The Avalon Peninsula is home to over half of the island’s population of 500,000. St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, is near the tip of the northeast corner of the peninsula. It is the oldest English-founded city in North America and has the oldest street in North America. It also has some of the steepest streets I have ever seen.
Just a few minutes after arriving downtown, about to head up to Signal Hill, the oil pressure light in the Touareg went absolutely berserk. This isn’t the normal oil light with a gentle ding. It is the other light with a piercing alarm and warning to stop the engine immediately. The street was so steep that I temporarily lost oil pressure. Apparently I was a few quarts low on oil! After pouring in four quarts, I was good to go again. Note: keep a better eye on oil levels.
The steep climb up to Signal Hill is worth it, though. It has panoramic views of the city, the harbor, Quidi Vidi Lake, the Atlantic Ocean, and nearby Cape Spear, arguably the easternmost point in North America. It is also the spot where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. Yes, there is a ton of history in this part of Newfoundland.
I stayed at a campground about a half an hour outside of St. John’s. It let me head into the city quickly, but also let me easily check out other areas like Brigus, The Irish Loop, Trepassey, Saint Vincent’s, Petty Harbour, and Witless Bay.
For years, I have been on the lookout for whales. From the Inside Passage of Alaska to Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia, a close-up view has always eluded me. Sure, I have seen them from afar, but never up close and personal. Bay Bulls and Witless Bay seem to have all the popular whale watching tours in Eastern Newfoundland. Most are on giant tour boats capable of holding several hundred passengers. I chose a slightly smaller one – an eight-passenger Zodiac from Witless Bay Eco Tours.
After jumping into our bright red survival suits, we headed to a spot just outside of the bay where whales had been spotted earlier in the morning. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the first humpback whale appeared on the horizon. So the captain sped towards the spot where we saw the spray. We found not just one, but a pod of humpbacks. One of the big tour boats had also spotted the pod, and was right on our tail. The whales were staying near the surface, coming up for air every few minutes. Every one in our boat was pretty excited to be a few dozen feet away from the whales. And I swear the big tour boat was about to tip over as everyone walked over to the starboard side. And then, out of nowhere, some of the whales made their way to our boat. At the time, I was so excited that I didn’t quite comprehend that some 40-ton, 50-foot mammals were directly underneath our postage stamp-sized home on the water. It was absolutely unbelievable! Soon the whales left, and we did the same. For a pure adrenalin rush, it was the most exciting two hours of my entire three weeks in Newfoundland.
It takes quite a bit of work to get all the way over to the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada, but it is so worth it. To get on the island, I took the short five-hour ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques. But since I made the trek over to the eastern side, instead of driving back to the ferry at Port aux Basques, I decided to take the ferry from Argentia back to North Sydney. If you don’t like boats, then this probably isn’t the ferry ride for you. It took 17½ hours, plus a couple of hours to board and an hour to disembark. In all honesty, it wasn’t that bad. There is a restaurant, a cafe, a bar, a movie room, a game room, a gift shop, and plenty of places to sit and watch TV or hop on (unreliable) Wi-Fi. I didn’t get a berth, so I stayed up for as long as possible and then napped for a few hours in a reclining seat. I even had a steak dinner, some wine, and a little dessert at a table with white linens. See, it wasn’t so rough.Read More
Every once in a while, I turn around and decide to head right back to where I just left. I get a feeling when I think I have missed something worth seeing. And every once in a while it turns into something magical. It happened in Talkeetna, Alaska last summer and it happened this month in Bonavista, Newfoundland.
From my research, from the staff at the visitor center, from fellow travelers, it was clear the Bonavista Peninsula was a place to visit. The problem: it was a couple of hours from the TCH (Trans-Canada Highway), the one nearby provincial park was booked, and another private campground had less-than-stellar reviews. So I rolled through with the Airstream, trying to navigate the tight spaces of places like Trinity, Elliston, “The Dungeon,” Spillar’s Cove, and Bonavista Head. It just wasn’t working. I took a few photos, rushed through the area, and started to head back to the TCH – right past the campground that others had disliked.
