour at Trinity was first used by fishing ships around the sixteenth century. The Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real named the place ‘Trinity’ as he arrived on Trinity Sunday, 1501. Though it’s not the only Trinity in Newfoundland.

Fishermen from the Channel Islands and Dorset followed and eventually a permanent settlement was established. The first court of justice in North America was held here, in 1615. Merchants arrived to service the needs of the fishermen - and to organise them. A fort followed, to defend these assets, which the French attacked several times. Trinity also gained fame as the place where John Clinch, a boyhood friend and medical colleague of Edward Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine to the New World, in 1798. Trinity declined as St John’s grew. Today, it’s very much an enjoyable tourist destination, with a population of just 76, in 2021. It was used as a filming location for the 2001 film of Annie Proulx's book, The Shipping News.

Bonavista

Then, in search of my favourite birds, puffins. I’ve read that there are two colonies, both at the top of the peninsula. One is at the village of Elliston, where they celebrate their claim to fame by arranging puffin chairs outside all the shops. It's billed as a short, relatively easy cliff walk. They’ve omitted to mention the narrow bridge path, which links the two parts of this mini peninsula. The scenery is once again spectacular. The puffins are less cooperative. There are not exactly enough to make a good circus and they are staying firmly on their island, a chasm away from the eager crowd, waving their cameras at them. Someone explains that a couple of eagles swooped down and scared them into retreat, just before I got there. They’re not quite close enough to get clear shots. My Scottish puffin pictures are much better.

Finally, at Bonavista itself. It seems to be obligatory to visit the lighthouse, so I venture up to the tip of the land, in search of more puffins. There are none at all. Just four chubby faced fox cubs, lounging under the rocks, totally unafraid. (Perhaps they explain the absence of puffins?)

There’s also John Cabot’s statue, in the car park next door to the lighthouse. This commemorates the actual spot where he made his first North American landing. A café on the cliffside seems a good place to eat a fish and chip supper; to the accompaniment of Irish sea shanties, of course. Bonavista is unusual for fishing villages, in that it’s built on a plain, rather than round a steep cove, so it has expanded and spread along the coast stretching from the harbour, which is very much the focus of town. The most historic buildings cluster around it: pubs , small businesses.

A Brief and Fascinating History of Newfoundland and Labrador

  • Human habitation in Newfoundland and Labrador can be traced back about 9,000 years. Maritime Archaic peoples were gradually displaced by people of the sea oriented Dorset Culture, in the form of the Beothuk people, who thrived from about 2000 BC to 800 AD. The Inuit started arriving from Labrador around 1 AD, with dogs and larger weapons. Further south were the Mi’kmaq.
  • But by the time European contact with Newfoundland began, in the early sixteenth century, the Beothuk were the only indigenous group living permanently on the island. These people largely attempted to avoid contact, but the settlers fishing operations, land encroachment and bringing of disease drove them further west. They were extinct by 1829.
  • The Viking Icelandic Sagas refer to Leif Erikson landing in three places to the west, in 1001, in Helluland (possibly Baffin Island), Markland (possibly Labrador) and Vinland (possibly Newfoundland). Archaeological evidence of a Norse settlement was found in L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which was subsequently declared a World Heritage Site, by UNESCO, in 1978.
  • John Cabot, a Genoese sailing under the English flag, was the first to explore the area, commemorated by a statue at Cape Bonavista, his first landing place. He reported an abundance of cod fish, setting the scene for fishing here, over the next 500 years. By 1620, 300 fishing boats worked the Grand Banks, employing some 10,000 sailors. Portuguese explorers (such as Lavrador), were also in the area, which was claimed by Portugal initially. But Sir Humphrey Gilbert, provided with letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I, landed in St. John's in August 1583, and formally took possession of the Newfoundland.
  • A triangular trade with New England, the West Indies, and Europe gave Newfoundland an important economic role. Salted cod fed the slaves, who produced the rum, which was sent north, and which the fishermen called screech.
  • The French also made settlements and there were the usual attacks and retaliation, depending on the homeland political situation. English attacks on Placentia provoked retaliation by New France explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, who, during King William's War in the 1690s, destroyed nearly every English settlement on the island.
  • There were waves of immigration from southwest England (the Devonians are responsible for all the lakes being referred to as ponds) and then from Ireland (increasing the Catholic population - many had fled here, from persecution at home).
  • There were also waves of rebellion (the Liberals) against an increasingly Anglican government (the Tories) here. There were ambitions for Newfoundland to become an independent country, as London devolved increasing amounts of responsibility.
  • But there was also pressure to join the Canadian confederation, from the 1880s, as cod fishery fell into severe decline and there was large-scale emigration. In 1892, St. John's burned to the ground, leaving 12,000 homeless. In 1894, the two commercial banks in Newfoundland collapsed. Newfoundland increasingly had to submit to Canadian policies and control.
  • But it retained independence from Canada. In 1927, it was ruled that the area known as modern-day Labrador was to be considered part of the Dominion of Newfoundland. The Second World War brought the reintroduction of colonial government and forced subscription. Volunteer Canadian forces defended its air bases.
  • A postwar consumerism boom fuelled the desire for a stronger economy. And the Canadian and British were afraid that Newfoundland might be tempted to join the USA. Despite resistance from a National Convention, which advised against the move, a close run referendum gave the go ahead to unite with Canada, a move supported by the United Kingdom. Newfoundland finally became part of the Confederation of Canada, in 1949.

The Eastport Peninsula

Back down the Bonavista peninsula, picking up the other side of the Discovery Trail loop. Firs, sea, and pretty coves repeat. The roads are exceptionally quiet. Hardly any other traffic, until I hit the TCH again. Through the Terra Nova National Park. This was Newfoundland's first national park, mainly concerned with protecting the black spruce forest. but this is Canada and it also provides access to lakes, the sea and boating, There's sand in the region, on the Eastport peninsula. I take a diversion to admire the sweep of beach.

Moose Alert

A little further on the TCH, and this time it’s the Road to the Shore. Still no traffic and no toilets either. I stop to investigate the bushes and a baby moose totters onto the road, shambling along for some time, uncertain. I’m delighted to see it. Wildlife is in short supply, though I’ve been warned countless times, starting with the immigration officer at St John’s, not to drive at night, because of the moose. And Annie Proulx complained, 'You can hardly drive for a mile without having a moose get in your way… ' Instead, I’m meeting the wrong kind of wildlife. swarms of black flies of various sizes. I’m fairly well covered, but they’re tenacious and manage to penetrate my top a couple of times, as well as homing in on any exposed areas.

It's impossible to describe the immensity of the forest in Atlantic Canada. Walls of trees loom in front of me, as I swoop up and down hillsides. It’s not as bleak as expected from the Shipping News, beautiful, as the light green shimmer of the silver birch contrasts with the dark stiffness of the firs (mainly balsam with a little spruce thrown in). It's time to sing my Girl Guide camp fire song:

Land of the silver birch,
Home of the beaver,
Where still the mighty moose,
Wander at will.

The trees decrease in height as I climb, becoming runts in wilder, boulder strewn terrain, and disappearing totally for a while, before I descend. A gentler version of Scotland. At times reminiscent of Connemara, my favourite part of Ireland. Lakes, sorry ponds, and more forest, until I reach the north coast of yet another peninsula. Here the ponds are strewn with boulders, each one sitting separately, as if deliberately placed. They’re also dotting the coves, when I meet the sea and hug the coast to Lumsden.

Lumsden Beach

At Lumsden, there’s an enormous strip of white beach, the best I’ve seen so far, this trip. Although it’s sunny it's much too chilly to sit out. A gang of men are preparing the car park, fitting pay booths and entrance barriers. Tables and chairs are scattered expectantly. No deckchairs here. The Atlantic Canadians use more solid outdoor chairs, made of gaily painted wood. I expect canvas would too easily blow away. But, to paraphrase Game of Thrones, Summer is Coming. Maybe?

Twillingate and The Isles

Now I’m on the Road to the Isles (that title’s been pinched from Scotland) and the road follows causeways, linking numerous islands, whilst dozens of islets dot the sea to each side. Finally, to Twillingate. Another lighthouse (Longpoint) and a larger harbour, spread along both sides of the strait which separates the two Twillingate islands. It’s very much a working area, linked by yet another causeway. Line fishing cod boats, both retired and working fill the moorings. As cod stocks dwindled, because of overfishing, (at one point in the 1990s down to one percent of historical stocks) lobster and crab fishing increased. The best snow crab areas (it has a very delicate flavour) are 100 miles out to sea.

Sprawling along the outskirts, both north and south are the houses. My B and B, the Captain’s Legacy (historic building) has one of the best views, across the channel. To the north, one church, to the south 17. Most of the pubs are in the north. Make of that what you will.

This north east coast of Newfoundland was originally French and the original name of the settlement was Toulinquet, after two islands off the coast of Brest, in France, which the coast was believed to resemble. Twillingate is the English corruption of that word. Twillingate is on Iceberg Alley, and today dubs itself the Iceberg Capital of the World (tourism is taking over from fishing as the main source of income.) Not this year. There are no icebergs at all. The bergs take one to four or more years to drift down from Greenland (where I saw them spawning), but they are either all stuck further north, or melted. It’s very disappointing, as I have a boat tour booked especially to see them. And, to add insult to injury, it’s drizzling too.

I still go on my tour. And, as it’s an open rigid Zodiac, we are all issued with warm and waterproof gear. My over trousers are so large that the crotch lands between my knees and I waddle like a penguin. But we can zip about with ease, in our comfortable flat bottomed boat, zooming through the gaps between rocks. These are called tickles - as the water ‘tickles’ the hull of the craft.

Other than the vessel, this is very much a repeat of my St John’s boat experience. We potter round the harbour. The coastal scenery is magnificent - with plenty of rock formations. We spot bald eagles and guillemots, an osprey's nest and the odd gannet. There are no whales and the very friendly crew don’t really make any pretence of looking for them.

Lighthouses of Newfoundland

Like Nova Scotia, this is very much lighthouse country. The wild coastal geology and weather demands it. And there are lighthouses in gardens and at the entrances to towns too. But not quite as many as in Acadia.

Food and Entertainment in Newfoundland

Seafood is very much the thing here, in Newfoundland. Chowder of course, though more cod than clams. Another lobster dinner at Sansone’s Lobster Pool - they keep them fresh in tanks and boil them, in big metal crocks, in an outhouse. The potato salad looks more like ice cream scoops. Pureed potato with a few vegetables in it. But it’s tasty. Partridge berry cake is included. The berries are local, like cranberries, but bluer. Wikipedia says they are tasteless, rarely eaten by humans, but I find them pleasantly sour (with something sweet). I also have them served up at Georgie's Restaurant in Twillingate, with pork tenderloin. It's a delicious combination.

