Maritimes 2018 Trip Recap: Halifax to Cape Breton

Lakies Head on Cabot Trail

Much has changed over the past twelve months. My boyfriend became my fiancé just after Christmas this year, and we’re now busily planning a wedding that simultaneously feels ages away, but also like it’ll be here before we know it. Marking another milestone was our second trip to the Maritimes to see his family earlier this month.

My first visit to the East Coast of Canada took place last summer. Our goal was to relax in Dalhousie, NB and explore PEI. This time around, we, of course, spent a few days with relatives in New Brunswick. However, the remainder of our week was split between Halifax and Cape Breton Island.

Halifax, NS

Crossing the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge in Halifax

The handful of days we spent in Dalhousie were book-ended by a few evenings in Halifax. Having been a year prior, the sights weren’t the priority. What was important was giving my fiancé a chance to catch up with friends while we experienced the food and nightlife.

I’ll start off by saying that The Lower Deck on the Waterfront, although it may be a Nova Scotia institution, is not my cup of tea. I just felt out of place. It’s true that there are more casual, quiet spots in the pub, but, late at night, when it turns into a club, it’s not for me. I was uncomfortable being around a ton of rowdy people, so we didn’t stay long. If live music out in their courtyard or dancing to top 40 hits in dim lighting on their second floor is your thing, I’d tell you to give it a go because a lot of people have told me this is where it’s at.

The spot my fiancé really wanted to show me was Durty Nelly’s. It’s located right on Argyle Street (across from the new Halifax Convention Centre), making it a part of the lively downtown scene on the weekend. He has reminisced about the Irish pub often, and I didn’t mind it. Sure, it’s a bit noisy, especially when trying to make conversation. Yet, the atmosphere is decent and there is also live music playing later in the evening.

Deciding to continue on after a couple of drinks, we strolled down the hill towards Barrington Street to hang out at Stillwell Bar. Designed with a NYC subway station aesthetic in mind, I found it to be fun. The place was packed when we arrived with just a few seats left at the bar. The guys stuck to beer, available by bottle or on tap. I opted to grab their Peanut Butter & Jelly brownie for dessert. It was incredibly rich and decadent with a sort of salty caramel top, whipped cream and hints of mint. It got a full thumbs up from me.

On our second night we ventured to the Dartmouth side of the Halifax municipality for dinner with one of my fiancé’s old colleagues. We ate at Boondocks Restaurant, which has prime real estate along the boardwalk of Fisherman’s Cove. The seafood focused menu is decent. I wouldn’t say it’s anything to write home about. Nevertheless, the salmon and scallops we had were cooked quite nicely and flavoured well.

Best Places to Eat issue of Curated Food & Drink Magazine

Canada Day ended off with a view of the fireworks from Kings Wharf Place next to the Dartmouth Cove. Should there ever be an opportunity to watch the festivities from that vantage point, I’d highly recommend going there. Parking can be an issue, but we managed to find a spot. Also, once the fireworks started, people literally just parked in the middle of the street and stopped there until the pyrotechnics were over before driving off again. The fireworks look huge from there. Plus, sticking to that side of the water means avoiding the downtown crowds. On another note, my fiancé’s friend generously gave me his issue of Halifax’s Curated Food & Drink Magazine’s 25 Best Local Eateries, so I could plan for future holidays.

When we returned to Halifax from Dalhousie at the end of the week, we had date night in the city. Named as one of the top restaurants in Curated, Agricola Street Brasserie was our eatery of choice and it absolutely did not disappoint (watch for a full review to come). The space is very cool with a converted warehouse style. Brick walls, exposed beams, an open kitchen with bar seating, lots of floating pendant lights, and a striking backdrop to their main bar created an excellent setting. They have several local beers on tap, and their cocktails were stellar. The menu items we sampled were fantastic, too. The chef definitely seems to be adventurous with flavour combos and textures. I actually wish we could have fit in more of the food in one sitting.

Dalhousie, NB

 

This is my fiancé’s hometown. Here, I was reunited with my future mother-in-law’s younger cats, Mika and Mini. We also went on their annual (my second) family canoe trip down the Restigouche River (please read my post from last year for more info on booking something like this). Not one of us walked away without some sort of sun burn — thankfully, mine was minor — after several hours paddling on a very warm and sunny day. We also had a fire in the backyard most nights and set off our own fireworks over the water.

