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Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan takes us to North America’s Oldest European Settlement

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By Gerry Feehan

This is the second in the Newfoundland series. Scroll down to find Part 1, Gros Morne. 

On a lonely highway in a tempest on Newfoundland’s remote Northern Peninsula, we finally spotted our first moose. Luckily, before moose met grill, the big bull stepped off the road into the ditch and I was able to keep the rig down the centerline, avoiding the frigid Gulf of St. Lawrence to our left and a frightfully deep fen to our right.

We had set out that morning from Gros Morne National Park, 350 km south ‘up’ the coast. The night before had been clear and 7 degrees. By early morning it was rain and 17. This was the muggy aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which long after devastating Key West, was now bringing high winds and warm rain to remote—and distinctly non-tropical—Newfoundland.

L’Anse aux Meadows is located on the remote west coast of Newfoundland.

We were bound for L’Anse aux Meadows, on the extreme tip of northwest Newfoundland where lie the remains of North America’s oldest European settlement. It was October so, although we arrived before 5 p.m., twilight was nigh as we settled in at the Viking RV Park. We were the only campers. The office was closed. In the morning I deposited cash in the “off-season/$25 per night” bucket by the abandoned office and drove the remaining few km to the National Historic Site.

One of the advantages to a late fall motorhome trip is that, with darkness extant by suppertime, it’s early to bed—and early to rise. (The healthy wealthy and wise part I won’t comment on.) So, uncharacteristically, we arrived at L’Anse aux Meadows first thing in the morning, just as the park gates were being unlocked.

“…Both are horrible!” said the Leif look-alike…”

Leif Ericsson, a Norse explorer, together with his small group of intrepid fellow Viking seafarers, landed here around 1000 AD. They strategically chose this spot near the Straight of Belle Isle, within sight of Labrador. They called the place Vinland, the land where wild grapes grow. Setting up a sturdy encampment of turf-walled buildings, they explored for hardwood lumber, iron ore and arable land.

From the visitor center we followed a Parks Canada interpreter down the winding boardwalk toward the sea. He showed us the faint remains of the original sod buildings: the Leader’s Hall, labourer’s quarters, a women’s workshop and the smelting hut where a charcoal kiln produced iron from bog ore. But the terrain was unwelcoming—as perhaps was the indigenous native population—and after only a decade or two, the Vikings abandoned the site, burning everything as they departed.

“….I die at you, she said laughing….”

The interpreter’s talk ended at the ruins and, with somber thoughts, we continued down the trail to where the National Park service has artfully reconstructed a series of replica sod huts by the cold sea. The Norse may have been fierce warriors but they couldn’t have been very tall—I had to stoop as we entered the longhouse. The room was dimly lit by a smoky peat fire. When our eyes adjusted to the low yellow light, we noticed a man and a woman clad in Viking attire seated by the comfortable fire. The man, a Leif Ericsson doppelganger, whittled a talisman while the young woman wove fabric on a traditional loom. They explained in detail how the first Viking explorers had lived, eaten, slept and toiled here 1000 years ago, eking out a meagre existence on this inhospitable shore by the frigid north Atlantic.

The replica sod huts are very realistic and come complete with period-costume Parks Canada personnel.

Newfoundlanders are the friendliest, most outgoing of people, so when I asked the young woman if she lived nearby, her Parks Canada persona evaporated like ‘tick fog’ and the talk immediately turned to the upcoming weekend, her two hard-earned days off and fall berry-picking. “I was born just over that side of the ‘arbour. My father ran trawler ‘til the fish ran out.” (In Newfoundland ‘fish’ means cod. Everything else, haddock, flounder, plaice, etc. is known by its usual name.) She winked and said, “Growing up, it was always cold in the house. In winter me mom would open the fridge to warm the place.”

I then inquired about the merits of partridgeberry vs. bakeapple jam. We had been looking for souvenir gifts and both berry varieties were available at the Dark Tickle Chocolate store just down the road. “Both are horrible!” said the Leif look-alike, unable to resist joining in. Our new lady-friend disagreed and told him so in no uncertain terms. “Oh me nerves, he’s got me drove.” Apparently, partridgeberry-picking was number one on her weekend agenda.

