Posts filed under ‘Newfoundland’

Ferry Tales, Part Deux

All three of us were varying degrees of sad to leave St. John’s, partially because we’d had such a good time there, and also because we were dreading the return trip on the hospital ship ferry. This time, though, we were going to be a little better prepared. I had Lee map out a stop on the way out of St. John’s, because we needed a couple of meals, and we needed SHEETS. I think I paid $7 for an ugly, sandpaper-rough brown & creme plaid sheet, but at least I knew I’d have a new, clean layer to protect me from a suspicious mattress.

My mom drove us to the ferry terminal in Argentia and instead of boarding at almost midnight, as we did on the way there, our return trip left in the early evening. This turned out to be so much more agreeable. It was a lot better to have the sleepy time in the middle of the long crossing to break up the trip.

First thing when we got on the ship was to check out our accommodations. We were in a different steerage compartment this time. Instead of freezing on a lower deck in our own little nook, we were in a room on an upper deck that held about 40 bunks. It was a little disconcerting, at first, to think about sleeping in the same room as 37 strangers, but at least it wasn’t as cold. And at least we had sheets! A girl with pretty pink shoes (that you can see in the photo below) and a matching shiny Lululemon bag stumbled into the bunkroom with the same dazed look that we’d had on our first crossing. I felt bad for her, but I knew that she, like us, would emerge from the crossing much wiser and with a resolve to bring a sheet next time.

Cheers for NL

By this point, we were all exhausted and a little (or a lot) silly. I was just looking forward to getting back to the mainland and I approached the return trip with a great deal of acceptance. Que sera sera! We made up our beds and since we knew that the prime seating on the main decks gets taken fast, I wanted to stake out a spot in the back room of the movie room, near one of the power outlets I’d found so I could work on some photos and keep my phone and iPod charged.

Since we’d gone straight to bed on the way there, we’d missed a delightful (and really long) safety video (made longer by repeating the whole thing in French), but we were happy to catch that feature film the second time around! Pretty soon, it was time for dinner, and we’d all bought containers of fresh fruit for some healthy snacks, however, none of us had thought to buy utensils. I’m not sure why none of us thought to get some from the cafeteria on the ship, but maybe no one was up for braving the hospital food smell.

Eating fruit

So we made it work.

Bugs & Debbie were entertaining, of course, and for a while, I kind of wanted to head down to the lounge and enjoy some fine accordion playing over a beer, but exhaustion won out. Two of the previous three mornings, I’d been up before the sun, so it was awesome to fall into a bed (with a sheet on it) completely exhausted and sleep as long as I could. Then once we got up in the morning, we didn’t even have two hours to kill before we docked in North Sydney!

On the boat

I was thrilled to see a) land and b) a beautiful day for more sightseeing and driving! I had hoped that we would see the Cabot Trail winding down the mountains, like on the magnet that I’d bought, but I think that you only get that view from the Port-aux-Basques crossing.

The least fun thing about being a walk-on passenger for this ferry is that you’re not permitted to walk on or off; you have to ride a shuttle bus from the ferry terminal to the boat and vice versa. Boarding the ferry, this is pretty sweet, because you get to board first, so they can drive the shuttle off the ferry before all the cars get on. But when it’s time to leave, you’re trapped until everyone with a car drives away. It felt like it took forever to get off the boat that morning, especially since we wanted to hurry to Halifax to hit the Maritime Museum before it closed, per Jules’ request.

So we finally get to the terminal and head across the street, where I was thrilled to see that my rental car was still just where we’d left it. We started tearing apart the back of the car, changing clothes, repacking suitcases, etc. It’s a flurry of activity.

Remember the guys who stared at us while we parked the car before we boarded the ferry a few days earlier? Yeah, it turns out that maybe they were parking attendants, or maybe just locals who found it amusing to stand in the lot and stare at tourists, we’re really not sure, but either way, we think they knew something about parking fees. We’d driven into the lot and hadn’t seen a sign that indicated it wasn’t free, or a booth collecting money, or a machine where you pre-pay for parking for a certain amount of time (that’s how we roll in Chicago), or anything. But it turns out that there were parking fees, because a guy sitting in his pickup truck with his dog got out of his pickup truck and swaggered over to us, holding a clipboard.

