Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cruising down the Saint Lawrence (Part 3) Cape Breton and St. Pierre

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Cape Breton Island forms the most easterly portion of Nova Scotia -- connected to the mainland by a causeway completed in 1955. It's still a land apart by most measures, though, with a different way of looking at things and a spirit all its own. The passengers on the Ocean Endeavour got a taste of that spirit when we dropped anchor off the town of Cheticamp on the island's western side, near the border of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Many people associate Cape Breton with Scottish culture, but Cheticamp is a bustling little port with a character that's a hundred percent Acadian, from the food to the music to the first language of most of its residents. The ancestors of today's population were forcibly expelled by the English starting in the year 1755 in what was known as Le Grand Dérangement, and those who have returned to Atlantic Canada did so because of their deep connection to the land. After being torn from their homeland, they endured years of exile in what is now the United States, gradually working their way back a few miles at a time, year by year, to what had been known as Île Royale but later came to be known as Cape Breton. When the Acadians returned, most found that the lands they'd once owned had been taken over by settlers of British descent; they found themselves relegated to marginal land with less value; Cheticamp was one of the places where the returning Acadians created a new home.

Our morning was spent hiking in the National Park, with groups doing both the Acadian Trail near the park entrance and the Skyline Trail on French Mountain; both groups were treated to beautiful scenery and escorted by Parks Canada interpreters. It was a perfect early-summer day, with blue skies and warm temperatures, and we were treated to glimpses of birds and wildlife on our way. Those of us on the Skyline Trail even enjoyed an opportunity to plant fir trees inside a moose exclosure, an area that is fenced to illustrate the difference between land that's grazed over by moose and land that's free from their grazing.

Planting trees, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
On returning to Cheticamp we were treated to a sampling of Acadian culture as we explored three of the town's main attractions: the Trois Pignons cultural centre with its impressive collection of the finely crafted hooked rugs associated with the area,  l'Eglise Saint Pierre (St. Peter's Church) which dominates the skyline for miles, and the Centre de la Mi-Carême, celebrating the tradition of revelry and merrymaking that broke with Lenten austerity, similar to Mardi Gras or Newfoundland's  mummering. We gathered at a local lounge for music and dancing before returning to the ship.

The next day we found ourselves in the midst of a post-tropical storm that made yesterday's sun and gentle breezes a distant memory. It was rough and windy, and after assessing conditions it was decided that we'd have to forego the planned stop in the Magdalen Islands and instead, the cruise staff  compiled an interesting and varied program of on-board presentations. The foul weather continued to follow us, so instead of a stop on the South Coast of Newfoundland the decision was made to press on to Saint Pierre and overnight there -- an unexpected treat!

Île aux Marins
Early arrival in Saint Pierre meant lots of time to hike the trails surrounding the town, or to visit l'Île aux Marins or Sailors' Island. Since we were docked directly across from the island, it was an easy trip by Zodiac. The following morning there was time for a sightseeing tour of Saint Pierre by bus, then some exploring on foot in the heart of the town to sample the wares at the local patisseries or pick up a bottle of French wine or a jar of fois gras before heading to the airport for our flight to St. John's. 

Adventure Canada's Mighty St. Lawrence cruise has been named by National Geographic as one of its “50 Tours of a Lifetime".

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