Archive for October, 2008

Visiting Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

October 24th, 2008 at 2:11 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I have been promising some more travelogues from prior trips. Below is one from my and Krystyana’s trip to Costa Rica last month.

For our second weekend in Costa Rica, on September 13th, Krystyana and I decided to take a two-night, three-day trip to the Tortuguero area of the country. Our tour provider was, once again, Costa Rica Expeditions.

Tortuguero is the location of a national park, and is situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the north easterly part of the country. The park is a protected area for all sorts of animals, fish, plants, and especially for sea turtles. Thousands of turtles use the beaches of the Tortuguero area for nesting every year. And inland are magnificent jungles.

Bright and early, at 6:30pm, a Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van was waiting to pick us up at our hotel. The folks who picked this up were kind enough to offer actually take all of our baggage and store it in a secure facility for the three days that we were going to be away but I had prepaid the hotel, so we just left every thing in our rooms.

Travel to Tortuguero via the tour typically involved ground and boat transport in one direction, and a charter plane flight in the other.

Our plane to Tortuguero - a Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan - smooth ride, but tight quarters for a big guy like Jake

One of the interesting things that we discovered when we originally booked this trip was that there was a 25 pound per person limit on baggage for the flight segment, and that the flight typically occurred on the return from Tortuguero, but Douglas, our great agent at Costa Rica Expeditions was able to rearrange the flight schedule for us in a way that guaranteed we could have more luggage with us by flying on the outbound on an empty plane. That was very helpful as my camera bag alone was about 25 pounds, and of course we had our clothing and shoes as well.

Tortuguero's canals and rivers and jungles start getting closer as we prepare to land

We were brought to a small private airport on the north side of the San Jose near the high-rent district where the president of Costa Rica lives. From there we boarded the small eight-seat plane for Tortuguero. The flight was about 35 minutes and took us to the small hamlet of Barro del Colorado on the northeast coast of Costa Rica, above the Tortuguero National Park.

The sign welcoming us to the airfield at Barra del Colorado - no problems with livestock on the runway, this time

Upon arriving in Barro del Colorado we were met by one of the people from Tortuga Lodge – our home for the next three days. His name was Riccardo, and as it would turn out, we would be spending a lot of our time with him. In a ride which took almost an hour, Riccardo took us by riverboat to Tortuga Lodge, which is just outside of Tortuguero Town. Tortuga Lodge is owned by Costa Rica Expeditions, incidentally.

As aside, it is interesting to note that there actually are no real roads and therefore no cars or other large four-wheeled vehicles in the Tortuguero Town area. Instead, all traffic – including all shipping of goods and transportation of people – is handled by very long and narrow river barges on the Tortuguero River and the surrounding canals and inlets.

We had a full reception committee waiting for us at Tortuga Lodge - made us feel very special

As we arrived at Tortuga Lodge we found a number of the members of the staff waiting for us on their pier, including the manager of the property, Duane. We felt quite honored by the turnout. They gave us welcome drinks, took our bags from us, and guided us to breakfast, as it was only about 9am. Breakfast was wonderful. We sat next to the swimming pool, overlooking the water of the nearby river, and had great granola and fresh fruit.

By the way, I should mention that pineapples are the number one export of Costa Rica, and everywhere we ate, fresh pineapple was readily available, and it was incredibly delicious – a nice golden color, juicy, and sweet.

We were also offered our choice of eggs and breakfast meats and as much extra food as we wanted. It turned out that all the meals at Tortuga Lodge were a fixed set of courses, different for every meal and from day to day. And all were excellently prepared. The service was very good too. The only things not included in our package were beverages other than water and juice, and those were inexpensive.

After breakfast we were taken to our room, which was at the very end of the property, on the north side near some tall trees. In those trees were some howler monkeys. We were warned not to go close to them because they were rather spiteful and were known to throw feces at people that came too close to their trees.

Fisheye view of our spacious two-bed room at Tortuga Lodge - no air conditioning, but fans and screen windows took care of that

Our room had two large beds in it, a nice bathroom, but the only air conditioning we had was in the form of heavy-duty screens on the all windows so there be a constant airflow through the room. There were also a couple of ceiling fans – one above each bed. We were concerned about the lack of cooling equipment, as it was quite hot and muggy (the humidity in Tortuguero is quite high during much of the year, we’ve been told), but it turned out to be a non-issue, because we actually managed to sleep quite well due both to exhaustion as well as cooler temperatures at night.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed out and explored the lands and vegetation of the Tortuga Lodge with a couple of our cameras. We came across iguanas, spiders – there were lot of spiders… big spiders… colorful spiders… lots of spiders – and all beautiful in a macabre sort of way. They are kind of frightening but very cool looking all at the same time.

Another shot of the big grasshopper

We also encountered our first basilisk lizards, which are a rather prehistoric looking type of lizard which runs on its rear legs. I think Ray Harryhausen used them in the movie The Lost World back in the 1920s. When they are young and smaller (and thus weigh less), basilisk lizards can actually run across water.

Another basilisk lizard at Tortuga Lodge

We also found some very large grasshoppers, a couple of strawberry poison-dart frogs and we were also shown a “ting” frog. It is a little brown frog, and its name “ting” is derived from the noise it makes at night, which is kind of sounds like someone clinking nice wine glasses together.

Our first local creature was a Ting Frog, so called because of the sound they make at night

We also took the exploration as an opportunity to go to the reception area and sign up for an afternoon guided walk through the protected Tortuguero National Park.

And strawberry poison dart frogs were not uncommon as long as you didn't mind going into the shrubs to find them

Lunch featured marinated grilled veal pierced with skewers of sugarcane and finished with a chocolate torte drizzled with a natural fruit syrup.

Veal skewered with sugar cane - it was delicious - great food at Tortuga Lodge

In preparation for our walk in the jungle of the Tortuguero National Park, we were advised to wear rubber boots because of the mud we would like find in the rainforest. There was quite an assortment of boots behind the reception building, and I even found a pair that almost fit my rather large feet.

We were then taken by Riccardo, our boat driver from earlier that day, to the national park and spent about an hour and hour and a half with him, wandering along a lush jungle trail through the park to look at the variety of plant and animal life that existed there.

A bird related to the cormorant, drying its wings in Tortuguero

Among the things that we saw along the trail were several species of monkeys – spider monkeys, what they call white faced monkeys or capuchins, and also howler monkeys.

A clearer shot of a different species of toucan in Tortuguero

We also saw a variety of birds, but the most special find was a toucan, as we were not aware that toucans existed in this part of Costa Rica. We thought they were only on the Pacific side of the country. We also found numerous leaf cutter ants and yet more spiders and even some beetles too.

A small eye-lash viper our guide Riccardo found for us - quite poisonous, but very pretty

But by far the coolest find was the eyelash viper, a rather poisonous but very small snake. The eyelash viper we found was bright yellow and all curled up and tucked in under a fallen piece of old timber. It was the size of a small tea plate, but we were told stretched out it would be about two feet long. If the snake had not been bright yellow we would never noticed that it was there, and even then we only found it because Riccardo spent quite some time trying to find a snake for us.

