How do I begin to tell the tale of this ambitious, East Coast adventure — where every single salty day at sea dishes a trip-of-a-lifetime?
To back up, our daughter had just graduated from high school.
We wanted to mark the occasion with an adventure that would, yes, be a pile of fun, but also deepen her sense of what it means to be a citizen of this country as she launches into the world.
We also know someone who joined One Ocean Expeditions on a memorable trip through the Northwest Passage not long ago (kayaking with narwhals anyone?) — so the innovative Canadian company had been on our radar for a while.
When we heard our friend Brian Keating — a well-known Alberta-based wildlife expert and general force of nature — was scheduled to be on board as a guide during the Fins & Fiddles tour of Atlantic Canada, we were in.
Our son had already booked into a summer camp in the Canadian Rockies, so our daughter would bring along a friend, another high school graduate, to join my husband and me on the trip.
And from the moment we arrive in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where we explore the storied (and haunted, if you’re inclined to believe local folklore!) Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, we know we are in for something uniquely, iconically Canadian.
Daily Trips of a Lifetime
One of the genius aspects of this expedition cruise is that daily, at breakfast, we are presented with a wide range of adventures that passengers — 96 of us in total from around the world and of all ages — can choose from.
Care to go for a boat ride to the remote Sable Island National Park Reserve — one of Canada’s newest national parks and home to a herd of legendary wild horses?
How about a hike into the tablelands of Newfoundland & Labrador’s spectacular Gros Morne National Park — named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 for its ancient and scientifically significant rock formations?
Interested in a guided kayak expedition along the misty shores of Atlantic Canada where you can paddle past colourful villages and chat with local fishermen along the way?
Or maybe you’d rather head out to sea in a Zodiac for an invigorating, life-affirming day in search of puffin colonies and breaching whales?
We do all of this, and more.
I can still hear the calls of the thousands of nesting Northern Gannets off the coast of Quebec on Bonaventure Island.
These athletic birds are mesmerizing to watch, dive bombing from the heavens for food, observing us, their spectators, closely with piercing blue eyes and hovering protectively over their young chicks.
One of our daughter’s favourite day trips involves cycling along the coastline of The Magdalen Islands on a sunny blue day.
We pedal past fields of wild strawberries and through villages, with pit stops for ice cream and, eventually, delicious pastries at a popular local bakery.
Colourful East Coast Culture
Beyond the opportunities to be active, experience wildlife and absorb the diverse geography of Atlantic Canada, we also immerse ourselves in local culture.
We travel to Saint Pierre et Miquelon, a small group of islands owned by France and located off the south coast of Newfoundland, where we enjoy a mouth-watering and very French lunch. (Think tender steak served with chewy red wine.)
We meet the charming and chatty people of the Newfoundland outport community Francois, which was settled in the late 1700s. And we enjoy an evening with them at the community hall where locals bring home-baked goodies to eat and hand-knit socks to sell, and we dance the night away, a popular DJ in the lead.
Counting the Memories
They say children remember two things most once they’ve grown up. Delicious meals and stand-out family vacations.
I chat about this with naturalist Brian Keating — who has guided families on adventures around the planet throughout his career — and he wholeheartedly agrees.
“From what I’ve observed, the up-close-and-personal experiences children have with nature, especially, stay with them forever,” he says. “Watching kids on this trip have the rare opportunity to see Sable Island’s wild horses — looking so ragged and so beautiful with their incredible, tangled manes full of dreadlocks — well, they’re never going to forget this.”
Then he adds: “Let me put it this way: there are bank accounts full of money and there are bank accounts full of memories, which is where the real wealth lies. The economy can crash, but no one can ever steal these extraordinary moments from you. I believe these moments sustain you through life.”
A Community at Sea
In spite of the ‘daily-trips-of-a-lifetime’ nature of the Fins & Fiddles tour, much of what remains with me is how bonded we all become.
Staff treat us like family from the moment we step on board. They sing and play fiddle with us during late-night jam sessions in the ship’s bar.
They reach out to the kids so they feel comfortable and even jump in when our daughter is teaching folks how to line dance Alberta-style at the community hall in Francois, NL.
And they take time with the more elderly passengers on board to ensure their needs are met.
We enjoy getting to know fellow passengers such as John Geiger and his wife and their two sons. Over a drink towards the end of our tour, we agree that as far as family trips go, this adventure eclipses everything else we’ve experienced in Canada.
“What is remarkable is that we are able to take in so much in a relatively short period of time,” says Geiger, an accomplished author and the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
“When people think of Canadian vacations, they often think of a quick trip to Vancouver, or maybe four or five days in the Rockies. This is a world-class experience, in Canada, and it’s breath-taking. It compares with some of the greatest ship-based adventures in the world. For our kids to carry this experience with them their whole lives, well, it’s a magical thing.”
A soul-stirring adventure
My apologies if this story feels like a love letter, but I suppose it is. The Fins & Fiddles tour stirred our Canadian souls — fitting on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday.
Did the expedition deepen our daughter’s sense of what our country can look like?
Not long ago, she painted one of our photographs from Sable Island and presented it to her father as a gift. An impression was made.
Has the experience contributed to memories that will sustain her into the future?
Her recent Instagram post — featuring a delightful jam session with One Ocean Expeditions staff and passengers — suggests yes, especially given that she published the short video, in the midst of gruelling university exams, with the words: “Take me back to the Akademik Ioffe.”
What are our lives, anyway, but a series of stories?
I sure won’t forget our visit to Sable Island National Park Reserve — not the anticipation we felt as we powered through the Atlantic by Zodiac from our ship to the shore, nor the curious and wind-blown horses that would greet us when we landed.
The impact of this wildly Canadian expedition, I suspect, will remain with my family for generations to come.
***Editor’s note: Our writer was hosted by One Ocean Expeditions. Our partners in tourism did not review or edit this post before publication.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.