Dinosaur National Monument

As I mentioned previously I was heading towards the remote north western corner of Colorado. My destination was Dinosaur National Monument which is located on the border with Utah. But there was still long way to get there.

I just left interstate 70 and took Hwy 139 heading north. It starts as an unremarkable rural road serving local farming communities. But I soon left it all behind. Signs of human habitation quickly faded away and there was just me, the open road and the wild landscape. Traffic also quickly dwindled and there were times that I didn’t see a single vehicle for quite prolonged periods of time

It was the perfect driving territory and place where one could unleash the V8 engine. The road was winding gently through the rolling hills before reaching more mountainous territory at Douglass Pass, where it got properly twisted. After the pass the road went down again to a gentle and wide river valley. All this with minimal signs of human habitation, just some random gates here and there, most likely leading to waste local ranches. I stopped briefly in a few places to check on some Native rock art left by Fremont and Ute people and now protected by Canyon Pintado National Historic District. It might be a bit of a niche attraction but it was a good reason to break the long drive.

The town of Rangely was the first settlement after I left the I-70, some 70 miles (115 km) earlier. It looked like a typical dusty town up in the west and since I really wanted to find a motel closer to the Dinosaur NM there was no point of even stopping there. I took Colorado Hwy 64 and headed west towards the town of Dinosaur, another 20 miles away.

Despite its exciting name the town of Dinosaur is just a sleepy and dusty collection of buildings, with not much to see or do. I stopped for a quick photo of a sign highlighting the name of the town before taking the US Hwy 40 heading west towards Utah. The Dinosaur National Monument straddles the state boundary but the main access road is from the Utah side. So for my overnight stop I chose the city of Vernal. This “metropolis” of 10 thousand inhabitants was the largest settlement in the area and offered all the amenities I needed (motels, shops, fast food joints etc.)

It is worth mentioning that all those unremarkable settlements are surrounded by spectacular scenery. It is the American west at its scenic best. But the true highlight here wass my destination, the Dinosaur National Monument. Its visitor center is located around 25 minutes from Vernal and it was the place to start the visit.

The main attraction of the monument is the Quarry Exhibit Hall. To get there from the visitor center one needs a short ride on board one of the frequent shuttle buses, or a short hike. Now, what is the Quarry Exhibit Hall? As the name suggests it is bit of a rock face but enclosed inside a building. And this building is there to protect a truly remarkable collection of dinosaur fossils, left in-situ and partially exposed for the public to see. There are more than 1500 individual fossils in the rock face, despite the fact that many finds were removed over the years and sent to various famous museums around the world. The fossils date to around 150 million years ago and were deposited by an ancient stream. For anyone even remotely interested in geology or dinosaurs it is a fantastic place, one of the few around the world where dinosaur fossils are left in-situ. I have spent quite some time there admiring fossils of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and other species. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be specialist or even a geek, there are boards explaining the exhibits.

On the way back to the visitor center instead of the shuttle bus I chose one of the interpretive trails where visitors can see even more fossils as well as more fascinating geology in general.

This is the main attraction of the Dinosaur National Monument and worth spending a good 3-4 hours, but the monument covers a much larger and varied area. In fact from the visitor center I decided to head to some of its more remote parts. To get there it was necessary to get back to the main highway (US40) and drive back to Colorado where there is separate access point, a few miles east of the town of Dinosaur.

From the US Hwy 40 the very scenic 32-mile Harpers Corner road leads to the heart of Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon country. Multiple scenic overlooks offer fantastic vistas to the Green and Yampa river canyons. At the end of the road there is a short (1.5 mile) trail offering even better views. During my visit there was almost nobody there. At the end of the road there was one car which left as soon as I arrived so I had all this magnificent scenery all to myself. Only on my way out I passed another car (still, drive carefully as there is cattle roaming freely around). I guess part of the reason was that it was Wednesday in May, so still outside the main season. On top of that the weather was quite changeable, with ominous clouds threatening downpour. On my way to Harpers Corner there was even a dusting of fresh snow at higher elevations. For me it only added to the spectacular views but many people prefer picture-perfect sunny weather. It really is worth emphasising how scenic this area is. The canyon might not be as large as the Grand Canyon or as deep as the Black Canyon of the Gunnisson but the rock formations are equally, if not more, spectacular.

But in general this is remote park and nowhere near as popular as some of the others. And I like it that way. Nowadays more and more National Park Service managed areas are extremely popular and require advanced bookings to get in (like Arches NP). In that respect Dinosaur NM is refreshingly empty.

It was getting late and it was time to move. My plan was to reach Denver the following day so I wanted to be closer the the main highway. From Dinosaur I followed Colorado highways 64 and then 13 towards the interstate I-70 which is the transport backbone of Colorado. This was another spectacular drive through broad valleys and mountain ranges. This part of Colorado is very remote, scenic, rugged and sparsely populated. Driving across it is experiencing America the way I like it. One can admire the views but at the same time also have time to think. In fact for me driving time is one of the best “thinking times”. These are the moments when one is not constantly distracted by a smartphone, computer or even just reading. And driving in the American west is a very different experience than road trips anywhere in Europe, maybe apart from the northern stretches of Scandinavia. American roads are wide, empty and long, perfect for “cruising”.

Anyway, enough of that. Good things always come to an end. I just reached the I-70 corridor and in a sense was back to civilisation (and traffic) again. Next day Denver awaited.

Western Colorado

I woke up in a motel in Salida on a grey and gloomy morning. But the weather didn’t stop me from a stroll through the historic downtown. Salida was established in the 1800s as a stagecoach stop and later became a stopover on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. There are quite a few buildings listed on National Register of Historic Places which makes the ambience of the whole place quite pleasant. Eventually I met a family which was about to walk up the mountain dominating the town and I decided to join them. They were rally nice, especially once we discovered that we lived in some of the same places in the past. It was decent little hike offering splendid views of the town and surrounding mountains which dominate it. After reaching one of the viewing spots along the way I decided tu turn back as I had long day ahead of me. So I wished them farewell and walked back down to my car.

It was time to hit the road again. I took the US Hwy 50 heading out of town and drove west. Pretty much as soon as I left the town the weather got seriously bad. It was a mix of rain and sleet and eventually even snow, especially when I was crossing the Monarch Pass (elevation 3448 metres). But there were also some spells of better weather and luckily one of them happened when I was passing the town of Gunnison where I decided to stop for a brunch. The town had a similar “wild west” feel like Salida but had fewer historic building and looked like a more “down to earth” place. Still it is a base for some active tourism in the area so there were decent places to eat. I had a tasty and filling meal in a bar-cum-restaurant offering interesting fusion cooking. Pity I couldn’t drink as they had some interesting beers on tap as well.

From Gunnison I kept following the US Hwy 50. West of Gunnison the scenery opens up as one moves from the mountainous landscapes of the Rockies to the more open plateaus of western Colorado. But it doesn’t make views any less spectacular. In fact the stretch of tghe highway along the Blue Mesa Reservoir (on the Gunnison River) is very scenic indeed. Here I stopped for a break and decided to hike towards the Dillon Pinnacles. The return trail is around 6km long, quite flat, and allows one to see from up close some interesting rock formations. It is an ideal stopping point during a long drive. Unfortunately on my way back to car I really had to watch the weather as dark clouds were closing in.

