The Stuff of Dreams
It’s the stuff of dreams……and a dream come true.
Imagine… sailing gloriously over indigo blue ocean waves on a 245-foot long Tall Ship, gliding effortlessly past mysterious coastal islands off Canada’s Maritime provinces, all the while dining on lobster, smoked salmon, crème brulee, tiramisu and other gourmet fare prepared by professional chefs.
Caledonia is a majestically-crafted tall ship, a fully-equipped, state-of-the-art passenger sailing vessel harking back to the days when the seas were ruled by Men-of-War and barques, by brigs and schooners, by barquentines, brigantines, and super-swift Clipper Ships.
Caledonia is also the dream of Doug Prothero, CEO of Canadian Sailing Expeditions, who, in 2002, found a vessel he would one day transform into a four-star floating boutique hotel designed to the highest standards. Indeed, this ship, launched in March 2008, was constructed to meet the latest SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) requirements for passenger safety, a vessel that is one of a very small number of sailing ships worldwide that meet the impending changes in regulations that come into effect on January 1, 2020.
She’s a dream come true, not only to the management and staff of Canadian Sailing Expeditions, but to many of the passengers who’ve boarded her as well. Judy, for example, set sail on the Caledonia in the second week of September, joining 31 passengers and a crew of twenty, and explained that being on board this ship was the fulfillment of a dream she’s held since she was four. The joy on her face watching the sails unfurl as we left Halifax harbor early Monday morning to hit the open sea was beyond what words could express. Gordon and Anne of Toronto, who frequently race a sailboat of their own, revealed that this was their third voyage with C.S.E., as it was with retired railroad engineer David and his wife Janet—a strong indication that this outfit is giving folks their money’s worth. Jason and Julie were newlyweds, opting to spend their honeymoon on board a ship with travelers from Hawaii to Florida, and from Mexico to both coasts of Canada and in-between. This week, our Halifax-registered pleasure craft set out on a one-week voyage along the coast of Nova Scotia, stopping at ports-o-call along the eastern shore. The ship had just sailed down from Newfoundland and would make its way to the Caribbean by October for several more rounds of passenger excursions.
Our pilot was Captain Kim Smith, a native of the seaport of Lunenburg (which happened to be one of the most impressive ports we were to visit later in the week). Captain Kim has traveled the globe in fishing boats, tugs, freighters and tall ships in a career spanning three decades, so we knew we’d be in good hands. Our chef, Steve, a Haligonian (Halifax native), has been a professional chef for 17 years, has opened two restaurants and also operates a catering business. Lori, from Newfoundland was his sous chef. An experienced hand in the galley, she runs a full time personal chef service in St. John’s. All in all, the crew on board was top notch.
Caledonia supplied each passenger with a handy manual providing details of our itinerary, historic information on the ports we’d be visiting, briefs bios of the crew, a sailing itinerary, and tips on how to make our sailing adventure more enjoyable. Michelle, our activities director, posted daily menus on one of the black boards along with daily tour options and evening entertainment. Passengers were invited to climb the masts in a harness accompanied by a crew member, help set the sails, visit the bridge to chat with the captain, or participate in any number of ship’s activities on board. You could help Nick the boatswain hoist a raft, ask one of the crew to take you ashore for a visit to one of the ports whenever we were anchored, or ask for a beverage or snack from any one of the always friendly ship staff.
At noon on Sunday passengers began arriving to check in and get a brief tour. After lunch of hot lobster sandwich with a sherry mushroom cream sauce, we had the afternoon free to visit the magnificent Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax Harbor, a historical tour de force. Here we found a myriad of nautical exhibits, including an unforgettable display of artifacts collected from the infamous Titanic disaster that occurred just 700 kilometers away on April 17, 1912. The search effort had been coordinated from Halifax and nearly half of the recovered bodies were later buried in the city’s cemeteries. Museum staff put together an extremely informative display of this and other historic Halifax events, including the 1917 collision of two ships—one a French munitions ship—resulting in the detonation of 2.6 million kilograms of explosives, the most powerful non-atomic manmade blast in history. Sadly, almost 2,000 people were killed in that incident and property damage was estimated to be in excess of $430 million. As an American and student of history, I found it strange that I’d never heard of this tragedy before, more surprising still since the death toll was four times that of the San Francisco earthquake and more than eight times that of the Chicago fire. Though sobering in places, the museum captured our interest and made us feel that in our upcoming launch we would be entering an arena of major historical significance.