A few miles outside of town, I got that feeling, made a u-turn, and decided to try the campground for the night. I stayed for five days. It wasn’t anything fancy at all, but it was clean, quiet, perfectly priced, and convenient to everything on the peninsula. Best of all, the owner went out of his way to make sure I knew of all the places to visit. The next time you find yourself on the Bonavista Peninsula of Newfoundland with an RV, stay at Paradise Farm.
So what is the Bonavista Peninsula, anyway? Why is it so cool? And why is it named Bonavista? Remember that Newfoundland is an island about the size of Cuba or Iceland. Its rocky and rugged 6,000 miles of coastline is full of inlets, bays, and peninsulas. On the northeastern side of the island is one particular peninsula that extends farther out into the Atlantic. Imagine sheer cliffs down to the ocean below. Imagine crazy rock formations carved out by the sea. Imagine locals with a crazy accent. Imagine brightly colored, old, historic buildings. Imagine little islands full of birds. Imagine whales swimming among those islands. That is the Bonavista Peninsula. In 1497, famed Italian explorer John Cabot first landed in North America on the tip of this exact peninsula, supposedly shouting, ”O Buon Vista!” (“Oh, Happy Sight!”). The town, the cape, and the entire peninsula became known by the word “Bonavista.” It really is a happy sight.
The Discovery Trail runs from the TCH to Cape Bonavista, the tip of the peninsula with a lighthouse. There are a few different routes, but without stopping, it’s about a two-hour drive. In reality, the drive is much longer because of all the interesting towns and villages to visit along the way. My campground was only about 20 minutes from Cape Bonavista, and only about ten minutes from the towns of Elliston and Bonavista. So I spent a lot of time exploring those areas!
The main road into Bonavista has panoramic views of the ocean with a skyline full of historic wooden buildings. I was surprised at the size of the town; it is bigger than any of the other historic fishing villages in the area. I spent most of my afternoons in a small cafe with good food, a great staff, and so-so Wi-Fi. It was there that I got to hear the famous Bonavista accent firsthand. Some local gentlemen came into replace a refrigeration unit. (It was insanely hot and muggy.) In the few minutes they spent talking to one anther, I recognized maybe five words – maybe. Some other Americans in the cafe were in disbelief, too. It is unlike any accent I have ever heard. In my attempt to find an example, I stumbled upon a somewhat controversial ad for the Nissan X-Trail Bonavista Edition. View the video on YouTube to get just a taste of the accent.
Just beyond town is Cape Bonavista. It is popular with tourists because the paved road ends at a parking lot that overlooks the ocean below. As such, it is always full of people hoping to catch a glimpse of a whale or two. It doesn’t hurt that an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant is right on the way. Dungeon Provincial Park is just a few miles before the lighthouse. Not nearly as many people seemed to find this gem because of its gravel road entrance, but I managed to make my way down the bumpy road with the Airstream. The views were incredible! Even more hidden is Spillar’s Cove. So hidden, in fact, I went there three times before finding the entrance. It was so incredibly rugged, I felt like I had hiked three days to reach the cove. I saw only one other person out there, and cautiously explored the cliffs while puffins and whales played in the water below.
Nothing compared to the puffins and whales in Elliston, though. Besides being the self-proclaimed “root cellar capital of the world,” Elliston is famous for having one of the closest land views of puffins in North America. And, by “close,” I mean puffins-at-your-feet type of close. It was pretty amazing. Hundreds of puffins were jostling for position on land, in air, and on water. They would feed on capelin, a small fish found only in cold saltwater. But they weren’t the only ones looking for food. As the puffins flew past my head, I was watching humpback and minke whales in the distance. They, too, were feeding on the capelin. At the time, I thought it was pretty incredible to see whales a few hundred yards away. Little did I know that, in just a few days, the whales would be the ones at my feet!Read More
So, Newfoundland. What an incredibly unique place! Officially part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland itself is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Most people with RVs take a ferry from Nova Scotia to reach the island. You could also take a ferry from the mainland part of Labrador. Or you could fly there. There are no roads or bridges to Newfoundland; there is simply too much open water surrounding the island.