Dinner at a theatre in Twillingate too; here I’ve chosen cod and mash, with Newfoundland entertainment to follow. The sketches aren’t really my cup of tea. They mostly centre on stories about how stupid people from Newfoundland are, very much along the lines of the old Irish jokes that used to circulate in England. I suppose it’s healthy that they can poke fun at themselves.

The music is better, with local folk songs written on traditional Irish lines, played on a variety of musical instruments. There’s ugly stick percussion, with a puppet head, jangly rattles and a boot on the bottom. Demonstration of mummers plays and shed parties are interesting. With the demise of the cod, the storage sheds on the wharfs are more often used for socializing than fishing gear. Most engaging is the performers’ evident love for their home land and loyalty to its traditions.

Gros Morne National Park

Back down the Road to the Isles and onto the TCH west. Forest, ponds, forest, ponds and nowhere to pull off unless you risk an exit road and heaven knows how far way the signposted towns are; there are too many trees to tell…

Beyond Deer Lake and it’s the Viking Trail now, and into the Great Northern Peninsula. This is the GNP. There’s an acronym for most things here. The road winds through Gros Morne National Park.It’s a game changer. Stunning scenery, dramatically gloomy mountains (well that is its name), even some tiny patches of snow. And look outs on the twisting roads, to stop and enjoy it all.

Gros Morne is in the Long Range Mountains, in their turn, the most northern section of the Appalachian Mountains. I’ve booked for a boat tour on the Western Brook Pond, up the western coast of the park. Western Brook was a fjord, which was cut off from the sea and eventually became freshwater. So now its officially not a fjord, which must be saltwater and created by glaciation. And of course, it’s raining. Three boat tours, three rainy days. Though overall, I’ve been remarkably lucky with the weather and have seen more sun than RDF.

The lake is only accessible by a three kilometre hiking trail, over coastal bogs and low limestone ridges lined with little spruce trees. Or you can pay 10 CAD to ride in a golf cart. (The rain decided me, on the way back.) The pond is reckoned to be the highlight of the park and is a UNESCO site because of its geology - billion year old cliffs. It's a veritable geography lesson with its hanging valleys and improper fjord.

Numerous waterfalls cascade from the plateau above. Erosion has carved a man's face into the rock. well, I think the elements did it...The charmingly named Pissing Mare Falls (350 metres) is one of the tallest in eastern North America. Luckily, the rain holds off for most of the trip. There’s a little drizzle, a lot of cloud and plenty of spray, provided by the westerly winds. I’d like to see a fjord in sunshine, one day, but the dark skies add to the atmosphere. And, in the bow of the ship, I’m thoroughly entertained by Cynthia and Adrien (who aspires to being called Aloysius instead) from Nova Scotia. The voyage is over very quickly, even though I’m frozen when I disembark.

Arches and Turnips

North through the park. Just outside the boundary, is Arches Provincial Park, one of those lovely surprises – a whole series of arches standing in the sea.

The road hugs the coast for most of the way to the Labrador ferry at St Barbe, the mountains retreating. Overnight by Parsons Pond, at the Turnip Inn. It’s remote here, just fishing villages strung along the route. The only eatery in the area serves bakery or fries and fish or chicken. But Sheri at the inn more than compensates. The B and B is quirky – she’s clearly artistic - with a moose’s head dominating the sitting room. And I’m treated to a gourmet breakfast. Apple ‘poutine’ straws and a tasty frittata, with savoury jams and chutneys.

Labrador - The Big Land

The ninety minute crossing from St Barbe to Blanc Sablon crosses the Strait of Belle Isle. I spend most of the voyage chatting to Monique and Don, from Ontario. The sea is like a millpond, but very chilly and three kindly icebergs (maybe it was just one to start with) have just sailed into the bay to greet us. Huzzah - finally. Monique was desperate to see one - it’s her first.

And here’s another complete change of scene. I can see why Labrador is called The Big Land. Even the welcome sign is enormous. The visitor information centre is in a church in Anse au Claire, the first village you come to. The shoreline drive road here is a roller coaster, swooping up and down dramatic hills, almost mountains and towering craggy cliffs standing proudly above the sea.

Up top, the land is either home to minuscule spruces, or is bare, with sprinklings of pale green lichen on the rocks and scatterings of erratic boulders. More erratics in the sea and at the gushing river mouths. There are quintessential Canadian scenes around the rivers, with blue icy water gushing between taller spruces, lower down. It’s stunning (I feel I've used that word more than once in this post, for a reason) and still not at all bleak. There are more black flies though, when I stop to photograph the river. The wind is blowing them away, by the sea. I’m still hurting from the five nasty bites I collected last time (they go for your ears), so I’m wafting them away vigorously. Some still sneak into the vehicle. I’m afraid that leads to carnage.

Cottage Hospitals in Newfoundland and Labrador

I’m staying, in Forteau, at Grenfell Louie A. Hall B and B, which was once a cottage hospital. I’m in the Men’s Ward. There’s even a blackboard, with my name chalked on it, hanging on my door, as if I’m a patient. It’s a fascinating place, quaint green and white buildings, with history etched in every corner. Stacks of books and manuscripts, old portraits and furniture. Even old wash basins and jugs.

Wilfrid Grenfell was a missionary of sorts, a doctor, sent by The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, in 1892, to improve the plight of the coastal inhabitants and fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador. He built cottage hospitals along the coast in Labrador, but is mainly remembered around the St Anthony area of north Newfoundland, where he lived. There are plenty of buildings named after him there. And he led a fairly adventurous life. At one point, sledding to a medical emergency, he was caught on an ice pan, which drifted on the water and he had to kill his dogs to make a fur coat, to keep him sufficiently warm.

But back to my old hospital. The first cottage hospital here has an interesting story. It was named Denison – after a soldier who sought refuge here. He fought for the Union, in the Civil War, but was unfortunate enough to end up on a boat with a crew of Confederate sympathizers. On discovering his former allegiance, they abandoned him on the Labrador coast. He was so impressed by the kindness and hospitality of the locals, who cared for him, that he donated money for the hospital, forty years later. The current buildings, Louie A. Hall, mainly dating from 1946, are named after the lady who funded the rebuilding.

Exploring Labrador

At Pointe Amour, across the bay, the tallest lighthouse in Atlantic Canada beckons. And there are sweeping cinnamon sand bays below the cliffs, which is presumably why one of the fishing settlements along here is called Red Bay. It is famous for the remains of a sixteenth century Basque whaling station - one of the very earliest. There are excavations on Saddle Island, in the harbour, but the wind has got up and they’ve just halted the boat trips. The park rangers in the historical centre are fun and helpful and there are displays of life on board the whaling ships and at the station and cabinets of tools and utensils.

North of Red Bay the road heads upwards again and then across a large plateau. Barren, with plenty of those glistening sapphire ponds. ‘Go south, it’s much more interesting,’ the Rangers said. It’s now gusting strongly and I’m beginning to worry that my ferry tomorrow will be cancelled. It’s been flagged as a possibility, on the government 511 website. I’m waiting anxiously. The last ferry from St Barbe hasn’t left today yet. They’re waiting on the wind calming.

I’ve eaten in Jungle Jim’s, in L’Anse Au Clair, both evenings. It’s the only restaurant within about 50 miles that’s open for dinner. It’s an unlikely theme for Canada, especially here, and it’s a typical chain restaurant: burgers, fries and fish and chips and tour buses parked up outside. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Quebec - Just

Blanc Sablon, where the ferry departs, is actually in Quebec, so I clip the corner of that province travelling to and fro to Forteau. All the signage is in French, even though the inhabitants still mainly speak in broad Labradorean accents. And, confusingly, the whole of this province is on Quebec time. One and half hours behind Newfoundland. And coastal Labrador keeps Newfoundland time. It’s important to keep abreast of these things when you have a ferry to catch, from Quebec. (Though the ferry operates on Newfoundland time.) More sweeping bays and sand dunes, though the sand isn’t as white as the name would suggest. Just paler than the red bays further north. Some good sightings of the three ice bergs from the beach here. I’m chasing them along the coast.

A guy called Barry signals to me that I can park in his drive, as some of the locals are trying to get past me where I’ve stopped. He offers me baked apples and takes me to meet his wife, who’s wearing a wide brimmed hat in their greenhouse. They both have broad accents, almost west country like. He seems to have forgotten the baked apple, but he directs me to a puffin view point further along the coast. I find the look out, but the puffins are again elusive.

L’Anse Aux Meadows, for Vikings

The wind drops a little and the ferry back to Newfoundland departs on schedule, bumpy but nothing a couple of travel sickness pills can’t cope with. Across the top of the GNP, a string of wild coves, to L’Anse Aux Meadows, on the very tip of Newfoundland. I stop for lunch at St Lunaire-Griquet, a pretty fishing village on the east coast, where I’m staying the night. Turning out of the car park I’m tooted at loudly. Then I realise I’m on the wrong side of the road. Caffeine is called for.

L’Anse aux Meadows is the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America. It’s been declared that this is where Leif Eriksson landed, based on the Viking sagas of Vinland. And it's had UNESCO recognition. Though archologists are not entirely convinced. are definitely some Norse remains and a burial site. Today, there’s a reconstructed Viking settlement, three halls and five other buildings, complete with Viking workmen. No women in evidence. Perhaps that’s why the settlement only lasted for 10-20 years.

Down by the bay there’s a statue of Eriksson, gazing out towards Greenland. There are also signs of habitation, such as firepits, showing that indigenous peoples were here many thousands of years ago. It’s an important site and an incentive for the local people to promote Viking Shoppes, cabins and restaurants. There are far more Viking commercial outlets than Norse remains. And the road up to nearby St Anthony, through the GNP, is called the Viking Trail, of course.

Gunners Cove and The Shipping News

My Bed and Breakfast is on Gunners Cove, just up the road from the blue clapboard house where Annie Proulx lived, when she wrote Shipping News. The book was extraordinarily successful, but the Newfoundlanders were not keen. They felt it an inaccurate reflection of their culture and language. After that, Annie tired of the quiet life and moved back to the States, later producing Brokeback Mountain, as a novella. The house is now rented out as vacation home, along with another in the area that she restored - Quoyle’s Point.

There’s another first at my accommodation here. I’m asked to select the tip when I check in. How am I supposed to tip for service I haven’t had yet? So I tap no tip. Perhaps that’s why I’m allocated a room with just a partial view of the bay from my window. But the owner has her comeuppance. My shower leaks from the ceiling and she has to change my room. Now I have an unobstructed view, well, if I stand up. The window is high, like a prison cell. And the ventilator in the bathroom rattles loudly.