Back at the Tortuga Lodge we had ourselves a wonderful dinner and set forth with another guide, Fernando, to see turtles nesting on the protected beach in Tortuguero National Park. We encountered a light drizzle, and ending up wearing ponchos that the staff at Tortuga Lodge had thoughtfully provided us with.

There are actually two viewing times each night that have been set up by the park rangers – 8pm and 10pm – and each resort is put in a lottery every night to see during which of two those slots their guests can go to observe the turtle nesting. In our case we were lucky enough to get the 8pm slot.

I should note that one disappointment that we faced before going on the turtle nesting trip was learning that we could not take cameras with us – even those that basically only shot in infrared, such as Krystyana’s Sony Cybershot, as there were concerns that any sort of unnatural lights could upset the nesting turtles and prevent them from making a nesting attempt.

Fernando took us by boat to Tortuguero Town, and from there we walked about a mile to our appointed meeting spot a few hundred meters inland from the beach. We did not wait on the beach itself because the rangers did not want us frightening the turtles away while they were trying to nest just by our mere presence.

We waited at the meeting spot for about half hour with a growing group of other people from other hotels and tours. Ultimately we had about 40 people in our section. We finally got a call from rangers indicating that they found nesting turtles at a particular place on the beach. Fernando led us there and in the light of the full moon we could actually see a couple of turtles coming up on the shore from the ocean, the moonlight reflecting off their damp shells.

We had to be careful to stay a fair distance away in order to avoid spooking the turtles, but as we found out during the course of the two hours that we were on the beach, a couple of turtles did indeed abort their nesting attempts because they came out of the water in spots near our group and were too unnerved to crawl much further onto the beach. They turned back into the ocean to try to make their nesting attempt later.

The way the rangers and our guides managed to avoid spooking the turtles too much while observing them was by using flashlights that had red filters on the lenses because turtles, as with many marine organisms, don’t actually see light in the red color spectrum. I use the same type of red light when night diving in order to not frighten fish and other creatures and thus be able to observe them in a more natural state.

The turtle nesting beach on which groups are guided and shepherded at night in the Tortuguero National Park are about five kilometers long. During the peak season, which occurs during July and August, there were as many as 700 people a night participating in watching the turtles nest.

The turtle species spotted nesting are primarily green turtles, although occasionally leatherback and loggerhead turtles are seen too.

Throughout our two hours together, Fernando explained a variety of aspects of turtle behavior, including how turtles mate and nest, how the temperature of an egg in the nest will determine the sex of the newborn turtle, the low survival rates of baby turtles, and much more. He also told us that on some busy nights during the peak of the nesting season there have been as many as 2000 nesting attempts recorded during a single night on the 30 kilometers of beach in and surrounding Tortuguero. That is just phenomenal. Back on Bonaire it’s noteworthy if we get even a few recorded nesting attempts a night, but 2000 in one night? Wow. Then again Bonaire does not have the same sorts of beach length or composition that Tortuguero has.

Another interesting thing Fernando explained is that each turtle makes numerous attempts over the course of couple of months period to nest and to lay eggs – typically laying a handful of nests over a two month period. The female turtles crawl all the way into the bushes at the top of the beach to dig their nest, as that is likely to be the most protected area for the two months it takes for the eggs to mature and hatch. However, with some many turtles nesting multiple times, a turtle may in fact dig into another turtle’s preexisting nest and destroy some of the turtle eggs that are in there. And, in fact, we witnessed just that situation occur the night that we were on the beach. The turtle we watched laying eggs had actually exposed another turtle’s nest and ejected a number of those older eggs onto the beach with her forceful digging attempts, using her flippers.

We actually found egg fragments, and even a couple of whole eggs, sitting on top of the sand near the new nest. We had an opportunity to actually hold one of the ejected eggs and found it to be quite heavy. It probably weighed about two thirds of a pound, which surprised us – it looked like a ping pong ball, and we therefore expected it to weigh less. We gently placed the egg back on the beach but Fernando told us that there was no chance that the egg would survive without being in a nest, protected from the sun and predators, and that just by having been flung out of the nest would have killed the baby turtle forming inside. That was rather sad and unfortunate, but that is also a normal product of nature.

Krystyana and I spent many minutes actually watching a large green turtle lay her eggs and then cover her nest. It should be noted that once turtles actually start laying eggs, they go into a trance of sort and kind of ignore the outside world, which is why it was safe for us to observe the egg laying and not disrupt the process merely by being nearby. All in all it was a pretty fascinating experience.

Ultimately we saw about 10 turtles come ashore and most of those continue to actually make making their nesting attempts in or near the bushes. Turtle nesting is a time consuming process because it takes the turtles in order about 15-20 minutes to make it 150-200 feet from the water’s edge into the bushes at the top of the beach and then probably another half hour to dig the nest where she is going to lay her eggs.

It’s a lot of work and we felt kind of sorry for these turtles, watching them struggle along on land, a place where they really were never designed to exist for very long. Their bodies are designed to be sleek and elegant in the water, but natural history dictates that nesting must occur above the water line, as that’s where the eggs have to hatch, in the sand. The cycle starts afresh with the next generation when the baby turtles have to crawl out of their nest, across a huge stretch of sand (relative to their tiny size) and finally end up in the ocean to continue a mostly aquatic life, until it’s time for mature female turtles to nest, on the same beach on which they were born.

One other lesson we learned that night was “bring bug spray”. There were a fair number of mosquitoes and biting insects on the beach, and without bug repellant we would have been very itchy and covered in bites. In fact, bug repellant is kind of a must when venturing anywhere near large growth in the Tortuguero area, since mosquitoes are very common. We did find, however, that while traveling on the bigger rivers, as well as while near the buildings and at meals at Tortuga Lodge, we did not have any mosquito problems.

We slept well that night and the following morning, after another very nice breakfast, we headed out again with Riccardo. This time it was to go and do a canal tour by boat in the Tortuguero National Park. This involved us being on a boat that could hold probably about 10 people. However, because we were there during low season, the tour consisted of just two of us, Krystyana and myself, along with Riccardo as our guide. That was perfect as it allowed us to stop for prolonged periods in places with good photo opportunities.

A crocodile lurks, waiting for prey, in the waters near Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero

We spent probably around three hours in the canals looking at and looking for all sorts of interesting creatures. We saw several species of herons, a number of other bird species, some bats, a couple of green basilisk lizards, and several caiman (which are a species of crocodile. We also saw a crocodile too. We also observed all three local species of monkeys in the jungles along the canals – spider monkeys, white faced capuchins and howler monkeys. And, of course, there was the lush green jungle itself, which was simply beautiful.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal-6

Another set of unusual creatures that we saw on our canal tour were other tourists who were taking similar canal tours with various other tour companies. Amusingly one of the people on the other boats was Laura, a fellow student from the ELISA Language School back in San Jose who had told us that she was going to be out in Tortuguero the same weekend we were.