Once I hit the road again the sleet and snow returned. At times the weather was seriously bad, with low visibility and the beginnings of snow accumulation. I started contemplating what to do next. Go straight to a motel and leave touring surrounding attractions for the following day? It was still too early for that. Seeing some breaks in the clouds I decided to take a risk and headed towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I took Colorado Hwy 347 and started climbing towards the south rim of the canyon. There was a dusting of snow at higher elevations but it looked as my gamble might have paid off as the weather was clearing.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison was on my list of places to visit for a long time, just somehow it was never exactly on my route before. This time I finally made it and I wasn’t disappointed. Objectively I have to admit that the weather wasn’t “picture-perfect”. The sky was grey and overcast, fog was obstructing the views from time to time and it was impossible to take some of those stunning shots which you can share with friends. But nonetheless I loved the atmosphere. For a start there was hardly anyone in the visitor centre or on the short trails towards the overlooks. And the fog was creating a strangely magical atmosphere but at the same time the views were not completely obstructed (as I was fearing on my way there).

I followed the South Rim Road stopping frequently and admiring the views down to the canyon. Black Canyon of the Gunnison might not be as deep or as wide as the Grand Canyon but it is still more than 1km deep and incredibly narrow, in some places only 12 m wide. It makes for a very steep canyon indeed, with sheer vertical walls of rock in many sections. The South Rim Road eventually ends at the “High Point”. From there I followed one of the hiking trails which opened even more spectacular vistas, including towards the west, out of the canyon, where the landscape opens out considerably. I have to say that Black Canyon of the Gunnison is very spectacular and worth a visit, even just a short one.

But is was time to get back. I wanted to reach the town of Montrose and find a place to stay before it got dark. Just as well I did. The weather overnight wasn’t great, with heavy rain and cold wind. Luckily I got some decent local brews from a nearby liqueur store, ordered takeaway pizza and watched a NBA game in my motel room. I really like such low key “down time” during my travels around America. Not all holidays must be about chasing attractions or staying in “cool” places. In fact I enjoy staying in random motels in not so touristy towns. Prices are low, there is no pretence, no fake smiles, it is easy to blend in as yet another travelling worker etc. I really had a good evening, especially as Toronto Raptors beat Milwaukee Bucks.

The next day weather seriously improved and the sun was out. I headed north-west from Montrose towards Grand Junctions, but my destination was not the town itself but yet another natural attraction, the Colorado National Monument.

It is effectively a national park in all but name, and deservedly so. This National Park Service unit preserves some interesting geology as well as local mountain and desert wildlife. But it is definitely the geology which is the main attraction, in fact, as some say, it is a true “rock formation galore”. The easiest way to see the area is to follow the Rim Road Drive which winds its way through the whole unit.

I joined it at the eastern entrance and immediately started climbing via multiple hairpin turns. Once the road reaches the plateau elevation it is relatively flat but not boring at all. In fact it is one of the most spectacular drives I have ever done. Along the route there are a plethora of stopping points, each offering a better view than the previous one. It is virtually impossible to stop taking photos as the rock formations are truly spectacular. Despite the small size of the park the rock formations are very varied. There are pinnacles, canyons and sand dunes, to name just a few, in red, orange, yellow and grey colours. There are also short trails leading to even more spectacular vistas than are visible from the road, probably the best of them being Coke Oven Overlook (named after rock formations which resemble, no surprise here, coke ovens).

Because all of the viewing points and trails one can spend a long time in the park. In fact it took me the better part of the day to drive just 23 miles of the Rim Rock Drive. I just kept stopping for yet more photos, at every turn, twist and overlook. Eventually I reached the visitor centre located close to the west entrance to the national monument. Here I had a longer break before heading further north (confusingly the western entrance is more in the northern part of the unit then in the western). This short stretch of the scenic road is probably the most spectacular and if you have limited time this is the bit I would recommend.

Eventually it was time to leave the Colorado National Monument. I briefly joined the interstate 70 heading west before taking Colorado Hwy 139 heading north. I was going towards probably the least visited and most remote corner of Colorado. But why? Well more about it in the next instalment.

Colorado Springs

After a few visits on the eastern side of the American continent I was really craving the wilderness of the west. So when last year I spotted reasonable priced tickets for direct flights to Denver I didn’t hesitate a minute and booked my holiday.

I arrived in Denver one afternoon in late May. After going through the usual arrival shenanigans I got my rental car (a nice V8 powered Camaro) and headed straight to Colorado Springs where I decided to start my adventure the following day.

And I started it early. Due to the time difference after arrival in the US I’m always up early, at least for the first few days. It was bitterly cold morning as it happened to be unusually cold spell for that time of the year, but I still got on may way promptly as I had a busy day ahead.

First I headed to Pikes Peak, a massive mountain which towers over Colorado Springs and seems to dominate the town. It is one of the most prominent of the peaks in the Rockies, rising to 4302 meters above sea level (over 14,000 feet) and around 2500 meters above Colorado Springs. It is also one if the highest points in the US where one can actually drive to the top. I went there first because the weather was changeable and I wanted to use the good weather window while it lasted.

Pikes Peak Highway is one of the most famous roads in America and one that I had wanted to drive for a long time. It is a 19 mile (31km) long toll road with well over 150 turns. Unfortunately during my visit it was impossible to reach the summit as the cold spell I mentioned made the conditions on top dangerous and the road was closed above around 4100 meters. But it was still damn fun to drive, even if “only” to that point. And the views from the top section were absolutely amazing. To the north, west and south hundreds of peaks of the Rockies still covered in snow and to the east endless prairies as far as the eye can see.

Here I would strongly recommend admiring the views while stationary as the road doesn’t have guardrails and the drops are very long in some places. At the top (I mean as far as possible to drive that day) I got out of the car for a short walk and to take a few photos but it was incredible cold and windy. After 2 or 3 minutes my fingers where basically numb. It was time to drive back stopping in a few more places for some more photos. At the end of the steepest section every car has the brakes’ temperature measured before being allowed to proceed back down towards Colorado Springs. The Pikes Peak Highway definitely didn’t disappoint me.

Next on my itinerary was the United States Air Force Academy located around 10 miles north of Colorado Springs. As much as I like aviation technology and military history (couple of years ago I even visited the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota) the reason for my visit here was actually the architecture.

Entry to the academy grounds is free but one has to pass through a quick security check at the gate, including providing an ID and answering a few questions from the guards. The main academy campus, located a few miles from the gate, was designed and build in the early 1960s in the modernist style and makes extensive use of aluminium on building exteriors, suggesting the outer skin of the aeroplanes. The architecture is so distinguished that in 2004 the Cadet Area of the Academy was actually designated a National Historic Landmark.

The buildings in the Cadet Area are set around a large, square pavilion known as the Terrazzo. They are low, with clean modernist lines and large windows. They don’t try to pretend to be “rustic” or “rural”, like many mountain developments, but yet they really fit the expansive surroundings of the academy which is set in the tranquil foothills of the Rockies and covers some 75 square kilometres. In fact it all resembles more of a headquarters of some hi-tech company in California, say in Silicon Valley, than a military establishment.

