“Psst! Wanna buy a fish?” The peaceful dock at Quadra Island, B.C. was the last place I expected to be approached by a malnourished fish dealer with a nicotine habit. When he sidled up to me, the word “fish” was about the last thing I would have expected to hear. All kinds of questions sprang to mind. What kind of a fish? Was it legal? If so, why the shady enquiry? If not, did I look like I needed an illegal fish? By the time I decided to ask, he had vanished.
It was definitely the strangest encounter I had at any of the five harbours I visited this summer. On a whirlwind ten day trip to meet and reconnect with our extended families living on the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts, my partner and I felt like we were on our own version of “The Amazing Race – Canada”. Here are the highlights.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – We visited our first harbour during the five days of music, parades, fireworks and general merrymaking at the end of July called the Natal Day Festival. The boardwalk was filled with families enjoying the entertainment including the International Buskers Festival. Every night was capped off with free concerts and fireworks on the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge and other downtown spots. Halifax harbour is very much a working harbour with a military presence, a gigantic shipping container complex and a shipyard that is planning a major expansion. But it’s not all work and no play. Halifax packs a boatload of history, art, shopping and dining into a very walkable six block area. For a calendar of events visit www.destinationhalifax.com
VISIT: We ducked into the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, slipped into a deck chair recreated for the Titanic exhibit and were wowed by the wonderful scale models of the Age of Steam gallery. Just down the street we sampled a slice of 1863 history and raised a glass of suds in the original Alexander Keith’s Brewery where tours are led by very enthusiastic young performers in period costume.
MUNCH: At the Lower Deck, a Halifax institution, we had the best crab cakes of our entire trip and for dessert we stopped in to pick up a gigantic chocolate croissant at the Historic Properties. This interconnected group of 10 stone and timber warehouses dates from the early 1800’s and has been converted into shops, galleries, restaurants and pubs while still retaining its historical ambiance – and the wooden stocks were an irresistible photo op.
HARBOUR HIGHLIGHT: Tour the enormous expanse of Halifax harbour by schooner or take the amphibious Harbour Hopper for a narrated tour by land and sea. Kids will love the short cruise on Theodore Tugboat. For info on these three tours that run all year, visit www.mtcw.ca
SAINT JOHN, NEW BRUNSWICK – We had sunny days and rain in Saint John but we discovered that the weather didn’t stop us from exploring the harbour thanks to the Inside Connection Pedway system. We took a stroll outdoors along the waterfront at sunset to find a beach volleyball game in progress right beside a stage where the band was drawing quite a crowd. The next morning it was pouring rain but we walked through the Pedway and the rain stopped just in time for us to check out the newly refurbished 1908 King’s Square Bandstand in the park outside on King Street. The coronet on top is shining like new and musicians will be playing there again during the summer.
VISIT: You’ll find lots to see and do in the New Brunswick Museum, located indoors in Market Square along the Pedway. A display of huge cutaway models gave us a new appreciation of the craft of shipbuilding. In the Hall of Great Whales a full size right whale floated overhead and we watched the Fundy tides in action in the Tidal Tower that stretches up three storeys high along the staircase.
At the other end of the Pedway, fresh fish, vegetables, jam and cheese vendors vie for space with pocket restaurants in the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest operating farmers’ market. It’s a great place to stop for a bite and pick up some tasty local treats as well as handmade arts and crafts.
MUNCH: For a taste of European fine dining within walking distance of the Saint John harbour we recommend Décimal 81. The ambiance is superb, especially at sunset when the simple and elegant décor glows with warmth from the large street side windows and then settles into an intimate candlelight setting. Our server was attentive and helpful, the menu is locally sourced and changes daily; a huge pot of garlicky mussels and a delicate lobster risotto were starters, the pecan crusted lamb was fork tender and dessert was a perfect crème brulé. www.décimal81.ca
STAY: The Hilton Saint John, a 4.5 star hotel, sits directly on the boardwalk and is a starting point for the Inside Connection. You might see Minke or Humpback whales from your window and you can’t miss the cruise ships when they dock right next to the hotel. Brunch overlooking the harbour was a treat. www.hiltonsaintjohn.com
HARBOUR HIGHLIGHT: For heart-stopping true blue Canadian thrills, the Reversing Falls Jet Boat rides can’t be beat – plus Stompin’ Tom recommended them. If you’d rather stay on dry land you can see them from Fallsview Park. Visit www.discoversaintjohn.com for more information including tide tables.
