A Week Spent Motoring Merrily Through the Maritimes

After turning south from the rolling farmlands and quaint villages bordering the St. Lawrence River and heading toward the ocean, we entered an intensely wild and beautiful region of Canada known as the Maritimes.  The Maritimes, as the name implies, are adjacent or surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and include the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Because of their proximity to Europe, these three provinces were settled far longer ago than anywhere in the US and are rich in history as well as beauty.

Before we even got close to the sea though, we stopped overnight in the tiny outpost (outpost in the sense that it's the last city before a 100 mile eastern jaunt to the Atlantic through a veritable blanket of trees) of Plaster Rock.  Plaster Rock is home to the World's Largest Fiddleheads, which is significant mostly because it provides an excellent opportunity to characterize the Canadian approach to roadside attractions.  The Canadians seem to absolutely LOVE enormous effigies and they're found all over the country, even if there aren't any Fiji mermaids or two headed calves to be found.

Since Plaster Rock serves as a famous harvesting ground for the tasty fiddlehead fern (that's right...a fern you can eat!), they've chosen to celebrate the fact with a tall wooden sculpture proclaiming their prowess.  I picked up a jar of pickled fiddleheads at one of the many fabulous cheese shops along our way and they made a delicious addition to our picnic hamper (oops! - world's largest basket is in Ohio - sorry, Canada!)

Our first stop after reaching the coastline was in the seaside holiday destination of Shediac, New Brunswick where we celebrated the ocean with a fried clam extravaganza and a visit to - you guessed it - the world's largest lobster!

Actually the world's largest lobster is tremendously impressive.  The Shediac Rotary club hired a noted naturalist to design the sculpture and it's not only very realistic looking, but also beautifully painted. In fact, everything is great about the giant lobster: it's in an appealing setting, very accessible and inviting and very photogenic - there was a constant stream of happy tourists clicking photos while we were there.

Right beside the giant lobster I got an opportunity to pose in my second set of stocks of the trip, even if the pirate wasn't very scary since the blade of his epee apparently fell off without him having noticed.

Mark and I spent a very pleasant day Thursday driving over to Prince Edward Island ($45 toll for the bridge - ouch!), home of world famous P.E.I. mussels.  Our first stop was a trio of bottle houses in Cape Egmont, built by retired lighthouse keeper Edouard Arsenault in the 1980s.
Arsenault used over 25,000 bottles to construct three modest structures on his property, but we were delighted to discover when we arrived that the splendor of the gardens easily rivalled the beauty of the bottle houses.  A wide variety of blooming plants held the visitor's eye between buildings in addition to several charming sculptures that were tucked in between flower beds.   

I particularly liked this carving which is a portrait of Edouard's 99 year old aunt Edna that was carved into the stump of a favorite tree that had toppled in a particularly bad storm, carved by a local artist as a gift to Edouard:

After taking in the bottle houses, we stopped in the city of Summerside at an excellent wharf-side eatery called the Mussel Shed and enjoyed a mound of fresh local mollusks steamed in a pair of tasty broths.  Mark ordered a local ale made with blueberries and it was one of the best beers I've tasted in a long time.  In fact, he had to order a second one since I kept helping myself to large swigs.  
Friday morning, Mark and I drove a ruggedly beautiful and startlingly remote stretch of highway out to the World Heritage Site known as Joggins Fossil Cliffs for an early morning tour. We arrived almost two hours before our tour time since we hadn't known quite what navigational problems we might encounter (not to mention I was beyond excited), but took the opportunity to haul out the coffee making rig I'd packed in the car and brew up an excellent pot of coffee on the outdoor patio of the interpretation center.  We sipped it in the lee of a driving cold wind that whipped the oxide colored water of the bay below us into red-brown crests of foam, just the two of us, taking in the dramatic sweep of the scenery.  It was one of those moments I'll likely never forget, the result of many different irons accumulating in the fire without a thought as to what reward they might yield when taken together.

