Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Haunted Graveyards and Underground Vaults of Edinburgh

Continued from:
Part 1 -
Part 2 -
Part 3 -
Part 4 -

It was starting to get dark as I made my way back onto the Royal Mile and to the square near St. Giles Cathedral. The street was alive with tourists and locals alike gearing up for a Friday night in Edinburgh. The solemn sounds of distant bagpipes mixed with the laughter and chatter of half-cut revelers priming for a big night out on the town could be heard. A new bride exited St. Giles Cathedral with her new groom. Office-dwellers dressed in business suits walked hurriedly towards waiting cabs presumably as excited for it to be Friday night. With a few minutes to kill before meeting my guide from Auld Reekie Tours, I stopped in at Cafe Nero and ordered a Cafe Mocha to go. I arrived at the waiting spot and, for what seemed like a long time, I was the only person there. I was beginning to think I had the wrong directions when other people started to show up. Not long after, Ethel, who would take us on a nighttime tour of Greyfriar's Kirkyard and The Underground Vaults, arrived.

I was excited to visit Greyfriar's Kirkyard again but this time under the cover of darkness. As we walked toward the graveyard, Ethel explained that it's one of the most haunted locations in the world and past guests on the tour had been physically attacked by the angry spirit of Sir George Mackenzie, the man who imprisoned, maltreated and even murdered hundreds of Presbyterian Covenanters. As Ethel was explaining this, it became evident that some of the guests on the tour had already gotten a head start on the drinking. Their laughing, cussing and plain ol' disruptive behavior caused Ethel to show her more authoritative side. I personally thought she should have had them spend some alone time in Sir George MacKenzie's tomb to set them straight.

While I admit the graveyard was quite creepy in the dark, I didn't get any spine-tingling feelings or sense anything off about the place, although I was hoping I would. Sometimes I get these strange feelings when I visit a location and have no explanation for it. The feeling of the hair on the back of my neck standing up or that someone is watching me. I get these feelings every time I visit Warren Lake in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The place just creeps the heck out of me. That night at Greyfriar's Courtyard, one of the most haunted locations in the world, I didn't get punched, slapped or kicked like others have reported and it was quite disappointing. I wondered if it was due to me being with such a large group. I pondered the idea of returning to the graveyard alone the following night.

Our next stop was the underground vaults which are also a hotspot of paranormal activity. I was surprised to learn some of the history of these vaults and what they were used for over the years. I can't imagine up to thirty people living in one of those dark, damp, tiny spaces but, at one time, immigrants hoping to prosper in a new life in Edinburgh did just that and faced disappointment and even death. Disease was rampant and so was criminal activity. The plague was particularly unforgiving in those conditions and if it didn't kill you, it was likely you would fall victim to murder. If you weren't lucky enough to make a living above ground in Edinburgh, eventually you fell into a life of crime to survive. Illicit activities such as gambling, prostitution and robbery were just some of the professions many fell into while trying to survive in the underground vaults. The police only turned a blind eye to it all. As far as anyone above ground was concerned, the vaults were out-of-site and therefore out-of-mind as long as it stayed below ground. While I can admit that the vaults were also quite creepy, I can also say that I did not get any goosebumps or heebie jeebies.

The walk back to the hotel was interesting to say the least. It was still fairly early but it was starting to get a bit rowdy. I took the long way around and started at the top of the street and made my way down and around a couple of blocks. I wanted to get a feel of what Edinburgh is like on a Friday night. I passed lots of drunken stag and hen parties and rowdy students already three sheets to the wind, some ready to be carried home even at that early on an hour. I made my way through the crowd of staggering revelers like an old pro. I had been in the city not even two full days and I was already navigating the crowded streets like a local, weaving in and out of crowds. As I walked, I noticed some comical signs had been put out outside some of the pubs to lure in the weekend crowd. Lots of signs advertising Haggis and beer. I told myself before I left home I would force myself to try Haggis while in Scotland but once I arrived, I couldn't get myself to do it. Many people tried to convince me that I had to try it and the new, politically-correct vegetarian Haggis (yes that's a thing) was even pushed on me but I just couldn't do it.

I contemplated ducking into one of the little pubs along the Royal Mile to take in some live music and have a beer or two but decided that being alone in a place that was getting rowdier by the minute might not be the greatest idea. I opted instead to grab a beer at my hotel bar. I took my place in the restaurant near a window where I could watch the big party unfold on the street outside and asked the friendly bartender for a plate of Cheesie Fries and a bottle of the best local beer he had available.

Much later that night as I was sleeping, a loud commotion outside stirred me awake; a fight on the street between some drunken blokes....welcome to Friday night in Edinburgh!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Real Introduction to the History and Culture of Edinburgh

Continued from:
Part 1 -
Part 2 -
Part 3 -

My second day in Edinburgh was off to a great start.  I awoke refreshed and rested and ready to take on another day of exploring.  Breakfast in the hotel dining area was a tad confusing and I don't think I quite grasped what it was I was supposed to do.  I walked in, I was stopped by a server who gave me instructions and I proceeded to follow those instructions.  There was no defined queue or waiting area and various items were scattered all over the place.  I found out later that the server who greeted me must have thought I had pre-ordered and pre-paid for breakfast.  I thought it was free and ate until I was stuffed.  I never was billed for it but discovered later that breakfast at the hotel was not free.

I had free time before making my way to Starbucks on the Royal Mile to join the free walking tour through Sandemans New Europe Tours so I grabbed a coffee and sat on a bench in Parliament Square and people-watched for a while.  This is one of the things I miss about living in a city; just sitting somewhere, like a fly on the wall, and watching everyone go on with their daily lives and taking in the excitement that buzzes in the air of the downtown area of any city.

The walking tour left not far from that area so I walked around the corner five minutes before the scheduled departure and met my guide, Fraser.  There were more people taking the tour that I thought there would be.  Fortunately, Fraser had a tall flag that he waved in the air as we walked along so we wouldn't lose site of him.

I admit, I wasn't expecting much from this walking tour.  I only signed up for it because it was free and I thought I might learn a few things or see things I would otherwise not see.  I assumed the only good thing about it would be that it's free.  How very wrong I was.

