Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hardnose the Highway

 Back across the Canso Causeway

We left Sydney early Sunday morning and determined to do the trip in one day. We took the Trans-Canada through New Brunswick this time, crossing back into the States at Houlton, Maine and ignoring David Myles's admonition not to "Drive Right Through".

Drive Right Through

We arrived back in Beverly at about 9:00 PM. Quite a trip.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Farewell Tour and The Chieftains

Since Saturday was our last full day on Cape Breton, we decided to revisit some of our favorite places on the island. We grabbed a quick coffee at the Quality Inn and headed south. Unfortunately, John bypassed the gas station just before the Seal Island Bridge, and there wouldn't be another until we reached Baddeck...if then.

 Big Baddeck John

We passed a sign reading "Baddeck 20K" just as the range indicator dipped below 10 miles. John did a lot of coasting and very little braking, and we sputtered into Baddeck Esso with the range indicator readout at 0. That's zero. Nada. Nil.

Having averted the gas crisis, we made a return trip to Bean There for more Irish creme coffee (Paul), more pumpkin spice latte (John) and more blueberry scones (both).

Our next destination was Mabou, where we had stopped on Tuesday to visit the Red Shoe Pub. It was a bit of a ride, and after the stress of the gas episode we were able to conjure up some more appetite. This was my favorite spot on the trip, and not just for the big chunks of andouille sausage in the chili. John had the special, which was puttenesca alla spaghetti--not quite up to Hanover Street standards, but not bad.

 The route back to Sydney includes the Seal Island Bridge

Thus fortified, we headed back to Sydney to rest up for the final concert, "50 Years of Celtic Charm", to be held at Center 200, a casino and hockey arena.

A number of opening acts preceded the Chieftains. John dismissed fiddler/trumpeter Daniel Lapp for playing "new age crap". Wendy MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond were great again, but we had seen them Friday night. Glasgow's iconic Battlefield Band was a bit of a disappointment to me, although the fervor among the Scots in the audience was palpable when the two bagpipers commenced together. It was a night for the Chieftains, celebrating 50 years with Paddy Moloney at the helm.

Moloney's genius is not just his music, most of which is performed  on a tin whistle (with a more serious turn on the uilllean pipes). His diminutive stature belies a huge and gracious personality, and his generosity and willingness to share the stage with band members and guests is legendary. Long time member Matt Molloy was up front with his flute, and stalwart bodhran player Kevin Conneff came forward to sing a capella in his remarkable tenor.

The guests were treated with equal deference. Guest musicians on keyboards, harp, guitar, and fiddle were all given a chance to shine and receive Molloy's benediction. A wild clog dancer dazzled the crowd during "Ottawa Valley Dance" and then was joined by his brother, who had been playing fiddle. Energetic step-dancer Cara Butler led a stepping cadre of local girls onto the stage and then through the audience, where they recruited an Irish-dancing conga line for the grand finale.

Through it all, Paddy Moloney kept up a litany of quips. After Kevin Conneff's solo, he declared, "When Kevin sings, we just hope for the best." Introducing singer Alyth MacCormack, he noted, "She's from the Isle of Lewis, where they speak Scots Gaelic and make Scotch whisky...I wouldn't mind a drop right about now." When the Battlefield Band charged back on stage for the finale, he feigned fright, then recovered, quipping, "For a moment I thought you were English."

And when the appreciative crowd called The Chieftains back for an encore, Paddy scolded us, "Pathetic. Don't you people have homes to go to?"

Louisburg and "Celtic Women"

Friday morning. We scouted around the port city of Sydney a bit, locating the Cruise Ship Terminal and its giant fiddle, a promising pub, and good place for breakfast, the Maple Leaf Restaurant. Then we decided to go to Louisburg to visit the re-creation of a French colonial fort. This involved a 20-minute drive southeast along the Louisburg highway.

The world's largest fiddle

One might expect that the area's most well-known tourist attraction would remain open during the area's biggest annual event, but one would be wrong--the fort had closed for the season. We did some exploring of the area and drove out to the Louisburg lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Canada, now automated and supported by a trust and volunteers.

Louisburg Light

With no fort to explore, we decided to take the long way back and pass through Glace Bay, the site of that evening's concert. Along the way we passed Pensioner's Point, and as pensioners we felt obliged to preserve the moment for posterity.

My new friend doesn't talk much, but he dresses for the weather

It's good to be a pensioner

We had tickets for another local group dinner, this time at nearby Donkin, but the idea of another meal of overcooked meat, frozen vegetables, and instant mashed potatoes didn't appeal. We headed back to Sydney to the pub we'd located in the morning, The Governor's Pub and Eatery. John had fish and chips, while I tried the special, pizza with pulled pork, which I washed down with a pint.