Joggins Fossil Cliffs sit at the northeastern end of the Bay of Fundy (pictured at right).  The land mass you see to the left of the Bay is a combination of New Brunswick and a tiny bit of Maine. The Bay of Fundy is known for having the highest tidal range in the world - an average daily differential between 45 and 50 feet.  That's the equivalent of a five story building, for crying out loud!  For example, when we arrived shortly after 8:00 a.m., the water was at least a football field's distance or more from the shore and when we finished up our tour just after noon, people were hurrying to finish their strolls because the beach would soon be entirely covered by water.  The Bay is definitely an impressive force to be reckoned with.

The cliffs themselves stretch a little more than 9 miles along the Nova Scotian coastline and are considered to be the most complete and diverse record of the Pennsylvanian Coal Age, around 310 to 350 millions years ago.  They greatly inspired several early 19th century scientists who were busy inventing geology and were featured prominently by their student Darwin in his game-changing  treatise On the Origin of Species. This led to a discovery at Joggins in the mid 1800s of what is widely considered to be the most important fossil ever discovered.

The erosion of the cliffs by extreme weather conditions and tidal surges slowly crumbles the face away, constantly exposing new fossils.  When we went on our tour, the tour guide pointed out several impressive examples of intact tree trunks and a variety of different foliage forms, but what impressed me the most was the number of times she crowed, "I haven't seen that before!" when someone brought her an interesting rock or pointed out something lodged in the wall.  Everywhere you looked were amazing fossil records - you couldn't step anywhere without walking right on top of them.  It was thrilling - I know no better word to describe it.

We were positively glowing by the time we departed.  It was a buzz that lasted all day long as we snaked along the lovely road that follows the Novia Scotia coastline southward.  We were lodging for the evening in the remote coastal town of Advocate Harbor at a place called the Driftwood Inn where we found incredibly gracious hosts, a fantastically comfortable cabin and access to the beach no more than 10 feet from our front door.  Mark settled down for a delicious nap listening to the cool sea breeze sing through the screens of the window and I strolled the beach and made a rock stack which I crowned with a large lobster head I found lying at the water's edge.  

For dinner we supped at a restaurant that everyone raved about (locals, visitors, the internet - you name it) called the Wild Caraway. It was an oasis of foodie delight in the middle of nowhere.  Here's the amuse bouche they brought us before the meal - a tiny thimble full of refreshing cool soup with a freshly baked herb roll.  You can also see my rhubarb soda in the background.

We shared an exquisite chanterelle mushroom soup with house made double smoked bacon:

For my entree I chose pan seared local scallops with pickled cucumber slices, beet puree, cilantro cream and borage jelly cubes, garnished with fresh beet relish with wild currants and tiny fresh mint leaves.

Our visit to Wild Caraway was the icing on the insanely delicious cake of Nova Scotia.  We were so impressed to find such world class cuisine in a town with less than a thousand residents.  It mirrored our experience in Nova Scotia, though - full of satisfying surprises.

Saturday was spent reluctantly leaving our seaside retreat and making our way to the Nova Scotian capital of Halifax.  We made a quick stop in Parrsboro at a famous rock shop where we bought some fossilized souvenirs to bring home with us.  Mark selected a delicate fern of the same variety he had discovered first on our stroll down the beach at Joggins - a perfect reminder of that glorious morning.

In Halifax, we stayed overnight at the sumptuous Prince George hotel in the downtown harbor area where the clerk was nice enough to upgrade us to an absurdly decadent executive suite. We enjoyed another delicious dinner at a nearby gastro pub.

Sunday morning, I bid Mark a fond adieu and dropped him at the Halifax airport before making a beeline for the oldest city in Canada (founded in 1604!), Annapolis Royal.  I had an appointment to meet shoemaker Fred Longtin in the nearby city of Granville Ferry to see his fantastic workshop and inquire about ordering a pair of custom made shoes.  Fred makes boots and shoes for the theater and you should absolutely take a minute and look here at pictures of some of the shoes he and his two assistants Janel and Jon have made. As you might guess, my favorites are the boots produced for the hit musical "Wicked".  Once you see them, you'll know instantly why I became obsessed with meeting him and seeing if he'd make me a pair of shoes - he is most definitely from my planet.

