No, I Wasn’t Drunk When I Bought That… I Was Just on Vacation.

My parents bought a set like this home from South Africa

I was reaching for my grandmother’s ancient but effective hedge trimmers when all of a sudden a crash, a clatter, and a bang left a gaping gash in my big toe. I scolded myself for not changing out of my flip-flops and into my hiking boots, as was the norm for my gardening days. Any one of a number of standard home-care tools could have caused the puddle of blood to form on my garage floor, but to my surprise it wasn’t one of the 4 axes or 8 saws formerly hanging on the wall (is there an army of lumberjacks living in my basement that I don’t know about?). No, the culprit was far less expected — it was a spear.

I hobbled out of the garage waving the spear over head like some crazed primal warrior. Where the hell did this come from, I shouted to my mother who was nursing a wound of her own — she had just lost a vicious fight with a rose bush.

“Oh! I didn’t know it survived!” She cried joyfully, grabbing it from me. “It’s a Zulu spear! I bought it back from South Africa when I visited your father’s family for the first time. There was a shield and knob-carry too, but the shield shed… er, it was made from cow.”

Camilo, Che, & Fidel -- Cuba's revolutionaries... now in technicolor on my dining room wall.

Apparently, 40 years ago a Zulu spear and shield could be carry-on and didn’t raise an eyebrow at customs. Man, have times changed.

Oh! the things you’ll purchase to remember your travels by!

Those flip-flop cocktail coasters I bought in South Beach were such a good idea at the time.

Have you ever heard of a zither? Until one weekend at Lake George, NY, I hadn’t either. Now there’s one sitting next to my fireplace gathering dust.  It’s a musical instrument, by the way. Kind of like a guitar in that it has strings and you strum it. It’s common in Austria and Hungry, so I don’t know why there was one at an antique shop in Bolton’s Landing. Why did I buy it? Because someone told me that when you’re in “upstate” vacation towns, you’re supposed to go antiquing.

When I went to Cuba 2 years ago, there was a lot of stuff I wanted to buy as souvenirs. Even though I was in the country legally, the US Treasury letter granting me permission to travel in Cuba forbade me from spending any money on the island. Silly embargo. Of course, I did acquire a trinket or two (errr… or dozen). There’s a photo of Fidel Castro playing baseball next to my computer, a giant framed silk-screen poster of revolutionary Camil0 Cienfuegos on my dining room wall, and about 8 more silkscreen posters in a closet upstairs awaiting frames.

I’m not a communist. I just have a thing for brightly-colored novelties, particularly of the artistic kind.

everyone needs a set of foam moose antlers... I have 2.

Unpacking after my Newfoundland adventure I realized that my suitcase had gained several pounds in mementos. The “This Rock Rocks” t-shirt was a must have, as where the other tourist-targeted tees and shot-glasses that sneaked into my Delsey. The Alexander Keith’s green foam moose antlers I picked up at the George Street Festival were trivial in comparison to the collection of rocks I had amassed while hiking. Did you know the Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park are really Earth’s mantle exposed? Yea, you bet I threw an 8lb piece of that in my backpack.

I think, though, of all the things I bought back with me from Newfoundland there’s only one thing that’s thoroughly useless — the bottle of Cross & Blackwell’s Fish and Chips Vinegar.

In Newfoundland, if you wanted fish you had to get fish and chips —  I could argue it was a sensible purchase at the time. Then again, as my father reminded me at checkout, restaurants usually carry their own supply of malt vinegar. As for home use? While I’ve broiled, baked, poached, grilled, and sauteed many a fish in my time, I’ve never battered and fried a fillet… nor do I plan to. In fact, come to think of it, before Newfoundland, it had been 5 years since I even ate fish and chips.

Considering I’m not going to carry a 24 ounce bottle of vinegar in my purse on the off-chance I find myself at a fish and chip joint in Manhattan, what am I going to do with it?

Homemade malt-vinaigrette, anyone?