Griquet and the Icebergs Up Close

A third time lucky ocean boat trip from nearby Griquet. In the sense that there are plenty of ice bergs here, though you can see them pretty well from the shore. It’s nice to get up close. But no proper whales. The boat driver/guide says they are slow to arrive from the Caribbean for their summer holidays this year. Just a pilot whale (a large type of dolphin) wheeling in the bay. But serendipitously, Monique and Don have arrived at the same Bed and Breakfast. They tell me they have been whale watching from Cape Onion, 40 minutes away. Three of them, clearly visible from the shore. I think I must just be gullible.

Whale Hunting in Newfoundland

Now, I’m at the northern most point of Newfoundland it’s time to make my way back to St John’s. It’s a 425 mile journey to Grand Falls Windsor, but as I said, I’m gullible, and I don’t like missing out on things. So I tack on an extra 40 miles to go and hunt whales at Cape Onion, first. Needless to say there are none there and I’ve delayed myself unnecessarily.

My drive today almost tallies 500 miles. I’m not quite a Proclaimer. And I’m not walking, I’m still grappling with the Toyota Camry. The steering is awful and it veers across the road every time there’s an inverse camber or a truck goes past or it’s windy. And it’s windy a lot. Which takes the temperature down even when it’s sunny outside. But today, the temperature has soared to 31 degrees and even though the wind has increased, it’s still really humid. Needless to say the a.c. in the car doesn’t cool either.

Grand Falls-Windsor

A last night in Newfoundland. I’m sad to leave, in very many ways, but a little tired of the Covid legacy. Much of the accommodation nowadays doesn’t bother with a welcome. They leave the keys and room number and you let yourself in. It’s all very anonymous and impersonal. I feel like I did on the numerous days I walked home from school to find no-one at home.

I’m at the Carriage House Inn, at Grand Falls-Windsor, here in the heart of Newfoundland. (Though there are so many inlets and peninsulas that nowhere is very far from the sea.) There’s some confusion over the room name. The directions in my letter say Brunette. The plaque on the door says Burnette. The rooms seem to be named after the historic carriage horses (the carriage is outside).

Just time to go and see the eponymous Grand Falls, before I drive back to St John’s, in more clammy heat. The falls have been turned into a dam, so are not very picturesque, although the rushing Exploits River (sign up for river rafting) is impressive, above and below. There’s a salmonid interpretive ( I don’t know why such an off-putting word is called for - it’s common in Canada) centre by the side of the dam and a series of concrete fish ladders. The centre isn’t open yet, so I go looking for leaping salmon. I’m told they’re early this year. And there are lines of eager anglers hoisting their rods, on the banks of the Exploits.

Nothing leaping, sadly, but there are some poor salmon, trying to crawl up the ladder, against the flow of the downhill stream. Most of them are getting washed back down again. It’s a very fierce current. I hope they do better next time.

A plane back to Montreal and then home.

Nova Scotia Revisited

Today's plane to Montreal is called Great Futures. And I'm happy, as it did hardly any damage to my bank balance. I paid for it with my Air Miles. I’m going cat sitting again, but this time in Maritime Canada (Nova Scotia). Cape Breton Island in the North. That should mean that most of my trip was free, as I’m getting accommodation and a car as a reward. But somehow I’ve managed to extend the trip to five weeks in Atlantic Canada, fitting in St Pierre et Miquelon, Newfoundland and Labrador.

First, I'm making my way back to Halifax, the main town and principal port here. It poured with rain on my last visit to Halifax. Things can only get better, this time. The people of Montreal refer to the largest city in Atlantic Canada as 'alifax. So this is what I'm listening for, on the tannoy, at the airport.

I'm on budget airline Flair. It’s the Canadian equivalent of Ryanair. You have to pay extra to breathe and the seats are mega uncomfortable. I’m surprised they don’t charge a premium for upholstery. The complaint ratio is 1 in 5 customers. And it’s also in financial trouble. But it gets me there more or less on time and it’s half the price of Air Canada. And it’s flying. I booked my return flight to Montreal with Lynx Air from St John's in Newfoundland. They took my money and went bust three days later.

Nova Scotia

  • Nova Scotia (New Scotland) was first named in a 1621 Royal Charter, granting to Sir William Alexander the right to settle lands including modern Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and the Gaspé Peninsula. That's a very large area.
  • In 1867, Nova Scotia joined with New Brunswick and the Province of Canada (now Quebec and Ontario) to form the Dominion of Canada.
  • Today, Nova Scotia is one of 13 Canadian provinces (the second smallest), one of the three Maritime provinces (with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) and one of the four Atlantic provinces (add in Newfoundland, more recently combined with Labrador). Nova Scotia is Latin for "New Scotland".
  • The car plates here dub the province ''Canada's Ocean Playground'.

The good news is that some lovely people from the plane - Blane and Kate - give me a lift into town, in their huge glossy black pick up. And my Airbnb has an excellent location, downtown and seems to be well equipped. The bad news is that it’s raining and only ten degrees (it was 25 in Montreal) and there is no heating on in my new abode. There are thermostats on the wall, but these are encased in locked boxes. And as they are set at 20 I fear the whole system is off. Nova Scotians were known as bluenosers from early on, because the fishermen got so cold out at sea. I know how they felt. (To think that the taxi driver in Montreal sneered at me for bringing my coat.)

And there is no-one to be seen. It’s all key pad entries. My bathroom is just round the corner, off one of the lounges, so I have to remember to get dressed when I go to the loo, in case anyone pops up. I also have to take my phone with the codes on it, to make sure I can get back into my room.

A History of Halifax

  • Frenchman, Samuel Champlain, established the first settlements in this area (part of the American colonised areas known to the French as Acadie), in 1605, in the Annapolis Valley. They flourished, partly because the Acadians got on well with the indigenous peoples, the Mi’kmaq, who intermingled, looked after them, and taught them how to survive, salting cod and fur trapping. By 1700 they numbered 15,000.
  • British settlements did much less well, partly because the mother country gave priority to developing New England and partly because there was conflict with the native peoples, who were by now strongly allied with the French. Land continuously changed hands from the French to the English and back again. Eventually, the Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, though principally concerned with the Spanish succession, handed all of the territory of Nova Scotia over to the British, except for Cape Breton Island, (then known as Ile Royal) and Prince Edward Island (Ile St Jean). They both eventually became British.
  • Edward Cornwallis, brought in as governor of Nova Scotia, made a thorough evaluation and pointed out that the area could not be defended from the French, if they decided to contest the issue. So he established the town of Halifax, starting with his citadel. It had a good natural harbour, and he brought 2500 settlers, German, French and Jewish settlers from Switzerland. He did not think the British were resilient enough and he also wanted a diverse settlement of Protestants. (As well as enough people to oust the French Acadians.) This brought further conflict with the Mi’kmaq, who objected to such large settlement on their land, a traditional meeting ground. In retaliation, Cornwallis put out an extirpation order, paying a bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps. At the time he was regarded as a hero and numerous streets and buildings were named after him, with statues erected, in this capital of Nova Scotia. Today, these memorials are gradually being eradicated.

'Ow is 'Alifax?

My 2024 explorations of Halifax are a much happier experience than last time. The weather defies the forecast and the temperature shoots up to 26 degrees. The boulevards around town are wide and leafy, lined with pretty painted timber mansions. There are a couple of streets of interesting boutique type shops, interspersed with cafes and small restaurants, catering to student tastes. This is very much a university town. There are two and half expanding campuses.

Halifax port may be one of the best natural harbours in the world, but it’s by no means the prettiest. (The Mi'kmaq name for Halifax is Kjipuktuk, which means ‘Great Harbour’.) However, the long waterfront walk provides plenty to look at. It waterfront walk starts at Point Pleasant Park, right to the south (plenty more desirable clapboard houses in the area) of the city. The park is thickly wooded, and hidden between the trees, are the Prince of Wales Tower and the remains of Fort Ogilvie. The fort was built to supplement sea defences, later in the eighteenth century and named after the governor of Nova Scotia at the time. The tower, is a Martello Tower, added later, on the highest point of the park.

Next, the path winds round the port, past grain silos, enormous conveyors, like something out of a science fiction novel and past museums, pubs and the cruise terminal. Then, it's the boardwalk proper. Old ships and museum ships. I can actually see the lighthouse on the island in the harbour quite easily, today. The yellow and azure ferry scoots backwards and forwards to Dartmouth. The colourful little booths alongside are all open for poutine and ice cream. (Cows is advertised as the best in Canada and they could well be correct.) There's the same red poutine shack that I photographed last time I was here. I still can’t bring myself to eat chips with gravy.

The historic buildings (they have a designated area, from the waterfront and up the steep hill to the Citadel) are all pristine and mostly Victorian, the several churches are suitably striking, with their elaborate decorative features and the clock tower at the base of Cornwallis’ citadel is at is best, against a cerulean sky. The view from the top, across the water, almost rewards the clamber up the grassy slope and you can visit inside the fortress, at a price. The noon day gun subscribes to historical allegiances – and makes me jump.

Victoria Day

I’m surprised to learn that today is Victoria Day, a federal Canadian public holiday to honour Queen Victoria, the 'Mother of Confederation'. It was conceived on Victoria’s birthday, a way of uniting French and English settlers and demonstrating loyalty to the crown, (as opposed to their southern neighbours).

From my point of view, it’s not necessarily good news, as many of the shops and eateries are closed. It was difficult enough trying to find somewhere to eat on Sunday evening, as it’s still very early season here. Wikipedia tells me that Victoria Day is informally considered the start of the summer season in Canada. Maybe not in the Maritimes.

Lunenburg

I’m off to the more southerly port of Lunenburg, on a minibus trip. Fog has descended, so it’s hard to discern anything on the way there. Nova Scotia is virtually an island, joined to mainland North America by the Isthmus of Chignecto, and Atlantic mist is common. A two lane highway sweeps south (it has potholes though, they seem to be ubiquitous nowadays) through plenty of wintry forest, just about in bud, grey lakes, creeks. Around Chester, signs announce this region to be the Christmas Tree Capital of the World. But apparently this only applies to Balsam Fir. Indiana County in Pennsylvania also proclaims itself the Christmas Tree Capital of the World and I’m not qualified to arbitrate. Before Mahone Bay, we join the coast and squint to make out the picturesque islands floating ethereally on the water and the three adjacent churches in the quaint little town.

