Murano, Burano, Torcello, and more!

In addition to the main island of Venice, we knew we wanted to explore the outer islands, the most famous of which are Murano, Burano, and Torcello. For that, we decided to get a 3-day vaporetto (watertaxi) pass so that we could explore the islands as well as the canals of Venice.

Each of these islands is known for something: Murano is home to the world famous and gorgeous Murano glass; Burano is famed for its lace production as well as its colorful buildings; and Torcello is known for the church on this small island.

What we didn’t realize is that that there are many other islands in the lagoon – some of which have vaporetto stops. So, naturally, we decided to explore some of those as well.

Here is our story.

Murano

We had gotten our first peek of Murano when taking the watertaxi from the airport to our AirBnB. We knew that, like Venice, it was a series of islands connected by bridges and canals and that it had a Grand Canal.  What I hadn’t realized is that it had a lighthouse. If you recall, I am a bit obsessed with lighthouses – so this was a wonderfully unexpected find!

Faro Di Murano Lighthouse

Faro Di Murano Lighthouse

After disembarking, we found the canals were lined with cafes and, as expected, glass shops.

Cafe-lined canals of Murano

Cafe-lined canals of Murano

We perused the glass shops, not knowing what we wanted exactly (if anything), but more to look at the artistry. What we found were streets upon streets of glassblowers, galleries, and tourist shops galore. It was a bit overwhelming!

We went into one store which looked relatively normal (ie, neither high class nor uber-cheap). Before we knew it, we were being shown to a back room, and then upstairs, to more back rooms, all full of intricate and gorgeous handmade glass pieces – art, chandeliers, serving sets, you name it they had it.

We couldn’t take pictures in the shop (would hate to give away their artistic secrets!) so you’ll have to use your imagination. Think ornate, intricate, classic as well as streamlined, modern. They had it all. And man oh man was it pricey.

Once we realized glass purchases weren’t in our future, we took a quick look around the island before heading to Burano. Not surprisingly, glass was used in some of the art sculptures around the island.

Glass sculpture in front of tower - Murano

Glass sculpture in front of tower – Murano

Like in Venice, the history of Murano was apparent in the architecture and age of the buildings.

Sotoportego (covered walkway) in Murano

Sotoportego (covered walkway)  and shops – Murano

Burano

Next stop – Burano. Bring on the colored buildings and lace! The colored buildings were in full sight even from the vaporetto, which got us excited about the photographic prospects.

View from Vaporetto (water taxi) as entering Burano

View from vaporetto (watertaxi) as entering Burano

We had heard that Burano was the best place to eat lunch – so we had purposefully planned this island as the second on our day trip – so that we could eat like kings. It wasn’t meant to be, though…as we truly could not find an “authentic” restaurant for lunch. I am positive they must be somewhere, but they were not readily apparent to tourists. And even when we stumbled on a couple they were either closed or fully booked. Hmmph!

Regardless, after a worse than average tourist lunch, we made our way around the island looking at the colorful buildings. Had we known the eating situation – we definitely wouldn’t have chosen to visit at mid-day in the harsh sunlight. But anywho! Learn from our mistake — the best time to visit Burano for photographic purposes is definitely in the early morning or later evening when the light is more flattering.

We hope you enjoy these photos of picturesque Burano…

Lovely window box in Burano

Lovely window box in Burano

Besides the happy colors of the houses, another unique feature of Burano was the curtains they used to cover the doors. Some were closed, some were drawn to the side, but they all added an extra colorful feature. My guess is that they are used for both privacy and to block out the heat of the sun.

Colorful houses in campo (square) with clothes drying in Burano

Colorful houses in campo (square) with clothes drying in Burano

On this main thoroughfare in Burano, you can see the bright colorful houses on the left, with the more rundown, unkept colors on the right. We’re not sure the reason, but it made for an interesting contrast.

Canal panorama in Burano

Canal panorama in Burano – new on left, old on right

It was clear as we walked around that we are all visiting Burano for the same reason – to see the colors. Some folks even went so far as posing in front of the buildings for effect.

Girls modeling in front of Burano houses

Girls modeling in front of Burano houses

But the amount of laundry on the line throughout many of the streets reminded us that locals live here too, even if we couldn’t spot many on the streets.

Laundry on the line in Burano

Laundry on the line in Burano

Amongst the colored houses, there were also many shops selling lace…

Lace Stands in Burano

Lace stands in Burano

…as well as other cheap souvenirs for tourists. Overall, while the colored houses were beautiful, the full experience felt a bit too touristy. Another reason that coming early or late would likely be preferable — to avoid the crowds.

Stands selling their wares to tourists in Burano

Stands selling their wares to tourists in Burano

Mazzorbo

From Burano, we walked over the bridge to the island of Mazzorbo. We were hungry and in search of food (this is before we ended up at the cheap tourist place), so we didn’t explore the island much. But we did find a nice winery (Venissa) with a restaurant that was a bit out of our price range.

Winery in Mazzorbo

Winery in Mazzorbo

In addition to grapes, the winery also grew some of its own food for the restaurant. Most notably for me, I saw my first artichoke! I like artichokes, but had never seen one growing before, so this was exciting. This area spoke to me since I love the idea of sustainable restaurants.

While we didn’t explore Mazzorbo for long, it was clear that we were starting to see islands with more green and less stone. Quite a change from Venice!