“You ladies didn’t pay for parking before you left.”
“Ummm…I didn’t know there was a fee,” I said.
“Yeah, there’s a fee.”
“There wasn’t a sign or anything.”
“Yeah, a lot of people don’t know,” he said, leaving me wondering how people are supposed to know, given the lack of signage, and who you’re supposed to pay when you drive in. The clump of guys, smoking and staring? How do you know if they’re the right people?

So then he consults his clipboard and tells us that we owe a whopping $35 for five days of parking fees. No late charge, no fine. Just $35. I am totally unflapped because at home, you can’t even park overnight in the Loop for $35. So the girls shove money at me and I give the guy $35, and then he bends over and proceeds to begin UNLOCKING A BOOT FROM MY WHEEL. None of us had noticed…I’m sure we would have gotten in the car and tried to drive away if he hadn’t been sitting in his pickup truck when we arrived. Now I was flapped. I couldn’t believe that I’d driven in both Chicago and Miami without ever getting my car even ticketed (although Jules’ car did get towed while visiting me in Chicago and we had to get it out of the auto pound in the underbelly of Wacker Drive…that’s a good story), but I managed to get a rental car booted in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, in a parking lot that wasn’t even paved.

Fortunately, we were soon on our way post-boot, and our first stop absolutely had to be Tim Horton’s for iced coffees. The cashier greeted me with a super cheery “Whatchoo GITTIN’?” Then she proceeded to tell us that they were out of iced coffee. Yet they had coffee. And I presume that their ice machine wasn’t out of ice. And I definitely saw cups. So I’m not sure what the problem was, but the woman could not sell me an iced coffee. I had to settle for Pepsi, which just isn’t the same. But after the ferry and the boot, I wasn’t really fazed, and at least we did get yet another trip catchphrase out of the stop.

Sans iced coffees, we were finally on our way out of the Sydney/North Sydney area. We stopped first at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, which has an awesome Scottish store that was closed when we drove past earlier. It’s near the east end of the Cabot Trail and worth a stop if you are in the area and like Scottish things! Jules wanted to get something for her Scottish brother-in-law, and I wanted something in my family tartan. My maternal grandma’s maiden name was McCaghren, and from research done by relatives, I knew that McCaghren is related to the MacDonald clan. I have a really pretty red & green tartan scarf that my aunt & uncle brought back from Scotland for me a few years ago, so I thought it would be fun to get a magnet or a bookmark or a souvenir spoon.

All MacDonald items were sold out. Seriously, someone must have come through just before me and bought up the place. No bookmarks, no magnets, no historical pamphlets, no snowglobes, no Christmas ornaments, no bow ties. But Jules got some things and a scrawny boy was practicing the bag pipes in front of our car when we left, so the stop wasn’t a loss.

From there, we were on to Halifax, which is definitely a topic for another post. Lots of photos to come!


April 21, 2011 at 10:49 am Leave a comment

Mile Zero!

On our final day in St. John’s, I hit another milestone on my trip:

Mel at Mile Zero
Mile Zero! Both ends of the Trans-Canada Highway, the west end in Victoria and the east end in St. John’s, are marked “mile zero.” I didn’t find the sign in Victoria, and in St. John’s, it took some time and effort and asking a random clerk in the City Hall. But it turned out that the sign was just a bit further down the block than we expected, and when we found it, there was much photoshooting, of course. Canada starts right here.

The Girls at Mile Zero
Special thanks to Christina and Jules for reaching Mile Zero with me!

Mel and Mama at Mile Zero
And of course, special thanks to my mama as well! I couldn’t have done this trip without her help.

St. John's Houses
Even though the day was a bit grey (typical for St. John’s, I’m told), we had a nice time wandering around the city. I just can’t get enough of the painted houses!

