Sunday, September 30, 2012

September 30th – Halifax, Nova Scotia

At last the elemental weather that you expect of Canada's Maritime Provinces in the autumn finally hit us. Early morning drizzle turned into heavy rain and umbrella-mashing winds to make us think that we really had arrived in New Scotland.

Halifax is by far the largest of all Canada's Atlantic cities, and that growth has all been founded on its magnificent natural harbour – the second largest in the world, after Sydney (Australia, not Nova Scotia). This has meant that the city became Britain's major naval base in North America and gave Halifax a vital role in both World Wars.

We dodged the rain by going into Halifax's lively Farmer's Market close-by to the pier where we docked, and then we headed down the waterfront boardwalk to appreciate the harbour, and the set of old warehouses and historic buildings that line it. It wasn't really sightseeing weather, so I left Tracy at the Art Gallery while I took a tour to picturesque Peggy's Cove, a tiny little fishing village to the south of Halifax.

In spite of the rain, it was a lovely drive to get there, as the trees are starting to change colour, and the landscape got gradually more bleak and boulder-strewn. Peggy's Cove claims to be Canada's most-visited village, but on a windswept grey day like today, it understandably wasn't too busy. Fortunately, the rain had just about stopped when we got there, and the brooding skies gave the place suitably edge-of-the-world atmosphere.

The village only has a permanent population of 40 (although it's a lot more in the summer), and so the place had a deserted feel, as we explored its waterside of peeling wooden houses and climbed the rocks to get to its old lighthouse. In the summer, you can imagine this would be a lovely place to live; but in the winter, you've got to be a fairly tough person to live somewhere as exposed as this.

We pray for better weather when we come back next week.

September 29th – Sydney, Nova Scotia

The little port of Sydney on Cape Breton Island, in the north of Nova Scotia province, is trying hard to bounce back from economic collapse. For most of the 20th century, this was a heavily industrialised place, shipping out coal from the local mines, and producing steel from the huge steel works that dominated the town. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of the global economy haven't been kind to Sydney, as the uneconomic coal mines have closed, and the steel works has been dismantled and taken to India, where it produces steel at a much lower cost.

But, what Sydney does have in its favour, is that it's close-by to some spectacular natural scenery, and one hugely impressive historical site – the old fortress at Louisbourg. So, I joined the tour to Louisbourg, to find out more about the titanic struggles between Britain and France for mastery of Canada, and to soak up the historic atmosphere at what's become Canada's largest restoration project.

The French colonial government built this enormous fortress complex in the early 18th century, as they were being slowly squeezed out of North America by the expanding British Empire, and the fortress proved to be the site of one of their last stands before their eventual defeat in the 7 Years War.

When you get there, it's the scale of the place that hits you – enormous 10-metre thick walls, an array of bastions, barracks, storehouses and accommodations that would have cost the equivalent of $1 billion to build. When the British (under General Wolfe) finally captured the fortress in 1758, they decided to raze it to the ground – but it was so big, it ended up taking them a full 18 months to destroy.

In the 1960s, as Cape Breton fell into decline, the Federal Government decided to invest millions into reconstructing the fortress – and what they've created, hasn't only been a great job-creator, but it's also a wonderfully evocative historic site, one that really brings to life what life would have been like in an 18th century colonial fort. Enthusiastic costumed animators give excellent information on the everyday goings-on in the fort – explaining how they dressed, how little they washed, what they ate and how they fought.

On another sunny day, this was a place where history really came alive.

September 26th – St John’s Newfoundland

After 4 long days at sea (and fortunately only one stomach-churningly rough day, Thank God!), we finally saw dry land, as we reached the nearest part of North America to Europe – the wild coast of Newfoundland.

In my desperation to see land, I even got up early to be on deck for spectacular our sail-in through the Narrows to St John's sheltered harbour. The Narrows certainly live up to their name – a small opening in the cliffs just 650 feet wide – dominated by the canons pointing down from the top of Signal Hill up above, and then the city's beautiful harbour opened up ahead of us, the city's buildings glinting in the early morning sun.

It had been a beautifully clear morning, but there was a cold wind was howling in at us as we passed through the Narrows into the harbour. However, by mid-morning it was absolutely boiling – not what you'd expect of an autumnal day in Newfoundland – which meant that we had way too many layers on, which swiftly had to be jettisoned back at the ship, although this did give Tracy a chance to play with the gorgeous Newfoundland and Labrador dogs that were on the dockside.

Although it has 100,000 people living there, St John's still has a small town feel – the people are friendly, the shopping is low scale, and the atmosphere is relaxed. We did a bit of general exploring around its old colonial buildings, and then began the long, hot climb up Signal Hill, to get some spectacular views down over the Narrows, the Harbour, and the rest of the city.

On a sunny day, St John's and its environs are incredibly scenic and great for walking; so, from there, we carried on trekking over the top of the hill down to the little fishing village of Quidi Vidi, with its quaint houses overhanging the water's edge. By the time we'd made it back to St John's we'd been walking for about 6 hours, so it was time for a rest and some food back on the ship.

Fortunately, the ship was in town overnight, so we had a chance to explore the St John's nightlife, which is surprisingly lively for a small place. But, before we hit the pub and the beer, we had one more cultural thing to do – to head uphill again, and visit The Rooms, the town's museum and art gallery, which happens to open late (and is free entry!) on a Wednesday. Again, for a small place, the displays up there were very good.