My first ever artichoke sighting (!) - Mazzorbo

My first ever artichoke sighting (!) – Mazzorbo

Torcello

Torcello was smaller than Murano and Burano and even more green than Mazzorbo. The most notable sites on Torcello were the Church of Santa Fosca (straight ahead) next to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (left).

Churches in Torcello

Churches in Torcello

There was also another winery…which I’ll admit, was a beautiful site amidst the stone and history.

Winery on Torcello

Winery on Torcello

We didn’t spend long on Torcello before getting back on the watertaxi and perusing the rest of the area.

St. Erasmo

I don’t recall ever hearing of St. Erasmo before this trip, but it is on the watertaxi line so we decided to look into it. A quick google search told us this was the island where many of the vegetables are grown for the market stands in Venice. Given our adult-onset gardening adventures, I decided I wanted to see the island.

Jeff and Laura humored me as we visited “vegetable island.” Thanks guys!

Our first clue that this island was much less frequented was the fact that we transferred from a large water taxi to a much smaller one in order to get to it. This thrilled me. What thrilled me even more was that several locals got on board and a couple of them were quite smiley.

About 5 minutes into the ride, I just couldn’t stop myself and had to ask the smiley elderly gentleman “Parlo Inglese?” Unfortunately the answer was no, but we did our best to communicate.

I learned that he was 85 years old and lived in Punta Vela (the first stop of 3 on St. Erasmo). He had worked for 42 years on Murano as a glassblower. He raised shrimp and grew peppers on St. Erasmo.

If you’ve read my posts before, you know I call these “Moments of Authenticity.” There is nothing more authentic than successfully communicating with a local – both of our eyes lit up with excitement when we would make a connection or achieve an understanding. My Italian is nonexistent, but it was fun to try!

St. Erasmo boat chat

St. Erasmo boat chat

As he was disembarking, we shook hands and he invited me to come back to his house (mi casa). In the instant it took me to (1) translate what he was offering and (2) think of Laura and Jeff as part of this proposal – he was getting off the boat. I’m not one for regret, so I don’t regret not going. But next time, I won’t hesitate. I have no doubt that going to his house and hearing about his life, meeting his wife, etc would have been an amazing experience.

After that experience, I was pumped and just generally excited about life. We got off at the next stop to see the island.

The below church looked quite different from the rest in Venice. And notably, this was the first island we’d been on that had cars! Most were mopeds or small cars/trucks, but nevertheless, it meant we couldn’t just walk in the middle of the street as with everywhere else. It only took a honk or two before we remembered…(smile)

The Church at St. Erasmo

The Church at St. Erasmo

After the church, we walked the street for 15-20 minutes until we reached the next watertaxi stop. During that time, we passed all sorts of gardens…

Gardens in St. Erasmo

Gardens in St. Erasmo

…as well as fields of artichokes, which St. Erasmo is known for.

I truly enjoyed this walk and seeing all of the gardens, not only out of my interest for gardens, but also for the need to experience nature. While Venice is lovely, it is primarily stone and water, so seeing some green things growing was a nice break from the hard lines of the city.

Field of artichokes – St. Erasmo

San Michele

Last but not least was the island of San Michele – the cemetery island. This island is easily seen from Venice, as evident from the shot below. Tourists can visit the island as long as they are respectful and do not take photographs.

Several famous people are buried here, including Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. San Michele still accepts Venice’s dead, though for some it is only a temporary placement, until they get rotated to the main island due to space limitations.

View of San Michele - Cemetery Island - from Venice

View of San Michele – Cemetery Island – from Venice

We hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-tour of several of the outer islands of Venice. These can be explored in a day – though I would have loved to have more time with each of them. Maybe next time!

Ciao!

 

Categories: Europe, Moments of Authenticity, Photos | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Reunited with Venice – My first true love

In hindsight, Venice was my first true love. Not only did I fall in love with the place but also with the experience. As with any first love, Venice holds a special place in my heart. Let me explain.

At the tender age of 15, my naïve eyes opened wide to the world when I landed in Italy – my first trip abroad (after my first ever flight!). While the first 4 days in Rome were a wonderful time of cultural sensory overload (the mouth watering pasta, the frantic drivers, the ancient history), I didn’t fall in love until Venice.

Scenes of Venice

Scenes of Venice

You see – my first overseas experience was a 3-week foreign exchange. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to live with a Venetian family for 2.5 weeks. Experiencing daily life, attending high school with their daughter, walking the back streets of Venice with my host father – a gentle, proud Venetian policeman who got a twinkle in his eye when he shared stories of his city and its history.

This “cultural immersion” planted a seed in me that has only grown stronger over time.

Thus, though not always consciously, in every trip after that point the goals of my travels were to try to experience a culture rather than to see a place. Living in New Zealand for 2 years was surely my greatest example of that dream fulfilled.

trattoria

Scenes of Venice

I have visited Venice for a day or two several times since my teenage initiation, but this time I have returned to Venice for 8 glorious days – with the sole intent of savoring the experience rather than checking sights off my list.

Scenes of Venice

Scenes of Venice

Times have changed a bit – as I live in a flat with Jeff and a friend, courtesy of AirBnB. But on Day 1, I already find myself re-living my first trip. Nutella on melba toast for breakfast over coffee, opening the shutters first thing to let in not only the light, but the history, the tolling bells, the pigeon’s coo, and that sense of anticipation of a glorious day to be lived.

Scenes of Venice

Scenes of Venice

So on that note, welcome to our journey through Venice!!! On this trip we are doing are best to stay away from the tourist areas in favor of exploring the back streets of the 6 sestiere (neighborhoods) of Venice, as well as the outer islands.