The tour lasted about two hours and delivered way more than I expected.  In fact, it was one of the best walking tours I've ever been on!  Not only did I see historical buildings and monuments, I learned the history of them the notable people who lived in Edinburgh throughout history.  I learned about the gruesome public hangings that the townspeople came out to watch.  I learned that the South Bridge is cursed because the first person to cross it after its construction crossed in a coffin. She was the eldest citizen of the city and it was decided that she would be the first to cross - dead or alive.  I learned that J. K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, got inspiration from gravestones in Greyfriar's Kirkyard when choosing names for some of her characters.  I learned that some of the graves in this graveyard were looted by grave-robbers but they didn't steal jewels; they  stole the actual bodies for medical and science research.  I learned about Greyfriar's Bobby, the beloved dog whose grave at Greyfriar's Kirkyard has been turned into a shrine of flowers and gifts left by admirers. I learned that the fountain that stands in dedication of this beloved dog was once a two-tiered fountain with an upper level for humans to drink from and a lower level for dogs to drink from.  The statue's nose has been rubbed for good luck so much that Bobby now looks more like a pug than a Skye Terrier.  I learned that the term s**t-faced originated during a time in Europe when residents had no flush toilets and to dispose of waste, it was acceptable to simply toss it out of a window and into the gutters.  This was usually done late at night when, coincidentally, the drunken patrons of local pubs would be on their way home and I'm sure you can figure it out from there! I learned that one of the public square's off the Royal Mile was historically used and is still used to this day for gathering the city residents together to announce important announcements such as royal births and the results of Brexit.  I also learned that Scotland has a very bloody, brutal where, I noticed throughout this tour, every story told ends with someone or many people being killed.
Greyfriar's Kirkyard
The gravesite of Greyfriar's Bobby
When the tour ended, we parted ways near the National Museum of Scotland.  Now, some people may say that the "free" tour ended in front of the museum so that everyone would naturally wander into the museum and pay the entry fee, therefore making the entire tour some sort of trick to get people to go to the museum.  Well, I personally doubt that.  I tipped my guide generously and was glad to pay the small entry fee to the museum as it was somewhere I planned to visit anyway.  This made it all that more convenient because I would have gotten hopelessly lost trying to find it.

I didn't want to spend too much time in the museum as my time in Edinburgh was short as it was and I had so many other things to see and do but I did walk through every room on every floor, stopping at the things that interested me the most; the exhibit about Alexander Graham Bell (because of his ties to Cape Breton Island where I live), Dolly the cloned sheep and the observation deck with the view of the city were among some of the most interesting exhibits for me.  Overall, the population of Scots around the world may be relatively small but they've certainly done their fair share of notable things as I learned at the museum.

Upon leaving the museum, I must have taken a wrong turn.  I thought I was going the right way but when things started to look unfamiliar, I realized I was quite lost.  I walked for well over an hour and ended up in a residential neighborhood that looked nothing like anywhere I had been in the city up to that moment.  I kept walking hoping to find someone to ask for directions but the neighborhood was like a ghost town.  Eventually, I ended up back on St. Mary's St. and at my hotel where I grabbed a bite to eat and got ready before heading back down the Royal Mile to meet another guide to take me on a Haunted Graveyard and Underground Vaults Tour.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

72 Hours in the City of Edinburgh, Scotland....Now Go!!

Continued from:
Part 1 -
Part 2 -

Although my hotel room was very clean and comfortable, I noticed  a major issue upon exiting the shower; the floor was full of water. I did everything I could to prevent it but when I informed staff about the issue, they reacted in a manner that made me think they had dealt with this many times before and that perhaps there was no way to prevent it. The lady at the front desk said she would send someone to clean it up ASAP but no one came by the time I left and no one had come by the time I came back later that evening. I ended up cleaning it myself.

That first day in Edinburgh was anything but relaxing...exactly how I like it. I love to be on the move and doing things. I'm not an idle person so the thought of relaxing in front of the TV in my hotel room didn't even cross my mind. It was still mid-afternoon by the time I hit the street and started to immerse myself into Edinburgh life. I only had to walk for about twenty seconds and I was on the Royal Mile. I walked up the street where crowds of tourists and commuters were gathered.

I didn't know where the Royal Mile would take me. I didn't bother to look at a map. I prefer the unknown. I kept walking past shops, restaurants and centuries-old buildings that would become familiar once I learned my way around. I eventually ended up at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. I didn't go any further as I already had plans to visit the castle on my last day in the city but at least I found out how to get there!

I took my time going back down the Royal Mile. I stopped to watch some interesting (and downright bizarre and equally intriguing) buskers.  I walked into a few shops to get some ideas of what to buy as souvenirs for friends and family back home and I took note of restaurants and cafes that may be good options for a meal later on. I took note of a Starbucks right on the main street but vowed to only patronize it as a last resort. I can have Starbucks anytime I want at home. When I'm traveling I prefer to sample the unfamiliar and local.

As I walked along the Royal Mile, I noticed some peculiar things. I noticed that traffic lights go from green to yellow to red and back to yellow before turning green as opposed to just red to green to yellow back home. I also noticed that the crosswalks are set further back from the lights than I am used to and, after seeing someone get almost taken out by a car while trying to cross where the lights are, I realized why. I also learned that going to the bathroom can be a bit of a pain...especially if you don't have any coins on hand. Those stupid pay bathrooms around Scotland were the only annoyance I experienced during my travels around the country. I've never had to go through a toll booth to pee before.

Since I didn't have anything planned that afternoon, I decided to do a bit of shopping.  After exchanging some Canadian currency for local currency, I learned that Scotland has it's own money. It's equal to the British Pound but it looks different. I had no idea what to get for souvenirs but, judging by the stores on the Royal Mile, plaid, cashmere and tweed were in full supply.  I found some beautiful scarves for the women in my life (including myself) but the men were a little harder to shop for. Most of the ball caps and shirts were branded with golf and football slogans. I finally found some that simply said "Scotland" on them. Everything seemed very reasonably-priced despite what I had heard from other travelers to the UK about everything being super expensive. I also picked out some key-chains, fridge magnets and local snacks and my shopping was complete in under an hour. I hate shopping but I particularly hate shopping when I am traveling. I try to get it done right away so I don't have to worry about it anymore. With very little space to pack anything else in my carry-on luggage, I was unable to buy too much anyway.

