A discerning guide to traveling close to home: Seeing Nova Scotia through new eyes

The iconic Peggy’s Cove lighthouse – with the Sou’wester Restaurant to the left.

How far away from home do you have to go before it counts as ‘traveling’?  Indeed, what are a couple of discerning (and inveterate) travelers to do when stuck in their offices, chained to their desks  for a few months with only the smallest of travel lights at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel?  We think that if they are true travelers, they can hop into the car, crank up the satellite radio and set out on a day trip that would make even the most jaded armchair traveler green with envy.  So, that’s what we did last week.

Striking out on the east coast of Canada is a no-brainer ; there are so many things to see and experience.

Sometimes we book a room at our favorite waterfront hotel downtown and spend a Saturday night pretending we’re tourists in our home town.  We have dinner, walk along the beautifully restored Halifax boardwalk and relish sleeping in and having breakfast served to us in the dining room with a front-row seat on the harbor.  Well, that’s for next week on Art’s birthday.  Last week, we set out around St. Margaret’s Bay, the home of Peggy’s Cove, and then around to Mahone Bay.

An iconic fishing village, Peggy’s Cove seems to be a tourist must-see in this part of the world.  The truth is that there are many just as charming fishing villages dotted along the Atlantic shoreline of Nova Scotia.  But Peggy’s Cove, at the entrance to St. Margaret’s Bay is synonymous with Maritime culture it seems.  It’s actually only a ten-minute drive from where we live, so we like to take a Sunday noon-hour drive there to sit at the Sou’wester Restaurant to indulge in fish and chips about twice a year.

The actual cove that put the ‘cove’ in Peggy’s Cove!

(We can’t justify following this lunch with their gingerbread – but you should try it!)In the fall, this part of Canada is subject to the ravages of hurricanes that make their way up the eastern seaboard of the United States.  This means that the day after a hurricane is the best time to sit and watch the grandeur of Mother Nature as she pounds the waves against the shoreline making mountains of foaming surf.

The other direction out our driveway takes us to Mahone Bay.  Larger than St. Margaret’s Bay, Mahone Bay is home to dozens of little islands, making it a haven for sail boats and small yachts.  We love to drive along, finding wonderful little places to lunch; and although we’re not ‘antiquers’ (as we’ve taken pains to mention before), we can still tell you that if you are, then you’re in luck because antique shops are dotted along the shoreline in many of the villages we pass through.

Where the Discerning Travelers day-trip.

Last weekend we were delighted to find a favorite restaurant had reopened.  Closed for some three or so years, The Galley, located at South Shore Marine, has reopened for business.  We did a U-turn in the middle of the road when we spied the ‘open’ sign so that we could once again sit in a window seat over the marina and watch the sailboats rocking in the breeze.  It’s a good thing that we didn’t have any hard and fast plans or we would have missed the best lobster rolls ever.  After lunch we continued on to our destination: the local nursery that stocks the best annuals and perennials in the area.  After a bit of shopping, we made our way home, happy in the knowledge that in spite of our currently busy schedules, we could find a short trip to take us away from our own yard.

A beautiful summer day on Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia

So, if you can only venture out for a day, here are our favorite tips for discerning travel in your own neck of the woods:

  • Don’t plan or at least don’t over-plan.  Although this is counter-intuitive to the discerning travel mantra, these kinds of trips are better left a bit loose.  We would have missed eating at The Galley last weekend if we had followed through on our loose plan to eat at the Seaside Shanty and Chowder House (which is kitschy and quaint).
  • Try something new.  This is your chance to turn down a road less traveled, a road that you’ve always wondered about.  Just go.
  • Take photos.   We’ve mentioned before that seeing the world through the lens of your camera might not make for the best experience of a place.  The truth is, though, that we often don’t take photos close to home.  This is a chance to turn this on its head: take photos of the things that you thought you knew.  Later, when you look at them, you just might see more-or-less familiar places from a different point of view.

Oh…and if you are actually planning a trip to the east coast of Canada (or will stop in on a cruise of New England and eastern Canada) we have a few suggestions for discerning travelers.  Here are a few of our favorites in and around the city.

