December 22, 2009

2009 Travel: In Review

Mea culpa. I had intended to get further than I did in my trip dispatches for the year. While I neglected the week-by-week summary of my summer schedule, I'm happy to report it was a busy, beautiful time. And maybe I can make it up to you, dear reader, by this brief retrospective (with pics!) of the Year That Was. As always, you may click on the thumbnails for a closer look.

After the unrelenting winter of January, what a difference: In Miami for Valentine's Day, at a very authentic (no English!) Cuban place. Flamenco dancing. Totally romantic -- except for the presence of my Mom, Dad, brother, sister, and sister-in-law. Yes, it was the launching point for a family cruise: first to San Juan, then to St. Thomas and St. Maarten, doubling back to Miami.

While I'm not sure cruising was really my thing, there certainly were some lovely places to see. Here's one from each island:
img_2996.jpgPuerto Rico
img_0010_sm.jpgSt. Thomas
img_0070_sm.jpgSt. Martin (French side)

Stayed close to home (lest you wonder from the splendor of this retrospective: I am not independently wealthy). Furthest we went was the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park. Here's a picture of some rare -- seriously -- Sable Island horses:

The spring was a relative travel drought; I went to Bangor in April, but that was pretty much all business. So it was refreshing to go island-hopping again. Granted, it was just Tancook Island, but still. (You already knew about that one.) Also toured the mysterious George's Island. (Ditto..) But we also visited Governor's Island in New Brunswick, reachable by car only once a day. That trip included a get-together with The Sweetness's college friends and a sighting of a tree species thought to have died out with the dinosaurs. But the thing that I was the most excited to do (and the thing I will have to shut up about quickly lest this list never get finished)? Had a private tour of the CBC shortwave transmitting station on the Tantramar marshes. The place was just crawling with RF energy. In the switching building, they don't even need to turn on the fluorescent lights for them to work. Took no inside pics, and the outside picture doesn't do it justice -- you gotta go visit yourself:

Ah, summer! We went back to the Magdalens, on which I have blogged previously. Just as lovely this time as before, though much, much windier!

Probably the pictorial highlight of the month, however, was the Tall Ships Festival in my own town of Halifax. My parents came up to see it, too, which made it extra special. Here is the tall ship Virginia:

While we traveled to Washington, D.C. in August, it was mostly business. And totally hot... which made our September trip a relief. The Cape Chignecto Provincial Park, a remote recreational area in mainland Nova Scotia, has long been promising a day-use park, complete with an off-grid interpretive centre. But, much like this list, it was behind schedule for a long time!

This year they managed to open, and it exceeded every expectation we had mustered for it. I want to show 100 pics, but three will have to suffice:
033_sm.JPGAtop the Interpretive Centre
050_sm.JPGEatonville Harbour
076_sm.JPGSqually Point

With the arrival of fall came cooler weather and more work, neither of which is conducive to a lot of traveling. But I will finish off this retrospective with pictures of Duncan's Cove, a popular walking area outside of Halifax. The place has a forbidding beauty:
Duncan's Cove Nov 1, 2009 005_sm.JPG
Duncan's Cove Nov 1, 2009 012_sm.JPG
Duncan's Cove Nov 1, 2009 022_sm.JPG

In December, we stayed close to home and visited family. The Sweetness and I will be in Virginia with my family for Christmas and New Year's. So anyone who cares to look me up, that's where I'll be.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone!

Posted by The Greatness at 03:28 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2009

An Island Paradise (sort of)

Hello everybody. Been gone a while, busy doing other things, but I intend to get back to blogging over the summer. Starting with my most recent trip with The Sweetness...

Imagine an island with sandy beaches, surrounded by smaller islands to explore by boat. An island with friendly villagers and fiesty, colorful birds. An island with almost no tourism, all your own to explore. This island does exist, my friends. That it lies at just over 44 degrees N latitude is part of its charm.

I'm talking about Big Tancook Island, in the Mahone Bay of Nova Scotia. To get there from Halifax, you drive about an hour to Chester, park your car wherever you can find a place (don't leave anything valuable behind!), and hop onto a ferry. All your luggage will be ported by friendly staff. Well, ported in a way: you put your goods in a container or on a palette and they crane it on. The ferry might be a bit late in leaving, if somebody is still loading their groceries, gas cans, etc. And when we were there, a 1960-era Ford truck bearing fill dirt drove onto the ferry's cargo deck, resulting in much bopping about.