But the real masterpiece (and at the time of construction a very controversial building) is the Cadet Chapel. This was in fact the main reason for my visit in the academy as I wanted to see it since I first saw the photos online. The chapel is truly stunning but difficult to describe. Still let me try.

From the distance it might look like a very large and sophisticated tent, but come closer and its details begin to show. Suddenly “the tent” becomes a space ship. The main corpus of the building consists of 17 dramatic spires which are clad in aluminium and which tower over the nave. Apparently there should be 21 of them but the number was reduced due to budgetary constraints. The frame of the entire chapel is constructed out of 100 identical tetrahedrons, weighing five tons a piece. Each of the tetrahedrons in the chapel is coloured according to a pattern, some with clear aluminium and others with vibrant coloured glass. Oh, in case if you don’t know, tetrahedron, also known as a triangular pyramid, is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, six straight edges, and four vertex corners. Yes, I had to google it myself when I read the information panels during the visit. Basically it is a shape of the PG Tips tea bag (for the British reader).

Inside there are two levels. The spectacular upper level is the protestant chapel while on the lower level there is a catholic chapel, a synagogue, a Buddhist sangha and an all-faiths room. The protestant chapel is absolutely fantastic, one of the best interiors I have ever seen. So different from the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and yet somehow having the same soaring effect. The geometry of the space alone could blow your mind away but then you have to add the magical light due to stained glass windows. They are narrow but running through the whole height of the interior and give the place of worship a spectacular palette of deep blues and pastels when light shines against the roof. It really looked more like a Star Trek interior than a church. And I absolutely loved every minute inside. But after checking the academy gift shop it was eventually time to move on.

Before leaving Colorado Springs area I wanted to have a stroll around Garden of the Gods. This over-the-top name applies to the red rock formations located a few minutes drive from downtown Colorado Springs. It is in fact a municipal park after it was donated to the city at the beginning of 20th century by the previous owners. The main features of the park are the rock pinnacles formed of red, pink and white sandstones. Originally the sediments were deposited horizontally but subsequently the layers where flipped on the side, tilted, and then they eroded heavily giving us the current narrow but elongated rocky “fins”. There are multiple trails snaking around the area, some circle around the rocks, some lead through the narrow passages, it all creates kind of monumental labyrinth. It is all fun and photogenic. The only problem were the crowds. I was there on Sunday afternoon and the place was full of people. It took me a while to actually find a parking space at one of the multiple car parks along the one way road system. So after a brief stroll a decided to move on.

Now it was time to start the proper adventure. As much as I enjoyed Colorado Springs (which I definitely recommend as destination for a short visit) I came to Colorado to explore the wilderness of the west. For that I had to leave the populated foothills of the Front Range and head further west.

As soon as I left Colorado Springs and took Colorado Hwy 115 things got calmer again as traffic dwindled to a trickle. This is the American west the way I like it. Open road, big sky, breathtaking landscapes and low hum of the V8 engine. Especially the stretch of US Hwy 50 alongside Arkansas River that offered some amazing vistas and fun driving. I could go on like that for hours but as the evening was approaching I decided to stop for the night in the town of Salida. The following day western Colorado was awaiting me. More about it soon.

Buffalo

Maybe I should start with an explanation why did I go to Buffalo in the first place.

When I was visiting Toronto, Ottawa and surroundings in 2018 I decided to dash across the border to visit the US as I do like visiting that country (as anyone reading this blog might have guessed by now). Buffalo was conveniently located and allowed me to make a loop between Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo and back to Toronto.

But convenient location wasn’t the sole reason. I’m interested in the changes this region of the US, the famous (or rather infamous) “rust belt”, is facing. I had visited Detroit a few years earlier and I was curious how Buffalo compares with that more well-known metropolis. Especially after watching a video a few months earlier, which I randomly found on the internet, highlighting some positive changes and signs of revival in the city.

I crossed the border at the Thousands Island Border Crossing before heading via I-81, Oswego and some local roads (where I even got lost) towards Batavia where I stopped for a night.

Next morning I headed straight to Buffalo. My first stop was the disused Buffalo Central Terminal which served as the city’s main railway station between 1929 and 1979, before being abandoned. I had read about it earlier and really wanted to see it. To get there I had to drive through some rather rough looking neighbourhoods but during the day the area wasn’t feeling too unsafe. It was actually sad rather than dangerous. Lots of empty plots, once filled with houses, and Polish street names which highlighted the immigrant background of many past inhabitants of the area. The surviving housing looked rather poor and neglected.

The impressive terminal building really dominates the area. It is so big that it was in fact always too large for the city’s needs, even when 200 trains a day used it. The 17 stories tall office tower, with clocks on all four corners, resembles a tower of some Gothic cathedral more than a railway facility and dominates the rest of this vast brick-clad building. Unfortunately it is not in a great shape and it was closed during my visit. It is currently owned by the non-profit preservation group called Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. They occasionally open it for special events and try to collect money for renovation and reuse of this beautiful Art Deco structure. But I could still wonder around (ignoring some “no trespassing” signs) and take some nice photographs. I do hope they will eventually find good use for this building and it will be brought to life again.

From the Central Terminal I drove towards the Broadway Market. I was curious abou the Polish connections in Buffalo and I had heard that there were some Polish oriented shops and restaurants there. On my way I stopped to photograph at least two grand churches which were built in the heyday of the area, when it was populated by a vibrant immigrant population, including many Poles. Now these churches feel way too big for this area, especially in the middle of the week when their surroundings are basically deserted.

But there was a bit of life in the market, which was a bit surreal. I’m used to the vibrant Polish community in London. The difference with Buffalo is that the “Poles” there are mostly of the second or third generation but they try to keep some traditions and tastes alive. I actually ate decent pierogi at one of the stands and had a chat with some of the folks working there. Some of them have never been to Poland and didn’t speak any Polish. But the gift shop at the market had a better selection of Poland-related gadgets (including an impressive variety of T-shirts) than I have seen in many Polish gift shops, including at the airports I use in Poland. It was bizarre to say the least.

From the market I drove to the industrial areas along the Buffalo River, where it enters Lake Erie. What I wanted to see were the numerous grain silos which tower over the locality. Some are still working facilities, most are abandoned but some are creatively reused, for example the River Works complex, with restaurants, a brewery and leisure facilities. Then there is the Silo City, a collection of three huge former silo complexes which are now kind of abandoned but used for art projects, filming locations and tours. Unfortunately the tours had to be booked in advance so I could only look from the outside before a guard (looking more like an American hobo than a security personnel) politely but firmly sent me away. Those industrial areas, with all the silos are fascinating and a photographer’s dream. I could spend more time wandering around.

Anyway, after all this it was time to head to downtown to see how the core of Buffalo really feels. I checked myself into hotel, left the car securely parked there and went for a proper photo exploration.