Part of the Halifax weterfront

Favorite Restaurants: Il Mercato for chicken-filled ravioli and the best pizza anywhere, Da Maurizio for fine Northern Italian, The Five Fishermen for Nova Scotia seafood, The Bicycle Thief because it has the best harbor-front location.

Favorite Photo Ops: The Halifax Public Gardens, Citadel Hill, the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry from the middle of the harbor, Historic Properties, the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse (45 minutes from downtown)

Favorite Shopping Spots: Park Lane on Spring Garden Road (best shoe store in the city, ladies), Spring Garden Road in general (just stroll along).

But please remember: if you rent a car and take that day trip to Peggy’s Cove, remember that many of us live there and like to get where we’re going.  If you want to take in the views, please pull over!

Photo credit:

Halifax waterfront:  http://www.ecslcanada.com/UserFiles/Image/Halifax%20Images/Ship.jpg

Halifax, Nova Scotia: Remembering the lost Titanic souls

Titanic Deck Chair by Laurie Mireau.

Our little hometown city of Halifax Nova Scotia is marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic this weekend because Halifax, Nova Scotia is home to the graves of more Titanic victims than any other site in the world.

We love our city for the little gem that it is — and promise to write a guide to visiting it some time before the summer tourist season starts.  there is much to lure the discerning traveler and we do so love to play tourist in our own city from time to time.  Today, however, we thought we’d share with you a remembrance.

On our office wall just to the left of the desk hangs a beautiful watercolor that captured Patty one day when she saw it in a brochure for a local artist.  Finding Laurie Mireau in her Halifax studio, Patty was delighted to find that she still had the original of her painting of a deck chair from the Titanic, one of which is housed in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

For us, the image is evocative of so many wonderful hours spent on ships at sea.  Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.  Laurie still has prints!

St. John’s, Newfoundland: More than worth the visit

Cape Spear: The eastern-most point on the North American continent

It is the easternmost point on the North American continent, and the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland (actually it’s Newfoundland & Labrador which is the official name of the province), Canada’s tenth province, is Art’s home town.   Well, the easternmost point is actually Cape Spear, but that’s just a hop outside the city.  Although he moved away many years ago, every time we go back to visit what is affectionately known as “the Rock”, we are blown away by the rugged beauty and the increasing cosmopolitanism.  Recent offshore oil exploration and production have given an economic boost to the city that it hasn’t seen in some generations.   And now, it’s the Canadian province with the most amazing advertising imaginable.  (See the video we’ve posted at the end.)

But, maybe the most impressive promotion for the city of St. John’s itself is the CBC television show The Republic of Doyle.  If you watch that show in HD, you can’t help but notice that St. John’s is one of the characters.  And although we’d venture a guess that the colors have been enhanced, St. John’s truly is a character.

The last time we visited was for a high school reunion – the reunion of a class that graduated so many years ago it’s hardly worth mentioning!  But, we had a chance to play tourist in a city that we actually thought we know so well.

As you fly into St. John’s, it’s easy to think that you’ve ended up at the end of the earth – as your plane reaches the shoreline of Newfoundland you begin to get a sense of place right from the start. And you must remember to keep an eye out for icebergs (at any time of the year – but in the spring in particular).  St. John’s is, by the way, the oldest English-speaking city on the North American continent.  With a population that’s shy of 200,000, the city itself is not large but if you seek them out, you’ll find all kinds of amenities that are worth the trip.

We’ve stayed at most of the better hotels over the years – the Delta and the Hotel Newfoundland (which has been under a number of banners, most recently the Sheraton but it used to be a Fairmont) – which are also the most expensive.  Recently, we’ve stayed at the Courtyard Marriott which is well-located on the harbor-front , has immense suites with great views, a lovely little bar with a view of the “narrows” that frame the harbor entrance looking out to open ocean, is reasonably priced, and because it’s a Marriott property, has wonderful staff.

At Battery Park overlooking St. John's: Son Ian made the pilgrimage with us that year

St. John’s is well-known as the North American city with the most bars per square foot than any other.  We can’t provide any source for that statistic, but trust us, if you take a summer trip to the city and wander downtown to George Street as you must, you will not dispute this statistic at all!  But for our money, these discerning travelers are smitten with the fine dining scene in St. John’s.  There are many fine restaurants along Water Street including Bianca’s which is worth a visit, but our current favorite is Bacalao on Lemarchant Road, which is known for its quintessential Newfoundland cuisine using local products.  It even won a national award for “hyperlocal food” recently.    We’ve eaten there several times, and both the service and the innovative food offerings make a return trip there in the future a must.