I’ve used the word quaint too soon. Lunenburg Old Town is UNESCO listed, as the best example of British colonial town planning in North America. Cornwallis founded Lunenburg, in 1753, as a second defensive settlement and place to relocate some of his original Halifax immigrants, who were getting restless at lack of opportunity - and land. The area, another good sheltered harbour, had originally been settled by the Mi’kmaq and then the Acadians in 1630. The French were removed without protest, but the local peoples resisted for some time. The town was named after George II’s German dukedom - Braunschweig-Lüneburg. An earlier Mi'kmaq name was Aseedĭk, meaning Clam-land.

The town flourished, especially in the 1800s, with fishing, lumber and boat building industries. Lunenburg is the site of Canada's largest secondary fish-processing plant, but apparently this is threatened with closure, which is why UNESCO have taken an interest. It’s an exceptionally rewarding wander, with its colourful wooden vernacular architecture. Streets of residential houses up the hill, interlaced with two streets of galleries, cafes (tasty food, high prices) , chic boutiques and fish shops. There’s even a model, gothic meets colonial, academy, opened in 1895 and only closed in 2012. St John’s Anglican church is also distinctive with its tiny spires and snow white wood. The timber was brought from Boston, when a church there was disassembled.

Down on the waterfront, there’s an unmissable scarlet painted maritime museum, which includes several boats bobbing on the water. The original Bluenose schooner was designed to win the World Cup schooner race and beat the Americans. It did, but after the wars it was sold for cargo use, in the Caribbean, and it sank on a reef. You can go onboard a 1963 replica.

Peggy’s Cove

Peggy's Cove is the Tourist Trap of Nova Scotia, featuring on every itinerary. It’s on St Margaret’s Bay, named by Champlain, for his mother, with some unusual excitement generated as to which Margaret the village itself was named after (Peggy being a diminutive of Margaret). There are several contenders and rescues, love stories and shipwrecks are involved. It’s a tiny, extraordinarily picturesque fishing village, with a lighthouse (which flashes happily for the tourists), surrounded by large, smooth granite rocks. Again, exceptionally photogenic; this is the most photographed lighthouse in Canada, or possibly even in the world. And the clouds have miraculously disappeared, so we can savour it in all its glory. It’s not without its hazards. Apparently the darker rocks are notoriously slippy and there are freak waves, when it’s windy. Someone dies here very year. Happily, it’s not today.

Though some small glossy black birds are out to ruin my day, by stealing the prime meat from my lobster roll. It’s almost obligatory to buy one from Tom’s Shack (at a shocking price). The birds are exceptionally cunning and swoop in swiftly, even as the roll is on its way to my mouth. It’s not the most relaxing way to eat.

Peggy’s Cove came to public attention, and grew in popularity, in 1998, after a Swissair flight crash-landed in the sea, five miles up the coast, in mysterious circumstances. There’s a memorial, on the rocks, there.

Cape Breton Island

It's mid May, but Spring has only just arrived in the wilds of Cape Breton. The daffodils are in full bloom, with the odd crimson tulip. The lawns are scattered with dandelions, which grow prettily in clumps, around the white and grey timber clad bungalows. Otherwise it’s pointy fir trees, as far as the eye can see, with the ocean peeping between the tips of the conifers. Water is never far away here. We’re joined to mainland Nova Scotia by a (just over) kilometre causeway, across the Canso Strait. It's 65 metres deep, which apparently makes it the deepest causeway in the world, and there’s a swing bridge at one end to allow boat traffic through.

L'Ardoise

I’m in L’Ardoise, a tiny community, which is part of the village of St Peter's, 12 kilometres up the road. It sprawls up a small hill, above two small coves, with curved Atlantic ravaged, cement coloured beaches, one a classic tombolo. Pretty ponds, a pirate ship atop a small cliff (for children to play on) and a melancholy fog horn baying across the water. Houses strung along the roadside, a church (in the prime viewing spot as usual), a community centre and a bank. L’Ardoise is pronounced Lordways, by everyone as the British couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say it the correct French way.

Cat Sitting in Canada

I got here by shuttle van, picking up the Trans Canada Highway, at Truro. The highway passes through all the provinces of Canada, starting at Victoria and ending in St John's. The most important sections are numbered 1. This bit, which runs parallel, is a 10. My bungalow is in apple pie order, owned by Jim, a proud Scotsman who lives on his own (he’s on holiday in the UK.) Everything so clearly has a place I’m scared to touch it. I’m looking after Whiskers, an exceptionally beautiful chocolate and cream Siamese cat, with piercing blue eyes. He’s easy tempered (apart from the odd nip, when he suddenly decides he doesn’t want to be stroked any more) and affectionate, but restless.

The house is very much his kingdom and this is no exaggeration. Like most cats, Whiskers does what he wants, when he wants, and humans are only there to serve his needs. He whines loudly to indicate that he wants something (the word caterwauling wasn't invented for nothing), though it’s not often clear what that is. He doesn’t want to sit on my lap, but stretches along my legs to request that he is picked up and cuddled (with stroking) like a baby. But only for two minutes or so, while he purrs loudly. Then he frets to be put down. And then he wants to be picked up again and pats my face gently.

Whilst I'm working on my laptop he crouches right next to me and head butts me if I don't stroke him at the same time as I'm attempting to type.

Whiskers has a bedroom to himself, containing the largest scratching post ensemble you ever saw (and I don't say that lightly), sundry places to perch and comfy cushions. But that’s not the end. Each of the other bedrooms has a bed for him, so he can choose where he wants to sleep. There are more scratching posts, numerous toy mice in every room, on springs or strings. And rubber mats are installed on shelves, sills, cushions, other view points so that he can roam where he wishes. Even the huge basement (with enormous American style wash facilities) has additional shelves and mats placed on the machine tops. And he does indeed, clamber over all the furniture, lording it over me from the top of the fridge. Or sitting right in front of the giant TV screen. Apparently, it’s warm there. Or he just wants centre stage.

But Whisker’s preferred pastime is stalking moles on the neighbouring lawn. He’s only allowed beyond the back door on a long leash, which I have to keep attaching and detaching from his collar, as he wanders in and out. And he is mostly out, only venturing back if he feels hungry and then miaowing and stretching to look out the window, indicating to me, his slave, that he is to be let out again. I can’t see the moles, but he can clearly smell or hear something , as he moves stealthily across the grass. He’s crouching most of the time, by a heap of off cuts from shrubs. I don’t see him pounce at all though, so I suspect the moles stay tantalisingly underground, out of reach.

I have to keep a constant eye on him, as I have to disentangle his leash, every five minutes, as it catches on little pieces of scrub or a corner of the decking, or Whiskers winds it round a tree. I’m terrified he will escape. It’s a big responsibility. He whines to go out and then whines to come in again. Over and over. He should be called Yo-yo.

Notwithstanding all the above, Whiskers is adorable. It's going to be a wrench to leave him.

Cape Breton’s Heritage

Cape Breton’s historical roots and affinities are made very clear. This was Ile Royale, Acadian French country, according to the Treaty of Utrecht (although a French name of sorts has survived) and the stars and flag of Acadia (French tricolore with a gold star) are proudly displayed on many of the buildings. Along with the scarlet maple leaf of Canada. Even the welcome to the village signs have a tricolore background. And there’s an annual Acadian Festival. I don’t see any British Union flags……

But that’s not all. There are the Mi’kmaq, of course, with areas dedicated to the First Nation, the original landowners and some heritage in terms of place names. And then there’s the very strong Scottish influence. There were many Scottish settlers and they even tried to turn the island into a Scottish colony at one point. Place name signs in Breton, (when they’re not Acadian) frequently bear Gaelic alternatives. It’s an interesting mix.

Exploring Cape Breton

The weather forecast says it’s going to rain nearly very day. And, when it’s not raining, it will be foggy. I’m hoping that they’re wrong again. And they are. Though the sun is as deceptive as the forecast, encouraging me out and disappearing not long after I set off to explore. Jim’s girlfriend April has been kind enough to lend me her little turquoise Mitsubishi, so I’m about to be let loose on left hand drive again.

Fleur de Lys Trail

It seems that there are a plethora of trails to choose from. The famous scenic Cabot Trail, in the north west - which I’m told I should allow three days for. The Bras D’Or Scenic Lake Drive winds round one of the world's larger saltwater lakes, Bras d'Or (Golden Arm), which dominates the island's centre. The Ceilidh Trail, ‘following the music’ and the Gaelic culture, on the west coast, the Marconi Trail , which hugs the north east coast (coalmining heritage and the place where Marconi made his first transmission) and the Fleur de Lys Trail. I can’t find any rationale for this one, other than 'it's historic', but it follows the southern coast of the island, visiting beaches, coves (there seem to be a lot of those round here) and Acadian villages, from the Canso Causeway to Louisbourg. And it passes through L’Ardoise, so I’m following this route east.

There are a few hiccoughs. Signposting isn’t amazing and there’s no phone signal round here, so Google is no help either. I detour accidentally to Point Michaud. I’ve been told it’s a nice beach. The locals obviously think that’s an understatement. There are signs to ‘Our World Class Beach’. Maybe it looks better when the sun’s out. Most things do. Today, this crescent of camel coloured sand is decidedly unprepossessing, dull and a little dirty.

But that applies to most of my journey. Tiny lakes (even Loch Lomond), fingers of Bras D’or, fishing villages and firs galore. The sun stays well out of the way and the flatter coast isn’t shown to best effect. But the air is fresh, the countryside pristine. And the dandelions are still out.

Louisbourg

At Louisbourg, the mist rolls right in. I can just make out the historic reconstructed fort. It’s a chilly visit. The sun deceived me inti leaving my coat behind. This is advertised as a reconstructed 1700s French colonial town with a fort, a living museum. But the park service has just moved into shoulder season and washerwomen and musicians aren’t yet part of the offering. It's atmospheric with towers and gates looming up out of the fog, like a Victorian horror novel. There are an inn, houses with gardens and pig sties, even an ice house, as well as the revitalised fortifications and the cannons, facing out across the water. But I don’t stay long enough to do it real justice. Brrrrr

For five seconds I consider going on, up the coast, to the Marconi Historic Sites, around Glace Bay but they don’t open till July. That makes my decision easier. This is where Marconi set up his first and second stations to transmit radio signals to Europe. Glace Bay Station was responsible for transmitting the world's first radio message to cross the Atlantic, from North America, in 1902.

Sydney

To the north west, is Sydney, the largest city on the island. Not to be confused with Sydney, Australia, although stories tell of bemused passengers who have wound up at the tiny airport here, instead of in New South Wales, as intended. Most of the Fleur de Lys trail is on winding single track potholed roads. Louisbourg to Sydney takes me on a wider, fairly quiet highway. But in Sydney I’m suddenly in three lane highway territory, with slow moving traffic that gives no quarter. It's really odd here, the way that countryside transitions into urban (usually retail parks), with no warning.