After a 50 min ride in the setting sun, we were there:
Even in the dark, we could tell "this ain't the mainland". Many of the cars at the dock looked like they had utterly failed any attempt at inspection. We soon learned that it didn't matter; insurance companies wouldn't cover vehicles on the island, so people only kept license plates and inspections on cars they wanted to bring over to the mainland -- which was few of them, given the expense and hassle.
We stayed at the only bed and breakfast, and took our lunch and dinner at the only restaurant. For all intensive purposes, we were the local economy that weekend!

In many ways, it is a community in decline, with only half a dozen tykes in the elementary school and the only church shuttered due to lack of funds. Yet it seems most people are content to stay, as we saw only a handful of "For Sale" signs. Life on the island has a distinctly slower pace, and while it might be colder than your average bit of sand, it nevertheless has many of the remote charms I associate with islands -- with some pleasant ruggedness thrown in for good measure. Walking about the island, village turns to farmland, which turns to forest, which suddenly turns to, well, this:
Apparently islanders used to have evening parties, complete with adult beverages, on the edge of this cliff. The landowner, sagely, decided to place some limits on that sort of thing.

Myriad types of birds, in all shapes and sizes, take refuge on Big Tancook to forage and lay eggs. And they mean business, as we learned when we walked down "their" road and tripped a guard post. Nothing more than aggressive overhead flying transpired, but they definitely got our attention!

And it is gratifying to see that some residents manage to keep fishing alive on the island. We saw many lobster traps, buoys, and nets being prepared:

So if you go to Tancook, you may not get a tan, but we sure did have a good time.

Posted by The Greatness at 08:04 PM | Comments (1)

May 26, 2008

In the land of fire and ice

The Sweetness, her mother, and I visited Iceland over the Victoria Day holiday (note to Americans: it's one week before the Memorial Day holiday, which Canadians don't observe). We booked a package trip through Icelandair, including air, hotel, "full Scandinavian breakfast" and two tours. I'm sure most of y'all have never considered visiting Iceland. Maybe you should.

Icelandair flies nonstop from Halifax to Reykjavik on B757 aircraft. We left Canada at 10pm and arrived in Iceland around 5:30am (4:30 in flight plus three hours time difference). During the flight, we saw some videos telling us how to fill out US customs forms on arrival (?), and we were served a hot meal in the middle of the night. Never mind that no one in eastern Canada nor Iceland would have been eating a meal at that time. (I suppose it kept us full until lunch.)

It's a solid 30 minute drive from Keflavik airport to the capital city, and most of the drive looks like this:


You begin to understand why NASA spent some time in Iceland while preparing for the Apollo mission. The place is weird! Endless lava fields, in various stages of reclamation by arctic mosses, cover much of the land. Iceland owes its existence to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge astride two tectonic plates. Earthquakes and volcanic activity are commonplace. It's incredible that the Vikings managed to settle here. Their descendants, the Icelanders, have harnessed the boundless geothermal energy to keep the roads ice-free and the hot-water-heater salesmen out of work. (And it's turned into a tidy growth area for power-hungry industries in the EU, courtesy of the Kyoto Protocol.)

It's also the home of good old Leifr Eiricsson, the guy we know of as Leif Erikson. Leif most certainly discovered America hundreds of years before Columbus, but the Vikings weren't much on follow-up. They were too busy founding the world's oldest parliament and writing sagas. A surprisingly literate bunch, no? Today's Icelandic schoolchildren learn how to read the ancient stories, which is a lot easier than us trying to read Beowulf, as the Icelandic language has scarcely changed from Old Norse. Check out the original saga parchments at the Culture House, then go down to the waterfront and get a hot dog from Bill Clinton's favorite hot dog stand. Or get some puffin, if you feel adventurous (I did, but won't be next time). If you come to Reykjavik in the summer, you can drink Viking beer all night and the sun will still be up when you leave the bar at 3am. I didn't participate, though I did have a glass of Viking (mediocre) with my lobster calzone (better) at dinner.

Okay, enough about the city. Let's go on tour number one, shall we? This was a bus trip to Jokulsarlon, the lagoon at the foot of Europe's largest glacier, including a boat ride among the icebergs. I am so impressed with the Icelanders that they would even plan something like this, as it is at the limit of my travel insanity. I'm sure we wouldn't have gone at all if there hadn't been a tour bus going, fooling us into accepting the idea of this as a "day trip". You see, Jokulsarlon is at least five and a half hours from Reykjavik each way. It's almost one-third of the way around the entire country!