In an effort to segue the subject I asked whether the town of Quirpon or Great Brehat—each just down the coast—were worth a visit. She and Leif chuckled at my accent. “I die at you,” she said laughing. Nothing will more quickly label you a tourist in Newfoundland as the mispronunciation of local place names. Quirpon is ‘Car-poon.’ Great Brehat is pronounced ‘Great Bra’. Happily, I didn’t inquire about the town of Ferryland.

“Where are youse from?” our Viking-ess asked. “Alberta,” we replied. “Alberta,” she continued. “I’ve got a brother in Ft. McMurray.” (I can report that we didn’t meet a single Newfoundlander who did not have at least one family member working out west. But, no matter where a Newfie might live, a trip ‘home’ is always in the works. Famously, it is a 63-hour drive from Ft McMurray to the Rock.)

I tried to get her back on Viking track—but to no avail. All pretense of the 11th century Norsewoman was abandoned. She continued, talking about her husband, the small family garden, the incessant rain. “And there was himself last night,” she continued. “Luh, standing in a downpour, coat wide open, staring at lord knows what, sopped to the skin and stunned as me arse.” Then she politely adjusted her bonnet and resumed weaving.

CBC radio had gravely informed us that morning that the Doomsday Clock had been moved to two minutes before midnight. The world was closer to self-destruction than it had been at any time since the Cold War. I asked her if she was worried.

“Why, not a bit. After all, with the half-hour time change here on the Rock, us Newfies got ‘til 12:30.”

I love Newfoundland.

 

Arches Provincial Park glows at sunset.

Gerry Feehan, QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Special thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for supporting this series.

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

 

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Gerry Feehan

Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan

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What could be finer than swimming in a warm ocean, peacefully drifting over a colourful coral reef, snorkeling amidst a myriad of tropical fish? In my estimation, not much. And one of earth’s finest snorkel sites is the Island of Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Or at least it was until Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. The most intense tropical cyclone ever to strike the Atlantic, Wilma pummeled the Yucatan, flattening buildings and killing scores of people. But the death and destruction was not limited to land. The churning storm surge also destroyed life under water.

Cozumel is situated along the world’s second largest barrier reef. The Great Mayan Reef stretches from Mexico’s Yucatan 1000km south to Belize in Central America.

When Wilma finally passed, resorts that formerly advertised “walk-in” snorkeling were suddenly left with ocean desert—broken chunks of dead coral lying in a watery grave. Until then Cozumel had been high on our bucket list. Wilma moved it down a few notches.

There was a time when a Mexican all-inclusive was our go-to vacation; a cheap week on the Mayan Riviera where food was plentiful (if not particularly appetizing) entertainment was non-stop—and best of all, the Corona flowed freely. But those days passed and we gradually moved on to more exotic—and expensive—vacations. So my expectations were not high when we decided to go retro and check out the Fiesta Americana all-inclusive on Isla de Cozumel’s leeward coast. Would the snorkeling be good? Would the resort be serving up Montezuma’s Revenge for lunch?

It didn’t take long for all-inclusive nostalgia to kick in.  The first day at the pool we watched a couple of hefty strangers drink themselves into a stupor and pass out before noon in the searing tropical sun. While I am as big a fan of the swim-up bar as the next guy, we were here primarily for the ocean experience.

The swim-up bar.

Cozumel’s currents are notoriously powerful, so that afternoon we walked up the beach half a kilometer, donned our gear and enjoyed a frighteningly quick drift back to the resort. Happily, a decade-and-a-half after Wilma, the reef is showing signs of recovery—tiny colourful fish darted in and out of small but healthy new coral formations.

Walk-in snorkeling at the resort.

The following morning I booked a drift dive with a local scuba operator. We motored out to Palancar Reef in Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, jumped overboard, descended 20 meters and floated through the famed Coral Gardens. It was magical. This deeper reef was unaffected, with pristine red, green, purple and orange coral heads glowing brightly in crystal-clear water. And the sea creatures—sea stars, lobsters, small crustaceans and a multitude of reef fish—were everywhere.