For a reminder of geography – Venice is shaped like a fish.

The sestiere of San Marco is the most touristy – since it contains St Mark’s Square and Basilica as well as the Doge’s Palace. This is a must see on any tourist’s to-do list in Venice, so we tried to stay away as much as possible, since the 3 of us have already toured these sights on previous visits. Our AirBnB was in Castello, nearer to Cannaregio and San Marco – for central positioning on the island and fairly easy walking times to all sestiere.

Map of sestiere of Venice

Map of sestiere of Venice

For further introduction to Venice (and St Mark’s) — enjoy the below view from the campanile (bell tower) of San Giorgio Maggiore, the light green outlined island across from San Marco in the above picture.

Since our first full day was a Saturday, we tried to go as far afield from other tourists as possible – which landed us at San Giorgio Maggiore and Giudecca. The view atop the campanile was beautiful, without waiting in the long lines for the campanile in St. Mark’s. Score!

View  of Venezia from Campanile on San Giorgio Maggiore

View of Venezia from Campanile on San Giorgio Maggiore

Below we focus on St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. By far, this is the most crowded place in Venice. Crowded with people, pigeons, pickpockets, and the like. Oh, and history…(wink, wink). There is a reason it’s the most visited place, after all…

View of St. Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace from San Giorgio Maggiore

View of St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace from San Giorgio Maggiore

We toured the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and got our first taste of the Biennale – the art festival that happens every odd-numbered year. There were several art exhibits throughout the grounds and we are sure to see more during our time here.

Wandering around San Giorgio Maggiore reminded me that Venice is a boater’s paradise, as evidenced by the numerous yachts docked there! Typically my first thought of Venice is always of the history, but these boats brought me back to the reality of present-day Venice. Unexpectedly, I found myself thinking of the British Virgin Islands, another sailor’s delight…

Yachts docked at San Giorgio Maggiore

Yachts docked at San Giorgio Maggiore

From San Giorgio Maggiore, we strolled Guidecca, enjoying the lack of crowds, while refamiliarizing ourselves with the “sense” of Venice. Canal-side cafes and narrow canals filled with a myriad of colorful boats, bridges, and laundry hanging out on the line. This reminded me that while Venice is a tourist’s paradise, amidst it all Venetians live here.

We had our first positively delectable pasta lunch here too. Mmmmmmm.

Cat's eye view of Guidecca

Cat’s eye view of Guidecca

From Giudecca, we took the water taxi around the island and through the Grand Canal, refamiliarizing ourselves with the area. One thing I had either forgotten or had changed since my first time here were the cruise ships. There were 5 mammoth boats in port – no wonder the touristy areas are crowded! Aye carumba. Thankfully, these are parked far away from historic Venice, making them less of an eyesore.

Cruise ships abound in the Port of Venice

Cruise ships abound in the Port of Venice

Once in the Grand Canal, we had our first spotting of Venice’s other famous site – the Rialto bridge. This area is always abuzz with people, boat traffic, and gondoliers. We hope to explore this area later in the week – particularly the famed Rialto (farmer’s) market.

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

We got off the watertaxi at the Rialto and made our way back to our neighborhood. We found our local grocery story (inCoop) and stocked up on prosciutto, bread, cheese, wine, nutella, fruit – all of the necessities.

Grocery shopping - Prosciutto!

Grocery shopping – Prosciutto!

Top that with an outdoor dinner alongside a historic church, and I’d call that a great first day in Venezia!

Dinner by Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Dinner by Santi Giovanni e Paolo

A Venetian treat – Vogalonga

On Day 2, we were treated with a Venetian specialty – the 43rd annual Vogalonga. Vogalonga is an amateur boating event/regatta where rowers of all shapes and sizes come from around the world to participate in this non-competitive event. The course is ~30km long, starting in the Grand Canal outside of St. Mark’s square, going up the lagoon to the outer island of Burano, and re-entering mainland Venice through the Cannaregio canal.

[Notably, other than signs at the Watertaxi (Vaporetto) stations indicating altered service times that day - there were no other advertisements indicating this event was going on...good thing we knew about it before we left!]

As for the participants, there was everything from single kayakers to sculls full of 10+ people, and from (seemingly) drunken (or uber boisterous) virile young Italians to crews of older men and women proudly wearing their Vogalonga registration bibs as they prepared for the event. Some boats bore their country’s flags, while others supported  a cause (eg, Susan G Komen), and others were in it for the experience.

Vogalonga - at the start

Vogalonga – at the start with Il Redentore (on Giudecca) in the background

The event began with the chiming of the bells at 9am, as well as a cannon shot to mark the occasion.

At the start - with San Giorgio Maggiore in background

At the start – with San Giorgio Maggiore in background

At the start - with Santa Maria della Salute in the background

At the start – with Santa Maria della Salute (in siestiere Dorsuduro) in the background

After the start, we  jumped on a watertaxi to see more of the islands before watching the rowers re-enter the mainland around noon. The atmosphere felt very much like a marathon scene – except of course with boats instead of runners.

Vogalonga - entering the Cannaregio Canale

Vogalonga – entering the Cannaregio Canale

Locals and tourists alike lined the canals and bridges in support of the rowers

Locals and tourists alike lined the canals and bridges in support of the rowers

After having our fill of rowers…our stomachs told us it was time to find a cafe and some lovely Italian pizza. So that’s where we’ll leave you for today…

Ciao!!!

