Canada

Alberta (Calgary and Banff), 1995

We were in Calgary at the time of the Calgary Stampede (a rodeo, actually) - enough rope and leather to keep anyone happy.

We saw many native Americans while we were there. Some were very elegant. Some were not.

Eastern Canada, July/August 2007

In July/August 2007 we explored Eastern Canada, beginning in Halifax, Nova Scotia and working our way up through New Brunswick to Quebec, (returning from Montreal). To be honest, we were disappointed by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for there was an acute shortage of breath-taking scenery – we often found ourselves driving many hours along very monotonous roads through interminable forests. We are not completely naïve and we knew there was a danger that we would spend too much time driving, so I estimated that our whole journey would be between 2000 and 3000 km. I miscalculated – we had done more than 5000 km by the time we returned our rented Ford Focus to the Alamo desk at Montreal airport.

Fortunately the scenery gradually became more attractive as we worked our way north – the Gaspésie region just south of the St Lawrence seaway was nice and the province of Quebec (as opposed to Quebec City) was even better. There are 11 provinces in Canada and Quebec is the only one which is officially French-speaking – almost everyone living there has French as mother tongue with the exception of a pocket of Anglophones in Montreal. New Brunswick has the distinction of being the only province which is officially bilingual, and about a third of the population there is French-speaking. However, the French-speakers in the ‘Maritime Provinces’ (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) are not to be confused with the French-speakers of Quebec, for their history, culture and French dialect are very different. The French speakers of the Maritime Provinces are ACADIANS – their ancestors settled a region which they called ACADIE. After several generations they no longer felt very French and they did not want to get involved in the war between France and England who were both fighting for control of North America. The Acadians were in an impossible position – the French would punish them if they did not fight with the French and the Brits would punish them if they did. In the end the Brits shamefully rounded up most of them and deported them to various far-flung lands such as Louisiana (their name ‘Acadians’ got deformed in ‘Cajuns’) or back to France. The Acadians refer to this defining moment in their history as ‘Le Grand Dérangement’ (the Great Disturbance). Not all the Acadians were deported, and some of those who were gradually made their way back to these lands, though there is no longer any contiguous region that can be called ‘Acadie’. One of the most interesting aspects of our trip was meeting Acadians, who were all very friendly to us, and learning about their history.

After rounding the Gaspésie peninsula we took a car ferry north across the St Lawrence which at this point was 80 km wide. For the first time we saw whales (mostly fin whales and belugas or white whales) – we saw them from the land, having failed to see any earlier in our trip from a sailing boat. We headed north to a fine zoo, then south for a two night stay in a hunting lodge from which we did a fine walk and saw our first and only wild black bear. Then on to Quebec city which offered plenty to keep us busy for a three-night stay. Controlling Quebec is key to controlling Canada so this is in fact where the French lost control of Canada to the English in a brief battle in 1759. The Americans later attacked Quebec in an effort to take it from the English but the fortifications of Quebec are on a rocky hill that has been termed the ‘Gibraltar of North America’ and the English were able to repel the attack. Finally we drove on to Montreal (which is on a large island on the St Lawrence River) for a quick look around and our flight back to France.

For 58 photos of our trip please visit the slide show gallery.

Here is our itinerary in more detail:

Day 1: Fly Nice-Montreal then Montreal-Halifax (in Nova Scotia). Pick up rental car. We sleep in Halifax.

Day 2: We visit the waterfront in Halifax and explore a maritime museum. We stop at Grand-Pré as we drive west along the north shore of Nova Scotia. Grand-Pré is the spot where the English summoned the Acadian chiefs together in a chapel to inform them that all Acadians were to be deported and that their homes would be burnt to the ground to discourage them from tempting to return. From the shore we can see the Bay of Fundy, famous for having some of the strongest tides in the world – up to 15 m (50 feet), but we don’t get to see any indication of these strong tides ourselves. We sleep at Annapolis Royal, location of a fort that was initially French but which was taken by the English and renamed after Queen Anne.

Day 3: We visit the small but attractive St Anne fort at Annapolis Royal and the fortified French village at Port Royal. We are welcomed by a guide in period costume who is so proud of his Acadian ancestry he gives us the names of his ancestors going back ten generations. We do a long boring drive from the north coast of Nova Scotia to the south, stop at Peggy’s Cove which is very touristy but seems to be nothing more than a tiny lighthouse, then sleep at Lunenburg.

Day 4: We visit a decent maritime museum in Lunenburg. Although the weather was reasonably kind to us during most of our trip we have heavy rain all day today and a stressful, long drive east to the Island of Cap Breton. We stop at the airport and enquire about cutting our vacation drastically shorter – it doesn’t seem possible. We dine and sleep at Baddeck, a relatively chic village on the edge of the enormous and attractive Lake Bras d’Or which branches out in all directions from the centre of the island. For dinner we stuff ourselves with lobsters and crabs, very typical of the region.

