Monday, 21 September 2015


Bagno Vignoni is a Tuscan bath town whose thermal springs have been celebrated since medieval times. Eschewing highway travel in favour of a scenic countryside drive, Jim and I headed out from Cortona with our G.P.S. chirping out directions. It was during this journey (September, 2011) that we tagged her with the Italian nickname, Gilo, by which we still refer to her. 

All went according to plan until, on our return trip through Tuscany's stunning "crete senesi", we were stopped dead in our tracks, our route impassable, having been fully closed for a village festival. What? Now how do we get home? Jim spontaneously turned right, into the tiny hillside village. "Recalculating", Gilo announced; with absolutely no other options, we trusted her directions. Through a labyrinth of narrow village streets, past farmer's stands in a local market and down barely navigable alleyways, Jim drove. Had our GPS gone mad? In 250 metres, turn right, came her next rather rapid direction. Obediently Jim did so and suddenly we found ourselves back on the main road, the village festival disappearing in our rear view mirror and the gorgeous crete senesi lying ahead. Oh, how I loved Gilo that day.

Horror stories about drivers placed in danger by their G.P.S abound. How about the Swiss driver who had to be rescued after he was directed up a remote mountain path? 

Looking at pictures such as these, I do have to ask myself when common sense should prevail. Thankfully, Jim and I have never been placed in a precarious situation due to Gilo's directions. Why then is our G.P.S. getting under my skin of late?

Returning from Georgian Bay on Sunday, Jim and I chose to cut south early and to pick up Highway 400 south of the congested Barrie area. Gilo obviously preferred the Barrie route as, like a sergeant major, she barked out U-turn orders five times before conceding to our route choice. Hey, who is in charge here?

Then there is Gilo's condescending, frustrated robot voice. Re-CALC-ulating!!! Why do I feel the need to apologize for forcing her to rethink a new route? I keep waiting for her to yell at us or for her circuits to blow up during the onerous recalculations. Bossy? Hell, yes! Perhaps she should be mounted in the back seat. Now there is an idea! I do get small satisfaction when pronunciation of street names is incorrect. My favourite? Take ramp to "Q" when we are merging on the QEW. 

All kidding aside, every time Jim and I venture forth, whether in a foreign country or at home in Canada, I marvel at G.P.S. technology. How did we ever travel by car without it? So much time wasted getting lost is now spared. So much time reading teeny tiny print is an agony no longer. I never was good at folding those giant maps, anyways. Boss away, Gilo! Have G.P.S., will travel.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015



May the sun always shine on your wild wooded mountains.
May the sea beat as one with your rugged hearts alone.
May the doors of your homes always be open.
May God's hand guide your boats back home.
                        (Chorus  from Newfoundland Blessing by Rex Roberts)

What began as a trip to explore our son's adopted province morphed into a journey of discovery, learning, appreciation and inspiration. On numerous trips to visit Christopher, we have explored St. John's and the Avalon Penninsula to the south, but to quote Jim, The farthest north we have been is St. John's International Airport. Let's do it properly, he proposed. Et voila.

How little I knew of our most easterly province before this trip. I remember learning that Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949...and that's about it. No discussion of how Joey Smallwood garnered a majority vote to join Canada, no coverage of heart-wrenching resettlement issues, no description of early settlers, cod fishing or the seal hunt. When I asked Christopher what he had covered in school on our last province, he offered the memory of making popsicle-stick lobster traps. Now there's a real learning experience about a province whose economy at the time was based on cod fishing. How province-centric our education was.

Newfoundland's award winning ads portray a province of staggering, untouched, natural beauty. To experience its lushly forested mountains, rocky precipitous cliffs, windswept shoreline landscapes or tiny colourful outports is to realize that in real life, Newfoundland is even more beautiful than tourism ads portray. For me, the highlight and #6 checked off my bucket list, was the trip down Western Brook Pond. Sparkling blue waters, soaring cliffs, rushing waterfalls - an excursion I will forever remember.

Historic sites are meticulously maintained, guides, passionate and informed, and many lessons, for me, life changing.

