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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Expedition Cruising; a great way to explore!

You see a lot more at sea.

Much of it water, of course, and depending on the itinerary that you pick, be sure to request a cabin that will offer the greatest sight of land, but all in all, travelling by sea is a very great privilege. It is slow, it is intimate and above all, it offers the sense of distance and achievement that aeroplanes most decidedly do not.

The Akademik Ioffee
Ships can allow exploration; they allow, assuming that they are the correct vessels, the opportunity to get up close and personal with coastlines, remote communities, small islands and many geographical wonders that would otherwise remain unseen. Ships, and I am not talking here about the massive casino-type cruisers, are poking their noses in everywhere; from a myriad of fascinating routes through Antarctica, and the uninhabited islands of South Georgia and South Orkney to the deep fjords of the Arctic coast and the wilderness and glacial gravitas of the Greenland coast.

Quite simply, small ships are nosey, and their passengers seem to share this feature. There is absolutely no reason on earth to travel to most of the destinations of the One Ocean portfolio, but clearly there is a demand for this kind of experience. Stopping for an afternoon in a remote Newfoundland outport, or enjoying the authoritative odour of several thousand indifferent walruses and sea lions may not appear on every bucket-list, but for a growing number of travellers seeking experiences and not simply the security of sneeze-shield protected dining.

Launching the Zodiacs for a trip to shore
The sea offers a different sense of timing, and indeed time. Stubbornly sticking to “ship time”, and ignoring the conventions of other time zones through which we passed, was only mildly disconcerting. It was peculiar to have one’s iPhone (for it is the 21st century, and we are addicts) tell a different story to the ship’s schedules, and for all that it matters, we could have chosen an entirely random notation of time and stuck stubbornly to that particular fiction. Tim also passes differently; the speed of passage ensures that minor incidents receive deliberation, comment and reflection. The hour of happiness, heralded by the announcement of the daily cocktail is a powerful marker, as are the suns daily appearance and disappearance. Meals, taken at roughly logical intervals punctuate the day, and lead all on board to quickly fall into a delightfully timeless existence.

Another day, another port, another idea and another new lesson learned. Who know that the smoking of fish or the oxidisation of the earth’s mantle, conveniently sticking out through the planet’s crust in GrosMorne, or the lyrical syntax of Newfoundland’s musical heritage could be so captivating? Not I. Let alone the historical weaving that has bound the Great War, sealing accidents and the connection to Mussolini in Canada’s most easterly province into a single rich fabric; knowledge is a fine thing, and the “colour commentators” on board the ship are absolutely first class.

Off to explore!

And above all, perhaps, these expeditionary itineraries offer the opportunity to explore and visit a collection of quite fascinating destinations within a relatively short period of time. Unencumbered by the frippery of casinos, high-end boutiques, combat Mariachi bands and the tiresome ephemera of the glossier end of the cruising spectrum, these vessels simply do their job.

They introduce interested people to interesting places.  

Surging through the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Monday, July 13, 2015

Visiting Sable Island: remote and very mysterious

One either wants to go to Sable Island or one has probably never heard of it. Of all of the remote markings with which cartographers embellish their maps, few have the appeal of remote islands and within the family of remote islands, Sable stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The first view of Sable Island
Why, it is difficult to comprehend, but its reputation, its mystery and its isolation all merge to create a fascination that is only hastned as one steams toward this peculiar sand bar.

Sable lies some 150 kilometres to the south of Louisbourg on the Cape Breton Island coast. It is a brief “new moon” of land some forty kilometres long and about one kilometre wide. It is a land of shifting sands, high winds, howling weather and an improbable attraction. It is home to some three to four-hundred wild horses, a population that is unmanaged, which is to say it is left alone. They live and die with the brutality of isolation, and their development and unique characteristics are their attraction;  stocky and short with coats that thicken dramatically during the winter, they resemble Spanish horses and reflect their tough island habitat.