Downtown Buffalo is actually quite pleasant and has a lot of interesting architecture. But there is only one place where one can start a visit, the Buffalo City Hall. This fantastic Art Deco skyscraper has 32 floors and it was constructed between 1929 and 1931. It might well be one of the most impressive municipal buildings in the world. Its façade is adorned with plenty of symbolic decorations and fantastic details highlighting industry, agriculture and history, depicting workers, farmers and pioneers. And the interior looks like something straight from a Batman movie set, with even more elaborate details. I loved it. On the top floor there is a free viewing platform accessible to visitors during the building opening hours. It offers an amazing panorama of the downtown, the harbour, the silos, lake and the surrounding areas, including all the way to Canada. It is good idea to head there first to get a good spatial orientation of the city.

On my way down, while checking my phone, I realized one can also visit the Common Council Chamber. I asked at the reception and they told me the relevant floor and recommended just trying if the doors were open. They were, and there was absolutely nobody inside. The chamber is as splendid as the rest of the building, full of symbols and decorations and with the impressive decorative stain glass skylight in the ceiling. It looks better than many state capitols or even some countries’ parliament buildings. But I felt it was enough of interiors. As the weather was glorious, it was time to head back outside.

In front of the City Hall there is the circular Niagara Square which is surrounded by some other important buildings, like the brutalist Buffalo City Court or the Art Deco United States Courthouse. In the middle of the square stands a monument commemorating president William McKinley who was assassinated on the steps of the city hall in 1901. A short distance away is yet another square, the Lafayette Squre. This one is dominated by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorating “those who laid down their lives in the war to maintain the union for the cause of their country and of mankind“, as the plaque says. Many cities and towns in the North of the US have similiar monuments remembering soldiers fighting on the Union side of the American Civil War.

There are quite a lot of interesting buildings from the beginning of 20th century all over the downtown. Banks, departments stores, offices etc. It is all quite nice. It definitely felt better than one could expect reading stories about the decline of the rust belt. One of the most interesting buildings located on the Main Street is the neoclassical, Beaux–Arts style, branch of Buffalo Savings Bank. With its dome covered in gold it looks more like a temple than a bank. Not far away is located yet another historic skyscraper, the Electric Tower, a striking octagonal 14-storey structure clad in white terracotta and topped by a large lantern. I could list many more architectural wonders but it would make this little piece way too long. If you are interested in architecture from the golden period of growth in America, Buffalo is a great place to see many examples.

I continued my walk north. Eventually I left downtown and entered Allentown, a district located around a mile from the City Hall. It is a nice neighbourhood with a little bit of bohemian or even hipster vibe. Don’t worry it is not London, NYC or San Fran, it is all still unpretentious and actually quite pleasant, a place offering independent restaurants and a few galleries. All mixed with nice residential properties and leafy streets. I had a very late lunch there before heading back towards downtown and the lake.

Let’s not forget that Buffalo is located on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The last part of the day I spent exploring the partially regenerated waterfront. Now, this being America, one hast to navigate areas under unsightly elevated roads from the 60s (here the Buffalo Skyway) but once on the lake the area is actually very nice. The glorious weather definitely helped the perception too. A popular attraction in this part of town is the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park where you can see ships (including a cruiser, USS Little Rock) and other military equipment. However tempting such things normally are for me, it was getting late so I skipped the military park and just had a stroll along the waterfront. I also spotted two small but intriguing memorials. One was the Irish Famine Memorial and the other highlighted Polish contribution in the WWII. This reminds you that America truly is nation of immigrants and Buffalo was hub for many of them.

In the early evening the area is a perfect place to admire the sunset and relax. There are restaurants and bars but I decided to call it a day and went back to my hotel. The following day it was time to head back to Canada and continue my trip. Toronto was awaiting for my first visit in well over 10 years.

Stay tuned.

Ottawa

Ottawa felt like the last significant city in Canada which I hadn’t visited. Here I have to apologize to folks in Winnipeg or Saskatoon. I’m sure those places are interesting in their own right but they are not in the same league. Sorry. Anyway, I had some time last spring so I decided to visit the capital of Canada, which is, after all, one of my favourite countries.

I flew to Toronto and slowly made my way towards Ottawa. After a night in Kingston I stopped in a few small historic towns along the way, places like Perth, Smith Falls and Merrickville. The last two are located on Rideau Canal which the British built to bypass a border stretch of St Lawrence River as it wasn’t seen as safe after the war of 1812. The canal is over 200 km long and it was a major feat of engineering when it opened in 1832.

And here we come to Ottawa. It was actually established as Bytown (named after John By) during construction of the canal and it is located where the canal joins Ottawa River. It then developed as a place of timber and lumber trade. It might have stayed as small as the other communities in the region if not for the decision by Queen Victoria in 1857 selecting it as the capital of the newly formed nation of Canada.

Nowadays Ottawa’s metropolitan area has a population of around a million and it is an entertaining place full of museums and attractions. I booked myself for two nights into a motel not far from Parliament Hill, parked the car, and began exploring the city on foot.

My first afternoon in Ottawa I spent walking around downtown for hours, admiring and photographing its varied architecture. There are some impressive federal buildings from the late 19th century, many commercial Art Deco structures from the early 20th century (especially the Bank of Montreal and Bank of Canada buildings) and more modern stuff. I also visited the locks where Rideau canal meets the Ottawa River, the place where modern Ottawa was born.
Later I ended the day exploring ByWard Market area. It is one of the oldest parts of Ottawa, which traditionally has been a focal point for Ottawa’s French and Irish communities. Nowadays the neighbourhood is full of shops, restaurants and bars and feels quite similar to Covent Garden in London (it even has its own covered market). It was a good place to have supper and some beer in one of the Irish pubs with a terrace overlooking all the hustle and bustle. I had a lot planned for the following day.

My first stop the next morning was Parliament Hill where I picked up a timed ticket for the guided tour of the parliament building. It is good to do that early in the day as the free tickets run out fast. Mine was for the late afternoon (even if I got it less than an hour after opening of the ticket office). So in the meantime I explored and photographed spectacular Neo-Gothic buildings of Parliament Hill from the outside. I love such architecture, with plenty of detail, here full of Canadian symbolism. But we’ll come back to that later.

In the meantime I headed towards the Supreme Court of Canada. In contrast to the parliament it was built in 1939 in Art Deco style, but like the parliament it is located on the high escarpment of Ottawa River. The main entrance is flanked by two great looking statues of Veritas (Truth) and Justitia (Justice). I joined a short but informative tour highlighting the architectural details and explaining how the Canadian judiciary works.

I still had plenty of time before the parliament tour so from the court I headed towards the Portage Bridge, crossed the Ottawa River and entered the city of Gatineu which is actually located in the province of Quebec. What you notice first is that on the street signs French comes first and English second (if at all), in contrast with Ottawa. The main reason for my visit there was to admire the views of Parliament Building dominating the opposite high bank of the river. In fact the best views on the Parliament Hill are from Gatineau, especially from outside of the Canadian Museum of History which is located in spectacular modern building and which is highly regarded and recommended. Sadly I didn’t have time for a visit. From this spot the parliament campus on the other side of the river looks truly spectacular, like some fairy tale medieval castle on a hill.

I stopped for a quick lunch (Quebec has a better culinary tradition after all) before returning to Ottawa proper via Alexandra Bridge which opened in 1901 as a railway bridge before being converted for use by cars and pedestrians. Its walkway offers a great panorama of both Ottawa and Gatineau.