I took the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. This is probably the most common crossing because it only takes about six hours and runs year round. Port aux Basques is only a few hours away from Gros Morne National Park, easily the most scenic area of the entire western half of the island. Back in the fall of 2010, I briefly visited Gros Morne, but vowed to return for a longer stay with better weather.
This time, the weather was absolutely perfect! I stayed right in the middle of the national park, at a KOA campground with electricity and Wi-Fi. I tend to stay away from the whole KOA scene, but having free Wi-Fi in a foreign country is a major benefit. The campground was just off the Viking Trail and minutes away from Norris Point and Rocky Harbour, two picturesque villages right on the ocean. I would go down to the harbor, find more free Wi-Fi from a local hotel, sit with my laptop, and work with views of fishing boats, rocky cliffs, and miles of ocean on the horizon. I also made sure to visit one of the places I missed on my previous visit.
Western Brook Pond is just up the Viking Trail from Rocky Harbour. Carved out by glaciers, it is a freshwater lake with 2,000-foot rock walls on either side. Some of the rocky cliffs are visible from the main road, but the lake is only accessible by a two-mile hiking trail. And to get a true sense of the beauty, you really have to go on the two-hour boat tour at the end of the hiking trail. And you even learn things! On the tour, I learned the water in Western Brook Pond has the highest purity rating available. So pure, water pumps failed when they couldn’t find the mineral levels required to know water was even flowing through the system. And I got my first taste of traditional Newfoundland music. About twenty minutes before returning to port, they played recordings from a local band. It actually was pretty cool, and an absolute perfect start to my extended stay in Newfoundland!Read More
On my first visit to Nova Scotia back in 2010, I took the long way through New Brunswick. This time, I took a shortcut. A ferry across the Bay of Fundy to the town of Digby cut the day’s drive down to just a few hours. My plan was to check out the western part of Nova Scotia, most of which I missed the last time. Unfortunately, a low pressure weather system moved in about the same time I did.
In the fog and mist, I made my way to the Digby Neck, a peninsula made of two thick lava flows. Near the tip of the peninsula is “Balancing Rock,” a 30-foot-tall basalt column that has somehow balanced itself for over 200 years. The rock is on Long Island, a section only accessible by a 3.5-minute crossing aboard the Petit Princess ferry. Normally just a $5 round-trip toll, I had to pay a $1.50 surcharge to take the Airstream on the ferry. Not a bad deal! Once on the island, and after a quick drive through the small village of Tiverton, there is a gentle 1.5-mile hike down to St. Mary’s Bay. Then, there are 235 steep steps to get an eye-level view of the rock. Yes, 235 steps! It was quite literally breathtaking—at right around step number 460 on the way back up.
I don’t know if I ran over something on that little side excursion or if I simply had a tire failure, but soon after getting back to the main road, one of the tires on the Airstream had a major blowout. A good Samaritan let me park in his driveway and even drove into town to fetch the local mechanic. Yes, I was in the middle of nowhere! Within an hour, I was back on the road with my spare tire. (It took over a week to find a replacement Airstream tire near Halifax.)
With things definitely not going as planned, I decided to head straight to Lunenburg, one of my favorite places in Nova Scotia. I ended up waiting there a week for the weather to improve. It gave me time to check out Mahone Bay and Blue Rocks, two communities on either side of Lunenburg. In Blue Rocks, I met a family who had come from Quebec to deliver their baby out in the country. Before listening to the older sister tell the story, I had no idea the baby in her mom’s arms was a mere three days old! By the way, the girl was about four years old and was telling me this in both English and French (which her mother and grandmother translated for me). It was pretty adorable.