Categories: Europe, Photos | Leave a comment

The “Scot” in Nova Scotia: Antigonish and Surrounds

OK – so we’ve been here over a week now and we have a (slightly) better handle on Nova Scotia. As it turns out, the area we stayed in, as well as most of the area we explored in the first week, were all the “most Scottish” part of Nova Scotia.

The below map shows in red/pink the areas where (Canadian) Gaelic, based on Scottish Gaelic, is spoken throughout Nova Scotia (Alba Nuadh on the map). The areas under the word Nuadh are where we spent most of our time – specifically, in the university town of Antigonish and on the Eastern Shore.

(We’ve already told you about our side trip to the other Gaelic speaking area, Cape Breton, in our previous post.)

gaelic-map

Throughout this whole area, the most obvious indication of the Scottish presence was in the town signage. As we drove into different towns, the town names would be written in English followed by Gaelic. Below is a pretty tame one – some of the Gaelic names would be three times as long as the English version!

sign

And near our VRBO, there was a tribute to 3 men from Scotland who had survived the battle of Culloden and moved to Nova Scotia.

culloden-entrance

Ok I ‘fess up – the reason this caught my attention is because I “learned” about the battle of Culloden by reading the Outlander Series. There, I admit it. (And…I love that series, too!)

It was the information on this cairn that helped me understand the reason for the Scottish influence in Nova Scotia. The massacre at Culloden in 1746 is what led to many Scots leaving Scotland and taking up residence in New Scotland, ie, Nova Scotia.

But back to this cairn, it was erected in honor of 3 men who survived the battle of Culloden and came to settle in Knoydart, Nova Scotia.

culloden-cairn

Every April, folks in this area pay tribute to these men, and others like them, who brought their Scottish heritage to Nova Scotia. The cairn was erected in 1938, with a plaque added by the family in 1978. That means this recognition came 200 or more years after the battle.

That struck me. To hold that kind of respect and appreciation over multiple generations is remarkable.

For even more evidence of the Scottish presence in Nova Scotia, we took a quick hop down to nearby Antigonish…

Antigonish: The Highland Heart of Nova Scotia

Antigonish is a town of approximately 5,000 people and is home to St. Francis Xavier University. It is a quintessential college town (think main street like Franklin Street in Chapel Hill) that welcomes you to downtown with “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

antigonish-sign

It had quaint murals of a time gone by…

antig-mural

As well as lovely restaurants (yummy Brownstone cafe below) and the obligatory white church…

antig-street

But the most distinguishing feature to me was Cairns Park, where cairns were erected to honor several clans from Scotland that settled in this area. The one below is for the MacLean’s, the left side in Gaelic and the right side in English.

maclean-cairn

Antigonish is also famous for hosting the annual Highland games – the biggest celebration of Scottish games outside of Scotland. These games have been conducted in Antigonish since 1863.  Think things like: piping, drumming, heavy events (caber toss, anyone?) and Highland dancing, to name a few. I can only imagine how many kilts and bagpipes are there! Such fun!

Outside of Antigonish, the Scottish presence was still felt, but there was also a heavy dose of boats, booze, and lighthouses. We’ll show them to you in that order!

Boats, boats, and more boats

Being a maritime province, we weren’t surprised to see fishing boats. But the sheer number of boats and their presence EVERYWHERE reminded us that fishing is a huge part of this culture and economy.

There were boats in the water…

fishing-boats

Boats already taken out of the water for the winter…

boat-on-land

And boats that haven’t seen the water in a long, long time…

decrepit-boat

Most of these were accompanied by stacks and stacks (and stacks and stacks) of lobster cages, since lobster season starts soon. It goes from the last Monday in November to the end of May. BRRRRRRR!

In addition to boats, there was also quite a bit of booze…

The Good Cheer Trail

Nova Scotia has a “Good Cheer Trail” – a trail of 49 different wineries, distilleries, breweries, and/or cideries across the province. Not bad for a place with just under a million people total!

You can get a Good Cheer Trail passport at vendors throughout the province, and as you receive stamps for each establishment you frequent, you get various prizes.

distillery-passport

Unfortunately for us, some of the distilleries were closed (like Glenora in Cape Breton) and the prizes ended on 31 October. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying some good cheer!

The Steinhart Distillery, a mere 10 minute drive away from our VRBO, opened in 2015 and makes gin and vodka, of which several have already won awards…

distillery-medals

They offer flavors such as maple, habanero, strawberry, and haskap (a local berry) vodkas…

distillery-wall

We enjoyed one rainy afternoon here talking to the two girls who were manning the shop. Topics ranged from moose sightings (ours!), to how different Antigonish is from Toronto (where one of the girls was from), the rise in local distilleries in Nova Scotia, and, of course, that pesky US election.

On another day, we drove the Eastern Shore in Guysborough and ended up at the Authentic Seacoast Brewery, home of Rare Bird drafts…

rare-bird-taps

which came complete with the full bottling operation as well…

guysborough-brewery

and it also had a Distillery!

gboro-distillery

Authentic Seacoast distillery produced whiskey as well as rum…

rum

As you’d expect during the off season, we were the only 2 people visiting at the time. They were very kind and gave us a free personal tour of the brewery and distillery, while also telling us about the history of Nova Scotia. Very cool!

I was impressed by the number and quality of the breweries and distilleries in such a small country. These are clearly artisans with a passion for making their libation of choice, all of whom prided themselves on using local ingredients and selling to local markets.

Now, that’s enough about booze, let’s go on to lighthouses.

