Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The North Pole; A Traveller's Final Frontier

Quite why tourist would want to visit the North Pole is open to debate, but each year a few hundred hardy souls reach this point of some geographically importance, but little social value. They arrive by foot, well actually on skis, by dog team, on ice-breaking ships, by helicopter and aircraft and even drop out of the sky under parachutes.

The lure of landmark destinations is strong, witness the curious crocodile-lines of climbers conquering Mt Everest, and the North Pole is a marquee destination; a very significant tick on one’s bucket list.

The choices, however, are diminishing fast. One of the Canadian airlines that used to offer  complex and difficult flights to the Pole have announced that they will no longer fly tourists, blaming warming weather and increasingly slushy landing surfaces. This claim seems to be repudiated by the Russians who offer a spectacular operation from Camp Borneo, supporting a significant number of polar assaults.

The Russian ice-breakers that have carried tourists on two or three sailings each year are now being brought back to serve in their original capacity of breaking ice, and within two seasons, there is like to be only one option for the intrepid, and well-heeled who what to drop into 90°N.

Reaching the pole seems to be a goal for the obsessed; while obviously money is a very significant factor, those who reach the top of the world do come from all walks of life. The wealthy rub shoulders with the obsessed at Camp Barneo (so named, it was confusingly explained, to distinguish it somehow from Borneo), as several dedicated skiers launch out on their challenge to reach the pole by their own power.

The Mess Tent at Barneo
At the North Pole
The journey is amazingly variable; although the camp starts at roughly 89°N and 100°E, it is floating, and during the 24-day season, it can move from 60 miles from the pole to over 150 miles. The skiers and those attacking the route with dog-teams need to know that they don’t know just how far they will have to travel. The general idea is to travel the “last degree”, or sixty miles, under one’s own power, but one simply never knows.

The Pole brings out the truly eccentric in its visitors. Some choose to dive under the ice, some jump out of helicopters and gently float to the ground; the games and activities that visitors dream up and enact certainly cover the spectrum of imagination.

 Arrive at the Pole any way that you want!

Why on earth anyone would want to run such an operation is also a very good question, and when I met the director, Victor Boyarshy in St. Petersburg last week, he was equally perplexed. “We have run this camp since 1993”, he said, “and it seems to be interesting”. It is an extraordinary achievement; everything has to be flown in and flown out using the rather extraordinary Ukrainian aircraft, the AN-74 and flexing this versatile machine to its maximum. Starting with the initial survey-helicopters who each year seek out a suitable area for the camp, the initial runway-clearing equipment is brought in and the strip, 1000m x 60m established.

The amazing Antonov 74 - inside and out!

The landing strip is certified by the Russian aviation authorities as suitable for use by commercial passengers, and this certification allows insurance, the first of the many tumblers to fall into position, to be obtained. Then the camp is erected, the generators installed, jet fuel imported, food and bedding brought up and all of this for twenty-four days of frenetic activity, and to accommodate about one hundred hardy adventurers.
Capm Barneo; 89N 110E
The camp opens in early April, before that it is dark and too cold, and by the end of the month, the leads in the ice make any sort of structure unfeasible. It is a very short window, and one that seems to be increasing in interest every year. Travelers need to book well in advance, and with prices starting at around US$20,000 plus flights, it probably requires some pre-planning for most.

The camp is exciting; new connections are being discussed, more visitors are expected and as peculiar as it sounds, the North Pole is starting to make it off many folks bucket lists!

If you are interested in visiting this amazing outpost, feel free to contact me ( and I will be happy to put you in touch with the right people.

All photographs provided by Company VICAAR / Camp Barneo

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Baltics; Nine Interesting countries surrounding a fascinating sea!

I have not written much about The Baltics, and it is a sad omission. The Baltic Sea covers a vast area of northern Europe, with the Scandinavian countries forming its northern and western extremities, and Germany and a handful of small and rather fascinating countries its southern shores.

Riga, Latvia and the harbour in Stocholm

St. Petersburg
For most of the Cold War period, the region was the purview of a variety of elaborate Swedish and Finnish ferries, a few fishing boats and hundreds of miles of formidable borders. All this, of course, has changed completely, and now the nine countries that border the region, plus the peculiar Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are absolutely worth exploring.

