Posts filed under ‘Cape Breton Island’

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

The Cabot Trail

Cape Breton

It’s easy to see why the Cabot Trail is consistently called one of the world’s best road trips, most scenic drives, loveliest roads, etc. The crown jewel of Cape Breton Island, this was one of the days I was most looking forward to, out of the whole road trip. It didn’t disappoint, to say the least.

Cabot Trail

Speedy motorists can probably drive the Cabot Trail, which winds through the highlands on the northwest part of Cape Breton, in 2 or 3 hours, but guidebooks recommend at least 6 hours if you only have a day to spend here. If you really want to take it all in, you should stay a couple of days. Quite a few of the scenic spots are only accessible by hiking, so it takes some time to cover all of the ground. Unfortunately, the girls and I had tickets for a midnight ferry to Newfoundland, so we only had from lunchtime until about sunset. It was enough to fall in love with the national park, but not enough time to see everything, and I’ve been dreaming of a trip back ever since.

Girls on the Trail

From the first scenic pull-off, we knew it was going to be a great day! The weather was perfect, the water was sparkling, and Christina has a knack for getting all three of us plus a scenic background in her self-portraits.

Cabot Trail

The prettiest parts of the Cabot Trail are the ends, which follow the hills along the water. Thrilling in a magical way on a perfect day like the one we had, thrilling in a terrible way on days with bad weather, I’m sure! We drove the trail from west to east, because that’s how it fit into our itinerary, but it’s also the traditional way to explore it. Traveling along the innermost part of the trail used to be essential in the pre-guardrail days. I’m relieved they finally put some guardrails up!

Park Interior

When the Cabot Trail cuts across the interior of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the landscape changes from pristine to kind of craggy. The forest is rich and the hills are impressive, but the scenic turnoffs seemed a little less scenic without the super-blue water. So we cut down on our scenic turnoffs and plowed through, mostly. We did make one stop in the interior, and we turned out to be so glad that we did.

In the small parking lot, we were wandering and taking photos when we overheard a conversation coming from the only other car in the lot, a red SUV. An adorable boy, maybe about 4 years old, was running around, making faces at me, while his parents were arguing and changing a baby’s diaper in the front passenger seat of the car. The dialogue went like this:

“She POOPED! I told you she pooped!” – Mom
“Umm…well…” – Dad
“There’s POOP everywhere!” – Mom
“It’s okay, I’ll clean it up.” – Dad
“You got POOP on your HAND!” – Mom
“Oh…well, I’ll just get a wipe.” – Dad
“You got POOP on the WIPE BOX!” – Mom
“OH NO! NOT THE WIPE BOX!” – Little Kid

From then on, “Oh no, not the wipe box!” was uttered at random points, always resulting in giggle fits. It still makes occasional appearances in conversations between Jules, Christina, and me. So yes, I’m pretty glad we stopped there, even though the view was less scenic than other places.

Cabot Trail

Once we hit the eastern part of the Cabot Trail, the weather had turned cloudy, and I started to worry that the end of our drive would get rained out. The rain never happened, but I loved the look of the misty shots I got near Neils Harbour, including this panoramic. Click on it to see it a bit bigger.

Green Cove

We had picked up an official park guide to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which identified 20+ marked hikes in the park. Some were quite intense, and we didn’t have time, motivation, or proper footwear to tackle those, but Jules picked two short hikes that allowed us to see some of scenery away from the road. The first was Green Cove, which was really just a short walk from the parking area, and not really a hike until we started climbing on the rocks.

Green Cove

On stormy days, the waves can be treacherous here, but we had a calm, sunny day to enjoy the rocky cove. By the time we got here, the clouds had completely disappeared. The weather was gorgeous for standing on the rocks, but I actually prefer a few clouds for better landscape photography. Jules later decided that it was her favourite spot on the trip. I loved it too, and hope I can make it back here at sunset on my next trip to Cape Breton, whenever that may be!

Short Steep Hike

The second hike that we did near Ingonish, more or less the eastern hub on the Cabot Trail, was advertised as a “short, steep climb.” Very accurate description.

Sunset View

Worth it for one last scenic shot before the light faded and we had to go spend 15 hours on a ferry. But that’s a story for the next post.

February 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm 1 comment

Cape Breton: En Route to the Cabot Trail

Soon after our pit stop on mainland Nova Scotia, we were off to our next famed maritime island, Cape Breton Island. Most well-known for the scenic Cabot Trail, Cape Breton is also home to rich cultural traditions—Scottish heritage as well as Acadian villages. They also have lobsters. We’ll get to that later.

From the Causeway
I took this from the car window as Jules drove across the Canso Causeway. The Strait of Canso separates Cape Breton Island from the rest of Nova Scotia, and the causeway opened in 1955 to connect the two directly. Before then, cars and goods were transported across the strait on a ferry. Fun fact: a toll was charged to cross the Canso until the 90s, but once the cost of construction was paid for, they took away the toll booths. Thanks, Nova Scotia!

Cape Breton
Another car-window shot, this time from the interior of Cape Breton! This is probably an arm of Bras d’Or Lake, which nearly severs Cape Breton Island in two. The lake is actually a saltwater extension of the Atlantic Ocean which opens at New Campbellton to the northeast. It’s huge and maze-y and it’s gorgeous.

Gulf of St. Lawrence
After driving inland all day, we finally hit the Gulf of St. Lawrence at Margaree Harbour and stopped just north of there for some scenic photos. If there’s one thing I can count on my friends for, it’s that they’re always up for a good scenic photo stop!

Region Acadienne
Although Cape Breton is better known for its Scottish culture (and the Scots do dominate the area), quite a few Acadian towns still dot the countryside, particularly along the Gulf coast. The Acadians were originally farmers from France who settled in the Maritimes, first Nova Scotia and were then pushed into New Brunswick. Since they were peaceful folks, they were manipulated, tossed around, and eventually deported by the British and French crowns, who were fighting over the colonies. Entire towns were destroyed, families were torn apart…it was a bad time, and isn’t something that many (or any) Americans learn about, but I’ve been interested in the history since visiting the region. Many Acadians were forcibly moved to Louisiana and became known there as the Cajuns, but some were taken back to France. Quite a few of those Acadians ended up returning to the Canadian colonies, and Acadian culture still survives primarily in New Brunswick, but PEI and NS also have Acadian regions.

Joe's Scarecrows
Just before Chéticamp, we stumbled across Joe’s Scarecrows, a roadside attraction in St-Joseph-du-Moine. I don’t even know. But apparently it’s a 25-year tradition. There’s a blog written about it here. (Thanks to Jules for finding it!)

I have to give a shout-out to the friendly folks in the Nova Scotia tourism offices. During my whole trip across Canada, I think Nova Scotia’s hospitality in their visitor centres was tops of the country! I mentioned in my last blog how helpful they were when we stopped after we got off the ferry, but the ladies in Margaree were even better. The office was small, and we mainly stopped for the washrooms, but I also decided to ask if they could recommend a good place for lunch. And did they have a recommendation for us: a restaurant in Chéticamp was running a 2-for-1 lobster dinner special! Christina agreed to split the deal with me, and I found a lobbie I could afford to eat after all.

Lobbie dinner!
Yep, I was pretty happy about it!

Up next: driving the Cabot Trail!

January 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm Leave a comment


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