A few weeks ago I realized I hadn’t taken a single vacation day yet this year. Sure, we’ve had quick weekend getaways, and I’ve travelled for work, but no days off. I’ve not been particularly burned out at work, but still – I knew I needed an escape from Toronto. Luckily, we had a trip to Nova Scotia planned to coincide with my brother’s visit.
We had an eventful lead-up to the trip – a visit to Eigensinn Farm, a day out and dinner with our friends Matt & Kaylea and several of their friends, and especially Sonny’s death – so we were running around a bit in the days before. But we got away on the Sunday as planned, caffeinated ourselves at the Porter lounge, and soon found ourselves in Halifax. One incredibly efficient rental car pick-up later and we were on our way to the family farm, a beautiful day unfurling on the road ahead of us. We didn’t bother stopping for food; I’d already received a text from my brother telling us that our other brother was smoking a pork loin. Two, in fact. We arrived at the farm in no time at all, and the whole family – parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephew, nieces, and dogs – were there to greet us. Now we were home. Now we were on vacation.
The rest of the evening was mostly just a collection of eating and catching up, immediately launching into an onslaught of cribbage, and helping the brother gas a hornet’s nest. It wasn’t long before Nellie and I were asleep in the quiet and pitch black of the farm.
We had no agenda for this portion of the trip – for the whole trip, really – so we went along with the family’s plans. On this particular day the only concrete agenda item was lunch at Wild Caraway, a restaurant about an hour away in the little town of Advocate which has been garnering quite a reputation. We heaved ourselves into a few vehicles and made the twisty drive downshore, taking care to signal at every turn since no one else in Nova Scotia seems to.
Our lunch was very, very good…much better than I expected to find in Advocate, frankly. I had a pulled beef sandwich and a homemade ginger beer. Nellie had lobster bisque, a Caesar salad with scallops, and elderflower lemonade. Others at the table had crispy chicken sandwiches and pan-friend flounder, which was probably caught within sight of the restaurant. Some of us had chocolate cheesecake for dessert, others sticky toffee pudding. We ate well, is what I’m saying. Highly recommended if you find yourself anywhere near Advocate for lord-knows-what-reason.
We did a little more touring that day, stopping in Parrsboro on the drive home, visiting some blueberry fields and the West Brook, and driving up to the old barn on Thunder Hill. But it got pretty stinking hot outside, so I eventually retreated to the brother’s house (where they have air conditioning, mercifully) to rumpus with the dogs therein and play Call of Duty with my nephew. Not much else happened that day, as I recall: just the ferocious consumption of leftovers.
Tuesday was my birthday, actually. I celebrated by going to my brother’s house and availing myself of some of the Fahrenheit coffee I’d brought him. Then began the preparations for the birthday feast: we drove to Amherst, bought heroic portions of meat (and meat accompaniments), ate lunch at a tragically mood-lit pub called Duncan’s, and drove home ahead of a rainstorm. Someone had arranged for some family photos to be taken, and things seemed to be heading in the direction of a very complicated shoot involving multiple locations, but the rainstorm hit just as the photographer drove into the yard and ended the minute she left. So it was kept to just a few pictures over a few minutes and I prefer to think that the rain was the universe giving me a birthday present.
Once the rain subsided the grilling began. Nellie and my brothers prepared for us a mighty feast: grilled steaks, grilled sausages, grilled chicken breasts, salads, potatoes, homemade bread, even that freaky neon green coleslaw that only seems to exist in the Maritimes. By the time I was finished all I wanted was to lie on the couch and finish watching The Hunt For Red October while my stomach made room for the Pierre Marcolini-chocolate-infused mega-cake my mother had baked. Alas, the nephew and nieces were not interested in my digestive timetable and we had to cut into it right away. It was damn fine cake, but I never did have more than that single piece, and under duress at that.
That night the sky cleared enough that we could see the stars, planes, and even the Milky Way whilst fighting off mosquitoes. So we called that a win, and I called it a pretty good birthday.
I spent my final few hours on the farm driving around various back roads and blueberry fields with my dad and brother, and raiding the last of the maple inventory. Nellie spent hers sleeping in and going for a swim with the nieces.
