When both locals and tourists love a restaurant, you know it has to be good: Rhubarb Café in Nova Scotia

img_3994One of the great pleasures of travel is discovering new places to eat. Sometimes, though, revisiting a favourite haunt can be equally fabulous as illustrated by our recent road trip through northeastern US and Canada.

When visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, it is mandatory to take a trip along what the tourism people call the “lighthouse route.” And for discerning travelers, it’s mandatory to eat along the way. There are choices: you can eat at Peggy’s Cove if all you really want is the view of the lighthouse (the food is secondary), or you can stop in at Hackett’s Cove and eat at the Finer Diner. We aren’t kidding: that’s really their name (the food is okay; the view okay). We’ve eaten at both on more than one occasion. Or you can make the right choice and stop in Indian Harbour at the best of the lot: Rhubarb Café.

Let’s back-track for just a moment. We used to live on the east coast, on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay about a seven-minute drive from Rhubarb, a restaurant that has had at least three different owners since we first began visiting it. But it wasn’t until the current proprietors took it over that it was truly able to strike that balance that restaurants in touristy areas need – they need to offer something for tourists and locals equally so that they can thrive in both the tourist season and in the off season. Current owner/operators Diane and Jim Buckle have found just the right recipe.

You leave downtown Halifax and take route 333 along the coast, looping past Peggy’s Cove on the way to Indian Harbour. You can eventually close up the loop and head back into the city, or continue along the St. Margaret’s Bay Road (or the highway if you prefer) down along Nova Scotia’s south shore. But before you do, have lunch, dinner or weekend brunch at Rhubarb.


Rhubarb’s tag line is “…delicious food and welcoming service in a cozy seaside setting…” And it lives up to its press. We first met Diane when she was working at the restaurant at Peggy’s Cove many years ago. We always knew that she had exactly the right personality and customer service mentality to make it on her own in the business if the opportunity presented itself. When she and her husband Jim took over Rhubarb some years ago, we couldn’t have been more delighted for them – and for us.

Restauranteur-extraordinaire, Diane Buckle, behind her bar at Rhubarb.


Located adjacent to Oceanstone Seaside Resort (but not actually a part of it), Rhubarb focuses its menu on comfort food with a dash of culinary inventiveness. For example, their kale Caesar salad is truly wonderful, as are their pork tenderloin and their crispy haddock – these are favourites of ours. However, we also visit Rhubarb for creative pizzas, and they often offer a specially-topped pizza of the day. Their 10-inch, thin-crust pizzas are really worth trying. Art’s favourite is the Lawrencetown (named after a famous Nova Scotia beach) – bacon, red onion, pineapple and hot peppers. Odd sounding? Maybe, but it works.

So the food is worth the drive. And the welcoming service is worth the drive. What about the ambience?

The cozy dining room has two focal points: the view of the bay beyond (it’s not directly on the water), and the large fireplace. As you dine, you’ll be surrounded by a plethora of local artists’ work. Every time we visit, the art work is different – and it is all for sale. It’s great fun to take a walk around and peer at the walls while waiting for lunch – although if it’s busy you might want to peer from afar so as not to annoy other diners! Feel free to buy one, though.

It’s not often that we focus on just one restaurant or hotel in our stories, but this one is worth spending a bit of time on. Wonderful people serving delicious comfort food. Need we say more?

Visit Rhubarb online at http://www.rhubarbrestaurant.ca/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/therhubarbrestaurant/?fref=ts

Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.


The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s


For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

The ‘authentic’ travel experience: The travel snob’s last stand

Autumn in Bar Harbor, Maine
Autumn in Bar Harbor, Maine

We’re not sure about everyone else, but we are sure about ourselves when it comes to travel: we are very particular about the experiences that we have, and we are suspicious of those who take the view that you can’t have an ‘authentic’ travel experience unless you somehow suffer. What nonsense!

What does it mean to be authentic anyway? Well, the dictionaries suggest that it has to do with being real, genuine, or not fake. When it comes to travel experiences, what makes something authentic (and why do travelers these days care, anyway?)? The latest craze for visiting slums in third-world countries is one of the more puzzling approaches for authentic experiences that we’ve seen.

Some travel writers seem to think that staying at a ‘quaint’ property is more authentic than staying at a ‘grand’ property, but who is to say that quaint is any more authentic (read: morally superior), than ‘grand’? And what about dining? Is it more authentic to eat street food in India or to dine at a high-quality Indian restaurant? Perhaps the risk of dysentery is what makes a dining experience authentic? Well, we think that’s just travel snobbery. Take a recent experience we had in New England.

As we love to do in the fall, we took a few days earlier this month to take in the fall colors in Maine and New Hampshire. Having not set foot in Bar Harbor, Maine in decades, we decided that it would be a good place to spend two days exploring the countryside and Acadia National Park (we suppose that a national park is authentic?) As we usually do, we sought out the fine dining experience in the village and found ourselves at a little spot called rather unexpectedly, Havana. What in the world were you doing in a restaurant named for the capital of Cuba in the middle of the Atlantic seaside in Maine? you might ask.  Surely that couldn’t be an authentic Maine experience. Oh, but it was.

You see, that restaurant is owned and operated by a local restaurateur with a flair for the sophisticated. With an extensive travel background and a true respect for dining (not eating as we’ve discussed before), Havana’s proprietor with whom we chatted for a while during and after our dinner, has for the past 15 years been committed to “…serving local and organic meats, produce and seafood. [They] consistently search out New England farmers and fisherfolk to purchase products that are not only great tasting, but great for the environment and local economy as well…”[from their web site]. In addition to this, they have their own urban garden on a reclaimed urban plot. What’s more, this commitment to the local and the sustainable hasn’t gotten in the way of serving outstanding food accompanied by a wonderful, thoughtfully selected wine list.