Later, back on board, we enjoyed the first of our nightly “appy” hours featuring a wide array of tasty appetizers and ample selection of beverages from the bar. Anchored dockside, we slept peacefully onboard our craft overnight as the tail end of Hurricane Hanna passed us by, now downgraded to a tropical storm, it was fading fast after making landfall a couple days earlier in the Carolinas. We spent our first night aboard ship snug in the harbor, enjoying the comforts of our well-lit cabin, replete with built-in clothes closets, folding table/desk, and wall-mounted DVD screen for watching movies supplied in the aft library, a depot also stocked with books and board games.
Nova Scotia, the “sea-bound coast,” (as the province’s unofficial anthem has it) is the perfect cruising destination. Long, sandy beaches are punctuated by rocky coastal shores, full of picturesque bays, rugged coves and charming, cottage-lined inlets. Jutting out into the North Atlantic like some giant lobster-shaped pier (in the words of J. Murray Beck, one of the province’s great historians), Nova Scotia has been home to indigenous Mi’kmaq Native Americans, English colonists and French settlers, the latter naming the area Acadia some time after cartographer Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1604. For over 150 years these three peoples fought in a series of wars and skirmishes until British rule was established in the mid-eighteenth century. In 1773 Scottish settlers arrived, adding further affirmation to the name King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) had given to the land in 1621, in Latin, Nova Scotia (New Scotland). By the beginning of the 20th century up to 100,000 Nova Scotians were speaking Gaelic. Today, however, that number has diminished to just 500, though kilts and bagpipes and Celtic music continue to thrive throughout the region. (As one wit put it, “You know you’re from Nova Scotia when everyone you know plays a fiddle.”) On the eve of our departure from Halifax harbor Caledonia’s passengers were treated to a stirring bagpipe welcome from a kilted musician, later followed by a post-dinner performance on the aft deck, featuring Celtic music by a duo playing fiddle and mandolin.
Let’s away to New Scotland, where Plenty sits queen
O’er as happy a country as ever was seen;
And blesses her subjects, both little and great,
With each a good house, and a pretty estate.
Anon, “Ballad of Nova Scotia,” Gentlemen’s Magazine (February 1749/50)
You may not be in love with sailing ships when you first step on board Caledonia, but in a matter of hours you come to be part of a tradition spanning several centuries. As one tall ship enthusiast wrote, “There is not a chapter of our history which does not have a waterborne link.” Ships brought the first Europeans on voyages of discovery. Ships brought wave after wave of immigrants—English “planters,” French settlers, Germans, Scots, Basques, and more. Ships were part and parcel of the fabric of life here: Grand Banks fishing schooners, Mi’kmaq canoes, cargo ships, merchant vessels, whalers, oyster boats, slave ships, skipjacks, immigrant ships and men-of-war. Harbor life revolved around the incessant arrival and departure of all types of ships as well as the uninterrupted flow of the construction industry aided by the plentiful timber nearby. A trip aboard a tall ship in Nova Scotia is an initiation into a culture of sea-faring peoples that reaches back dozens and scores of generations.
Weather, of course, plays a prominent role in sailing, and our Tour of Nova Scotia, subtitled “Lighthouses and Coastal Colors,” took place during one of the most spectacular of all seasons in this fabulous land. September, locals informed us, is the best of all months, and we were blessed to find it so. Fall celebrations sweep the province during this time as sweet apple crisp and light autumn wines beckon leisurely vacationers looking for the perfect way to experience the coastal splendor of one of Canada’s great treasures. Our days were spent sailing past century-old lighthouses, visiting tranquil harbors where white, sandy beaches were strewn with pale-colored sand dollars and reconnoitered by seagulls and the occasional osprey.
