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O Canada - The Maritimes

Updated: Mar 2

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes


In the previous post, I had landed in Montreal. I was a good two weeks into my journey and had covered about 80% of the distance from the Pacific to the Atlantic on my way across Canada. I was just about to depart Montreal for the eastern provinces, the Maritimes. In this slice of the story, I will give an account of three of the four Maritime provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and share the travel anxieties that assailed me at the outset, introduce a solo traveler who was profoundly inspirational to me, and even share an account of serendipitous joy, in an idyllic, tranquil spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A little bit of the U.S. state of Maine is included in this entry as it was more or less an incidental pathway to Atlantic Canada.

July 5, 1990

The train left the Via Rail station in Montreal eastbound for the Maritimes at 7:00 p.m. Next on the itinerary was Saint John, New Brunswick -- 14 hours away. Even though the term "red eye" isn't regularly used to define train travel, I think it is an appropriate label in this case -- I would sleep most of the way, fitfully and uncomfortably, and wake up the next morning feeling ragged. Something happened on that train, however, as I departed the comforts and protections of big-city Canada. I was suddenly beset by an insidious and immediate fear. It was both unnerving and irrational and it came like a bolt out of the blue. As I sat there on the train trying to make sense of it, I came to realize something about myself: I was not yet as comfortable with solo travel as I had previously believed I was. There was an untrusting and guarded part of me that was yet unconvinced that I would be able to cope with and manage upsetting or unexpected wrinkles on the longer journeys ... so far away from my starting point. I was moving ever further from my home in Seattle, now fully two weeks into my travels, and entering a part of Canada that was far less populated and far more remote from my perspective. Though in reality, I would be every bit as safe 3,000 miles from home as I would be 10 miles distant, I could not quite trick my brain out of the silly notion that the further away I traveled, the greater the danger. My fear was an illusion reinforced by geography. And so I had no choice but to sit with that fear, and try to reason with it, using reassuring self-talk to quiet the mental unrest and accept my circumstances with equanimity. By morning, I felt somewhat more at peace with my far-away travels.


There's an unusual twist in the geo-political landscape of the rail journey from Montreal to Saint John. You have to pass through the United States, specifically, the northern tier of the state of Maine, to get there. For me, this happened in the dead of night. Two U.S. Customs agents boarded the train sometime in the middle of the night, roused us all from our sleep, and asked us to declare our citizenship. It was a strange experience to go through customs in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, wakened from sleep. I suppose the reason for it was that the train makes a single stop in the United States -- Vanceboro, Maine, right on the border with New Brunswick.


July 6, 1990 - Saint John, New Brunswick

The train arrived at 9:30 a.m. in Saint John, the second-largest city in New Brunswick. Saint John sits right on the Bay of Fundy, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, and home to the world's highest tides. The city boasts historic uptown streetscapes, cultural attractions and natural wonders, including Reversing Falls, which I went out to experience during my stay. Standing here, looking out at the bay on this perfect summer day under clear blue skies, I was, for the first time in my life, gazing at the Atlantic Ocean (or at least, some part of it). It was an important milestone for me, representing the culmination of a weeks-long journey across the continent. I had finally arrived at the other shore.

(Side note about the spelling of the city's name. It seems intentional that the word "Saint" it always spelled out, perhaps in an effort to distinguish it from St. John's, Newfoundland.)


My visit to Saint John would be brief, just two days. I reserved a room at the Tartan B&B on Manawagonish Road (I love just saying the name "Manawagonish"). It was a modest room that went for just $27/night. Here's the tree-lined street where the B&B was located:

That first day, I spent hours wandering the downtown core, taking note of the many historical buildings and getting lots of photos. It was my first tour of a truly old world city by the Atlantic with its iconic white church steeples dominating the skyline, stonemasonry buildings, clapboard houses and narrow streets. It was on this particular afternoon when I was pleasantly reunited with an acquaintance I had made in Winnipeg just days ago -- an unflappable free spirit from San Diego.


The Woman from San Diego

Her name was Audie. She was 67 years old, married but traveling alone, and twice a cancer survivor. She attributed her recovery to positive thinking. We first met at the train station in Winnipeg. Like me, she was traveling across Canada on a CanrailPass, but on a different itinerary. She was delightful and entertaining and warm. She was my life raft in a whirling sea of doubt and anxiety and solitude in the midst of these travels. What I quickly came to realize was that she had a deep and profound effect on me. She was someone who was brimming with excitement and curiosity about nearly everything. Meeting her was the antidote to my travel jitters. Her fear-nothing, live-life-to-the-fullest mantra knocked me over the head and revived me. She set an important example for me and the continuing arc of my life's story. It will probably come as no surprise to know that she and I eventually ran into each other four separate times in four different locations across the vast stretch of Canada during the course of the 45-day adventure. That afternoon, we took in a museum together and chatted about our experiences thus far in Canada.

