X-Country Trip Part 6

Having been more than 5 weeks on the go at the end of our last blog, we decided it was time for the big push west, and we started on Wednesday (20th) from Niagara on the Lakers . 2222 km and 41/2 days later we crossed the border into Manitoba. We had heard a lot about how hard a drive this was, but found the reality much better than we had feared. Once clear of Toronto the roads were not overly busy and generally in excellent condition. Our route was along the shores of Georgian Bay to Sudbury, along the north shore of Lake Huron to Sault Saint Marie and along the north shore of Lake Huron to Thunder Bay. Particularly at the start, this was all “cottage” country and we could see the attraction as it was pretty countryside with frequent views of the big lakes and lots of small ones for canoeing on. Of interest were several Amish communities, the horse-drawn buggies along the TransCanada and the clothing of the occupants alerting us. The vastness of the country was evident and our respect for Terry Fox’s accomplishments grew enormously. In Thunder Bay we visited his memorial site, where he finally had to give up his Marathon of Hope. The fall colours were evident although they were mostly browns, oranges and yellows as most of the maples had yet to turn. Sumacs provided the reddest splashes. As we came west (and north) the forests seemed to be mostly a mix of the very yellow aspens and conifers which, in its own way, was spectacular. The rolling hills made the driving interesting and we kept ourselves to under 650 km per day, so were not too tired or late on the road. We had somehow thought that Thunder Bay was on the border with Manitoba and were somewhat taken aback to find we still had 400 km to go! This was the toughest of the driving as it was done on a very wet and cool day through most uninteresting countryside with very little habitation.

We stopped for two days in Winnipeg as we arrived on Sunday night and the Museum of Human Rights was closed on Mondays! We spent most of Monday doing a walking tour of Winnipeg (the Loop) which  took us through the Forks, along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, through the theatre district and back through downtown.   It was pretty cool (max 11 degrees) and windy, especially on the corner of Portage and Main. There were many very imposing buildings like the Bank of Montreal, which had been erected when Winnipeg seemed destined to be the Chicago of the North. Now it seems rather run-down, with broken uneven sidewalks and very few interesting shops and restaurants. Perhaps the underground concourses are more interesting as the harsh winters force city dwellers below ground to access their workplaces.

The museum the next morning was altogether a different experience. It has only been open 3 years, is the only national museum outside Ottawa and was the brainchild of Isy Aspler with funding from the Asplers, other private sponsors and all levels of government. Its architecture is stunning and provides such a landmark in the city. As an acknowledgement of the fact it is built on First Nations Land the design reflects their world view.  There  are several ramps which represent roots into the earth, the main curved body of the building represents clouds and is topped by the Tower of Hope. The museum addresses and celebrates human rights in many forms in 7 floors of galleries, each with a theme and starting with “What are Human Rights?” And finishing on level 7 with “Inspiring Change.” The 8th level is the Israel Aspler “Tower of Hope” which is at the peak of the building with views over Winnipeg. We felt we could have spent days there as each floor had several sub-galleries and there were many video clips and interactive displays that would have been very instructive. There were a couple of elevators, but the main method of accessing the galleries was using ramps sided with translucent alabaster internally lit with LED’s. The lower floors were dark and as we moved upward it became progressively lighter, signifying the hope for the future. There were over a kilometre of ramps that could be seen from multiple places – by the time we were in the upper levels, some people were having problems dealing with the height as it was all so open. All in all very well done and thought provoking – so compelling as to be worth a special visit to Winnipeg.

The drive across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta was not at all what we had envisioned. The TCH was almost totally four-lane divided highway and much less busy than we had anticipated. There was one stretch of 150 km just west of Swift Current where we passed a total of 6 trucks while being overtaken by just one car! This while the cruise control was set at 107 on a 110 km/h road!  Also, having driven in the deserts of California, Arizona, Nevada and Australia, we had expected the roads to be dead straight and flat and surrounded by brown fields. The reality was that there was much more colour (including green), water, undulations and curves than we had expected. We are now over the 10,000 km mark on our journey – our longest day’s drive (Brandon to Gull Lake, west of Swift Current) of 679 km was much easier and more interesting than anticipated. In eight days we have covered 3700 km, but are now within striking distance of BC.

Our final stop in the prairies was a detour off the TCH to Drumheller and the Royal Tyrell Museum. This is situated in the badlands of Alberta where the Red River has exposed a cornucopia of fossils, many of them dinosaurs, but including many other species of animals. It is a huge complex and there are numerous full size skeletal creatures, several of them made of the actual fossils with man-made fill-ins for missing pieces. We had thought that many of the depictions of dinosaurs involved a great deal of conjecture but realized that recent excavations have furnished so much material to support their weird and wonderful appearance, even down to the texture of their skin.  It  is a modern museum with lots of touch screens, videos etc and is geared to educate about paleontology, geology and evolution. We happily spent a couple of hours there

We will write a wrap-up blog once we are back in Victoria, probably just before the Thanksgiving weekend. How long we stay in the Okanagan where we are now headed will depend largely on the weather.