Mmmmm, lighthouses!

You guys know I’m obsessed with lighthouses. Love them! Boy am I lucky that Jeff likes them too…(it makes his life so much easier!) We were lucky that there were 2 lighthouses near us, each within 15 minutes driving distance of our VRBO.

We visited the Cape George Lighthouse on our very first day…that’s Jeffrey and I sitting on the bench to the left. It was on this first day that we started the tradition of “lunching at lighthouses.” We had packed a picnic and enjoyed our lunch at this lovely site…

jj-cape-george

The next day, we had a late lunch at nearby Arisaig lighthouse. The funniest part of this story was that only one other couple (a father and daughter) had visited Cape George lighthouse while we were there. Well the next day, we saw this same father and daughter as we lunched at Arisaig. HOW BIZARRE!

arisaig-lighthouse

Further afield from our VRBO, on the Eastern Shore, I fell in love with the Port Bickerton lighthouse, below. To me, this one was the most quaint and rivaled some of the best we saw in Maine.

port-bickerton-lighthouse

It also had a lighthouse museum next to it (which was closed of course), but together, the two were adorable.

port-bick-lighthouse-2

I have no doubt that Jeff and I will rent a lighthouse on one of our future vacations! I’d love to think we could own one, but I imagine the reality wouldn’t quite live up to the dreamlike status I would give it! But boy are those things special.

There is one last thing that Nova Scotia seemed a bit obsessed with, and that is reliving history. Seriously, they seem to have a lot of different attractions that relive various times in Nova Scotian history. Below, Sherbrooke Village is a recreation of life in the 1860′s. It was closed (thankfully) so we just drove through. But when open, people are in period garb, reliving history (think Colonial Williamsburg).

sherbrooke-village

That really isn’t our thing, but something notable did happen in Sherbrooke…

And that was that we found the one place in town that was open, so we ducked our heads in. An hour and a half later, we re-appeared after having eaten a delicious homecooked meal and talking to the owner about the meaning of life. (No kidding.) Beanie’s Bistro is his retirement plan, after a career in music.

He and his wife run the bistro, 6 days a week, breakfast and lunch only, 9 months a year. For the other 3 months (winter, of course!), they travel. This year they are going to Spain.

Yes, yes, yes! I want this. How do I get this???? This couple clearly had their priorities straight, as they were working to live, rather than the opposite. Good on ‘em!

beanies-bistro-2

Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Antigonish and the surrounding areas. It was clearly a slower pace of life and we were 100% on board with that. Later in our trip, we went to the capital and most populous city, Halifax, where one of our waitresses questioned why we went to “Antigo-nowhere.” So that gave us the insight on how city folk might feel about that area.

We, being country mice rather than city mice, loved the simplicity of it as well as the beauty, and most of all, the really wonderful people. Everyone we talked to was kind, considerate, interested, and engaging. Naturally, the 2016 presidential election was the topic of many conversations (sadly) but as always, it was interesting to hear others views.

Well, that’s all for now. We’ll tell you about the big city and other musings in our next post. Stay tuned!

Categories: North America, Photos | Tags: | Leave a comment

Hello from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island

Hello! It’s been way too long since we last blogged (or vacationed, for that matter) so we thought we’d share our experiences in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

You may wonder, why Nova Scotia? Honestly, I have no idea how we ended up here! The recent end of long work projects (and that November is not really peak season anywhere), resulted in us picking rather randomly. So Nova Scotia it is!

Along those lines, the only thing we had planned was accommodation at a beachside VRBO for 8 of the 10 nights of our stay. We COMPLETELY winged the rest!

Impressions

We’ve been here several days now and the strongest impression I have is this:

I thought I was visiting Canada. I had no idea I was visiting (New) Scotland.

I know, I know. Its name is Nova Scotia (read: New Scotland) – but that had never occurred to me before this trip!

In fact, we saw this sign during one of our drives and it cracked us up, so we thought we’d share!

scottish-crap

We’ll talk more about the Scottish influence in a later post, but I wanted to go ahead and frame the scene early!

So, in case you are like me and need a map to (re)acquaint you with Nova Scotian geography, here you go…

nova-scotia-map

We stayed in a VRBO near Cape George (northwest of Antigonish on the above map), so that we could have (1) beachfront accommodation (2) a wood-burning fireplace in case the weather was crap and (3) a sunset view over water. You don’t often get that on the east coast, so we wanted to take advantage.

Like I said before, we didn’t have much time to plan (or even contemplate) this trip before we got here, so everything was new and unexpected! I should also note that November is off season in Nova Scotia, so we were aware that many things would be closed.

No worries. We don’t like other tourists anyway!

Cape Breton Island

Cape Breton Island is in the northeast part of Nova Scotia, and the part we’d heard the most about. Thus, we had to check it out. We spent 1 night/2 days there.

The most popular part of Cape Breton Island is the Cabot Trail – an ~300km (~185mi) scenic drive that loops around part of the island.

Our plan was to see as much as we could of Cabot Trail during our 2 days. To get there, though, instead of taking the highway, we chose to take the coastal road called the Ceilidh Trail, and I’m really glad we did.

Ceilidh Trail

The Ceilidh Trail is a 100-km long scenic coastal drive on the west side of Cape Breton Island that spans several small towns and overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It’s also a Celtic haven in Canada. (I didn’t realize we were looking for a Celtic haven, but well, we found it!)

Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) means “gathering” and honestly, I can’t tell if it’s Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, or all three, but nevermind. The Celtic presence in this area was SUPER STRONG.