I'll spare you a recounting of the obvious discomforts that 12 hours of tour busing will supply. Here's some scenery:

Past the Mid-Atlantic ridge

Westmann islands


Arctic terns on an iceberg at Jokulsarlon


The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon (click on this one for a panoramic shot)

And to top off our trip on the way back to the airport, tour number two: a trip to the Blue Lagoon. It's the best known tourist attraction in Iceland, and surely the most popular power-plant outflow in the world. Yes, that's right: they took the wastewater from their geothermal power station and made it into a spa!


Bathing in hot water under the arctic sun: that's Iceland for you.

Posted by The Greatness at 07:04 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2007

Strange places in Nova Scotia

Summer in Nova Scotia means (generally) good weather, and for The Sweetness and me, that means sojourning in the province and seeking out places we've never seen. Let me introduce you to some of these places, all of which we visited sometime this month.

The Culloden Cairn

Students of history may recall that the Battle of Culloden was a dark, dark day for Scotland. Scottish Highlanders rallied around their choice for the British throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and gathered to fight for him on April 16, 1746. Arrayed against them were the more numerous, and much better equipped, British army, supporters of the Hanoverian King George I. Sadly, it was no contest. Charlie lost and fled to France, the bagpipes were outlawed as a weapon of war, and George's grandson royally screwed up with the American colonies. It's all on Wikipedia.

What you probably didn't know: some of those Highlanders resettled in New Scotland. It's likely they considered this move an exile; they never forgot what happened at Culloden. Nor did their descendants, who erected a memorial cairn next to their graves. You can see it in Knoydart, down a forested path along the road from New Glasgow to Arisaig.

culloden1.jpgWritten on the cairn:
Let them tear our bleeding bosoms
Let them drain our dearest veins
In our hearts is Charlie, Charlie
While a drop of blood remains

Ballantyne's Cove, Secret Stronghold of Sushi

Okay, probably too much alliteration in the title. But this fishing village on the north coast of Nova Scotia really does hold an epic position in the industry of sushi, and nobody knows about it, even most Nova Scotians. You see, the water off Ballantyne's Cove is the place for fishing giant bluefin tuna from September to November. Some 200 boats will be there this fall, luring those 600-odd-pound creatures to hooks. Boat and fish will fight, often for hours, until somebody gives up (guess who?). The struggle makes the fish overheated, so the fishermen will let him swim around a little longer to cool down. Then it's curtains for the beast. Just one giant bluefin tuna will net the lucky boat thousands of dollars from the buyers on shore. These buyers, by the way? Almost all Japanese. This highlights two cruel ironies of Ballantyne's Cove:

1. It's a sleepy town the rest of the year, with nothing to show for their autumn drama except the modest, sparsely attended "Bluefin Tuna Interpretation Centre." I didn't see too many Japanese names in the visitor logbook. Yet across the water in Prince Edward Island, thousands of Japanese tourists are maxing out their JCB cards on Anne of Green Gables paraphernalia. I smell rotten marketing.

2. The delicate toro sushi, so beloved by Japanese and heartily consumed throughout the country, is made exclusively from the fatty portions of the very tuna that is fished from the waters of Ballantyne's Cove, Nova Scotia. Yet all of it ends up on airplanes at Halifax International Airport -- I can't get the stuff in town!

Oh well. It's a pretty place, at any rate.


When Sinclair Discovered America

It's a law of publicity: everybody wants to be first, or, failing that, at least to be perceived as having been first. Nationalist sympathies often work to the advantage of fraudsters, since pride of place somehow gloms on to the reputation of all who hail from the same spot. Which explains why the Brazilians still get worked up about the Wright Brothers. And why this guy got so much press for saying the Chinese discovered America. So, then, it's surprising that the Sinclair story is so little known, especially with its currently trendy Dan Brown undertones.

Here's a summary: According to an apocryphal document published in 1558 and credited to the Zeno brothers of Venice, a certain Prince Zichmni traveled across the Atlantic in 1398. Johann Forster, a naturalist of Scottish descent, speculated in 1784 that this Zichmni was none other than Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, sometime Templar Knight, and grandfather of the architect of Rosslyn chapel (which allegedly contains carvings of maize and other North American plants made prior to the Columbus voyage). Supposedly Sinclair traveled to Nova Scotia and made landfall near Guysborough on the eastern shore, where he dazzled the Mik'maq Indians enough to create legends of the white god Glooscap's visitation. He might also have built the Newport Tower, buried a knight in Massachusetts, and done many other weird and wonderful things in North America for the first time.