Blue Rocks is Lunenburg’s version of a place called Peggy’s Cove Village, just outside of Halifax. It is a working fishing village with a few shops and one famous lighthouse. Any visit to the Halifax Regional Municipality is not complete without a visit to Peggy’s Cove.
I would have spent much more time in the Halifax area, but with the weather improving, I had a boat to catch in North Sydney. Next stop: Newfoundland!Read More
“O, Canada!” I can’t help but hum the national anthem every time I cross the border into the land of maple leaves, hockey, and never-ending politeness.
This time I decided to enter Canada via the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge to Campobello Island, New Brunswick. And, by “decided,” I mean that I drove past a sign for the bridge, made a U-turn, and figured I would see what it was like crossing the border at Lubec, Maine instead of my original plan of Calais, Maine. You may have heard of Campobello. The Roosevelt family had a house there and spent many summers on the island. In fact, this is the exact spot where FDR first developed paralysis in the summer of 1921. I did a quick tour of the house, but even though I was officially in Canada, I knew I needed to catch two different ferries to get back to the Canadian mainland.
So, with sporadic internet and no Canadian dollars in my wallet, I started driving to the first ferry by following road signs. I must have missed a sign, because I ended up on a narrow road to the tip of the island. At the end stood East Quoddy Lighthouse (also known as Head Harbor Lighthouse), apparently the most photographed lighthouse in the world! Remember how I didn’t have any Canadian dollars in my wallet yet? Well, walking over to the lighthouse required a $5 toll. Sadly, I started walking back to my house, with nothing but a few glimpses of the lighthouse. An elderly gentleman, who must have seen the camera around my neck and the disappointment in my face, happily pointed me to some overlooks hidden in the forest that were totally free! Thank you, random old guy, for helping me take my version of the most photographed lighthouse in the world.
Still with a schedule to keep, I got back on the road, and found the signs back to the ferry. This is where things started to get interesting. Imagine a paved road. Now imagine turning off that paved road to a completely unexpected gravel driveway that leads directly into the Bay of Fundy. There was no terminal. There were no other cars. There was no ferry…yet. I somehow turned around, and made my way to a grocery store I remembered passing earlier. After getting some much-needed cash from the ATM and some much-needed food from the deli, I found a local who was pretty certain the ferry was still running for the evening.
I drove back to the ferry landing, and soon enough a tug boat with a barge appeared on the horizon. I crossed my fingers, gently drove down the gravel path to a bit of a cement ramp, and boarded the ferry to Deer Island, New Brunswick. With bright, sunny skies over the Bay of Fundy, the 45-minute ride on calm seas was spectacular! Little did I know that the ferry landing at Campobello Island was going to seem like a piece of cake compared to the next one at Deer Island.
As we started approaching the southern part of the island, all I could see was a shoreline full of dark shale rock – everywhere. Because it was low tide, this shoreline seemed to ascend straight into the sky. Quick fact: with a peak tidal range of 50 feet in some places, the highest tides in the world are in the Bay of Fundy. It was becoming very clear that I, too, would need to ascend into the sky to disembark the ferry. With a thumbs up from the crew woman, I slowly crept off the ferry – made sure my black water plumbing cleared the deck – and then floored it! The tires grabbed hold of the slippery shale rock and I somehow made it up the 10-15% grade to the main road above.
And that was just the half way point! I still had to hop on another ferry to L’Etete, a town back on the mainland of New Brunswick. Thankfully that ferry was a much bigger ferry with room for 25-30 vehicles. After maneuvering around a semi-truck that would have carved a gash with its mirrors, I was back on the mainland about 20 minutes later. And after a half-hour drive on the Trans-Canada Highway (known in Canada as the TCH), I was all settled in at a campground in St. Andrews. Whew!