And I must say, I think I’d like these Celts. From what I can tell, their “gatherings” consist of singing, dancing, and generally loving life. What’s not to love? One sign even called this Canada’s “Musical Coast.” Sign me up!

Sadly, their music centre was closed for the season…

celtic-center

…as was the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou that is famous for its singing and dancing. Boy do I bet those walls could tell some interesting tales! I would SO LOVE to dance a jig there!

red-shoe-pub

In addition to music, there was also a hiking/biking trail (Celtic Shores Coastal Trail) that had once housed a railway line.

celtic-trail-map

This reminded us a lot of the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand.

rail-trail

Since most things were closed, we spent a bit of time driving the back roads, as we love to do. We came across this Celtic marker for a pioneer cemetery.

celtic-cross

We also happened upon some nature…as we spotted this bald eagle eating his prey. They really are majestic (though we got better pix of them in the Grand Tetons. This eagle was apparently quite full and happy to just rest…)

bald-eagle2

One of the biggest draws for me was the Mabou Lighthouse. (If you recall from our Maine post, I’m a bit of a lighthouse fanatic!) And while the Lighthouse was beautiful…

mabou-lighthouse2

…the funniest story was of the 2 fisherman who were chatting there when we pulled up.

Given that we’d barely seen anyone on our drive, our first reaction was just to be shocked to see them there. But imagine our surprise when we realized that one of them was wearing a UNC ball cap!

So of course, we had to ask them about the hat. “Do you like UNC?” “We are shocked to see a Tarheel up here!” His response was priceless. He had no idea what hat he was wearing. Some kid his daughter dated gave it to him.

Hmmmmph. Well, that was that. But it gave us a good chuckle.

Before we moved on, we asked him where he was from, since he had quite a thick accent. He pointed and said he’d lived his life on this hill and his buddy lived 2 hills over. With that accent, we thought he was straight off the boat from Scotland. No lie.

Still amused at this interaction, we then found a small cafe open on our way out of town. We talked to the young girls in there while they prepared some poutine for us to go. (We couldn’t just use the bathroom and leave, so why not purchase a Canadian delicacy [wink, wink!]) They were mesmerized by the Kiwi.

Given the lack of tourists this time of year, I have no doubt we were providing fodder for the locals to chat about!

A practical thing to note here – if you are ever driving Nova Scotia and get a chance to buy gas or use a restroom, take it! I’m not sure how it works, but it’s almost like small towns designate 1 place to stay open off season and non-locals have to keep their eyes peeled in order to find them! We packed sandwiches and snacks to keep ourselves fed, but we were at the mercy of towns for restrooms and gas…

As we were driving to find a place to eat our poutine, we saw a sign for Glenora Falls, and decided lunch by a waterfall sounded perfect. How idyllic, right? I’ll spare you the details, but

  1. we never found the falls [turns out a neighbor had put a no trespassing sign up, to stop the tourists] so
  2. we went 6-7 km out of our way on a bumpy gravel road to nowhere (while dodging/fording massive mud puddles) when the falls were actually 300m off the main road, and
  3. we ended up eating lunch next to some cows who looked at us like we’d lost our minds (by this point I was getting hangry and Jeff knew it was best if we stopped!)

cow-luncheon

Not too long after, we finally hit a point where Jeffrey was willing to turn around…(it was a rental car after all…)

dirt-road

Ah, the glory of unplanned adventures!

Once back on the main highway, we were disappointed to learn that the nearby Glenora Distillery was closed for the season. Phooey. After our driving shenanigans, I could have used a taste of that. But anywho…

distillery-closed

Further along, we came upon Margaree Harbour, the last town of the Ceilidh Trail before hitting the Cabot Trail. As with most other towns, it seemed like a ghost town, with few people about and even fewer stores open.

So imagine our delight when we saw this faded “Open” sign on Laurence’s store.

lawrences-store

We couldn’t miss the opportunity, so we had to go in!

It was a small general store, and empty as far as we could tell. We perused a bit before the storekeeper made his way out from a back office. We bought a postcard and sodas (we had to buy something, since we made him come out!) and began to chat with him.

He was clearly used to locals and was intrigued by tourists this time of year, especially Americans. “So, how about that election?” he says (this was before election day).

He mentioned how Cape Breton Island had gotten famous this year when it created a website welcoming Americans to Cape Breton, should Trump win. It was all created in jest (I think), but turned out to be a huge marketing coup for them! It will be interesting to see if they have an influx of Americans post-election…

We chatted a bit more about the election and world politics before telling him we had to go. I have no doubt he will be telling locals about us crazy Americans who were fleeing the election madness…The idea of it amuses me greatly. Clearly we made his day. And he ours.

Around the corner from his shop, we passed one of the many (many!) white clapboard churches in Nova Scotia. This one was unique in that it looked like it was on fire due to the backlighting from the sun. Cool.

margaree-church-fire

My oh my. Bottom line from this tour of the Ceilidh Trail is that this is what you get when you don’t plan!

Disrupting fishermen, discussing world travels with impressionable shop girls, lunching with cows, and debating the state of world politics with an elderly Canadian gentleman.

And you know what? I wouldn’t change one single thing.

Moments of authenticity is what I’ve called them before — you know, those little moments of magic that happen when you’re traveling. When you get to connect rather than just see, and remind yourself that we’re all human, just sown and grown differently across the globe. I love it.

But enough of that, now it’s on to the Cabot Trail!