We said our goodbyes and made our way to Truro (where Nellie’s mom had just moved herself), stopping in Five Islands for some fried clams (which helped us make friends with a hungry local kitty) and tiger ice cream, and stopping again in Economy for some of the That Dutchman’s excellent cheese.
We found the mother-in-law’s new place, picked up some steaks and tasty beers – the local NSLC had Erdinger, Garrison “Nit-Wit” wheat, and the excellent Picaroons Best Bitter – and then along with Nellie’s aunt and uncle baptised her new back yard with a barbecue.
Luckily Nellie’s mother lives very close to Murphy’s, a Truro institution renowned for their fish and chips. We joined another aunt there, and sucked back some lightly battered seafood. I’m not much of a fish fan, but this was pretty good.
There was some hunting about town for a mythical man who sells fresh seafood out of the back of his pickup truck (seriously), but to no avail; we ended up buying dinner at Sobeys and a Superstore instead. We also made a quick trip to a nearby Future Shop where we picked up some new toys for me to play with. I spent the afternoon setting those up while Nellie and her mom prepared a seafood banquet: lobsters, scallops, and four shrimp the size of boomerangs. These we ate with a few bottles of wine, including a very tasty Benjamin Bridge Tidal Bay white.
Frankly there wasn’t much else to do that evening except process the food. Recurring theme, that.
Just before we left Truro we heeded a suggestion from the brother: Jimolly’s Café, also luckily just a few minutes from the mother-in-law’s new home. It seemed to be the epicentre of cool/hipster life in Truro. They did a decent, gigantic cappuccino and a gluten-free “gooey square” which fuelled the rest of my day. We filed the location away for an upcoming visit when we’re in need of caffeine and pastries.
We then drove to the Halifax airport, dropped our rental car, and caught a cab into the city. A word here on Halifax cabs: we stepped up to the first cab in the queue, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. We proceeded to the next cab in line, where the driver explained to us that the first cab’s owner was simply making use of the facilities. He got out of his own cab, walked up to the first cab, popped the trunk, and loaded our luggage into the dude’s cab while we tried to figure out what was happening. The owner of the first cab came running out, yelled “Thanks Lemuel!” to the second cabbie, and away we went. These two drivers did not work for the same company. They’re just good people. Halifax!
Anyway, in no time at all we were downtown, checked into our hotel, and on the prowl for some lunch. We found it at Hart & Thistle, a brewpub on the waterfront we’d visited once before. Unfortunately, as with the first time, we found the food to be a little lacking…by which I mean the chicken breast on my jerk sandwich was the size of a business card, and Nellie’s lobster poutine was like unto soup. But we were there for the beer, which was…also not great, unfortunately. Nellie’s white IPA was fine, I guess, but my Old 87 IPA was just a hop-bomb. 50 IBUs, if I remember right. I got through it, but it tasted like a test, not a beer.
Happily, our beer fortunes would soon turn. After our friend Amanda got off work she took us to Garrison, my favourite local craft brewery, to try some samples and meet the brewmaster Daniel. We drank some nut brown (my favourite), followed by some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (nut brown mixed with raspberry wheat). Then we met Daniel, who poured us a few more interesting samples: the 3 Fields Harvest Ale, the Kellye’s Wild Rye’d-PA, the Black IPA, the Spruce Beer (which tasted like Christmas), and the Ol’ Fogburner barley wine, aged in whisky barrels from Glenora distillery in Cape Breton. I don’t remember much of what we drank next, but by then the short Halifax rain had broken and we retired to the sunny patio. Hunger soon overtook us, and we walked up the hill to the Loose Cannon, a rather rubbish pub where our server dumped a full pint of Garrison on Nellie’s lap and I continued to swap beer stories with Daniel. I might have developed a brewmaster-crush that day. Anyway, both Murphy girls joined us for one more drink down the hill at the Old Triangle before Nellie and I crashed.
I’d been told Two If By Sea café was a must-hit in Halifax if you care about coffee, which I kind of do now, so I let Nellie sleep in and walked back down to the waterfront. There I purchased a very tasty cappuccino and two croissants the size of footballs. The capp barely survived the long slog back up the famous Halifax incline to the hotel; I needed the energy burst to climb past Argyle.