Newfoundland Tricolour
Cheery red house flying the old unofficial Newfoundland flag. The first time I saw this flag, I thought it was a faded Irish or Italian one, but that last bar really is pink. I did a bit of digging and discovered that this tricolour flag has been around since the late 19th century, though it has never officially represented Newfoundland.

More downtown St. John's
Gower Street, across from the Cathedral downtown, is a particularly picturesque stretch, don’t you think?

Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Inside the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, downtown St. John’s. We kind of wandered in, and thus began the most awkward cathedral visit ever. I think a couple of altar boys were in training to help tourists, because there appeared to be some sort of supervisor, and the boys kept asking us if we had any questions. We didn’t want to be rude and skedaddle right away, but we really didn’t have a ton of time to spend, so we kind of lingered long enough to be polite, and then thanked them. We were just about out the door, when one of the boys asked me if I’d seen the museum. Since they were watching us the whole time, I was fairly sure that he knew that I hadn’t seen the museum, so I said that I hadn’t, and then off he went, and I felt like I had to follow. He took me to a really tiny room filled with all kinds of historical artifacts, which I’m sure would have been interesting, but our afternoon scheduled included lunch, finding somewhere to buy very cheap sheets, and driving over an hour to get to the ferry. If we missed the ferry, we were stuck in St. John’s for several more days, so again, I lingered a few moments to be polite, and then we beelined out of there. Nice church, though. I do enjoy a good church, so I’m glad we went in.

Lunch was at The Sprout, which I must mention, because it was a delightful little vegetarian place downtown. It’s been way too long for me to remember what I ate, but I think I remember pesto. Usually a safe bet with me. Anyway, if you’re in St. John’s and you like tasty vegetables, I recommend it! I seem to remember it using more actual vegetables than “supposedly tastes like meat” plant proteins, which is the type of vegetarian food I prefer.

Signal Hill
Ah yes, and one more stop before we left downtown: Signal Hill. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for us. This is the view from the top of Signal Hill. Striking, isn’t it?

April 20, 2011 at 1:22 am Leave a comment

Puffins and More!

On Day 28, I woke up impossibly early with my mom to ride a boat and look at wildlife. I’m not super keen on boats (this may surprise those of you who are keeping track of how many boats I took on this trip!) and I’m normally not super keen on wildlife, either. But my mom really wanted to go, and I didn’t want her to go alone. I also really wanted to take her to breakfast at Cora’s, which I’d been talking about for five years, so we hit up a location in St. John’s before driving south to Bay Bulls to catch a boat tour with O’Brien’s.

Atlantic Whaler
We climbed on board the Atlantic Whaler and apparently, the first sailing of the day isn’t a popular one, because my mom and I only had to share our guide, Greg, with about five other people. It is worth noting that of the 8-10 people on board, counting crew, I was the only one that got pooped on, and my lovely white Canada Olympic sweatshirt was pooped on three times. I am not over this.

Tail of a Whale
The boats leave the dock and head out toward Gull Island, part of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, and on the way, they try to find whales. We found quite a few, or we found the same one quite a few times. Either way, here’s my best whale shot!

One of the first birds we encountered was the kittiwake, a highly common seabird.

But the puffins weren’t too far away! I was pretty excited to see all the puffins. They’re like mini northern penguins that also fly, and penguins might be my favourite animal. Since I don’t have any trips planned to penguin colonies in the near future, seeing the puffins was a highlight. They’re just so stinkin’ cute.

Puffins in Love
Many puffins mate for life, so I like to think that I caught these puffins canoodling.

Swimming Puffin
Puffins aren’t great fliers (their stocky build makes them slow and awkward), but they are great swimmers and fishers.

Flying Birds
Although it’s a reserve, the birds have natural predators, so whenever they see one, they all freak out and fly off. And poop on unsuspecting photographers below.

Whoa, Murres!
I was using a 70-200 zoom lens on the boat, so the above shots are quite zoomy, but this one gives you an idea of how many birds are on this island! Insane. These are murres, I think, or razorbills.

