Archive for the ‘Local Cuisine’ Category

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.

 

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.

 

Lobsters, Cheese, Wine, and Views along the Bay of Fundy

October 12th, 2008 at 1:14 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Sharing a single bathroom among four people, especially when one of those people is a teenage girl, is a bit of a challenge, at least when you want to get moving in the morning and everyone has their own priorities. But we managed it nonetheless, and were actually checked out and on the road from Lunenberg by 8:30am this past Thursday. Less than a half hour later we had discovered the quaint Saltspray Cafe Chowder House in nearby Mahone Bay, where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and friendly country service.

Our further travels took us over Route 12 to the other side of Nova Scotia, to the small village of Port Williams, and more particularly to the Foxhill Cheese Farm. We had already found a brochure for the Foxhill Cheese Farm at a Nova Scotia Information Center in Peggy’s Cove, but had the opportunity to actually meet one of the owners, Jeanita Rand, at the small farmer’s market in Lunenburg yesterday. Jeanita was full of information on cheese making, and we hoped to get a small tour at her farm today. And we were not disappointed.

But, before I wander off in the direction of dairy production, let me say that Nova Scotia does a brilliant job in promoting all that the province has to offer to tourists. There are numerous Nova Scotia Information Centers scattered around the province, in key tourist locations, staffed by very knowledgeable people, and filled with a variety of free maps, brochures, guides, and other useful materials. Among these is a thick tome called the Doers & Dreamers Guide, and it’s loaded with suggested accommodations, lists of attractions, national park listings, advertisements, and more. The Doers & Dreamers Guide is organized by provincial region, and each section includes a list of must-see attractions, must-do activities, calendar of events, and even rainy day activities. Many hotels also have these guides freely available. In any case, should you be visiting Nova Scotia, make sure to visit one of the Nova Scotia Information Centers and load up on all you need to explore this gem of the Canadian Maritimes.

Back to dairy existence… The signs to Foxhill Cheese Farm were clear and visible as we made our way up from Wolfsville through Port Williams, and we arrived to find Jeanita in full protective gear (gloves, apron, hair cover) at the farm store. After having us sample a variety of the cheeses – they make several varieties of Gouda, a Parmesan-like cheese they call Parmesran (so as not to infringe on the Parmesan trademark, and because Jeanita’s last name is Rand, so it’s a slight play on that), and German-style “quark”, a cheese that’s half way between sour cream cream cheese. They also make fresh gelato. And everything we sampled – and we sampled a lot of cheese and gelato – was very good. Jeanita also gave us a short tour and overview of the cheese-making process, and we are now inspired to at least make our own curds at home. We left loaded with a bunch of cheeses and gelato for the road.

After a stop at the Look-Off – a high point overlooking the entire Annapolis valley (a what a nice view it was!), we made our way to Hall’s Harbor, a place known for some of the most extreme tides in the world. When we got to Hall’s Harbor we found that the tide had mostly already gone out and a number of lobster fishing boat were literally high and dry. We lunched at The Lobster Pound, where we got to pick out our own lobsters, and then have them cooked for us while we waited in the petite dining area. The kids split a 2.75 pound lobster, Linda had a pound-and-a-half one, and I had one just over two pounds. It took about a half hour to cook them all, but the wait was worth it. We had an excellent though rustic meal.

Our next stop was at the Domaine de Grand Pre Winery, just a bit northeast of Wolfsville along Route 1, where we took a short tour followed by a tasting. Grand Pre is owned and operated by a Swiss-German family, and thus appears to run quite efficiently. The grape varietals they use, such as L’Acadie Blanc and Marechal Foch, are ones that are better suited to the shorter growing season available in Nova Scotia. They also produce three different eisweins (also known as icewine, a sweet dessert wine) – a Vidal, a Muscat, and an Ortega. One thing we found interesting what that their primary red wine production is using steel barrels, something which we found to make those reds rather less complex (and for us, not enjoyable). They do offer a couple of reserve reds which are oaked, and we enjoyed those quite a bit more. Part of the lack of development of the regular reds might have also been that the tastings involved rather young, 2007 vintages. We ultimately ended up with a collection of three aged, oaky Foch reserves (a 2001, 2003, and 2004), a bottle of the New York Muscat icewine, and a couple bottles of an apple-based apertif sweet wine (Pomme d’Or) which Krystyana thought might go well with cheese.

