A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring the Maritimes - NS, NB, Cape Breton and PEI

falling colour, rolling trees and green gables

overcast 13 °C
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It is quite hard getting around the Maritime Provinces without a car, as most of the scenery is just that - roadside scenery without many specific 'attractions'. It also requires lots of time as the distances are fairly far... Although small in the context of Canada, the area is actually quite big, and there is a surprising amount to see - especially when the sun is shining and the leaves are falling! I hired a car with two other girls who I met travelling, and we headed off into the Maritime wilderness... People from the area are called 'Bluenosers' because they used to wear thick blue woollen jumpers, and in the cold and rain when they wiped their noses with their sleeves, the dye and wool would stick to their nose - turning it blue!

We left Halifax in a shiny new Toyota Corolla and headed off along the coastline towards Sherbrooke, travelling right along the shoreline in places, through tiny little fishing villages that were largely closed down for the season. The coastline is lovely - fractured and very weatherbeaten, but absolutely stunning; lovely and quiet.

The island of Cape Breton is renowned for the Cabot Trail - a 300km driving route around the western peninsula taking in some of the most stunning scenery on the island, and ranked as one of the top drives in the world. We had hoped to see some moose (as apparently they are "common" here) but had no luck. The scenery was beautiful - the area is known as the 'highlands' and has a very large Scottish / Gaelic community. I subsequently found out that geographically there is a link as well - the island used to be part of Scotland before the continents split! All the people here have very strange accents - Scottish with some Irish and a Canadian twang; and they found my South African accent strange! ;)

Prince Edward Island is a really unique place, it is completely rural, and very proud. Charlottetown (the capital) is a fairly small city (40 000) and entirely low-rise. Similar to Halifax, the best bits are those in the older areas, where the clapboard two to three storey houses and generous parks on the grid of roads are very lovely. I found Charlottetowns' relationship to the water very peculiar; it doesn't really have one. The most 'desirable' areas are firmly embedded within the town, and to get to the water one has to pass through an obvious industrial ring of cheaper land value, a lot of which is now being redeveloped as apartments with dubious architectural or urban merit.

As another university town, Charlottetown also has a very active nightlife, to which the profusion of pubs and bars testifies. The island is renowned for 'Cows Ice-cream', to which I paid the obligatory visit ;)

The highlight of my stay on PEI was the day we spent driving around towards the northern Gulf of St Lawrence shore and Cavendish, the home of Anne of Green Gables (fictional character created my Mary Laud Montgomery 100 years ago). Although the setting (an existing farm 'reconstructed' to more closely represent Montgomery's 'vision') is fake, it still has historical relevance as a domestic setting, and the walks through the surrounding countryside (forests and dells) were spectacular. Something that isn't mentioned in most of the tourist literature though, is that the neighbouring "Green Gables Golf Course" is in fact on the farm itself. I was very confused when I walked out of a lovely quiet squirrel and leaf filled dell onto a pristine green fairway.

To return to the mainland the following day, we decided to drive over the Confederation Bridge - the longest span over ice-covered water in the world, apparently. At this time of year there is no ice, but the 13km was certainly spectacular, if hairy, to drive. The lanes were very narrow, and as there was no shoulder the solid concrete barrier at the edge of the road felt very close...

We made our way through New Brunswick to the north-eastern Nova Scotian shore of the Bay of Fundy, which receives the largest tidal fluctuations in the world - 12m vertically! Throughout the area the eroded river banks are spectacular; bright red and each a small canyon of mud. We drove along all the backroads, and I was suprised at the change in feel from other parts of the Maritimes - a lot more smaller undulating hills and valleys, and the winding roads were quite lovely. The Canning 'Look Off' provided a fantastic view over the patchwork of autumn trees, fields and homesteads.

The next day we made an early (5:30am) start so that we could visit Lunenburg and Mahone Bay before returning the rental car by 10am... It was rushed, and nothing was open, but I'm glad that we made the effort anyway. Lunenburg is another UNESCO world heritage site, and the timber clapboard buildings along the tight roads were lovely.

I will expand upon this all at a later date...

Posted by tessab 17:52 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Halifax, Nova Scotia

beginning of my journey through the Maritime Provinces

semi-overcast 9 °C
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During the past week, after arriving in Halifax on Monday 13th October, I have been in Halifax for 2 days on either side of a self-driven trip around the Maritime Provinces - Nova Scotia (and Cape Breton), Prince Edward Island (PEI) and New Brunswick. During the planning phase of this trip I had heard that the autumn colours were at their best during the second to third weeks of October, and that prediction proved correct. The lasting memory from my stay will be the spectacular orange, yellow, brown, red and green covered hillsides - unceasing rolling colour.