These guys are definitely murres, and I also definitely think that the two guys on the right were posing for me. They heard that I’m fond of unison.

I got some really fun shots that I might never have the chance to take again, so I’m really glad that my mom ended up wanting to go on the boat and I’m glad that we got to squeeze it in! I heard that the tours are really lively and fun when they’re full…there’s sometimes dancing and fiddles in addition to puffins and whales. We did get a traditional Irish song from Greg the guide at the end of the ride, though!

Mom and Me
Who thinks we’re related?

April 3, 2011 at 1:14 am 2 comments


Fortunately, the ferry trip back to Newfoundland was smooth sailing. No one puked, no one fell down and hit their head, and we even found it pleasant to stand outside on the back of the boat and watch for whales for a bit! Once we got the car out of overnight parking in Fortune, the absolute first thing we had to do was get iced coffee from THo’s, of course! And then we sped through the Newfoundland countryside and I just about fell in love.

I wished we could have stopped a million times. I wished that I wasn’t driving, so I could have at least joined Jules and Christina in taking photos from the car window, but my mom and I were the only drivers on the Newfoundland car, and it was my turn to drive. Every hill brought a new view that was so random and pastoral and wonderful. But we didn’t have time, because we were trying to get to Cape Spear before the light was completely gone.

It was a close call, and it was already dusk by the time we got there! In photog-speak, it was an ISO 800 kind of evening already. But we made it!

Cape Spear sign
I was in Victoria, BC on June 10, and on July 5, 26 days later, I stood on the easternmost point in North America at Cape Spear, outside of St. John’s, NL. What a trip! (And it wasn’t quite over yet!)

Cape Spear view 1
Although it was dusky and a bit foggy in the distance and a little misty, Cape Spear is actually quite a beautiful place. I hadn’t expected anything from the landscape, since its remarkability is really just due to its location.

Cape Spear view 2
So the geography nerd in me was happy to be on the easternmost point in North America and the photographer in me was happy to capture the last moments of light there.

Me jumping
Of course, the whole experience made me jump for joy!

Me and mom
I owe a great deal of the whole trip to my mom. She’s my life’s biggest sponsor. I’m grateful to her for getting behind this crazy dream of mine and I love her very much.

Christina, Jules, and me
And I also owe a ton to my road trip buddies, not just Jules and Christina (as pictured here), but also Chele, who took on the prairies and Ontario with me earlier in the trip. I am truly blessed with some of the most wonderful friends in the world.

Originally, the trip was going to end in St. John’s, but it was a lot cheaper to rent & return the car in the States, which is why I turned the last week of my itinerary into a giant loop. So although I made it all the way east, the trip wasn’t over yet! In fact, the Newfoundland part wasn’t even over yet, and this is a spoiler, but you should expect some puffins in the next post.

April 1, 2011 at 10:07 pm Leave a comment

a st. john’s evening

Just over an hour after my mom picked us up at the ferry terminal in Argentia, we arrived at our hotel in downtown St. John’s! Driving into the city, we were already excited to get out and explore. Since we only had about an hour or so of light left, we decided to just drop our stuff off, change clothes, and head somewhere for dinner, seeing a bit of the city on the way.

St. John's Street
We stayed at the Courtyard, which was quite nice and located on a typical downtown St. John’s street.

Bright Houses
I quickly pronounced this street my favourite in St. John’s. It’s one of the most-often photographed, kind of like St. John’s version of those seven pastel-coloured houses in San Francisco. I loved all of the brightly-painted buildings and houses in St. John’s…I’m sure it helps the residents stay cheery through all of the gloomy weather!

Red Building
We actually had gorgeous weather that evening, instead of the usual gloominess! The sun was shining, the sky was cloudless and blue, and all of the bright red paint glistened.

Downtown St. John's
The closeness of the buildings and the sun being so low in the sky made photography a bit difficult that night, but I’m making it work, right?