One of the tours I had pre-booked before my departure was a hop-on, hop-off bus ticket for a city tour on a double decker bus through Edinburgh Bus Tours. I was still wide awake so I made my way to the bus stop and waited for the big red bus to come by.Although  I didn't take a jacket with me and I knew it would be cold on the top outside deck of the bus, I took a seat there anyway. How often do I get to tour a city on top of a double decker bus? Figured I might as well get the most of it. It was quite cold and although there were seats available on the bottom inside deck, I toughed it out and stayed up top. We passed through some areas of the city that I otherwise wouldn't have seen and stopped briefly at some attractions I wouldn't have seen like the Royal Yacht Britannia and the Royal Botanic Garden.

I almost learned a crucial lesson in exploring Edinburgh on foot the hard way when I was exiting the bus at the end of the tour; Be very careful when crossing the street. It's easy to forget that driving is done on the left side of the road in the United Kingdom and I forgot that very important fact when I looked to the right instead of the left and was almost taken out by a speeding car. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I made this mistake. I noticed since I arrived in the city that the sound of ambulance sirens were almost continuous and I wondered if perhaps it was Canadian and American tourists making the same mistake. In Edinburgh, there seems to be no speed limits and cars stop at nothing, not even crosswalks.

I usually don't walk down dark alleyways or venture on side streets or more remote areas of cities but I felt very safe everywhere I went in Edinburgh and although I had only been there a few hours, I felt at home. It didn't take long to realize that I really like the city. Many other people must like it too as there were tourists everywhere. It wasn't peak tourist season when I was there but the streets were packed with people from all over the world. I'd hate to see what's it like during peak tourist season or during major events like the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

I walked around the city for a few hours taking pictures and admiring the stunning architecture. By the time I started finally feeling tired, I had clocked 16 miles of walking according to the step-counter app on my phone. Not bad for someone who arrived in the city jet-lagged and sleep-deprived only a few hours earlier. I stopped into a little cafe called Cafe Keno, which was just around the corner from my hotel, and grabbed a delicious vegetarian sandwich and some cookies.

Back in my room, I was so tired, I could barely get undressed. Sleep came easy and I didn't wake up again until twelve hours later when my alarm went off in the morning.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Next Stop: Edinburgh, Scotland

*Continued from My Journey to Scotland's Cities, Highlands and Islands 

After getting instructions from a lady at the help desk in the arrivals area of Glasgow International Airport (she suggested take a bus/train combination to Edinburgh), I made my way to the front entrance of the airport to find the #500 bus to Queen St. Station in downtown Glasgow. The moment I walked out the door, a blue bus with the #500 was just pulling up. I rushed over and bought a ticket and was on my way. Much easier than I thought it would be and I didn't get lost like I usually do. The trip downtown took about twenty-five minutes and allowed me to see some of the city. Upon arrival and in an equally-easy manner, I was able to find a ticket booth where I bought a train ticket to Edinburgh Waverley Station, find the right train and board.  

I was surprised by how easy this whole process was.  Actually, it scared me a little.  I was almost expecting something to go wrong.  It's rare that things go this smoothly for me when traveling. In less than an hour, I made it from plane to bus to train and was headed for Edinburgh. Although I was dead tired and the seats on-board the train were very comfortable, I was unable to sleep a wink. Instead I drank coffee all the way there which I'm sure didn't help with the jet lag and lack of sleep. There wasn't much to see along the way except homes, industrial parks and lots and lots of sheep.

The train ride only took about an hour and before I even had a chance to settle down and relax, it was time to disembark at Waverley Station in downtown Edinburgh. When I booked my trip, I didn't know if I would be taking the trail but I still sent directions from Waverley Station to the Travelodge on St. Mary's St. where I was staying. once I was off the train, it didn't take long to realize that I would need to access those directions. The station was much larger than I thought it would be and I, very quickly, became hopelessly lost. The directions were of no help.
Waverley Train Station

I wandered around that train station for just over an hour trying to find the right exit onto the right street. When I found it, it took another twenty minutes to find the right route to my hotel. It was during this time that I had my first experience with genuine Scottish hospitality.  Several people who noticed I was lost offered to help me and one person even offered to walk me straight to my hotel! Once I got on track and new what direction to go, I walked another ten minutes.  As I walked, I couldn't help but notice how warm and sunny it was. Everyone back home told me the weather in Scotland that time of year was much like home - cold, damp and horrible. I was wearing my cold weather clothes while walking with all my luggage so I was sweating bullets in no time. I arrived at my hotel room with plenty of time to explore the city on that first day. It wasn't until my arrival at the Travelodge that I realized how central it was - right around the corner from the Royal Mile, the main tourist street in Edinburgh.

Checking into the hotel was a breeze. The only peculiar thing about check-in was the fact that no one at the front desk knew how to say or spell my last name even though MacEachern, so I've always been told, is an obviously very Scottish surname. Oddly, this would not be the first time I'd experience this on my adventure around Scotland. It seems that it's not as common of a name as it is across the pond in New Scotland. Once in my room, I quickly unpacked, grabbed a shower and set out to explore the city. I probably should have caught up on sleep seeing as I was jetlagged and hadn't slept in almost two days but I felt wide awake. I'm not one to let a little jetlag and lack of sleep get in the way of my travels; plenty of time to sleep at home!
My hotel room at the Travelodge in Edinburgh - simple but clean and comfortable.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My Journey to Scotland's Cities, Highlands and Islands

For some reason, this fall my family and friends were more accepting of my travel plans than they usually are. I didn't get any off-the-wall comments like "what are you thinking traveling somewhere so dangerous?" or "you are so crazy traveling all the way over there by yourself". I guess to them Scotland didn't seem like such a dangerous destination compared to, say, Mexico or Costa Rica. They encouraged me to go and said things like "you are so lucky" and "have a great time and take lots of pictures". I was quite surprised. Maybe they're finally getting used to my just-getup-and-go way of life. Maybe they're warming up to the idea of me traveling to far-flung destinations by myself after seeing me return unharmed time and time again.