July 7, 1990 - Maine

The next day, I took a municipal bus out to a car rental agency on Rothesay and picked up a vehicle. I really wanted to drive down the New Brunswick coastline as far as Lubec, Maine and visit West Quoddy Head -- the easternmost point of land in the United States. (See "Going to Extremes" for more details.) The car rental agency was running a special: no fees for the first 400 kilometers. That's the odd thing about renting a car in Canada -- they actually charge you by the kilometer, in addition to the daily rental rate.


My luck with the good weather continued that day. The scenery along the coastline was spectacular. My route took me on a ferry ride to Deer Island. It's a small, quiet island and there aren’t a lot of services. Interesting to note that the Province of New Brunswick does not charge passengers for using the ferry system because they consider travel from the mainland to Deer Island to be part of their provincial highway system. Deer Island was quite beautiful and quaintly northern Atlantic in its look and feel.

That free ferry system became a $10 fare for the next jump to Campobello Island -- a place that is best known as the place where FDR maintained a summer home. From Campobello Island, you can cross the bridge into Lubec, Maine, with a quick stop at U.S. Customs. I really didn't count my midnight passage through Maine two nights prior as an actual, bona fide state visit. Driving into Lubec, however, did count. Maine became my ninth state.

I made the short drive down to West Quoddy Head to stand at the easternmost extension of U.S. soil and grab a few photos of the beautiful, red-and-white striped lighthouse.

I then backtracked and drove northward up through Maine, stopping for breathtaking views of nature along the roadside.

A short time later, I arrived in Calais, Maine and crossed back into New Brunswick at St. Stephen. The city of St. Andrews, about 30 km to the east and south, was very much hyped by other travelers at the time as a quaint old town with loads of historic charm, so that's where I headed next. I spent a little time exploring the city by car before returning to Saint John.

The next day, first thing in the morning, I returned the rental car, and as I was driving onto the lot, astonishingly, the trip meter clicked over to exactly 400.


July 8, 1990 - Halifax, Nova Scotia

Audie and I met up at the train station that morning and shared a row of seats in coach class. We chatted more about our travels, and as the train was crossing the border into Nova Scotia, she stuck her foot out ahead of mine to claim that she was the first to arrive (although she said she had been to Nova Scotia before). There are ten provinces in Canada; I had been to eight of them as of that day. Audie got off the train at Truro and was planning to take the ferry to Argentia, Newfoundland.


I arrived in Halifax later that afternoon. More sunny, warm weather followed me. The city is perched on a bluff above Halifax Harbor and just a few miles from the open Atlantic Ocean. With a population of 400,000, it is the largest city east of Montreal and is therefore the commercial center of the Maritimes.

My first order of business was to check in at the youth hostel where I would spend the next two nights. I split a cab ride with a fellow traveler from the train station. After depositing my duffel bag at the hostel, I walked back into town and explored the city on foot. The Halifax Citadel was one of the first places I went to visit.

Later, I wandered into the center of town and got this photo of Halifax City Hall.

The Historic Properties section of Halifax is charming and unique. It contains offices and commercial businesses in rejuvenated historic warehouses dating back to early 19th century. Here is a section of that part of the city where the streets are converted to pedestrian thoroughfares lined with restaurants and shops.

July 9, 1990

It rained nearly all day. Without a car, there was only so much I could see and only so much ground I could cover. I had run out of things to explore on foot, or at least, I had lost the desire to be outside in the cold and damp air. Instead, I killed time ducking the rain inside a downtown shopping mall, browsing the stores, people watching, and having lunch. The next day, I would fly to St. John's, Newfoundland.


July 10, 1990 - St. John's, Newfoundland

That morning, I took a cab to the airport and boarded an Air Canada flight to St. John's, Newfoundland. The entire flight took just an hour and forty-five minutes. A couple of interesting things to note about Newfoundland:

  • Unconventional time zone. When you cross into Atlantic Canada, i.e., pass from Quebec into New Brunswick, you enter into the Atlantic Time Zone. When you enter Newfoundland, you enter into the Newfoundland Time Zone. And here's the strange part -- you have to adjust your watch ahead by 30 minutes, not an hour. The reason for this is part historical and part geography. It exists because Newfoundland was a separate dominion when the time zones were established, but it also sits squarely in the eastern half of the Atlantic Time Zone.

  • It is the newest province. Although European settlements in Newfoundland date back to the 10th century at L'Anse aux Meadows where the remains of a Viking settlement have been excavated, Newfoundland did not become a province of Canada until 1949.

  • What's up with Labrador? The province of Newfoundland includes a continental portion called Labrador which is bordered on its west and south by Quebec. You can actually drive to Labrador from anywhere in North America. Newfoundland, however, is an island athwart the Gulf of St. Lawrence and reachable only by air or sea. Together, these two regions make up what was once called simply "Newfoundland." In 2001, the province name was changed to Newfoundland and Labrador. Nearly all of Labrador is within the Atlantic Time Zone.

  • Newfoundland English. If you visit St. John's, you'll notice right away that the dialect of English spoken among its inhabitants is distinctly different from the rest of Canada. In fact, you may even have a difficult time understanding native Newfoundlanders. The local dialect has been cultivated over the centuries by several linguistic influences, including Cornish English, Scots Gaelic and dialects spoken in the West Country of England. As a cultural caution, the term "Newfie" is considered to be a pejorative one and some Newfoundlanders may take offense if you should use it. Here's an article explaining the term from the perspective of a native Newfoundlander.