We headed back to Tortuga Lodge and had another wonderful lunch, took a little bit of rest and then headed off in the afternoon with Riccardo again, this time to go kayaking in the canals. Krystyana and I each had our own kayak, and Riccardo had his and guided us through the canals – a different set of canals from those we had explored earlier that day by boat.

A heron species we don't know found along the canals of Tortuguero-2

We saw even more different kinds of birds during our kayaking, and being by ourselves with no other people around, I decided to try and “speak” howler monkey, ultimately establishing a sort of bellowing rapport with a couple of male howler monkeys. They sound a bit like sea lions. My conversation caused Krystyana much consternation because she was afraid that they might actually come down and try to attack us. I was more concerned about having things whipped at us, so I tried to ensure we were outside feces hurling range.

Another cool thing we saw were juvenile basilisk lizards actually running across the water on their rear legs – another thing we had not expected to see during our time in Tortuguero.

A spider monkey eats while suspended upside down in Tortuguero

One of the nice things about kayaking is that is very serene and peaceful (other than the howler monkey conversation, of course), in part becaue we did not have to deal with the sound of a boat’s motor. We were out for over two hours and then returned back to Tortuga Lodge to enjoy their wonderful warm swimming pool. We stayed in the pool until after sunset and then had another great dinner.

After dinner we opted for a tour of our own – exploring the Tortuga Lodge grounds at night, in the dark, using our flashlights for navigation, with the intent of taking pictures of whatever interesting things we could find with our cameras and strobes.

As we shined our flashlights around on the grass and trees we noticed these little tiny spots of white light reflecting back at us. When we went closer to these reflecting spots, we found they were the eyes of spiders. Fortunately there were not huge spiders, but we just had never realized that spider eyes reflect light, might in the same way that the eyes of shrimp and other crustaceans reflect light underwater at night.

This whole glowing spider eye thing freaked Krystyana out a bit, so we ended up staying out of the more densely vegetated areas in the back of Tortuga Lodge that night. After the initial discovery, I didn’t disclose to her all the additional glittering eyes I ended up seeing as I was looking through the bushes and through the grass for good camera subjects. I will say that there were a lot of spiders in sizes ranging from just an inch centimeters across (leg end to leg end) to as big as five or six inches. None of these was particularly threatening, and some were downright beautiful, but it was a bit creepy nonetheless – I was very glad to have long pants, hiking shoes, and a long sleeved shirt on, just in case.

Another big spider waiting to pounce at night

Among our non-arachnid finds were a sleeping basilisk lizard, some poison dart frogs, many big frogs and toads, as well as a number of interesting bugs and plants. We did not find any ting frogs, although we could definitely hear them all around.

Upon retiring to our room, exhaustion from the day’s activities brought deep slumber that night – fortunately with no spider dreams. The following morning after breakfast we joined another nine departing guests for an hour-long river boat ride to our bus pickup point at Cano Blanco. That was the closest point where the road actually kind of got to Tortuguero.

Along the way to Cano Blanco we actually almost got stuck in the canal because at one point the water level was so low relative to the muddy bottom in the canal that we had only about one or two inches of clearance. Fernando (our boat captain that morning) got us through, but only with a lot of churning through the mud. We observed some other boats coming the other way that actually did get stuck, and the crew had to get out and push the 50 foot long boat through the shallowest part.

As we neared Cano Blanco we also ended up seeing a flock of black headed vultures, as well as roseate spoonbills, another bird species which we found to be a real treat. On Bonaire we have large flocks of Caribbean flamingos, which are just as pink as the roseate spoonbills, but seeing wild spoonbills was cool.

The real bonus was seeing roseate spoonbills in the water

During our three and a half hour bus ride back to San Jose we saw some interesting sights, including banana fields, the relative poverty of some of the smaller villages along the dirt road we were on for the first hour, and truck pulling a horse behind it (instead of the other way around).

A man rides his motorcycle home, laden with groceries such as bananas, in Costa Rica
We arrived at our hotel late on Monday afternoon, tired but happy. Our trip to Tortuguero was more than we had hoped for, both in terms of experiencing the jungles of Caribbean Costa Rica, and with respect to the service we received all along the way. Extra kudos go to all the folks at Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small property in the middle of the jungle which provided such excellent service, facilities, activities, and not at all least, great dining. And the wildlife we had a chance to observe close up and even interact with (in case of the howler monkeys) was incredible.

Definitely put a multi-day visit to Tortuguero on your expedition list if you visit Costa Rica, and don’t let the fact that September is rainy season scare you away from visiting. Just minimize your time in the bigger cities and spend your time out near the wilds.

 

The Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine

October 22nd, 2008 at 11:40 am (AST) by Jake Richter

While we’ve not had any new adventures since we arrived in Freeport, Maine a couple of days ago – other than lots of shopping for clothing and other goods we want but probably don’t need, I wanted to mention a gem we did discover, courtesy of our travel agents at American Express.

That gem is the Harraseeket Inn on the northern end of Main Street, just two blocks from the massive L.L. Bean store. The Harraseeket Inn happens to also be the only lodging right on Main Street near all the shopping, but this exclusive situation has done nothing to diminish the quality of the service and offerings at the Inn.

The Harraseeket Inn has approximately 90 rooms, each featuring quarter canopied beds in spacious rooms with well appointed bathrooms. And, very important to us, they were able to confirm connecting rooms for us, with a king bed (and a two person jacuzzi tub) in one room and two double beds in the other. The rooms are out fitted with a variety of “green” things, including special lightbulbs in the fixtures, green bathroom products such as soap with a hole in the middle to cut down on waste (weird but true), and indeed, if you leave your towels hanging, housekeeping will not replace them.

Even though the three story inn is huge in terms of rooms, there’s a sort of quaintness one associates with smaller New England bed and breakfast properties. Part of that is due to the trim and fixtures, such as the well distributed (and lit) fireplaces (there are 23 of them throughout the property). There’s also a heated swimming pool and an exercise room.

And the best buffet breakfast of our entire trip so far was included with our stay. A nice, and unexpected, benefit.

But one of the real treats we discovered last night was the Maine Dining Room, one of the Inn’s two restaurants. The Maine Dining Room offers fine dining featuring locally produced and grown goods, from meats and cheese to produce and berries. Everything is freshly prepared in the kitchen, including the pasta for the lobster ravioli served to us. They also have a nice selection of wines by the glass and bottle. Linda and I enjoyed a wonderful 2004 Marilyn Remark Marsanne from Monterey County in California.

Our meals included parsnip and celery soup, a Caesar salad made table side, red snapper, duck confit wrapped in cucumber, and scallops. And deserts sampled by the table included a relatively low-carb lemon marscapone tort and home made blueberry pie a la mode. And the service was quite good as well.

As an extra bonus, it turned out that the server who prepared our Caesar salad for us knew of Bonaire, and more interestingly, her sister and brother-in-law owned a house on our island. And, we discovered that we actually knew her brother-in-law, as he was a fellow artist (photography) on Bonaire. Small world!

We also had lunch in the Broad Arrow Tavern, a rustic looking place with creaky floors and quite tasty food. Although we must say that the lobster stew there was not nearly as good as that at Chester Pike’s Galley up in Sullivan. But the tavern’s great atmosphere, good service, and menu variety is a treat.