I didn't have much time to plan this trip. My work schedule was up in the air, car repairs drained my bank account and I just couldn't decide where I wanted to go. I started researching potential destinations for my next trip months before. I would choose one, make plans and something would come up to derail them. All I knew for sure was I wanted to avoid Central America and the Caribbean only because I've already spent a lot of time in that region and wanted to try somewhere different. Greece was my first choice. When that didn't fall through, New Zealand was my chosen destination. That got derailed too. Finally after researching, planning and cancelling, I settled on my final destination; Scotland.

I've wanted to visit Scotland my whole life partially because I am half Scottish and partially because everyone I know who has been there tells me how beautiful it is. Since my finances were pretty much depleted from car repairs and surprise expenses, I decided to cash out my hard-earned AirMiles for this trip. If you didn't already know this (as I do now), AirMiles are pretty much useless for flights from Canada to Europe. I say this because I was able to search return flights to Glasgow and Edinburgh for under 600 bucks on various dates. When I searched with AirMiles, I was able to find return flights that would only use a quarter of my miles (about 3500 miles) and set my bank account back 850 bucks in taxes and fees. Yes, you read that right. It's cheaper to fly from Canada to Europe with cash only. Save your AirMiles for domestic flights which only carry fees of about 200 bucks or less. This was a disappointment to me because, as any of you AirMiles collectors know, these miles were set to expire on December 31st (that has since changed and now the miles carry no expiration date).  I did have another option available to get an almost free flight to Europe and that was my WestJet Dollars. I used my expiring AirMiles to order a new tablet and a pair of snowshoes.

Everything came together perfectly at that last minute. Before I knew it, flights were booked, hotels were booked and a 5-day Highland and Isle of Sky tour was booked. I even managed to find some advanced tickets to enter Edinburgh Castle without having to wait in line. Early on the morning of September 15th, I hopped on a shuttle to Halifax Stanfield International Airport to catch my flight that evening. I was lucky to only have to share the shuttle with one other non-chatty, non-annoying traveler so I was able to catch up on sleep that I knew I wouldn't get on the plane.

I made good use of my 7-hour layover in Halifax by charging my gadgets in the onlyoutlet I could find, catching up on text messages, eating fast food, reading, rearranging my carry-on luggage to make it the right size to be taken on-board, booking my return shuttle, exchanging currency, chatting with the lady trying to get people to sign up for a credit card, twiddling my fingers and staring at the ceiling. When it was time to check in, I made a silent plea to the luggage gods asking them to please, please let me board the plane with two pieces of carry-on luggage and a purse. The ticket agent looked at my bags and asked if that was all I was taking on-board.  I said yes, asked no other questions and pretended not to be surprised when she asked me to proceed to security. I quickly walked away before she could change her mind but couldn't help but smile at the realization that I had finally done it; I, a former over-packer, had managed to pack all of the necessities needed for a 9-day, transcontinental voyage in two carry-on bags.  

Flying with one of my favourite airlines, WestJet, is always a pleasure.  Besides a bit of turbulence, the flight was uneventful and I arrived in Glasgow almost an hour ahead of schedule. As I walked off the plane and headed straight for customs and immigration (which was a surprisingly quick process that day), I took great pleasure in not having to worry about waiting for checked baggage! With the last leg of my journey to the Old Country complete, I set out to start the next journey; an overland trip to the city of Edinburgh. This was a part of the trip I didn't plan ahead of time. All I knew was I had two options; a train or a bus. I didn't care which one I took as long as it was affordable, safe and quick. Welcome to Glasgow, Scotland.  Next stop....the city of Edinburgh.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Book Review of "Ashes" by Steven Manchester


A novel by Steven Manchester

Ashes is one of those books that pretty much anyone can relate to in some way.  Whether you have siblings or don't have siblings we all have someone in our life that we parted ways with for one reason or another.  And many of us long to rekindle that relationship by putting the past to rest and forgetting whatever it was that caused the rift in the first place.  The only problem is, most of us don't know how to do this and end up regretting waiting so long after it's too late.  That is, unless fate intervenes and does the hard work like with the main characters in this book.
While the main characters - brothers Jason and Tom - were estranged for some years, a major family event brings them back together in a huge way that sees them spending more time together than either of them wishes.  The reader follows the adventure they embark on in amusement and as it unfolds, we watch as two brothers who were enemies for years become friends again.  Throughout the whole ordeal, we see true feelings that had been buried for years come back to the surface and we see insulting jabs turn into brotherly teasing and we see ourselves in some way or other as we all have, at one time or another, been estranged from someone we want to reunite with but don't know how.  This heart-warming account of a reunion between two people who drifted apart offers the reader a wide range of emotions from sad to angry to happy.  Life's trials and errors separated them and those same trials and errors brought them back together through a common ground they always shared.  As the brothers start to reminisce about the good and the bad of their upbringing, it is that foundation they started out with that kept them attached through their years of separation even if it was by very little.
Ashes is far from predictable and far from typical.  From start to finish, there are twists and turns and lots of surprises.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Collecting Glass by the Sea

I like to be a busy body with lots of hobbies and interests and I'm always on the look-out for new activities to occupy and open my mind to new things.  This past summer, I took up a new hobby that many people around Cape Breton have been doing for years already; collecting sea glass.  For those of you who live away from the ocean and perhaps aren't familiar with sea glass, I'll provide you with a short summary.  No it's not the practice of picking up broken beer bottles left behind by teenage beach parties.  Sea glass starts as regular glass (brown, white and green are the most common) that somehow makes into a body of salt water and after 30-50 years of being tossed around in the rough salty seas, it takes on a smoother, rounder frosted look that can be used for many things including making jewelry or artwork.

I remember the exact moment I developed an interest in sea glass.  I was browsing the exhibits and vendors at the Festiville Festival in Baddeck when I noticed some peculiar artwork on display.  Upon closer inspection, I realized it was pictures featuring scenes cleverly put together with sea glass.  I'd never thought of doing something like that and I thought the pictures were more than cute enough to make some of my own to display in my new apartment and showcase my love for everything beachy.  A few tables down, someone else displayed jewelry made from sea glass and after that, I was hooked!  Not only is the glass very pretty and unique, it's versatile.