Newfoundland's reputation for having the most hospitable, friendly population in Canada is no myth. I need only harken back to how Gander and its surrounding area responded to the 9/11 crisis. A heartwarming read is:

Not once during our three weeks were we greeted by anything but a smiling face and courteousness beyond measure in eagerness to serve meals, assist or answer questions. Perhaps this can be best illustrated by Christopher's experience during his first weeks in St. John's. Walking down Water Street, the equivalent of our Yonge Street, he stopped on the sidewalk. Had he forgotten something at home, he pondered. Thinking that Christopher's intention was to cross Water Street, like the parting of the Red Sea, traffic halted. No traffic light, no crosswalk, simply a section of busy road. At this juncture, Christopher, feeling guilty, crossed to the unwanted side of the street. How could he possibly disappoint all of these drivers?

And the dumb Newfie? Don't for a second believe it. Witty, keenly intelligent and well informed are the three descriptions that immediately come to mind when I think of the cross section of Newfoundlanders with whom Jim and I spent time.

Long gone are the days when Newfoundland cuisine immediately brought to mind Ches' Fish and Chips. Raymond's Restaurant in St. John's has been named by Canadian Chefs as the number one restaurant in Canada and justifiably so. Bacalao, Chinched Bistro and The Mallard Cottage would complete my personal St. John's favourites list. Newfoundland chefs refer to foraging and sourcing locally grown ingredients. With fresh seafood, game and produce abundant, this new regional cuisine has taken hold across the island. From Trinity on the east, to Fogo Island on the north, to Gros Morne on the west, Jim and I savoured some of the best meals ever experienced on our travels. So much cod was consumed by me that I have grown gills. And I promise that you have not lived until you have eaten a warm partridgeberry tart drizzled with custard. Oh my! 

If you have viewed those beautiful Newfoundland ads on TV or read the print versions and thought, maybe, I say, "Just do it. Go." I guarantee that you will experience a fascinating, beautiful corner of Canada whose warm heart is larger than its area. 

Newfoundlanders like to refer to, 1949 when Canada joined Newfoundland. Dear Newfoundland, I am so happy that Canada decided to do so. What a blessing!

Monday, 14 September 2015


Subtitle: DO GO TO FOGO

Never heard of Fogo? Don't worry; not many have. Travel and Leisure Magazine refers to Fogo as a fishing community off Newfoundland's northeast coast marked by craggy shores and blissful nothingness. I would go further, defining Fogo as a shining example of how a population can retain valuable local traditions from the past while moving boldly into the future. I loved every moment spent on this northern Newfoundland island and would return in a heartbeat.

Perhaps, I should begin my island love letter with DO NOT GO TO FOGO if your preferences lean to shopping malls and designer outlets, chain hotels and motels, gitchy souvenir get the picture, I'm sure.

DO GO if you are into 110-mile coastlines dotted with quaint, colourful little houses, weather-worn fishing sheds shakily balancing on stilts, windswept landscapes, caribou herds munching on bog grasses, small striking art studios, stunning hiking trails and welcoming people. And oh, I shouldn't forget, molasses partridgeberry tarts.

1960's efforts by the provincial government of Newfoundland to resettle Fogo Island residents to the mainland thankfully met with a resounding defeat. Fogo's tight knit outport way of life and fishing industry continued successfully until in 1992 the Canadian government shut down the commercial cod fishing industry in the North Atlantic. As with other outport communities, the economic backbone of which was their cod fishing industry, Fogo Island was devastated. Family homes were deserted for mainland living. Was Fogo finished? 

With determination, great resilience, and the ability to adapt, islanders responded by slowly switching to fishing for snow crab and shrimp. No easy feat given expensive gear requirements and an enormous learning curve.

And then Zita Cobb returned home. One of seven children of an illiterate Fogo Island fisherman, Zita made her way to university, ultimately becoming a multi millionaire as an executive with a Silicon Valley fibre optics firm. So, you say, many Newfoundlanders return home. Yah? The difference? Zita Cobb returned to Fogo Island determined to use her fortune to renewing Fogo Island's economy while conserving its past. She began the Shorefast Foundation which has supported and developed local businesses, attracted a community of artists by offering residences, and opened the cutting-edge Fogo Island Inn.