Canoe trip!

The town used to house a successful paper mill and power plant, which employed many of its residents. Today, both of those businesses are no longer. As we drove into and out of Dalhousie and around the neighbourhoods, we noticed an abundance of homes for sale. I’m not sure what’s spurring so many people to pick up and go, but if anyone is looking for an affordable summer home near the water in Canada, this may be a good option.

The main church in Dalhousie is so pretty.

Dalhousie is super quaint and I think this is why it becomes a bustling place during the warmer months. Plenty of visitors come into town to camp in their RVs and just get away from all of their cares. I got to visit the seasonal ice cream shop pretty much every day we were there. They are often so busy that the line snakes through the store. It’s literally the place everyone wants to be. It’s no wonder though. They offer the most options with dozens of flavours of hard ice cream, soft serve, frozen yogurt, and sundaes available.

The town has also beautified the area around their Inch Arran Lighthouse with the addition of a sundial and stone seating encircling it. There are even a couple of pieces of public art near the shops, including a new statue of Mr. Bon Ami.

We lucked out with a ride on a family friend’s boat as well. We took the vessel out on the water, travelling from the marina out into Chaleur Bay. From afar, Dalhousie is the epitome of picturesque.

Cape Breton Island, NS

Along Cabot Trail

Despite growing up in New Brunswick, my fiancé had never been to Cape Breton Island, so we thought it’d be something new to experience together. We spent about a day and a half there, staying each night in Sydney. During our one full day, we drove the entire length of the World Famous Cabot Trail.

As a heads up, the roads on Cabot Trail are narrow, winding, and quite worn out in certain stretches. Much of the trail allows for speed limits of 80 kilometers per hour. Some sharp turns have warning signs. But, there are many spots along the way where there aren’t any indications of those turns or lower speeds posted. If in doubt, just slow it down.

 

Should you want to complete a few of the hiking trails throughout the area, plan ahead. Find out the distance and estimated time it takes to finish them. You will have to bring the proper gear and work with the daylight to ensure you make it back to the starting point before it’s dark. Additionally, pets may or may not be allowed, so check in advance. Also, consider staying overnight at some of the smaller inns rather than heading back to Sydney each night as it’ll give you more flexibility. Well-known hikes like the Skyline Trail Loop are almost 10 kilometers.

In our case, we didn’t have the time to fit in anything like that. All we were able to do was the loop by car. However, we did peruse works by local artisans (Leather Works by Jolene and Glass Artisans Studio & Gallery) and we made several stops for photo ops. Highlights included: Ingonish Beach, Lakies Head Look-out, Neil’s Harbour (cheap, ginormous scoops at The Lighthouse Ice Cream Parlour), Lone Shieling (within Cape Breton Highlands National Park, this is considered a historic example of a traditional shelter used by shepherds in Scotland and those who settled in the Maritimes), and the village of Baddeck.

 

If in search of a meal, many of the small coastal towns have local restaurants. Usually, the hotels, motels and inns have a kitchen. We ate lunch on our second day at the MidTrail Motel. Nothing fancy, but it was alright and it helped to sustain us for the last few hours of the drive. Otherwise, in Mabou, closer to the southwest side of the island (but off of Cabot Trail), you’ll find the wonderful Red Shoe Pub. The proprietors are the Rankin Sisters of the Canadian musical family. The lobster sandwich special was simple yet tasty (the side of lobster bisque could use some improvements though), and the pulled pork poutine with sweet potato fries was delicious and filling.

Both evenings, we drove back into Sydney. We called the Cambridge Suites Hotel home the first night and The Hampton Inn by Hilton our abode on the second. There’s no question, the facilities at the Hampton Inn were far nicer. We splurged just a little bit more (the cost difference wasn’t much) to get their Boardroom Suite, and it was amazing. There was a full boardroom table in the living room, which had a dual-sided fireplace that also faced into the king size bedroom. A bar with a mini fridge, sink, and microwave was built in as well. Lastly, the bathroom was huge! We could have had a dance party in there. The complimentary breakfasts at each location were similar with meat (bacon or sausage), eggs, toast, yogurt, pastries, juices, etc.

In Sydney, I was surprised to find quite a few public mural paintings around the city as well as the World’s Largest Fiddle (I got a photo with something giant again!) at the port. There were also some satisfying restaurants.