X-Country Trip Part 5

We left Ottawa last Thursday (14th) for the long drive to Stratford, much of the journey along the dreaded 401.  Fortunately our GPS suggested we take the toll road around Toronto, which was much faster and much less congested.  We camped in a country park about 16 km out of town, the nearest campsite option.  We absolutely loved Stratford, situated on the Avon, complete with swans.  The theatre is right on the river, its architecture reminiscent of the tent where the festival first began.  We saw two productions, Guys and Dolls and Romeo and Juliet, both beautifully staged and well acted.  The town is is renowned as a gourmet destination and we had an excellent meal at the Bijou Bistro, the first farm-to-table restaurant in the area.  We also visited the farmers market to buy local cheeses and fresh produce.  The corn was every bit as good as Silver Rill.

After 3 nights there, it was on to the Niagara Peninsula for more theatre and the wine region.  We were somewhat taken aback by having to drive along the Queen Elizabeth Way to access the area, this being a 6 lane highway jammed with trucks, headed for Buffalo.  We found that Niagara on the Lake had nothing as crass as a campground, so we had to camp 35 km away.  We saw Me and My Girl the day we arrived – beautifully staged and lots of fun.  Of course, being in this area for the first time, we had to visit Niagara Falls and take the obligatory boat ride, not on the Maid of the Mist which now only runs from the US side.  We had been warned about how tacky the town is but were quite unprepared for the reality of its vulgarity and unashamed garishness.  For all that, however, there was a lovely unspoiled park that runs along the Canadian side of the Niagara River with lots of walking/cycling paths and elegant houses on the other side. This was such a contrast to the immediate Falls area!

We had to spend time exploring the Welland Canal (joining Lakes Ontario and Erie) and saw several boats going through the locks.  We also wanted to see the wineries we have been reading about in Beppi’s column in the Globe.  We took some time to explore Niagara on the Lake, reputed to be Canada’s prettiest town, and it certainly lived up to its reputation.  We have never seen so many flowers – in hanging baskets, containers and on islands in the middle of the street – all in peak condition, even toward the end of September.  The high spot of our week of culture was indubitably the production of Saint Joan, starring Sara Topham from Victoria, whose proud parents were sitting in the front row.  It was one of the best theatre experiences that we have ever had.  The whole week was a wonderful break from driving and was made all the better by the fact that we had lovely warm weather the entire time.

Now we are headed west and the sheer size of Ontario gives us a better appreciation of Terry Fox’s achievement.

X-Country Trip Part 4

The weather in New Brunswick and forecast for the St Lawrence Valley was for a couple of days of very unsettled cool weather, so we decided to press ahead for Ottawa. We had intended to take 4 days for the almost 1000 km drive, but instead decided to do it in 2 days. We had never intended to stop in Montreal or Quebec City, having had previous stays in both, but had expected to make some stops at points of interest along the way. We arrived in Ottawa in a thunderstorm, but had no trouble finding our destination which was a condo in the Gatineau Hilton Hotel. The couple who drove our van east (Richard & Christine) had originally contacted us about home exchange, so we had access to their condo while they were in our home in Victoria en route to a cruise to Japan. The apartment is lovely and we found it was most enjoyable to luxuriate in the vast expanses of a home after the confines of the van for almost a month!

Alimay’s back was acting up a little so we achieved a little less than we might have done otherwise and we hope that a visit to a massage therapist will have done the trick. We did still see lots, starting with a 2 hour visit to MosaiCanada which is a series of 33 large sculptures the surfaces of which are all living plant material. They are in Jacques Cartier Park and entry is free although most of the surrounding parking was $20! The theme was, of course, Canada, and each province had a sculpture as had several First Nations, the CPR, hockey (the 1972 winning goal!), the Voyageurs and Glen Gould. Perhaps the most impressive were the two huge sculptures, gifted by the Chinese government. The Chinese invented the art and are incredibly skilled. We couldn’t believe how good a condition all the plant material was in considering it is September.

We did most of the usual tourist things and spent a day on the Ottawa side of the river. We managed to get tickets for a conducted tour of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings which included visits to the floor of the Commons, the Senate and the Parliamentary Library which we were told was unusual but possible on Sundays when the house was not in session. We finished with a visit to the viewing gallery of the Peace Tower, just below the clock face, which afforded views over the city – fortunately with the aid of an elevator. We also visited the famous ByWard market, the exterior of the National Art Gallery, the war memorial, Nepean Point and the eternal flame. The Canadian Museum of History is a magnificent structure in the banks of the Ottawa River across from the Parliament Buildings and I spent over 2 hours going through the three large galleries of the history of Canada from prehistoric times to the present. It was well laid out and they had included many video loops and interactive displays – but there was still a huge amount of reading.