The very next day, during my morning walk on Dominion Beach, I saved my empty Tim Horton's cup once I was done drinking my morning coffee and used it to hold all the sea glass I picked up along the way.  I found quite a bit of white and green glass and even a few pieces of brown but none of the blue that I am told is one of the rarest colors of sea glass out there.
My sea glass gets bigger and bigger after every trip to the beach!

I've seen blue sea glass around and have heard of people finding it but to this day, I only ever found one very small piece.  That first day of my newly-found sea-glass-collecting-hobby, I discovered a possible theory as to where all the blue glass (if there were ever any on Dominion Beach) was going; about a dozen people with containers in hand were walking along the beach with their heads down.  A short conversation with one of them confirmed that she, and most likely all of them, were collecting sea glass as well. I had no idea until this summer that so many people took an interest in sea glass.  What started out a few days earlier as a quest to take up a new hobby quickly morphed into a competitive sport that involved me heading to the beach first thing every morning to race the other collectors to the newly washed up loot.  I went in all types of weather and sometimes even went several times a day.  Every time I went to a beach anywhere, I took a container with me to collect any glass I found. I raked large piles of washed-up rocks to find hidden morsels and even waded out into knee-deep water to collect the ones that didn't quite make it to dry land.

Driving through Inverness on the western side of Cape Breton Island one afternoon, I decided to stop and take a walk along the very long, sandy beach with my Tim's cup.  I started at the far end and walked for quite a long time and didn't see any glass.  I was more than half way down the beach before I saw any and, at first, there was only a few pieces and than all of a sudden, there was so much of it, my cup was soon full and I had to start filling the pockets of my jeans and jacket.  As usual, it was lots of white with some scattered green and brown pieces until something blue caught my eye in the sand among some bigger white pieces.  I picked it up and to my surprise, it was a piece of the rare and much sought after blue sea glass!  It was very small but blue nonetheless.  To me, after searching for just one blue piece all summer, it was like finding hidden treasure or winning the lottery.  I tucked it away somewhere safe and it is now in the jar with all the other sea glass.  A reminder of the day I hit the jackpot of sea glass collecting.
The only blue piece of sea glass I've found so far.

My collection of sea glass is fairly large now.  I haven't really done anything with it yet.  I have it in a cookie jar displayed on my microwave stand in my kitchen.  For now, it's a rather pretty ornament in my apartment until my creative side decides to do something, well, creative with it.   What was once coke bottles, beer bottles and who knows what else may someday be a lot more.  Decades ago, they were thrown into the water to sit until they became another person's treasure...maybe someday fifty years down the road, after I create a work of art with the pieces, my collection will be another person's treasure.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Kayaking St. Esprit Lake

I get a lot of invites to go for coffee or to go hiking or to walk the beach but I usually don't get invites to go kayaking. I only kayaked a few times and really like it but I don't have a kayak of my own and don't know too many people I can go kayaking with. My wish to get such an invite came true a few weeks ago when a friend who kayaks asked me if I would like to spend a day kayaking on St. Esprit Lake near Framboise. Of course I said yes...but with some reservations. For one, it was late in the fall and the air was starting to cool so I was concerned that my inexperience would make me more likely to tip the kayak and end up in the water.

I packed a lunch but had a hard time packing for the actual kayaking. The weather can do anything that time of year and I had no idea what to wear. I ended up packing shorts, tanks, sweaters, jeans and splash pants and a couple of jackets of various thickness and sneakers, boots and sandals. I also packed extra of everything so I had something dry to wear for the drive home if I happened to fall in the water.
Usually I take the shorter way through Gabarus and Forchu to get to the Framboise area and take the long way via route 4 home but on this day, I took the long way there. I arrived ahead of time at what I thought was Lake Esprit and waited for my friend to show up. And waited. And waited some more. After twenty minutes had passed, I drove up and down the stretch of road to see if I could see her anywhere and to make sure I was at the right place. I saw no sign of anyone and returned to the same spot near a lake that was near a sign that said Lake Esprit.

After an hour had passed, I began to again wonder if I was in the right place. I drove up and down that strip of secondary highway again but this time I went a little bit further and that's when I learned that I had been waiting in the wrong place all along. Fortunately, it was only noon and there was still almost 7 hours of daylight left so we had plenty of time to still enjoy a nice afternoon kayaking on this lake that is much larger than the one I had been waiting near.

My friend reassured me that it would take a lot to tip the kayak and, at first, I thought she might be just saying that so I wouldn't back out. Getting the kayaks off the car proved to be a little difficult but putting them back up proved to be more difficult as I found out later that evening. Decked out in my silly-looking water shoes and life jacket with my waterproof camera in hand, I waded out a few feet and hopped into the kayak. Once I was on my way, it didn't take long to realize that yes it would, in fact, take a lot to tip the kayak! I bounced up and down and swayed side to side and was unable to cause the kayak to even near tip. This gave me some reassurance for the rest of the trip and I was able to relax.
I got soaked pretty much right away but the air, even on that October day, was warm and the water was surprisingly warm too. I did well for my third time kayaking and was doing well keeping up with my more seasoned guide. I earlier told her I would prefer to stay closer to the edge of the lake but found myself leading the way toward the middle of the lake. I felt so comfortable out there on the water.

The weather held up all afternoon. I couldn't get over how well everything came together that day. The lake was as calm as anything. There was hardly any wind. The sun was shining. It was warm.  Loons were calling nearby. The sound of waves crashing onshore could be heard on the nearby beach (the lake was near the ocean). It was perfect. It was wonderfully serene.
It took about an hour to cross the lake and reach the beach. We pulled the kayaks onshore and found a nice spot on the beach to take our lunch. After tea and egg sandwiches, we took a little hike along that beach and stole a glimpse of the rough Atlantic surf which had tossed up a bit of seaweed during recent offshore storms.