Finally it was time to enter the parliament building. As the parliament was in session we couldn’t enter the debating chambers but we were taken to the library which is the only surviving part of the original building constructed between 1859 and 1876. Because of that it has the most elaborate decorations, not unlike Westminster Palace in London. The stonework contains carved mouldings, sculpted foliage, real and mythical animals, grotesques, and emblems of France, England, Ireland, and Scotland, spread across and over pointed windows in various groupings, turrets and towers. The rest of the parliament burned down in 1916 and was almost immediately rebuilt. The newer bit is also Neo-Gothic and full of Canadian-themed details like sculptures of native fauna but expanded in size and pared down in ornament, more in keeping with the Beaux-Arts ethos of the time.

The tour started in the Confederation Hall. Designed in the Gothic Revival style, the octagonal hall has a massive central column supporting a magnificent fan vault ornamented with carved bosses which recalls the interior of a medieval English chapter house. The pointed arches are crowned with richly sculpted gables celebrating the confederated nature of Canada. Then the guide took us to the Hall of Honour (looking not unlike a medieval church) which is part of the central axis of the Centre Block, joining Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament. After that we visited the library (absolutely splendid place which I mentioned above) before heading via various corridors (where our guide pointed out some more interesting architectural details) and finally reaching the base of the Peace Tower.

At its base is located the Memorial Chamber, a national shrine. Initially it was a tribute to the Canadians who had given their lives during the Great War in France and Flanders but since then it has become a place to commemorate those who have died in conflicts from the Nile Expedition to the Korean War, and in the service of Canada to this day.

After that we parted with our guide but the final highlight of the tour was access to the viewing platform on top of the 55 m tall Peace Tower which dominates the parliament building and offers a fantastic panorama of Ottawa, Gatineau and even further afield. The weather wasn’t perfect but I could still see quite a lot. What helps is the lack of any real skyscrapers obstructing the views as Ottawa is rather low rise, especially if one compares it with Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

After coming down from the tower and exiting the parliament I decided to walk more around downtown and its vicinity. Ottawa downtown might not be as spectacular as the Parliament Hill and neighbouring federal buildings but it is pleasant enough. The only problem was that I had to dodge some intermittent rain showers. Walking a little bit aimlessly south of downtown I explored some very nice residential districts. There were some blocks of flats as well as many large historic houses (but not ostentatious) all this creating an appealing mix. These areas have plenty of lush trees lining the streets which are aligned in a perfect grid as well as a few small concentrations of bars and restaurants (for example along Elgin Street in Golden Triangle). This part of town wasn’t maybe spectacular but I could see myself living in place like that.

The second night in Ottawa I spent watching some basketball in my motel room and “sampling” local beers which I bought in the nearby branch of LCBO. Now, what the hell is LCBO you might ask. Well, Ontario (like most of Canada) has peculiar rules related to the sale of alcohol. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is a Crown corporation which has quasi-monopoly on the sale of alcohol beverages in Ontario (there are some exceptions). So if you travel there look for the LCBO to get your booze. Anyway, the local brews were quite tasty.

The following day it was time to head towards the US. But as there were hours of driving ahead of me I went for a walk first, to stretch my legs. It allowed me to explore more splendid residential areas of central Ottawa, with all its greenery and nice homes. Damn, I could really live there.

But it was definitely time to go. On my way out of of town I drove the scenic Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway which follows Ottawa River and offers stunning views towards Quebec on the other bank (here the river forms the boundary between the provinces). It is quite amazing how quickly things get very rural as you drive out of town in this direction.

Eventually I turned south, took Hwy 416 and headed towards the St Lawrance river. It was time to visit Uncle Sam. More about it soon(ish).

Montreal

In September 2017 we visited the great city of Montreal. By coincidence it was exactly 10 years since my first visit. Here I have to admit I had an awful experience during that first visit. We only had a few hours in the city and on top of that the weather was dreadful. It was raining heavily. Despite that we tried to be positive and see as much as we could but it didn’t really work. We were wet, cold and annoyed by the time we got back to our car completely soaked. We drove off west towards Toronto and didn’t think much about the whole Montreal experience.

This time things looked much more promising. Montreal was the last point of our Canadian itinerary, we could spend two nights in the city and the weather was glorious.

Before heading to Montreal we actually spent some time exploring the vicinity of the metropolitan area. One of the more interesting sites was Fort Chambly located around 30 km from central Montreal. It was built in 1665 by the French in order to protect travellers on the river from the Iroquois. But the impressive stone structure visible today dates mostly from around 50 years later. It is good place to spend an hour or two, wandering around and learning interesting history of French colonization of the area and the subsequent conflicts with Britain.

In Montreal we based ourselves in a motel on the outskirts but conveniently located a short walk from the metro station. Montreal has an efficient and quite impressive (if rather brutalist) metro system built mostly in 1960s and 70s (with some later extensions). Our first full day in Montreal started from taking the metro straight from our hotel to Île Sainte-Hélène located in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The island is dominated by green spaces and recreational facilities but we went there to check out the views. Across the river channel there is great panorama towards Old Montreal and modern downtown behind it. The views where especially glorious in the early morning sunshine. The sun behind us meant it also a very good time and location for photography. Well worth an excursion.

From the island we returned straight to mainland Montreal. Well, it is actually a bit more complicated. Most of Montreal is located on the Island of Montreal. At around 500 square kilometres it is almost 10 times the size of Manhattan, so I guess we can colloquially call it “the mainland”. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that we went to explore central Montreal.

We started from strolling around Old Montreal. While not as old as Quebec City it was founded in 1642 which still makes it one of the oldest European settlements in North America. For a better overview we visited the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (which is actually a church, not a chapel) where we climbed the tower. From the top one can see fantastic contrasts between the old stone buildings of Vieux-Montréal and the concrete, steel and glass of the modern city. Since we knew we are going to meet a friend here later we decided to venture to other parts of town, away from the river. First we headed north and took Rue Saint-Denis which is the main street of Quartier Latin. It is an area full of restaurants, atmospheric cafes and boutiques, in other words a quite funky and trendy neighbourhood. To be honest most modern big cities have one of those nowadays. Which didn’t make it any less fun, but we actually just strolled through while on our way to a map shop located in the vicinity. Yes, I am a map geek, can’t skip any of those.

After lunch in one of those atmospheric cafes we headed towards Mount Royal. But before we got there we had to cross some residential areas north and east of the hill. It happened to be quite a gem. I actually found those neighbourhoods to be some of the most charming parts of the city. Quiet leafy streets full of beautiful historic houses, for example the area around the Square Saint-Louis. Most of the houses have quite impressive (for their size) mansard roofs and external stairs to the main entrances. I find the mansard roofs probably the most distinctive feature of Quebec province architecture. It really makes cites, town and villages there different from the rest of North America. And Montreal is no exception. After taking many photographs (some would say too many) it was finally time to climb the hill of Mount Royal.

