Wednesday, August 20, 2008

29. The Maritime Provinces - Part I

After a week of Maine rain, Mother Nature continued to dump occasional showers, interspersed with periods of sunshine, as we rolled down Highway 9 toward Canada. By the time we arrived at the border town of Calais, it was raining heavily. Narrow streets, construction and traffic made it difficult to find our way to New Brunswick. To further complicate matters, an International Day celebration was going on and traffic was being detoured around the downtown to make way for a parade. The main street was lined with people in lawn chairs in the rain, waiting for the parade to go by. We missed that photo-op.

We were prepared for anything at the border. We gave simple responses to questions about beer, guns, cigarettes, pets and our destination. They accepted our answers, confiscated Bonnie’s main weapon (pepper spray), and sent us on our way. After all the effort to get passports and other documentation together, it was a little disappointing that they ignored it all and didn’t even check our driver’s licenses or other I.D. I guess we look too much like harmless American tourists. Or, maybe it had something to do with this summer’s 60% drop in American tourism.

We crossed the border into the Atlantic time zone and continued up the New Brunswick coast. We liked the looks of the port city of Saint John and decided to stay a couple days to look around. It’s a fascinating city with lots of interesting old buildings and a nice waterfront boardwalk and city market.
Saint John is on the Bay of Fundy, which separates New Brunswick from Nova Scotia and boasts the world’s highest tides. People come from all over the world to see the Fundy tides. A popular local tourist attraction is Reversing Falls. It looked like rapids to us, but it’s a falls to them. The incoming tide rises above the water level in the Saint John River and causes the river to flow backwards over the rapids until the tide goes out again. Thus the name Reversing Falls. Watching the tides change is very gradual and somewhat like watching paint dry. But it was interesting to see a river flow in two different directions.
Saint John (pop. 70,000) became the first incorporated city in Canada in 1785. It has lots of history and many very old buildings and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, there was no indication of the type of restoration effort that was evident in cities like Charleston or Savannah. Some of the large Victorian homes have been restored and are beautiful, but it was sad to see many others in marginal condition and deteriorating but still being occupied.
The city has done some nice things around its waterfront and has a lot more work to do to realize its rehab potential.
We left Saint John on the day that three large cruise ships were scheduled to arrive. Good timing. We stopped at the first RV Park in Nova Scotia, near the town of Amherst. It was a convenient location for several day trips in different directions.

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is the smallest of Canada’s provinces. It was a true island, served only by a ferry until 1997. That’s when it was connected to the mainland by the seven-mile long Confederation Bridge over the Northumberland Strait. Building the bridge was a public/private partnership and, according to the tourist info center, the bridge will be privately owned for 35 years and the company that built it is allowed to collect tolls to recover construction costs. We paid the toll of $41.50 (round trip), which was about $20 cheaper than taking the ferry.
The island has plenty of forests, dairy farms and lots of potato fields. The coastline is picturesque with some rocky red bluffs and country two-lane roads criss-cross in all directions. The rolling terrain is very pretty but the island is fairly flat. Its highest point is only 499 ft.
Green Gables is Prince Edward Island’s main claim to fame. A series of books written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, including “Anne of Green Gables”, brought attention to the farm where she lived in Cavendish, P.E.I. and the beautiful places she described in her books. We visited her birthplace (1874) in New London and toured the Green Gables house and farm in Cavendish, which included a walk in the “haunted forest.” Although neither of us had read the “Anne” books, it was a very interesting place to visit. The scenic north coast of P.E.I. has some nice beaches and lots of bright green grass above the fragile eroding red cliffs. The red earth (iron oxide) is found throughout the island. We followed the coastline through P.E.I. National Park and small fishing villages along the way. It was a comfortable drive. The roads were decent and there wasn’t much traffic to contend with.
We stopped for a photo of the lighthouse at Rustico and came across a quaint little waterfront café and a couple excellent seafood croissant sandwiches. Note the tilted building in the photo. We saw a lot of tilted buildings of all kinds in Maine and Canada. Bad foundations maybe?
The capital of P.E.I. is Charlottetown. It’s not a large city (pop. 32,000) but has a very nice waterfront, lots of shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and old neighborhoods of row houses.
Some of the oldest government buildings in Canada are also in Charlottetown. One of the oldest is Province House (below) where the meetings were held and papers created that led to Canada’s confederation in 1867. The Provincial Legislature still meets in the building and many of the rooms have been restored to their 1860s character.
One of the most outstanding buildings in Charlottetown is St. Dunstan’s Basilica with its triple spires and Gothic Cross design. The Gothic structure was built mostly of local stone. The interior walls and large support columns are a light green Vermont marble. Very pretty. The main alter is also marble and is 37 feet high. This particular church has a long and difficult history, dating back to 1721. I won’t even try to describe it. In recognition of its history, St. Dunstan’s Cathedral was raised to the level of Basilica in 1929.

We couldn't pass up a tour of the city on a red double-decker bus that was brought from London in 1973. We got a front row seat on the upper level for the one-hour very slow ride through town. We saw everything from the city center to the neighborhoods, suburbs, hospital, college and shopping centers. For a city of this size, it was an excellent and thorough tour and a good way to finish off our whirlwind tour of Prince Edward Island.