(Initially published in Travel+Leisure Magazine, this feature won the Lowell Thomas Gold Medal from the Society of American Travel Writers, and was republished by Pico Iyer in The Best American Travel Writing 2004.)
I have made a career out of not enjoying Canada. It is one of the few things I do well. My radical malaise, Canada-wise, is associated mainly with Toronto the Good, and my hellish adolescence in that winter-benighted place. (I was Not Very Good.) Both my novels—and most of Canadian literature, come to think of it—take as a given that my country is a bitterly repressed thumbscrew of a place, in which the human spirit thrives only in willfully exotic opposition to dour, Scottish-tinged emotional bondage.
Now, if you look closely, you’ll see that Nova Scotia is transparent code for New Scotland. Am I going to be happy here? I don’t think so.
The capital of this maritime province is Halifax, and that’s where I first intend to be miserable. I check in at the Waverley Inn, a notorious bed-and-breakfast downtown. How many B&B’s can properly be called notorious? The Waverley is where Oscar Wilde stayed during his 1882 sojourn in Nova Scotia, and if most cozy inns might be compared to polite Scottish matrons, this place is a drag queen. I sleep in the Antique Chinese Wedding Bedroom, where the bed is a real Chinese wedding bed, raised and canopied, and not so much kitsch as just odd. Oscar Wilde is misquoted as having said on his deathbed: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” At the Waverley it is clear that Oscar left, but the wallpaper stayed.
So I am immediately disappointed: to my surprise, Halifax turns out to be quite weird—an attribute I can’t help but enjoy. Weird, in fact, becomes the theme of my journey through Nova Scotia. Robertson Davies once pointed out that Canada is in fact a mystical northern race, though it prefers “to present itself to the world as a Scottish banker.” Americans in general refuse to acknowledge the weirdness of Canada, dismissing our more flamboyant demonstrations of the grotesque—the filmmakers David Cronenberg and Guy Madden, for example—as exceptions. Time to visit the Maritimes.
I don’t spend much time in Halifax. I rent a Sebring convertible—nominally a sports car, in reality a quasi-hearse—and drive to the western shore of the island. Here Digby produces the world’s most exalted scallops, and Acadians remain a strong presence despite a nearly successful effort to ethnically cleanse them in the 18th century.
The British expulsion of the French Nova Scotians gave rise to Longfellow’s tearjerker, Evangeline, and it’s hard to take a step on the North Shore without encountering this theme. The highway here follows the Evangeline Trail. You can shop at the Evangeline Mall. You can buy little bound copies of Longfellow’s poem in the most unlikely places—grocery stores, for instance. I sympathize with this, as a Jew: You made us wander, and we’re not going to let you forget it.
The exiled French made their way down to Louisiana, where Acadian became Cajun. Those who stayed in Nova Scotia, or returned, share with Cajun culture an indomitable pride in the face of poverty and minority status, and a cheerful addiction to improbable cuisine. Here the defining dish is rappie pie, a heavy potato concoction forged in Vulcan heat and served in roadside shacks. Not bad stuff, actually. Poutine, another characteristic preparation, is generally dire: french fries embalmed in congealing, greasy cheese and gravy.
This delicacy aside, I have a great fondness for all things French-Canadian: those oppressed by Anglo Canada often find personal redemption (or at least wild, Continental abandon) through encounters with the French. It’s not unlike white America’s complicated relationship to black culture. Montreal, for instance, was the city in Canada where I first glimpsed the remote possibility of not being eternally miserable.
Acadian cheerfulness on the North Shore arises in opposition to a physical environment that is, for long stretches, unremittingly bleak: low, scrubbed land eroded by a tide that is in places the highest in the world. It is a bleak to be celebrated, however; the American poet Mark Strand particularly recommends the weather-bitten churches. I am torn between the weather-bitten baroque (Catholic) and the weather-bitten austere (Protestant): both represent high points in Eastern clapboarding.
Nova Scotia offers nothing if not variety. As you round the shore to the south, prepare yourself, aesthetically, for the exquisitely quaint. This is the aspect of Nova Scotia best known to outsiders: the little painted fishing village, casually arranged by the unseen hand of genius around the perfect Atlantic inlet.
The Heart of Quaintness is Peggy’s Cove. It’s a one-view town—an entire community devoted, touristically, to a single ideal postcard of a view. I buy the postcard and skip the village. You see, I was in Peggy’s Cove some years ago. Nice landscape. Nice lighthouse. Shame about the 17 buses full of eager landscape aficionados lined up to experience the one view. Besides, I’m here at the anniversary of the 1998 Swissair disaster—the plane came down just off Peggy’s Cove, and the locals famously consoled the families of those lost—and I don’t really feel like mixing my shallow view-gathering with genuine, authentic, human activity.
Instead, I check into the Rose Room at 100 Acres & An Ox, an extravagant B&B near Mahone Bay. Ardythe Wildsmith, the benevolent matriarch who presides over 100 Acres (which really does occupy a property of that size, complete with lake, but no ox), has put together one of the world’s great B&B experiences. The South Shore is about Getting Away From It All, and Ardythe’s estate—quite brilliantly—is devoted to Getting Away From All Those People Who Are Getting Away From It All. It’s about 20 minutes from the coast, and everyone else is scrambling with Darwinian zeal to occupy the coast itself.
