Saturday, July 30, 2011

Berwick - the last leg

As our Canada trip wound down, we spent the last few days at a Christian "ashram" in Berwick, one of the small towns in the Annapolis Valley (which is the northern half of Nova Scotia). It's also the apple-growing capital of Canada. The choice of lingering here for a few days was the suggestion of the Anglican priest friend who planned my itinerary and I am so glad I took his advice. After tons of driving, I needed a few days to just relax before the three-day drive home through New England. The second photo shows the camp, where people stayed in cabins much like this. And the first photo is of Miss Veeka in a presentation put on by the youth the last day of the camp. She danced like a pro. Her time at the camp was mainly spent with other kids - instead of me - which was a relief for both of us in that we were not constantly in each other's hair. During one of the afternoon breaks, she and I did repair to a local mountain spot - Aylesford Lake - for a swim, as the hot temps that were cooking the US east coast at the time were bringing weather in the upper 80s to Nova Scotia.
But we stayed 10 miles away in a neighboring town where the Alexas, our host and hostess cooked us lovely breakfasts and treated us like royalty. All too soon we had to push off to catch the ferry from Digby back to St. John, New Brunswick. On the way, we briefly stopped in some lovely gardens in Annapolis Royal (one of many small historic towns along the way), then had a very agreeable 3 hours on this ferry. It cost us a mint ($130) for the ride, but they had a movie, some structured time for kids and decent cafeteria food. Arriving at St. John, it was quite foggy and nasty. St. John is reputed to have the worse weather in the Maritimes - always cold and damp - so we took off for that night's stay in St. Stephen, right on the US border.
The next morning, our hosts, Bob and Mary Smith, took us out to breakfast with friends and then we zoomed back across the border at Calais with only a 15-minute wait; not bad for a Friday morning. It took us all morning to get to Bangor, then the better part of the afternoon to cut across Maine through the Sebago Lake region to get to our destination for the night; a ski area in New Hampshire. Why there? Because the hotel fees up and down the Maine coast were horrible. Nothing was under $175/night. The Best Western in Waterville Valley was only charging $109/night which was cheap, believe it or not. Which is how I got my first glimpse of the White Mountains.
The route we chose to get there was the Kancamagus Highway, a 34-mile route that led us past rivers with nice swimming spots (Veeka and I tried one at Rocky Gorge), lovely views and plenty of national forest. Waterville turned out to be a tiny community in a vale totally enclosed by mountains and we spent all the following morning exploring there before heading south to my childhood haunts in Connecticut.
More of that in another post, but, yes, we are home now and this past Thursday, I appeared with several other authors at a multi-author event at the new Busboys & Poets in Hyattsville, which is part cafe, part concert venue and part art gallery. All of us in Hyattsville are delighted to have something this sophisticated within walking distance. See the link here for a short clip of our readings.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cape Breton

