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I was in Newfoundland in 2016. It’s a lovely place and, surprisingly, just over four hours from London by air. In the days of refuelling on transatlantic flights, its airport at Gander was well used; not much since, though it still has a huge capacity. The town isn’t a Newfoundland highlight. I drove through it twice. Without stopping. If I’d known its people had shown so much humanity in a world wrought with anger and hate on 9/11, I’d have probably stopped to pay my own tribute. But I didn’t.

It became the destination for 38 planes containing 7000 passengers, diverted after the attacks. At first they stayed aboard, expecting to move on to their original destinations shortly. When it became clear this was more than a short stop, they disembarked. The population of Gander, not much more than the total of stranded passengers, mobilised to provide shelter, food, clothing, phones, eventually inviting them into their homes, virtually adopting them. Relationships developed, but five days later they were waving goodbye.

It was the 10th anniversary, when residents and passengers were reunited, that gave the writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein the idea to tell their story. They interviewed both locals and the once stranded and created this extraordinary musical telling some of their stories. You might wonder why the musical style seems Irish folk, think Once, but I remember hearing this sound on my travels. Many Newfoundlanders are of Irish descent, the province only joined Canada after the second world war, and it is unlike any other part of Canada. What’s surprising is how earnest the show isn’t, and how funny it is. Though it’s often moving, I didn’t find it too sentimental; in fact I would say its one of the most exhilarating, uplifting shows I’ve seen.

A very simple staging, with some trees representing the island and chairs to create every location, leave the twelve actors to tell the stories of the many more they play unencumbered. The music hardly stops and there’s great pace and energy to Christopher Ashley and Kelly Devine’s staging. It’s breathless, grabbing you quickly and never letting go for 100 unbroken minutes. It struck me that now was a good time to see it here, to remind us that there is human kindness in this divided, angry world.

A joyful experience born of tragic events. Very much a musical for our times.

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Photos of this second leg https://goo.gl/photos/3YzNorKBcV3TyjUo6

Flying from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Halifax, Nova Scotia, gave me a real feeling of going on holiday, even though I was already on holiday. When I arrived in Halifax it was a bit of a shock to the system  – a much bigger place, more traffic, a new car – but I really took to the city and felt very much at home in no time. My downtown boutique hotel meant I could have my first car-less day while I explored the city on foot, starting at The Citadel, home for a series of fortresses for the last 250 years, the latest some 150 years old. You see instantly why its there, a strategic location overlooking the enormous Atlantic harbour, able to see any enemy within miles and miles. Now a National Historic Site, the staff, somewhat disconcertingly, dress as Highland soldiers in kilts, though grubbier than a real soldier ever would be! Halifax seems to fall down the steep hill from here into the deep-water port. I loved the Art Gallery, with a strong focus on aboriginal and folk art, the highlight of which was the relocted painted house of folk artist Maud Lewis, crippled with juveneile arthritis, who managed to make a living selling at her doorstep, but I was disappointed in the much lauded Maritime Museum (well, apart from the Titanic deck chair and other artifacts).

A side-trip along the south shore was a treat, to the fishing village of Peggy’s Cove, which has its own artist, Finnish born William deGarthe, who sculpted an extraordinary 30-meter frieze on the rocks in his back garden, Mahone Bay (with the Scarecrow Festival – on almost every lamp post and in almost every garden, including ‘scarecrow’ baseball teams, Lance Armstrong and Donald Trump! – a real bonus) and Lunenberg, pretty but too touristy for me.

I decided to take the longer, more scenic route along the east shore to my next destination, and that was a good idea. I’d flown over its densely forested landscape of inlets and lakes and it was just as beautiful on the ground, with the beaches of Taylor Head Provincial Park devoid of people and the ‘museum town’ of Sherbrooke ghostly now closed for the season. Across the Canso Causeway to Cape Breton Island and I was in lakeside Baddeck, in pole position for an adventure in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Cabot Trail is a 200-mile drive into and through the park, from coast to coast and sea level to mountaintop, seascapes rocks and beaches, mountainscapes bogs and forests. The weather could have been clearer, but it was still a great trip.

The journey to Prince Edward Island started well and I was making such good progress I decided to try for an earlier ferry, but that, and the one I planned for, were cancelled, meaning a 4- hour wait or a 120-mile detour. I chose the latter, across the extraordinary 8-mile 2-lane new bridge which I was planning to leave the island on two days later. First impressions of PEI are striking – it’s all very clean, tidy and manicured. When I got to Charlottetown, I decided to go walking to make something of the day, but it started raining (and I’d uncharacteristically come unprepared) and my indoor targets were either closed for rennovation of impossible to find. Though the day ended with a lovely meal, I have to say I’ve has better days. Lots of them.