On the way back to where we started, we did a few detours and ventured into some unknown corners of the lake around some unknown bends. Some places looked dangerously shallow but we made it through the thick grass and rocky bottom and were back to smooth sailing.  Although the weather held up, it did turn cool quickly but not cool enough to keep the flies from coming out. Darkness was coming fast too and although neither one of us wanted to return to dry land, we knew we had to soon or risk hypothermia. Also, if we stayed out too long, someone was bound to spot our cars parked on that dark road and wonder if we drowned while out on the lake. If not for those two factors, I would have stayed out there on that wide open lake all night long listening to that loon and gazing at those stars.
By the time I got back to my car, my feet were so cold, I could no longer feel them. I changed into dry clothes as discreetly as I could behind some trees. With the kayaks finally secured on the car and a clear night sky above, I drove the long way home with the heat up as far as it would go. I made a little detour to St. Peter's where I stopped at a Tim Horton's to grab a coffee for the long drive home. A kayak purchase may be in my near future. This is totally something I picture myself getting hooked on!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Broad Cove Camping Memories

Last year I didn't get to do a whole lot of camping because I was working all summer. Things worked out a little differently this summer and for the first time in over two years, my dusty camping gear came out of storage and I was finally able to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes. In fact, it seems like I spent the better portion of my summer in a tent. First it was those two freezing nights in Engishtown, followed by four nights at Broad Cove Campground in Ingonish, four more days in Cheticamp while attending a family reunion and two more nights at Broad Cove. But it's always my camping trips at Broad Cove that I treasure most. I know that campground like the back of my hand. And I should know it well because I've been going there every summer since I was kid. When I sit at the picnic table at lot 87 and stare up at the night sky, it feels like I am twenty years in the past and a teenager again. I feel so alive and so free. Nothing ever changes in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and that is what I love about it. Broad Cove Campground stays the same too...well for the most part. I noticed this year that some of the bathrooms were recently painted, the benches on top of the hill by the beach have been moved and a new path created to get to the beach due to some erosion happening there but other than that, it hasn't changed since the first time I camped there more than two decades ago.

Those four nights I spent by myself at Broad Cove were pure bliss.  While the idea of sleeping in a tent sounds awful to most of my friends, I would sleep in a tent 365 days a year if the weather on the East Coast would allow it.  I love the sound of leaves rustling in the trees, waves rolling ashore,  coyotes howling at the edge of the woods, crickets chirping near the lake, and birds singing at first light. I even love the sound of rain landing on the top of the tent and sometimes I am lucky enough to hear the footsteps of an animal creeping around my tent.  More times than I can count, those eerie footsteps have led to impromptu snapshots of moose, coyotes and foxes coming in for a closer inspection of my tent.  I also love the very early mornings before everyone else is awake and when the dew still covers the tent and grass. There is just something so pure and natural about waking up and walking out into the fresh, pristine wilderness. Even being creative with trying to prepare a decent breakfast in the great outdoors is something I embrace. Knowing I can be self-sufficient and resourceful is like challenging myself to see how well I can do without all those fancy, artificial comforts of home.
Broad Cove 
The summer of '94 was when I first discovered Broad Cove. I stayed with friends who rented a lot there all summer.  I liked it so much, I told the rest of my family about it and we continued going there year after year from that point on. My parents liked it so much, they bought a second-hand RV and starting parking it at lot 63 all summer. Years later, I had my own car and I had become very independent. Not a good mix for a restless teenager looking for adventure. It didn't take long before I started making that two-hour drive to my "summer home" on my own. Many times, I had it all to myself. At 17 or 18 years old, staying in the RV was likened to staying in my very own house. It had everything I needed to allow me to spend every moment I could up there.

I moved away in the fall of 2000 and spent almost every day of that last summer in Cape Breton taking in those long, lazy summer days in Ingonish. It's what I missed most when I moved to another province far away from that beautiful strip of heaven deep in the Highlands National Park. That first year away went by fast and before I knew it, I homeward bound. A few years after I moved away, my parents sold that old RV and I was forced to reunite with an old love; camping. I did a lot of camping as a kid but forgot a lot of things like how to set up a tent and how to start a fire.  I bought my first tent at a local Canadian Tire store for 29.99 and a few other things to get me started and packed up the car and headed to Broad Cove.

The tenting section of Broad Cove Campground is quite different from the RV section. It has more trees, it's less crowded and there are more chances to have encounters with wild animals. I drove around the tenting section for quite a while searching for the perfect campsite - one that was close to the facilities and not too remote but far enough away to be quiet and not drenched in light pollution. I found the perfect site that fit all my criteria; lot 87.  And I survived my first solo camping trip and rekindled my love for roughing it in the great outdoors.

For the next dozen years or so, lot 87 was my second home. My escape. My sanctuary. My little slice of paradise in the Highlands. Every chance I got, I took off and headed for that little grassy spot and set up my temporary home complete with clothesline and dining area. Sometimes I received visitors, both two-legged ones and four-legged ones. Moose, coyote, rabbits and squirrels mostly. The nights at lot 87 were my favorite; laying on the picnic table watching the stars and listening to the distant of the waves crashing onshore. There was nowhere else I would rather be.
Lot 87 at Broad Cove Campground
When I learned I would have the summer off work this year, I immediately decided that much of it would be spent camping at Broad Cove. As soon as I'd see a forecast that promised sun and warm temperatures for a few days straight, I loaded the car and off I went into the wild Highlands of Cape Breton. Although lot 87 will always be my favorite campsite at Broad Cove, I decided to try something different this year. I wanted to be able to have a campfire on my lot. Since lot 87 has no fire pit and is far from the beach, I decided to try out one of the sites at the other end of the campground. As I drove around looking at the sites, lot 171 jumped out at me; spacious, enough trees for a clothesline, close to the bathrooms, close to the beach and equipped with a fire pit. I spent four amazing nights in Broad Cove during that first trip. It didn't rain the whole time and the temperatures stayed warm overnight so I didn't near freeze to death like in Englishtown the week before.  I spent four days all by myself and it was awesome. Nights spent by the fire looking up at the night sky, roasting marshmallows. No television, internet or phone to disturb me. It was heaven on earth.
My set-up at lot 171 at Broad Cove Campground
Whenever I find myself at Broad Cove, I also find myself doing a lot of reminiscing. I hear the children laughing and playing like children do when they are suddenly immersed in the great wild wilderness and when I close my eyes, I can recall a time when that was me and it feels like only yesterday. Nothing ever changes up there. It's easy to go back to that time in my life and I always try to relive those happy days spent on that campground as a kid. I walk along the dark gravel roads at late at night with only the moon and stars to guide me.  I revisit my old "neighborhoods" at lot 63 and lot 87 to see how things are doing. Nothing has changed. I stand and close my eyes and hear the sound of children playing and smell the smoke from their campfire and imagine it is my old summer friends coming to greet me (summer friends are the friends from all over the world who I only saw when I came to Broad Cove every summer). When I open my eyes and come back to reality and see those children sitting around their fire, I wonder if they are the children of any of my old friends. Facebook wasn't a thing back than so as we got older and moved away, I lost track of my old summer friends. I love being brought back to those incredible summers of my childhood and remind myself how lucky I am to have had such an amazing place to spend part of it.