Havana Restaurant (photo credit: Havana web site)
Havana Restaurant (photo credit: Havana web site)

An authentic Maine experience? Of course. Eating freshly steamed lobster at a newspaper-covered picnic table might constitute what most travel snobs would define as authenticity, but there’s more to being authentic than the cheaper, lower-level experiences.

There is nothing inauthentic about being comfortable and happy while travelling. It’s authentically wonderful to have the privilege of making a choice. Be discerning about your own experiences and never be defensive about your enjoyment of your travel experiences.

Visit Havana online at www.havanamaine.com.

Michelin stars: Discerning travelers beware!

The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!
The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!

We do love to have new dining experiences when we travel.  We’ve waxed rapturously before about those times when we’ve had that defining experience that stays with us for years to come (The Cliff in Barbados comes to mind) – and despite opinions to the contrary, dining is not just about the food.

The concept of those restaurants that boast “stars” – you know the ones: those Michelin stars – is one that is intriguing for us when we travel.  Usually, we’ll want to splurge on one such experience during a trip, but our travel mantra is more focused on service and the overall experience, regardless of price or even some kind of external validation that is something like a Michelin star.

Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new.  St. Stephen's Green in April.
Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. St. Stephen’s Green in April.

Last month we had the pleasure of a wonderful trip to Ireland with a three-day stop in Dublin.  Searching for restaurants, we found Chapter One, and even our driver recommended it.  We stopped by the concierge at the wonderful Westin Dublin where we stayed, and miracle of miracles, he was able to procure for us a table for that very evening.  We had heard that you have to book weeks if not months in advance.  So we were excited.

Even when you “Google” Chapter One the heading on the web site as listed in the results says, “Chapter One Michelin Star Restaurant Dublin…”  So it would seem that this little star is important and that restaurants trade on it.  But what does it really mean and will it guarantee a great dining experience?

According to Michelin’s own web site, the stars are awarded based on a “clandestine” approach to evaluation wherein their “full-time professional inspectors” (!)  anonymously partake of repeated test meals.  In other words, the evaluators are unknown to the restaurant and they could be there any day without notice.  Their description of what the stars mean is very telling from our perspective: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate, meaning the quality of products, the mastering of flavors, mastering of cooking, personality of the cuisine, value for the money and the consistency of what the restaurant offers to its customers both throughout the menu and the year.” [from their web site]

The notion of stars referring to only what is actually on the plate says a lot to us as discerning diners: we now know not to expect much in terms of service, consideration of clients or even selection of wines or spirits.  Case in point: our recent visit to the one-starred Chapter One.

We arrived there one lovely April evening to be greeted by fantastically friendly staff, although to be truthful, we found everyone to a person in Ireland to have this same approach, so it was no surprise.  Although we arrived on time for our dinner reservation, we were led to a tiny bar to sit, order a drink and in due course actually see a menu and order food – all before going to our table.  This was surprising, but we accepted it as their “way.”  We ordered two Martini Biancos on the rocks only to be  told they had enough for only one.  So whose job is it to ensure that the bar is always fully stocked, we wondered?  Not to worry though, we enjoy other drinks.  Okay, we thought, so they don’t have it.  What about an Aperol spritz?  The waiter had never heard of Aperol.  Two strikes and we haven’t even seen the menu.  He eventually

What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.
What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.

consulted with someone else who procured a bottle with some Aperol left in it and proceeded to produce for us Aperol topped with soda.  Oh dear.  An Aperol spritz, as any worthy bartender ought to know is topped with Prosecco, not soda and is served with a slice or twist of orange in a large wine glass, not an old-fashioned!  However, we saw no point in getting off to a really bad start and looking like annoying tourists, so we sucked it up.  Then it was on to the menu.

It was interesting and we found several selections to look forward to.  A waiter then took our dinner order, and were eventually led to our table.  With a corner vantage point, we could see the small room well.  It was one of two connected rooms, and we could see a private dining area beyond.  What struck as the most al throughout the evening (and it was long – too long for our liking) was the feverish activity displayed by one and all.  The waiters flew back and forth past the table so fast it seemed as if they were in training for a sprint.  In our view, it’s fine to be busy, but there should be a degree of calmness exhibited in the presence of the guests so that they can enjoy a relaxed evening.  The stress level was palpable and could have been contagious if we hadn’t already had a drink!   In spite of all of the frenetic activity though, we had been in the place for an hour before we had an appetizer.

There’s something about the ambience that makes an evening special.  Wonderful food is nice – and the food that evening was nice, but hardly worth the price (we’ve had a lot better elsewhere) – but the feeling we had was that old army saying: “Hurry up and wait.”  Additionally, there was no background music at all to provide even a perception of peace.  So, for us, the evening was not worth the price we paid for it – and it was expensive.   In truth, the restaurant holds one star which Michelin defines as indicating “a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. A good place to stop on your journey.”   After several days in Dublin, we’d have to say that if you have limited time (and/or resources) there are much better places where the experience will be more delightful.  The Pearl, a lovely French restaurant comes to mind: we had a wonderful evening enjoying the food and the ambience, where the relaxed atmosphere coupled with the knack for French sauces had us swooning.

Our conclusion is that when selecting restaurants, those Michelin stars tell only part of the story – a story which is very clearly described on the Michelin web site itself: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate…” and even at that, you might not agree.  So for us Michelin stars don’t really provide the kind of discerning travel guidance we’re seeking.  We have just by happenstance landed in Michelin-starred restaurants before and enjoyed ourselves.  But you won’t need a Michelin star to do that!