St. Andrews (or “St. Andrews-by-the-Sea” as the marketers call it) is a vacation town on a peninsula that juts out into Passamaquoddy Bay, a small bay in the larger Bay of Fundy. The Kiwanis Oceanfront Camping is at the end of the peninsula. It is a great campground in a great little town. I highly recommend it as a first stop after entering the Canadian border from Maine. Just don’t try that ferry crossing from Campobello Island to Deer Island with a large RV! Instead, take the normal route across – you know – actual land.Read More
I’ll admit it. Until recently, I only had a vague junior high recollection of Newfoundland, and I couldn’t even really pronounce it correctly. For the record, the locals place an emphasis on the “new” and “land” parts of the name, and pronounce “found” like “fun”. But more on that later!
I wanted to spend a few weeks in Newfoundland, but the weather and marine gods wouldn’t have it. The main ferry from Cape Breton Island to Port aux Basques broke down, so I spent about a week hanging out in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Once ferry service was restored, there was simply no room for the Airstream. With barely enough room on board for the Touareg and me, I quickly booked my ticket before availability vanished. I felt like I was travelling in the mid-1960s, but Wi-Fi (albeit slow) was available, and the reclining seats were actually pretty comfortable. I ate two meals in the cafeteria, worked on my blog, listened to some tunes, talked with some of the passengers, and before I knew it, I had arrived in Newfoundland. I found affordable accommodations at the MacLellan Inn & Thackeray Suites in Doyles. It wasn’t anything special, but it was in a good location, it was better than a bland hotel room, and the hosts were warm and friendly.
I had only a few days to visit, so I spent all of my time on the western side of Newfoundland. I just didn’t have time to make the desolate, moose-laden 12-hour drive to the capital city of St. John’s. But I did make it up to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a little too late in the year to do any of the planned outdoor activities, like the boat tour of the fresh water fjord called Western Brook Pond. I saw the fjord from a distance, drove the Viking Trail, did some sightseeing, took some photos, found a great little golf course, had some pretty incredible fried chicken for dinner, and made the 4-hour drive back to my temporary home in Doyles.
The next day I ventured out for lunch and stumbled upon the Wreckhouse Haven Cafe, almost the only eating establishment open within 20 miles. Debbie, the chef/owner/conversationalist/dishwasher/server, was the real deal. I sat down, had some soup and sandwiches, and talked with the locals all afternoon. I loved it so much I went back the next evening for a traditional Newfoundland supper. Success! I found the perfect spot to learn about the local culture, share my stories, and eat same local meat and potatoes!
While at the Wreckhouse, and when I filled up with gas, and when I had that fried chicken, and when I went golfing, and pretty much anytime I interacted with some of the true locals, I was able to experience that famous Newfoundland accent firsthand. Wow! For the ones with the thick accent, it was like a Scottish/Irish/Somethingish brogue with peanut butter. That is the best way I can describe it–incredibly hard to understand, and definitely unique to that area.
But let me tell you; absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, the people of Newfoundland are the most sincere, welcoming, friendly, and memorable people I have met on my journey. It was just a little too remote for me to call home, but I would go back to visit anytime–if they’ll have me.
The photos suck. They really do. These are the best of the bunch. It’s an excuse to visit next year when the weather is better.Read More
The second province on my tour of the Canadian Maritimes is Nova Scotia. As much as I loved Prince Edward Island, I think Nova Scotia is my new favorite. Technically a peninsula, mainland Nova Scotia is nearly surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. As such, everything seems to revolve around the sea. (Hence, all the photos of boats!)
While PEI was incredibly rural, Nova Scotia has many more urban areas, particularly Halifax. I was pleasantly surprised by this capital city. The geographical location alone makes it noteworthy. Add the historical culture, the friendly people, and the vibrant downtown; I could easily become a Haligonian. (Yes, a Haligonian. I don’t make these things up!) Halifax is in the middle of the province, along the southern shores. This was probably my favorite section of mainland Nova Scotia. The southern shore is one non-stop Rorschach inkblot test full of bays and inlets with small fishing villages around every corner. Peggys Cove, Chester, and Lunenberg are ones that caught my eye. From there, I left mainland Nova Scotia to check out Cape Breton Island.
