Forests of slippery moss and tangled roots. Leaves the colors of firelight. Old ships moored off a craggy coastline weeping with saline dew. The moan of a foghorn drifting across the water.
The Northeast may be autumn’s crowning achievement, but it’s also a region defined by tradition and stories both ancient and still being written.
Portland is Maine’s largest city, and it feels resurgent these days. Boasting only 66,000 residents in the city proper, and an increasing number of restaurants and bars with talented chefs using local ingredients alongside its historic lighthouses, art galleries and cobblestone streets, it may be giving its namesake on the West Coast a quality-of-life run for its money. Long a haven for fishermen and old money, Portland has become a bit of a foggy foodie heaven.
In the top-floor lounge of the Westin Portland Harborview, 20-somethings are sipping craft cocktails and Maine-brewed IPAs while munching on braised pork belly sliders, overlooking the harbor into which British naval vessels first drifted in the 1600s. A few miles south in Cape Elizabeth, fresh white morsels of Maine’s beloved crustacean are being stacked into simple buttered and toasted rolls, served in a thin cardboard basket with fries, and enjoyed in the sun amid a backdrop of crashing ocean waves. Droves of salty locals and visitors alike have been coming to the Lobster Shack since the 1920s. Regulars typically gild the lobster meal with a dessert slice of homemade strawberry rhubarb pie.
For an honor-system $10 bill deposited into an outdoor slot, you can pedal an old bicycle around Peaks Island, past classic New England homes and weepingly spectacular fall foliage set against the cobalt sea. Along the way an odd, handmade sign by the side of the road sardonically informs that the large weather-predicting rock lodged at its base has settings ranging from white indicating “snow” to “swaying” for a “bit-o-blow” and “invisible” for “pea soup fog.”
The overnight ferry between Portland and Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, a boxy vessel the size of a diminutive cruise liner, heaves its belly over the dark waters of the Gulf of Maine. A guitarist gamely performs in one of the ship’s bars. The casino room is filled with slot machines, but no one is pulling any bandits’ arms. A selection of cuisines bordering on international gently steam at the buffet. Most of the courteous crew are from overseas. It may not feel stereotypically “Maine,” but it does, as the old-timers might say around here, get you from heyah to theyah.
The territory that includes Maine and eastern Canada – a melange of French Acadian, English, Scottish, Dutch and Native American influences – has always been about hardscrabble, independent living. Even today, it is a challenge for businesses on these shores, especially when the focus is a quality product.
Colton D’Eon manages his family’s oyster farm, which they’ve owned for more than 17 years in a small French community on the southern coast of Nova Scotia. These are “Ruisseau” oysters, full and plump, and of muted salinity due to the brackish waters of Eel Lake.
“You taste a little bit more of the oyster, rather than just a big gulp of salt water,” says D’Eon as he and his assistant hoist floating cages into their small craft on a windy day. They’re checking on the growth of the oysters – which take three years to get to full size – cleaning the cages (sans chemicals), managing invasive species and potential infestations, and preparing to harvest about a half-million of the mollusks as they do every October. It’s incredibly labor intensive, but their highly prized oysters sell in restaurants across eastern Canada.
Farther up the coast, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital Halifax, past rocky coves and weathered fishing boats along the rugged Eastern Shore, the tiny town of Liscomb is home to about 300 people. Most work at the only hotel in this former mill town, the venerable Liscombe Lodge. The town’s history might be as mysterious as the question of whether its name gets an “e” at the end or not. A tribe of Mi’kmaq Indians that once lived on the picturesque shores of the river here – now occupied by a row of hotel chalets – were, the story goes, nearly wiped out by disease. The Europeans who replaced them were reputedly a mix of explorers, traders, fishermen and other colorful characters.
Town storyteller Chester Rudolph – who says his great-grandfather served as a guide with a local Mi’kmaq medicine man – has lots of tales from the old days ranging from the credible to the fantastical, but all entertaining nonetheless, if not morbidly so.
A jealous boat captain murders an unfaithful wife he suspects of having an affair with a recluse on a tiny neighboring island. The image of a bride-to-be who died in a fateful shipwreck makes regular appearances in the local fog. Pirates, rum-runners and sunken treasure. And a farmer, mystified by the disappearance of his sheep, discovers to his horror that a sea serpent – in this case a giant eel (never simply a thief for these stories) – has been plucking them from shore and dragging them to their watery deaths.