As you might have guessed the city actually takes its name from the hill which at 233m above the sea level clearly dominates over it. And that’s the whole point of getting there, it offers great panoramic views over the downtown and further afield across the river. But first you have to reach the top. It is quite a climb, especially on a hot sunny day (like during our visit). Luckily most of the hill is a heavily forested park so we could hike in shade. At the top there is Mount Royal Chalet, a pavilion built in 1932 in the French Beaux Art style which hosts a shop, cafe and toilets. It has some interesting Canadian touches such as carvings of local fauna and murals depicting history of New France. Most importantly in front of it is a terrace offering unparalleled views of Montreal. It is one of those classic views you might have seen on postcards or in promotional videos. No surprisingly as the panorama of Montreal skyline is absolutely fantastic. We spent quite some time there, just admiring the views and relaxing after the climb.

But then it was time to head back as it was already afternoon. We had such a good time so far we didn’t even realise the time. From Mount Royal we headed straight down towards McGill University campus and then towards the heart of modern Montreal downtown.

There is some interesting architecture in downtown, especially dating from the late 19th and early 20th century when Montreal was the commercial capital of Canada (and before Toronto really took over). For example the 24-storey Sun Life Building (located on Dorchester Square) was the largest building in the British Empire when it was finished in 1931. Next to it stands Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde which was consecrated in 1894. It is a massive church modelled on Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On the way towards the Place d’Armes we passed more impressive commercial buildings, many of them decorated with interesting Canada-themed details.

On the north side Place d’Armes stands the beautiful, Pantheon-like, Bank of Montreal building finished in 1847. The sculptures on the pediment were added in 1867 and represent Native American and pioneer motives. But the square is really dominated by Notre-Dame Basilica, the twin towers of which really stand out on the south side. The interior of the church is among the most dramatic in the world and regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. The vaults are coloured deep blue and decorated with golden stars. Together with the previously mentioned cathedral it shows how important Catholicism once (even until fairly recently) was for Quebec culture and identity.

From the square we entered the narrow streets of Vieux-Montréal. Suddenly the feel became much more “European” than “American”. Streets are paved with cobble stones and buildings are not unlike Saint-Malo in Brittany which, coincidentally, we visited a few months later. We strolled around aimlessly and eventually met a friend for a drink in one of the bars with outdoor seating. On a warm September day it was a really pleasant evening which ended much, much later with dinner in Montreal’s Chinatown.

Following day was the last one of our two-week trip. But our flight was late in the afternoon so we decided to walk a bit more around town. Our friend took us for a stroll along Saint Laurent Boulevard which is also called “The Main”. It traditionally divided Montreal between English (west) and French (east) side and other ethnic groups often settled in between. We walked as far as Little Portugal (our friend’s parents came from there) before returning to downtown to retrieve our car and drive to the airport.

I’m glad I returned to Montreal. After my previous trip, spoiled by an awful weather, I was really not impressed. But now I can safely say that Montreal is one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited. Its location and topography is splendid and its cultural, ethnic and language mix fascinating. French language dominates but English is still fairly widely used, much more than in Quebec City. In fact together with federal Ottawa and parts of New Brunswick it is one of a few truly bilingual places in Canada, a place where waiters causally welcome customers with Bonjour-Hello.

The whole two-week road trip across Quebec and Atlantic Canada was one of my most interesting trips in recent years. The scenery might not be as spectacular as in American or Canadian West and wildlife not as exotic as in Deep South or Florida but the coast is still mostly wild, interior forested and empty, and history absolutely fascinating. Many locations on our route are must see places for anyone trying to understand the North American history and creation of modern day Canada. It was a perfect trip for year 2017, the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation.

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia has quite a lot of small but interesting towns which offer fascinating glimpses into early colonial history of the region. And since I read a lot about the subject it was time to visit some of them.

From Halifax we headed along the coast in a south-westerly direction. Our first stop was the community of Mahone Bay, located around 90 km from the capital. It really is a small place, with a population of only around one thousand, but it has a rich history and plenty of interesting architecture. The town was founded in 1754 and settled by German and Swiss protestants who were attracted by the British authorities which were desperate to strengthen protestant population of the region as a counterbalance to the Catholic, and French speaking, Acadians.

While approaching the town from the north and, driving along the bay, we encountered one of the classic Nova Scotia views: the famous three churches of Mahone Bay (St James’ Anglican; St John’s Evangelical Lutheran; and Trinity United). They stand majestically next to each other and reflect in still waters of the harbour. It has become an iconic image of Nova Scotia, frequently photographed and featured on postcards and in calendars. We also stopped to take photos of the churches before continuing to the village where we had a short stroll admiring many historic wooden houses. There is also an interesting plaque listing families which initially settled here, most of them with clearly German-sounding names. But it was time to move as Mahone Bay was just a teaser for the real gem of the region, the historic town of Lunenburg.

Located just over 10 km from Mahone Bay it is one of the best examples of planned British colonial settlement in Canada (if not in the whole of North America) and as such its Old Town is designated since 1995 as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Like Mahone Bay Lunenburg was settled by protestants from Germany, Switzerland (and some from France) which were brought by the British authorities dissatisfied with earlier English colonists. The town was raided during the American War of Independence and during the war of 1812 it was heavily involved in privateering activities against US shipping. After that things got calmer and fishing became the mainstay of Lunenburg. Nowadays it is tourism which dominates the town and it is full of B&Bs, shops and restaurants.

We left our car in the harbour car park and immediately went for a stroll around the historic core of the town. The streets form an orderly grid pattern which is filled with plenty of old wooden homes, many of them standing for well over 200 years. One of them, the Knaut-Rhuland House, was converted (or rather just preserved) into an interesting small museum depicting life in the early years of Lunenburg.

Another fascinating historic structure is St. John’s Anglican Church, located on a green square in the middle of the old town grid. Its oldest part dates from 1754 when it was built as a simple meeting house. It was subsequently enlarged and redeveloped over the centuries into a structure resembling a giant white wooden wedding cake which we can see nowadays. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that it was badly damaged by fire in 2001. Since then it has been beautifully restored, including its painted ceiling over the altar which resembles a star-lit night sky.

 

 

We walked around the town for quite a few hours as almost every corner opened yet another photogenic vista. I took hundreds of photos. What makes the town of Lunenburg particularly photogenic is the fact that most of the buildings are painted in many bright colours. It makes the town look bright and interesting even on a rather grey day, as during our visit.

Finally we headed back towards the waterfront when we had lunch on a terrace overlooking the harbour. The food was decent, the view was splendid, the only thing missing was a bit of sunshine. However it didn’t matter much, we still had a good relaxing time. I guess over the years of travelling to places that do not always guarantee glorious weather I have learned to appreciate places in any condition. Anyway, it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t windy. Wind is one thing I hate.

After lunch we explored the town’s harbour a bit closer. It is dominated by the imposing and brightly red building of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. We didn’t get inside, we preferred to stroll around the waterfront looking at some historic boats as well at boats entering and exiting the harbour.

Anyway, it was time to get moving as we had one more destination planned for that day.

From Lunenburg we drove 140km across the Nova Scotia land mass to the shores of the Bay of Fundy. The interior of the province is sparsely populated so the drive was fairly quick and uneventful (not to say a bit boring). Our destination was the town of Annapolis Royal which is, to be precise, located on the banks of Annapolis River but only a few miles from its outlet to the bay itself.