One other plus of staying at the Inn is being able to walk to pretty much all the hundred plus stores, many of them designer outlet stores, found in the shopping mecca that Freeport has become. That also means you have a safe and convenient place to drop off your shopping if your loads get too heavy (as happened a couple of times during our stay).

In summary The Traveling Richters highly recommend a stay at the Harrseeket Inn during your next Freeport shopping pilgrimage, or at the very least a dinner in the Inn’s Maine Dining Room, should you be in the area.

At present we’re driving to New Hampshire (and on-line thanks to a Sprint Data Dongle). We’ve just crossed the 2000 mile mark for driving on our Northeast tour. Works out to 1000 miles/week that we’ve had the vehicle. That’s about what we put on our truck on Bonaire in three months of heavy driving. Wow.

 

New Brunswick – Closed For the Season; Bar Harbor – Just Barely Open

October 20th, 2008 at 12:19 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We already had an inkling on Friday as we drove into New Brunswick from PEI that we might have issues with places being open to visit, since the two New Brunswick Visitor Information Centers were closed for the season, and a number of parks and other attractions likewise sported “Closed / Ferme” signs.

The issue of everything being closed limited our options of what to see and do on Saturday as we left the Crowne Plaza in Moncton. We started off a a place in northeast Moncton called Magnetic Hill, so called because it features a spot where you can stop your car, put it in neutral, and then appear to have your car pulled uphill. It’s merely a visual illusion based on local topography, but it was amusing (but not interesting enough to do a second time). Magnetic Hill was also actually closed for the season, but that only meant they left the gate open and we didn’t have to pay a $5 fee (which probably would not have been worth it in retrospect). However, was we did find amazing was that a whole crop of amusements had been built up in the area, including a whole theme park, a historic village, and a waterpark – all centered around Magnetic Hill. And all closed for the season.

Our next stop was a place called Hopewell Rocks down along a rural coastal road (part of the so-called Fundy Trail, as in Bay of Fundy), where we had a deer trot in front of our mini-van briefly.

The Hopewell Rocks are tall rock formations of composite rock which are fully exposed during low tide, but during high tide only the tops show. The tops are referred to as the Flowerpots, because they look like large floating flowerpots, apparently, during high tide. The tidal variation between low tide and high tide here runs about 50 feet as the Bay of Fundy has thee highest tides in the world. What’s truly interesting about the Hopewell Rocks is that the bases of them have been carved into smooth organic shapes by the twice-daily large tides, in some cases forming natural holes, caverns, and arches through the rocks.

The Hopewell Rocks park area was also closed for the season, but with signs posted saying that anyone entering the area was doing so at their own risk. We were among over a dozen other people assuming our own risk as a result. We spent about an hour walking the beach (it was low tide) looking at the rock formations and looking for cool rocks and fossils. No luck on the fossils as the age of the area and the types of rocks were the wrong kind for fossils, but we found some spectacular pieces of quartz and basalt (at least we think that’s what it is).

We took the scenic route to Saint John for lunch, dining at Billy’s Seafood Company downtown. Sadly, the food lacked in distinct flavor, but the service was decent. Billy’s was adjacent to the Central Market – a large hall which was filled with small stands serving a variety of foods, fresh produce, trinkets, and other supplies. We spent an hour exploring the Central Market before making our way to St. Andrews in southern New Brunswick for the night.

Our hotel was the Fairmont Algonquin, and our travel agent had arranged a two-bedroom suite for us there, as our first choice, the Kingsbrae Arms Hotel, had already closed for the season. The Fairmont Algonquin was originally the Algonquin, one of of those summer resort properties you see in movies about the early and mid 1900s – it reminded me of the resort from the movie “Dirty Dancing”.

When we arrived it seemed rather busy for low season. Turns out we had arrived in the midst of the Indulge New Brunswick event, which feature culinary experiences over a two day period, ending with the Indulge Extravaganza, a three hour feast featuring tapas-size plates with delicacies prepared by some of New Brunswick’s best chefs, using local foods – salmon, scallops, cod, wild boar, and more, and accompanied by well over a hundred different wines brought in by local wine distributors, as well as a bunch of different ales and beers. Talk about serendipity, as they still had tickets available for the Extravaganza. We ended up getting three tickets, and leaving a very content Bas up in our suite watching TV and eating food from room service. It ended up being a very nice evening with an excellent variety of excellent food, and some pretty decent wines (the reds were all still a bit young).

We ended the evening watching Will Smith in Hancock on pay-per-view in our suite’s parlor. Pretty entertaining film, even though it got panned by the critics.

On Sunday, we brunched in our room on all the provender we had picked up along the way, intent on lightening our load because we didn’t think we could bring Canadian meats and other foods into the U.S. with us. We were wrong, apparently, as we were never asked about what we were bringing into the U.S. from Canada when we crossed over in St. Stephen, but perhaps that was because the U.S. immigration officer was distracted by our Nova Scotia license plates, our U.S. passports, and our Netherlands Antilles residency. It was a smooth process even so, and we were finally back on U.S. soil.

We had spent a very nice two weeks in Canada, and learned a lot about the local history, the people, the traditions, and also the geology. Well worth the time spent.

On the whole, we found the residents of the three provinces we visited to be very warm and welcoming, with the only exception to that being a few people in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a couple of whom worked at information centers. The people of the Canadian Maritimes reminded us of old-time New Englanders (not the recent transplants who appear to have less time and inclination to be friendly and welcoming).

The idea of the information centers in all three provinces was excellent, although we were disappointed to find all the ones in New Brunswick closed for the season by the time we got there.

It seems that while we were traveling at an excellent time to avoid small crowds, one week earlier in New Brunswick and PEI would probably have been better, as it appears that most everything that was closed had shut down right after Canadian Thanksgiving on October 13th.

We also greatly appreciated the fresh seafood we found everywhere. Although Krystyana tired of seafood quickly, Linda and I continued to enjoy it daily. The scallops were moist and tender, the mussels delightful, the lobster and fish fresh and delicious. Probably the best long-term seafood experience we have ever had.

Navigating was also relatively simple, as we picked up maps before our trip, and then in Nova Scotia, also picked up a provincial road atlas. Our Garmin nuvi GPS was a bit of a disappointment, however, as it frequently didn’t have our destinations built in as part of its programming, and we had to find ways to trick it into giving us the directions we needed. Apparently at one point we upset our GPS so much that it hung, and we had to reboot. Ever since then we think the GPS has been trying to mess with us, as the directions it gives are a bit obscure at times. Technological payback, perhaps?