Once Nellie was up and full of half-a-croissant we got on the go, stumbling down the hill to the waterfront, along which we walked through hordes of buskers and tourists alike to the Seaport farmer’s market. It was jammed, not unlike St. Lawrence Market on a Saturday. Our attempts to procure a dessert for the following day were thwarted, so we went to plan B: back up the hill!
First, though: some lunch. Since we were headed in the direction of Spring Garden and South Park, we stopped in at Rockbottom, a new brewpub. We were barely into our first beer when the brother and two friends – also in Halifax for the weekend – walked in. I guess it was only a matter of time before that happened. We had lunch and beers (none of which impressed me at all) there and did a little shopping, most notably at Susie’s Shortbreads. We also stopped in at Premier Wine & Spirits to pick up a six-pack, and found that the store had maybe the greatest beer selection I’ve ever seen in such a small space. Along with the six-pack we bought bottles of Trou de Diable Shawinigan Handshake, Rogue Farms Good Chit Pilsner, and Brooklyn Sorachi Ace. I grabbed a shot of espresso from Steve-O-Reno’s, and then drank the Sorachi Ace back in the room. It were glorious.
The Murphy girls joined us for dinner at Bistro Le Coq, a new place we’d been hoping to try. Sitting in the dining room was like being back in Paris, and the food was excellent. I had the duck prosciutto and the poulet roti. Nellie had the escargot bourguignon and the scallops. The Murphy girls both had the steak frites with the duck fat fries. There was lots of excellent wine to go with all that, obviously. Two of the ladies had the fantastic crème brûlée, and one had a floating island a la neige – caramelized french meringue with a ribbon of lemon curd and crème anglaise. I revisited our France trip and had Sauternes followed by a coffee.
Phase two of the evening took us to Obladee wine bar, where we tried just about every white by the glass in the joint and some chocolate fudge. Phase 3 had us at Pizza Corner, scarfing down a slide of Sicilian pepperoni. It, too, were glorious. Except for the heartburn later.
Our hotel – the Prince George – obviously has an English sensibility, but given the name of the new royal baby they’ve amped things up a bit. We wanted a place to meet the brother and his friends for lunch, so we picked Gio, the hotel’s restaurant. We had no idea just how English things would get. To wit: we were greeted by a beefeater. They were giving out hats and fascinators. A queen impersonator walked around greeting the more enthusiastic participants. Some people actually came in their own garish country-club attire. So that part was weird, but the food was pretty spot-on: fried bread with baked beans, lamb korma, smoked salmon, tiny fish & chips wrapped in newspaper, ploughman’s lunch, eggs benny, bacon, blood sausage, even Jaffa cakes. Not worth what we paid, but it was certainly memorable.
We hitched a ride back to the market with the brother, picked up a few treats and a cappuccino for me, and walked back to the hotel through the throngs of tourists. We hopped the ferry over to Dartmouth where a Murphy girl met us and took us to an old friend’s new back yard. We drank beer and played washers (for the first time) and met a baby and played with Venus the cat and ate sausages the size of billy clubs and played hot tub movie star trivia. Eventually we jumped the ferry back to Halifax, admiring the night skyline even as we buttressed our ears against the world’s loudest drunks. Visit #2 to Pizza Corner followed, but this time I learned from my betters and chased the slice with some chocolate milk. Bingo: zero heartburn.
On our last day in Halifax we managed to squeeze in one last visit with our old friend Stanzi and her husband over breakfast at Cora’s before walking back to the hotel, packing, and heading to the airport with the lone remaining member of my brother’s merry posse. Everything was going fine – we grabbed one last beer and even had a random visit with my aunt who happened to get diverted to Halifax on her way to PEI – until a storm delayed our plane’s arrival. Then another storm delayed our departure. Then the flight became excruciating when the world’s worst parents made themselves known and tortured us all the way to Toronto. But the hell with them – not even they could ruin a great vacation. There was too much family and rest and sun and food and drink and fun for that.
Until next time, Nova Scotia.