I’m not a planner. The sole plan I have in life is to have no plan. Planning has a way of, well, getting in the way – we’re so fixed on goals and objectives that we don’t see the opportunities that present themselves because they don’t fit. This applies to everything from people to places, from travel to travail. Road trips are made for me. I like the freedom to be able to detour, yet it’s always good for me to have a slight focus, too. Even if it’s only one place. The rest can fall in around it.
Off the Confederation Bridge from PEI, we landed in a swamp. New Brunswick (the source of a third of the world’s French fries) is marshy land – lots of water and lots of grass. We drove the back roads to loop into Nova Scotia on a premeditated quest to visit the Thinkers’ Lodge in Pugwash, home of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs took place in this serene setting. Hosted by philanthropist Cyrus Eaton, top-level scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain met to discuss the threat of nuclear weapons and the responsibility of scientists to work for their eradication. This courageous and groundbreaking meeting launched the Pugwash Movement, an influential transnational organization for nuclear disarmament. A place of inspiration and reflection, Thinkers’ Lodge remains a symbol for the Pugwash Movement and a beacon for world peace.
But it was closed. And it was miles out of our way. I had grand notions of sitting in the same chair as some of the finest minds known to man in the hope that some of their braininess might seep into me by osmosis. Instead, like a bad burglar casing a joint in broad daylight, I just got to peep in the windows.
En route, however, the countryside was beautiful even if the towns and villages we passed through were a tad strange. The province is home to about three-quarters of a million people and we may have seen three. It’s Canada’s only official bilingual province with 33% of the people speaking French. And it has lots of dead people. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been where I’ve seen so many cemeteries, most of them unfenced on the edge of the road. For someone who regularly communes with the dead, I found this very interesting if not a tad strange. I can’t think where the dead might wander to, but I prefer to have a clear division between their houses and mine.
We overnighted in Moncton and tired enough after a day in PEI and a less than fruitful trip to Pugwash, were happy enough to dine locally and hit the hay. Next morning though, we set off on a day that can only be marked as peculiar. First up was Magnetic Hill, an optical illusion that makes you think your car is being pulled uphill while in neutral by some magnetic force or other. I don’t quite get the science but it’s impressive. The instructions are clear – drive to the bottom of a hill, turn around at the white post, put your car in neutral, and steer as it is pulled up the hill. I was there and I’d swear on a stack of spare tyres that I was climbing a hill but apparently, I was going down one. Most peculiar.
From there it was on to the US border via a series of saintly towns – St George, St John, St Andrews – and ne’er a sign of a St Mary, St Ann, or St Margaret. Not impressed, lads. We stopped in St John at what is a North American institution – a diner. I love these places with a passion I usually reserve for lángos. They’re at the hub of so many local communities where, in their faux leather booths, the world is repeatedly set to rights alongside healthy doses of gossip and friendly interference.
It was in St John’s that we came across the Reversing Falls – another peculiar phenomenon native to New Brunswick. Water flows from under the bridge to the right and does a U-turn and flows back to the left. Amazing to watch. Again, I don’t get the explanation – or rather, I’m not interested enough in the detail to devote any brain power to trying to understand it. It was enough to see it happen. Perhaps that’s one of the side-effects of being raised Catholic – not everything needs an explanation.
Next up in the series of saintly towns, laid out like knots on a piece of convoluted string, was St George, a curious place that was in the middle of commemorating its fallen heroes. The streets were lined with banners depicting photos of veterans and the place had a slightly funereal sense to it until I got used to them. The more I saw of them, the more I liked the idea.
Back in its day, St George had a lot going on, and was perhaps most famous for its granite. Today it would seem that it depends a lot on tourism but obviously in season; we were on our own that day.
St Andrews was next. Quaint, on the verge of being twee but thankfully not making it, and very liveable, if you don’t mind tourists on your doorstep every day. It’s a town that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously and is in no rush to go anywhere. It must have taken 20 minutes to get two cups of filtered coffee – no exaggeration. [And while I’m on the subject, Canada doesn’t do coffee… I don’t think I had a decent cup all the time I was there – wine over.] Probably best known as the home of the Algonquin Resort and its Room 473, said to be haunted by a jilted bride who died there in the early 1900s, the town has more churches than any I’ve seen. I counted five (all different religions) in the space a minute – and these were the ones we drove by, not the spires we could see in the distance.
From there it was a clear sailing to the border. It was Sunday, the day before Canadian Thanksgiving and far from the queues I’d expected, we were third in line. Forced to do a rather suspicious turnaround on approach (thanks to my forgetfulness, chronic sense of direction, and complete lack of spatial judgement) we returned ten minutes later to queue. It was a slow day for the boys and we must have presented them with some diversion. Hauled in, nicely questioned, and duly stamped, we just lost 30 minutes and $6 to the wheels of US bureaucracy.
Three provinces in five days and some gobsmackingly gorgeous scenery. Thank you, Canada. It’s been a pleasure. Particularly Nova Scotia. The tourist slogan for Cape Breton Island has it nailed – once you visit, your heart will never leave.