In terms of Nova Scotian wines, we have had a number of different reds from the Jost Winery (which we will not have a chance to visit during our current travels), and found those to generally be quite good. Grand Pre was a bit of a disappointment in contrast, however, as we had to work harder to find enjoyable wines.

From Grand Pre we took the scenic route between Windsor and Truro, along the coast. The countryside was beautiful as we enjoyed fall foliage and great ocean vistas. One of the stops along the way was at the lighthouse in Walton. The lighthouse might more appropriately be called a light-shack, as it’s very tiny, maybe 20 feet high. But it was cute. Walton also claims the distinction of being the place with the highest tides in the world. We’re not sure if this is true, but certainly our wanderings among some broken down piers near the lighthouse during low tide suggested tides were very high in this area, as we saw damp seaweed far above our heads on the pier. During this particular exploration we almost lost Bas to the mud. He had decided to investigate a few feet off the gravel we had wandered onto and ended up nearly losing his shoes due to the suction of the still very damp and thick mud where he stood. Krystyana and I had to pull him out gently so that his shoes stayed on his feet.

Our leisurely drive ultimately brought us to the Willow Bend Motel in Truro, and probably our least expensive room night of the entire trip, with a $125 “suite” featuring two queen beds and a queen sofa bed. The motel was in good condition, but Linda wasn’t wild about the location – halfway between a silo and the local bus station.

Let me digress a little here and say that one pleasant surprise so far has been that every accommodation we’ve had in Nova Scotia so far has included free Internet service, typically both wireless and wired. I usually prefer the later because I plug-in my Linksys wireless access point travel router and then can get a stronger wireless signal in our room for both the notebooks we are traveling with, but having the access be free is a nice little additional treat in any case – far better than the $10-15/day that many U.S. hotels we frequent charge for access (although with my Boingo membership, that’s usually waived).

Dinner options in Truro seemed a bit limited – lots of fast food, as well as a Chinese restaurant offering “Canadian Chinese Cuisine”. We ended up at Fletcher’s, a small diner offering what’s typically referred to as “hardy” food – loaded with starches and carbs, with bits of protein mixed in. Even the grilled haddock was covered in pancake batter (we managed to get some “naked” haddock). Reasonable prices, but low-carb oriented people (like us) should eat elsewhere.

Thus ended our Friday in Nova Scotia.

 

The Anxiety of Not Planning – Two Days in Halifax

October 7th, 2008 at 9:47 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We were woken yesterday morning by the sounds of a bagpipe in the park across the street from our hotel. Seemed apropos in a place called New Scotland (Nova Scotia).

It was a beautiful day outside, and I pointed out to Bas the fact that fall foliage seemed to just be starting here in Halifax, and delighting in the fact that we had not missed the color change. Bas then pointed out to me that he had actually never been through fall foliage before. Kind of a sad thing to realize for a boy who was born in New Hampshire. However, we knew this was a deficiency in experience that we would be able to correct in the coming weeks.

The other new thing for Bas was that that until now he had always worn shoes with Velcro straps or which were just slip-ons. But for this trip, because we expected to do some hiking and simply climbing, we upgraded him to real hiking shoes with laces. So now he’s having to deal with also getting used to tying shoelaces – another new experience.

But the real trauma with Bas arose when he asked me what we were going to do for the day and I responded that I didn’t know. He was quite upset by my response. I asked him why, and his response was “Because you always know what we’re doing.”. Another sad truth for the day – I was raising a child that was just as anal retentive as I was. This spontaneous, unplanned travel thing will take more time to get used to for everyone.