My last stop is always the beach. This is pretty much the only thing that has changed at the campground. The two benches that stood just past the parking lot overlooking the ocean are now gone. Now, you might think that's not a big deal and that the loss of a couple of benches is a minor thing but to me, those benches played a huge role in my time at Broad Cove. I've read entire books on those benches, I drank my first (yes underage) beer on one of those benches. I saw my first unidentified flying object from the bench that was closest to the woods and how could I forget something like that! I've witnessed countless meteor showers, sun rises, sunsets and moon rises from those benches. I slept under the stars on those benches and hid in the wood's whenever I heard the park warden's truck coming after hours. And I stood at alert on top of one of those benches with a giant stick in my hand after being chased by some sort of wild animal late one night. so, as you can see, it was a huge disappointment to see that those benches are no longer there.

The beach is pretty much the same except now you have to go through the woods to get to it. This is no easy feat in the pitch black. I used my cell phone as a flashlight and tried to find my way down the stairs, all the while waiting for a rustle or a growl in the bushes to scare me senseless and send me tumbling. Just like old times. We used to walk the nearby beach path in the middle of the night as kids just to scare ourselves. That night, as a thirty-something adult, I laid down in the cold sand and watched the night sky feeling like I was 16 again. In the back of my mind, I knew I had to pack up my gear and head home the next morning but for those few moments, I imagined I had nothing else to do but lay there without a care in the world. The sound of the waves lulled me into a semi-conscious state while the sound of a lone loon could be heard in the lake behind me. This is my "tropical" paradise.  No palm trees and turquoise water.  Just the rough Atlantic coast, the crisp, clean air and beautiful beaches that stretch for miles.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Labour Day Weekend in Cheticamp

Since I moved back to Cape Breton almost six years ago, I developed a yearly tradition of taking a road trip every Labour Day Weekend. Usually I end up going on these road trips by myself and usually I go around the Cabot Trail or to Halifax. A few years ago, I went to Digby and stayed at the Digby Pines resort for a night. This year's Labour Day weekend was a little different. I still went away for the weekend but this time I had company.

A friend of mine has a birthday that falls on the Labour Day long weekend. This year she wanted to go out of town for a weekend so she asked me if I would like to join her. I love a road trip and a few days out of town so when she informed me it would be a 3-day long birthday celebration at a bed & breakfast is Cheticamp, I jumped at the chance.

While there is no doubt the weather in Atlantic Canada can be unpredictable any time of year, it's at it's most unpredictable during the late summer and fall. It can do anything that time of year. It can rain one second with temperatures in the high twenties and within a mere few hours be below 0 and snowing. This is especially true of long weekends. It always seems that the weather takes a turn for the worse right before Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day and Thanksgiving. What a surprise we got when this Labour Day weekend arrived and the forecast was calling for warm temperatures and sun all weekend. While I wasn't totally convinced this would remain the case for the next three days, I tried to keep a positive attitude while I was loading up the car with the weekend's provisions.

We reached the Cheticamp Outfitters B&B in mid-afternoon. Check-in was a breeze as our host Veronica set us up in a cozy room with a fantastic view. The property is set quite a ways from the main road and the closest neighbor is quite a ways away too so there is virtually no noise around the property.
Cheticamp Outfitters B&B
After we unpacked, settled into the room and had a tour of the property, we went for a drive and a nice walk on the beach. Plage St. Pierre is a beautiful sandy beach and on this day, it was perfect for wading into the crystal clear waters. Although the air was a little cool with the wind coming from the northwest, the water was still very warm. On this day, there were no rocks or seaweed so it was perfect. We walked the entire beach before heading into the town of Cheticamp to grab something to eat at Wabo's Pizza.
Plage St. Pierre, Cheticamp
For the longest time, I thought Wabo's Pizza only served pizza. It wasn't until a few years ago when I stopped there to get something to eat that I realized they have a pretty extensive menu, pizza being just one of those items. On that occasion several years ago, an item on the menu caught my attention; deep fried cheesecake. I tried it and fell in love. My intention was to order it for dessert that night and to introduce my friend to the wonderful world of deep fried cheesecake...but it wasn't meant to be. The sit-down restaurant area was closed when we arrived so that left us with the pizza take-out upstairs. We ordered a medium pep & cheese pizza to go. A couple of beers on the porch enjoying the clear night sky and peace and quiet of the country before heading to bed and that was how day one of Labour weekend 2016 went.

We awoke early the next morning and headed upstairs for breakfast. Now usually, when I get an included breakfast, it's a few pieces of fruit, some toast and maybe some cereal and juice. Well, the breakfast at Cheticamp Outfitters was certainly nothing like that! Eggs whatever way I wanted, the fluffiest and quite possibly the most delicious pancakes I've ever had along with homemade muffins, toast and juice. Put it this way; I didn't have to have lunch the three days I stayed there because breakfast kept me going until dinner!