It is one of the oldest European settlements in Atlantic Canada. It was initially created as the French settlement of Port Royal but it was renamed by the British in honour of Queen Anne following the siege in 1710. The town was the capital of Acadia and later Nova Scotia for almost 150 years, until the founding of the City of Halifax in 1749. Well that’s only a brief basic history, the town actually changed its location by about 10km, it was settled by the Scots for a while, and it faced a total of thirteen attacks, more than any other place in North America. I guess you get the picture. One interesting fact is that it was also likely to have been the site of the introduction of apples to Canada in 1606.

Nowadays it is a rather small and sleepy community with colourful historic wooden architecture not dissimilar to what we have seen earlier in Mahone Bay or Lunenburg, just with less of it. Anyway, one can only take as much of the same so we went straight to the site of Fort Anne.

The site has been fortified since 1629, when the Scots came to colonize Nova Scotia and built Charles Fort. The region reverted to French control in the 1630s and Charles de Menou d’Aulnay began work on the first of four forts on the same site, then known as Port Royal. In 1702, the French began construction of the current Vauban earthwork that is found there today. During Queen Anne’s War, the fort fell to British and New England troops after a week-long siege in 1710 which marked the British conquest of Acadia.

Today, the fort – Canada’s first administered National Historic Site – consists of a renovated 1797 officers’ quarters (now a museum) and 1708 stone powder magazine, surrounded by a maze of defensive ditches, banks and bastions known as Vauban-style earthworks. We arrived too late for the museum so spent some time simply wandering around the ramparts and admiring the views of the river. In moments like that I try to imagine how it was to live in such remote places in the times of the first settlers. Now we can fly back and forth from Europe in a few hours and one can drive anywhere in the province also in a few hours. Back then it must have been the end of the world, something akin to a space station nowadays.

After a night in Kentville (1 hour away) the following day we stopped at Gran-Pre National Historic Site. It is a place set up to commemorate Acadian settlement which existed here from 1682 to 1755. Acadians were French speaking settlers which in this area which developed a highly productive farming by building dykes and draining the fertile tidal marshes on the shores of Bay of Fundy. They created distinctive culture but sadly were caught in the grand colonial conflict in North America, between the French and the British. They were deemed untrustworthy by the British and were brutally deported between 1755 and 1762. Many were sent all the way back to France (even if some of them have never been there as they were already born in Acadia) or to other parts of the French empire. Some ended up further south, as far as Louisiana, where they started a new culture, the Cajuns. Only a very few ever came back to their homeland, renamed later as Nova Scotia.

Nowadays there is a great interpretive center run by Parks Canada and explaining history of the region as well as techniques used by the Acadians to build the dykes and drain the marshes. There is also a statue of Evangeline (heroine of the Longfellow poem) and the Memorial Church. But the best way to appreciate the sense of history here is to just go for a walk around some of the preserved farmland and rural landscape around. We visited the place on a grey foggy morning which made the place feel even more poignant. As we strolled around we could almost feel the sadness in the air. It really makes you think about history, how it affects real people.

Grand-Pre was our last stop in Nova Scotia. From now we started the long drive back towards Quebec. Our ultimate destination before flying back home was the fascinating metropolis of Montreal.

Halifax

Nova Scotia is a province of mostly small towns. The only sizeable (to some degree) community is the capital, Halifax. And that’s where we decided to stop for a day. We booked ourself into a hotel located in a pleasant neighbourhood, full of old colourful wooden houses, and then headed into the centre of the town.

Just 10 minutes later we reached our first stop, the Halifax Citadel (located on rather unimaginatively named Citadel Hill). It was established by the British in 1749 as a counterbalance to the French stronghold of Louisbourg (which we visited previously). Halifax played a pivotal role in the following decade, in the Anglo-French rivalry in the region. But the current impressive, star-shaped, fortress was actually built much later, during the Victorian Era (it was completed in 1856).

The site is run by Parks Canada and is one of the most visited attractions in Eastern Canada. Luckily on the day of our visit it wasn’t too crowded (travelling outside the main season has many advantages).

We entered the fortress via a drawbridge and a massive gate, manned by staff dressed in historic uniforms. Specifically dressed as soldiers of the 78th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot with their tartan kilts, sporrans, red coats and impressive headgear. They looked splendidly “Scottish”.

Inside there is an interesting exhibition about the history of the fortress and the town of Halifax as well as some military gear displayed, but overall the site is far less interesting than the fascinating Louisbourg. In my opinion the best aspect of the citadel are the amazing views from the ramparts, especially towards the downtown, the harbour and the town of Dartmouth on the other side of the Narrows. Halifax downtown, with its few modest skyscrapers, is located directly below the citadel, with the street grid stretching all the way to the harbour. To the left we could see quite an impressive suspension bridge connecting Halifax and Dartmouth (Angus L. Macdonald Bridge) while to the right we could see the Georges Island (with some fortifications, albeit on much smaller scale than the citadel) and the harbour stretching eastwards towards the open Atlantic. After taking same photos (and listening to a lone piper) it was time to go down (literally) to the town.

As I mentioned, Halifax downtown doesn’t have impressive skyscrapers, one can clearly see that it is town of modest size (the whole metropolitan area has a population of around 400 thousands inhabitants). Still, we wandered around for a bit, admiring some historic architectures. One of the most important buildings in Halifax is St Paul’s Anglican Church which, founded in 1749, is the oldest surviving protestant church in Canada and the oldest building in Halifax. But it is just a rather small church. Architecturally speaking, far more impressive are some of the buildings from the beginning of the 20th century.

One of them is the Art Deco style Dominion Public Building which was the tallest in Halifax when it opened in 1936. Empire State Building it ain’t but in Halifax it makes quite a landmark. Next to it stands the Bank of Nova Scotia Building, also built in the early 1930s, in style which some call the “Canadian Deco”. 

It is an absolutely fascinating structure full of intricate detail depicting flora and fauna native to Nova Scotia but also ships and historical events. This connection to Canada is typical for architect John M. Lyle who designed similar buildings in Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary.

Finally we reached the Halifax harbour. Along the waterfront stretches a boardwalk build of heavy timber which offers great walking opportunities. During our visit it was by far the most lively part of town. Probably the biggest attractions on the waterfront are The Pier 21 Immigration Museum and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. However fascinating they may be, it was getting late and it was Sunday, so we decided skip the museums and to relax by simply strolling along the waterfront rather than trying to squeeze too much into our itinerary. It was a good decision and we had a great time people watching but also observing ships entering and exiting the harbour. There were some massive ocean-going vessels but also small pleasure craft as well as ferries crossing the harbour.

Like Quebec City, Halifax also has its fleet of commuter ferries, connecting it with Dartmouth on the other side of the harbour. One has to be careful with comparisons though as the ferries here are much smaller than the ones in Quebec and they don’t carry vehicles. In fact they look quite a bit like bath toys. But the service started in 1752 which makes it the oldest saltwater ferry in North America and one of the oldest in the world. Unfortunately it was getting late and we didn’t really have any reason to travel to Dartmouth so we didn’t have a chance to experience the crossing.