We ate at Nautical Nellie’s, which isn’t the type of restaurant my mom and I usually pick when we’re together, but it was just perfect after our long ferry ride! I feasted on fish & chips—traditional St. John’s cuisine—and we loved the pub atmosphere.

St. John’s is known for its night life and I was told that in order to really experience St. John’s, I had to explore the legendary George Street after dark, but I hadn’t counted on such an exhausting day. Plus, we had an impossibly early morning scheduled, so we had to take a pass on George Street. Instead, we grabbed some coffee at the appropriately-named Coffee and Company, a wonderful little local café, and headed back to the hotel for some well-deserved and much-needed relaxation.

February 25, 2011 at 2:18 pm Leave a comment

Ferry Tales

First of all, thanks to all of the new visitors to my blog who found my Cabot Trail post via links left by the lovely folks at Nova Scotia Tourism and Cape Breton Living! Thank you! I hope you’re enjoying reading about my travels. Feel free to leave more travel tips—I may have already finished this trip, but Canada is a place that I’ll always continue to explore, and the tips could always help other people, too.

So my last post left off with a lovely sunset at the end of the Cabot Trail. So we ended up driving to Sydney in the dark, across a terrifying bridge. We were supposed to be at the ferry terminal before midnight to board our boat to Argentia, Newfoundland. The crossing was scheduled to take about 15 hours. The usual ferry crossing from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland is more direct and only takes 7 hours or so, but it dumps you out in Port-aux-Basques, on the SW tip of the island. Since we wanted to hit St. John’s, the capital and largest city, and Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America, we would have had to make a 12-hour drive across the island to get there. So instead, I spent days shuffling around the itinerary so we could catch one of the ferries to Argentia. The Argentia ferry only crosses in the summer and only crosses 3 times each week. And instead of crossing a channel, it basically ventures out into the ocean. For Jules, this made it extra terrifying, but it was the only way to make all the pieces of the trip fit into the last two weeks. Upon arrival in Argentia, my mom was going to meet us. She wanted to be a part of my trip and see a corner of the world she’d probably never see otherwise, so she was flying in and out of St. John’s and would spend a few days with us there.

After picking up snacks at Shoppers for the trip, we drove up to the ferry terminal and I ran inside and asked where to park, since we weren’t taking the rental car on the crossing. The guy inside told us that there was a lot across the street, and looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for further directions. “It’s right across the street! You just cross the street and park!” So we did. We crossed the street and parked on a random field, among a bunch of other cars. While we were sorting through the crap in the back of my car, because we were each only taking enough stuff for the few days we’d spend in Newfoundland, a circle of guys were standing in the parking lot and staring at us. Just standing there, smoking and staring. They stared at us while we walked past them, dragging our bags, and kept staring as we crossed the street and headed back to the ferry terminal. It was so uncomfortable that I started thinking that the empty lot with all the cars wasn’t the parking lot for the ferry, but I was scared to ask the guy in the terminal about parking again, so I just forgot about it. (I’ll get back to this in a few days.)

The ferry terminal in Sydney, NS, is nothing like the BC ferry terminals in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island. There was a ramshackle souvenir and convenience store, but no Starbucks, no couches, no shops. Just cramped chairs, like the ones in airports, and people coughing. Seriously, everyone in the ferry terminal was coughing and most fantastic cough was snarfled at regular intervals by the woman sitting next to me. I started to wonder if she had tuberculosis, and how close I had to be to her to be in danger of contracting the disease myself. When we got on the little shuttle bus that took us aboard the ferry, Miss Bubonia, as Christina started calling her, was right next to me again. I was certain, at that point, that her bunk was going to be right above mine.