The two we tried were Naru Sushi and Govenor’s Pub. The former was such a surprise. The rolls we ordered maybe had a tad too much rice, but the texture was just right and the ingredients tasted fresh. It was a far cry from our terrible sushi lunch in Shediac, NB the year before (it made me think the East Coast didn’t know how to do sushi). If you go, make sure you try their tempura banana dessert, too. It’s so good, and the portion is ridiculous for the price. We thought they accidentally gave us two orders until we saw the bill. As for Govenor’s Pub, the service wasn’t the greatest, but it’s a really nice spot that overlooks the water with two patio spaces. I’ll admit, I didn’t love that they put celery in their lobster sandwich. Nonetheless, they won me over with their Maple-Curry Seafood Linguine. The spicy-sweet sauce was creamy and the mix of mussels, scallops and shrimp were all prepared well.

Literally my favourite store name ever. It’s so punny.

All-in-all, we fit in a ton — family, friends, food, and plenty of sights — over our vacation. We clocked 3,000 kilometers on our rental vehicle by the time we returned it at the airport. The thing is, there’s still so much more to see in the Maritimes. I’m looking forward to our next trip either next year or in 2020. Newfoundland, here we come!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Fionn MacCool’s

The bar at Fionn MacCool’s in west Edmonton.

Fionn MacCool’s has been one of my go-to lunch places for the last few years. Working in Edmonton’s core, the downtown location at City Centre has become an easy choice. There have also been the occasional visits there prior to Paint Nite events. My boyfriend has enjoyed their affordable brunch selections, and I love their Chicken Fettuccini with its atypical, but tasty lemon-cream sauce. In the past, I also swore by their Beet Hummus and Tandoori Chicken Sandwich; however, the newest iterations of the menu have been pared down with several of my favourites now removed.

The dining room of the west end location of Fionn MacCool’s.

Therefore, when I received some coupons in the mail recently, I felt inclined to stop by once more. This time, my boyfriend and I opted to try out the west end venue. We arrived early in the afternoon where we seated ourselves in the dining room. It’s a clean space that’s decorated to look like every other Irish pub: dark woods, patterned upholstery, and vintage lighting. The plus is that this building has lots of windows, so it’s brightly lit during the daytime, unlike the dimness of the downtown Fionn MacCool’s.

Warm Spinach & Artichoke Dip

After spending some time reviewing the options, we decided on the Warm Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($12.50) as a shared appetizer. The notes on the menu indicated that the dip was freshly prepared in-house, and while that may be the case, it did remind me a lot of what I might buy from Costco. Also, it was surprisingly hot to the touch as it must have been baked with additional cheese on top. A tad greasy because of that, it was still good, yet it wasn’t necessarily special. The tortilla chips were fine, although maybe a bit oily as well. Regardless, we took the leftovers home to use the spread as a topping for our homemade turkey burgers, which turned out to be delicious.

Double-Stacked Cod-Wich

For his main, my boyfriend chose the Double-Stacked Cod-Wich ($15.95). The buttermilk-breaded fish was indeed crispy. That would be okay, but the exterior turned out to be too crunchy and the cod slightly overcooked. We also thought that the breading wasn’t quite right to go with the fish as the seasoning used was strong. It felt like it was meant to go with chicken instead of the more delicate nature of the white cod. On a positive note, the ACE Bakery bun used was the perfect density, and it held up well throughout. I also really enjoyed the thick cut fries that came with the sandwich; they were super fluffy on the inside and not completely crisp on the outside, and, personally, I don’t mind that.

Butter Chicken Boxty with Caesar Salad

When it came to my own entrée, I selected something new for me: the Butter Chicken Boxty ($15.50). This dish consists of a large, rolled potato pancake filled with chicken and onions in a thick curry sauce. Mildly spicy, it packed a lot of flavour. The sauteed onions were tender and the chicken was supple. For my side, I went with the Caesar salad. This was nothing out of the ordinary. It was just a really decent version with a good amount dressing to coat the lettuce.

The more I go there, the more I learn what to stick to and what I should probably avoid. Despite improvements that can be made, I have found that Fionn MacCool’s is usually pretty dependable for a standard pub meal. As such, I’ll continue to dine there. If not for the food and friendly service, definitely for the convenience.