A week ago, I was on one of the prettiest parts of our continent; the portion of Nova Scotia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Known as Cape Breton, it feels like part of the Scottish highlands and indeed, as I learned from visiting the Highland Village in Iona one day, a ton of Scots migrated to Canada when things got kind of bad in the old country. Not that Canada was all that much to their liking; the snow and the mosquitoes were quite a downer but the land is so reminiscent of Scotland. As I drove to my host's place just south of Sydney, I felt like I was driving along a firth. Everything was foggy, misty and green. I was quite taken by all the place signs having English/Gaelic translations.
We had scheduled two days there but that turned into 3 because the weather was awful and there was so much to see. Our second day there, we went to Louisbourg, a huge fort on the southern coast of the cape that was built by the French but taken over by the British in the mid-18th century. The place is larger than Williamsburg and frozen in time in 1744 which is how all the people are dressed there. One is confronted by soldiers asking if you speak French or English; given carding and spinning lessons and shown the dances of the day. One of the photos shows Veeka being very taken by a young man dressed in colonial garb in one of the homes who showed her how to play cards. She and I also found ourselves eating lunch at a restaurant where the only utensil was a spoon.
I bundled Veeka up quite a bit, as the weather was windy and about 50 degrees - and this was mid-July. Louisbourg has horrific weather all the time and one wonders why the French built a fort in such a nasty locale. It's true the harbor was quite handy but friendly ships as well as unfriendly ones crashed on the rocks just outside the harbor.
On our third day on the cape, the bad weather finally broke and the sun poured down. We bade good-bye to our kind hosts and started on a 400-mile trek (yes in one day) around the famed Cabot Trail, that goes around the northern-most part of Cape Breton. This isolated peninsula is mostly a national park; it's also the Big Sur of the Far North with similar views, crashing waves against cliffs, etc. So on a bright, sunny Sunday morning, we headed up St. Ann's Bay past numerous stores selling Gaelic books and music, past some gorgeous coves, then braved 12 percent inclines (US highways have 9 percent inclines at the most) up the Cape Smokey mount for even better views. Throngs of motorcyclists were out that day as well. We then descended to Ingonish, a resort town with a tiny ski area that is the major lodging place for summer visitors. It's situated around a pretty harbor and again, I would have stopped there in a minute had I two, instead of one, days, to explore the region.
Then we entered the national park portion of the cape, stopped at Green Cove, where Veeka adored clambering around all the rocks, then ended up at Neil's Harbour, a fishing port, for lunch at the Chowder House, a place with killer views of the ocean. A local fisherman showed me the piles of lobster and crab traps they use (bottom photo) and said there's so much crab, a fisherman can catch a whole year's allotment in the first two days of the season. I met a bunch of people throughout my trip who make a living fishing and my host in PEI even got up at 4 a.m. daily to fish for oysters. That kind of lifestyle is becoming quite rare in the US but it's not hard to find folks who live off of it in Atlantic Canada. As my hosts near Sydney told me, there are very few jobs in their region, so many of the young people have left Cape Breton to move to the States or to western Canada where there's plenty of work mining oil sands.
I would have liked to have headed further north towards Meat Cove or at least driven by White Point, just north of Neil's Harbour where the views are said to be the best, but we had to push inland through two huge valleys where I was constantly putting my Subaru in second gear to get up and down the grades. Atop one of the mountains, everyone (including about 100 motorcyclists) were stopped, ogling a large moose in a nearby field. (There are lots of highway signs in Canada telling you to beware of moose who wander onto the roads). It was at this point we were the furthest east of our trip and the slant of the sunlight and the pine trees and rocks and birches and sparse vegetation was almost boreal - very northern woods at high altitudes. Purple and yellow flowers everywhere.
Finally we popped out on the western side of the trail at Pleasant Bay and the views from there and for the next 40 or so miles going south were truly spectacular. Soaring vistas of blue sea and green mountains; many gulls. There were so many pleasant towns such as Inverness and Mabou that I wanted to linger in. Near Cap le Moine there was the funniest road-side display of dozens of scarecrows. Apparently Joe's Scarecrow is quite famous and we were asked to leave a donation for the upkeep of this display. Veeka liked wandering around giving hugs to the 'crows. We spent the afternoon coasting down the route leading back to the Corso Causeway - got there at 6 pm as I'd wished but then I had a 3-hour trip to Halifax to get to where we were supposed to spend the night. Got there at 9 pm and collapsed. Thank God for lingering light during long summer evenings.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Prince Edward Island