It's all a bit too Flat Earth for me, but maybe you can appreciate the narrative board we found in Halfway Cove (click to enlarge, and then read Brian Smith's rebuttal). It was accompanied by a large piece of granite with a plaque to "present the claim" and a self-referential monument "to the loyal and dedicated board of the Prince Henry Sinclair Society of North America Inc. ... without your support this simply lovely monument would not be here as a testimony to the story." The signage from the road was very good. Maybe somebody in the Nova Scotia government has Sinclair sympathies?

Posted by The Greatness at 09:45 AM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2007


All right everyone, here are some pics from our big trip. I'll put them below the fold so as not to crowd the rest of the story..

sm-img_1547.jpg The view, looking down, from the top of Auckland's Sky Tower.
sm-img_1555.jpg The Sweetness, looking all cute whilst making lunch in our Spaceship.
sm-img_1570.jpg The Greatness zorbs..
sm-img_1587.jpg The Craters of the Moon geothermal park. Spooky.
sm-img_1597.jpg Mt. Tongariro and associated volcanic peaks in the National Park. This is so Middle-Earth!
sm-img_1621.jpg Unexplained "pancake rocks" at Punakaiki.
sm-img_1633.jpg Scaling the Franz Josef glacier. Pretty extreme, don't you think? We have cred now.
sm-img_1670.jpg A piece of the road at Arthur's Pass through the Southern Alps.
sm-img_1705.jpg Punting on the Avon (not us) in Christchurch.
sm-img_1729.jpg At the harbor on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands.
sm-img_1734.jpg Words fail to explain the awesomeness of the Palace Burger in Rarotonga.
sm-img_1735.jpg Another perfect beachfront in the South Pacific..

Posted by The Greatness at 08:20 PM | Comments (1)

January 08, 2007

Back to Halifax

... and it's not really much colder here than it was in New Zealand.

I'll have pics later this week, but right now I'll just sum up the end of the trip. Last stop in Christchurch was the International Antarctic Centre, home base for the U.S., N.Z., and Italian Antarctic programs. Jen and I survived a ride on a genuine Antarctic all-terrain vehicle and a simulated "Condition 1" Antarctic storm (though, really, I've gone grocery shopping in Halifax in similar conditions, so it wasn't all that impressive.) Still interesting to see the "last stop" before Antarctica, however.

Then later that night, we flew to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, arriving 19 hours before we left. It's on our side of the Date Line, you see. Our host picked us up at the airport and showed us our room for the trip, which turned out to be more spartan than either of us had expected. And noisy! I swear, there must have been a dozen roosters within a mile of us, all crowing in unison from 4am on. Welcome to paradise, I guess. Rarotonga was very warm and humid, and one of our two days there turned out to be a public holiday so nothing was really open. I'm not sorry I went -- it's beautiful, and outside of the big resorts it's not at all touristy, which is what I wanted to experience. They say the Cook Islands are like Hawaii was 50 years ago, tourism-wise. Jen and my sober judgment: we'll come back in 50 years.

From there it was back to Auckland, to catch a flight to Fiji, then to Los Angeles and a visit with Jill again, then to Toronto and finally to Halifax, yesterday at 1:30pm AST. After three weeks, six time zones, and goodness knows how many air miles, we're back. And we're beat -- but it was a memorable trip!

Posted by The Greatness at 01:18 PM | Comments (0)

December 31, 2006

The South Island

First off, sorry y'all that I haven't put up any pics.. all the Internet kiosks/cafes are really strict about that sort of thing. So I haven't been able to download anything off the camera. I promise to put some up when we get back!

So, starting from Wellington: we got on the Interislander ferry on the 27th to head across the Cook Strait. After a fairly uneventful ride between the islands and through Queen Charlotte Sound, we arrived in the port town of Picton. Not that we stayed long: we were on a schedule to pick up Jen's friend Kirsten from the Nelson "International" Airport. We stayed in Richmond, just outside. I don't think it was really much like my hometown, really. After all, one cannot see the Southern Cross from there. While in Nelson/Richmond we checked out the "Centre of NZ" (since recalculated by GPS to be in the harbor, actually) and went to a winery that sold several cases of their wine to "The World". Google "The World" for some more details about this opulent ship. We felt like the wine must be pretty decent, so we got a bottle.

Then it was on to Franz Josef. This was a very satisfying (and scary) part of the trip. You see, we trekked on a glacier, wearing ice crampons on our boots and everything. Silly me, I thought a glacier was flat. But not at the face of it.. we had to go up 200 meters of melting, moving ice/snow. And back down. I felt like we were living up to the extreme billing of NZ. Also took a trip to Lake Mathison so we could see Mt. Cook in reflection; but it didn't work out like that given the clouds. Still cool though.