Fred doesn't really make shoes for the general public anymore, but he generously relented after seeing my obvious kookiness and affection for him and what he does and I now happily have a starter pair of black leather Mary Janes on order.
I loved looking around his workshop at all the amazing leathers he had squirreled away.  I often find people's workshops as compelling as any work they produce -  giving a view into the mind that a tangible object isn't necessarily able to provide.  I had a ball chatting with Fred and Janel and would welcome the opportunity to go back and do it again.

After lodging in Annapolis Royal Sunday night, I got up before dawn the next morning and made my way through a thick fog to board the ferry at Digby so I could cross the Bay of Fundy and land at St. John. Less than an hour later, I crossed the border back into the U.S. and ended my wonderful sojourn in Canada.  I knew before I'd even cast a scathing glare into my rear view mirror at the U.S. Border station that I'd be missing the quiet unassuming beauty of Canada in short order.  I was so glad to have taken the time to be there and experience it fully.

Moonset on the Bay of Fundy, Advocate Harbor


Start with Beauty, End with Beast

There was one last stop I wanted to make before we headed out of Montreal Monday morning.  I'd read good things about a place by the name of Beauty's Luncheonette that has become one of Montreal's most beloved breakfast institutions over the years.  Hymie and Freda Sckolnick opened Beauty's Luncheonette in 1942 and 62 years later, it's still going strong - albeit modernized a bit, but never skipping a beat when it comes to serving exceptional food.  That's nonagenarian Beauty (AKA Hymie - Beauty is his bowling moniker) above, engrossed in some paper work.


I chose the Beauty's Special, a sesame seed bagel filled with ribbons of deep orange smoked salmon, a thick schmear of cream cheese and slices of ripe tomato and purple onion - perfect in every way.  The coffee was great, the waitress was vivacious and before we'd left, we had a rollicking conversation going with Beauty, our waitress and a lovely couple from Toronto.  I was so glad I'd insisted on going to Beauty's, ending our visit to Montreal as it did on a note of breakfasty triumph.

We threaded our way out of Montreal and began heading east along the St. Lawrence river, marvelling at it's immense size and importance.  We'd be covering a good many verdant miles for the next couple of days on our way to Canada's Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward's Island and Nova Scotia.  I knew from extensive research not to expect many wacky or awe inspiring roadside attractions, but there would be more than enough beautiful scenery and quaint pastoral settings to suffice.  We took small roads that wound through an endless series of little bitty towns, each sporting at least one enormous Catholic church topped with a gleaming silver roof and spire (tin? zinc? I'm still perplexed and intrigued as to what they use to paint them).

We stopped in one of the larger towns when I saw a Target.  I absolutely HAD to go inside and ask how the locals pronounce the name - was it Tar-ZHAY, as I hoped and suspected?  I must admit I was a bit disappointed when the gal at the register laughed and pronounced it almost exactly as we do in the States, only a bit more like Pepe LePew: Tar-GEHT.  Ah well.

Back on the road, after resigning myself to a dearth of oddities for the next couple of days, I was delighted to stumble upon two different sculpture gardens that were more than worth a stop.  The first, Parc des Trois Berets in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli was situated on the grounds of an impressive modern building perched along the banks of the St. Lawrence river, a school founded directly after World War II by three self-taught wood carving brothers with impressive skills.  The sculptures are the product of a yearly international competition sponsored by the school  My favorite was the chainsaw vertebrae with recently hewn wood chips:

A little further down the road in St.-Roch-des-Aulnales, a series of floating disembodied furniture by the side of the road alerted us to the presence of the whimsical Parc de Folsculptures, an art installation by artist Daniel Hamelin.  The overall theme is Art Fou or "crazy art" in English.  The Parc surrounds a pink gallery building that looks as though it was culled from a Barbie on Venus play set (including a huge white plastic dome and futurist bubble windows) and is accessed via a rambling leafy pathway through a thicket of brightly painted assemblages using the detritus of the machine age.  Many of the pieces had humorous sayings, instilling a sense of playfulness to an otherwise dignified space.