The article is prompted in a way but my being in St. Petersburg as I write, and realizing that I was in Hamburg only three weeks ago. The similarities between the two cities, at least superficially, is more than simply a coincidence.

The region was, back in the fifteenth century dominated by a commercial organization called the Hanseatic League; this vast confederation stretched from eastern Britain to the eastern reaches of the Baltic, and during its peak, controlled commercial traffic and also offered a forceful and reliable legal framework for the citizens of the countries over whom it held influence. Now most of the period’s visible artifacts are long gone, but there is a similarity in architecture, town structure and atmosphere in all of the great cities of this rather interesting period.

Malta, Latvia
While there are few remaining practical features, it should be noted that “Lufthansa”, the German airline as “Air Hansa”, and the ancient “Hansabank” now operates from Sweden as the “Swedbank”. There are, however, fascinating similarities that dominate this coastline. It takes little imagination as one wanders through the tottering back streets of Klaipeda in Lithuania, or the vast systems of docks and canals that comprise the Hamburg waterfront to imagine the power and strength, and indeed the supreme confidence that the Hanseatic League must have inspired.

Contemporary travelers, however, have considerably greater comfort and options for movement. It is most certainly possible to circumnavigate the Sea using a combination of public transportation and rented cars. From Hamburg one can travel along the coast through Poland and then, bypassing Kaliningrad and its visa issues, into the three countries known as The Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Street Art, majestic in size, is everywhere

And these three countries are marvellous. Beautiful, compact, friendly, and (it must be said in the context of Scandinavia) eminently affordable, they offer visitors a fine chance to explore. Renting a car for a few days is the best way to do so, and by plotting a circuit one can enjoy the quirkiness of the region at one’s one pace.

Each country is different; linguistically, geographically and by temperament. As the Cold War ended, the Danish government took Lithuania under its wing, the Swedes “adopted” Latvia and the Finns deepened their ancient ties with the equally linguistically-challenged Estonians. These ties most certainly helped the three former soviet countries’transition into western Europe and the EU, and while they have had some bumps in the road, their position as growing economies and a part of the west is (fairly) secure.

For visitors, they are wonderful. Vilnius’ Old Town is a delight; ancient curly streets, small cafes, delightful arts shops and finely restored buildings, interesting seaside towns and villages in the countryside that time has simply forgotten. Riga’s rather imperial visage is beautifully counterbalanced by a unique display of hundreds of soviet-era aircraft in an eccentrically curated museum adjacent to the city’s airport. Inland towns are vivid, forgotten and really rather nice.

 The air museum at Riga Airport

And so to the north, and if one wants to go through the expense and hassle of obtaining a Russian visa, the city is really rather splendid. Its history is rich, its buildings lavish and the waterways that dominate the layout of St. Petersburg are delightful. But then again, there is the visa, and at a cost of approximately $300 + courier fees, and now the requirement to visit a consulate to have one’s finger prints taken, many will simply not bother, and take the ferry from Tallinnto Helsinki instead.

And so to the Finnish capital, and perhaps Europe’s most forgotten destination; “A poor second to Belgium when going abroad” as Monty Python once intoned. It is, notwithstanding, charming; heavy weatherproof buildings dominate an active waterline, and inland, Finland continues for miles and miles of Canadian Shield-type countryside, protected from foreigners by an impenetrable language, strange protocols involving plunging naked into lakes in the winter, and a culinary admiration for the more peculiar, and dare I say it “economical” parts of large fish.

Finally, to Stockholm, the jewel of the Baltics; there are overnight “ferries” that ply between the Finnish and Swedish capitals, and it is really the only way to travel. Vegas-like entertainment, blingy shopping and fine dining punctuate the 18 hour journey, and as you wake the ship will be meandering through the islands that make up the archipelago upon which Stockholm, my favourite European capital, is located.

The fqascinating "Vasa", to be seen at the "Vasa Museum
Eye-wateringly expensive, and equally gorgeous, it is a city to savour. Its grandeur, its location and topography and above all, it people are truly delightful, and offer visitors a glimpse into the richness that a progressive, historical and secure country can reach. There are some wonderfully quirky museums, terrific public spaces, a fine waterfront and endless diversions that can happily see many days pass by. 