Once we had made it to Maine mid-day yesterday, we continued down the scenic route to Bar Harbor, stopping at a small diner in Sullivan, Maine, about 45 minutes outside of Bar Harbor for lunch. The lunch spot was called Chester Pike’s Galley, and was in a rather nondescript building. We arrived at 1:30pm, just before their 2pm closing time, and had perhaps the best seafood stew we had ever eaten – cream, butter, a bit of seasoning, and chock full of scallops, lobster, and shrimp and nothing else. It had major umame. And the prices were incredibly reasonable. A bowl of the stew – enough to feed even my hearty appetite – was only about $7.95, the same price we paid for Linda’s sizable lobster salad. And beyond the excellent yet inexpensive home-cooked food, what we truly appreciated was the ambiance. The camaraderie of the staff felt like they were all a big family working together (not entirely true as most of the staff were actually just friends, but not related), and made us feel like were were in a family dining room. Very cozy and comfortable. One other nice feature of the restaurant was that each of the handful of tables in the main dining room had a glass top, under which people had stuck their business cards, newspaper articles, and other readable content. Much of it was advertising, but some were cards from fans, so we added our business card for The Traveling Richters along with a note expressing our appreciation of the seafood stew. If you ever end up anywhere near Bar Harbor and Sullivan, make a point to visit Chester Pike’s Galley, although it should be noted they are closing for the season this week as well and not reopening until around May.

We arrived in Bar Harbor well sated, checking into the Bar Harbor Grand hotel, into a cozy two bedroom unit (comfortable with three beds in two rooms, but only one bathroom), dropped off our growing pile of luggage and then walked down Main Street to explore Bar Harbor’s eclectic collection of shops, most of which were still open for the rest of the month before they too would close for the season. We ambled around for a few hours until I had to head back for a conference call (although the girls stayed out a bit longer doing more shopping).

Dinner was at Michelle’s Fine Dining, a petite restaurant with only eight tables located in the Ivy Manor Inn, but with some of the best food and service we had yet experienced on this trip. Sadly, a number of items on their menu were not available as it was the last night the restaurant would be open before closing for the season and reopening in April. We enjoyed steak tartare, a warm brie with fresh berries, and foie gras for our appetizers, and French onion soup, duckling, and peppered beef tournados for our main course, accompanied by appropriate glasses of wine. We all shared the signature dessert – Michelle’s famous “Bag of Chocolate”, literally a dark chocolate bag filled with white and milk chocolate mousse and fresh berries, topped with a raspberry coulis. Simply delightful. Michelle’s Fine Dining is highly recommended by The Traveling Richters.

We had a good night at the Bar Harbor Grand, although as our room was on the side of the property adjoining Main Street, we found ourselves woken up by the sound of passing vehicles around 7am. Earplugs recommended. For the price, it was a great find, and the hotel was very comfortable and convenient to the rest of Bar Harbor as we could walk around and did not need to drive to visit the pretty little downtown area.

Today we’re off to Freeport, Maine, the home of L.L. Bean and countless factory outlet shops and other types of shopping.

By the way, this is being submitted from a very nice coffee shop in Camden, Maine – Zoot Coffee. Great selection of loose leaf teas, coffees, snacks, and meals. Mind you, our GPS has been protesting our use of scenic Route 1 vehemently. It keeps wanting to send us to a major highway.

Anyhow, we’ll be spending two nights in Freeport, and then moving on to Linda’s parents place in New Hampshire on Wednesday. On Saturday we have a BonaireTalk gathering in Amesbury, Massachusetts, where we will be meeting Bonaire-loving friends from all over the U.S., and then spending the following week with my family in the Boston area. My parents are flying over from the Czech Republic, and my brother and his family recently moved to Wayland from San Diego. Should be an entertaining time.

However, as the exploratory part of our trip is nearing its end, there will likely be no or fewer posts about our continuing journey in New England unless something really interesting and cool comes up that we think needs to be shared here. But, don’t despair as we’re still working on several reviews and reports from our August trip to New York City and from Krystyana’s and my trip to Costa Rica in September, so expect to see some of those show up here in the coming week or so.

 

Lots of Miles, Lots of Countryside – Three Provinces, Three Days

October 17th, 2008 at 11:21 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

In case you might have been worried about us falling (or driving) off the face of the earth, rest assured that we’re alive and well and presently in the city of Moncton in New Brunswick.

We left Louisbourg on Cape Breton on Wednesday morning for Pictou in mid-Nova Scotia, intent on timing things well for the 4pm ferry to Prince Edward Island. We stopped off at Harbor Quilt Company, a quilting store and gallery outside of Antigonish, and then had lunch at Gabrieau’s Bistro in downtown Antigonish.

Gabrieau’s had an interesting looking menu, but the we found the service to be pretty terrible. Our waitress mis-heard a couple of our orders, and when asked about it, explained what she thought she heard and then left without offering to correct things. She was also quite slow and difficult to flag down. The food that we ended up with was also underwhelming. The spicy Thai beef salad used deli-style roast beef, which gave it an odd flavor. The Caesar dressing lacked any real flavor. The Asian baby back ribs and vegetable and chicken stifado were better though. And the two different cheesecakes we had were a disappointment too. We did note that a table with a different waitress appeared to have had a much better experience, but that was little comfort to us, and a different waitress would not have improved the food at all anyhow. So, if you’re tempted by Gabrieau’s when in Antigonish, contemplate your alternatives first.

One of the issues with the service at the restaurant was that we were now getting concerned about making the ferry, as time was starting to get a bit tight. Turns out to have not been an issue at all because I misread the ferry schedule, and the ferry left at 2:45pm (which we had, by then, missed), with the next one at 6pm.

To burn time, we ended up taking a leisurely stroll through picturesque Pictou (with the only thing marring the pretty harborside being a factory of some sort across the bay) and then had some tea before heading to the ferry terminal.

At the ferry terminal, while waiting for the ferry to arrive, we came across another rather distinct wild creature – a real, live fox. Turns out this fox has become an opportunistic feeder and waits for ferry travelers to toss it food scraps. The fox provided us with about 20 minutes of entertainment before it scooted away with the arrival of the ferry.

A fox at the Caribou Ferry Terminal near Pictou, Nova Scotia

A fox at the Caribou Ferry Terminal near Pictou, Nova Scotia

An hour and a half later we were driving off the ferry in Wood’s Island, on Prince Edward Island on our way to the island’s largest city, Charlottetown, and also the most unique and attractive of all the various accommodations we have had so far on this trip.

We had booked two nights at The Great George, which is a collection of suites and buildings spread out over a block or two. The main reception area looks and feels just like one might picture a club room at a posh British gentleman’s club. The staff at the hotel was excellent and efficient, and within a short time had directed us to our lodging – a standalone house called The Dorchester.

The Dorchester was a two story house with two large bedrooms and excellently appointed bathrooms upstairs, along with a den, a living room (with fold out sofa), a kitchen, and another bathroom (this one with a washer and dryer) on the main floor. And all at a price cheaper than some single rooms we had stayed in so far. And the king size bed (one of the few we have encountered in the Canadian Maritimes) was perfect in terms of comfort – nice and firm without being hard.

Should you ever visit Charlottetown, The Great George is where you have to stay.

We arrived pretty late – around 8pm – but the front desk staff was able to suggest a couple of restaurants for dinner, and we settled on Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster House. Nice ambiance, but very spotty service. The food itself was quite good, with excellent appetizers and decent main courses. A particular favorite were the extremely fresh and plump PEI mussels. I also had some local oysters, and Canadian rib eye. Linda and I also enjoyed a very good Margaux with our meal. The food is definitely worth a trip to Sims, but be aware the service may be lacking a bit in terms of efficiency (and we’re used to island-time service back on Bonaire, and this was worse).