Chester’s life has been comparatively tamer. He’s worked a variety of jobs at the hotel over the years, and now as boat captain his duties include ferrying guests out into the waters in a small pleasure craft, where they’re likely to hear a few of his yarns. At the age of 64, he’s never strayed from his beloved home at the far reaches of the Eastern Shore, and thankful that he still has the means to survive here.
“It’s a godsend for me, because I’ve been here [working at the lodge] 40 years, and I’ve never been farther than Halifax,” he says.
Inside, the lodge’s rooms are spacious and comfortable, aged and with ample wood. There is, perhaps, a faintly haunted aura for those whose imaginations might stray to the area’s more distant past. Cavernous meeting rooms are decorated with oil paintings, including one of the hotel’s first owner, a stern-looking naval officer with a reputation for anger, drunkenness and financial mismanagement – a difficult combination in any era. But now, entering the dining room reveals a warm, familial atmosphere, where guests enjoy steaks or the local specialty, salmon smoked outdoors on wooden planks and basted with maple syrup, as bluegrass and Celtic-style ballads play through speakers overhead.
A nearby hiking trail, empty on a crisp early October day, offers a glimpse of the Eastern Shore’s raw beauty. Fall colors on the trees, river water rushing past boulders, a swaying footbridge and the concrete remains of a salmon ladder, an as-yet failed attempt at ecological restoration of the fish that once flourished wild in these waters. For local fishermen now, it’s mostly mackerel, halibut and lobster.
Driving along the forested interior roadways of Nova Scotia feels like traveling through another time.
Rustic farmhouses languish amid the fog and light rain. Near the Halifax airport, families stand beside their parked cars to watch planes take off and land. The highways are strewn with an unsettling number of porcupine carcasses.
On the other side of Nova Scotia’s hammer-headed peninsula lies the Bay of Fundy, a prehistoric landscape of cliffs, unearthly rock formations and rapidly shifting waters that produce one of the largest tidal ranges in the world.
When Greg Turner takes visitors, families and schoolchildren out onto the charcoal gray basalt cliffs that have loomed over the waters since volcanic lava hardened 200 million years ago, he sees a dynamic ecosystem. Tidal pools are filled with strange and wonderful creatures – barnacles, periwinkles and whelks – and plants with exciting names like green bubble weed and knotted wrack. Humpback whales are grazing offshore. And larger forces are at work.
Turner, a retired high school science teacher who now runs Gael Tours, cites now familiar observations in recent years – milder winters on average and more frequent storms – and warns that the rapidly warming waters of the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine could threaten the lobster and scallop industries.
“The climate’s changing, no question,” he says.
But in the shadow of a lighthouse there, amid threads of quartz crystal and holes in the rock where primeval gases escaped, these concerns elude the spray-painted musings of an aspiring local young poet who simply scrawled, “Smokin’ super chronic – all day every day.”
Nearby Digby – known apparently for both scallops and romance (in that order, according to a promotional pamphlet) – has the bearing of a classic coastal fishing town, with a downtown boasting the requisite wooden piers, churches, museums of local concern, restaurants and dive bars. The Digby Pines Resort, a stately, mansion-esque hotel with posh, classically decorated rooms, has been on the outskirts of town since it was built by Canada’s national railroad company in 1928. It fulfills the local tourism board’s promises, hosting spectacular weddings and serving up world-famous Digby scallops, which may indeed be worth saving the environment for.
Setting down his blowtorch, Brad Hall looks out from his rustic workshop overlooking the Annapolis River, wondering how long he’ll stay here. The furniture maker-turned-metal sculptor, who grew up in Toronto, is one of several artists living in and around Annapolis Royal, just up the peninsula from Digby and one of the oldest European settlements in North America.
“There’s a lot of people who move through here and always have,” Hall reflects. From French and British settlers hundreds of years ago to, more recently, African-American immigrants, Zen Buddhists, artists and craftspeople. Located at the end of a winding and hilly country road specked with antique shops, churches, general stores and community groups advertising bingo and roast beef dinners, Annapolis Royal has become somewhat of a regional cultural center, with a bustling weekend farmer’s market, historic gardens, and a theater hosting film festivals and live music. From beneath the dangling wings of a large metal statue he is repairing, Hall issues a call for communities to support their artists.