One can travel easily through the region independently, or, of course, enjoy one of the many cruise lines that are offering a wide range of ports and combinations. 

An independent trip, would possibly start in Hamburg, travel to Gdansk and on to Warsaw by train for an onward flight to Tallinn. In Tallinn, one could rent a car and spend some days in a circuit of the three "Baltic States", and once back in Tallinn either continue to St. Petersburg and Helsinki by train, or directly on a farry. The ferry connection to Stockholm is simple, and from there to Copenhagen there are several daily trains. The final leg back to Hamburg could take advantage of the unique train-on-a-ferry option to complete this epic circumnavigation. Allow 16 - 20 days! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

European Trains; I love 'em ...

I have, for the past ten days, been travelling in Europe to a tight schedule. Although nominally “retired”, but we shall explore that term at a later time, I have some interesting projects that require me to present myself at a variety of European locations within a relatively short timeframe.

My travel is not always glamorous.
For this, I have chosen a Eurail Pass. These formerly simply accessories now require the patience of a saint to decipher, there being so many options;  the options, of course, being (one feels) the reaction to so many “emerging” partners like Romania with whom Germany and France do not care to share the revenue on a simple, geographically proportionally basis. Or, frankly, any other; I digress.

I love German trains; clean, efficient and quick, they epitomize travel in 21st and possibly the 22nd century, and have the ability to whizz one around the continent at a dizzying rate. However, it must be said, they don’t always work so well, and with the emotional spark of a lactose-intolerant stevedore, they are known to become sluggish. 

Clean, efficient and devoid of passengers. 
Three trains out of three yesterday were late, and I don’t mean by two minutes. They were tardy by an hour or so, and each an independent journey. No need here to muddy the waters with obsolete references to railway-punctuality in bygone eras, but one wonders what happened and just who could get the trains moving on time.

Then, there are, astonishingly, trains in Germany and France that are designed to be slow. I was a touch confused as to the purpose of three lines of immobile traffic at the Hamburg Altona station. Well, it turned out, by acute observation on my part, that they were lines for the overnight car-transporter trains to Lörrach, a town that nobody has ever heard of, but lies across the border with Switzerland from Basel. One loads one’s car, one sleeps (perhaps) and one wakes up eleven hours (and three minutes, but I wouldn’t be too sure about that precision) to the south ready for a triangular chocolate bar.

 Loading the night train in Hamburg 

It is brilliant; there are several of these “motorail” options in Europe, and I have often wondered why this option does not readily exist in Canada. To the extent that some years ago I wanted to partner with the fine Winnipeg-based forwarding company TransX to provide exactly this service; ship your car to Halifax and drive it back … a simple and potentially rewarding concept. It went nowhere, but that was my fault, and like most great ideas it lurks somewhere in my imagination.

However, I digress. Germany is a large country. Not really large enough for a domestic train to take eleven hours without some pretty nifty signaling, but big enough that I shall fly to Munich tomorrow rather than enjoy the panoramic view of trees that line the railway track to the south.

I like train travel though; it clears one’s mind, it avoids all manner of bizarre and predatory “security features” that are so redolent of air travel today, and it offers the mind a fertile and evolving playing-field for the imagination to exercise.

And believe me, my mind needs space in which to operate.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Chicago - My Favourite US City

I think that it is pretty hard not to like Chicago, and I try to visit as often as I can. Frequently, travelling to from Europe, I will route my journey through the Windy City, named for their politicians ability to talk rather then the weather, spend a night or two, from most Canadian cities, it is an easy weekend escape.

 Chicago' s Skyline (and The Bean) are endlessly fascinating!

For about ten years I had an office in Chicago at the corner of Michigan and Wacker, and got to spend a large amount of time in the city. I came quickly to realise that far from a jumble of tall buildings, the city have a pace and a smile that was inherently mid-western. It is a city that is comfortable in ints own shoes, and offers visitors a pretty clear vision of how it feels. There is none of teh challenge that has always characterised New York, or the quizically laid-back atmosphere of the west coast ... in Chicago, you get what you see.