Day 5: We visit the Alexander Graham Bell museum, or at least I do, for Catherine decides after 30 seconds that she’s not interested in learning more about the guy who invented the telephone and the phonetic alphabet and who was also involved in the first airplane flight of the British empire (which took place in Baddeck) the world’s fastest hydrofoil boat etc. We sleep at Baddeck again. We also visit Louisbourg, a very substantial fortified village built by the French. The Canadians have done a good job here and in many other places making them feel alive by having lots of characters in period costume. Leaving Louisbourg I am stopped by the police for doing 130 km/h in a 90 km/h zone.

Day 6: Lots of driving today as we leave Nova Scotia and head north into New Brunswick. We stop in Cheticamp, a well-known centre of Acadian culture, and visit two museums there. We begin driving the Cabot trail, a 300 km drive which wraps around the rugged north-east peninsula of Cap Breton Island. We sleep in a cabin at White Point, a tiny fishing village.

Day 7: We do a nice romantic walk along the sea shore at White Point and see a few young bald eagles. We drive the second, eastern half of the Cabot Trail and in the late afternoon take a trip on a sailing boat to see whales. We see nothing but a few birds but at least they are nice birds: puffins and bald eagles. We sleep at Baddeck.

Day 8: Another very long drive as we leave Nova Scotia and head north into New Brunswick. Although we never had trouble finding accommodation in Nova Scotia we realise that it’s going to be more difficult from now on – we have to book everything several days a head. We sleep at Bouctouche (Chez Jeanine).

Day 9: First we visit an island village called Le Pays de La Saguoine near Bouctouche. This village was cleverly created from a description in a book of fiction by Acadian author Antoine Maillet – not only are the guides in the village dressed in period costumes but each guide plays a character from the book and tries to tell that character’s story. But we don’t have much time to stay there long for another long drive awaits us. We stop briefly in a national park on the New Brunswick coast where there is a lagoon with the warmest waters north of Florida – up to 30°C (25°C on the day we are there) but we don’t have time to enjoy them. We drive north, leaving New Brunswick and entering the Gaspésie region of the province of Quebec. We sleep at St Daniel in a B&B /farm called Les Acres Tranquilles.

Day 10: We explore the farm then head on to Percé – a famous tourist destination. We take a boat to see the ‘Rocher Percé’ (Pierced Rock) that gave the village its name and visit also an island with the largest colony of gannets in north America. 80 thousand of these attractive and large birds (wingspan approaching 2 meters) live on the cliffs here and this was a highlight of our vacation. They are graceful in the air but their size makes them clumsy in landing and taking off. We sleep at Gaspé (Les Petits Bonheurs)

Day 11: We have spent the night at a B&B as we do for most of our trip. Being a B&B we have breakfast at a communal table and chat with the other guests. We meet a motorbike enthusiast from Georgia who has done 16 thousand km in 3 weeks so the 3000 km we have done in the first 10 days doesn’t seem so much anymore. We explore the Forillon National Park at the extreme east end of the Gaspésie peninsula and do a nice walk to the Cap Gaspé lighthouse. We sleep at Gaspé (Les Petits Bonheurs).

Day 12: We do a walk to a cascade in Forillon National Park, then walk around the Baie des Rosiers area in the same park – the coastline is majestic here. Then we continue our drive around the coast of Gaspésie, running now along the St. Lawrence seaway. The French call this a river but it’s more than 100 km wide at this point, salt water and tidal, so it doesn’t make much sense to call it that. We sleep at Port St Louis.

Day 13: As we drive west along the coast we stop at a lighthouse and see our first whale, far, far away. It starts raining around noon and the wind rises to a tempest by the evening. The storm hits the area that we have just hidden through- roads are closed, two people are killed and the area is declared a disaster area. We sleep at Cap Chat in one of our favourite B&Bs run by an artist woman who laughs all the time for no apparent reason.

Day 14: We visit a wind farm at Cap Chat, famous for being home to the world’s tallest vertical axis wind turbine. This turbine, which cost 37 million CAD, can deliver up to 4 megawatts, enough to power about 4000 homes, but it’s been out of use for years for political rather than technical reasons. The wind farm also has about 160 conventional (horizontal axis) wind turbines, each bought from Denmark at a cost of about 1.2 million CAD and delivering about 1MW. The advantage of a vertical axis turbine is that it catches the wind from any direction – it doesn’t have to be pointed into the wind like a regular turbine. The disadvantage is that it needs help to get started – it won’t start spinning by itself. Then we visit the Jardins de Métis – these attractive gardens were crested by a Scottish woman who bequeathed them to the state. We sleep at Pointe Aux Pères in one of our most expensive B&Bs which is also the worst, with motel-style furnishing and a fast road just in front that gave the impression of sleeping next to a motorway. Catherine has a fit.