Translation: "I have retained my childhood. And you?"

In the pond in front of the house, kitchen appliances!

It was obvious that the presence of the Bourgault Brothers sculpture school had had an appreciable effect on the region as we noticed random sculptures gracing the lawns and pastures of many a home. We were headed to the Le Martinet hotel in La Pocatiere for the evening which I had reserved solely on the basis of the English definition of martinet which is someone who is very strict and demands obedience from others (welcome to my wacky mind).   La Pocatiere is home to a large railway/subway car assembly plant (Bombadier) and several regional colleges and as such has a sophistication that sets it apart other most of the other tiny agricultural village that surrounded it.  La Pocatiere is also famous for its monadnocks, which I am telling you just because I love that word. Monadnock, monadnock, monadnock!  Impossible to say and an intriguing concept to boot.

Due to the increased urbanity of La Pocatiere, there were a number of gourmet options for dinner and we selected the excellent Cafe Azimut where I was elated to find a Pink Lady on the cocktail menu and ordered one post haste.

We sat on the terrace in the pleasantly warm breeze and supped on local foods prepared by a talented chef.  I had a bavette of beef resting on a bed of wild mushrooms, crowned by a thin wedge of brie.  Sensational.  We didn't tarry over our dinner, though, because the lady at the hotel told us not to and we weren't about to disobey.  Certainly not with the sight of several beautiful monadnocks gilded with the fading twilight just outside our window.


Puttin' on the Poutine

Mark and I had two whole days to putter around in Montreal before heading east.  At the very top of my list was a science museum called the Insectarium, devoted entirely to our creeping and crawling friends.  The Insectarium is a modest museum, but stuffed top to bottom with lots and lots of beautiful, scary, surprising, elegant, admirable members of the phylum Arthropoda. Most of the museum's specimens are deceased and mounted in explanatory displays, but there are also some wonderful terrariums full of live specimens that give visitors a view into secret worlds.

I've seen a wide variety of arthropods over the years since I'm such a fan, but one specimen I had never seen before and was particularly delighted to discover was something called a bilateral gynadromorph.  I'd recently read about such a thing in one of the excellent Patrick O'Brian books in the Master and Commander series, and was very excited when I saw the brilliant example they offered on display.  A gynadromorph is a creature that exhibits both male and female characteristics which is usually the result of a deviation in the early stages of cell mitosis.  Some gynadromorphs are quite difficult to detect, but this one looks like two different butterfly halves that have been hot glued together.  Amazing!

Aside from the Insectarium, a good bit of our time in Montreal was spent ambling about and eating.  Saturday night we followed the advice of our hostess Gabrielle and visited a restaurant called Poutineville. Poutine is a Quebecois invention that has spread in popularity from one coast of Canada to the other.  You start with a bed of crisply fried potatoes (usually french fries), top that with a sprinkling of fresh cheese curds and then top it all off with a light brown gravy.  It's a robust dish of comfort food, most typically enjoyed after a night of drinking.  At Poutineville, there were a number of variations to choose from and I selected the Montrealer: fried smashed potatoes, smoked Montreal beef (more on that in a minute), mushrooms, Swiss cheese and gravy, topped with a battered and fried pickle spear. 

Mark went for a custom poutine: sweet potato fries, onions, roasted red peppers, cheese curds and gravy, topped with a fried egg.

Neither of us could finish more that 2/3 of our concoctions because as you can probably imagine, they were extremely filling.  While the poutines were plenty tasty, both of us decided we could check that item off our bucket lists and move on to other more nuanced local dishes.  A visit to the ancient institution of Schwartz's set everything right, however.  Schwartz's has been in business since 1928, founded by a Jewish immigrant from Romania.  While there are a handful of other dishes on offer, the reason there is always a line out the door is the succulent Montreal smoked beef served in sandwiches made with rye bread and slathered in yellow mustard.  The beef is dry cured with a coating of peppercorns and other spices then smoked, but it melts in your mouth with none of the intense peppery flavor you'd expect from the thick rind of cracked peppercorns that encases it.  It was absolutely fantastic.