Google is working now, but my lady guide doesn’t always give the clearest directions and when I end up in the wrong lane none of the drivers will let me back in. The people are friendly on the streets, but definitely not on the roads. It’s a tad stressful. Though the numerous excellent supermarkets in the shopping centres make up for it. The fresh produce makes my heart sing.

Conversely, Downtown Sydney is deathly quiet and a aittle depressing. I can only tell that the shops are open because there are illuminated 'Open' signs in the windows. The buildings have those rectangular Wild West style stone facias, or peeling clapboard, but beneath it's mostly Dollarstore or Pharmasave. No sign of a cosy café. Further north, the tiny historic district. As usual, impressive churches, solid brick municipal and federal buildings and some Victorian clapboard.

Then, to the waterfront, the heart of all maritime cities. The word tiny also applies here. Assorted striped and brightly coloured booths, mainly closed. I suspect they only open for the cruise ships. A couple of statues and, an attempt to add some sightseeing incentive, Bizarrely, the largest fiddle in the world. It plays a doleful jig.

Lake Bras d’Or

Finishing my circular tour, I’m picking up the Scenic Lake Drive, south alongside Bras d’Or. This, the signs tell me is a UNESCO designated Biosphere. It’s a salt-water estuary, where the Arctic currents meet the warm subtropical oceans. Vast and picturesque, even under the cloud cover. It’s hillier here; there's even a ski resort. The firs have their new buds and the slopes are a striking palette of dappled green shades, from olive to emerald. As is so often the case with these drives there are enticing views and nowhere to stop and admire them. There’s one layby where the trees obscure the view of the lake. There are countless side roads snaking towards it, but who knows where each of these go. The odds are I will end up in someone’s back yard.

And, on the highways, hardly anyone obeys the speed limit. They go at about 20 kph faster. If you can't beat them, I reason. As it's a short summer season there are roadworks nearly everywhere, causing queues. When it's a longish stretch of road that's closed they utilise lead trucks with big flashing arrows, on the roof, that we have to follow to make sure we stay the right side of the cones. It's like being behind an F1 safety car..

St Peter's

St Peter’s is home to my nearest supermarket, a couple of inns, (the Bras d'Or, serves very good food), a Subway, a pizza place, a parked bus/diner selling snacks and lunches, a small museum, a Tim Horton (Canada's coffee chain), a café (Farmers' Pantry (excellent cakes), a Dollarstore, some churches (steepled churches are the focal point of every village here), a gas station, a small parade of stores and a Christmas Shop ( I hope they get enough tourists to keep it afloat).

This pretty village is, literally, the entrance to Bras d’Or, with stunning views across the tiny islands and gorgeous reflections in the early morning stillness. The water might be chilly, but it’s crystal clear. There’s a boat canal, along the edge, which connects the glistening lake to the ocean. It is almost exclusively used by pleasure boats nowadays. Adjacent to the canal, at the Atlantic side, is Battery Provincial Park. There's a hill with the remains of a fort atop it. It's a steep scramble, for an obstructed view of St Peter's Bay. There's a better line of sight from the water's edge, by the lighthouse.

St. Peter's is one of North America's oldest European settlements. Prior to the arrival of the French, it was a Portuguese trading and fishing post named Santo Pedro. The French settlers, who came after, established the fur trade here (so furs and firs were both important). But it was a useful spot, as boats could be hauled over the isthmus (pre canal) separating the two bodies of water.

Isle Madame

The weather here turns on a sixpence and the forecast changes every time I look at it. Often, it's completely wrong. So, as soon the clouds clear, I hop out excitedly. This time, I’m heading south west, on the Fleur de Lys Trail, to Isle Madame. The name refers to the Queen of France – no prizes for guessing where political allegiances lie down here. The ocean south of St Peter’s is dotted with fir covered islands and red capped lighthouses, making for the prettiest views so far. Isle Madame is reached by a causeway, to the west of St Peter’s and its north coast beckons, as I drive along the highway. It’s a scenic loop round the island. More islets floating offshore, another scarlet and white lighthouse and then views out, into the choppy Atlantic.

The little harbours are still and silent. I’m promised a photographer’s paradise of lobster pots, but not one in sight. A sign on a café tells me it will reopen for the season in Spring. So we’re not there yet? At the tip of Ile Madame, arichat and then Petit Grat Island. At the tip of that, Little Anse. It’s billed as one of the most colourful harbours in Canada. I check to make sure that I’ve got the right place. Grey and white houses (there is one blue one) and nothing happening on the water. Maybe it’s the wrong season again?

Nevertheless it’s a tranquil drive, chilly in the Atlantic breeze even when the sun is out. But, of course, it has long disappeared.

Land of Lighthouses

Lighthouses are becoming a theme in my writing this trip. They are definitely a theme for the Nova Scotians. There are 150 lighthouses in this maritime province, all now automatic. Other than Peggy’s Cove, most are white with scarlet caps. But it doesn’t stop there. These lighthouses are replicated in wood outside many of the houses. Some with working lights inside, some with cockerel decoration and the Acadian flag. Village signs are painted onto lighthouses. Restaurants have lighthouse entrances. They have been turned into shops or offices. They feature in malls. There's even one at the airport.

The Cabot Trail

The tourist boards here report that the circular Cabot Trail is one of the most scenic drives in Canada. If not the most scenic trail. Better than Vancouver? Or the Rockies? I can’t risk missing it. But it’s a long distance. The start is nearly 90 minutes drive away and the 185 mile tour itself is said to take five hours. If you drive non stop. Most guides advise taking three days to a week. I don’t think Whiskers would be very happy if I did that.

The trail is named after the Italian explorer John Cabot (so actually Giovanni Caboto), who was the first European to properly explore North America, (under the English flag). I’ve read it was devised by Angus L. MacDonald, a premier of Nova Scotia, who wanted to re-brand Nova Scotia for tourism purposes, as primarily Scottish. As part of this effort he created both the names Cape Breton Highlands and Cabot Trail (I’m bemused - only the word Highlands seems Scottish to me). The initial route was completed in 1932.

I’m checking the weather forecast to try and choose the most auspicious day. Though as they’ve been wildly inaccurate so far, I’m probably wasting my time. Sunday looks good, but then I settle for Monday. Which turns out to be a wise move, as when I arrive, I discover that the Annual Cabot Trail Relay Race (17 stages over two days) took place at the weekend and the road was crowded. Today, there are hardly any other cars (out of season has its advantages) and the sun is out. Perfect.

Counter Clockwise on the Trail

So, up the west side of gleaming Lake Bras d’Or (I'm on Trans Highway 10 again) and onto the route, counter clockwise. It’s not hard to find my way. For much of the journey it’s the only road. Even the house addresses say Cabot Trail. Through Baddeck, which has an Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. He lived here and invented and experimented and was philanthropic, after he got rich from patenting the telephone. This seems like a hotspot for communications pioneers.

Still alongside Bras d’Or, the start of the trail proper at St Anne’s (famous for its Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts) and then fishing villages and sweeping Atlantic views. Or they would be, but the mist rolls in here, as we stay at a fairly low level. Trickling blue streams and up to Ingonish Beach, with its cliffs, large round pebbles and artistically arranged driftwood.

This is the entrance to the Cape Breton National Park (you have to pay if you’re driving all round). The road meanders in and out of the park, climbing steeply beyond the most northerly point of the route, Cape North. As always, trees stretch in every direction. This Acadian forest is composed of mixed hardwoods and softwoods - a rich diversity of more than 60 tree species, including yellow birch, red spruce, American beech and sugar maple.

From here round there are several whale watching stations with interpretive boards. There are trips running from Pleasant Bay (the ticket office is a lighthouse) and it’s the start of the whale spotting season. There have been sightings today. I can see boats bobbing out on the ocean and some splashing, but I think I’ll wait for Newfoundland.

Hairpin bends, brooding folded mountains fringed in forest and vistas across to distant waterfalls, shallow lakes, a canyon and bogland, take me to the west of the island and the McKenzie Mountain lookout. (In the park there are plenty of pull offs, thankfully.) Here, you can see across the Gulf of St Lawrence and then, south, there’s a spectacular jagged shoreline, rocky cliffs, pillars, tiny sapphire coves. On the landside, the most enchanting of hillsides, cloaked with frilly trees and dotted with charming dwellings.

Lunch at Cheticamp (in a restaurant with a lighthouse entrance). One of the trail guides says that this village is so pretty that I will dream about it afterwards. Another case of creativity going well into overdrive. It’s by no means the most attractive place I’ve ever visited. A harbour and a string of unexciting clapboard hotels, motels, houses and restaurants. But the trail as whole is well worth the trip. Beautiful scenery and extraordinarily diverse. Through the gently rolling Margaree Valley and back to L’Ardoise.

Jeet?

The Nova Scotian accent is very distinctive, but also different depending on the area. It may have Irish , Scottish or ‘Industrial’ overtones. Whatever, the people round here are invariably friendly and shop assistant or folk in queues launch into long conversations, telling you their whole life history.

“Jeet?” Translation: Did you eat yet?
“No, jou?” Translation: No, did you?

April’s sister, Kim and her husband Phil have a holiday home just down the road. They spend their summers here (so they think summer has begun at least) and their winters in their home city of Ottawa. Both are great fun and maintain the local tradition of hospitality. Phil is a natural story teller and has an anecdote for every occasion. He’s give me a copy of an autobiographical book he wrote – Those Were the Days of My Life, referencing the Bryan Adams song – it would make an entertaining film.
Kim takes me shopping in Port Hawkesbury. Walmart, Giant Tiger and the DollarStore. We stock up on bargains. Then an all you can eat Chinese buffet. It’s tasty , but you get fined if you leave food on your plate, so it is wasted. Good idea.

Then, that evening it’s Open Mike at the MacBoush Inn. There are people at maybe half a dozen tables. It's a decidedly low key atmosphere, but the singing is good. The host wears a traditional Canadian tuxedo - plaid shirt and jeans - and deftly switches between classical and modern guitars and his ukelele.

A sucker for punishment, Kim then invites me for a lobster supper. Lobster is just in season now and there’s a glut. Much of it nowadays goes to China and, like most luxury items, it’s in danger of being priced out of the market, in these days of economic squeeze. But it’s the main source of income for most of the fishermen. Kim’s bought the shellfish direct off the boat at 6.50 CAD per pound. That’s pretty good. Arlene, from over the road, a larger than life character in cowboy hat and boots directs operations. There's a proper lobster boiling kettle, with a lift out drain inside. It's standing in the doorway to Phil's workshop, so he can complain about the smell. And Arlene’s a demon with the large knife and the claws. We’re all cracked and served in no time. Kim’s also made hot garlic butter. It’s truly delicious.