Our next day was spent driving around the center of Prince Edward Island in search of Anne of Green Gables and other diversions.

First, let me say that PEI (as Prince Edward Island is known) is beautiful and pastoral – outside the city the buildings are far apart with large fields separating them, lots of the fields used as farm land, with sprinkles of cows and horses here and there.

However, being the middle of October, we found just about every retail store and accommodation we drove by closed until next May or so. It appears that the main season for any sort of activity runs May through September – five months. The rest of the year things just close down and hibernate. The same applies to places like Cape Breton, as we noticed this past week.

We did find one shop open – Rustico Bay Wool Sweater Company, where the owner, the aptly named Kathy Winter, was also getting ready to close down for the season. Kathy was among the few people we had encountered on our trip who had heard of our home island of Bonaire. We ended up getting Bas a set of very soft and warm Alpaca wool gloves and being offered a couple of nice PEI apples (which tasted like Cortlands) on our way out.

We managed to find the PEI Information Center in Cavendish barely open – brochures were being boxed up in anticipation of closing down the center for the season this weekend. We did get some good advice on things still left to see, and then headed to the nearby park to explore some fabulous sand dunes.

Cavendish is one of the places where Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables (and numerous other books featuring strong female heroines), lived for a good bit of her early life, and many of the settings in her books, as well as the characters, were drawn from her own experiences and observations on PEI in the Cavendish area.

What we found fascinating was how much of the local tourism industry had evolved around a fictional teenage girl from a book published in 1908. In addition to the house used as the model for Green Gables, the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and a couple of museums, a vast number of commercial enterprises had all hopped on the Anne bandwagon. We saw Anne of Green Gables chocolates being promoted, the Kindred Spirits Inn (using an oft repeated phrase from the Anne books), and several amusement and theme parks all based on the characters and stories of the various Anne of Green Gables books.

Anyhow, after the dunes we visited the Anne of Green Gables Museum near Shining Water. The museum was actually a museum about Lucy Maud Montgomery, and situated in a house owned by relatives of hers where she had spent a fair bit of time during her younger years. In addition to furnishings and memorabilia actually mentioned in some of her books, we saw excerpts from her journals, signed first editions of her books, and photos and stories documenting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life. Pretty interesting. We also learned that the book Anne of Green Gables at one point was required reading in Japanese schools, and thus the whole area, and the museum in particular, was a major Japanese tourist attraction.

Amusingly, we found that a not insignificant number of the tourists to the area believed Anne was a real person instead of the fictional character that she actually is. That said, Anne certainly seems to have a life, and following, of her own.

After the museum we continued our scenic drive, ultimately ending up in Summerside, another city, about an hour from Charlottetown. We were starving by the time we got there, but sadly had no idea where to look for a good restaurant (not having brought our Fodor’s or AAA guides with us, foolishly), and ended with experimenting with “Chinese and Canadian Cuisine” (the subtitle for every Chinese restaurant we had so far seen in Nova Scotia and PEI) at China Star Restaurant in the heart of a rather desolate Summerside. The food was not bad, but as we had ordered a couple of Szechuan dishes, we had hoped for more spice and flavor. A fine place to go if you’re hungry. By the way, the “Canadian Cuisine” thing is apparently something that is almost required if you’re serving foreign foods in this area, as we’ve learned, as it tells less adventurous diners that it’s “safe” to eat there – they can get their sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, fried fish and scallops, and french fries in addition to whatever else might be on the menu.

We continued our scenic route back to Charlottetown, with the sole highlight being a farm for miniature horses, several of which were out in the yard by the road. They were absolutely adorable, and quite friendly. Bas was convinced we should go buy one right then and there, but we explained that we only had four seats home, so if we got the small horse, he’d have to stay behind. He wisely decided this might not be the right time for a miniature horse after all.

I had a conference call to attend to when we returned, and we then attempted to do a little bit of shopping in the pretty historic part of Charlottetown, but our efforts were brought up short when it turned out that all the shops, with one exception, closed at 5pm, which is what time we had gone out. We did find one shop, Firehouse Studios, which was open a bit later though. Firehorse is a shop specializing in artistic glass – including fused glass, stained glass, and the like. Some beautiful work there. Plus they also have classes and supplies for making your own glass art. The person working the shop was kind enough to provide us some tips on how to fuse glass and we hope to be able to give it a try ourselves once we get the necessary materials and dust off our kiln.

For dinner we chose Lot 30, which we had been told was the best restaurant in Charlottetown. We left Bas behind at The Dorchester, well fed from leftovers from lunch, and Krystyana, Linda, and I headed for Lot 30. We found the menu interesting and tried to make sure to each order something different so we could do our own tasting. Our waiter was a bit slow and hesitant in responding to our questions, but much better than the one from the previous night at Sims. We enjoyed our appetizers immensely – I had foie gras with scallop and shredded beef, Krystyana had a turnip and apple soup, and Linda had fried local oysters (which were the best appetizer of the three).

But the main courses were a bit disappointing, perhaps in that each of our plates shared key accompaniments with one of the other main courses on the table. For example, my scallops had a vegetable medley which was identical to that for Linda’s duck, and mashed potatoes just like those with Krystyana’s pork belly. And the girls both had another type of vegetable in common as well. First, the flavors of the accompanying items, while possibly better suited to one of the dishes did not translate well to the other in terms of a flavor combined, and second, it seemed to be a bit, well, lazy, at least in terms of creativity. And it also didn’t quite mesh with the descriptions of the dishes on the menu. One area where service was excellent though was in food delivery, in that they always made sure that each person at a table got their course at exactly the same time. However, on the flip side, the food was delivered without explanation, which considering how the food was not as described in the menu, was a bit off-putting.

If Lot 30 was supposedly the best fine dining restaurant in Charlottetown then Charlottetown has a ways to go in terms of fine dining.

Our final day of our three day, three province experience, namely today, started very early, as we needed to drive for about two and a half hours to make it to the Joggins Fossil Institute in Joggins, Nova Scotia for a 10am walking tour. This involved, other than an early departure, driving a number of kilometers over the Confederation Bridge (which also charges a hefty toll of CA$41.50) into New Brunswick, and then back into Nova Scotia. So, in fact, we hit three provinces in about two hours.

The Joggins Fossil Institute consists of a newly built (opened April 2008) museum and research complex atop the cliffs in the village of Joggins. Joggins is a recently certified UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the location of the discovery of the world’s oldest reptile fossil, all the back from the Carboniferous Era around 350 million years ago.

Our tour turned out to be a private one simply because no one else showed up, so we had Brian Hebert, the Chief Interpreter of the Joggins Fossil Institute, all to ourselves for two whole hours. Brian walked up up and down about one kilometer of shoreline (it was low tide in the Bay of Fundy, which Joggins abuts), showing us examples of fossil trees, veins of coal, rock stratification and collapse, details about tidal erosion, and all sorts of other good things.