When we weren't eating, we were strolling the bustling streets, enjoying the people watching in a city that epitomizes the concept of the melting pot.  Such a variety of cultures, races and ethnicities swirls through the city.  One afternoon as we sat at a sidewalk cafe, several marching bands passed by performing and I was tickled by this group of fellows that had made percussive instruments out of junk:

Another fun thing about walking around was all the great street art we ran across.  This piece was on the wall of a building that housed a Hebrew gravestone factory:

But great art was all over the vibrant area where we stayed, and I suspect over a good part of the city were we to have had enough time to see it all.

But the two days we had before moving on to the Maritime region went by like lightning, or maybe foudre as the French say.  What a delightful city!  I will definitely have to return one day to appreciate it more fully.



My passage into Canada Wednesday morning signaled the beginning of three days of pleasant, but unremarkable travel.  The two lane Trans-Canada highway carried me east a little over 600 miles (or 1000 kilometers, now that I was in a country with a sensible measurement system) through nothing much more than forests of green conifers, impressive roadside moose warning signs and occasional chip (french fry) stands.  I was headed to Montreal where I would be retrieving Mark from the airport so we could settle in for a weekend of exploring one of North America's older and more vibrant cities.

On the way, I made a quick stop to the park outside Ottawa's Canada Science and Technology Museum so I could see a stainless steel Atlas rocket, the same model launch vehicle that carried astronaut John Glenn into orbital flight in 1962.  I had data to gather for my own back yard rocket, after all.

While I circled the rocket, admiring the gleam of the Buck Rogers exterior, I  was amused to watch as the museum led a rocket launching activity for kids.   It seemed like a great way to get kids thinking about the physics of the 70 foot rocket that cast a long shadow over their efforts.
I also had the pleasure of spotting my very first Tesla Roadster, plugged into an electric charging station in front of the museum.  I'm a big fan of Elon Musk (chief product architect of  Tesla motors, co-inventor of PayPal and CEO/CTO of SpaceX Rockets), so it was nice to be able to finally see one of his most famous accomplishments in person.

As I got closer to Montreal Friday afternoon, I stopped in at one of the many, many famous cheese makers in the Quebec (province) region, Glengarry Fine Cheese.  After sampling a few of their award winning cheeses, I honed in on a blue cheese that intrigued me because it was made with water buffalo milk.  As soon as I tasted a morsel of the marvelous Azzuro di Buffala, I was in love.  It is without a doubt one of the loveliest cheeses I've had the pleasure of eating in a long while.  I purchased a wedge for my picnic stash and then pulled back onto the two lane country highway that had carried me there to retrace my path a few kilometers and investigate a sign I'd seen previously indicating the ruins of a church.  That seemed like an ideal place for an al fresco snack on a sunny summer day.  It turns out it was perfect - tall neoclassical walls unfettered by a roof, surrounded by ancient headstones, green rolling hills and the intriguing odors of the country.  A persistent breeze made keeping my picnic supplies at bay a bit of a challenge, but the cool air felt delicious to a Texan long used to miserable summers.

I picked Mark up at the Montreal airport a short while later and it was not only good to see him, but it was also really helpful to have a navigator as we threaded our way through the incredibly convoluted streets of downtown Montreal.  Once we'd parked the car and whisked our bags into the tiny apartment where we'd be staying, we set out for some dinner in the vibrant Quartier Latin district where we were lodging.  Montreal is such a melting pot of a city that we passed all sorts of different ethnic eateries, but when we came upon a Mexican restaurant, we quickly decided it was an excellent time to enjoy our traditional margarita-in-a-foreign-land.  Cantaloupe was our first round, mango the second.  It was an excellent beginning to the week we'd be spending together and a fine introduction to this dynamic, friendly city.