I first was pleased to encounter our great neighbours to the north in the summer of 1993. Twelve-year-old Matt and his family were totally unaware of Campbellmania and had no idea of what would happen in late October of that year - but we had trekked north to Grand Isle State Park in Vermont for a camping trip. While there, we took a day trip across the border to Montréal. Had fun, toured the city a bit, caught an Expos game. On the way back, the agents charged with protecting my country from threats asked what we were bringing back across. While Mom was declaring nothing of consequence, I was sheepishly holding up the game program - and the agent smiled, admitting us back into the United States without incident.
It'd be another six years before I'd be in Canada again - twice. Since Mom wanted to reach Alaska - by land, no less - we were pleased to see another part of the true north strong and free. And did we ever. After entering Alberta east of Glacier National Park and coming around Calgary, we made our way towards Banff and Jasper. Everybody in the car was floored by what we saw - and that's saying something, given we had just come from the Badlands and Yellowstone. We pressed on through those two parks to Prince George and Dawson Creek, and then onto the Alaska Highway. I can still remember the warning sign coming out of Fort Nelson - "check your fuel: next services, 250 km." On we went, through northern British Columbia and into the Yukon, where there were snow flurries on my nation's big day, and where I wish I'd pressed Mom to stop at the Signpost Forest in Watson Lake. From there, it was down the Klondike Highway to Skagway, where we caught the Alaska Marine Highway to Prince Rupert, and then back across BC and down to the US border for the rest of the trip. Two months later, I was on the road to Montréal with the Big Red Marching Band, for a halftime performance for the Alouettes. While out for dinner with friends the night before the game, the server starts in French, and I raise my hand and say "nous ne parlons pas français." The server switches to English and takes our orders, after which every one of my friends' heads turned towards mine, and I simply responded, "I just told him we don't speak French." I marched on the field at Stade Percival-Molson in both 1999 and 2000 - the latter of which got interesting. (Frickin' horns!) I did make another brief trek across the border in June 2009, shortly after the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was fully implemented.
Sometime while I gave my service to the armed forces of my country, it was mentioned to me that the Maritime Provinces might be a worthwhile travel destination. I'd originally made crude plans to that end seven years ago, but scrapped them long before they truly reached the launching pad. Those memories served me well as I finally planned and executed a vacation to a place that now has my heart nearly as much as Ithaca does.
I knew what I was doing when I booked the flights. I knew I'd be coming off three night shifts and essentially heading directly onto an international flight - more specifically, my first international flight ever*. I prepped accordingly - I had everything packed as I headed into work on the 8th, or so I thought I did. For one, of course I wouldn't think of anything more I'd want to bring with me... WRONG! And for two, of course I'd be able to sleep on the plane... WRONG! I was way too excited about my first true vacation since the Post-Navy Roadtrip to be able to accumulate sleep in any appreciable quantity. I had not caught nearly as many winks as I'd have liked when Flight 4089 touched down at YHZ. Even so, I felt energized as I stepped off the plane and into the customs line. When I reached the initial screening desk, I was asked several questions. Given my responses to those questions - I'm traveling alone, I don't have a hotel reservation for two of the eight nights, I don't know anyone in this part of Canada - it was entirely understandable that I was flagged for additional screening. I was sent to a back area where all my bags were opened and searched, and I was asked more questions. This enabled me to give longer and better answers - for example, I've left flexibility in my schedule to ensure I'm not driving under significant fatigue. Despite the additional scrutiny, I left the terminal with more respect for the Canada Border Services Agency than for the Transportation Security Administration on the front end of the flight.
Once I checked out my rental car (a sweet 2016 Volvo S60), I headed for downtown Halifax. Not only did I need to kill sometime before I could check into my hotel, I was hungry. This being my first time in Canada in seven years, I searched for the most quintessentially Canadian fast food I could think of - Tim Hortons. It was most delicious - but I committed two blunders at the counter. For one, I asked the cashier for a Coke, prompting laughter from her, as it's apparently common knowledge that Tim Hortons is a Pepsi chain. And for two, I handed her my credit card, being totally unaware that Canada has totally switched over to EMV, aka "chip card" technology. Fortunately for me, my bank sent me a chip card a few months prior, so I was good to go - but I walked away from the counter shaking my head at myself, wondering "could I have made it ANY more clear that I'm not Canadian?"
After I checked in to the Four Points by Sheraton Halifax, I tried to get a nap, but I was still too amped up about being on vacation. After a few hours, I got dinner at... Rock Bottom Brewery. Yep, a totally American establishment. After that dinner, I headed back to the room for a shower and prepared to take advantage of some advice from the desk clerk when I checked in... "Argyle Street." I started at The Loose Cannon, where I had a more substantive conversation about international relations than the President-elect had had in the entire campaign to that date. My second and final stop was The Toothy Moose. It was there that the combination of fatigue and alcohol caught up with me. By the end of the night, I was drinking Molson from cans - the equivalent of Coors Light on this side of the border, something I'd never countenance here.
I was fortunate that I managed to get the "do not disturb" sign on the door, because I slept late, and deep. When I finally came to, I headed out and was able to visit the Halifax Citadel just before it closed. I headed down to the waterfront, where I saw the QM2 pulling into the harbour, grabbed dinner, and took another run at Argyle. This time, it was Durty Nelly's, which bills itself as an "authentic Irish pub." I can buy that, but it certainly had plenty of Canadian flavo(u)r. The highlight of night two was a man in a lizard onesie dancing on the tables. Eventually, he was convinced to stop by the bar's staff. The fact that he was able to do so at all was surprising to me, given that stateside, bars often remove the tables to the back between 10 and 11 p.m. I enjoyed some good beer and good music - the name of the band escapes me - and I left in a great mood.
The following morning, as I prepared to leave, my laptop insisted on downloading and installing some updates. Finally, I got sick of it and stuffed the computer in its bag and checked out. When I stopped for lunch, I noted a beautiful touch - the house across the street from the Subway shop was flying the Maple Leaf at half mast, the date being September 11. I was immediately reminded of how Canadians opened their airspace, their hearts, and their homes to U.S.-bound passengers after the FAA imposed a national ground stop. It was Route 102 north to the Trans-Canada Highway east, with the Volvo bound for Sydney on the eastern coast of Cape Breton Island. As you approach the Strait of Canso, the highway swerves to the right and you get a first view of Cape Breton... and it was totally stunning. Perhaps the visage distracted me - because when I reached the traffic circle, I took a wrong turn and ended up on some quite rural streets, and came within less than ten meters of hitting a dog with the Volvo. That near-miss corrected, I drove along the south shore of Bras d'Or Lake to Sydney. The views were stunning, but the combination of the revelry of the night before and the driving of the afternoon had tired me out.
The frustration was not aided by ascending the elevator to my room after check-in... and finding the door propped and hearing activity in the room, sending me back into a cold, windy, drizzly afternoon. Despite Governors Pub and Eatery, which had been suggested to me back in Halifax, being right across the street, I ended up having dinner at Burger King. This was not much of an inconvenience, as I arrived to realize something most unfortunate - I had packed my razor handle, but had neglected to pack a blade, necessitating a trip to Wal-Mart. The hotel, like all those I stayed in during this trip, carried the Boston affiliates of the American networks, so I spent the rest of the evening watching the Giants defeat the Cowboys and New England beat Arizona.
The following morning, I gathered my things and checked out, setting my course north...
* It wasn't my first time in another nation's airport - I distinctly recall catching part of a Japanese baseball game during the PVD → DTW → NRT → GUM trek that first brought me to USS Memphis. But since both initial planing and final deplaning were on United States territory, it wasn't a truly international flight.