We left Halifax’s famed natural harbor, second largest in the world (after Sydney, Australia) embarking toward our first destination at the southernmost point of our journey—Port Mouton—thereupon to return, in forthcoming days, to our point of origin at a more leisurely pace. By Monday afternoon, after ten hours of sailing, we were anchored in the calm waters of Port Mouton (locally pronounced ma TOON, a corruption of the French word for sheep). Legend has it that a land-starved sheep, when first spying terra firma from aboard the first French explorer’s vessel, dove headlong into the icy waters and headed for shore. (A second, less-romantic version suggests Du Gua de Monts gave the port its name in 1604 “because here a sheep [mouton] was drowned, recovered, and eaten by the company.”) For the remainder of the day, Caledonia’s crew ferried passengers back and forth to the brilliantly white sandy Crescent Beach, sped by one of two motorized inflatable Zodiac rafts. After another terrific gourmet dinner aboard ship featuring a typical evening choice of seafood or meat (beef, pork or chicken), a number of passengers and crew headed back to shore once more to enjoy a leisurely evening bonfire before retiring later on that night.
Tuesday began with a lavish continental breakfast featuring an artful display of warm pastries, available every morning from 6:30-9:30 a.m. A hot breakfast is also available every second morning from 7:30-9:30 a.m. The buffet table was loaded with a variety of fresh bagels accompanied by bowls of cream cheese (plain, with fresh blueberries, and with strawberries), blueberry and bran muffins, a dozen selections of fruit and melon, cheese, yogurt and several choices of cold cereal. Taking advantage of the fresh coffee and other hot beverages made available at 6:00 a.m., I toted my steaming mug topside to savor the morning’s first rays filtering through distant storm clouds in the Atlantic horizon. After breakfast passengers began discussing their options for the day which included taking a guided hiking tour of Thomas Raddall Provincial Park, spending the day beachcombing and exploring the coastline, or visiting the historic Town of Liverpool, a former mecca of privateers. Caledonia was anchored here for the day, so there was plenty of time to do all three. Sea kayaks were available as were bicycles for those wanting to move around and get some exercise. Sixty-four-year-old dairy farmer Daniel needed no further invitation. Donning a life jacket, he promptly jumped into an orange kayak and paddled off in search of adventure and seal colonies.
Early Wednesday morning found us pulling out of Port Mouton and heading to historic Lunenburg, a United Nations World Heritage Site. “Old Town” Lunenburg still preserves the original layout of a planned Colonial settlement established in 1753. Nova Scotia’s best and most prolific travel writer Allan Lynch describes Lunenburg as “some sort of fantastical architectural playground, with brightly colored, overly decorated buildings. The streets are full of wonderfully pokey little shops and their calendar is stuffed with cool events.” Lunenburg was once the focal point for the Grand Banks fishery but is now known for its lively assortment of art galleries mixed in with antique shops, craft stores, restaurants, and B&Bs. Some would say a trip to Nova Scotia is not complete without a visit to this charming little town. Interpretive signs highlight historically significant architecture, reflecting the finest examples of 18th and 19th century churches, homes and commercial buildings.
Sailing skillfully into his home harbor, Captain Kim docked portside and was promptly surrounded by his family and friends who greeted him with a large banner, celebrating his homecoming after being away at sea. A few passengers stepped off the ramp to board a lobster fishing boat, an opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the region’s famous seafood delicacy. Others toured the village via horse and buggy ride, or combed the shops, galleries and museums in town. We spent the remainder of the day and night here, free to explore the town on our own or enjoy the comforts of our ship while tied to the dock. Lunenberg is home to the famed “Bluenose,” one of the country’s most beloved schooners. The original “Bluenose” was built in Lunenburg and launched on March 26, 1921, later to become enshrined on the Canadian dime in 1937. Captained by Lunenburg native Angus Walters, the Bluenose won every race in the International Fishing series from 1921 until 1938. Though the ship sank off the coast of Haiti in 1946, its present reincarnation (“Bluenose II”) is available for tours when docked at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic.