The next day we rented a jeep convertible for the obligatory circumnavigation of the island. We peeked in at some of the fancy resorts on the protected west shore before driving up Cozumel’s rugged windward side where rough seas wave in from the open Caribbean, pounding the unpopulated eastern coastline. En route we stopped for a swim at Punta Sur on Cozumel’s southern tip. Warm calm waters greeted us. We snorkeled over a shallow sandy bottom, admiring large coral heads and schools of damselfish and wrasses. A puffer fish inflated itself defensively, comically. Then we drifted into a garden of sea fans. Acres of purple, pink and mauve giants swayed softly just below the surface. Miraculously, this tip of Cozumel had avoided Wilma’s random fury.

Sea fan.

Giant Brain Coral.

Sea star.

 

The ocean is not Cozumel’s only attraction. When a new ring road was built around the island, local leaders had the wisdom to leave the old highway in place, close it to motorized traffic and convert the road to pedestrian and bicycle use. Now cyclists from around the globe come every November to participate in the annual Cozumel Gran Fondo, nicknamed “the world’s most beautiful bike ride.”

Not all the animal life is underwater.

The Fiesta Americana had a few rusty bicycles available for patron use and, although these old contraptions had been exposed to the briny sea air for years, still it was fun to pedal around the island. We engaged in our own Petit Fondo, from the Fiesta down the coast to Playa Palancar. Our clocking for the twenty-one kilometer return trip was a respectable 60 minutes—excluding the three and a half hours we spent at the Palancar Beach Bar.

Cozumel is a long way away.

 

The staff at Fiesta Americana was embarrassingly polite and helpful. Early on we became attached to young Moises who manned the coffee and pastry bar in the open-air lobby. By the third morning I had no need to order. While we made poquito talk en Español, he’d whip me up a double café con leche. Moises, eighteen, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week at the resort—for about $20 a day. He didn’t live on the island—too expensive. Every day he endured a ferry commute from the mainland. And yet I’m not sure when I last met a happier, more positive person.

Moises.

One morning I was feeling self-pity over some trivial e-mail I had received. As Moises handed me my coffee, he asked if everything was okay. I felt like going back to our lovely ocean-view suite and giving myself a very hard look in the mirror—but instead I just ordered an extra helping of bacon with my scrambled eggs. The food at the Fiesta was really good—more than palatable.

So our nostalgic all-inclusive experience was a success—and a heck of a lot simpler and cheaper than organizing one’s own tropical tour. And the entertainment? Awesome—particularly when the two chubby drunken fellows reappeared bashfully on day two, pale as ivory on one side, red as a Caribbean lobster on the other.

Our visit to Cozumel was pre-Covid—but Mexico is open for business again!

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

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Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

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The Cabot Trail makes for a beautifully colourful autumn drive.

The Canso Causeway connects mainland Nova Scotia to the island of Cape Breton. As we drove across the span on a crisp autumn day, the ebb tide was pulling westward, hard through the Canso Strait. We stopped at the Port Hastings visitor’s centre where a pleasant woman bid us welcome and told us we were in luck, “You’re just in time for the Celtic Colours.” Being an observant fellow, I had already noted the changing season—the brilliant oranges and reds of the Maritimes’ fall foliage. And I smartly told her so. “Oh, no,” she laughed, “Celtic Colours isn’t about the leaves. It’s our annual autumn festival.” For nine days every October the entire island hops with a chorus of Cape Breton traditions: ceilidhs, live music, spoken word and dance performances, all celebrating the island’s rich history and culture.

But before we did any festival going, it was exploration time. Cape Breton is a marvel of twisting vistas, glorious hikes, great food—and friendly people. En route to the world-renowned Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park we took a circuitous path, skirting Bras D’Or Lake (not really a lake, more a brackish inland sea). Along the lakeshore near Big Pond we stopped and paid homage to Rita McNeil at the late singer’s eponymous Tea Room. When we finally arrived at Ingonish Beach Campground on the National Park’s southeast border, it was late in the day. We ate dinner and hit the hay. There was a big hike planned for the morning: Franey Trail, a long steep climb to a panoramic viewpoint from which one looks down on the Clyburn River canyon spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Admiring the view at the summit, we chatted quietly with a young local couple who were proud to tell us the history of the region, their Scottish heritage and the hard lives their ancestors had endured on land—and at sea, which they wistfully stared out as they shared the memory.