Lincoln Park with Downtown in the distance
Which is a heck of a lot! The city is the beneficiary of some most inspired urban planning; after Great Fire of 1871, the city was rebuilt, and rebuilt with vision. Its location, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan is delightful, and the insistance of the planners to leave a vast area of land adjacent to the water as public space, inspired. One cannot imagine the pressure that the local barons applied to allow them to rebuild their mansions on the coast, but this was not to be, and today's city offers some of the finest urban planning legacies in North America today.

The city's buildings are alive; the justaposition of ages first jar the senses and then delight; one can hardly wander through the central core without gasping at some of the design inspirations, and truly, this is a city whose simple physical presence is to be inhaled. It is buzzy, with street performers, the usual urban collection of hopefuls trying to prise a dollaw or two out of you, and endless people wandering and scurrying through the city's streets, shops and parks.

It is a delight to get around; the public transportation systemn is efficient and straightforward, and cabs are plentiful and reasonably priced. And, of course, one can always rent bikes or walk.

The Magnificent Mile
Frankly, I am not altogether sure why so few (relatively) Canadians visit. From Winnipeg, New York is the US city of choice, even though it takes at least six hours each way to fly via one connecting city or other. Chicago is two hours away on a non-stop flight and offers everything that one may want. Its architecture is legendary, the blues music iconic, and the restaurants superb. The museums and galleries are of the first order, and the whole ambience of the city is buzzy and exciting. There are accommodations to suit everyone, shopping to sate the most jaded palate and frankly, I don’t know why I don’t just move here.

I love the city; from the simple, if a touch bouncy and raw, metro ride from O’Hare (or Midway) airport to the city centre to the first class public transportation system, it is easy to get around. There is the added glee of passing the swells riding in their airport limousines stuck in the freeway (there’s a misnomer) traffic, as you whizz into the city. It is really accessible for accommodation in the Loop (I love the Palmer House), is easy, and if you are on the Magnificent Mile, a short cab ride from the Clarke and Lake will get you to the property in under an hour.

The Architecture Cruise
Then the decisions are tough; where to eat, what to do and where to spend your time. Whatever you choose, if you are a fan of the blues, and don’t have to get up too early, be sure head to Kingston Mines (after about 10pm) for the best in town; another place worth mentioning, although there are really too many from which to choose, is the fabulous Rosa's Lounge. Rosa's might be a little out of theway, but it is well worth the effort; close to it is La Bomba, a great Puerto Rican restaurant, and the two make a perfect combination.

Walk in Lincoln Park, visit the Field Museum and the Art Institute and above all, wander. While the Loop and Mag Mile are entertaining and absorbing, it is also worth jumping on the bus or CTA and heading to one of the near suburbs like Adison where you will find some great restaurants and shops.

And then, of course, there are the fabulous buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Only a thirty minute ride on the CTA to the west of the city lies Oak Park, home of many homes designed by this iconic architect; some are open to the public, some can only be gazed at from outside, but a trip to the area is well worth the ride. 

 Two of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings in Oak Park

And if you get thirsty, you can just Stop and Drink.

I am already looking forward to coming back in December!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Yellowknife, NWT - Canada's Perfect Capital.

I have always had a soft spot for Yellowknife, and can unequivocally say that it is my favourite of the fourteen provincial, territorial and federal capitals. For what it is worth, Edmonton is my least favourite, but nobody asked, and I don’t want to dwell on the Bad Times.

Yellowknife, quite simply, is fun; it takes itself so seriously that it borders on becoming a parody of itself, and in that enthusiasm embraces visitors and observers into the unique perspective of life that is offered by diamonds, government and tourism.

I first travelled there in the early 1980s. At that time Northwest Territorial Airways operated an elderly Lockheed Electra, a most comfortable 86-passenger propeller plane that offered a semi-circular lounge area in its tail, on a three-hour flight from Winnipeg to Yellowknife. I was fortunate to ride on this line several times, and came to love the frontier town that the Territorial capital then was.

The price of gold was marked hourly by chalk in the smoky coffee shop of the Discovery Inn, this information seemingly critical to the minute-by-minute temperament of the locals. Tourism, of course, was barely on the horizon in those days, but there were great folks around who wanted to see how they could join this burgeoning industry.