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA– A lacy collar of sailboats fills Victoria’s harbour which is only fitting given the white glove history of this most English of Canadian cities. Historic stone buildings encircle the inner harbour including The Fairmont Empress Hotel (1908), the Parliament Buildings (1898) and the historic CPR Steamship building (1920). This was one of the prettiest and busiest harbours we saw, with ferries, water taxis and float planes in constant motion. The flower lined Scenic Walk wraps around the harbour and the low brick buildings of Bastion Square and Chinatown on the Historic Alley Walk are just a few steps away.
VISIT: Even if you don’t think you’re a fan of wildlife art, The Robert Bateman Centre, which just opened this spring in the Steamship building, might convince you otherwise. The ten galleries containing a hundred of Bateman’s works are only one part of a unique plan to engage young people around the world with nature. The galleries feature advanced interactive screens where you can create your own virtual collection and a QR code searchable database of information interacts with your cell phone. It sounded like we were in a forest when we triggered birdsongs by waving at sensors near the paintings. http://batemancentre.org
STAY: The Inn at Laurel Point was a great place to watch all the goings-on in the harbour from our balcony especially since the hotel is surrounded on three sides by water. The Asian inspired décor makes each suite seem more like a spa than a hotel room. The minute I walked into the huge, marble bathroom I was dreaming of a soak in that tub. Add their waterfront restaurant, AURA , a Japanese garden that stays green all year round and friendly, helpful staff to the mix and it’s easy to see why they earned a 2013 Certificate of Excellence from Tripadvisor. http://laurelpoint.com
NANAIMO, B.C. – Who knew that Nanaimo was such a foodie destination? There are several seaside dining options from an upscale perch at The Lighthouse Bistro overlooking the harbour to crab cakes at Trollers Fish & Chips on the dock. The jewel box of a harbour is studded with vessels from dinghies to elegant sailboats with float planes taking off every thirty seconds. Just a block inland on Commercial Street in the heart of the Old City Quarter are two remarkable small restaurants almost side by side.
MUNCH: The Danforth Deli & Grill lives up to its mission statement of preparing local and organic food “by hand without the use of microwave ovens or deep fryers” but they still turn out a mean Reuben, great gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches (“Promote cheese” is anther motto) and they serve breakfast until 4 p.m. The boss’s wife makes a mean homemade strawberry jam and the organic Nanaimo bars were very good, but tiny. www.danforthdeli.ca
MUNCH: 2 Chef’s Affair is run by Daniel Caron and Tammy Deline who offer great seasonal food at a few small tables and take home meals at reasonable prices. Try the Ménage a Trois, crab and snapper fishcakes on artisan lettuce slaw topped with garlic prawns or Love at First Bite French toast with homemade blueberry preserves, sweet cream cheese and maple syrup. [email protected]
STAY: Located steps away from the seawall walkway, with a boutique hotel vibe, concierge service, and an in-house spa and restaurant, The Coast Bastion Hotel is a delightful place to stay. Recently renovated in 2010, the décor is fresh and bright, room service runs 24 hours and pets are welcome. Thoughtful design adds a slice of harbour view to almost every room. www.coasthotels.com
QUADRA ISLAND, B.C. – The tiniest harbour that we visited has a charm all its own. Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island is everything you imagine an island harbour in B.C. should be, misty, fringed with trees, with steep cliffs sweeping down to a shoreline where logs bump gently in the waves. The population of 2,700 swells in the summer months as visitors take the 10 minute ferry ride across from Campbell River to enjoy pristine lakes, hiking trails, kayaking and salmon fishing in and around Quadra. The island also boasts a thriving art scene with over two dozen artists and artisans taking part in the annual studio open house event in June.
VISIT: For a chance to rub shoulders with the locals visit the Heriot Bay Inn on a Saturday night when host Mo Davenport and a talented roster of local musicians get everyone up on the tiny dance floor with classic rock. On Thursday nights the U of Q features guest speakers on topics ranging from pyrotechnics to cranial sacral therapy. www.heriotbayinn.com
FISH: If salmon fishing is on your to-do list, there are three chartered fishing boat operators near the cove ready to take you out into the spectacular scenery that surrounds Quadra Island. Orcas, seabirds and wildlife abound in Discovery Passage and if you don’t catch anything, there’s still that guy on the dock. www.quadraisland.ca/adventure_tours/fishing