Halifax is a relatively small city - although with a population of more than 350 000 it is the biggest Canadian city east of Montreal. As a university town the nightlife and live music scene is renowned, especially for the typically east Canadian folk music. As seems to be pretty normal with Canadian seaside towns, it is also a cruiseship stopover, so for a couple of days a week the town is inundated with cruiseship based tourists.

The area was first colonised by the French, and named 'Acadia', but after a war in the 1700's it was lost to Britain, and became a colony of Scotland - and a such named 'Nova Scotia' - latin for "New Scotland". There is a tremendous mix of cultures here; many towns are 'Acadian' (i.e. French) and the Gaelic population on Cape Breton is the largest outside Britain.

The main attraction in Halifax is the Citadel - a fortification reconstructed three times since the 1700's and now seemingly a bastion of Scottish culture (bagpipes and kilts abound!). It overlooks Halifax Harbour and Dartmouth over the water. There are even cannons pointed menacingly over the walls, although due to development during the 1900's they now point at the back of ugly concrete office buildings. Towards the waterfront, the 'Historic Properties' precinct is a collection of older industrial buildings converted into restaurants, shops and entertainment attractions, largely for tourists from what I can see. Halifax is home to a number of tall ships, which are moored in the harbour.

My favourite aspect of the town are the houses in the older areas. All timber clapboard or shingles, each is painted a different colour and is unique in its own way, but when experienced together they form a very coherent urban mix.

After two nights in Halifax (and much organisation) I left with two other travellers for five nights in which to explore the Maritimes (see seperate blog post). Upon my return, I used the oppurtunity to chilll for a while - having postponed my departure to Quebec City for two nights. I spent my time wandering around the town; just enjoying the seaside and brisk air.

Posted by tessab 17:17 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

"The Ocean"

Ottawa (via Montreal) to Halifax, Nova Scotia

semi-overcast 16 °C
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I took two trains to get to Halifax from Ottawa, which required a brief stop-over in Montreal (I didn't see more than the inside of train station though). After almost missing my train for the second time in 3 days, I was very glad to sit and just chill for a while. As it was just after Thanksgiving, the train was completely sold out and a "medical emergency" in the station didn't aid a speedy and smooth departure.

We did leave on time though, and were soon screaming along at full tilt - a lot faster than "The Canadian" - through yellow fields of corn, lakes and marshy rivers covered in Canada Geese and thick forests of narrow-trucked, white-barked spectacularly yellow and red-leaved trees. They became a blur through my window, but through them I could pick out occasional homesteads - typically Canada - house and outbuildings and a massive timber shingled barn with a half-hexagonal roof.

The scenery got more picturesque further north - gently rolling fields with clumps of deep red and yellow trees. The sky grew darker - pregnant - although the sun still shone on the train. The effect of the sun shining from behind the train onto the glowing trees, below a brooding blue / grey sky was astounding. I can understand how the Group of Seven (early 1900's Ontario based painting group) found this landscape so inspiring.

I would love to see an aerial photograph of this area during the fall - it must be stunning. This is definitely maple country; dark barked, deep red forests dot the landscape. After a brief couple of hours in the Montreal train station, I boarded "The Ocean" - http://www.viarail.ca/trains/en_trai_atla_hamo.html which covers the southern Quebec shore, New Brunswick and finally to Halifax in Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic. Apparently the cars themselves are old EuroStar carriages, and although comfortable, they were nothing compared to the "Canadian" carriages. I watched a couple of movies in the 'social' car (the one benefit of the Ocean over other trains I've been on) and then headed to an intermittent, but good sleep.

When I woke around the stops of Charlo and Petit Rocher the landscape had changed again, and reminds me a lot of southern Norway - low undulating hills, broken coastline with solid dark brown rocks and lots of glistening black water. Lots of birdlife as well, along with lovely lonely square timber clapboard houses, a lot with brightly coloured roofs. Very Scandinavian. The foliage remains spectacular - especially when back lit as it was at dawn, the train racing eastwards towards the rising sun.

Somewhere before Truro the train descended into a softly rolling valley, carpeted on each side by thick swathes of yellow and red, with dots of dark green evergreen offsetting the crazy warm autumn colour. It started to rain. About an hour after Truro we passed by a very large water body to the east; the trees have changed again - many more dark green conifers and some of the deciduous trees haven't started to turn yet. Lots of lakeside cottages overlooking winding waterways, on whose glistening black waters the reflections of the red leaves were stunning. We pass a town (Penny Lake?) which has a lovely church - again very Scandinavian - timber clapboard with strong austere lines as seems typical of the area. The pines that poke their heads above the canopy are all bent and grow away from what must be the direction of the prevailing wind.