While it was freezing out (at least for us thin blooded types), with high winds causing a biting chill factor, we braved it out and by the end of our tour were able to find all sorts of interesting fossils of our own in the limestone debris littering the beach below the museum. Unfortunately we didn’t find anything unique enough for the museum to want to put in its depository of fossils. Brian was an excellent and enthusiastic guide, and, as it turns out, one of the most prolific discovers of new and unique fossils in the area. He had recently found the only fossil of a scorpion ever seen in the Joggins area, for example.

After warming up a bit with hot Chai and coffee after the tour, we finished exploring the museum, “donated” to the gift shop for a number of new books, and then made our way back into New Brunswick and the Schnitzel Haus in Aulac, right across the border from Nova Scotia. We had a good hearty German lunch (with pretty reasonable service, for a change), and then made our way to the city of Moncton and the Crowne Plaza hotel here.

There was no clearly marked entrance to the hotel, at least not for bringing in luggage, so we ended having to call the hotel from a nearby parking lot for assistance with our growing pile of luggage. Our room was nice and big enough for all of us to sleep in, but we’re not impressed with the rest of the hotel. The corridors outside our room reek of cigarette smoke (apparently because the rooms themselves are supposed to be smoke free with fines for those who light up in them), and the hotel is located in a kind of grungy part of town, just a block away from a nicer section with lots of restaurants.

As Krystyana is still tired of seafood, we opted for a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant, Vien Dong, on Main Street. I found the food pretty good, but Linda wasn’t thrilled with her soup or any of the rest of the dishes we ordered, commenting that this was basically repackaged Chinese food – she may have been right to an extent.

Service again was quite slow though, but this time possibly because the restaurant was quite busy and there was only one waiter. We also found the beverage options (at least the ones on our menus) rather limited. The portions were huge compared to what we had experienced so far in the Canadian Maritimes. If you’re desperate for Thai food in Moncton, Vien Dong would not be a bad choice in any event.

We got back to our room and started planning our next day, which involves trying to go experience the Magnetic Hill, see the Hopewell Rocks, and then make our way to St. Andrews, near the Maine border.

 

Fortress of Louisbourg

October 14th, 2008 at 10:25 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Today was a bit less eventful for us than yesterday. No moose or whale sightings, although we did see an old fashioned musket fired.

We departed mid-morning from Baddeck for the village of Louisbourg, on the east coast of Cape Breton. We tried to stop at a fossil museum in Sydney Mines (a small town in Cape Breton), but as with a growing number of attractions on Cape Breton, it had closed recently for the winter.

We arrived at the Point of View Suites in Louisbourg around 10am, and were a bit surprised to find it was also an RV park. But in fact, there was a large building on a small cliff at the back of the property, overlooking the harbor of Louisbourg, and in that building was our suite. The managers of the property actually upgraded us from one large suite into two connecting smaller suites so that we could each (kids and adults) have our own space. That was something we really appreciated. One reason they were probably so generous was that the property is closing down in a few days for the winter season (when tourism is pretty much dead in most of Cape Breton). In any case, the rooms are spacious, and the kitchens appear well provisioned. But bring your own shampoo and soap, as what they provide is good for only one or two showers.

After dropping off our bags in our room we headed up to the Fortress of Louisbourg. The Fortress, run by the Canada Parks Service, is a recreation of a part of the fortress that was once located on the same grounds during the early and middle part of the 1700s, owned and controlled by the French (except for a three year period where the British ran it). The Fortress of Louisbourg was twice besieged and attacked by the British, and both times the French surrendered after about six weeks, due in part to running out of supplies because of British blockades, and also because the British brought many times more soldiers than there were inhabitants of the fortress. Surrender was an easier out than dying from starvation or being shot. After the second capture, the British pretty much destroyed Louisbourg, and it took a government project in the 1960s to attempt to rebuild aboutt 20% of the buildings that had once stood on the fortress grounds, and make the Fortress of Louisbourg a historic attraction.

Most of the people at the fortress are in period costume, playing the part of a person from circa 1744, but were kind enough to explain differences between that time and the present when asked. We learned an incredible amount about the daily lives of merchants, nobility, servants, and soldiers during the times of the Fortress. We also learned that we would not liked to have lived there during that time as the people endured what we would consider enormous hardships – ranging from very bad winters and poor health care to extremely difficult working conditions, among others.

We also enjoyed an 18th century lunch of soup, cod, and carrots, including a single, versatile eating utensil – a spoon with a curved tip on the handle which could be used to cut and pierce ones food. It was all very tasty.

We had gone to the Fortress of Louisbourg with minimal expectations, and left overwhelmed with new knowledge and information, and thirsting for more. And that’s taking into account that only a fraction of the various buildings were open and staffed because it’s low season here (and the fortress closes down on Saturday for the winter season too – just like everything else). During the summer months, the Fortress of Louisbourg is a hive of nearly non-stop activities, and it’s estimated that it would take at least 18 hours to see and do everything there is to do (not including spending time talking with the in-period docent/actors).

If you have any interest at all in history as well as how people lived and survived in the 18th century, then the Fortress of Louisbourg is a must.

Our dinner was at the Lobster Kettle, one of the only two restaurants still open for the season in the village of Louisbourg. Linda and Krystyana had a fabulous snow crab dinner special while Bas and I enjoyed haddock and halibut – both quite good, and amazingly Bas enjoyed the fish. So far, on this trip, Bas has learned to like lobster and fish. We’re working on him for scallops, but he seems to have set his mind against them for the moment. In any event, we enjoyed our meal at the Lobster Kettle – both in terms of food quality and service – large difference from last night’s meal at the Lobster Galley in St. Ann’s Bay.

Tomorrow we leave Louisbourg for Pictou, where we will take a ferry to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. We’ll be spending a couple of nights there, and hope to visit Avonlea and the museum of Anne of Green Gables, among other things.

For followers of our writings who are also familiar with our home island of Bonaire in the Southern Caribbean, we discovered after dinner tonight that Tropical Storm Omar had formed near the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) in the last day or so, and strong weather conditions have created very large swells and waves on the normally calm west side of Bonaire, damaging numerous piers and soaking some waterfront properties.

There are links here and here on BonaireTalk with more information.

Please note that most of the reports on BonaireTalk are independent observer reports or passed on from those on islands and that there is also a lot of speculation based on water drenched visuals. As we know from the past with large surge actions, until the surge subsides (sometime tomorrow afternoon hopefully), it will not be clear how much damage has actually occurred, and it won’t be clear for days how long any such damage will take to repair.

If you love Bonaire like we do, keep the island in your mind and think positive thoughts. For those concerned about our animals, we understand they are doing fine, albeit a bit shook up by the wind and rain.

To all of our friends and extended family on the island, we hope you are well and safe and dry.

 

Whales, Moose, and Grouse, Oh My! Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail

October 13th, 2008 at 9:34 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

This morning we had our earliest wake-up since we left Bonaire over a week ago – 6am, for an 7am departure from the resort. The reason for the early departure was that I had committed the family to a 9am whale watching expedition in Cheticamp, which was an 80 minute drive away.