Finally, it was time to explore the Irish heritage of St John's, and go to a folk night in one of the many pubs offering live music. When you talk to a Newfoundlander, the thick Irish brogue of the locals sounds like they might have just got off the boat from Waterford, so it's no surprise to hear that the Irish music on offer here is of a really high quality. In the pub we chose, The Ship, there were five people playing fiddles, two guitarists, an accordion player, and two people on the Bhodran, which gave the place a wonderfully Irish atmosphere. After a few hours of toe-tapping music and a few Guinnesses, I was in Irish heaven – a great way to end what had been a really enjoyable day.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

21st September – Whiskey Tasting in Cork

In the morning, we did a little exploring of the quaint village of Cobh - a little place with a big history for shipping. It was from here that around 2.5 million Irish emigrants would have sailed to new lives in Britain, America, Canada and Australia after the tragedy of the Potato Famine; this was the last place that the "unsinkable" Titanic called in before it hit the iceberg in 1912; and it was just off the coast that the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, killing over 1,000 people, and leading the US to join World War One.

Then, in the afternoon, I joined the ship's tour to the Jameson's Distillery in Midleton, about 15 miles away. Pernod Ricard, who own Jameson's, have built a modern distillery next to the old one, which has been converted into a slick visitor centre that gives interesting tours taking you through the complicated process of turning barley into whiskey. The presentations were keen to differentiate Irish whiskey from Scotch whisky, and tried to make out that it was the Irish who taught the Scots what to do anyway. In doing this, they had to gloss over the fact that their founder, John Jameson was actually a Scot.

One of the more interesting aspects of the tour was to look at the strangeness of our young female guide, who bizarrely had thick black eyebrows painted on like Groucho Marx and spoke with an odd accent that confused even the Irish people on the tour. By the end of the tour we were all convinced that she was a robot – she appeared to glide rather than walk, and her rehearsed gesticulations seemed to have all the humanity of an automaton. Maybe she was semi-pickled by drinking too much whiskey, because our tasting at the end proved that it's pretty addictive stuff – smooth and warming.

Fortified by our tasting, most people had nodded off by the time we reached the ship – fully relaxed before our 4 day crossing over to Newfoundland. We pray for smooth seas!

20th September – Waterford

Because it's my ancestral home (my Grandmother came from there) I've been to Waterford many times, so today I chose to get out of the city and head off inland and explore some of the historic sights of neighbouring County Tipperary.

We first went to the incredibly evocative sight of the Rock of Cashel – founded 1,500 years ago as the seat of the High Kings of Munster. The Rock sticks out above the fertile plains of Tipperary, and it's topped with an atmospheric set of ruined church buildings dating from the 11th to the 13th century – the grey limestone buildings rising out of the limestone of the rock make it seem like they're one organic ensemble.

After lunch and an obligatory pint of Guinness in Cashel, we travelled to Cahir (pronounced "Care") to visit its impressive medieval Castle. Considering that this isn't one of the more famous castles in Ireland, it was great to explore because it was so wonderfully intact – it didn't take too great a leap of the imagination to imagine the knights clanking around in their armour overlooking the battlements, or the Earl of Essex besieging the castle in the 1590s.

On the long drive back to Waterford, the views over Ireland's emerald green countryside were always stirring, although as you passed through each village and town, the shut up shops and pubs were a sad reminder of the economic pain that Ireland's going through these days.

19th September – Plymouth

Plymouth was the scene of my infamous Stag Weekend in 1999, which has left me with some hazy memories of the place. So, today was about introducing Tracy to the scene of various incidents, accidents, and punishments inflicted on me by my fellow stags. Of course, it was also about discovering the rich maritime history of a city that's been the starting off point for many epic voyages of discovery and the home of the Royal Navy for the past 500 years.

Whilst the presence of the naval base has been the engine of the city's growth over the centuries, it also caused the Plymouth to suffer terribly in the Second World War, when much of the city centre was destroyed in a series of devastating German bombing raids in 1941. The ruined city was quickly re-built in concrete in the 1950s, and this has given the less-than-beautiful shopping streets of the city centre a similar feel to East Germany.

After exploring this concrete jungle, we then headed down to the part of Plymouth where you can savour the city's maritime legacy – The Hoe. We passed the bowls club and the statue of Sir Francis Drake, to remind us of his Armada-defeating antics in 1588, and we looked out to sea (our view occasionally blocked by a Plymouth University graduation ceremony), to the Royal Navy ships and the Silver Whisper out in the Sound.

We then may our way down to the Barbican, the only bit of historic Plymouth to survive largely intact. Here, in its narrow lanes of historic Elizabethan houses and warehouses, we could at last imagine the city of Drake and Raleigh, while I got regular disconcerting flashbacks of alcohol-based torture inflicted on me in 1999.

18th September – Back At Sea Again

So, after an idyllic summer of surfing, Olympic watching and campervanning around Spain and France, we're now back to life on the ocean wave, as we've re-joined the Silver Whisper in Southampton, for a 2-month jaunt across the Atlantic, sailing up and down the Canadian and New England coast, before heading down to the Caribbean for a bit of much-needed warmth.

It was lovely to catch up with some old friends and familiar faces, but I was thrust straight into the lecturing swing, with a lecture on Plymouth at 4pm - it's all go being a Destination Lecturer!