Cabot Trail

Like I mentioned, the Cabot Trail is famous across Canada (or maybe even the world, per their claim below). Everyone we’ve spoken to touts it as the “must see” attraction in Nova Scotia, so of course, we had to see it!

cabot-trail-sign

At one of the many scenic overlooks (below), there was a memorial to Canadians who had perished in war. The red poppy is a symbol of remembrance (with the saying “lest we forget”) and many Canadians were wearing them throughout the week, in advance of Remembrance Day (11/11). [Equivalent to the US Veterans Day on the same date.]

You can see a bit of the Trail in the background of this pic…

cabot-trail-memorial

As we drove on, we began to see the rocky shoreline…

near-margaree

This was just enough to whet our whistle, before we bunked in the French/Acadian town of Cheticamp for the night. Nova Scotia seems to have pockets of different nationalities – fascinating!

After our B&B hostess gave us oodles of helpful information (we needed it!), we went to bed early so we could get an early start on the Trail.

This boat was one of the first things we saw when we woke up, on a crisp and still -2degC morning, with frost on the ground. Brrrr. Winter is coming.

cheticamp-boat

Skyline Trail

Our B&B hostess was insistent that we do the Skyline Trail – an ~7km (~4mi) easy walk that could be done in ~2 hours. The Skyline Trail is one of the most popular walks in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, so we decided to do it. We needed to stretch our legs after a day of driving…

The first thing I’ll say is – we were the only people on the trail (aside from the 2 Parks Canada groundskeepers at the beginning). Woah! We had to walk through 2 completely empty (large) parking lots to get to the start of the trail. In peak season, these lots (and trail) are packed with people.

Yet we had it all to ourselves. Ah, the glory of off-season traveling!

It was an out-and-back walk culminating in a view overlooking the sea and Cabot Trail. The last part had a boardwalk, which made an easy viewing platform…

skyline-trail

From which we saw this view of the Cabot Trail, a feat of engineering, no doubt!

cabot-trail

I have been incredibly fortunate in my life to see such grandeur as Glacier National Park in Montana, Mount Aspiring in New Zealand, the Swiss Alps, among others.

This is not meant to take one single thing away from the beauty of Cabot Trail, as it is truly lovely. But it’s lovely in an understated, less showy kind of way. Had we not had the serene experience of having the Skyline Trail completely to ourselves, my reaction may have been one of disappointment. (Blasphemy, I know! But I’m just keeping it real, folks…)

That said, this particular walk was ANYTHING but disappointing. Because once we had taken our pictures and were starting to head back along the trail, I turned the corner and almost ran into…

A BULL MOOSE!!! (my first!)

(Aaaack, my heart is racing even as I type this!) If I hadn’t been looking up – we had been watching our feet a lot, since there was some ice on the ground – I would have run right into him.

Thankfully, I didn’t. But he did scare the bejeezus out of me. My fight or flight system went into hyperdrive (flight, not fight!) but my mind simultaneously told me not to spook him, so I backed up gingerly, like you see them do in cartoons.

I croaked “bull moose” to Jeff, as I tippy-toed backwards.

Double gulp.

Jeff was immediately intrigued and had to go check it out. My reaction was 100% opposite. I had just looked up at a 1000-1200lb beast that stood 7-8 feet tall with huge paddles/antlers, soft eyes, and dopey ears. It never once occurred to me to try to get a picture.

My only thought was – we are on this trail alone, with a beast that could kill us, and likely bad cell reception. How quickly one’s perspective changes, eh???

In hindsight, the moose couldn’t have cared less about us. That said, he did wander parallel to the path for a bit, so we had to stalk him to keep an eye on where he was until we could get around him and out of the park.

What I couldn’t believe was how graceful and quiet he was. Given his size, I would have thought he’d make noise (if by nothing other than his antlers hitting tree limbs) but he didn’t. We had to really pay attention to keep him in sight. Nature is amazing.

Here is Jeff’s pic of Mr. Moose. I’ll still see him in my dreams. I think I am still recovering my adrenaline stores.

moose

Back to Cabot Trail

Honestly, nothing nearly as interesting happened the rest of Cabot Trail, for what could top my first bull moose encounter!?!??

But we did see some other beautiful sights along the way, including…

A Lone Shieling – a small Scottish crofters shed. There was nothing notable in that, except that it was in a completely picturesque setting (that could almost make you believe it was still fall in Nova Scotia)…and that there were signs for coyotes.

coyote-warning

No thanks, one beast is enough for me today. Yowzers.

This beautiful stream was also in this area.

fall-stream

Our next stop was the Beulach Ban Falls, but apparently waterfalls were not meant to be on this trip. The closed sign below gave me flashbacks to our New Mexico trip during the government shutdown (shudder).

falls-closed

Our B&B hostess had warned us that this may happen, as there was currently a controversy about possibly culling the moose population in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. She had heard word that there may be some protests going on in parts of the park. We aren’t positive that was the reason for the closure, but we suspect as much…

In way of explanation, the moose population in the park has exploded since an insect invasion took out the softwood trees (mostly spruce), allowing hardwoods to grow in their place (which moose love). They are considering culling the moose population to get their native vegetation back.