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas wear foul weather gear in anticipation of the Zodiac ride

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas wear foul weather gear in anticipation of the Zodiac ride

We broke fast in the mini-van along the way, and managed to arrive in Cheticamp with time to spare, and checked in at Captain Zodiac’s, right on the waterfront. We and our five other fellow whale watchers were given these great big puffy red suits that made us look like (according to the kids) those astronaut chimps. I personally felt a bit like a red Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (from Ghostbusters). But those suits, for all their lack of style, were incredibly warm and comfortable. That’s a good thing when you’re whipping through a rough ocean at forty miles per hour in chilly air. Which is precisely what we ended up doing.

For those not familiar with Zodiacs, they are a brand name for a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) and look somewhat like the fast craft that Navy Seals use to do beach landings. The benefit of using a Zodiac for whale watching is that they are small and highly maneuverable.

We spent over an hour bouncing around the ocean at high speed until we spotted several cetacean dorsal fins in the distance. As we approached, it was clear we had found pilot whales. Pilot whales are, species-wise, big brothers to porpoises, getting up to about 20 feet in length (at least based on the pilot whales we saw), with big melon-shaped heads.

A pilot whale in the water off Cape Breton

A pilot whale in the water off Cape Breton

The pod of pilot whales we encountered numbered approximately eight or nine, and were spread out over about a square kilometer of ocean near some cliffs a ways north of Cheticamp.

Two pilot whales breach the water off Cape Breton

Two pilot whales breach the water off Cape Breton

Most of the whales were hunting for food in pairs, but came across a trio of whales as well – a juvenile and two adults. It wasn’t clear if the adults were the parents or two large females (including the mother, no doubt), but it was great to see all three on the surface together, and then see them dive and then surface again, always with the juvenile between the two adults.

A juvenile pilot whale is flanked by two adults off Cape Breton

A juvenile pilot whale is flanked by two adults off Cape Breton

The whales got within a couple of feet of the Zodiac on numerous occasions, and it was great to hear them exhale through their blowholes and see their large sleek shapes glide smoothly through the water.

We were also able to hear the whales “speaking” while they were submerged. Unlike larger whales, and more like dolphins, their speech was high pitched – like a whistle.

After nearly a half hour with the whales it was time to head back to Cheticamp and the warmth of our mini-van heaters.

Until we had driven to Cheticamp, incidentally, we had thought that the western part of Cape Breton was all Gaelic in ancestry, but this morning we discovered that Cheticamp is in the heart of an Acadian section of Cape Breton. All road signs there are in English and French.

Anyhow, the plan was to spend the whole day driving the famous Cabot Trail, which Baddeck sits on, as does Cheticamp. We also had great hopes of wandering one of the main trails along the Cabot Trail and seeing a live, wild moose. Amazingly, we didn’t have to wander at all to see moose, however.

Shortly after we paid our park entry fee, we came upon a “moose-jam” – a traffic jam involving people gawking at moose. We joined the moose jam and discovered a pair of moose (or is it “meese”, as the plural of “goose” is “geese”?) – a large bull and a cow, peacefully grazing off the side of the Cabot Trail. Intent on shooting the moose (with our cameras), Krystyana and I got out of our mini-van and made our way over to the guard rail which separated the people from the moose in the wooded gully below. The moose were obscured by the brush and trees, but clearly identifiable as moose.

Dutch spectators observe a moose cow on the Cabot Trail in Nova

Dutch spectators observe a moose cow on the Cabot Trail in Nova

After a few minutes, the cow wandered up the hill side, grazed a bit and then looked around. At about the same time, Krystyana had started walking back to the mini-van, and the cow started following her, unbeknownst to Krystyana. There did not appear to be any danger to either of them, and Krystyana finally realized she had a companion trailing her when her brother started gesturing wildly from inside the mini-van. Krystyana slowly got inside as well, and the cow settled down behind the mini-van to snack on more vegetation.

A moose cow grazing on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

A moose cow grazing on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

Meanwhile, the bull started to come up the gully’s slope as well, but stopped at the edge to graze as well, calm as could be even with a half dozen people within 20-30 feet of him (I made sure to put other gawkers between me and the bull moose, of course).

A moose bull on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

A moose bull on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

We ended up with over 10 minutes of moose time and some great photographs as a result. Our day was nearly complete – whales and moose. All we needed was a bear or beaver or other unusual creature to round things out.

After driving on we started encountering quite a bit of rain, but that did not prevent us from stopping at various look-out points to behold the vistas of fall foliage and dramatic terrain.

Lunch was at a small motel/restaurant in Pleasant Bay called the Midtrail Motel and Inn – it had been recommended to us by one of the people at Captain Zodiac’s. We had a simple but decent meal, including some great seafood chowder. And we got Bas to try the local version of poutine, a dish consisting of cheese melted over french fries and then topped with gravy. Not for the low-card oriented diner though.

Fall foliage is peaking on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

Fall foliage is peaking on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting various art and craft shops along the Cabot Trail, a stop at the North Highlands Community Museum (where we watched movie footage from the 1950s about life at a nearby fishing village), and walking some trails in search of a beaver dam (never found one).

However, as the day wound down, we almost ran over a grouse (we believe it may have been a spruce grouse) as it waddled across the road in front of us, got scared by an oncoming car, and then flew up into the air just in time to avoid our windshield. We figured that the grouse would be the closest we’d get to an unusual critter trifecta today, hence its inclusion in the title of this blog. Alas, we did not get a picture of the bird as we were as startled by it as it was by us.

Dinner was at the Lobster Galley in St. Ann’s Bay. Linda and Krystyana enjoyed traditional Thanksgiving fare (Krystyana sans the carb-laden fixings) as it was Canada’s Thanksgiving Day today, while I had a seafood appetizer platter for two (for just me, as a main course). The main courses were pretty good, but the desserts were quite poor – we had an apple crisp and a three berry crisp, and both were gummy and lacking in flavor. And the whipped cream was either DreamWhip or something made with Cool-Whip. Weird texture there too. The lobster dishes some of the other folks had looked like they might have been a better choice, but we were all lobstered out.

Along our travels we realized that paying cash in U.S. dollars meant we were actually paying 10% more for things due to the current exchange rate, so we ended our evening by getting Canadian dollars from an ATM machine with our new Capital One Online Banking ATM cards – they are the only ones I have found so far which do not charge a hefty foreign transaction fee (which seemed to exceed 3% in some cases for our Citizens Bank checking account ATM cards, even when getting U.S. dollars abroad, like back on Bonaire). This change alone should save us a lot of money in the coming year.

Our plan tomorrow is to move up to Louisbourg and visit Fort Louisbourg for a tour of that old fortress. And on Wednesday we make our way to Prince Edward Island. So far we’ve been averaging over 250km per day on our mini-van. That’s a lot for a person like me, who generally hates to drive. But I’m managing.

Footnote: You may have noticed this post, unlike others from Nova Scotia, has pictures. They were necessary. The full trip on-line photo album is still planned, but may be a week away, at least.