That evening we dined luxuriously at the historic Keltic Lodge and later, over a digestif in the leathery lounge, struck up conversation with a European tourist. “Don’t you think Cape Bretoners are the friendliest people on earth?” I asked. We had been overwhelmed by Maritime hospitality. Looking puzzled, he answered dryly, in a thick accent, “I have had only a few weeks here, so I am not yet able to arrive at this conclusion.” Tough sell, those Germans.

When we awoke the air was cool, crisp and clear—a perfect day for an autumn sojourn on the Cabot Trail, which loops for 298km around the northern tip of Cape Breton. We cruised counterclockwise from Ingonish. Our first stop was White Point where the harsh Atlantic  batter stony cliffs along the island’s unprotected north shore. Then we began a twisting ascent through the lush Acadian forest to Cape Breton’s central highlands. The display of foliage was magical. Maple, beech and birch all boasted their brightest fall colours in hues of red, orange and yellow. And, as if frozen in the windless air, the trees had yet to drop a single leaf. It was a palette of autumn perfection.

I pulled the motorhome into a serene overlook. Florence and I sat in silence, gazing through the windshield at the crimson and gold majesty. Suddenly, and before I could exit the vehicle to snap a picture, three vanloads of tourists pulled in, sprung from their seats and began frantically taking photos. Abandoning the hope of any verdant solitude, I instead jumped into the cacophonous human fray and started taking shots of tourists taking pictures.

We set up camp that evening at quiet MacIntosh Brook near Lone Shieling, where 350 year-old sugar maple trees stand sentinel over a long-abandoned Scottish crofter’s hut. Despite the quiet, I didn’t sleep well that night, for there was a menacing giant lurking in my future: Cabot Cliffs Golf Links.

You may have read my charming story about golf in Ireland – and how the Irish courses were the most beautifully humiliating courses I had ever encountered. Well, Cape Breton Island has retained its Celtic tradition not only in music and dance but also in its fondness for brutal but alluring links golf. Cabot Cliffs is equal to the best of its turf cousins across the sea. I was fortunate to secure a tee time—and a private caddy—to enjoy this spectacular course.

Another ball prepares to meet the briny Atlantic.

After the (humbling) golf interlude, we re-dedicated ourselves to exploration by foot with a last hike, on the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton’s west coast. Although crowded, the traipse was enjoyable and the ocean views breathtaking. On a clear day (which we experienced) one can see the white cliffs of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands shining distantly in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

With tired feet—and badly in need of food and drink—we arrived late at Cheticamp Campground. I noticed a sign announcing that the Harbour Restaurant in this quaint Acadian village offered a free shuttle for patrons. I phoned, booked a reservation and requested a ride. 15 minutes later a car pulled up to our campsite and a pleasant lady with a French-Canadian accent said, “Hop in.” It was Lorraine LeBlanc, the restaurant owner. And after a great chow down on Morue en Cabane (slow-cooked cod, chives and pork scraps) and Lorraine’s famous Apple Garden cake, she returned us to our campsite. Now that’s Cape Breton hospitality! Despite my inherent thriftiness, I left a reasonable tip.

Our time in the Highlands was coming to an end and still there was the Celtic Colours to enjoy. The festival venues are island-wide but many artists bunk each night at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s near Baddeck (Alexander Graham Bell’s summer stomping grounds). Widely scattered venues result in a long, dark drive on narrow roads back to St Ann’s after a day of performing. But for the tireless musicians the party carries on—with impromptu jam sessions lasting well into the wee hours.We arrived in St Ann’s on the last night of the Festival. We boon-docked in the Gaelic College parking lot. The Celtic Colours finale was scheduled to begin very late, past 12:00am—and well past our bedtime—so, after a parking lot BBQ, we lay down for a disco nap, awaking after midnight to the sound of instruments being tuned. It was a raucous evening, hosted by the effervescent humour of singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald. It was past 4 am when the last fiddle was packed unwillingly into its case. We trundled off to bed…  and enjoyed a well-deserved Celtic sleep in.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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