We spent half a day exploring Gatineau Park, an enormous park that stretches about 70 km north from the Ottawa River and covers 360 km2. There are hiking trails, camping, many lakes, canoeing and all this within minutes of downtown. It includes the summer home of MacKenzie King (for non-Canadians, he was a leading Canadian politician and prime minister for much of the second quarter of the 20th Century, including WWII) which is now a museum and tea room and, as in France, closed on Tuesday, the day we were there! It also includes the famous Meech Lake where our Constitution was hammered out in the 80’s.

Our final day here was again a beautiful, sunny, warm fall day and we spent the morning taking a cruise along the Ottawa River which was very peaceful and afforded us great views of various homes along the river including 24 Sussex Drive, still under renovation. Part of the afternoon was spent on a tour of the Canadian Mint which was again very well done and interesting. There they do not produce Canada’s coin, that being done in Winnipeg, but concentrate on commemorative and investment coins. They also produce the medals for the Olympic Games and the military.

We could not have seen our nation’s capital under better conditions and we were hugely impressed. It gave me goosebumps to stand in many of the places we had only seen on TV and the green space, the architectural interest of the public buildings and diverse sculptures make the Parliament Hill area quite spectacular. Now we realize what it means to be proud Canadians!

Sent from Stratford having survived 600+km of the 401!


X-Country Trip Part 3

Our ferry crossing from Port aux Basques to North Sydney could not have been under better conditions. Since we arrived in Nova Scotia the weather has been usable rather than stellar with one night when they warned of a danger of frost and some days with several showers. So far the major rainfalls have been at night. Having been here before, we decided that we’d try and stick to our “less is more” philosophy not to do too much. We spent a whole day at the Parks Canada (PC) Fort Louisbourg Historic Site. Again, we’d been here before, but still found it fascinating on a second visit. The fort has been painstakingly restored to what it was thought to have been in 1744, when it was the principal French garrison town in the area. PC staff the site with actors who play the parts of various characters who might have lived there in 1744 and who interpret the history through their eyes. It really feels quite authentic (except that all the characters are fluently bilingual!) and is carried through to the extent that the public dining room only uses pewter dishes and cutlery and the menu is to period.

We spent a day driving to the western end of NS to Lunenburg which is a UNESCO World Heritage town and seems to be doing everything right. There were Heritage homes, beautifully maintained, a good mix of interesting shops and a variety of restaurants catering for all tastes. We spent the next day exploring the area along the meandering coast roads through numerous villages.

We had hoped to visit Digby on the Bay of Fundy and feast on scallops, but were thwarted by the fact that several thousand bikers had descended in the town for a Labour Day weekend rally. Many roads were blocked off to allow the bikers to roar round the downtown core. In Annapolis Royal we visited the Historic Garden that had been created by the municipality as an attraction to draw tourists.  It was very well done, with the plantings being of plants grown in various time periods.  It was very well maintained (with a staff of 12, plus volunteers!) and had been the Canadian Garden of the Year in 2015.  We then drove the length of the Annapolis Valley along the Evangeline Trail – you’ll have to read Longfellow’s long poem to discover the tragic story of Evangeline! The Valley is the area where most of NS’s agriculture and wine industry is concentrated. We stopped in Grand Prè which was the centre of the Acadian culture in the early 18th Century. In another excellent PC site we learned that the Acadians were settlers, mostly of French descent, who had settled in large parts of NS (then known as Acadia ) and in places such as Grand Prè had reclaimed a lot of the salt water marshes and turned them into productive farms. They thought of themselves as Acadians rather than French or British and tried hard to remain neutral in the various skirmishes and wars between the French and the British. When the British controlled the area in the mid 18th century, they didn’t trust the French speaking Acadians and, in 1755, made a mass deportation of the Acadians, burning their villages so they would not return. They scattered far and wide, perhaps the best known surviving area being in Louisiana. While in the area we also visited the Domaine de Grand Prè winery which produces Nova Scotia grape wines. Some of the whites in particular were very good.

On to New Brunswick where we followed the Acadian coast Scenic Drive up the east coast of the province. Again this was very largely French-speaking area of Acadian descendants. The road wound along the coast through many villages and afforded many views of the sea and the salt marshes. We saw, but did not cross the Confederation Bridge to PEI, having visited there about 20 years ago. This is the only province we won’t visit on this cross-country journey.

Our take on these Maritime provinces is the sense of history, of communities which date back hundreds of years with churchyards and cemeteries in every community to prove that. We are amazed at how very different Nova Scotia and NewBrunswick are as the latter is Canada’s only bilingual province and French is the first choice. The houses look totally different too with NB favouring ranch style while Nova Scotia has two storey, what we would call Arts and Craft style. Last time we visited (and mainly toured Cape Breton) we we were aware of the Scottish roots, music and the fact there are more Gaelic speakers than in Scotland. This time we have followed the Acadian Heritage trail in both provinces and have been amazed at a people who only colonized the area for about a hundred years, were deported in 1755 and their communities were scattered throughout the world, have managed to forge such a vibrant and lasting culture. Their descendants travel back to discover their roots.