Across the Gulf of St Lawrence

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is calling. It’s a province I haven’t visited. And I’ve found out that you can travel there by ferry (75 minutes) from Caribou and get a free ticket, if there’s stand by space available. And there’s plenty of stand by space, in this early season. The Gulf of St Lawrence is like a millpond today, flat as a pancake, whatever suitable cliché you want to employ. So it’s an easy and uneventful crossing. PEI is just about visible across the water. It too, looks as flat as a pancake, from here.

Prince Edward Island

  • Prince Edward Island (or PEI), otherwise known as The Island is the smallest Canadian province, in terms of land area and population. But it is the most densely populated. The Island has several other nicknames: Garden of the Gulf, or Cradle of Confederation.
  • Its capital and largest city is Charlottetown.
  • Traditionally Mi’kmaq territory, the area was colonized by the French in 1604 - part of Acadia. Then, known as Isle St-Jean, it was ceded to the British at the conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763 and became part of the colony of Nova Scotia. In 1769 St-John's Island became a separate British colony. Its name was changed to Prince Edward Island (PEI) in 1798, to honour the Duke of Kent (the fourth son of King George III and father of the future Queen Victoria). PEI hosted the Charlottetown Conference, in 1864. The intention was to discuss a union of the Maritime provinces; however, the conference evolved into a series of meetings and then to Canadian Confederation, on 1 July 1867.
  • Although hosting, PEI was reluctant to join the confederation and waited until 1873, when economic pressures forced the issue.

Anne of Green Gables Country

PEI is only 224 kilometres long and between six and 64 kilometres wide. It won’t take long to drive across it. There are more scenic drives on offer (the Canadians have these everywhere I go, but then it’s a scenic country). However, they’re all along the coast - there’s still over 1,100 kilometres of shoreline. Red beaches, low cliff trails and lighthouses. And I’m only on a day trip, so I’m just going to drive along the coast, from Wood Islands, where the ferry makes land, on the Trans Canada Highway again, (and this time it's Number 1), to the capital, Charlottetown.

There are still fir forests here. A whole string of lumber filled trailers rolled off the ferry before I boarded, but in the main, this is very different to its neighbouring maritime provinces. This is agricultural land. The low hills are covered in brown furrows and there are picture perfect farms, with large silos and horses roaming in paddocks. PEI produces 25% of Canada's potatoes, which thrive in the red clay soil.

It’s pretty, rather than beautiful. The epitome of rural. And just as Lucy Maud Montgomery painted it, when she set Anne of Green Gables here. There are even clapboard houses with green window frames. Again, quiet roads, until I hit the outskirts of Charlottetown and the retail parks.

Charlottetown

Threading my way to the waterfront (the waterfront is the focus in all the maritime cities) and it’s peaceful again. The day (and the season) is just beginning here; the shops, cafes and cluster of little booths are just opening up. The marina has plenty of berths, but they’re mostly empty. The stalls in the Founders Food Hall are sleepily awakening too. Apparently PEI is famous for its seafood and they harvest lots of mussels - 80% of the Canadian supply.

The old town, around the port, is chock-a-block with Victorian architecture: pastel colour washed clapboard, Greek and Roman revival elements thrown in. Many pre-date the Charlottetown Conference. The grandest buildings are on Great George Street. The massive porticoed and pillared Province House is partly hidden behind hoardings. It’s being revamped. Several townhouses have been incorporated, enterprisingly, into the Great George Hotel. Outside is a recent Nathan Scott bronze sculpture depicting two men deep in conversation. These are the two John Hamilton Grays, (both the premier of PEI and of New Brunswick went by this name) and they are said to be determining the future of Candi and establishing the confederation.

And then there’s the unmissable Gothic style Basilica of St Dunstan, with its twin spires. Although, dating from 1907, it's one of the newer buildings here. Queen Street is home to more solid stone and brick architecture. Shopping malls and the cultural centre. Opposite is the Victorian Charlottetown City Hall, still used today by the municipal government.

The road winds on, through more arable land, past more historic churches, before I know it I’m at the Confederation Bridge, which carries the Trans-Canada Highway across the Northumberland Strait and links the province of Prince Edward Island to the mainland province of New Brunswick. It opened in 1997, and the eight mile bridge is Canada's longest bridge and the world's longest bridge over ice-covered water. (Though not today.)

I’m quite excited at the prospect of driving over the water for such a long way, but I have to report that it’s a thoroughly boring journey. There is little to see, except for a patched concrete road surface, grey concrete walls and the odd splash of blue ocean. And I’m totally dashed by the toll. Fifty two dollars. You only have to pay to leave. No wonder they let me have the ferry free.

The Bay of Fundy

My last bucket list wish, in the maritime area, is to see the Bay of Fundy. This long arm of the Atlantic, with two fingers, separates New Brunswick from Nova Scotia and is famous for having the highest tides in the world. ( A range of up to 16 metres.) And I’m heading for Hopewell Rocks Provincial Park, which is said to be the most scenic area here.

New Brunswick

  • New Brunswick was named in 1784, in honour of George III, who was also prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
  • This is the third of the Maritime provinces, abutting Maine in the USA.
  • New Brunswick was first inhabited by First Nations like the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet. This was the primary area in which the French colonists settled - the main part of Acadia. There’s even an Acadian Historical Driving Trail here. The British diluted the population through a mass exportation - The Great Upheaval. Many loyalists arrived in the area, fleeing the USA, and the province of New Brunswick was created, hived off from Nova Scotia. Today, a third of the province is French speaking and French is an official language. In 1867, New Brunswick decided to join with Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada (now Quebec and Ontario,) to form the Dominion of Canada.
  • After Confederation, shipbuilding and lumbering declined, and protectionism disrupted trade with New England. As a result, from the mid-1900s onwards, New Brunswick became one of the poorest regions of Canada. Today, fortunes are turning, as the province has seen the highest eastward migration in 45 years, in both rural and urban areas, and people from Ontario and other parts of Canada migrate to the area.

New Brunswick is about 83% forested and I swear the fir trees are taller here. It’s also unusual in that only about half of the population lives in urban areas. New Brunswick's largest city is Moncton, (the capital is Fredericton), which sits right at the tip of the bay. It’s not hugely exciting here, low, with red clay banks on the placid Peticodiac River. It's not quite boring, but there is a tidal bore, because of the huge tidal changes and viewing platforms. The bore is greatest when there’s a full moon.

Past the Albert County Museum and R.B. Bennett Commemorative Centre, on the site of the 1845 'Shiretown'. It features 24 exhibits inside eight original buildings; one of them is the County Court.

Hopewell Rocks

At the park, there are two sets of rocks, shaped by tidal erosion. The lesser rocks, in Grand Anse, are to my mind more picturesque, with hoodoo like shapes. But you can clamber down steps (101) to the shore, at Flowerpot Rocks, and marvel at the 40 - 70 feet pillars and arch. I’ve arrived at mid tide, which seems perfect to me. I can still squelch round the rocks, the water has not yet encroached here and I get far reaching views of the atmospheric mud flats. It was a long drive, but it was worth it. Even though the rain hammers down all the way home, back on Trans Canadian 10. The drivers still don’t give any quarter, streaking past and drenching my windscreen in spray.

Next stop, St Pierre et Miquelon, by plane from Halifax.

Facts and Factoids

  • Canada is a quizzer's fact finding dream. It is huge, the second largest country in the world, after Russia. Its spans six time zones and stretches across half the northern hemisphere.
  • It has the world’s longest coastline at 202,080 kilometres.
  • Canada has more lake surface area  than the rest of the world's lakes combined.
  • Its border with the United States is the world's longest international land border.
  • This is a sparsely inhabited country with 40 million people, most of whom live south of the 55th parallel in urban areas. Canada's capital is Ottawa and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
  • When Jaques Cartier, a French explorer, came to the New World, he met with locals, who invited them to their ‘kanata’ (the word for ‘village’). Cartier  mistakenly thought the name of the country was “Kanata” or Canada. And so Canada was named village
  • Native Canadians are referred to as First Nations people. They make up about four percent of the population.
  • The majority of the first Nations people live in Canada’s far north, the frozen Arctic, where, ice, snow and glaciers dominate the 580,000 square miles of landscape. In some areas it snows for six months of the year. Canada's nickname is 'The Great White North'. because so much of this northern territory is untouched and unexplored.
  • The British monarch is the head of state of Canada. The monarch is represented by a governor-general, who has very limited powers. Laws are made by Canada’s elected federal government, which includes a parliament and a prime minister.
  • The vast majority of Canada’s trade is with close neighbour, the United States. Canada exports fish, furs and other natural resources (and has done since since the 1500s).
  • This is the world's most educated country; over half its residents have college degrees.

Canucks

Canadians are colloquially known as Canucks. They don’t seem to mind; it’s an affectionate term, which began as an Americanism, originally referring to Dutch or French Canadians. There’s even a Johnny Canuck, a folklore hero, who figured in a political cartoon in Victorian times and evolved into Captain Canuck, a 1970s Canadian comic book superhero.

A Very Brief History of Canada

  • The first people to come to Canada arrived possibly 30,000 years ago across a land bridge which joined Asia to North America.
  • The Viking explorer Leif Eriksson reached Newfoundland around 1,000 A.D. It's believed that he tried to establish a settlement, but it didn’t survive for very long.
  • Then, in the sixteenth century, French and British explorers arrived. Giovanni Cabot mapped the coast and claimed the land for Henry VII and England and Cartier claimed it for Francis and France. They were followed by settlers. The English prospered more than the French and were awarded most of the lands in the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713.
  • There was generally cooperation (followed by treaties) with the indigenous peoples, who were less happy over later years, when asked to integrate. Land disputes between farmers and fur traders led to four wars between 1689 and 1763. The final war, called the French and Indian War, left the British in control of Canada, but the French influence continued to be strong, especially in Quebec and Acadia (in the Maritime Provinces).
  • (Britain’s Quebec Act of 1774 granted Quebec its own legal and religious rights. Despite this, many Quebecois still agitate for independence. Votes were held in 1980 and 1995, and the result was increasingly close, but not close enough.)
  • In 1776, Benjamin Franklin visited to try and persuade the Canadians to join the American Revolution. He decided it would be easier to buy Canada, than to conquer it. But he didn't succeed with either.
  • The United States still had to be repulsed (1812-1814) when the now independent colonies thought to add Canada to their own lands. Victory over Napoleon confirmed British dominance. Ottawa emerged as the capital, as the endpoint of the Rideau Canal, part of a network of forts, built by Wellington, to prevent the U.S.A. from invading Canada again.
  • In 1867, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined to form the Dominion of Canada, with its own government, parliament and prime minister – and Manitoba joined soon after. In 1931, Canada became an independent nation.
  • Today, Canada remains many nations in one, living in ten provinces and three territories. Descendants of British and French immigrants make up about half the population. The rest of the population derives from European and Asian immigrants. First Nations peoples make up about four percent. Inuit peoples live mostly in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They are not classified as First Nation, as they are not of Indian origin.