When we first came up with the odd (for us) idea of going to the Canadian Maritimes without a particular agenda in mind, we were concerned that perhaps we might have selected a poor destination for this adventure and would not find enough to do, but as we speak to native Nova Scotians (the guide books refer to them as “Blue noses” but none of the Nova Scotians we spoke to would admit to that nickname), we are finding more and more interesting things to consume what little time we now appear to have here in Nova Scotia as well as in neighboring Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

We ended up with a late breakfast yesterday, then a climb up the hillside of the Halifax Citadel, an old military fortress which is also the highest point of Halifax. We learned quite a bit about the history of Halifax there, and also observed the firing of the noon cannon, a long standing tradition which was used to inform Haligonians (the name for those from Halifax) that it was exactly noon. Certainly one of the more interesting time-pieces we’ve come across.

We then wandered downhill towards the waterfront in the hopes of securing a lobstering tour at Murphy’s On The Water, but our hopes were not fulfilled as it appears to be too late in the season to enjoy such a tour. So we settled for a nice meal at Murphy’s Restaurant instead, enjoying our first bite of Nova Scotian seafood, including Digby scallops, a lobster, mussels, and a few other treats such as three different kinds of small whole potatoes – purple, red, and white. Service was pretty decent too. While the restaurant definitely seems to be mostly tourist oriented, we would recommend it to others looking for a nice seafood meal along the Halifax waterfront. And be sure to try the regional wines from the Jost winery and the sweet potato fries too.

After our leisurely lunch, we headed over to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where, as Linda put it, “we found out all about history that we never knew existed” including lots of details about the ill-famed Titanic, as well as the Great Explosion of Halifax in 1917 (a ship laden with explosives blew up after a collision and the resulting explosion caused incredible damage and carnage), and the battles against French occupied Louisberg to the north in Cape Breton.

We wandering back to our hotel via streets filled with eclectic shopping opportunities for a couple hour break at our hotel before dinner at one of Halifax’s finest resaturants, Onyx. We didn’t know it was one of Halifax’s best restaurants when we made our reservation, but after dining there, we have to say that the service was top-notch – better than at many “fine dining” restaurants we have dined at elsewhere. The menu and our meals were also excellent. We enjoyed duck, tenderloin, lamb, and monkfish, as well as a variety of appetizers and even a baked apple with a flambé filling for dessert. Onyx is highly recommended by The Traveling Richters.

After a good night’s sleep we returned to our exploration of Halifax, with a visit to the Halifax Natural History Museum. Another excellent museum, featuring a diverse set of exhibits blending information about local fauna, dentistry (great exhibit for kids), results of archeology in old Acadian lands, and mineralogy, among other things.

We walked back to the harbor for lunch at McKelvie’s, another restaurant specializing in seafood. Again, we had excellent service and great food. The seafood chowder was creamy and flavorful, while the seafood salad was close to perfect. And in terms of spice, the Szechuan scallops were just right (using local Digby scallops, of course). Again, another recommended restaurant in Halifax.

After our meal, we spent the afternoon at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia looking at the works of Tom Forrestal as well as Nova Scotian folk art, Inuit art, some very odd photography, and pieces from the Gallery’s permanent collection. We also discovered that the Gallery has a nice cafe by the (in our opinion, unfortunate) name of Cheapside Cafe. Regardless of the name, the Cheapside Cafe has great ambiance, and a very nice selection of desserts and coffees, and apparently serves some mean sandwiches at lunchtime.

Our evening walk brought us to our final dinner in Halifax at Opa Greek Taverna where we enjoyed a leisurely meal consisting entirely of mezithes (appetizers and small plates) and a nice bottle of a Boutari reserva. And again, amazingly, we had excellent service. We don’t know if we just lucked out with the service at the restaurants we chose for our lunches and dinners here in Halifax, or if waitstaff in Halifax just has better training, but either way we’ve been very impressed by the attentiveness and knowledge of the waitstaff serving us. And the food quality has been very good too. Mind you, as a counterpoint, the breakfasts at our hotel (the Lord Nelson) have been merely ordinary, both in terms of the food (weird scrambled eggs) and service (a bit slow).

We finished our final evening in Halifax weary from all of our walking, but pleased with all that we learned and saw. And as a bonus, it appears we might have a rental mini-van at a very good rental price all the way to Bar Harbor and possibly even beyond.

Considering our lack of planning, things went pretty well the last couple of days. Hopefully Bas will learn from that. And maybe I will too…