It was redeemed by a lovely day-trip to the north of the island for the coastal scenery of the PEI National Park, Green Gables (as in Anne of ……a bit lost on me as I’d never read the book) and the quirky working harbour of North Rustico, where I ate great seafood at the Blue Mussel Cafe before returning to Charlottetown for my first culture in 18 days (not counting The Beatles documentary film Eight Days a Week in Halifax), a musical called Belle Sours, originally a Quebecois novel, then a French-language musical, now an English musical adaptation, which I rather liked. It was a chamber piece that was a bit lost in a 1100-seat theatre with an audience of c.100. Quite why they programmed a three-week run with an overall capacity of some 20,000 in a town with a population of 35,000 on an island with a population of 150,000 after the tourist season has virtually ended is beyond me! Perhaps I should offer theatrical consultancy. The following morning, my innkeeper suggested its quirky Quebecoisness had kept locals away, a good point given PEI is a somewhat conservative place.

I dedided to break the journey to Miramichi in New Brunswick, the third and last of the three Maritime / four Atlantic provinces, in Hopewell Rocks, as the tides that day were particularly convenient (impressed by the research?) enabling me to see them at high tide and walk amongst them at low tide within two hours, with lunch in-between. It’s quite a phenomenon and well worth the detour. By the time I got to Miramichi I was wondering why. The original plan was to visit the Mount Carleton Provincial Park, but I’d subsequently realised it was a very long drive and overly ambitious. Miramichi is one of those towns, like Grand Falls-Windsor in Newfoundland, created for administrative convenience by merging two or more existing ones, in this case Chatham, where the Cunard brothers started their ship-building empire, and Newcastle, where I was staying, which gave the Beaverbrook dynasty to the world, the current incarnation of which are tax-dodging gutter journalists who preside over the odious Daily Mail. As you can tell, I’m a fan. So, what to do in this infamous but relatively dull location?

Well, some bedtime research and an early morning phone call turned disaster into truimph. I immersed myself in the fascinating history and culture of the Acadians, driving along the north coast to Village Historique Acadien where I was the only visitor so got a private tour of this village, created by relocating homes from all over New Brunswick to tell the Acadian story and create one of the best outdoor museums of its kind. At the beginning of the 18th century, the English (sometimes being Welsh is useful!) made them choose between an oath of allegiance or deportation, most choosing the latter and returning to Europe or going to Quebec (still French). Some famously travelled to Louisiana via the St Lawrence & the Mississippi, becoming the Cajuns we know today.The Acadian story proved just as enthralling as the Vikings and the Basque Whalers. The new Acadians are fiercly nationalistic, will only speak French and most fly the flag (a tricolour with a papal yellow star to emphasise their religion!). My new best friend Roger recommended having lunch with them at Chez Isa, where Madam (who true to form spoke no English) produced a lovely set lunch (no choices!) of vegetable & barley soup, salt cod with potatoes, an apple desert and coffee for £8. It was heaving and I was the only visitor and I loved it. The return journey was via the other coast of this north-west tip and I arrived ‘home’ deeply satisfied after a fabulous day!

En route to my next destination, I took in two more national parks, both coastal – the very underrated Kouchibouguac and the somewhat overrated Fundy. The autumn colours I first encountered en route to the far north were now everywhere, and it was only the first day of October. Journey’s had become distracting but uplifting with all the colours. I overnighted in Sussex before I headed to my final destination, Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, and before there to the nearby Kings Landing, the loyalist equivalent of Village Acadien Historiqe, but fully open with costumed inhabitants and demonstrations of long lost crafts and other visitors. I love this type of museum and this was one of the best. It was Sunday, so Fredericton was closed except for the unfortunately named Beaverbrook Gallery which had a fine collection of Canadian painters I’d never heard of. It was warm and sunny, so mooching around the quiet streets and along the riverside was thoroughly enjoyable.

Another 2000 mikes in the Maritimes and my planned 4000 mikes has been exceeded before I even cross the border into New England for the third leg and another holiday. This second leg was another treat. Atlantic Canada is a very underrated and welcoming destination. Think about it…….

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I appear to have taken a year off blogging my travels; I’m not sure why. There was the wonderful five-week trip to South Africa & Namibia in October / November (with a stopover in Dubai), a superb trio of safari’s in Kenya in February, lovely island hopping to seven of the Greek Cyclades in May, and weekends in Hannover / Bremen, Luxembourg and Liege, one pre-Brexit and two more embarassing post-Brexit visits. This is a 5-week 4-5000 mile road-trip, so a travelogue is compulsory to avoid excommunication from the Wanderlust Association, and this is the first of three parts, two in the four Atlantic provinces of Canada and one in four New England states at Fall.  Here goes……

The first astonishing fact is that it is only 4h30m flying time from London to St. Johns. It’s probably the best entry point into the North American continent – it took one hour from landing to downtown, including immigration, baggage claim, customs, car hire collection, and driving to my destination! All very civilised. The second astonishing fact is that the province has only been part of Canada since 1949, until then a colony, then an autonomous Dominion of the British Commonwealth. The province consists of the island of Newfoundland and Labrador, the earternmost part of the North American continent, in total 50% bigger than the British Isles but with less than 1% of the population – 500,000 people (90% in Newfoundland and just 10% in the remote and sparcely populated Labrador).

