Lobsters, causeways, ferries and biting insects: what we did on our holidays

When we went to Nova Scotia in August it was with enthusiasm and ignorance. There were lots of people ready to encourage us in our folly here in Waterloo. How cool it would be, what to do, etc.

Those three land masses: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island look so small on the atlas, so extraordinary, so outward-bound. What kind of people can survive there and how? The ragged coastline means fishermen and sailors. We knew that lobster and other crustaceans is a major export and that it attracts tourists, though this was a bit of a deterrent to one vegetarian visitor.

The plan was to combine two special experiences: a trans-Canadian train journey adding to the romance of the far-flung destination: off the map for the average holiday of course, but surely not too ambitious for a resident of Ontario? The fact is that there are more Maritime Province migrants here than expected. Nova Scotia is a well-trodden holiday resort for them: a formative childhood delight; no distance at all.

We had some hiccups in organising the train trip. The website for Via rail was impenetrable, but we met with some lovely Via rail representatives. Cheryl, who was relocated to Kitchener because the Niagara Falls tourist office closed, was fortunately able to serve people like us. She helped us to negotiate our way through the options which make or break a good train trip. Leaving from Kitchener for Toronto on the Via train felt appropriate and the Montreal connection was waiting right in front when we arrived. This was an efficient way to get to Montreal in just five hours, where we struggled in evening heat to get the luggage to the rather wonderful Hotel Ambrose in Stanley street just below Mont Royale. The narrow staircase to the rooms was all part of the experience.

The day in Montreal was spent walking. In downtown Montreal the blocks loom imposingly. We were meant to be impressed by the new and old architecture and we were. It seems a sophisticated city. We were directed to two areas which were far more laid back and quirky, but were a bit short of time to do everything in the hours available. We experienced some of the street theatre and music and bohemian people at the port area that evening. The next day we steadily tackled the mountain, while the locals ran and cycled up behind us and past, looking fit. We continued the walk to the Plateau, the other recommended older residential / small business area which felt far more accessible, community orientated and funky.

'The Ocean', a.k.a. the overnight train from Montreal to Halifax.

‘The Ocean’, a.k.a. the overnight train from Montreal to Halifax.

That evening it was all aboard the “The Ocean” as the overnight train from Montreal to Halifax is called. Again we went through a jumble of geographical misplacements.

Our ticket allowed us in the first class lounge with coffee, soft drinks etc. where the atmosphere of anticipation was discreet but noticeable. The climb up into the train was significant and the childish excitement of boarding and discovering the secrets of the Lilliputian train coupe fun. The train was long and full; the staff, friendly and helpful. The food was pretty ghastly despite the tablecloth, silver service and waiting staff. Thank God for the beer – rich and encouraging: impossible to spoil.

The train cantered through the long hours of trees, lots and lots and lots of trees. Other scenery was quite intermittent and rather a lot was industrial, featuring slagheaps and the backside of settlements as rail users come to expect. It is all fascinating to people of a very different background.

Canada seems a rather unsentimental, pragmatic culture where getting the job done in harsh conditions leaves its imprint on what would otherwise seem virgin territory. For us, the plethora of small stations and the few larger places are fascinating. A (M) never really emerged from displacement and confusion, not helped by the jumbling up of the atlas and the sheer bed sheet size of the map of Canada. Do not underestimate the factors which come together to confuse the senses and fog the mind: the run up to getting away; the cold contracted on the plane over; the unexpectedly high temperatures in eastern Canada; meeting new people and re-meeting others: the dislocation of a civilisation lived on a quite different scale with huge trucks heaving their bulk on the wrong side of multi-lane highways.

It takes time to adjust and can feel overwhelming trying to process information as we found disembarking from the Ocean in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the evening after the rocking of the enclosed space where we were lulled into a mesmeric state, eating and reading and sleeping. Halifax seemed cosmopolitan and easy to live in: all coffee and food: art and entertainment except for the inevitable building programme we found typical of Canadian cities.

Part of travelling is not factoring in the time taken up with the ‘in between’ travel organisation. It cannot be avoided but does limit what can be done. This included a number of unhelpful websites for accommodation. Still, we picked up a hire car and started the drive, to take the North Eastern coastal route to Cape Breton (CB) where we had booked a cottage just across the water. Just as well, as the drive stretched on so we had to leave the coast to strike across country. So many bays and lakes; so little time; and so few places to eat and provision.

We were delighted with our cabin, but had to buy food which meant travelling back up the road and rushing about trying to choose enough, but not too much. We found that evening meals got later and later and odder and odder. Already, we cursed the timidity that A(M) was not included as car driver. Driving meant long isolated stretches of tree lined, straight highways made for novice right-handers in automatics. It was lovely having a screen on the dash revealing all when backing up.