But first, a little geography lesson. To me, Nova Scotia is the shape of a giant whale. If the mainland of the peninsula is the whale’s head and body, then the tail (or northeast section of the province) would be Cape Breton Island. It is only connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a manmade causeway, and as a result, feels somewhat isolated–in a good way!
For those wondering the meaning of Nova Scotia, it is Latin for “New Scotland”. Québec has its French influence, Prince Edward Island its English, and Nova Scotia has its Scottish. Nowhere is this seen more than on Cape Breton Island. Let me tell you, it is a special, special place. English is still the main language, but road signs are also written in Gaelic, many of the locals in the small villages have a Scottish brogue, and there is even a Gaelic College on the island. I was lucky enough to visit during the Celtic Colours International Festival, a weeklong celebration of musical events featuring fiddlers, singers, dancers, bagpipers, and everything else Celtic. These events are held all throughout the tiny villages on the island.
Of those villages, I spent most of my time in the central spot of Baddeck, a thriving community overlooking the saltwater Bras d’Or Lake. Thanks to my handy Passport America membership, I found Adventures East Campground & Cottages, a cheap campground just outside of town. I had no idea, but Baddeck is actually quite famous, as it is the birthplace of Canadian aviation. It is here that Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that Alexander Graham Bell) successfully built his Silver Dart, a powered flying machine very similar to the Flyer built by the Wright Brothers. A National Historic Site in town displays his vast collection of inventions ranging from telephones to hydrofoils. Bell and his wife lived on their Beinn Bhreagh estate in Baddeck for decades. And I know why!
It is because of a 185-mile twisty, hilly, amazingly scenic loop around the tip of the island called the Cabot Trail. It is consistently rated as one of the best drives in the world, and Baddeck is the gateway to it. With its ocean views and autumnal colors, the trail combines the Pacific Coast Highway in California and the green mountains in Vermont. It is home to moose, whales, bald eagles. It is home to the serene fishing towns of Chéticamp, Petit Étang, and Ingonish. It is home to Highlands Links, an absolute gem of a golf course in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Because of all this, the Cabot Trail is now on my Top Ten List.
There is just so much to see and do in Nova Scotia. I didn’t get a chance to go whale watching, or hike the Skyline Trail in the Highlands, or kayak in the Atlantic, or have dinner down on Argyle Street in Halifax. These are all the on the list of things to do next time. And I can’t wait!
Oh, and for those who aren’t fluent in Scottish Gaelic, I am pretty certain that “Tha gaol agam ort, Alba Nuadh!” means “I love you, Nova Scotia!” It’s either that or “Get out of my way, you stupid American!”
Raise your hand if you remembered–or even knew–Prince Edward Island is an actual province of Canada. Is your hand raised? Mine isn’t either. Prince Edward Island, or PEI, is about the land size of Delaware with no more than 150,000 full-time residents (tourists don’t count). And almost one-third of the people live in the capital of Charlottetown or the town of Summerside. The result: a pastoral landscape with a relaxed way of life that is hard to beat!
Since it is an island surrounded by salt water, much of the economy revolves around seafood: mostly lobster, mussels, oysters, and tuna. I sampled some of the local lobster and mussels. This time of year, yards were littered with giant fishing boats up on blocks. With its rolling hills of red soil, and clean air and water, the island is also home to many forms of agriculture: grain, dairy, potatoes. Potatoes? Yes, they are everywhere! A third of Canada’s potato production is on PEI. Blue waters, red soil, green vegetation, sandy beaches–the island is practically a giant golf course. In fact, there are 34 golf courses on the island–many of them world-class. How have I not been here before?! I got in a couple of rounds of golf on the island (one round with a great Airstreamer couple I met at Prince Edward Island National Park).
The National Park is right along the Green Gables Shore on the north central part of PEI. It is in Cavendish, near Green Gables, the inspiration for L.M. Montgomery’s, Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery is a semi-goddess on the island. She was born there, spent much time on her cousins’ farm that had green-colored gables, and is buried on the island. (I pumped 75 litres of gas into the Touareg about 50 yards from her gravestone.) I did a complete tour of the three coastal drives from tip-to-tip, and I think the Green Gables Shore was my favorite area of the island (ignoring the incredibly cheesy and touristy part of Cavendish). No spot on the entire island is more than 30 minutes to the ocean…unless you happen to get stuck behind a traffic jam of combines or tractors that regularly use the highways!