One Yellowknife airport!
And they most certainly succeeded! Yellowknife now hosts as many as 75,000 visitors each year, a number that exceeds its population. Many (some 22,000) come for the Northern Lights, as Yellowknife is one of, if not the preeminent locations to witness this extraordinary display. In particular, the Japanese visit in huge numbers, 10,000 at the last count, and this has spawned a fascinating parallel economy of fine sushi and other Japanese niceties to sooth these visitors’ yearnings for home.

But is it not all about lights, of course, given that the city bathes in sunlight for several months each year. It is, above all, I decided, all about aviation.  The city is alive with aircraft from the conventional jets that connect the city with the south to a vast miscellany of buzzy little creatures that whizz miners, tourists, campers and sightseers around the astonishing surroundings. Lakes and trees, Canada’s staple landscape, dominate; however, the connectivity by air, the isolated cabins, the dramatic lodges and fertile hunting grounds bring the bush to the city and the city to the bush. It is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

One of the many houseboats in the bay
The Old Town is the cultural heartbeat of Yellowknife; the original houses, some restored professionally, some with only love and a smile and some untouched for decades, reflect the powerful sense of triumph and the future that the original prospectors imbued. It is a place to get lost, and there is a superb audio-app that every visitor should obtain that quickly draws you back to the thirties and forties, and the real core of Yellowknife’s soul.

 Yellowknife's Old Town

From the city, when one just has to get away, there are lodges and camps, but none finer then Blachford Lake, a long-term work-in-progress facility about forty minutes away by air. This lodge defies description; it is comfortable and has managed to incorporate the souls of every visitor and staff member rover the thirty-five years it has been in operation. It offers accommodation and food, of course, but more importantly a milieu that can best be described as its own ecosystem.

I love Blachford. The facilities are by no means luxurious, but extend the security of a family with the celebration of friends in the most unlikely setting. There are educational courses and weddings, small think-tank meetings and romantic weekends, fishing escapes and aurora watching and dog sledding and ambience; above all, the northern ambience. Visitors come for many reasons, but all leave with the same images woven together to form their own memories.

Blachford Lodge
And if one has to point out that if it is good enough for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, given their choice of evey lodge in Canada, well, I would agree that is is more than good enough for me. 

We were there for dinner, and as our six-seat Beaver waited patiently, we certainly didnt' want to leave too fast. The atmosphere of the Lodge is unique; anover used word, perhaps, but this truly was. It is not a "Wilderness Lodge", and does not fit neatly into any single classification, but this, of course, is the core of Blachford's attractions. It is simply a Lodge in the Wilderness offering its guests an extraordinary opportunty to feel free, comfortable and to completely relax, secure in teh knowledge that the remarkable staff are ready to explain, show, identify and talk about anything and everything that happens and lives in these vast woods. 

Back in the city, and seeking food, we were surprised at the varation that is available; certainly a result of both local demand and the thousands of hungry tourists that come by each year. Terrific restaurants abound, and Bullock’s Bistro, the Dancing Moose and Sushi North deserve a special mention; there are brilliant museums and exhibitions; the town’s hiking trails, particularly Frame Lake are fabulous, and in the winter, and I am sure that I will get back again to report, a whole new world of opportunity opens up.

Yellowknife is an active place, and for those willing to get out and enjoy, the rewards are endless.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Canadian Prairies; Driving the Yellowhead Highway to Yellowknife

How remiss and idle I have been.

I have, in accordance with the Way of Life, been wandering this summer, and notably through Canada. Having left Newfoundland and its unusual dancing, whizzed around the Cabot Trail, and I must say left that iconic drive completely underwhelmed, it was time to head west, and drive to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories

Now the drive from Winnipeg to Yellowknife, some 3,000 kms of deeply predictably highway, can appear to be monotonous. This would be and unfortunate and slightly unkind observation as my friend, the CBC notable Laurie Hoogstraten pointed out. “Meditative is the word you are looking for, Max”, she intoned, “not dull at all”.

The meditative Prairies

She may have a point. The landscapes between here and there is not Alpine; it does, however offer some broad and extraordinary landscapes coloured by the changing sky, the crops and the periodic, brightly coloured farm building. Yellows, Blues, reds and the heavy and dominating black skies of a Prairie storm were all about, and with the wide open plains, visible in a 360° arc that completely encased our car.