The day begins with an obscene breakfast—blueberry pancakes made with blueberries picked (by Ardythe) just down the road; maple syrup that is, yes, better than anything south of the border; real whipped cream and scones and cereals and eggs and butter.It’s a communal affair: the entire B&B gathers about a dining table, and is forced to be social as the coffee kicks in. Luckily, those breaking fast prove convivial and diverse. I meet another Canadian writer; a leather-clad biker, who advises me to trade in my Sebring for a Ford Mustang; and a man with a scarred lip.
The wounded American is a pleasant guy whose story emerges when I ask him whether he plays the French horn or the trumpet: I associate the round scar on his upper lip with professional brass players. No, he explains, this is where his lip was reattached, after a brief encounter with a Scottish ghost.
Thank God. I knew I was in for a ghost story, sooner or later: plaid and ectoplasm go together like love and marriage.
It turns out that he and his wife were traveling in Scotland, when—against advice—he took a picture in a haunted castle. That night, at a nearby inn, he woke violently in a pool of blood, to discover that a huge wooden valance had fallen off the wall above his head, disturbing his sleep and severing his lip. The lip was sewn back on by a crack plastic surgeon who happened to be in town for a convention. And—here’s where things get shivery and pale—my scarred storyteller later discovered that the room next to his—the room into which the bolts holding the valance emerged after piercing the wall, the room where those bolts mysteriously loosened in the middle of the night—had the same name as the haunted castle.
Phew. Pass the blueberries.
One Hundred Acres makes a good base camp from which to tour this section of Nova Scotia, rightly compared to Maine: an area in which brine-inclined Americans build summer homes where they get to rub shoulders with lobstermen and Yalies. Nearby is Lunenburg, one of those absurdly scenic fishing villages. It has a long history as a shipbuilding town—some of the world’s most elegant schooners were hammered together here, and houses often bear a plaque honoring the shipbuilder who tossed that particular dwelling together in his spare time. If you paint your house bright mauve in Lunenburg, your neighbors don’t even notice.
I am not really a partisan of the quaint. Give me the urban or its opposite: I don’t condone twee half-measures. Five hours to the east, at the entrance to the Cabot Trail on the vast island of Cape Breton, the landscape winds and rises to wild grandeur: cliffs and crags and spray, in lieu of population.
I stay at the Keltic Lodge, the most famous resort in Nova Scotia. It is owned by the provincial government, and has a great deal in common with the mountain hotels associated with the Canadian Pacific Railroad—Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, Chateau Lake Louise—a kind of packaged Canadian grandness.
I have mixed feelings about the grand old Canadian hotels, and, to be fair, they have mixed feelings about me. My career as a travel writer began with a piece about the Banff Springs Hotel; I wrote what I considered a humorous riff, as a result of which Canada’s most respected magazine was pulled from newsstands across the Rockies, and my name dragged across nails on national radio. All because I interviewed the chambermaids instead of swooning over the scenery. Their colleagues called them “chamber sluts,” I noted, and nobody would dance with them except pot washers, dubbed “dish pigs.” I’m still fond of my original title for that piece—”Dead Brides and Dish Pigs: An Appreciation of the Canadian Rockies”—which was bowdlerized, alas, to “Rocky Mountain Highs and Lows.”
These legendary hotels are all about vastness, about public spaces and vistas. The room you actually sleep in tends to be on the tiny side and generally disappointing. Few hotels, however, can boast a location as spectacular as Keltic’s. The property sits on an isthmus at the far reaches of the Cabot Trail, thought by many the most impressive road and hiking path in North America: a stormy, Scotlandish coastline, with dense green forests standing at the edge of precipitous cliffs.
The lodge hogs one of the nicest bits of the trail, but there are hundreds of miles more: if you’re not a hiker, driving the trail is a transcendent experience (insofar as a highway can be life-transforming). I drive it a bit too fast—it’s the Mustang—and probably should set aside more time to wander off the highway to the myriad coves and inlets, where the scenery is even more staggering. There, you’re generally at the foot of the cliffs, looking up, as opposed to careering around the top, trying desperately not to look down.
Cape Breton is the home of another exotic micro-culture forged by poverty, pride, and isolation, although in this case it’s not so much Louisiana as Appalachia. It is here that my Fear of Scottish Stuff gives way to unbridled, intoxicated admiration. (It helps that I’m staying at a distillery.) Cape Breton has preserved and intensified a kind of Scottishness long lost in Scotland itself, just as the French spoken in Quebec bears an accent forgotten centuries ago in France. The locals feel no sense of inferiority beside the motherland; in fact, Scotland has turned to Cape Breton in order to revive its own traditions.