Just before we drove over the LONG causeway to Prince Edward Island (PEI for short), the royals (William and Kate) had visited the place because Kate, I heard, had read Anne of Green Gables and wanted to see the place. I found it a little weird that a whole island could make an industry out of a fictional character but sure enough, on the north side, there are blocks and blocks of real estate connected to Anne, including a sort of village where characters from the book mill about. We did not go there as the story meant nothing to Veeka and I wasn't going to drop a ton of money visiting such a spot.
We were also dogged by bad weather. We stayed with David and Dianne - a lovely couple who lived just outside of Charlottetown, the major city in the area. Our second day there, I took Veeka to see the annual Anne of Green Gables musical downtown which she liked a lot. The pace is geared toward young children as the scenes move very quickly. Our first day there, the weather was likewise awful and so I just started driving about, trying to find pretty sights. Then quite late in the afternoon, the sun came out and we headed for some of the beaches on the island's northern coast. I finally began to see why people like this island. We walked through long grasses on the sand dunes to get to the Dalway beach, which had red sand and blue-white seashells. I snapped a photo of Veeka posing at Cavendish, another of the beaches, next to some kind of Stonehenge set-up someone had made in the sand. Veeka is such a beach bum; it's such a shame we didn't get more time at them.
On Thursday the 14th, we took a ferry from PEI to Nova Scotia, then set out for Cape Breton, the most isolated part of the Maritimes. Will say more about this in a future post but we ended up spending 3 nights - instead of 2 - there as there was so much to see and do, despite the awful weather. One of the first things I noticed were road signs in English and Gaelic. Now that was a switch from English/French. I left Veeka for the day with some kids who were at the host's house and went to the Highland Village in Iona, a reconstruction of what a typical Scottish/Gaelic settlement looked like in the 19th century, which is when the Scots were leaving the Old World to move here. The folks at the village told me that the much colder weather and the bugs really put off the Scots but like the folks in the Emigrants books, they had little choice but to move to the New World as conditions back home were impossible.
And Cape Breton is so like Scotland. As I was driving to where our hosts lived - in the mist and rain - I felt like I was driving down a firth. The landscape looked so similar.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Celebrating the Bay of Fundy

When we left the Bay of Fundy on Monday, I could hardly tear myself away. There was that last drive along the pretty coast through the Fundy National Park, up to the gorgeous Cape Enrage (360-degree view of the bay), then down to a winery, then dropped by an art gallery specializing in the work of Lars Larsen, then over to a coffee place for one last cup of java which allowed me to stay awake for a long drive to our next port of call. And then there's Tim Hortens, Canada's answer to Starbucks. Must say the coffee at TH is not nearly as decent as S'bucks and the food choices are mainly doughnuts. Which Veeka likes but then she goes on a sugar high.
After leaving the Gaspe, we took a leisurely drive south through New Brunswick, stopping at a beach at Kouchibouguac National Park before arriving at the rectory of Eric Phinney, who pastors St. James the Less Anglican Church in St. John. I spoke there last Sunday, sold some books and met lots of nice people. Spent the afternoon at Irving Nature Park which was donated by the local resident oil company. It was lovely, breezy weather although the beach was kind of rocky and too dangerous for me to let Veeka wander far.
I was with 2 friends at that point and Veeka was getting a bit cross at getting no attention so we drove to a MacDonalds where she played to her heart's content in the playground while we ate lobster sandwiches, which they serve up there!
Photos here are of Cape Hopewell and the cool "flower pot" rocks on the ocean floor which we walked around. And of a lovely trail (Veeka is in the background) in the Fundy national park.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Gaspe - Les Oiseaux