“If we don’t then we’re not a culture, we’re not a civilization,” he says. “Because that’s how we got here, through art.”
A drizzly three-hour ferry ride from Digby across the bay to New Brunswick ends with an unexpectedly necessary series of helpful nudges from a tugboat, an awkward 15-minute pas de deux amid buffeting winds into the dock at the port of Saint John.
Some of the popular tourist spots along the coast here have already closed for the season. The oncoming chill may have dampened some tourism, but guests are still arriving at the newly renovated Algonquin Resort in nearby St. Andrews. Its restaurant crafts elegant dishes inspired by one of Canada’s first African-American luxury hotel chefs, a man from the American South who ran the kitchen in the late 1800s, including nods to the Cajun cuisine of Acadian exiles. From the fishing docks and cozy shops of this charming 18th-century British Loyalist-founded settlement, the narrow roadways with evocative historical names like Pagan Street, and the Algonquin’s spectacular seaside golf course, you can see the United States across the water.
The rising and falling bay tides each day uncover a thread of land leading to Ministers Island. Once the summer home of a Canadian Pacific Railway official, this national historic site’s former carriage trails now accommodate hikers and bikers ambling and gliding past farmhouses, horses, decaying cabins and stunning views.
Outside of town, a path runs along an idyllic pond, through mazes of tree roots and half-buried boulders, and up onto an outcropping overlooking the waters and surrounding hills. Here, in the misty morning stillness lies, unexpectedly, a simple plaque memorializing the life of a New Brunswick man who became “an innocent victim of world terrorism.”
Brilliant, dramatic, at times dark and fierce, the Northeast lands remind of the price for such beauty, not in dangers abroad, but in a life close to the land that is simple but not easy, and perhaps all the more rewarding.
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com.
If you go
Maine and eastern Canada
Westin Portland Harborview: Stylish, modern accommodations in a historic 1928 location. Enjoy a cocktail and, if the fog has dissipated, an unparalleled view of downtown Portland at the Top of the East lounge in the city’s tallest hotel. Rooms from $169. 157 High St., Portland, Maine. www.westinportlandharborview.com
Eel Lake Oyster Farm: Boat tours and tastings from May through October; contact for rates and availability. 6590 Highway 3, Ste. Anne du Ruisse, Nova Scotia. www.ruisseauoysters.com
Liscombe Lodge Resort: Built as a fishing lodge in 1960 on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, the resort offers warm hospitality and beautiful views in a rural setting. Individual rooms, cottages and chalets are available. Rooms from $129 Canadian. 2884 Highway 7, Liscomb Mills, Nova Scotia. www.liscombelodge.ca
Grand Pré National Historic Site: A gorgeous and educational stop for the historically minded, this site is a remembrance of 17th- and 18th-century French Acadian culture. 2205 Grand-Pré Road near Wolfville, Nova Scotia. For visitor fees and more info visit www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ns/grandpre/index.aspx
Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa: Set on the picturesque Bay of Fundy shore, the resort, decorated with early-20th-century charm, is a great place to take in the town, enjoy a round of golf and savor the region’s famous scallops. Rooms from $143 Canadian. 103 Shore Road, Digby, Nova Scotia. www.digbypines.ca
Algonquin Resort: The luxurious red-roofed Tudor-style hotel’s history goes back to the 1800s, as does its golf course overlooking the bay, but has transitioned into the 21st with a recent $30 million renovation offering lavish accommodations and dining. Rooms from $189 Canadian. 184 Adolphus St., St. Andrews, New Brunswick. www.algonquinresort.com
Rossmount Inn Restaurant: Fine dining includes local seafood and game at the Rossmount Inn, located at the foot of a small mountain near St. Andrews from which the Switzerland-born Chef Chris Aerni gathers fresh mushrooms and other ingredients. 4599 Route 127, St. Andrews, New Brunswick. www.rossmountinn.com
Kingsbrae Garden: The elegant British-style horticultural and sculpture gardens, complete with resident alpacas, would be worth a visit alone, but the cuisine at the Garden Cafe, run by Chef Alex Haun, a St. Andrews native, is truly exceptional. Garden admission $16 adults. 220 King St., St. Andrews. www.kingsbraegarden.com
eastern CanadaMaineNova Scotia