In a world of constant change, it’s almost gratifying to know that my abysmal sense of geography is still matched by my equally pathetic knowledge of history. It’s always been the case, despite getting an honour in both in my Leaving Cert. Driving north from Halifax up to Cape Breton had me questioning both.
I knew we were heading north-ish – I could see as much on the map. But I wasn’t prepared for the Scottishness of it all. Duh. Nova Scotia – New Scotland, Canada’s second-smallest province. So why then was the chap on the radio speaking French while the signs showing names of rivers, mountains, lakes, and towns had a peculiar Gaelic translation? And what was with the fall colours – that wasn’t supposed to happen until we hit New England!
People from this province are known as Bluenosers and not, as I thought, because it can get cold in winter – I honestly believed that to be true) but because of a ship – a fishing and racing schooner built in 1921. Store that one up for your next pub quiz. And they’re incredibly friendly. Talkative enough to be Irish and inquisitive enough to want to know what you had for breakfast, they’re not at all backward about coming forward. The banter is great. My mother would be quite at home and I was feeling like I’d lived here before myself.
I’ve seen some horrendous house colours in my day and the colour combinations here border on being Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar like (which works on canvas rather well, but not on walls). We passed one café painted in mauve, lilac, and yellow but was a good mile beyond it before I recovered from the shock. Trust me. You didn’t want to see it anyway. But in the tiny towns that mark the route, once you get off the main drag, some of the houses are really gorgeous, even if they’re in the middle of nowhere. The one thing they all have in common is a spectacular view, particularly the more north you go. It is gobsmackingly gorgeous.
We saw towns like New Glasgow and Inverness. And others like Antigonish (remember the poem?) and Tatamagouche (Mi’kmaq Indian names). We saw signs for Gaelic lessons, ceilidhs, and tin whistles. We saw names like New Dublin Road, Money Point, and Grafton Street. And the country music station had songs in French. I was finding it difficult to remember where I was, particularly when we happened across a distillery.
We got there too late for a tour and at about $120 (€85, US$108) a bottle for the single malt, perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t get to taste it. Had we to do it again, we might well cough up for a bed in the inn itself and then sit and sample to our hearts content. Mind you, I’m not sure they’d appreciate me diluting mine with ginger ale. The Glenora is North America’s first single-malt distillery and has been distilling since 1990 and throwing ceilidhs every afternoon and evening, too. Still, it all adds to the New Scottishness of the place.
There’s a oldie worldy feel to the region, particularly when you cross the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, travelling on the Trans-Canadian Highway. Built back in 1955, the causeway is something to behold. Linking Cape Breton to the mainland, it’s quite a testament to man’s building prowess. But as you cross it, and miss the turn you need, make an illegal left, and realise that in two days you’d hadn’t seen anything resembling a police car or a Mountie, you pass into another world. A more mystical one, more sublime. One of colour, romance, and … peace.
About 350 km after breakfast, we arrived at Margaree Harbour and the Duck Cove Inn just in time for dinner. Welcomed by name (cue theme music from Cheers!), I was more than compensated for the fact that there was no bar and we had 30 minutes before the kitchen shut (it was just 7pm – things close early in this part of the world). Everything here works to its own time and once you accept the fact that no one is in a hurry to do anything and multi-tasking isn’t on the menu, then it’s lovely – truly lovely.
Gordon, the owner/receptionist promised that next time I came, he’d rally all the Murphys in the area and we’d have a hooley. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one in the vicinity that night.