The Yellowhead Highway is the main artery to the northwest, and it was on this wonderfully named road that we spent some 1,500 kms passing through the rolling fields of western Manitoba, the agricultural heartland of Saskatchewan (“easy to draw, hard to spell”), and the transitioning landscapes of Alberta.

Farm implements for sale in such numbers; massive, insect-like machines with purposes city-dwellers could only presume lined the side of the highways as we passed through the Prairie farming towns. Endless fields of brightly coloured canola, herds of sunflowers and the rising tide of wheat that would eventually be taken in the early fall. All of this agriculture was quite overwhelming, and visually delightful.

While at first glance, the road was long, straight and scarcely undulating, it was impossible not to feel the overwhelming sense of community that imbues life on the sharp end of production. It is, after all, these men and women living their lives in a thousand  Dog Rivers that feed us all. Trains, three kilometres long, as they passed by one at a level crossing, gave ample time to ponder their cargoes, destinations and the extraordinary process by which seed, water and sun can create billions of tons of produce to be shipped to every corner of the earth.

And once free, and ready to move on, we reached Saskatoon, the slightly quirky and rather pretty city that houses the University of Saskatchewan and straddles the South Saskatchewan River in the centre of the prairie. It is a welcome break, although it was raining so much its charms were mostly washed away, but there are several very good restaurants in town, and the opportunity was taken to celebrate my cousin Jude’s Marker Birthday in some style.

She, my cousin, was it must be said, quite overwhelmed with the available space of the prairie, the relative emptiness of the roads, the sheer quantity of farmland, the mysterious stick-insect-machines that seemed to be so popular, the proliferation of pick-up trucks, the rather unappealing urban-planning represented to us as we drove, grain elevators, and Corner Gas (to which we inevitably introduced her).

 And so the first day passed; the second (1,074kms to Peace River) was not notably different other than the irritating road works, punctuating the meditation, presented by Edmonton clearly trying to sharpen itself up. We turned north; the first real junction of the journey and a good opportunity to test the car’s steering mechanism, and slowly but surely, in the sort of progression that is only visible to those in a car, or perhaps a train, the landscape changed, and on the third day, (945kms - Peace River to Fort Providence) we passed the border into the Northwest Territories, and as we burst across the 60th parallel, so did the sunshine and our introduction to the north was complete as the park rangers immediately offered us a cup of coffee.

The Sunny (and crowded) border

Coffee is the fuel of the north; barely an hour goes by without someone “putting on another pot”, “topping one up”, “reaching for an empty cup” and bemoaning the black liquid’s viscosity. “A bit thick, this coffee” is a common refrain, but there it is, the primary food group of Canada’s territories.

Fort Providence, a community that lies along the Mighty Mackenzie, and until recently was where all land traffic in the summer had to cross by ferry, is compact, slightly buggy, friendly and a fine place to stay overnight before the final 350kms on to Yellowknife.

The Mackenzie River at Fort Providence

 I am, as many well know, an immigrant from the United Kingdom; London is my Home Town and the transition from Britain to Canada interesting. There are, it seems two English people living in Fort Prov (as it is so charmingly diminutised); appearing in the community one day, and declaring that it offered all that was unavailable in Great Britain, they moved. I didn’t meet them, but would love to find out more. Perhaps it was the curious drinking requirements:

The imposing regulations of Ft. Providence

The Last Leg into Yellowknife
And so to Yellowknife, the buzzy, sunny, captivating capital of the Northwest Territories, formerly the North Western Territory (1859), then the North-West Territories (1871) and finally, in a moment of grammatical defiance, the hyphen was dropped in 1912 and the Northwest Territories became the territory that it is not today.

Having been split into two parts in 1999, the eastern Arctic became the Nunavut Territory, and presumably tired of the etymological disturbances of the past centuries, and being underwhelmed by the new names offered as an alternative (“Denedeh”, an Athabaskan word meaning “Our Land” was a strong contender, as was the choice to rename the territory “Bob” according to polls at the time), the title of The Northwest Territories stuck, and the NWT it remains.