The there is a bit of shopping…do not go to the malls in St. John’s.  You will be disappointed.  But do go to the boutiques for women’s clothing.  Along Water Street, my personal favorite is Johnny Ruth.  Oh, the owner has created a gem of a space with a truly inspired and well-edited collection of often Canadian designers.  I’ve bought Comrags and Brenda Beddome there in addition to a number of others.   Also nip into Twisted Sisters Boutik while you’re on Water Street.

The Rooms, St. John's: Art & Ian take in the view of the narrows

No visit to St. John’s would be complete without a visit to The Rooms.  The name is a bit misleading – this is an architectural masterpiece that is truly uninspiring from the outside.  But step inside and it’s a different story.  Beside the fact that The Rooms is an extraordinary museum with all manner of Newfoundland history , both natural and other, it has the most amazing view of the harbor and beyond from a window that was artfully situated to provide just such an experience.

On our most recent visit there, it was Saturday, it was raining heavily and there were two bridal parties taking refuge for photo shoots.  The window makes a dramatic backdrop.

Now that Art’s parents are both dead, we have less reason to visit than we used to.  But we’ll make the trek from time to time – just for the food and Johnny Ruth!

(Flight times: from Halifax it’s an hour and twenty minutes; it’s 3 hours and 34 minutes direct from New York on United).

A sample of the Newfoundland and Labrador advertising campaign…

The Fairmont Algonquin: A fading lady

The Fairmont Algonquin in St. Andrews-by-the Sea, New Brunswick

It’s been a long time since we got behind the wheel of our car and headed out on the open road – instead of to the airport – for a travel getaway.  But autumn came upon us, and the thoughts of a foliage tour took over our good sense and we headed toward northern New England.  Along the way we stopped in St. Andrews-by-the Sea in New Brunswick, home to one of the grand dames of Canadian hotels: the Fairmont Algonquin.

Originally opened in 1889, the Algonquin Hotel was one of Canada’s first resort hotels.  Built by American businessmen, it was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903.[1]  The hotel eventually made its way into the hands of the New Brunswick provincial government in 1984.  The Fairmont Hotel group currently runs the hotel (and has for a number of years); however, that relationship comes to an end on December 31, 2011.  Our recent stay there provided us with several clues to the answer to our question: why is Fairmont not renewing its contract to run the historic property?
We might be wrong, but we’d have to wager a guess that it has something to do with the Fairmont brand and that this property doesn’t live up to the brand expectations of its clientele.

Evoking a bygone era of travel

These discerning travelers booked themselves into what is called a medium suite located in the main historic building.  The two-room suite was quaint as expected (although not the kind of décor we are usually drawn to), furnished with what appeared to us to be either antiques or cast-offs from an estate sale.  Although everything was sparkling clean, when Art walked out of the bathroom for the first time he said, “If Ian [our 22-year-old son] rented an apartment with a bathroom like that, we’d think he lived in a slum.”  It had not had benefit of a renovation in at least 40 years.  Need we say more?

The main rooms of the hotel and the grounds evoke a sense of eras past when travel was more leisurely, and activities to while away the time were more gentile: reading, strolling, sitting in Adirondack chairs in front of wood fires in the evening.

The real highlight of the stay was our anniversary dinner at the hotel’s main dining room, The Library.  The day happened to be Canadian Thanksgiving and the chef was offering his version of the traditional turkey dinner, finished off by pumpkin crème brulée that was exquisite and worth every last calorie.

What will happen to the hotel after the Fairmont folks pull out is anyone’s guess.  We did ask several employees who indicated that it will definitely remain open, but there was no word on who would be managing it. We only hope that the new operator has deep pockets, because this fading lady will fade off the radar of discerning travelers everywhere without the makeover she so desperately needs – and deserves.

the creepy corridor
The creepy corridor: Like a scene right out of "The Shining"