But when we got on the ferry, she went in a different direction. We showed our tickets to one of the staff, and they told us to head down one more deck. I’d purchased the ferry tickets for all three of us, and we’d decided to spend a little extra to get beds, but we didn’t spring for a private cabin, which were sold out, anyway. I have a lot to say about the accommodations on the ship, but to save space, I’ll just show you the picture that Christina took, once the shock started to wear off:


Note the lack of SHEETS. When I bought the tickets for bunks, I wasn’t expecting a lot of privacy, and I wasn’t expecting a Sleep Number mattress. I was not prepared, however, for sheetless mattresses with suspicious stains or for the temperature in the sleeping quarters to be below freezing. But what was there to do then? We were stuck in steerage. So we changed into pajamas and kept our sweatshirts on and cocooned ourselves in the thin fleece blankets and tried to sleep.

We’d been up for 17 or 18 hours at that point and I was exhausted. I also have a knack for falling asleep just about anywhere. There’s a legendary story about me falling asleep standing up in the Montréal Metro. However, that night, I discovered one of the notable exceptions to the circumstances under which I can fall asleep. I cannot sleep on a boat crossing the ocean when the mattress has a weird stain and I am grossed out and shivering. Neither could Jules or Christina. We dozed, off and on, until around 8 or 9, and then got up and decided to explore the ship. We still had most of the day before we would see land.

Things on the ship:
A cafeteria that smelled nauseating
A souvenir shop
Robin’s Coffee & Donuts, which we later learned was a Newfoundland chain
A lounge with moderately comfortable seats that played action movies
An outdoor seating area with a lovely view of the impossibly thick fog, complemented by people smoking everywhere
A “lounge” in the “bar” sense of the word that appeared to be serving beer at 9.30am
Bugs & Debbie Green on the accordion and the spoons, playing pretty much all day:

Things not on the ship:
A seating area that was smoke-free & inside, quiet, free from weird smells, and well-lit. That was ALL I WANTED.

So I didn’t get as much done as I intended, but I did finally manage to find a power outlet behind the back row of seats in the movie lounge. I did my best to tune out the movie and worked on photos and wrote a post for this blog. Christina wanted fresh air, so she braved the chilly temperature and sat outside for a while to read, but found that most of the “fresh air” to be had was laced with cigarette smoke. Overall, the whole experience was long and uncomfortable.

As the trip finally reached the final hour, the three of us went outside together to see if land was in sight. No luck. Even if land was close, the fog was almost close enough to touch. But we stayed outside for a while and then, suddenly…


…land ho! Newfoundland looked lovely, with more hills than I expected and, well, more greenery, too! The water was just as blue as it had been off the coast of Cape Breton, and it looked like it was a beautiful day.


Here’s a shot of what it looked like behind the boat, so you can really see how abruptly the thick fog began. I’m not zoomed in here! I’d never seen anything like this before, but I’m told this is quite normal in NL!

O Canada

Nothing cheers me up like a flag waving against a bright blue sky, so the transgressions of the ferry crossing were quickly forgotten and I couldn’t wait to dock in Argentia and then arrive in St. John’s.

Unfortunately, the fog quickly slithered back in. Soon, we were sailing in complete dingy greyness again. But we were almost done with the trip, and when we finally docked in Argentia, I can’t even tell you how thrilled I was to see my mom waiting for us! We piled into the car she’d rented and started heading for St. John’s, only a bit over an hour away. After about 20 minutes, the fog was gone again, and we had a chance to see how gorgeous the Newfoundland landscape is! If I had been driving, we would have stopped at least eight times for photos, but my mom was behind the wheel and we were on a mission, anyway. We didn’t want to miss seeing St. John’s that evening, in case our second day in the city wasn’t as lovely, and more importantly: we were starving. None of us were brave enough for the smelly cafeteria on the boat, so we’d been surviving the whole day on snacks.

Up next: an evening in St. John’s.

February 19, 2011 at 5:22 pm 2 comments

The Suggestion Box: Newfoundland

I’m a little late with this, since I’ve already seen some of the Burin and Avalon Peninsulas, but if anyone has any great recommendations for St. John’s, I have this afternoon in the city before we head to the ferry.

We had fish & chips on our first night in the city, and an O’Brien’s boat tour and Signal Hill are already on the schedule, but feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything else I shouldn’t miss.

July 6, 2010 at 5:36 am Leave a comment


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