We had high expectations for the Friday concert at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay. The concert featured a formidable cast of female musicians from Cape Breton and from Ireland (Nuala Kennedy), Newfoundland (The Once), and Scotland. Local women Mary Jane Lamond (vocalist) and Wendy MacIsaac (fiddle, bouzouki, mandocello) are neighbors who record together. It was fun to watch the ultra-feminine Kennedy interacting with the outdoorsy MacIsaac and the gender-neutral Sylvia LeLievre.

Rita MacNeil is the grand matriarch of Cape Breton music. She carries more than 300 pounds these days, and confided to the full house that she had fallen in the dressing room, "and even worse, I took the curtains down with me." Nevertheless, she limped onto the stage, a legendary songstress and raconteur.

The high point of the evening came from two groups with successful recording careers. Madison Violet features two women from Cape Breton Island who blend their voices and guitars beautifully.

The Once is composed of two young men who play a variety of instruments and a young woman who sings. All hail from Newfoundland.

As it turned out, our high expectations were not high enough.

Apple-glazed Pork Dinners and "Island Neighbours"

After a breakfast of Eggs Florentine and more bacon, we left the Maven Gypsy Inn and headed south toward Baddeck. We decided to take the long way around St. Ann's Harbor to drop in at the Gaelic College, the site of the nightly Festival Club where musicians go to meet and jam after the concerts. Along the way we ran into some road repair and were stopped by a flagman, so we rolled down the window to chat. I hadn't said three words before she said, "Oh, you're from Boston."  She asked if we'd visited Sew Inclined, and when we said we'd found the owner, Barbara, quite entertaining, she told us,"Well, that's my sister. She loves her job."

John at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's

The Gaelic College is a small, attractive campus with a thriving museum. The museum gift store feature some beautiful musical instruments, especially fiddles, Scottish bagpipes, uilleann pipes, and bodhrans. Also offered are kilts and tams for the many Scots and Scottish descendants who frequent the store.

Baddeck Light House

We soon reached the village of Baddeck, an inland port on the Bras D'Or salt water lakes. After we'd walked around a bit despite some high winds, the sky darkened and threatened an imminent cloudburst. We made a hasty retreat into the Bean There coffee shop, and had coffee and delicious blueberry scones while a fast-moving storm pelted the village.

After the rain had subsided, we walked up to the "wee church on the hill", where CBC radio was spending the week interviewing performers. We sat in on an interview with Irish harpist Loise Kelly, who would answer the interviews questions with both words and melodies on her harp.

 After the rain: Paul and Baddeck Light

After the interview, we drove back to Sydney and registered at the Quality Inn. We then went out in search of the Sydney River United Protestant Church and the evening's supper and concert. After a short delay, during which we turned around in the church parking lot without realizing we were there, we sat down to the apple-glazed pork dinner we had reserved. We'd thought it would be fun to eat among the natives, and it was--we became instant celebrities. The local people were welcoming and intensely curious about these brothers from "away". I had to answer so many questions that it was difficult to eat my dinner. The food was mediocre, but the company was superb.

We found our seats upstairs for the Island Neighbours concert. The opening act was Monica MacNeil playing traditional music on soprano saxophone. She was accompanied by her husband Sheumas of the Barra MacNeils. They were followed by fiery local fiddler Dwayne Cote. After intermission, Vishten, featuring two young woman from PEI and a fiddler from the Madeleine Islands, performed some wonderful Acadian music, some of it sung in French, or at least in Acadian patois.

Vishten at Festival Club

Everyone was back on stage for the finale, reacting to the spirited crowd, All the women who had performed did some step dancing. Not to be outdone, Dwayne Cote, with his bow in one hand and fiddle in the other, leaped forward and almost danced right out of his pants.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cape North: Whale Watch and "Strings and Things"

Our hosts at that Maven Gypsy Inn turned out to be a (presumably) gay couple, Cody and Shane. They served us a breakfast sandwiches with sides of bacon, the first of a series of bacon-inclusive meals. We then drove 2k south to the nearest gas station at a general store. The attendant suggested we visit "Sew Inclined", a hat shop where the proprietor had made hats for Elton John and his son. Since John's wife Kathy collects hats, we stopped by, and had a riotous time with Barbara. the owner and a real character.

On our drive up the coast to Cape North, we stopped in at the Inn at Celtic, one of Cape Breton's finer establishments, in Ingonish. Farther North, we still had some time before the scheduled whale watch, so we took a little side trip to Dingwall and had lunch at a little place called the Celtic Touch. John had the homemade carrot soup, while I continued the bacon theme with a blt on their homemade bread. Our server, Ruby, seemed dour and moody when we arrived, but by the time we left she was laughing, smiling, and even dancing a little jig.

Oshan's Whale Watch--Leaving North Bay

We headed to North Bay and boarded Oshan's whalewatch boat, a 35 foot trawler with benches for about 20 people. The Captain headed northeast along the cliffs, following a winding course among rock formations. He soon reached a spot along the cliffs where waterfall cascades down the iron-stained walls.