A very fine place, and only 3,020 kms from my house in Winnipeg.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Newfoundland Outports and the Coxey Woxey Dixie Bird

I can’t say that I was familiar with the Coxey WoxeyDixie Bird before I reached François (pronounced, of course, “Frans-Way”), but it was one of the rather interesting cultural identifications of this fascinating village.

Newfoundland Outports”. The concept itself conjures up inclement weather, tough communities clinging to barren rock carving a difficult living from the heaving oceans; they are ancient, by North American standards, and protect the hardy stock of Irish and Dorset fishermen who arrived in the eighteenth century, bringing fishing skills, music and a deep rooted sense of community to the rugged shores of southern Newfoundland.

Francois, Newfoundland

The outports are not that easy to reach. A ferry that very closely resembles a small trawler, connects François to the Big Smoke of Burgeo and the provincial road network daily, (except Thursdays (and the first, second, fourth and fifth Tuesdays of each month)), and Hermitage to the East on Thursdays. A ticket for the six-hour run to Burgeo costs a mighty $8.25 for the ride to the outports, and seems to be to be a bargain. The vessel, the M/V Marine Voyager seems to be a sturdy little boat of some 238 tons; operated by the Puddister Trading Company of St. John’s, it zooms along the coast at a top speed of 10.5 knots, propelled by 746 kilowatts of diesel-generated power.

An alternative way to visit is on board one of the Expedition Cruise vessels that make rare stops, and this is how I ended up deep in François Bay visiting the community of eighty souls on the remote southern coast of Newfoundland.

A cursory glance at the headstones in the windswept graveyard show a preponderance of Durnforths and Fudges; I asked our delightful guide, Austin Fudge, about feuds, and the difficulties of a Hatfield & McCoy sort of scenario.

“No,” he said, “we get on fine. Nothing like that, except maybe in the spring time when a couple of the women over there”, he said with an indicative flick of his head, “seem to compete. With something; I don’t really know what”. Not a hotbed of revolution, then, but not a completely healthy community.

Its charming veneer of brightly coloured houses, steep cliffs and a boardwalk system to links the community together looks a little idyllic. Idylls however, tend to be in the minds of the beholders, and the population that has been in steady decline now lies at a precipitous level. Thirteen children are in the school, but it is unlikely that they will remain in the community; when they go, and the older folks die, the community will go with it. “Another ten to fifteen years” was the opinion of Sean Cadigan, a most affable and knowledgeable historian who travelled with us, “and the community will fade away”

Lobsters seem to be the mainstay of the economy here; not to the level of the last decades of the nineteenth century when the Fudge family managed a canning factory from 1870 to 1900, but lucrative enough for the moment. Only time will tell, but remote communities everywhere are feeling the inexorable squeeze of globalisation, and the concentration of government services in fewer locations.

The community is a fine place to visit. Scenically it is gorgeous, and the community spirit for which The Rock is so well known, is alive and well. Spending a day enjoying one of the several hikes around and above the community, enjoying some cogitating time by the harbour, casting a line with a local guide and simply chatting to everyone in town is rewarding. And when the sun dips behind the cliffs, and the community gathers in the hall, be ready to dance … rocking the night away with one-man-band Darren Durnford is a fine experience. 

Starting his set with a fine rendition of Dire Srait’s Walk of Life, Darren continued with a fine mixture of the bouncy, the obligatory local repertoire and the highlight for the crowd of gambolling natives and visitors, The Coxey Woxey Dixie Bird; guaranteed to draw one into the fray, and a palpable relief from the more conventional Chicken Dance, the music-man entertained and danced us into the night before returning by zodiac through the fjord-like cliffs to our ship anchored just off the coast.

The Akademik Ioffee at Francois

Outports are unique. They are fascinating, accessible and will not be there for ever; absorbed by our ever-homogenising world, their complicated simplicity should be treasured. For those fortunate enough to visit, either independently on the equally-fascinating Newfoundland ferry system, or on an expedition cruise, it will be an experience not easily forgotten, and a new prism through which to view our own hurtling lives.

 Thanks, François!

MaxGlobetrotter's new prism of life - The Coxey Woxey Dixie Bird