Les oiseaux means "the birds" of course and that's what we saw a few days ago when we visited Bonaventure island, a little strip of land off Perce, which is the eastern tip of the Gaspe peninsula. Veeka and I jumped on the 11 a.m. boat out to this place, which was criss-crossed by trails. My little hiker took the lead and actually set the pace for her slower (and loaded down with heavy purse) mommy as she jogged about 3 kilometers to the other end of the island where we saw the most amazing sight: 60,000 pairs of nesting birds all perched on dirt mounds (nests) and making a huge racket. Their poop emitted enough methane to supply Jupiter for a year and, most fascinating to Veeka, many of their eggs had hatched so if you looked closely enough underneath the sitting bird, you could see a baby chick. It was like something right out of the penguin movie "Happy Feet."
And Veeka, who has watched "Happy Feet" 9.2 million times, quickly understood what these birds were doing in terms of protecting their young from predators. I think this rookery is one of the world's largest such places and the whole northern half of this island was covered with white gannets and their nests. The photo shows a boat with people looking up at the hillside of nests where we were standing.
The next day we took off for the southern half of the island, which was less spectacular by far than the northern coast. Did notice some Anglican churches appearing here and there - aren't any on the northern coast. We stopped mid-way at a very nice zoo here which we liked immensely as the habitats were very natural and there was everything from cougars to seals to moose - a Canadian specialty. V especially took to the two baby moose. Then we zoomed west along the Bay of Chaleurs in the late afternoon driving INTO the sun which was actually the best way to see the area. The light illumined the surrounding foothills and capes surrounding this large bay making the scenery look quite beautiful. Unfortunately late afternoon has become the time my body wants a nap so we've taken to turning on whatever local rock station we can find and blasting the music so the chauffeur can stay awake! Veeka adores anything with a beat, so she bounces around in her car seat.
We have encountered some very nice B&Bs which are cheaper than most hotels. La Maison Verte, pictured here, was where we stayed Thursday night. Really liked the hosts who were helpful to us and I'd definitely come back here again. Would love to try their cool cabin down by the river. This was the first lodging place in several days where I spoke English as we were moving towards English-speaking areas. Had dinner in Campbellton at a Vietnamese restaurant that was closed when we got there but I managed to talk the management into serving us anyway as we were starving. Would have loved to have known how any Vietnamese got to that part of the world.
The Campbellton area was very rural and heavily wooded - lots of salmon fishing and hiking locally - and I left there with some reluctance but I had more than 250 miles to drive to the southern coast of New Brunswick for a stay here right by the Bay of Fundy. We arrived quite late and the hosts had rhubarb and apple crisp waiting for us. Which was lovely after having to fight industrial-strength gnats to get in the door there.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

La Gaspesie

Supposedly the National Geographic Society has designated Quebec's Gaspe peninsula as the world's third most beautiful destination (after the Norwegian fjords and the Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia). And so here we are, one step ahead of the trend-setters, having spent the past four days driving about this huge place.
We pushed off from Montreal on July 4, crossed the bridge over to the southern bank of the St. Lawrence and began heading north, only to encounter crisis #1 when my engine light went on. Great. Stopped at one of those information touriste places and got the helpful clerk to phone ahead to a Subaru dealer just south of Quebec city who agreed to take us late in the afternoon. Nothing beats spending one's vacation in a Subaru showroom. Fortunately they ran the car through the diagnostic machine tres vite and came up with some pretty minor stuff that they fixed within the hour.
We sped out of there, as we had another 200 miles to go before getting to where we were spending the night. Not knowing the area, I chose a B&B in Sainte Luce, a coastal town just east of Rimouski, which is a major city on the peninsula. I was already noticing how steep the highways were in contrast to a typical US freeway and how each small town along the way had tons of free parking and picnic tables along its beaches. We pulled up at Maison Gallant at around 8:30 pm and then I dragged a sleepy Veeka to a restaurant where the service was slow at best. The town was a dream; a half-moon beach filled with cottages with a large Catholic church at the head. Nearly every town we went through had these churches, along with a cemetery and light house. The B&B turned out well; was situated on the ocean, so I strolled out to the beach early the next morning and sat down to think and pray, only to jump up again when I got attacked by bugs. Yes, we're definitely in the north here. The place we stayed at was lovely although the owners weren't too crazy about Veeka continually letting their kitty out the door.
First thing that morning, we stopped at the Jardins de Metis, an incredible series of gardens set in a micro-climate on the Gaspe peninsula that somehow manage to weather the cold winters there. Veeka and I had a fabulous 2 hours there looking at all the blue-tinted poppies, Japanese gardens, wild meadows filled with lupin and cool contraptions for Veeka to clamber on. There was an exhibit there of radical 'secret' gardens; one was a forest of blue-tinted sticks; another was a mountain of sea salt. Veeka loved climbing on that. Another was a series of circles leading to the sea.
Finally we jumped back in the Subaru as I had 7 hours to drive on Tuesday. Every scene was lovely; gorgeous blue sea, tiny towns like Matane, where we ate lunch at the Cafe du Monde, a creperie on Rue St. Jerome; or Grande Vallee with its exquisite church and homes; or Mont-St. Pierre, a town that's the hang glider capital of eastern Canada because of the perfectly sculpted mountains surrounding it; the lighthouse at Sainte Madeleine (have enclosed photo of Veeka at the lighthouse playground) or the enormous collection of 76 windmills at Cap Chat - am wondering if it's one of the world's largest wind farms. It's got to be. Also makes me wonder how cold and windy this place gets in the winter.
We really were fortunate as to weather which was in the low 70s tor upper 60s all day. The following day, it rained (I heard from some tourists who followed us) so we lucked out as to timing. By the end of Tuesday, I had driven 1,300 miles in four days and needed a rest. Which we did at the Auberge les Trois Soeurs, which has views to die for. Hope to include a photo showing the incredible view of rocks at Perce, the coastal town where we spent two nights.
The area is filled with rivers stocked with salmon, camping spots and places with a view. Will say that during this trek, it really helped to know French as many folks were not conversant - or barely so - in English. There are NO signs in English, either, which I find galling in that the Quebecois were pretty insistent that the rest of Canada include English on their signs. Am not sure how they get away with French-only signs here but that attitude works against them. There were many things I would have stopped and seen but I wasn't sure what they were or the terms were not familiar to me, so I just drove by. Like "casse-croute" means "snack bar" here. Had an enterprising owner just THOUGHT to have posted an English subtitle explaining what a casse-croute was, we might have stopped by one for lunch. After having been here for a few days, I still wonder if Quebec wants the rest of the world to come visit.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