Sable Island's horses
They are, it must be said, quite startling, and to the casual observer of horses, as I would consider myself, beautiful in the strength of their personality. They survive in a most inclement environment, and enchant visitors. They live only because of the fresh water on Sable; it is a sand island that is saturated by the sea water and in the small indentations in the centre, fresh water accumulates, and lies on top of the saline water to form fresh water lakes.

These lakes support not only the island’s wildlife, but an extraordinary variety of flora.

Recent surveys show 179 species of flora living on this spit of land. Vivid blue Iris, amber and white orchids, rose hips, pink grasses, cranberries and wild strawberries were only a few of the astonishing variety that lie in the proximity of the lakes.

They are protected; before landing, we cleansed our footwear, picked at our outer clothing for hitch-hiking seeds, and had to declare ourselves “bio-protective” before landing. The needless introduction of foreign plant life is to be avoided at all costs. Access to Sable Island is not straightforward; one can fly or arrive by boat and in either case, the trip has to be approved in advance.

The Akademik Ioffe, chartered by the Canadian-based operator One Ocean Expeditions, set sail from Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in the early evening for the overnight journey south to Sable. Only about a third of attempted journeys succeed, and although the weather was calm as we left, it can change in a heartbeat.

I made it !
The island lies at the confluence of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current, and this unique vantage offers explanations for most of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that swirl about it. Flotsam on the south shore, carried north by the Gulf Stream include tropical wood and coconuts, while the refuse that accumulates on the northern shore is usually of a tougher ilk, like fishing tackle and driftwood from capsized trawlers. The colliding patterns of these two currents form wild and confusing drift patterns around the island, and go some way to explaining why there are the wrecks of over 350 ships on this tiny speck of land.

Landing is by zodiac, and after running up on to the beach and clambering ashore, one is faced with the enormity of the achievement; hardly anyone gets to this small land, and to be one of the few fortunate to be able to land is a very special privilege. The novelty wears off quickly, however, and once the wrestling with ship’s waterproof clothing is over and the hike begins, the power of sand to suck anything and everything into its orbit becomes apparent.

Trudging up to and over the dunes is hard work, and at the beginning, not entirely rewarding; however, after about forty minutes, at the top of Bald Dune a view opens up that stretches the eyeballs and one’s mind. The almost endless dune, whipped by the southern Gulf current on one side, and the Labrador, calmed by the southerly winds, lapping at the northern, inside beach of the crescent; in front are the ponds and when the sun escapes momentarily from the clouds, the rays reflect the most inspiring palette of colour. The wild flowers in vivid blues, reds and whites lay against the deep green tufts of grass and the Sable horses munching away completed this unique perspective.

Hiking on the dunes.
It was a gentle trundle down the dune, more horses, wild strawberries, gasps of amazement and the collective astonishment that we were engaged in one of Canada’s most mysterious and rewarding locations.

One Ocean Expeditions, the Squamish-based expedition cruise operator brought us here; their fabulous East Coast itinerary, of which there will be more in my subsequent blogs, includes Sable along with half a dozen other iconic destinations. Their operation is slick; we were on and off Sable with no mishap, roughly one hundred people of varying capabilities, including a ninety-two year old Cape Breton Islander, Harvey, who had wanted to visit the island all of his life. One Ocean’s zodiacs were ideal, the staff reassuring, despite the fact that none had visited before, and Jonathan Sheppard, the island manager, a most cordial, interesting and welcoming host.

Sable is not a simple destination; it takes work, planning and a great deal of fortune. Southerly winds are the island’s visitors’ friends, and last Wednesday they were blowing our way.

Friday, July 3, 2015

MaxGlobetrotter's Ten Favourite Countries - Numbers 1 to 3

Publishing lists seems to be the craze right now, and indeed the new owner of The Great Canadian Travel Company, the redoubtable Ian Kalinowsky, has asked me to pen my top ten “new destinations for 2016”, which in due course I shall.

However, for now I am going simply to answer one of the most common questions that I am posed, “Which is your favourite  place in the world?”.