This morning we headed across the south island through Arthur's Pass, a trip which has been rated one of the world's most scenic. I think we must have taken 60 pictures between the sea and the 900+ meter pass. Some of the Lord of the Rings was shot here (really, was there anywhere in NZ that wasn't in the pic somewhere?). Then it was on down the mountain, through the Canterbury plains to the town of Christchurch.

And that's where we sit tonight. Happy New Year everyone, ~18 hours early!

Posted by The Greatness at 04:37 AM | Comments (0)

December 25, 2006

In the Middle

... of Middle Earth, even.

So we are actually in Wellington right now. Merry christmas everyone!! We are actually almost through Boxing Day, and it will hurt coming back to the other side.

So we spent Christmas here in Wellington as well. Went to the big Te Papa museum yesterday, for pretty much the whole day. It was the only thing open and it was pretty interesting as well. Today we went to the Observatory and the Gardens by riding the cable car.

Taupo went well, we saw Craters of the Moon ( boiling mud is pretty wild) and the Huka Falls. Not really that high a falls, but lots and lots of water force!

Before this ( I seem to be journaling in reverse order) Chris became a Zorbanaut.. which can really only be explained by googling the word 'Zorb'. He said it felt like taking a shower, except on a waterslide, with his eyes closed.

Christmas in NZ is a surreal thing. No "Winter Wonderland" carols or trees to be seen, except in some of the bigger attractions. I suppose since everybody is taking vacation with their kids (it's summer break, after all), nobody has time for the Christmas spirit. We tried to have our own little Christmas anyway ... in space!

Posted by The Greatness at 10:54 PM | Comments (2)

December 21, 2006

First Day in Space

More adventures,

So we spent our first night in space last night, as we picked up our camping van named Mercury.
Yesterday we picked it up and managed to survive driving on the other side of the road through the streets of Auckland, as well as up and down the switchbacks of the Northland.

Went to the Waipu Museum yesterday, about the Scottish people from Nova Scotia that moved to New Zealand. Over 900 of them came... on a five plus month boat ride. Their leader was 70 at the time, and they had lived in St. Anns, NS for 23 years. Wow, things must have been pretty tough for them to make such a decision. (We missed Mr John Hamm, former Premier of NS, by a few hours; we were told he was in that morning.)

Today we saw a live Kiwi bird (about the size of a chicken) and we went down the glow worm cave in Waitomo. The boat ride through the cave was like looking at the night sky in some alien world.

Pretty night to work with so far and we have gone grocery shopping so we can avoid eating out every meal -- that's part of the reason to camp, after all. Weather is cool, with rain sometimes and then a bit of sun. Way better than snow! It's the longest day of the year in the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe that's why we've seen so few Christmas decorations..

Tomorrow we're headed to the volcanic central area of the north island (Rotorua and Lake Taupo). We'll tread carefully.

Posted by The Greatness at 02:20 AM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2006

Greetings from New Zealand!

From the desk of The Sweetness..

"We Made It!

The Greatness and the Sweetness are offically in New Zealand for their visit. After months of planning and hours and hours of flying, we are here.

Flights over we actually pretty good all things considering. No snow in Halifax meant no delays, which was good as we had no extra time in Toronto. Sweetness was running for the gate but we both made it in time ( security decided she was the lucky one to be searched 15 mintues before the plane was suppose to leave). Hung out in LA with the Greatness's sister ( thanks J for the sight seeing tour and for lunch, see you again in a few weeks).

We both actually slept on the plane a bit to Fiji and arrived tired but hanging in. Just from the air and the airport, Fiji looks really, really nice...and it is really, really expensive. That $3.50CAN ice cream drumstick we had between the two of us was good, but wow.

The last flight actually found us in NZ. we reached the hotel about 3pm NZ time and let the parents know by phone that we had made it. We had a three/four hour nap and woke up to eat supper and try to stay away until 10 pm to work into NZ time. Supper was great at a Chinse place here in downtown Auckland. We walked around a bit and went to bed at ten. Woke up at four...but didn't really get up and around until 5:30 ( which seemed like lunchtime to us). Today we have spent at the Auckland Museum for the most part.

Observations so far,

Everything ( food at least) is expensive!

It's nice to be in a foreign country that still speaks English."

Posted by The Greatness at 10:04 PM | Comments (0)