I arrived into Halifax in the late afternoon and walked the easy 300m to the hostel, where I didn't waste much time before starting plans for the next leg of my journey - a self-driven mission around Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island and as much of Nova Scotia as possible. Funnily enough, a fellow traveler from Jasper in the Rockies was checking in at the same time as me (after getting off the same train!) so we started talking about sharing the cost of car hire, to leave in two days...

Posted by tessab 17:16 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

the Capitals - Toronto and Ottawa

lots of shiny happy buildings on the east coast

sunny 18 °C
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Toronto is an agglomeration of people, culture and urban villages that bleed together to form a diverse and beguiling city. As the biggest Canadian city (4.5 million people) it forms the cultural and economic epicentre of the country. The city itself tells that story - huge shining skyscrapers dominate the downtown financial district, and the number of contemporary architectural pieces (mostly in the form of museums and university buildings) is both astounding and wonderfully exciting.

I spent the first of my two (as I spent a day at Niagara Falls) wandering along Queen, Younge and Dundas streets, before going north on Spadina Avenue toward the Royal Ontario Museum via the University of Toronto campus and the Chinatown and Kensington Markets. I had researched some buildings I wanted to see during my visit, and was astounded when I came upon each one during a days wander. Alsop's "Sharp Centre for Design" was my favourite.

Daniel Libeskind's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was crazy - a refurbishment that literally engulfs an 1880's building with manic crystalline forms - meant to refer to Canada's mining history, I believe. The angles were quite vertigo inducing - I did enjoy playing with reflections and my camera though. I spoke to two business men involved with the museum outside, and they expressed disappointment at the building - saying they expected something "more" - something more outlandish and different. I was impressed.

On my last day in Toronto (before rushing off to catch the train to Halifax) I went to the CN Tower before walking through the St Lawrence and the Distillery Districts. The CN Tower is the largest free-standing structure in the world, and is pretty much Toronto's symbol - and first stop on any tourists itinerary.

Toronto is a vast city - although it doesn't seem that way on the ground. I was quite surprised when I arrived on the train at the visible 'tall' part of the city - I had expected that it would be much bigger. When I went up the CN Tower on my last day in Toronto, I got a much better feeling for the city. Toronto is a collection of taller high-rise areas amidst a much lower (and older?) urban grain. Lots of trees and parks make it very picturesque - it looks as though the high rises exist amongst some great forest - giant man-made trees. Not quite the case on the ground, but certainly better than the concrete alternative.

I put my ipod on as soon as I got to the top of the CN Tower - after paying the $22 entrance fee most of the circular viewing deck is dedicated to a fairy pricey cafe, most of which overlooks the city proper, possibly the most 'exciting' views. Needless to say (being persistently obstinate) I sat at one of the tables (with an amazing view), fended off the waiters and spent time sketching and contemplating the view. Madness. Especially as the Tower was built solely for communication purposes - only now the tourist / viewing component makes up to 3/4 of its income.

From up here my impression of the city's connection to the water was confirmed - nonexistent! Completely different to Vancouver. Most big cities that I have experienced have some connection to the water - be it a river, lake or ocean - and as Toronto lies next to Lake Ontario it is no different. However, the city itself has no tangible links to the water when walking around it, which I think is a great pity.

After breaking records (albeit personal bests - in true South African Olympic form) for laden-land-speed by running through Toronto trying to catch my train on time, I left the shining glass, steel and granite of Toronto behind. Sadly, as I really enjoyed my time there, but I do think that I will return. The train ride was very tedious; having spent 4 of the previous 6 days in trains, I was quite 'over it'! It was quite scenic though, especially when the train ran alongside Lake Ontario - one of the smallest of the Great Lakes, but still pretty damn big! I honestly expected to see the silhouettes of tankers or cargo ships offshore as one would in a port city.

I got into Ottawa quite late, and eventually found the hostel after fending off the attentions of 1. drunk homeless guys and 2. high local kids on their way out. I got them talking to each other, which gave me the opportunity to escape ;) The Ottawa Hosteling International (HI) is located in an old jail that was used until 1972. Quite interesting, I suppose, but not enough to justify the $8 tour fee.

Ottawa is the capital of Canada, apparently chosen as such by Queen Victoria only because she took a liking to some watercolour paintings of the area. The parliament buildings dominate the skyline, quite scenically situated on top of a hill overlooking Ottawa River and Gatineau (Quebec) on the other side. What I (as a visitor) think of as "Ottawa" is actually two cities - Ottawa (Ontario) to the south of the river, and Gatineau (Quebec) to the north. They are literally within a stones throw of each other, but have completely different administrations and even different public transport systems. Crazy.

I hit a bit of a 'wall' during my time in Ottawa - I was feeling the result of 6 weeks on the go, and had trouble getting out of bed each morning! I did spend lots of time at possibly my favourite building of all time though; the Canadian War Museum (Moriyama & Teshima Architects). Opened in 2005, I had investigated it during my thesis in 2006, and the real-life experience didn't disappoint. I highly recommend a visit, both for the fantastic architecture and the really well curated exhibitions within. Do take a day to do it though, and a friend to share it with as the content is very well presented, and as such quite emotionally draining.

