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Nova Scotia: Blomidon and Annapolis Royal

by Kristin Nord

We became campers the summer our sons were 12 and 14, hoping both to extend our vacation time and to reconnect as a family. It was a gamble of sorts, what with suburban life and peer pressure hovering in the wings, yet we dutifully purchased tents and sleeping bags, an air mattress as a concession to my less-than-perfect back, a cooler, a coffee pot, and a small camping stove. We would travel light, we reasoned that first summer, and we would learn as we went along.
       We opted to take our first extended trip to Nova Scotia, and booked passage on the Scotia Prince from Portland, Me., to Yarmouth. The Scotia Prince thrust us unwittingly into a transitory oceangoing world of low-level gambling that our kids found fascinating -- undoubtedly because it was forbidden.  After dinner the boys hovered on the perimeter of those smoky cavernous halls, watching the largely blue-rinse crowd, eyes fixated on screens,  pulling slot machine levers.
       Then after a  good nights sleep and ample breakfast, we were deposited by the Scotia Prince in Yarmouth enroute to the Annapolis Valley, our first destination. It was one of those fierce stormy days that wed discover are quite characteristic of early summer in the Maritimes. Since it would be many hours before we set up camp, the weather was only a temporary inconvenience. Through the  splattered windshield we could make out the vertical shapes that appeared to dominate the landscape, with their intense light and dark greens.  The shoulders of Route 101 were cloaked in red, white, pink and purple lupines.
       With two potentially restless boys in the car, we opted for less scenic but most expedient route as we made our way west toward Annapolis Royal, the first European settlement on Canadian soil. The town had been settled by French explorers in 1605 -- two years before Jamestown, VA, and fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, MA.  The region is known for its violent history;  for 150 years, the French and English struggled for control of the continent, and this area, known as Acadia, changed hands seven times. Once the French lost control for good the British evicted thousands of Acadian settlers, dispersing them along the Eastern seaboard, with some resettling as far south as Louisiana, where they became known as Cajuns. Once we reached this historic town, we planned to split up, with the men in the family  exploring the remnants of Fort Anne, Annapolis Royals fourth and last fortress, while I took on the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. 
       Within striking distance of our first major stop, we detoured to Digby, home of Nova Scotias largest scallop fleet. Digby is situated on the banks of the  Bay of Fundy,  where the tides routinely rise and fall between 40 and 50 feet each day. We found clusters of Cape Islanders listing on their sides on the red siltstone flats.  These cheerful boats  have a high bow, forward wheelhouse and cabin, wide mid-section and long flat after run, and are painted in bright colors of many variations. The Digby fleet would not see its next service until the tide came in -- long after we had put scallops for our dinner on ice and were on our way again.
       Some 20 kilometers west  we reached the exit  for Annapolis Royal. The national parks museum, housed in the old field officers quarters, provides an overview of the English/French conflict that had raged for so many years in the region. While the gents climbed on cannons and explored primitive prison cells, I set forth in search of  roses -- in particular,  the 2,000 in the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. I strolled the borders that illustrate 18th through 20th centuries of horticultural history, moving from a replica of an Acadian cottage and adjoining potager,  through shade and rock gardens, to formal knotted gardens, governors and Victorian gardens, and eventually found myself on a wooden promontory overlooking the wetlands and meadows of a tidal river valley. Gradually I had become aware of the absence of human sound -- and the predominance of rustling leaves.  As I looked out over a waterfowl sanctuary to remnants of dyked marshland beyond,  I imagined the industrious Acadians creating the rich farmland.  And as a gardener, I took delight in the way the manicured gardens seemed to speak so well to the landscape beyond them.
      The gardens are only 20 years old, and were part of an extensive revitalization effort that transformed this once down-in-the mouth village to a bustling tourist destination and cultural center. Today Annapolis Royal has become a place that champions history as well as theater and  good food. When we reconvened as a family,  we strolled past the elegantly restored Victorian mansions and shops,  and inadvertently stumbled upon Newmans, one of the restaurants featured in the book, Where to Eat in Canada. Soon we were  seated on Newmans terra-cotta patio, devouring our smoky black bean soup and crusty bread. The chefs collection of potted herbs served as an informal garden,  and the  combination of good food and soft natural sounds soon lulled us into the kind of playful banter we usually reserve for family holidays. Gone temporarily were the pick-up-your room and take-out-the-garbage admonishments. At that moment I would have been content to rest on Newmans patio indefinitely. 
       But the boys, my husband included, were refueled and ready to get on  the road again. Our final stop of the day, Blomidon Provincial Park, was situated about 20 kilometers along country back roads from the little town of Wolfville, home to Acadia University. It appeared in  the distance as a massive mountain that extended out over the Minas Basin. At its summit, there was drama  and beauty everywhere --in the wind-whipped aspens and birches, an open field undulating down to treacherous cliffs,  a woodland smelling of pine and full of self-sewn columbine. In just two days of traveling we had reached the northernmost tip of the hardwood forest, and as we looked out over the basin to where the water touched the sky, it seemed as if we had landed in a place that was removed from ordinary time. On the cliffs edge, I looked out past the green of the field to oxblood cliffs and then to where the sea touched the horizon, and watched the light skim the waters surface. The basin appeared as pure phosphorescence, devoid of boats or people.
      On this first camping venture, I watched happily while my children and husband wrestled with our tents and hammered down the stakes. It was clear almost immediately that our boys were the quick studies, while my husband and I resembled those who take dancing lessons too late in life. Our sons smiled genially at our incompetence -- there is nothing more amusing, probably, when you are 12 and 14, than watching your parents cut down to size.  Yet in the evening, after our  scallops and our strawberries, as we lay in our sleeping bags and listened to the evenings natural sounds, my thoughts turned to Knoxville: Summer of 1915, James Agees evocation of family.  Blomidon was far too cold and windy for Agees Tennessee, but the memories of the evening stars that first night, of lying next to the people I loved most in the world, was what resonated. In the morning we made our gritty coffee and fried up our fresh bread and eggs.  We had become hearty camp cooks by now, and the world spread before us like a wide serving table.

Next Stop: Cape Breton

Read Kristin's First Part of Nova Scotia:  Lunenburg, First Stop

Photos: Top: Blomidon Provincial Park; Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens

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