The Difference Between Canadians and Americans

  • On first acquaintance, the USA and Canada can appear quite similar. The road signs, fines (double through road works) and rules seem to be the same. But in Canada the metric system is used (and unlike the UK totally consistent) and distance is measured in kilometres, rather than miles.
  • Canadian English is at times spelled like the Americans. But at others, it's more British. for example, they use ll in words such as cancelled and it's humour not humor. But centre is still sadly center. And the vocabulary is more American – elevator, sidewalk, apartment.
  • French fries are still fries, but they are also chips. especially when paired with fish or sold from 'chip trucks'.
  • A toilet is a washroom, not a restroom.
  • Canadians are more formal and reserved than Americans. They say ‘Hello’, when you meet. not Hi.
  • They are very much more about the great outdoors – shootin’, huntin’, fishin’, and hikin’.
  • Most importantly of all Canadians have distinct aversion to being identified as American. If you're not sure, assume Canadian.

Tipping Culture

Tipping in Canada is perhaps even more traumatic now than it is in the USA. You can’t even buy a bottle of water at a drinks stand without being presented with a card machine which advises you to select one from 15, 20 or 25% for your ‘server’.

What To Do in Canada

  • Canada is enormous, so its going to take a lot of time to explore.
  • The cities are worth visiting, especially Vancouver and Montreal, but the main attraction has to be the world of nature and The Great Outdoors. Canada has 41 national parks and three marine conservation areas.
  • There is stunningly beautiful countryside on the Atlantic coast and in the Rocky Mountains. British Columbia and Vancouver Island are glorious. The prairies roll along in the centre.
  • The fall colours are wonderful
  • Whale watching, fishing, skiing, hiking
  • Niagara Falls, the CN Tower and Toronto all fit together
  • Read about my trips here:

Across Canada

The next part of my Big Trip is a train journey right across Canada. And Canada is definitely big. I'm excited to be travelling across the second largest country in the world, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. And I'm running parallel with the the world's longest bi-national land border - 5,525 miles of it. (That makes for interesting politics and relationships with the USA).

I'm making stopovers in Canada's three largest metropolitan areas: Toronto, Montreal, and, first of all Vancouver. But I've decided there isn't time for Ottawa (which people are often surprised to learn is the capital.)

Vancouver

Vancouver grew, and made its money through its natural harbour. It became a hugely important trading link. But the city traces its origins to the site of a makeshift tavern on the edge of a mill. The owner was known as Gassy Jack so the area was called Gastown. The original site is marked by the Gastown steam clock, which still steams away. The city was renamed Vancouver in 1886, through a deal with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). (He was a British. naval explorer).Vancouver gave rise to Greenpeace in 1969 and is home to the TED conferences. Its been awarded the twin accolades of best place in the world to live and one of the most expensive.

A Trolley Bus Tour of Vancouver

And shellshock. It's freezing (well 12 degrees) and pouring with rain in Canada. Full of jet lag (I've lost five hours this time, coming from Fiji) and shivering, so I decide the best option is a trolley bus tour to refresh my memories of 'The Number 1 Place in the World to Live'. Except that the windows all steam up, so I can't see out and it's so cloudy that there isn't much to see anyway.

I remember that Vancouver has great mountain scenery and a fabulous harbour, best seen from a viewpoint the other side of the harbour. Other than the views the highlights were the Museum of Anthropology - totem poles and Native American carvings and boats-, the old section, around the Gas Clock, and the terrifying pedestrian Capilano Suspension Bridge (not to be confused with the small iron Port Mann coathanger in the harbour, which I understand has now been blown up and replaced with a brand new suspension bridge).

Stanley Park

But today I will have to accept what I'm told and rely on my memories. The driver says it's the first day of fall and it always rains in the fall. If I recollect correctly it rained the last time I came, and that was in the spring.

A quick foray into the mall to stock up on fleeces seems a good idea. I also buy an umbrella so that I can shield my camera from the downpour. Then I take a risk and get off the trolley in Stanley Park to take pictures of city scrapers across the water and the totem poles. The umbrella idea doesn't work; practical multi tasking is beyond me, as I can't balance the brolly and depress the button at the same time. (Last visit's pictures were better). It's tipping it down really hard and there is little shelter so I decide I had better walk up to the next stop. Cars driving past take great delight in sending up great waves of water as they speed along. I am drenched. Finally I flag down another trolley bus. Then it breaks down.

And the people are so grumpy and rude. Is it the weather? I've been barged past repeatedly. If you give way or hold the door no-one says thank you. I even had a battle with the taxi driver yesterday who tried to cheat me. And when I try to chat to people on the bus they look at me as if I'm mad.

The only good thing I have to report is that the leaves on the trees here are beginning to turn. That augurs well for the rest of the trip. And at least I leave tonight.

Vancouver Island

On my last trip here I flew the 60 miles over to Vancouver Island.( I got the ferry back) The American president's Airforce 1 was sitting on the runway. It's a scenic and worthwhile visit. Victoria, capital of British Columbia on the tip, is full of colonial charm. It is the southernmost major city in Western Canada and one of the oldest in the Pacific Northwest, with British settlement beginning in 1843. The city's most famous landmark is the Parliament Buildings, home of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. The city's Chinatown is the second oldest in North America after San Francisco's. There is also a huge Japanese influence.

I stayed in the harbour city of Nanaimo, with friend Jenny's relatives. Nanaimo is possibly most famous for having a chocolate dessert name after it, though there is some suggestion that the recipe was actually stolen from an earlier bar called London Fog.

The mountain scenery is stunning. There's a range named Golden Hinde after Drake's ship. The Pacific Rim Park on the west coast is bleak blustery and wonderful.

En Train -The Canadian

The train chugs past hills that gradually increase in height to mountains capped with the first snow of the winter, turquoise rivers and endless fir trees mingled with birch and aspen. These are turning a golden yellow and when the sun peeps out, as it does on occasion, the views are glorious. Unfortunately, there is still some rain as well. There are very few inhabitants, just the odd lumberjack at a saw mill or floating logs or a farmhand feeding the pigs and a sprinkle of log cabins.

The VIA Rail train - (The Canadian) is great fun. (And a great deal cheaper than the Rocky Mountaineer). It's fifties refurbished steel, typical diner style and is very long. They board economy on a different platform and then hook the cars on the front. There are observation cars and a dining car as well as an activities car. I expect I shall avoid that. I have a dinky little cabin with my own washbasin, a toilet that doubles as a foot stool (a little bizarre) and a fold down bed.

The other passengers seem to be tour groups, mostly grizzlies of American/Australian nationality, several English. We travel at snail's pace for the first part of the journey, leaving in the evening, when we are offered champagne and canapés to celebrate. The steward says that he had been instructed to give us one glass each. Then he winks and tells us that if our glass is empty that means he can give us one glass. And he hands me a tumbler full anyway.

On Board the Canadian

Using the camera is even more problematic than trying to photograph fish, with the rain and reflections. The train speeds up at all the wrong moments or a tree, another train or power lines appear just as I squeeze the trigger. I suspect most of the collection so far will have to be deleted. The food is flowing freely. It's like being on a cruise. Other than the three main meals, in the dining car, there are drinks, pastries and fruit being handed out all day.

The Canadian Rockies

Jenny and I drove from Vancouver into the Rocky Mountains, passing Whistler and being forced to take a 200 mile diversion, as there was a landslide. Jenny got stopped for speeding and received a long lecture from the Mountie, who then let us off. The snow was gorgeous and there was plenty of it still at Easter. We skirted Lake Maligne and skied at Silverstar in the Monashee Mountains. It turned out, fortuitously, that Jenny's cousin lived in Vernon, nearby and made ski videos. Surprisingly and delightfully, the slopes were deserted.

Over the continental divide and into Alberta and the white capped mountains of Banff National Park. The centrepiece is Lake Louise (frozen and glittery).

Jasper, Canada

This afternoon I'm back into Alberta on my train, losing yet another hour, and stopping at Jasper in the centre of Canada's largest Rocky Mountain park. Five hundred and fifty miles so far. When Jenny and I got to Jasper, we walked down the high street with an elk. This time no elks in town - they have been discouraged, but a pair are swimming in a river. Jasper is still a two street town, but it's a good opportunity for me to get a little exercise and take some pictures that aren't blurred. And it is just like a cruise, as everyone piles off and hits the shops with instructions to make sure that they are back on time. Which doesn't give us long, as the train is already running fifty minutes late.

Onwards Through Alberta

I have palled up with a lady called Hilary, who has the 'roomette' opposite mine. She departs with her tour group at Jasper, so I speak to the attendant, Dionne (who only attends to sleeping quietly in his own cabin as far as I can see) and establish that no-one will be occupying her space until tomorrow. So I requisition it as my en-suite. That means I can leave the bed down in my room and admire the scenery of Canada from under my warm duvet.

I've slept through Edmonton at midnight and now we're heading for Saskatchewan and then Manitoba and the loss of yet another hour. The pace is very variable. Sometimes we really crawl and we often have to stop entirely and wait for the two mile long freight trains to pass, as they apparently have precedence. We only speed up if there is a photo opportunity. In an unexpected burst of energy Dionne tells me that the train has been known to run as much as 18 hours behind.

Saskatchewan, Canada

We have left the mountains behind, and for some time I can see only forest in every direction. Then the landscape flattens into prairies and skyscraper silos, but it still holds the eye. To my surprise, I am too engrossed to read at all. The wheat fields are prettier than their American cousins, more undulating, interspersed with areas of wetland, rippling reed mace and waterfowl, dappled with sunshine. A stag is drinking at one lake. There is a smattering of chocolate roll hay bales - very David Hockney. And the trees are definitely looking more and more autumnal. There are also giant heaps of pink potash.

Surprisingly, Saskatchewan and Alberta are the only landlocked provinces of Canada. Huge Hudson Bay to the north dips down to Manitoba. Saskatchewan has 100,000 lakes though - 10% of its total area. No sea means no moderating bodies of water, so the winters here are severe. Temperatures below - 45 °C are possible. And, confusingly, today, the temperature has climbed up past 20 degrees in sunny Saskatchewan and my cabin has turned from fridge to oven. It's great that the increasingly mellow foliage is magnificently illuminated.