I guess it’s a good thing they talked me down from the puffin chair…

I think this would have looked stellar on my front porch


Newfoundland Stories from August 5

Channel-Port aux Basques is nicknamed the “Entry” city. It’s here most people grab the ferry to the mainland or drive through as they exit the docked ship. It’s a colorful little port that is celebrating Come Home Year this week with colorful flags and concerts…

along the Port aux Basques Harbour

the locals waiting for the concert to start

Port aux Basques is a stay-one-night-leave-the-next- morning kind of village. The Trans Canada Highway starts and ends at its  ferry terminal, stretching only north west towards the northern peninsula before turning east towards St. John’s, where it begins and ends again. Most visitors to the island don’t realize there are signs of life east of Port aux Basques. We arrived early at the St. Christopher, giving us a good half day to fill with something. It was suggested that we take Route-470, head east 40km and explore the town of Rose Blanche and its lighthouse.

Having visited the lighthouses atop the gusty Lobster Head Cove and the far-easterly point of Cape Spear, we didn’t have very high expectations. Yet, as we drove along the twisting road, through undulating hills coated in a fuzzy green shrub and speckled with marbled granite boulders, we decided this might be one of the most stunning places on the island.

Rose Blanche was a lovely spot and its reconstructed, historical granite lighthouse a more than worthwhile excursion…

a view onto the Rose Blanche Lighthouse, an amazing setting

a cluster of homes in Rose Blanche

Appropriately, we found our final dinner at the Friendly Fisherman Cafe, a small family-run place overlooking the fishing boats at Rose Blanche. Fish and Chips and fishcakes. yum, yum yum.

my "healthier" fishcakes, made from bacaloa. note the frozen veggies

a final plate of Fish and chips for the father

The fog thundered in as we began the drive back to our hotel in Port aux Basques. The wind picked up and the rain clashed against the windshield. Our ferry was due to pull out of the dock at 8:30AM, Newfoundland time. Check-in was at 6:30, and so with lots of cod in our bellies, and warm memories playing through our minds, we trundled off to bed early, not in any hurry to leave the island that had taken hold of our hearts.

We may have said good-bye to Newfoundland, but there still lay 1,600 miles of road between the ferry terminal in Nova Scotia and our driveway. There was still some vacation left…

Newfoundland Stories of August 4

Photo of Canadian Junior National Hockey Team hopefuls, courtesy of "The Telegram," St. John's newspaper

As the Sheraton elevator hauled my half asleep butt up to the 6th floor for breakfast, I noticed I was surrounded by a pod of 6-foot tall, middle-aged men all wearing black Under Armour polos with red maple leafs over their left pectoral. My, how patriotic, I thought. After rubbing the previous night’s George Street Festival mascara out of my eyes, I noticed the silhouette of a hockey player set against the bright red of the leaf. They looked official. As I turned from the elevators and made my way down the hall, 4 tall, Abercrombie and Fitch-esque, barely-legal aged young men chirped well-synchronized hellos in my uncaffeinated, still bed-headed direction. I may not have been awake enough to use a hair brush, but I was awake enough to know a good-looking guy when I saw one. I confess, I did a double take, watched them until they turned the corner, and in the process, walked smack into wall.

Later, I found out the Canadian Junior National Men’s Hockey Team was in town for a training/development/selection camp and were using our hotel as home base. Every guy staying at the hotel wanted to know where the boys were playing. Every woman wanted to know how if the players were of legal age yet…

The first Wednesday of August is the famous Royal St. John’s Regatta — the longest running sports contest on the continent. Fixed-seat, coxswained skulls of 6 or more rowers hit Quidi Vidi lake at 9AM and race all day until 9PM. In the morning, the officials check the weather. If it’s a good day, the Regatta is a Go and the city of St. John’s shuts down — Regatta day is a civic holiday with a rain-date.

Sunny with scattered clouds, the 4th was a perfect day to watch a boat race, but we opted out of a day a local said “means sunburn and bratty kids with cotton candy” and headed for Springdale — a midway stop between the capital on the east and the entry/exit town of Port aux Basques, where our ferry to Nova Scotia was scheduled to depart on Friday morning. Springdale boasted a 4.5-star luxury establishment called the Riverwood Inn and it seemed like the ideal place to begin the end of our vacation. The Inn’s website displayed pictures of beaches and boat tours, gourmet picnic baskets and luscious views of an expansive river and picturesque harbour. The photographer for the Riverwood Inn’s restaurant deserved an award for spin-master of the year.