Day two on Breton Island was a dilemma. Off we went up the West coast past the ceilidh trail to the Nature reserve with the Skyline Walk only stopping in Inverness to inspect the tiny harbour, the lovely soft beach and the golf course. We visited a fundraiser and bought a CD. The walk was everything it should be, mystic and lovely and dramatic, even without spotting the Moose, coyote, bears or whales. Three bees however caught the scent of real male and attacked A (W) leaving significant and painful stings. Note to self: anthisan next time.

We would have got back to the chalet in three hours had it not been for a roll over lottery which brought half the island over to Inverness for the draw which took place after a long day of fun. We were flummoxed by bumper to toe vehicles creeping through, trying to disperse for home in the early evening just as we tried to get through ourselves. Night at the chalet was like a Hiawatha illustration: pine trees, curving lakeside, moon reflected in the water. Mornings were fresh and dewy with fishermen neighbours padding down to successfully catch breakfast.

The following day we had to face the facts that we were running out of time with all too many options available. Off we went across to the east coast, up, up, up until finally we found somewhere for coffee. Rita’s Diner sounded a bit rough but far from it. It was the first place that didn’t only offer seafood, especially lobster. The lovely large home with verandah was the village school later owned by Rita MacNeil, a local heroine and songstress known for her hospitality. The place played homage to her in plying us with strawberry shortcake (scone) and cream. She had a great voice which we listened to over the next leg of the trip. Sadly, it just is not possible to do justice to Nova Scotia, Cape Bretton and Prince Edward Island. Again, we failed to see as much as we wanted through the trees and had to take fast roads back to the cabin, partly because the sat nav lady was adamant.

Boarding the ferry, 2015

Boarding the ferry, 2015

On the ferry, 2015. What does it actually mean?

On the ferry, 2015. What does it actually mean?

We enjoyed a fantastic storm and torrential rain from the Cabin that evening: a perfect ending to the day and accompaniment to local beer and rest. Up the next day and off across the short spit of land that joins CB to Nova Scotia, along the coast to the ferry for Prince Edward Island, (PEI). Again, we whipped in to the little town for coffee as we had half an hour before we needed to queue. No time! Back instead to the queue to see the most enormous leisure and commercial vehicles waiting. The ferry consumed the lot despite our incredulity. The trip was an hour and fifteen minutes and seemed really simple. PEI has a proud history of Scottish settlement and this was what was celebrated in our next stop, Montague. Here at the museum we saw a model of a small open boat with skis used in the late 1800s to 1927 to connect the islands for supplies, post etc. In winter, female passengers and male passengers paying a supplement sat in the boat while the other men (who did not pay the sitting supplement) paddled and when necessary pushed the boat over frozen sea. My goodness me, porridge oats for me too.

Turning Circle, Montague, 2015

Turning Circle, Montague, 2015

We had wanted to find somewhere along the Murray river in the south as we had located a theoretical cabin that looked perfect. We found some lunch and lovely helpful folk who offered us a much bigger place. Feeling contrary, we opted to drive on and only gave up when we struggled to get to a suitable alternative. Montague was not as charming, but turned out to have more resources, including the museum and access to what people had been hinting at all along: the Confederation way. The penny dropped as we set off on a balmy evening along a footpath as directed – an old railway put down in 1904, taken up after only decades, now ideal for walkers and cyclists that traverses the whole island east to west and with branch lines. If only we had planned to take advantage of this. We just didn’t do the resources justice.

These islands are not dinky. They are businesslike and tree filled. However they close down as the tiny populations wave goodbye to the summer visitors and get on with winter survival. Not everything is pretty and touristy either. The main crop is potatoes, a source of confusion to A (W) who did not quite get the connection between Prince Edward Island and the King Edward variety of potatoes.

From there it was back to Halifax International airport via a night in a motel in Truro. This was an experience as it was the first place we stayed in that there was no kettle in the room. The result, tea withdrawal symptoms! A (W) was mildly anxious to see a Harley Davidson motorbike parked next door to our car but there was no untoward noise and he was forced to conclude this is simply prejudice. The flight to Toronto was straightforward and involved changing time by one hour, again. Here we deviated from planned travel and took a taxi back to Waterloo where we had to negotiate the fact that the keys to the apartment block had been changed during our absence. One unfortunate resident had their car stolen with all her personal belongings including the keys in it.

On Saturday Ailsa returned to Norwich and Alan drove her down to the airport. It is quite a nerve-racking drive so I was glad to have the opportunity to do it on a Saturday without anyone in the car who was going to be judgemental. Getting there was straightforward, returning home was not. I managed to inadvertently taken one exit I did not mean to off the 401, I was in the right hand lane and stayed there, ending up inadvertently in the town of Milton (not paradise found!). Arriving back in Waterloo I found myself caught up in downtown Kitchener having gone the wrong way, fortunately the satnav guided me home safe and sound.