Saskatoon

I leap off at Saskatoon (great name), the capital of Saskatchewan, and home to half the inhabitants of the province. But there is nothing there to see. A grubby little station, a few trees and a lot of railway sidings. Still, it's sunny, if very fresh, and I loiter very close to the train. I'm terrified it will leave without me.

Manitoba, Canada

Manitoba is the centre of Canada, the most easterly of the three great prairie provinces. There are some stunning river valley views. It's just a shame the train is going too fast to take many decent pictures. I leap off the train again at the capital, Winnipeg, but it's nine in the evening and everything is closed, except for a pub. Just time to pick up some WiFi and do my emails. Catching up with work is a good way to get stressed just before bedtime....

Playing Sardines

Life in a sardine can is becoming a little tiresome, especially as I am now deprived of my en-suite. I can't reach or find anything without scrabbling around and banging my head. I have to reverse back down the corridor every time I meet someone going the other way. The other passengers, are not super friendly. Neither is the service. One of the waitresses is called Sunny and she is not aptly named. Slip-Slap-Slop would be more appropriate.

My fellow tourists seem to spend the majority of their time on board sleeping. I've ended up eating most of my meals with some Germans, so the conversation hasn't exactly flowed. As you will probably have deduced by now I'm grumpy; I haven't been sleeping very well. The train is noisy, there are numerous untraceable rattles, and it bumps along; the track was so bad last night that I was convinced that a derailment was imminent.

Ontario, Canada

The scenery is still fascinating, however. Now we're traversing Ontario - it's massive. It's going to take nearly two days to cross, and it's been forests and lakes glittering in the sun all day. There are endless skinny spiked firs, but their sombre green is continually enlivened with the fiery orange and yellow of birch and aspen and the odd crimson carpet.

Various activities are announced as we roll along. We even have musicians on board. They are very pleasant girls, I was chatting to them yesterday at dinner. But I refuse to take time out from the view. I even forgo lunch today. Though, to be honest, I'm still suffering from my late breakfast. And there are mountains of free fruit, not to mention cookies and croissants, in the park cars.

Today's stop is at Hornepayne, which appears to be a fifties 'old' station, with a few murals and, quel surprise ( have to practise the French again), little else.  Talking of French, it's very reassuring listening to the English speaking Canadians attempting to make their announcements in French. Their accent is truly execrable and it's peppered with 'ooh la las'. I can't decide if they are being deliberately subversive.

An Itchy Night

More drama - at dinner I begin to itch and when I undress later, in the hopes of a good night's sleep to end my journey I discover that my whole body is covered in red angry bites. Really odd as I've been fully clothed the whole trip. I summon my new cabin attendant, who luckily takes her job a little more seriously than Dionne and we strip the bed and examine it for wildlife. Nothing to be seen, but she replaces the whole lot. The only other possibility is the shower, which is at the end of the corridor. I shan't be having another one of those till I get to my hotel. Meanwhile, here's to an itchy night.

Toronto, Canada

I had thought the Canadians were trying to make up for other shortcomings by personalising the phone service, but it seems that Rogers is the Canada equivalent of Vodafone. I'm in Toronto, drinking what is billed as the best apple martini in the world. It probably is too. The steak is pretty wonderful as well! Ah civilisation!!!!!! My agent must have got a good deal on this hotel - The Royal York, polished wood, chandeliers and its own little arcade of shops.

I woke up to a completely different world. Little homesteads, clapboard houses and crimson trees. I've done very well. The weather is unseasonably gorgeous, I seem to be dragging a warm front along with me and fall is at its peak. I'm not sorry to leave the train. I had the service manager taking photos of my bites and an itchy night. When I finally got off the train the ground was still swaying and I thought for a moment I was in a time slip. London, Kingston and Brentford were all on the departure board.

Toronto - Deja Vu

Toronto is pretty much as I expected. It's the biggest city in Canada, the fourth biggest in North America and a cultural centre. The TV networks are based here. But it's unremarkable. Half the place seems to be under reconstruction, which might account for the whiffs of sewage I keep experiencing. Perhaps the most interesting area is fashionable Yorkville (Toronto was initially called York). with its high-end boutiques, galleries and design studios, especially on Bloor Street's "Mink Mile." Here are the chic cafes, polished bars and fine-dining restaurants. Its posh hotels host Hollywood insiders during the Toronto International Film Festival. Side streets are lined with picture-postcard Victorian homes with ornamental gardens.

Otherwise, I replicate past city jaunts. Up the CN tower, an open top bus tour and out in a boat to see the skyline view from Lake Ontario. It's very pleasant, and how can I complain when there isn't a cloud in the sky? But it's all been done better elsewhere on the trip. (Except possibly for the martini.)

En Train and Off Train

I'm still itching. And my face is still red; my nose has begun to peel again. However, the glorious weather continues and I'm about to catch the train again, to Montreal. My body hasn't realised it's left the train yet. I'm sure we pulled out of a station, as I got out of bed this morning. Today's journey is initially a mixture of suburbia and views across Lake Ontario, then farmland and woods, as we follow the St Lawrence River.

Montreal

Montreal is the largest city in Quebec province. and the second largest in Canada (after Toronto). It's actually built on an island, in the St Lawrence River, surrounded by smaller islands. And to begin with, Montreal is a little daunting. The French announcements take precedence over the English ones, the second we enter Quebec; all the signs and billboards are in French. However, on short acquaintance Montreal promises much more than Toronto. It has atmosphere, a proper old town and port (as in eighteenth century), which has character, a church round every corner, cobbled streets full of cafes, bars that spill over onto the street and those expensive boutiques that have wooden floors and one rack of clothes. in the newer downtown areas, the old melds with the new. You would have to say Montreal was both hip and happening.

Montreal - Parfait

Dorchester Square and Place du Canada - premium addresses and transport hubs, with the Canada Life Building looming overhead, statues, cathedrals and cemeteries coming and going (they moved the bodies around depending on which was considered to be the dominant and therefore appropriate church).

The old town seems to be called interchangeably the Old Town and the Old Port. Place d'Armes, Place de Jacques Cartier and Place Royale are the hubs here, surrounded by more historic buildings than you can shake a stick at.

Place d'Armes is home to the ornately decorated Basilica of Notre Dame. The square here symbolically features an Englishman carrying a bulldog and a Frenchwoman bearing a poodle. The people are facing away from each other, but the dogs are eager to make friends.

Place de Jacques Cartier honours the French explorer who instigated much of the early French settlement in Canada. It's lined with cafes and is buzzing with tourists. Just to the west, Le Champs de Mars and the imposing City Hall. East, on the waterfront the Notre Dames de Bon Secours Chapel, highly embellished with statues, (you can't miss it ) and the domed Bonsecours Market, full of mid range aspiring to be high end shops and cafes. For a year, it was home to the national parliament.

Place Royale marks the place where Montreal's' first fort, Ville-Marie was built. This was required because of persistent incursions by the native Iroquois. Today, it's the site of the Old Customs House. There's also Molsen's, the oldest bank in Canada and underground passages.

I stroll along the waterfront taking pictures of the museums, in the old town, and the Jacques Cartier Bridge and adjacent port clocktower (British design) in the sunset. looking across to the Biosphere peeping above the trees, on St Helen's Island. The waterfront is where all of Montreal meets, jogging, cycling, walking, sunbathing on the strips of fake beach, or sitting in cafes. The old port is actually home to a marina where there are scores of modern boats, all berthed neatly in rows.

There are are old boats, however - the oldest tug in North America - in the more southerly national historic site, the Lachine Canal. This is the industrial section, with a row of flour mills, belching smoke and brutalist, hip apartments. The trees around the busy Old Port are just the sort of bright autumn red that you only see in photographs. I can prove it. And best of all, the inhabitants move smoothly from French to English without batting an eyelid, let alone tutting at your effrontery in using English or your poor French grammar. Parfait.

Mont Real

Up 400 steps to the Mount Royal Park lookout, the Kondiaronk Belvedere, offering views across the Island of Montreal. (The penny has just dropped - it's not Mon-tree-all it's Mont Real. Though the original name was Ville-Marie.) I discover plenty of fall colour. The trees here are like a tequila sunrise, yellow at the bottom, turning to flame orange in the middle and vermilion on top. And still a perfect blue sky backdrop.

I also find a festival preceding a football game, complete with cheerleaders and whooping. Montreal is renowned for its festivals; it hosts the largest jazz festival in the world. More great views across the town and river. Scrambling down a gravel side path, in an attempt to avoid all the joggers, I am pelted by acorns. It's not windy - is it the squirrels? Anyway, they hurt, a lot. I'm really glad I've never been hit by a coconut.

Downtown Montreal

Then all through Downtown, It's just like walking down Oxford Street. although here the busiest shopping street is St Catherine's Street. It's the backbone of Montreal, nine miles long, home to historic buildings such as the Bay Trading Company. Montréal has numerous different quarters, with unexpected pedestrian areas. Iconic, graffiti strewn St Laurent Boulevard (also dubbed Main) historically divides the city into east and west and is a cultural hub, with galleries and museums. It segues into the Quartier des Spectacles, the arts and entertainment district, located in the eastern section of Downtown Montreal, designed as a centre for Montreal's cultural events and festivals. It's excitingly packed with squares, stages and sculptures.

Around here, and in the Business District many buildings extend underground forming a cunningly contrived U shape linked with escalators, lifts and tunnels. This is Montreal's Underground City. Shops, food courts and performing areas are mixed with national and municipal offices. It began as a welcome retreat from the snow and cold of winter.

Then there's The Village, with a focus on the LBGQT population, university areas (notably McGill very well located Downtown), the cultural areas - look to Quartier Spectacles and trendy ( I can't keep saying hip) Plateau, beneath Mont Royal, where I'm staying. (Manoir Sherbrooke is extremely pleasant) with a plethora of pavement cafes, especially on Rue St Denis. (This is the area where the locals go to hang out and is less visited by tourists). Chinatown (nice dragon gates) and back to the old port. A fire engine goes past, lights flashing. (They don't pin pon here, they wail ). The town is thronging with locals enjoying the sun and again, there is lively music and street performers on every corner. Did I say that Montréal is a great city?

Quebec City

A side trip to Quebec City today, as folk I meet keep telling me it is the most interesting city in Canada. It takes me three hours each way on the train, but it is easily worth it. Anyway, the trains here are decidedly superior to what we get back home. Well designed, comfy, lots of space and free WiFi .