On my second day in Ottawa was spent at (or in transit to and from) Gatineau Park; a huge tract of land just over the river in Quebec. Again, problems with public transport (the lack thereof) meant that I could only walk the comparatively short 6km close to the entrance of the park. It was stunning though; I was expecting something more 'park'-like (in the English sense) but it actually a huge forest latticed with hiking and cycling trails. Although I walked along a cycle track right next to the main vehicle route through the park (dodging the speedy bikes) there was a huge amount of life. Lots of squirrels (black, smaller red ones and the striped ground) and birds.

What I enjoyed most were the amazing fall colours of the trees. At times the sky seemed to glow yellow - the leaves overhead melded into a continuous blanket of colour, stitched together by dark threads of narrow spreading branches. The overall effect was lovely. Looking horizontally through the forest was also pretty - as the leaves all lie flat, they form bright stripes of colour, illuminated by shafts of light penetrating the canopy, against wonderfully variegated and textured trunks, all against the soft yellowy brown of the leaf-covered forest floor.

The other museum of note in Ottawa is the Canadian National Gallery; I particulary enjoyed the Group of Seven (a group of local landscape painters from the early 1900's), so much so that I almost missed my train for the second time in 3 days.

Toronto is an architect's city; Vancouver, an urbanist's. And Ottawa? Ottawa tries too hard; there I learned the lesson that that illusive concept- "atmosphere" - cannot be created.

Posted by tessab 17:08 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

the upside of Bob...

...is that Victoria Falls hasn't gone the way of Niagara Falls

rain 15 °C
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Niagara Falls is probably one of the most well-known landmarks internationally. I'm not sure what the stats are (highest / widest / most water) but I'm sure there must be many. If there weren't, the Americans would make some up! Alright, I concede that I am being very cynical (if you take offense, please don't read the rest of this post) but my visit to Niagara Falls today brought out all of my cynicism in full force.

The approach to Niagara on the train was nondescript - lots of small towns and industrial areas. It was a bit of a visual shock after the stunning Canadian Shield countryside of the approach into Toronto from the northwest, but I expected it from reading the guide. This area is called the 'Golden Horseshoe" because of its huge economic importance (mining and manufacture) and horseshoe shape, not for any whimsically 'pretty' reason.

Upon arrival at the VIA rail station in Niagara Falls (3km from the falls) I looked everywhere for a map to aid my trip to the falls and orientation to the area. No luck. Apparently independent travelers don't visit the falls. After questioning the only unfriendly bus-ticket-seller-worker-man I have met in Canada, I found that I was expected to get a 'transit bus' to the falls. Which I duely did.

Upon arrival at the main 'welcome centre' I got the first glimpse of what makes Niagara so 'special'. Rampant, raging commercialism. Hordes of coach tours and tourists (I use the word "tourist", not "traveler", and concede that I am being condescending) of the worst kind.

The falls are spectacular, don't get me wrong, but in order to justify the 'day trip' that it has become (and marketed as such) a whole host of "activities" have been devised to occupy visitors attention, and on which they will spend their money... You can see the falls from any viewpoint imaginable; walk under the falls, on a boat in the mist, from a helicopter, from a tower, from a ferris wheel - the list goes on. Each, of course, you pay for. The town has become (well, maybe expanded to) a theme park. There is not a single independent restaurant, shop or cafe to be found, I don't think the market is there. All the tourists are happy to stay at the Sheraton, eat at Tim Hortons or Burger King, and drink their coffee at Starbucks (at at least a dollar more expensive than in Toronto, I might add!).

I am lucky enough to have visited the spectacular Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe on two occasions, and some 'higher being' (well, the people who planned Niagara Falls) seemed to be pointing me in that direction at every turn: the major road going through the town is "Victoria Avenue", and one of the subsidiaries is "Livingstone Rd". I walked from one side of the town to the other (about 5km, probably) and the whole walk (which was along a road called "Fallsview" and runs literally parallel to the falls) I didn't see the falls once for all the hotels and casinos in the way. They jostle and elbow each other out of the way to get the best view; the competition being for the biggest and highest, with the best views to sell to their clientele. The falls don't seem to belong to the people that live in the town that bears their name, they belong to the tourists.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by all the marketing so decided to boycott it. I didn't pay the $12 to go up the tower, or the $30 for a ride on a boat under the falls, etc etc. So, in summary. If you absolutely need to go Niagara; go. I'd recommend Victoria Falls over it any day. Even with Bob still in power. And the 32 (ish) hour plane ride from Canada.

Posted by tessab 11:57 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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