Photos first https://goo.gl/photos/if5inoQgKYNeMHVa6

I started with a couple of days in the capital, St. Johns, a busy working harbour entered through a narrow channel. There’s no gentrified waterside, but more bars and restaurants per square foot or per person than just about anywhere else, and colourful terraces of wooden houses on steep hills leading down to the port. Amongst its attractions is a unique museum / gallery /archives called The Rooms, with great harbour views, and a geological museum cut into one of the oldest hills on the planet, with the rock itself as its walls. It was a nice couple of days aclimatising before I set off on my first long drive NW to the opposite coast, a 7-hour 450-mile journey which I broke overnight in Grand Falls, which weren’t. More conifers than you normally see in a lifetime, littered with many lakes and rivers (many of which were called ‘ponds’ and ‘brooks’ in a somewhat understated way). An attractive landscape, until I got close to my destination of Rocky Harbour, when it suddenly became spectacular.

Gros Morne National Park is an extraordinary combination of geological phenomena, diversity of vegetation and an awful lot of water. On the first afternoon and the following morning, the overcast skies didn’t do it justice, but when the sun shone it was a real treat. It’s highlight was The Tablelands, the mantle of the earth thrust to the surface by continental drift. Amazing. Then there was the lovely fishing port of Trout River, the many waterfalls, the lighthouse at Lobster Cove and extraordinary rock formations at Green Point. I had to drag myself out.

The journey to my next destination was a return to the landscape of the St Johns – Deer Lake road, until it got close to my destination, the Northern tip, when things again looked up. L’Anse aux Meadows is where the Vikings first landed in North America, 500 years before the other Europeans credited with ‘discovering’ it. Though there is little visible evidence, as the digs have been covered with sod, there are lots of artifacts and faithful recreations of buildings (based on Icelandic ones buried in volcanic ash) and a palpable sense of awe at their achievement in crossing the North Atlantic in small boats. They first encountered The Labrador coast, naming it Markland, and then Newfoundland, which they appeared to call Vinland, though this was probably after the vines which they saw on their sorties to what is now New Brunswick. Butternut stones from there were found at L’Anse, which seems to confirm this theory. L’Anse also had one of Newfoundland’s finest restaurants which I dined at on my first night. I tried to book to return on the second evening, but was told they were closing for the season that evening, which left me with a combination of feelings – disappointment that I couldn’t experience it again coupled with delight that I’d experienced it at all.

In nearby St Anthony, I immersed myself in the life of Wilfred Grenfell, a British doctor-missionary who brought medicine to the poverty-striken Labrador people and went on to provide hospitals, nursing stations (one of which, now a B&B, I stayed in on my next stop), childrens homes and dietary help, eventually virtually running healthcare for Labrador and the North-west of Newfoundland based on donations, whose facilities were only recently handed over to the state. I visited his home and museum and in the now enormous hospital, some stunning ceramic murals.

I’d been becoming increasingly nervous about my visit to Labrador, with tales of the treacherous straits to cross and cancelled feries because of 90km winds, risking being stranded and causing havoc to the subsequent itinerary. The crossing over was a bit choppy, but the return was like glass, and it was well worth it. There’s only 50 miles of paved road, so I was relieved my original plan of driving the 100 miles to stay at Battle Harbour was scuppered by their season closure. It was worth the trip for the climb into the light of the 18th century lighthouse at Point Amour and even more so for the visit to the 16th century Basque whaling station at Red Bay. You don’t associate North America with fascinating history, but their story was as captivating as the Vikings, making an annual trip across the Atlantic, catching whales and turning them into oil to take back to light Europe’s lamps and keep the gentry clean! Labrador was a bit like stepping back in time – the B&B used one of those sliding credit card machines that takes an impression of your card and the Ferry Office printed tickets on paper with those punch-hole margins!

I broke the journey east in Rocky Harbour again and was greeted by my B&B hosts like a long lost friend, all very welcoming, as have all six B&B’s on this leg. Almost as soon as I got to my final stop, Trinity, in the north-east, I regretted I was only staying one night. It’s a delightful fishing village, seeped in well preserved history (including a Victorian post-box still in use!) and I had a room at a lovely inn which had another of Newfoundland’s best restaurants where I was invited to join a couple (both Vets) from Ontario for dinner. The Canadian’s really are welcoming and genuinely friendly, but the Newfie accent can be very strong, particularly in the west and north. I had one ‘conversation’ with a filling station attendant where neither of us understood a word the other was saying, and I was baffled at breakfast one morning by a safety trainer; when he left I told a Toronto couple that I didn’t understand a word he said and they responded ‘us too’!

A lovely start. Two thousand miles behind me and it’s on to Halifax, Nova Scotia (by air), a new car and my second adventure. I’ve already decided it will start with a driving-free Friday tomorrow…….

 

 

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