The river was a creek. There were no kayaks or boat tours. There was no restaurant in the hotel to make our picnic basket. The whole surrounding area was under development, with construction workers tromping through the inn’s small yard. The “beautiful village of Springdale” was several miles away. The Inn was located a quarter mile from lumber yards and gravel pits. The nearest restaurant was at a dingy-looking motel next to one of the aforementioned gravel pits.

We didn’t stay at the Riverwood Inn.

Nor did we stay at the Marble Inn “Resort” two hours down the Trans Canada Highway.

My mum and I travel often together, and whenever I call home, the first question my father asks is not “how are you,” but rather “Has your mother changed rooms yet?” It’s a running joke in the family. Well not only did we change rooms twice today, we changed hotels… not once, not twice, but 3 times.

The three Recklings finally found ourselves in Corner Brook at a less-than-the-Holiday-Inn motel named the Mamateek Inn. Outside the door, some bikers were passing a joint and a heard of ATVs grumbled and bounced into the parking lot. The motel was nondescript, but the guests had character.

The door keys didn’t work. Then when we did get working keys, the door was wedged closed and required excessive quantities of shoulder-shoving to get it open.

We may have just checked in to the worst hotel on our Newfoundland vacation, but we were about to have the best dinner since leaving home.

The Bay of Islands Bistro is a small house restaurant that prides itself on using local organic ingredients (apparently, they DO grow lettuce in Newfoundland). Fresh, clean, and delicious, everything on the menu was something I wanted to order. We were thankful for the lobster cakes and the smoked spare ribs, grateful for a piece of fish that wasn’t fried. Don’t get me wrong, the fish and chips have been well-worth the calories, but after a long day of driving, mishaps, and shanty-shacks, the gourmet finish to the day was much deserved.

Newfoundland Stories (Aug. 3)

And so as Tuesday rolled in, so did our final day in St. John’s. I was awaken near 6AM by a call from the front desk — could I move my car? Republic of Doyle was filming in the parking lot and my car was in the shot…

parking lot set

paparazzi style... Sean McGinley, one of the stars of the Republic of Doyle

The early morning was cloudy and unpromising, so we were slow to move. A quick stop at the Quidi Vidi brewery to pick up a case of Honey Brown. Provisions were needed for tomorrow’s long drive to Springdale and were found at Bidgoods, just south of St. John’s in Goulds. Some local specialties, like seal flipper pie and caribou stew, were passed over while others, such as frozen partridge berries, made our mouths water…

boiled flipper?

the berries are more my style

As we walked out of the grocery store, the clouds parted and slivers of blue turned into mostly open skies. We drove off and made our way to Signal Hill to take in the stunning panoramas of St. John’s and its harbour…

st. John's from above

With light on our side and the air dry, we wandered around St. John’s, dodging in and out of shops and taking in the urban landscape…

George Street, daytime

those famous clapboard houses.

The George Street Festival, one of Canada’s best-known music fests, kicked off over the weekend. It’s one big celebration of music leading up to the famous Royal Regatta with upwards of 4,000 people attending the concerts. Given that it was the last night and the Celtic theme, we were quick to buy tickets…

Kilkenny Krew kicks off the night's round of music

waiting for some music!

The close of the George Street Festival marked the close of our stay in St. John’s. We could stay and watch the rowers battle it out on Quidi Vidi Lake along with the entire population of St. John’s (regatta day is a civic holiday), but we thought, given the 13 hour drive between St. John’s and the Port aux Basques ferry, it was best begin the trek home…as we found out the next evening, it would have been wiser to join the festivities at the Regatta…

Newfoundland Stories of the Day (Aug. 2)

It’s whale-watching season on the east coast of Newfoundland. Humpbacks have been spotted from Twillingate down to Trepassey Bay, and while we don’t usually have much luck when we go whale watching (a 4 hour hunt on the Saint Lawerence several years ago turned up not a single dorsal fin), we thought we’d try our luck on the Atlantic. Shipping out at 10:30Am aboard the Gatherall’s catamaran and headed into open waters to search for whales. Man, did we luck out…

a humpback whale breeches and gives us a show

a whale's tail

The tour took us to Witless Ecological Reserve where we also saw 100,000-some birds, mostly puffins. Gatherall’s, like many of the other touring companies, launches from Bay Bulls. A few miles north is the fishing village of Petty Harbour…

Petty's Cove

a fisherman fillets a freshly caught cod.