Bidding farewell to this brightly painted seaport village after lunch of smoked salmon accompanied by an incredibly flavorful soup, we departed Lunenburg’s cozy harbor and steered north, heading back to the open sea. Our crew soon appeared on deck and began raising sails, calling out their names and relaying commands: mizzen, main sail, the main staysail and main upper staysail were promptly set. Then the square sails on the fore mast were lowered: top gallant, upper topsail and lower topsail. We were on board a barquentine, a ship defined by the particular number of masts and rigging scheme. A brig, for example, has two masts, and both carry square topsails as well as a gaff-headed mainsail and mizzensail. A brigantine, on the other hand, is similar to a brig except that it lacks the large cross-jack sail on the mainmast. A barquentine such as the Caledonia, carries three or more masts, but the foremast alone is square rigged. Several passengers volunteered in helping the crew pull lanyards to set sails. All of us were on deck, caught up in the pageantry of a captain and crew working in harmony, unified in a common task to bring our ship into full sail. Some time later our captain rang the bell and proudly announced this was the first time every one of Caledonia’s sails had been raised. We let out a cheer, snapped dozens of photographs, and patting their backs, congratulated our captain and crew. Chests swelling, their teeth gleamed brilliantly as they grinned back at us with looks of proud achievement through windblown, ruddy faces. Moments later I joined four others invited to board a zodiac, allowing us a privileged opportunity to take photographs from the ocean of our ship in full sail.
That night there was a celebration, for us, for the crew and for the captain. We were treated to The Captain’s Dinner, an incredible culinary masterpiece. Michelle filled the blackboards with her colored chalk calligraphy that afternoon, providing a preview of our evening fare. First, there was to be a seafood extravaganza: Seared sea scallops, Broiled lobster tails, Lobster bisque, Steamed mussels, and an incredible Smoked seafood platter. This was accompanied by roasted back ribs with sweet barbecue sauce and Pork tenderloin. Added to these delicacies was a selection of crisp salads and other dishes: Green bean and cauliflower salad, Leafy greens and red cabbage, a lovely cheese display, a tasty potato salad, sliced fruits and yet another cheese tray. We began our feast with a champagne toast, honoring the crew, an anniversary, a honeymoon, and guests who had joined us from shore. After filling our plates and consuming this feast, we groaned unconvincingly, pretending to chastise ourselves for our intemperate indulgence. Nevertheless, spying a near table laden with several assorted, yummy desserts, there wasn’t one person among us who successfully resisted the temptation to sample one or more of those treats.
That evening we were serenaded by a seasoned, talented fiddler who performed on the aft deck for our evening entertainment under the stars. After sailing through the myriad of islands in Mahone Bay, we had arrived in artsy Chester, a quaint, though—judging by some of the extravagant “summer cottages”—extraordinarily upscale seaport village.
Awaking Friday morning to the gentle rocking motion of our ship anchored in the harbor, I enjoyed some of the best Eggs Benedict I’d ever eaten, thoroughly savoring a magnificent Hollandaise sauce the chef had prepared. Every half hour one of the crew ferried passengers over to Chester in the morning, so we took the opportunity to walk about the little village before heading back to the ship for lunch and another sail up the coast. Today we were cruising past Peggy’s Cove, a charming, self-sufficient community of 300 residents, a destination that has long inspired painters and photographers from around the world. We were heading for an anchorage in the Northwest Arm, our final resting place before returning to Halifax harbor, our point of origin.
This week I entered a unique culture, that of the seaman, a distinctive nautical experience having its own traditions, characteristics, ceremonies and language. I met experienced hands willing to pass on their knowledge and understanding to novices awed by the maze of rigging, knots, and unfamiliar terminology. I found myself moved to read C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. On the last evening, after a farewell dinner offering choice of pork tenderloin or sea scallops, I slipped in a DVD of the movie Master and Commander and this time paid renewed interest in the movie, not only in the dialog, but in the details of ship life at sea. Though separated by 200 years from the events of the movie, I realized that that was a culture more akin to what I had experienced this week than what I had left on land. Tall ships are living memories of another era, and my week as a passenger on an authentic barquentine left me with many great memories of conversations with fellow passengers, heroic maneuvers of crew, and scenic vistas I’d only seen secondhand through photos or movies.