We asked the Parks Canada groundskeeper about it (since they had set up an enclosed area along the Skyline Trail to keep out moose and study how the native trees would grow back), and interestingly, he said he couldn’t share his views with us. We didn’t press him, but later in our drive it was clear that this is a sore issue among Cape Bretoners…

moose-barn

Further along Cabot Trail, we began to see some of the gorgeous coastline…

scotch-cove

…as well as the picturesque fishing villages, including this one at tiny White Point…

white-point

and nearby Neil’s Harbour…

neils-harbor

And, of course, another lighthouse (this one with a Canadian twist) at Neil’s Harbour…

neils-harbour-lighthouse

Jeff had a great time photographing the waves as they crashed onto shore in New Haven. (I loved the small red cottage in the background.) This area reminded us very much of Maine.

new-haven

That was about all we had time for before hightailing it back to our VRBO. With sunset at 4:30, we tried to minimize how much driving we had to do in the dark, so we missed the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, along with some other Cabot Trail attractions. Maybe another time.

Overall, we had a great time exploring the Ceilidh and Cabot Trails. I think it would be fascinating to experience the musical culture of the Ceilidh Trail during peak season and to see the Cabot Trail at its most beautiful in the fall colors. Mmmm.

There was also a whole separate side of Cape Breton Island that we didn’t make it to – again, maybe next time. But until then, we hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to what we saw of Cape Breton!!!

Gus an ath-thuras! (that’s “until next time” in Scottish Gaelic)

Categories: Impressions, North America | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Reykjavik and Surrounds

If you know us, you know we don’t like cities. So why did we spend 3 days in Reykjavik? Why, to have better access to the Northern Lights tours, of course! (Are you sick of hearing about them yet?!?!?)

During these 3 days we spent more time out of Reykjavik than in it. Here’s our tale.

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular tourist destination about a 1.5-hour drive outside of the city. We had visited the 3 famous sites in the Circle during our visit last summerÞingvellir, Geysir, and Gulfoss.

This year we intended to do the same, but the weather had other ideas.

On our drive to Þingvellir — also known as Assembly Plains, where Icelanders have gathered for centuries to makes laws — the temperature dropped, snow was blowing everywhere, and the wind kicked up a gale.

Aye, aye, aye!

Can you feel the piercing wind as it blows the snow across the road? Brrrrrrr!!!!

Blowing snow

We got to the overlook at Þingvellir and took our obligatory pictures while listening to the wind howl.

Pingvellir

The below pic is of the rift between the European and Atlantic tectonic plates. The plates pull apart about an inch each year.

Plates

This was the first time we fully comprehended why they encourage windblown door insurance. If we were not holding on to them, they could have blown off. Woah.

Once we got back in the car, we decided to opt out of the rest of the circle and go back to Reykjavik.

Southeast to Vik

The next day we skipped the rest of the Golden Circle since we’d heard the roads were terrible. So we went to Plan B and drove the Ring Road southeast out of Reykjavik to Vik.

We’d liked this route in summer and looked forward to seeing the winter counterpart. If you want to compare the pix from winter to summer, check out the summer post here.

Our first stop was the waterfall Seljalandsfoss. As seen from the Ring Road, it doesn’t look very big.

Seljalandsfoss from road

But once you get closer, you realize just how big these waterfalls are – which provides perspective for the grandeur of the Icelandic landscape. Simply stunning.

Here is Jeff setting up his shot. Do you see the icicles hanging to the left of falls? Again…brrrrrrrr!!!!

Jeff and Seljalandsfoss

Here is a better view of the icicles and can you see the (completely) frozen staircase to the right in the picture below? (Hint: you have to look closely!) In summer, you can walk behind this waterfall. In winter, not so much.

Seljalandsfoss

Up the road apiece was Skógafoss waterfall. Again, it looks ordinary from the Ring Road.

Skogafoss from Road

But once up close, it’s easy to appreciate the power coming over this cliff.

Skogafoss

In the below pic, you can see the long shadows of Jeff and I (and 2 other photographers). We visited around 3pm, so this shows how low the sun stays in the sky.

Skogafoss shadow

From Skógafoss, we went up the road to Dyrhólaey, home of the black sand beach. Mmmmm. I think this was my favorite winter spot. The contrast of white on black was truly gorgeous.

Dyrholaey pano

This area is known (at least in tourist books) for its rock arch on the coastline.

We went to this area looking for the arch and missed it — again!!! We had tried last year to no avail. We think this time we found the right road, but it went straight up and was covered with snow. So we decided against it and checked out the beach again.

Dyrholaey waves

Ironically enough, here we were in the middle of nowhere with about 3 other cars in the parking lot and who did I run into but a couple from Raleigh, NC! It’s a small, small world.

On our way out, we couldn’t pass up taking one more pic of that beach. Stunning.

Dyrholaey

After our day trip to the South, we then went back to Reykjavik and explored that area a bit.

Reykjavik at Last

Here is the view from our 6th floor AirBnB in the city. While cities aren’t our thing, cities surrounded by water and mountains are the best kind!!

Reyk rooftops
About a 5 min walk away was Hallgrímskirkja, an iconic Lutheran Church in the city.  We used this building to keep our bearings while we explored the streets.

Hallsmkirkja

Colorful buildings are sprinkled throughout the city.

Reykjavik color

This is the most creative one we encountered…on the main shopping street.

Reykjavik color 2
Harpa, the Concert Hall, overlooked the water. This reminded me very much of the Sydney Opera House in its unique design that stood out markedly from the rest of the city.

Harpa
That’s about all we can tell you about Reykjavik! But we thank you for joining us on our winter escapade!

We hope you enjoy this parting shot from wintry Iceland…until next time!!!! Cheers, J&J

Parting shot

Categories: Europe, Photos | 6 Comments