Day 15: We cross the St Laurence by car ferry – the ‘river’ is 80 km wide at this point. In the evening we go to a rocky outcrop on the St Laurence where the water is very deep and where whales can often be seen – we see seals, porpoises, fin whales, but no belugas (white whales). We sleep at Les Escoumins, a pretty fishing village.

Day 16: We visit the touristy town of Tadoussac then cross the Saguenay River by car ferry and do an unexpectedly long drive up the west side of the Saguenay Fjord. It’s not comparable to the Norwegian fjords at all, and really not worthy of the ‘fjord’ label – there are just a couple of points where tall cliffs drop into the water in fjord-like fashion. Anyway, we arrive at the banks of the fjord at 1:30 pm, too late to tour the fjord by boat, so we just take a few photos and head back to the B&B. At dusk we return to the whale-watching spot on the St Laurence and see even more whales, but farther out. Still no belugas, though, so Catherine is feeling frustrated. We sleep at Les Escoumins again.

Day 17: Another long drive today, up the eastern side of the fjord. We stop at in a park on the edge of the fjord where we see half a dozen belugas in the distance. Catherine is happy. Then a long drive north which finally takes us along the shore of Lake St Jean (twice the size of Lake Geneva or Lake Tahoe) to St Félicien, where we sleep (Auberge des Berges).

Day 18: We spend much of the day at the zoo near St Félicien – it’s a large zoo specialising in animals from the north like grizzlies, polar bears etc. Many of the animals live in a huge reserve which we pass through on a train, enclosed in cages while the animals watch us pass from their relative freedom. It’s nice, but it’s hard to know whether it’s worth the detour of maybe 500 km that it represents for us. We sleep at a hunting lodge called Auberge du Ravage on the edge of the Laurentides Regional Park. This is one of the most isolated places we’ve ever stayed in – we reach it after driving for 40 minutes on an unpaved road – we had been getting anxious, thinking we must have taken the wrong road, and had been about to turn back. We are shocked to realise that this hunting lodge organises hunting for moose and black bears, both docile animals that never harmed anyone (well, not often anyway).

Day 19: We do a nice walk (12 km round trip, a lot for us) to an impressive cascade, then join a group to see a ‘wild’ black bear eating some leftovers that our guide had placed out in the open. Oh, the excitement. We sleep at the Auberge du Ravage again.

Day 20: We drive to Quebec and explore the lower part of the old town. The old town is well preserved and often charming – there is a lot to see. We sleep in Quebec (Hotel Belley).

Day 21: Today we visit the upper part of the old town, built on a rather dramatic rocky hill that has been compared to Gibraltar. We visit the citadel which was built by the English after they captured Quebec from the French in 1759. The French never built a proper citadel here and that’s part of the reason the English were able to defeat them so easily, thereby taking control of Canada. Capturing Montreal later was even easier – the French surrendered without a fight! No wonder the French royalist flag is just plain white! We sleep at Quebec (Hotel Belley).

Day 22: We don’t do much today except explore the Grande Allée, the main shopping street of Quebec, which reminds us of the Champs Elysées in Paris, and the Plains of Abraham where the battle between the French and the English took place. We sleep in Quebec (Hotel St. Paul).

Day 23: We drive for 3 hours to get from Quebec to Montreal. Montreal is the second biggest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, and was not as ugly as we had feared. The city centre has a number of smart skyscrapers and the reminded us a lot of Manhattan. We book a trip to explore the city on what is shown as an open-top double-decker bus in the brochure. When we realise that it is in fact a closed, air-conditioned bus with darkly tinted windows, Catherine feels deceived and starts getting annoyed. When the bus driver refuses to speak to her in French (the official language of Quebec) this drives Catherine into even more of a rage and she spends half an hour complaining in the tourist office. In the evening we explore the old town, which is not without charm. We sleep in Montreal at the Hotel Delta.

Day 24: We explore the Mont Real plateau (rue St Denis), a fashionable part of Montreal. It reminds us of San Francisco’s cosy, hippy Haight St, but isn’t interesting. We fly from Montreal to Nice. We weigh ourselves when we get home and find we have both put on 5kg, which at least proves that we enjoyed the Canadian food. One of my favourite meals was a wapiti steak – do try that when you get the chance. Catherine probably preferred the fried codfish tongues – a local delicacy which is so tender it reminded us of oyster.