The boat then headed out to deeper water, and soon we were among a pod of pilot whales, probably averaging about 20 feet in length. They were soon joined by numerous dolphins. We had started back when suddenly the tail of a large humpback slapped the surface about 30 feet off the starboard side. We saw the whale breech twice more before he disappeared and we returned to port.

A large pilot whale swims beside the boat

For dinner we stopped at the Chowder House next to the lighthouse in Neil's Harbor. We both had fried seafood, haddock for me, seafood platter for John. He also sampled a local dish, poutine, which consists of French fries smothered in cheese and brown gravy--not for the faint of heart.

Lighthouse, Neil's Harbor

Our first concert was at the North Highlands Elementary School in Aspy Bay. The Fionia String Band from Denmark started the show. I thought they were pretty good until the second act, two local fiddlers, blew them out of the water. After an intermission, the featured performers were The Outside Track, with members from Scotland (on accordian), Ireland (on guitar), British Columbia (on lead vocals), no fixed address (on harp), and Rankin cousin Mairi on fiddle, harmonies and step-dancing. They were terrific, although Mairi Rankin may have to take out a restraining order--my brother was that enthralled. He's sending her some photographs he took of her band at Lunenburg.
Joke told by local fiddler Brenda Stubbert:
Old Mrs. MacIsaac loved to speed around her nursing home as fast as she could in her wheelchair. To humor her, the staff would periodically pull her over and pretend to write a speeding ticket, handing her a piece of tissue or other paper. One day, after such a "traffic stop", she sped off again, only to encounter old Mr. MacKenzie, holding his robe open with all his equipment hanging out. "Oh, no! Mrs. MacIsaac cries. "It's the breathalizer!"

The Ceilidh Trail

 Patty's Place: The Traveler's Special for me, the BIG Breakfast for John

After a sumptuous breakfast at Patty's Place Restaurant in Hillsborough, my brother and I continued southeast and crossed into Nova Scotia at about noon. We followed the trans-Canada highway and reached the Canso Causeway, crossing into Cape Breton and taking the longer, more scenic Ceilidh Trail along the island's north/west coast.

 The Canso Causeway

The Ceilidh Trail is a part of the Cabot Trail named for the numerous Celtic singers, dancers, fiddlers, pipers, and other musicians who live along its length. Ranking high among them is the Rankin family. Five of the Twelve Rankin children formed a highly successful musical group that recorded and performed together for ten years, Unfortunately, tragedy struck the family: Elder brother John was killed in a traffic accident several years ago, and middle sister Raylene recently succumbed to cancer.

The Rankins sing, dance, and play at Neil's Cove

Four of the Rankin sisters opened a pub, the Red Shoe, in their home village of Mabou. My brother and I stopped there at about 3:00 for a late lunch. John had local mussels and a glass of wine, while I opted for chili with andouille sausage and the locally brewed Red Shoe ale. We enjoyed our food immensely, but found ourself wishing it was later in the day when the ceilidh begins.

 In front of the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou

Leaving the pub, we continued along past majestic coastal scenery and the promise of a spectacular sunset.

  Looking back along the Cabot Trail

We passed the quaint village of Cheticamp, the site of John's previous Cape Breton whale watching expedition. The Cabot Trail provides frequent overlook areas for photographers, so we stopped at one as the sun was getting low in the sky.

 We had turned northeastward into Cape Breton National Park by the time the sun had set. We reached our lodging, the Maven Gypsy Inn, well after dark and with 19 miles of range left in the gas tank. The range readout would continue to be a matter of concern for the remainder of the week, as my brother likes to gamble--especially when it's my turn to pay.

Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick

My brother John proposed a road trip to Cape Breton Island, which constitutes the northernmost section of Nova Scotia, to attend the Celtic Colours Music and Cultural Festival. We left Beverly on Monday, October 7th, headed north through Maine to Calais, and crossed into New Brunswick, following the Fundy Trail along the coast to Fundy National Park.

The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, and the tide ebbs and flows at twenty miles per hour. The continual surge of fast water  erodes the rocky shores and leaves freestanding "flowerpots" with full-sized trees growing and the top.

For a few a hours surrounding low tide, you can walk on the sea floor. People pile stones into cairns here to mark their presence. I've seen similar cairns at the Sedona vortexes, at the Block Island labyrynth, and at Thoreau's cabin site at Walden Pond.

This block of concrete, probably an old mooring block, is covered with cairns.

The Hopewell Rocks, referred to locally as "flowerpots" because of the flora on top, look to me like muffins when exposed by the ebbtide.

My brother is dwarfed by the bases of the Hopewell Rocks.

We stayed in a chalet in the National Park after a supper of seafood chowder in the nearby village of Alma.