O Canada

Veeka and I are on a journey - one to the north and the first time I've taken her out of the country. Why now and why here?'s so hard to get three weeks away when one is working at a regular job and something told me to take this time now. And so on Friday, she and I set off for Canada. I can only drive about 350 miles per day - after 7 hours at the wheel I turn into a pumpkin. So the first day, we stopped by a friend's place on Cayuga Lake, one of the finger lakes in New York. We pulled up early in the evening (after getting caught in rush hours in Scranton and Harrisburg) to find Anto and Roberta Parseghian and their extended family having a picnic. I'd met Anto years ago through his prophetic art that took on topics ranging from abortion to daycare. It was wildly interesting stuff but no one was buying it, so he's since gone into furniture-making. Samples of his gorgeous workmanship are here. So I got a tour of his studio and saw the incredible things he does with birch and other northern woods. Later that evening next to a campfire, we had such fun discussing theology; Anto is very Reformed and I am not so we had some great talks. The lights on the lake glittered in the distance. It was a beautiful night.
The next day we drove another 7 hours into Canada, ending up in Montreal by late afternoon and greeted by my friends Laurie and Grace Vuoto. They live in the Laval area north of town. All the signs here are in French with no translations. Which is fine for someone like me who has lived in France but it does give off the impression that the locals wish English-speakers would stay away. Today we attended Mass at St. Patrick's downtown, then drove atop Mont Royal (in French Mont Real which the city is named after). One of my photos shows Veeka with Grace (in jeans) and Laurie all squinting at me. The temps are in the 90s at this point. We repaired to Laurier Street to grab a bite at Juliette & Chocolate, then headed to another large church: St. Joseph's Oratory which is the resting place of Andre, a newly minted Catholic saint. I'm not into relics, so the display of the deceased's actual heart turned my stomach. Better was the excellent view over the city from one of the balconies. Veeka really got into saying a prayer, then lighting all the votive candles.
We tried dropping by Notre Dame's downtown but there was a service going on, so we ended up at the Vieux Port, which is all old Montreal and new shops that have sprung up on the city docks. By this time we were quite droopy and hot while Veeka was still dashing about, spritely as ever. So we picked up some chicken at St. Hubert's (the secret sauce is some kind of Quebecois specialty), then went home and collapsed. I dove into the family pool.