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Travel Essays

These short essays, describing Canadian cultural icons, originally appeared in Endless Vacation, a U.S. Travel magazine with more than one million readers.

Port Royal, Nova Scotia

The nail as status symbol? Yes, in New France.

As my fingers traced Port Royal’s rough doors, I was feeling this community’s social strata. Here, artisans lived communally, doors bound by a smattering of metal. The gentlemen’s quarters — larger, private dwellings — have entrances punctuated by large nails. The door that feels like Braille’s alphabet fronts the governor’s ample residence— its round iron bolts an ostentatious sign of authority.

Minding such minutiae, Europe’s formal colonization of Canada began. Port Royal, founded by Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in 1605, was this country’s first French settlement, modeled on austere Norman habitations. This fortified rectangle of wooden buildings, painstakingly reconstructed with period tools, once housed 45 men who traded furs with Mi’kmaq natives.

Brisk winds always blow off the Bay of Fundy. Guides, dressed in authentic costumes and wooden shoes, pull capes tightly about them.

Imagine Nova Scotia’s winters, centuries ago. Bone-chilling, interminable. So unlike France. Despite waters alive with fish, productive hillsides, and bounteous game, the men suffered horribly. Twelve succumbed to scurvy their first year.

But a stroke of Gallic brilliance fostered some love for this land of early frosts. Champlain inaugurated the Order of Good Cheer, embraced by fourteen colonists, including Parisian lawyer Marc Lescarbot. The members engaged in culinary one-upmanship throughout winter, preparing delicacies for all from local game and fish, amid song and ceremony. Wine flowed freely, Mi’kmaq chief Membertou and other natives were esteemed guests. “All had as good a time and meal as at any restaurant in Paris,” Lescarbot wrote.

In 1613, Port Royal was burned by a captain out of Jamestown, Virginia, but not before a small group of Frenchmen gave us a peaceful, sociable beginning, and a hedge against winter.

“Canada is not a country for the cold of heart, or the cold of feet,” former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau once noted.

Port Royal shows it’s always been thus.

Green Gables House, Prince Edward Island National Park

In a gentle nation, it’s fitting that a humble farmhouse in Cavendish — a hamlet of 94 people — inspires pilgrimages.

Green Gables is a modest dwelling treasured throughout much of the world, thanks to author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s stories. The Prince Edward Island native fashioned her intimate knowledge of this loving home, owned by elderly cousins, into the fictional setting for Anne of Green Gables and several popular sequels. A century later, Anne — an articulate, imaginative, spontaneous, red-headed orphan — still impresses children with her honesty and enthusiasm.

Wisely, Green Gables is nestled within the confines of Prince Edward Island National Park, so little has changed in the Victorian home immortalized by Montgomery. “Kindred spirits” can still amble down Lover’s Lane, or hazard a journey through the Haunted Woods.

My mother has always cherished Green Gables, remembering Anne’s infectious good humor as the perfect antidote for the realities of the Great Depression. Most Japanese share her passion. For Kumiko Azetsu — a sophisticated Japanese friend researching her PhD thesis at Dalhousie University — our Cavendish trip fulfilled a childhood dream. She spent an hour memorizing the house, every detail lovingly preserved, another hour absorbing the ambience.

Like many tourist destinations, the island’s north shore has unwanted development. But the elongated 40-kilometre National Park is pristine, boasting lovely white sand beaches, red sandstone cliffs, secluded salt marshes, and thick woodland for the less bookish among us. In 1534, the natural beauty inspired French explorer Jacques Cartier to call the island “the fairest land ’tis possible to see.”

On a warm spring morning, sauntering among red sand dunes, it’s hard to disagree. But my island memories always begin and end with Green Gables. Stripped of symbolism, it’s a simple farmhouse, mildly diverting. But add literary emotion and meaning, and Green Gables becomes a small, enchanting cathedral honoring a fictional girl whose sweet disposition and indomitable spirit still resonate today.

Aurora Borealis, Canada

We waited for the aliens — the only explanation that made sense to three small boys on a midsummer’s night. Red and green lights had overwhelmed the sky, slowly descending upon the city, gaining in intensity, at once both beautiful and ominous. Could the spaceship be far behind?

Alas, the Martians never landed. But the mystery and magic surrounding that 30-year-old memory remains.

Aurora borealis — the northern lights — are an otherworldly gift to the lands of cold winters and long nights, an unforgettable spectacle that inspired Canada’s First Nations long before the days of Lief Eiriksson or John Cabot. For untold centuries, many of this country’s indigenous peoples rejoiced beneath the auroras, believing they were witnessing their ancestral spirits dancing before the Great Spirit. For the far north’s Inuit, the arsaniit are sky people playing.

What wonderful legends! Mystical, whimsical, gentle. No wonder. Watching the northern lights proves humbling, then and now. It’s impossible to see the aurora and not believe this country is sacred.

Even scientific analysis fails to dim their luminosity. According to accepted theory, auroras begin with the solar wind’s electrons, attracted by the Earth’s geomagnetic poles. The electrons bombard the upper atmosphere’s oxygen and nitrogen; the atomic and molecular particles absorb the electrons’ energy and later release it as iridescent light. Emerald greens, fire-engine reds, vinous purples.

Nature’s silent fireworks — which sometimes last for hours — make ordinary nights seem extraordinary. I’ve seen northern lights flicker along the horizon, a soft cosmic light show where land meets sky. And I’ve seen auroras usurp the blackness overhead, like colorful waves billowing through the heavens.

Only in Canada’s far north do auroras regularly grace the midnight skies, in every season. They are best seen there, where manmade illumination is scarce and the horizon seemingly limitless. But occasionally auroras will venture southward to skies near more populated regions, like a cherished friend making an unexpected but welcome visit.

Those nights are blessed. This country is blessed.

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