Petty Harbour is a neat stopping point on the way to Cape Spear — the eastern most spot on North America. Here the winds can pick up so high that children have been lifted out of their parents’ arms. Today, we spotted whales off the Cape and watched the fog roll in off the Atlantic as we climbed the stairs to the lighthouse…

the family stands at the eastern most point of North America

the lighthouse overlooks the Atlantic... can you see Greenland just over there?

We ended the night at Shamrock City Pub, where we listened to a couple of live sets, including Anthony MacDonald. I now know all the words to “The Islander” — I guess that makes me a Newfoundlander now.

performers at Shamrock City

Newfoundland Stories of the Day (Aug. 1)

We decided to set aside our first day in St. John’s for exploring the city itself. The clouds Environment Canada had predicted hung over the Narrows, threatening Signal Hill. We hurried to get dressed, hoping to hit the center of town before the weather turned against us. But before we could tie our shoelaces, the fog rolled in, bringing with it a persistent mist that kept the day cool and my camera cloudy.

Though it wasn’t the best day for walking around, we still made the most of it, beginning with a visit to The Rooms. Part archive, part history museum, part art gallery, The Rooms overlook the city and offer tourists and residents alike a view into St. John’s cultural past, present, and future. Currently on exhibit is a stunning show of Ed Burtynsky’s photos of the oil industry…

a view onto The Rooms

the view from The Rooms

The next essential destination was Signal Hill, a National Historic Site and important military outpost in the 18th century (not the band). The fog was thick, but it added a certain mysterious romanticism to the sweeping view of the harbour and Atlantic…

fog over Cabot Tower on Signal Hill

a couple stops to take in the view of the Narrows

To some, it might have been a crummy day for Signal Hill, but to my family and one particular bride, it was still pretty awesome...

Newfoundland Stories of the Day (July 31)

With a 710km/440mi of road lying between us at Gros Morne and our destination of St. John’s, yesterday morning was a frenzied scene of packing, breakfasting (warm scones with patridgeberry jam), and car-loading-jigsaw-puzzle solving. It was a typical Newfoundland day — every possible seasonal weather variation passed overhead in a matter of hours. There are few to no services along the Trans Canada Highway once you leave the area near Deer Lake. 200 miles pass with few signs of life besides the cars that periodically appear in your rear-view mirror.

A thick, New England Clam Chowder-like fog hit us as we crossed onto the Avalon Peninsula, slowing us down to a crawl 150km outside of St. John’s…

I'm sure the landscape to either side was interesting... if only I could have seen past the hood of my car

Finally, around 6:30PM, we rolled into town. The drive down Duckworth St. offered us an introduction to the low-story clapboard buildings that characterize the city architecture.

Hungry, we decided it was time to sample some of Newfoundland’s famous fish and chips. Just as we began to head out into the city, the sky lit-up in reds and purples and a rainbow sprung from Cabot’s Tower atop Signal Hill.

the sun sets over St. John's clapboard-lined streets

a rainbow welcomes us on our frist night -- Newfoundland is friendly

Newfoundlanders will argue over who serves the best Fi n’ Chi’ in their capital city, but Ches’s is a St. John’s landmark and most residents agree their battered and fried cod is close to tops. It might look like a hole-in-the-wall kind of joint, but it’s been serving since 1951. 50+ years later, Ches’s is still a family-owned and operated business. Indeed, I’ve never had a fried piece of fish so fresh and so well-cooked. I’m sure it was good for me… I mean, tons of omega in all that cod oil, right? And of course the locally-brewed Quidi Vidi (pronounced: kiddee viddie) Honey Brown Ale is the accompaniment…

the exterior of Ches's, a St. John's institution

real, authentic, delicious Newfoundland Fi n' Chi'

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