I was hoping for at least one last beach day of the summer and it came that second day in Cheticamp. After breakfast, we headed down to the Frog Pond Cafe and grabbed some coffees for the road and embarked on a mission I've been wanting to do for a few years; search for the Cheticamp Gypsum Quarry. For years, no one would tell me where this secret swimming hole was but nothing stays secret for long with the internet! Someone let the cat out of the bag and with the newly-posted directions all over the internet, I was able to find it very easily. It was nowhere near where I thought it would be and was in an area that I drove by all the time. A fifteen-minute hike took us to the quarry which, I must say, is a very nice body of water surrounded by high cliffs. Of course, I forgot my camera in the car so I don't even have the proof that I finally found it after so many years. You'll just have to take my word for it!
The Frog Pond Cafe in Cheticamp

We didn't swim that day at the quarry as the water felt very cold. Instead, we drove to Chimney Corner Beach near Margaree. Chimney Corner has been my favourite beach as of late. Any time I go there there's no rocks, no seaweed and no jellyfish...except this day. Actually, I don't think I've ever seen as much seaweed on any beach as there was on that beach that day. The piles were almost as tall as me. We waded into the water a bit but were too grossed out by the large amount of debris floating around and thousands of these strange little green fish swimming around us. We dried off and drove toward Inverness to see if we would have better luck there.
Massive piles of seaweed on Chimney Corner Beach

By the time we got to Inverness, the air had cooled so we didn't bother changing into our swimsuits before going down onto the beach. We walked for a bit enjoying the last rays of the early evening sun and collected some beach glass. (I've recently developed an addiction to beach glass and pick up every piece I see. I recently found a piece of rare blue glass, which is the equivalent to winning the lottery in the beach glass world). The water looked rather cloudy, rough and rocky until we got to the end of the beach closer to the wharves. There, the water was crystal clear much like the water you see in pictures of beaches in the Caribbean. No Seaweed, no rocks, so jellyfish. It looked very enticing and when I put my feet in to check the temperature, it too was much like the waters of the Caribbean. That did it for me. I decided right than and there to go back to the car and change into my swimsuit and go for an evening duck. The cool air made the water seem so warm that it ended up being more than just a duck. The sun was setting when I got enough nerve to leave the warmth of the early-September ocean and brave the chilly, evening air. I soaked up every moment of that refreshing swim thinking it would be the last one of the year. Little did I know that more than month later, I would again be again taking a dip in that exact same spot. We've certainly had a nice fall this year on The Cape!
Some sort of stone monument built by beachgoers at Inverness Beach

That evening, we were supposed to meet friends at Le Gabrielle for supper. Our little jaunt in the ocean set us back a little and we were running late. In fact, we were so late that we didn't have time to stop at our room to change! Into the restaurant we strolled with our damp swimsuits under sundresses, sandy flip flops and dripping hair. We got a few stares from curious onlookers but things like that don't bother me anymore. The older I get, the more I realize that opportunities need to be jumped on when they appear as they may never arise again. The conditions were perfect for that evening swim and it's a memory I will never forget. I'm willing to accept a few stares from total strangers I will never see again in order to jump on an opportunity like that.

We sat in the lounge area at the back of the restaurant where some live music was being enjoyed by a fairly large crowd. I ordered some delicious nachos (some of the best nachos I've ever had actually!) and enjoyed listening to a mix of modern and classic rock mixed with some traditional Acadian songs. Later, back at Cheticamp Outfitters, I retreated to the porch and cracked open a beer to enjoy on that clear, crisp evening. I was only sitting there a few minutes when I heard a very loud commotion in the bushes a few feet away. I didn't stay out there long enough to see what it was. I bolted inside and stayed inside until the next morning when the culprit revealed himself. I was sitting on the porch checking my email and phone messages when I heard a commotion in the bushes a few feet away from me. Yes the same sound and the same bushes as the night before. The brightness of the morning sun made me more bold and I stood up, eyes on the bushes to await for the creature to make an appearance. With the amount of noise being made, I was expecting a coyote or a bear or something fairly large to come out. I waited...and waited....and out popped a rambunctious little chipmunk! Imagine. A little chipmunk scared me enough to send me running indoors! He ran around in circles knocking everything in his path over. Little flower pots and ornaments went flying. He stopped and stood up on his back legs, took a good look at me and retreated to a hole in the ground.
The rambunctious little chipmunk that frightened me the night before he posed for this picture.

First on the agenda for our last day was a hike of the Skyline Trail. I've done this trail hundreds of times over the years but my friend had never done it. I agreed to take her which was no problem for me since it's one of my favorite hiking trails. I often take people on hikes along this trail. So much so that I think I should be officially named the Skyline Trail Ambassador. Cape Breton Island experienced a record-breaking year in tourism for 2016 and the traffic that lined the road near the trail head of the Skyline was one of many indications of just how many tourists were around at any given time. I'd never seen so many cars parked along there before. The trail itself was the same. People everywhere. Crowds of people of every nationality on the planet. I heard languages that I didn't even recognize and saw license plates I had never seen before in these parts. For example, I saw my first Alaska license plate in Cape Breton this past summer. New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas and Texas were some others I spotted multiple times this past summer. That day on the trail, I spotted my first moose of the season. Poor thing was being tortured by tourists. I stood watching as, one by one, people left the trail and went into the woods where this poor moose was trying to get some rest. They got right in his face with their cameras. It was a bull too. I tried to explain to several people that it was very dangerous to be getting that close to a bull moose but to no avail. This has always been a problem on The Skyline Trail where moose are fairly common. It hasn't happened yet, but it won't surprise me one bit when I someday hear that a tourist got mowed down by a giant bull moose who finally got tired of having a camera shoved in his face.

Since we were already in the area, I drove to Pleasant Bay to show my friend where Gampo Abbey is. She had heard there was a monastery somewhere around the Cabot Trail but didn't know where. I love going to Gampo Abbey, especially after a long hike or drive. It's such a quiet, relaxing place with little nature trails and spectacular scenery.
Gampo Abbey

We drove straight to Cheticamp Island after our restful stroll at Gampo Abbey and tackled another hike we had heard about in the area. I never attempted this one before so I was quite excited to be hiking a new trail. There was some confusion as to where it started and what way to go once we came to a fork in the trail but we managed and got to see some great views. Part of the trail winds around one far end of the island around a grassy area and along rocky cliffs. An old graveyard lies near the trail and someone obviously still takes care of it although the headstones date as far back as 1846.
The old gravesite near the hiking trail on Cheticamp Island

On the way home that evening, I planned to stop at the Dancing Goat to grab a coffee and snack for the road. I thought that place never closed but lo and behold, it was shut down that night when we drove by. Disappointed, I decided to do the next best thing; Make a detour to Baddeck and get some of that ice cream I love in the little ice cream shop on the main street. Thankfully, that was open. After a little walk around the town, we were on the home stretch and unfortunately, close to the end of the Labour Day long weekend.
Part of the oceanside trail on Cheticamp Island


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