It is not a simple question, and there really are no straightforward answers, and so I am picking my Top Ten, and, in no particular order, am posting them on a daily basis on my new Facebook page, a page that I would strongly urge you to visit and “like”!! I am also marching blindly into the world of Twitter, and taking this most peculiar communication more seriously; I don’t quite get it yet, but am advised that with perseverance, its logic structure and  will become apparent.

We shall see.

In the meantime, however, I have given a great deal of thought to my favourite destinations, and felt the need to lead the pack with Portugal, and more specifically, the slice of the country that lies from Lisbon south to, but not including the Algarve, and inland to the Spanish border.

Portinho d'Arrabida
It is a land that holds many, many memories. I was introduced to travel when I was young, and from the time that I was seven-years old my parents rented an apartment for the month of August. I learned Portuguese, although my accent and vocabulary was limited to the in-shore fishermen with whom I passed many happy daysgutting fish. My particular linguistic skills, of which I was 
inordinately proud, had shortcomings that only became apparent at a Christmas gathering of my (then) girlfriend’s family; they were senior Portuguese diplomats, and surprised to hear the frothy vernacular of the sea in their rather particular salons.

I have continued to travel to Portugal, and love this special area of coastline, the Costa Azul, the plains of Alentejo, the plaintiff sounds of Fado music from its heart in Lisbon. The region has been good to me, and I am sure that I will continue to visit for as long as I am able.

My second choice is Suriname. I have been fortunate to visit four times in the past couple of years and each time gain a deeper admiration for the people of this fine country. For visitors, Suriname offers the frisson of excitement that travelling to “new “destinations brings; it has exquisite birdlife, and the expanse of the Amazon rain forest can only make Costa Rica weep.

There arejungle lodges (fly-in only) that offer the flora and fauna of the jungle on an “up close and personal” basis, and there are any number of simple resorts along the Suriname River. There are communities whose lifestyles have changed little in the three hundred years since their ancestors ran from slavery and founded the Maroon villages, and there welcome is genuine and open. For those who love to fish, the rivers are full of fine sport, and for those whose outdoor pursuits are more gentle, the butterflies that dart into and out of the canopy in true visions of colour.

Amazing Butterflies! 

Rural Suriname

And then there is the capital, Paramaribo; built apparently from the leftover bits of Amsterdam in the mid nineteenth century, it houses wonderful period houses, fine public buildings, and then tumbles into the contemporary suburbs of any growing city. Nationalities and religions coincide with mosques adjacent to synagogues and all celebrating each other’s’ High Days and holidays.  The river is magnificent, as are all of the massive waterways of The Guyanas, and to sit in the evening at the marvellous Baka Foto restaurant lying within the walls of Fort Zeelandia, built in the 1650s by the Dutch.

What a fine country Suriname is!

And so is Uruguay; not a hot destination among travellers to South America, it is really a very fine place to visit. I have been there several times, and love the balance between the cosmopolitan nature of Punta del Este, one of the world’s preeminent beach destinations, and the rather rakish nature of Montevideo; the steamy colonial towns of the western regions and the frontier nature of the inland communities of Trienta e Tres and Tacuarembo are dusty, unvisited and quite delightful.

It is also the home of Corned Beef, that disgraceful staple of English school food in the 1960s, and the massive and now fortunately dilapidated factory at Fray Bentos is a testament to just how much of the stuff was made. The office, closed in the late 1970s remains as it was on that final day, looks for all the world like a relic of the Victorian era, it is hard to imagine it at work only forty years ago.

There are lovely ranches, horse riding tours, music, street markets, wine and fine food; there are good roads, a sixteenth century town, the massive Rio de la Plata, and for any travellers venturing south to Argentina, I would urge a few days in Uruguay be added to the journey. It is a terrific place, and will not disappoint.

And so these are the first three; seven more to come, and frankly I have yet to determine just who will make the list. There are destinations that I visited decades ago whose charms and idiosyncrasies have stayed with me, and there are countries that I have visited only in the past year or two that have enchanted me.

We will indeed see.