Yet again, I found a jewel of a province in the great country of Canada. I plan to return in warmer weather to play golf, play golf, and play golf. It was hard to leave, but as the Prince Edward Island Visitor’s Guide says, “You’ll never completely leave.”Read More
Not only is French an official language of Canada, it is the only official language in the province of Québec. As such, French is extremely prevalent in Ottawa (Canada’s capital city), Montréal, and Québec City; three of my favorite cities in all of Canada. The many dialects of Canadian French are different from traditional Metropolitan French in France, but it all sounds the same to me! With my rediscovery of the French language, I understand much of the written word, but it is next to impossible for me to speak it or understand the spoken dialogue. No matter, for the Québécois–in fine Canadian fashion–are equally friendly to anglophones.
The first stop on my ”French highway”: Ottawa, Ontario and its neighbor Gatineau, Québec. After leaving Toronto, I had completely forgotten that Ottawa was the next big city on the map. And, well, I had never even heard of Gatineau before. As is typical, I changed my plans and spent the entire weekend in the area. For the capital of a nation, downtown Ottawa had minimal congestion, and it was easily navigated. I spent much of my time in the ByWard Market (a farmer’s market on steroids), and then crossed the Ottawa River to enjoy the fall colors of Gatineau Park, a beautiful national park overlooking the Ottawa Valley. Throughout Canada, most of the signs are in English and French, but once the border into Québec is crossed, all signs immediately turn to French only. It is quite clear Québec wants to secede from its motherland of Canada, and Gatineau was my first introduction to that independent feel of Québec.
The next stop, and the largest city in Québec, is on an island. Yes, an island. I had no idea, but the metropolis of Montréal is completely surrounded by water. Montréal is probably the most chic city in Canada. Vancouver and Toronto are similar, but there was something about the European feel of Montréal which made it the “cool kid in class”. Montréal is the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. It is a modern, vibrant city rich in culture. Just steps from the modern downtown is Old Montréal, a step back in time. It is there I found heaven: my first taste of Montréal smoked meats and the dramatic architecture of the Notre-Dame Basilica. If I were to choose to live in a large metropolitan Canadian city, Montréal would be at the top of my list.
This brings me to my favorite eastern Canadian city so far: the capital of the province of Québec, Québec City, and more specifically the neighborhood of Old Québec. It is so memorable, that it easily makes my Top Ten List. I would compare it to Victoria, British Columbia, but with more of a colonial French feel instead of the English influence. Founded in 1608, Québec City is one of the oldest cities in all of North America. Most of Old Québec is still fortified by stone walls built in the mid-1700s. To reach Old Québec, I took a 10-minute ferry ride across the Saint Lawrence River from my campground in the town of Lévis. Like Old Montréal, Old Québec is a step back in time; unlike Montréal, which admittedly felt grungy at times, Old Québec is absolutely spotless. The tiny streets are lined with boutique shops, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries. The sounds of local street musicians fill the air, and the smells of outdoor eateries permeate. Old Québec. Go there! It feels like Europe–without the jet lag.
On every Québec license plate is ”Je me souviens”. It means “I remember”. For the Québec cities of Gatineau, Montréal, and Québec City, I will always remember!
While in Ottawa, stay at Ottawa Municipal Campground. While in Montréal, stay at Camping Aloutte. While in Québec City, stay at Camping Transit. They are all great campgrounds that are relatively close to each respective city.Read More
OK, so I know what I said about Yosemite, and I know what I said about Yellowstone, and I know what I said about Glacier. Forget it all! None of them can really compare to the unparalleled size and beauty of the Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.