Constructed on ancient shoreline rocks, the inn's contemporary design can at first appear out of place until one recognizes that the entire structure, built of wood and partially on stilts, pays homage to the aged fishermen's huts. Every employee, whether trained in the kitchen or hotel, is a resident on Fogo Island. Menus in the dining room are based on the local land and sea - berries, cod, mushroom, etc. Guests are introduced to the local culture and traditions whether through music, watching a fishing punt being constructed or touring the island. The list of activities is endless. Profits are ploughed back into the Shorefast Foundation.

Enjoying our last night's sun set, I realize how I am suddenly not ready to leave the following day, how I have fallen in love with the unique beauty of this northeastern Newfoundland island, how the tenacity and warmth of it's people have inspired me and how I cannot wait to return.  

My advice  - DO GO TO FOGO!


Monday, 7 September 2015


Cold, chilly ocean winds buffeted our bodies. A gray sky sombrely accented forbiddingly dark forests and ragged sinister cliffs as they cut into the sea. Before Jim and I lay the desolate buildings of a tiny cod fishing outport. I involuntarily shuddered as the stark reality of 1800's outport life and the Herculean struggle to survive struck me. 

Come spring, village men and boys would venture into the frigid, often gale-tossed sea to fish for cod. Death by drowning in the icy unforgiving Atlantic was an ever present danger. Once ashore, all village hands, women and children alike, would be required to gut and split the fish, soak the cod and then lay them on flakes to dry. Once dry, the cod would be salted again and packed in barrels for shipment to Europe and the Caribbean. Day in and day out for over five months, their backbreaking work would continue. No weekends or long weekends, no respite. A small number of cod were retained for winter use by the villagers, but the bulk was traded for goods required for survival - tools, flour, and sugar. The greater the catch, the greater the chance of surviving the dark long winters. And surviving those Newfoundland winters was not a given.

Our guide showed us the log construction of the homes and the spaces chinked with sphagnum moss which, in high winds, dried and blew away. She spoke of how the men would haul, trudging from long distances in deep snow, evergreen trees for stacking against shed walls in a desperate attempt to block out the cold, of beds in the morning covered with a thin layer of powdered snow that had drifted in between the cracks. I shuddered to imagine the existence. Small wonder, many settlers and their families, after burning even the wood floors of their cabins as a last resort, were found frozen to death in early spring.

But if cod was king, it was the seal that made it possible for outport populations to remain. Cod fishing was the primary activity in summer and early fall, but near the end of a brutal winter, provisions were frequently scarce and survival tentative. Spring's seal hunt rounded out the year providing invaluable meat, fat and skins for warming outerwear.

A visit to Elliston on the Bonavista Penninsula reminded me again of the tenuous existence of Newfoundland's outport settlers. Here a monument has been raised in honour of 251 sealers who died in two separate but simultaneous disasters. So many lost, so young.

Imagine being dropped by your ship onto an ice flow with little food, no shelter and dressed in clothing ill-suited for sudden squalls. Imagine then being stranded, unable to find your ship in blinding blizzard conditions, freezing to death.

Most moving is the statue that has been erected. I am quoting from the descriptive sign located beside the monument:
At age 16, Albert John Crewe of Elliston couldn't wait to go sealing. It was the last thing his mother, Mary, wanted. Her husband, Ruben, had already survived the S.S. Greenland sealing disaster. Mary was insistent that he not go sealing again.
But Albert John was determined to go. And, to protect him, Ruben went too. Like many women in Newfoundland with sons, husbands, brothers and fathers sealing, Mary did what she could. She helped them prepare. She waited and prayed for their safe return.
On March 3, 1914, Mary woke to a vision that confirmed her worst fears. As depicted in this sculpture, Albert John had died in Ruben's arms on the ice, the father protecting his son until they both perished.

I bowed my head, overcome with emotion and attempted to imagine surviving the hardships of these early settlers to Newfoundland. I am in awe of their bravery and spirit.

A few days later, wine glass in hand, enjoying Christopher's company in the warmth of his living room and discussing these two sites, I wondered out loud, We have Victoria Day. We celebrate Labour Day. In Ontario, we even have Family Day. Why not a day to honour the settlers who forged a life in our country from Newfoundland to B.C. to the Northwest Territories? Newfoundland has poignantly reminded me that our settlers' bravery, ingenuity, struggle and ability to survive the hardships of their new world forms the base of our nation today.

Oh Canada, we need to honour our heroic predecessors and to be reminded from whence we come. Canadian Settlers' Day. How appropriate would that be?