Upon my arrival at the airport, I cabbed it to my B&B located just outside the downtown core. Newfoundland is notorious for having bad weather and cold summers. I was fortunate to have been there during some of the best summer days when the air was so warm coming off the Atlantic Ocean that you didn't need a jacket. This first day, however, was a little chillier and overcast. It didn't matter to me, though. I was just excited to be in Newfoundland.


After checking in at the B&B, I wandered into downtown and explored the maze of narrow streets winding up the hillside, flanked by rows of pastel-colored houses of pink, robin's egg blue, yellow and green.

St. John's is one of North America's oldest cities, first showing up on maps in 1519. You can see it in the way it is laid out along the waterfront and how its narrow streets move in wild and unpredictable directions. It is also the provincial capital. Its architecture has a distinct style from the rest of Canada, and its major buildings are remnants of its history as one of the first British colonial capitals. It is protected from the open Atlantic Ocean by a high, rocky promontory northeast of the city called Signal Hill. It is the spot where Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless transatlantic signal from Ireland on December 12, 1901.

As I descended the hill toward Water Street, the major commercial thoroughfare, I came upon this sign commemorating Mile Zero -- the start (or end, depending on your perspective) of the Trans-Canada Highway. The other end of the highway can be found in Victoria, British Columbia at the corner of Dallas Road and Douglas Street — 7,821 kilometers away.

I found a nice little restaurant to stop and have lunch in. I don't remember exactly what I ordered, but what does remain of that experience is a powerful and enduring memory of the difficulty I encountered communicating with my waiter. His Newfoundland accent was heavy and my brain couldn’t process what he was saying. I felt embarrassed when I had to ask him several times to repeat what he had said. I hope he forgave me for being a difficult customer and took just a little pity on me for being unfamiliar with his native dialect.


July 11, 1990

The weather on this particular Wednesday was spectacularly beautiful. I really wanted to go to Cape Spear -- the easternmost point of land in North America (see my blog post Going to Extremes for more detail) and stand facing Europe with the entirety of the continent at my back. I needed to rent a car to do that. One of the proprietors of the B&B kindly drove me to a car rental office where I got a small vehicle and drove down the coast to the cape to capture some great photos, including this one of the Cape Spear Lighthouse.

The scenery along the drive was quite dramatic and extraordinary. The highway twists along the rugged headlands that face the Atlantic, exposing a multitude of scenic vistas and photo ops.

I doubled back and headed north out of the city along the coastline to Torbay and found some of the most dramatic vistas yet.

Back in the city, I couldn't resist getting a picture of this street sign.

And this is the heart of urban Newfoundland, along Water Street in St. John's:

My thoughtful hosts at the B&B told me about an event that was taking place on Signal Hill that day. It would be a battle re-enactment performed by the Signal Hill Tattoo, complete with drums, muskets, bagpipes, standard bearers and Newfoundland dogs. I drove to Signal Hall, a grass-covered promontory rising more that 450 above the water’s edge, and parked the car. I wandered out onto the grassy slopes facing the city where there were several pedestrian paths traversing the park. Here's the city from Signal Hill.

And here's the Signal Hill Tattoo with the castle in the background:

After the re-enactment, I scrambled over the top of the hill and down the slope facing the Atlantic Ocean. It was a serene place where I found myself to be completely alone, and most unforgettably, completely at peace. I had reached the end of the continent, traveled as far away from home as I was going to. I stared out into the vast Atlantic Ocean more than 400 feet below me, with a warm breeze caressing me, relishing this moment of triumph. I laid down in the soft grass, the earth beneath me warm and gently inclined as though it were designed to hold my head aloft, allowing me to take in the view. The sun was soothing and the air smelled sweet with the blooming summer wildflowers. The tall grass I lay in made a whispering sound all around me like a sighing in the wind. I had found my moment of Zen. I felt as one with the world. I luxuriated in that spot, in that moment, in that rich experience, letting nature embrace me. I reveled in the perfect bliss I found at the juncture of nature and personal conquest, and then the peaceful reflection that followed. And even at the tender age of 24, I knew moments like these would come but rarely in a lifetime. It is difficult to express with adequate force the impact that moment imprinted on me, and even today, when I think back on it, I can clearly recall the smell of the air, the warmth in the breezes, the softness of the earth and that feeling of near weightlessness -- the last of my travel anxieties departing me. It was the greatest souvenir Newfoundland could give me.

July 12, 1990

On my last day in Newfoundland, I had a lot of time to kill between checking out of the B&B and catching my flight back to Halifax. I wandered over to the Confederation Building and the seat of Newfoundland government, then strolled around a nearby lake and park just watching the ducks and geese. The weather was already beginning to turn overcast, but I was profoundly grateful for the good fortune I had yesterday with the weather.


In the next installment, I'll share stories from beautiful Prince Edward Island and Quebec City. I was so impressed with PEI that I later returned to the island to spend an entire week exploring. Until then, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!



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