I spent most of my time in the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. Banff is a trendy town about an hour west of Calgary, Alberta. Why is it called Banff? It comes from Banffshire, Scotland, the birthplace of one of the major financiers of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Lake Louise (named after the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta) is about another hour up the Trans-Canada Highway. Downtown Banff is full of energy, while Lake Louise is more tranquil and serene. Both have absolutely stunning scenery in every direction. Both are on my “Top Ten” list. From Lake Louise, I took the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefield. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in the entire world. I agree!
In the few days I had to visit, I didn’t make it to the National Parks of Yoho, Kootenay, and Waterton Lakes. I will just have to see those when I return to the Canadian Rockies. Sometime. With someone special.Read More
I just spent the last week in British Columbia, Canada, and absolutely loved it! With the metric units, a little of the French language, “loonies”, “toonies”, and “.ca” web addresses galore, it was an exciting adventure. It all started with a checkpoint at the U.S./Canada border in Douglas, B.C., just north of Seattle on I-5.
According to the “real-time” digital sign, the wait was supposed to be “up to 5 minutes”. Clearly, the sign lied. I waited in line with hundreds of other motorists for almost half an hour until reaching a pair of border patrol officers ready to ask me dozens of questions like, “Where did you stay last night? Where were you before that? How long have you been on the road? How much money do you have in the bank? How much money do you have in your wallet? How do work out of an Airstream? Why are you coming to Canada? Do you mind pulling over there and emptying the contents of your pockets on the hood of your car?” You know, the usual. Obviously, I had absolutely nothing to hide, but I must have looked suspicious, so they asked me to wait inside with the other “degenerate failures” while they searched every square inch of the Touareg and the Airstream – for an hour. They apparently took everything out of the back of the Touareg because the gate wouldn’t shut correctly when I finally got back from my “time out” corner. I noticed they also looked at the photos on my digital camera and even looked under my mattress. And, get this, someone from the border patrol looked up my blog, read a few of the posts, and browsed through a few photo slideshows! I only realized this after I noticed several server log entries from “The Government of Canada” at the exact time I crossed the border. So, in a way, this blog totally helped prove my legitimacy. The officers were very official the entire time, but for the rest of the day I was annoyed that I had somehow “failed” a test. That annoyance soon subsided, because the rest of my time in Canada was awesome!
I spent some time in the Lower Mainland and then on The Island. For all you out-of-towners, the Lower Mainland is the region surrounding Vancouver. I stayed just outside of Vancouver, in a town called Fort Langley, apparently the birthplace of B.C. I made a couple of visits to downtown Vancouver, and even made it up to Whistler. The entire metro area of Vancouver has spectacular mountains that overlook the ocean. Vancouver itself is a vibrant metropolitan city centered on outdoor – specifically marine – life. I’m sold! It is absolutely 100% the type of city I could call home. But wait, there’s more!
Another incredible city is Victoria, on Vancouver Island (or simply The Island as the locals seem to call it). Airstream in tow, I boarded a ferry at Tsawwassen and landed at Swartz Bay, just north of Victoria. My base camp was Weir’s Beach RV Resort, just south of Victoria. Steps from the ocean, I regularly saw sea lions, eagles, and deer from my front window. (I have yet to see a whale in the Pacific Ocean!) I highly recommend Weir’s Beach RV Resort. The staff is friendly, the grounds are immaculate, and the views of Victoria and the Pacific are spectacular. I plan to go back to The Island and will definitely return to Weir’s Beach.
A week after I first arrived in Canada, I took another ferry from downtown Victoria, B.C. to Port Angeles, Washington. Even with inspections by U.S. Customs in both cities, this time it went smoothly. I had to answer a few questions, fill out some paperwork, and show the inside of the Airstream before boarding the ferry. Then, after arriving back in the States, I had to answer a few more questions, but was pleasantly surprised to “pass” the test this time.
I fell in love with the entire province of B.C., and fully intend to return and explore more of its beauty. That will have to wait for now, as I spend the whole week in Chicago – this time as a tourist.Read More