My “hotel,” the Glenora Inn & Distillery, brews the only single malt native to Canada, and it’s fine stuff: not so much a peat-heavy bog of an experience, but a golden, almost brandy-like liquor. The distillery will also rent you a chalet—primitive except for the Jacuzzi—with a view of the green, green valley, where tiny white farmhouses flash with sun.
Weird is, I’ll remind you, a term wed immortally to all things Scottish by the bearded sisters in Macbeth. I don’t meet anyone transparent, green, or headless, but I do feel, during my stay in Cape Breton, that I have encountered a people and way of life as mysterious and affecting as anything this side of the Atlantic and the Middle Ages.
Cape Breton culture (perhaps all culture?) has music at its root, and its specific flavor of Celtic music might well have died out were it not for the influence of a documentary. Canada has a peculiar relationship with the documentary film, which is an important national genre. Elsewhere, things happen and then get documented; here things get documented and then they happen. The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, televised in 1972 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so jolted the endangered species that fiddling enjoyed a massive revival. (A resident, remarking on the island’s epidemic of unemployment, cracks to me that someone would do a great public service if they made The Vanishing Cape Breton Worker.)
I never imagined that I would be much taken with fiddling. Who knew? I’m behind the times here; a local fiddler, Ashley MacIsaac, brought the music of Cape Breton to the outside world a decade ago. MacIsaac (“Ashley” to everyone on the island) doubled the tempo and began to play the grunge clubs of Toronto, came out of the closet, and—after flashing his genitals on Late Night with Conan O’Brien—saw his career peak in a blaze of flamboyant drug abuse and sordid behavior. Cape Breton music is in fact very similar to what Ashley took to New York and Europe: virtuosic fiddling, sans vibrato, with heartstopping changes in tempo and uncanny, almost telepathic interaction between band members.
The thing to catch is a ceilidh, pronounced “kay-lee,” which is a traditional kitchen party. I don’t manage to witness one in an actual kitchen. The town of Mabou is the epicenter of Cape Breton music, and overcivilized ceilidhs are held regularly at the community halls. You can hear some superb players, but it’s very much a sit-down concert experience, as opposed to the Scotch-drenched, reeling debauch that I imagine I missed.
And then there’s the foot music. Ashley MacIsaac gained early fame, before the age of 13, not as a fiddler but as a step dancer. Step dancing in Cape Breton is known as “close to the floor” and involves very little of the body north of the knees. Amazing thing to watch, really: a guy standing loose and motionless, looking almost bored, as his feet and ankles put Fred and Ginger to shame.
To experience Mabou, you can’t do much better than to stay at the Normaway Inn & Cabins, about 35 miles away in Margaree Valley. Normaway has for years been an instigator of all things Celtic; it holds regular barn dances and invites local acts to play after dinner.
Dave MacDonald, the proprietor, is a fierce advocate of Cape Breton culture. He records the music, promotes it, defends it. God help any act that snubs Mabou. Ashley MacIsaac, who danced at Normaway when he was a wee tyke, is only now beginning to undo the damage he caused by behaving too much like a standard-issue celebrity. Even the famed Rankin Family is expected to play fundraisers in order to avoid alienating its fan base.
In other words, this is a culture composed of actual people interacting face-to-face with actual people—as opposed to viewers interacting nose-to-screen with product. The CD or video of your music, in Mabou, is incidental: what matters is the thing that happens in the kitchen.
In the lounge at Normaway I am privileged to see musicians and step dancers Rebecca and Guillaume Tremblay, ages 18 and 16. Relatively unknown, they generally perform in a threesome, the Tremblay Family, except that their older sister has gone off to study cosmetology. I know I’m gushing like those naïve college kids who first “discovered” the blues in the sixties, but who cares. The culture of Cape Breton is enjoying something like the folk revival in America 40 years ago, and it’s about time. I’d be amazed if anywhere else in North America were routinely producing teen performers like Rebecca and Guillaume Tremblay: shy, and gormless, and preternaturally good.
For Celtic music, Cape Breton is the Mississippi Delta. Or it’s the Delta, Houston, and Chicago all rolled up into one.
A great portion of the young locals, of course, have been infected by pop culture and haven’t the faintest idea what they have at home. One waitress, itching to leave, informs me that “it’s the most boring place on earth.” Where does she come from? Bras d’Or, in the center of the island. “I wouldn’t call it a town. It’s more of a road, with people.”
And what precisely does this girl miss? “Well, I was down in Florida at the House of Blues, and ‘N Sync walks in! I mean, that doesn’t happen in Cape Breton. You go away, and suddenly you see stars.”
Well, before I moved back to Montreal, I used to see stars every weekend at my neighborhood café in Manhattan. All I can say about the experience is that stars are generally a lot shorter than you expect. I know I’ll never convince my shining waitress of this, but I hope that, after seeing a few of these stunted celebs, she’ll go running back to Bras d’Or.
With a bit of sleuthing, in fact, she could find more than a few celebrities of a different sort living quietly right under her nose. Robert Frank, the photographer. The composer Philip Glass. The essayist Calvin Trillin. All have found this province inspiring and congenial, and a welcome respite from ‘N Sync.
It’s a road, you see. With people.