Instead we found a rather nice restaurant and settled for a meal outside, with a view of the harbour. We could dine while still watching ships, ferries and boats. It was great location but I have to say that food wasn’t particularly amazing, in fact it was average at best. Frustratingly the whole “experience” ended up to be rather more expensive than anticipated initially.

Here I’m going to moan a bit. If I have to pick up one thing which annoys me in North America is the pricing which exclude the taxes, and the whole tipping culture. Sure, one can calculate things in the head, at least roughly, but it really drives me mad. One always ends up spending more than expected. To make things more complicated taxes also differ between provinces in Canada or states in the US. Why they cannot include them in the prices quoted in the menus or on the shop labels? Would that be too easy for the customers? And then I never know how much to tip, I only know it must be more generous than anywhere in Europe. Luckily some local craft beer soothed me eventually so the evening ended well (and the waiter got his tip at the end).

Next day historic communities in rural Nova Scotia were awaiting us so stay tuned.

Cape Breton

We arrived in Cape Breton after more than a 1200km-long drive from Quebec City. Sure, we could fly but part of the fun when visiting North America is the driving. Especially as our route was largely along the famous Trans-Canada Hwy. The road was wide, the weather was good, traffic was light and speed enforcement virtually non-existent. In other words, perfect conditions for a road trip.

We chose the city of Sydney as our first stop. Now, don’t confuse it with Sydney in Australia as one Dutch student did when he was booking his flights (he had to call his dad to book his flight home after landing there in winter with only light clothes packed). It is a much smaller place, just over 30 thousand people call it home, with some historic architecture and a small pleasant downtown on the waterfront. But ultimately it was just just a convenient base to start our exploration of the island of Cape Breton and especially to visit Louisbourg, where we headed the next morning.

The small town of Louisbourg is located about 40km from Sydney and the main reason (actually the only reason) to visit it is the Fortress of Louisbourg. This was in its heyday (between 1720 and 1758) one of the most extensive (and expensive) European fortifications in North America. It was built by the French to protect their colonial interests, especially the cod fishing grounds, and it was actually a whole fortified town. It didn’t last very long as it was destroyed after being captured by the British in 1758. The Brits didn’t need the fortress as they already had Halifax.

That was its short early history, now let’s move to the 20th century. The fortress and the town were partly reconstructed in the 1960s and 1970s (using some of the original stonework), which provided jobs for unemployed coal miners from the area. Apparently the site stands as the largest reconstruction project in North America, even if only quarter of the original town was rebuilt. The rest was left as ruins so one can still see the actual historical remains.

We are both history, architecture and archaeology geeks so we spent the whole day exploring the site. All the buildings look very realistic as during the reconstruction the original techniques and materials were used as much as possible and the whole project was based on careful research of plans, maps, sketches as well as physical remains. For example the glass for window panes in the King’s Bastion was sourced from a company in France which still use the historic glass making techniques. According to one of the guides it happened to be the same factory that produced the glass for the original building. How cool is that?

The site is manned by costumed interpreters which bring the place to life. They answer everybody’s questions, they man the gates, they shoot muskets and even occasionally fire a cannon (or train paying guests to do so). It is all quite fun but the most fascinating thing about the place is the sense of its unique history. One of the weirdest aspects of the whole thing is the fact that the reconstruction from the1960s now stands longer than original fortress ever did. Does it make the current reconstructed buildings more “historic”?

Anyway, the day was coming to an end, the fortress was closing, so it was time to move on. From Louisbourg we drove north towards the Cape Breton National Park, past Sydney, before stopping for a night in a small family-run motel in some tiny community. It was one of those classic small motels where you park the car right in front of your room and where the owner lives on site. We sat on the deck chairs outside our room, watched the sun setting behind a mountain, just across a small bay, and sipped local craft beer which we bought in the liqueur store in Sydney. By the way, alcohol is not easy to buy in Nova Scotia so always buy supplies when you have a chance. It was a fantastic setting for a budget motel. I will take places like that over any fancy or hip hotel in the likes of NYC or LA.

The next day we finally entered Cape Breton National Park and started following the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic road which encircles most of the national park. We started on the east side of the park and travelled in a counter-clockwise direction. In the morning the weather was glorious so we kept stopping in numerous picturesque coves and in some small settlements. This part of the coast, with its pink granite, reminded me of parts of the coast of Brittany. I can imagine the original French settlers to the region could have had the same impression. I can see why they settled in this part of the world. Moving at rather leisurely pace by the afternoon we finally reached the west coast of Cape Breton. Unfortunately at that stage the weather was turning worse. Which is a pity as the west coast of Cape Breton happens to be more spectacular than its eastern counterpart.

Here Cabot Trail hugs the coast, in places climbing dramatically around promontories where it offers some amazing views. This part of the road reminds me of the famous Pacific Coast Hwy in California. The only difference is that the spectacular stretch is much shorter here in Nova Scotia. When we stopped at the first viewing point it was still sunny and we could admire a fantastic panorama. But in a few minutes clouds and fog closed in and the views were pretty much gone. In some stretches, where the road climbed higher, I could barely see in front of the car as the low clouds limited visibility to a few metres.

Annoyingly it was then when we approached the most spectacular part of the coast and the starting point of the Skyline Trail. It was so foggy and drizzly around the parking area that we decided to skip it and continue our drive along the Cabot Trail. However after a few minutes we reached a lower elevation and noticed that there were some clear spells in the clouds and banks of fog covering the trail. We immediately returned to the trailhead. It didn’t look much more promising than before but we decided to head for a walk regardless, hoping for some good luck with the weather. The trail length is just over 3km (6,5 km return) and it ends at a dramatic headland which is supposed to offer some breathtaking views. Unfortunately as we kept walking things looked pretty bleak. I mean we really couldn’t see much. Fortunately towards the end the trail goes down to the cliffs and at this lower elevation we could see at least some nearby rugged coast, even if only for brief moments between rolling banks of fog (or low cloud, depending on your perspective). Maybe it wasn’t the picture-postcard perfect moment but at least we saw something. Were we disappointed? Well, I guess to some degree we were, but on the other hand it was actually interesting to see the place as it often looks. The weather in Nova Scotia is generally a bit less glorious (or some would say more dramatic) than the travel posters would want you to believe.

From the Skyline Trail we continued our drive south along the west coast of Cape Breton. Once the road reached closer to the sea level the visibility improved and we could see more of the picturesque coast which in places really looked just like the world famous Big Sur in California. It was however still rather grey and gloomy which made everything look wild and mysterious. It was actually really fun to drive it in such conditions.

After leaving the national park we continued past numerous small communities dotted along the coast, places with names like Inverness or Dungevan. Just in case anyone has doubts about the origin of the people who settled here most places along the road welcome travellers with bilingual signs, in Scots Gaelic as well as in English. There is even a single malt distillery along the way. You would think that you can’t make things any more Scottish without heading to Scotland itself. Well yes, but only partially. The heavily forested landscape as well as the architecture really resemble New England rather than Scotland. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact that Cape Breton is a really interesting part of the world, offering spectacular landscapes and fascinating history.

We ended our tour of the island by stopping in yet another small, family-run motel, which was located right next to a local restaurant. How convenient. Anyway, the next day we will be heading back to the “mainland” Nova Scotia, but more about it soon.