My wife and I agree that we’re getting too old for major road trips — but we did it again, another grueling Odyssey for old-timers. What tipped the balance was that our travel buddies insisted on not only doing all the driving but covering a lot of the expenses. What were we to do?
He said, “You plan it, I’ll pay.” So I did, laying it out with as few miles per day as possible, allowing time to enjoy the high spots. Our flight from SeaTac took us to Manchester, New Hampshire, where we picked up a car and drove north through Maine to Quebec City, home of Cirque du Soleil. We happened to arrive there during a major festival that excited the city.
There was a waterfront Cirque du Soleil performance, free. A parade in which individual parishes towed 25-foot mannequins representing important women in Quebec history, each surrounded by Cirque-wannabe performers. Street activity was Disneyland for grown-ups.
In a restaurant, we commented to a couple at an adjoining table that the wine list had few Canadian wines when British Columbia is putting out outstanding stuff. The man said, “You like Canadian wines? Come with me.” He steered me out the door and across the street to where his Escalade was illegally parked. Clearly a guy with some clout.
He opened the rear passenger door and rummaged, pulling out an unlabeled bottle of red. He thrust it into my hand and slapped me on the shoulder. “Here, enjoy. A gift from Canada. I made it myself.” He told us how he processes a half-ton of Napa Valley grapes each year just so he can share it with people like us.
That first evening in Quebec City ended with a stroll along the city’s boardwalk where street performers drew small crowds. A “words-can’t-describe-it” fireworks display bloomed across the shipping channel and then we retreated to our B&B to open our gift bottle of wine. It, too, was outstanding. An evening of superlatives.
Imagine my delight at having reason to trash memories of the bad old days when Quebecois separatists almost split Canadian unity. It was a time when French-speakers figured they had a bone to pick with English speakers and treated the Canadian Capitol as the seat of a hostile foreign power. That’s over.
Language is still an issue, but not a troublesome one. Strangely, the people of Quebec speak less English than the people of France do, but that’s not a problem. Without exception, our hosts tolerated our fumbling attempts with French with good humor.
We rounded the Gaspe Peninsula to hole up in the town of Gaspe which was hosting what seemed to be a continuation of Quebec City’s festival. The extravaganza pulled top talent from Montreal and Toronto to fuel a party that stretched Gaspe’s normal 16,000 population to 35,000. The street below our hotel rocked into the wee hours with everything from R&B to mariachi bands.
The road around the peninsula offered constant marine views so we stayed alert to whale sightings. Everyone had said, Oh, yeah (in French), we always have whales out in front. Belugas, Sperm whales, Minke, Fin whales, Blues, Bottlenose, Atlantic right whales. We have them all. Our four sets of eyes spotted nothing. What’s more, with the Seaway being Canada’s main access to the Atlantic and the only U.S. route to the sea for Great Lakes industries, how was it that we spotted a total of only two ships?
Our way led southward through New Brunswick and toward Nova Scotia. At noon we phoned my friend’s office manager who doubled as travel advisor. We’d let her know where we’ll be at the end of a day’s run and she fixed us up with lodgings. Simple. I could get used to this kind of travel.
No Starbucks in Eastern Canada so our caffeine-addicted companions made do with Tim Horton’s brew. With few fast food joints, we settled for any place with the word “family” on its sign. Order French-fries in French Canada and you’re served Poutine. Visualize a bed of fries drizzled all over with melted white cheese, then topped with brown gravy.
Do not, repeat, DO NOT order fish soup there. I love it when done right so it figured that the Gaspe’s seafaring folks would cook up a good one. Three trials came out the same. Chunks of haddock and potato swimming in warm milk. No salt, pepper, onions or celery to come to its rescue.
Nova Scotia makes a good climax to any trip through the northeast provinces. Web searches for Louisbourg Fortress, the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, Halifax, St. John and Lunenburg all deserve more than casual mention as do the rushing tides of the New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy.
We closed the loop, arriving in Manchester during the first week of lobster season. So for our last dinner we celebrated a friendship that endured two weeks in a car together with wonderfully delicious lobsters. Yummm.
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