St John’s, Newfoundland - It’s sad, this resilient archipelago of rugged North Atlantic islands, hugging Canada’s eastern seaboard - New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island - so battered by raging currents and wars waged in Europe, extending to these far-flung shores.
It’s better known for the classic book, Anne Of Green Gables, the film Shipping News and the more recent reality treasure hunt, The Curse Of Oak Island.
The forbidding location of the Canadian Maritimes, this fascinating multicultural region, is visited more by armchair travellers than by the intrepid, sailing variety. Lindblad Expeditions is seeking to uplift the tourism trend, despite the inclement weather.
My late partner Abe Segal and I flew into St John’s, Newfoundland, North America’s oldest European town, in the dead of night, together with a handful of illustrious Americans, feeling as cursed as Oak Island after our long delay in New York, care of a fleeting hurricane and ferocious fog banks straddling Signal Hill.
The fact we were being deprived of our tour to the iconic Cabot Tower up this same hill and our first glimpse of historic architecture, flat-roofed, coloured wooden houses flanking the steep narrow streets, didn’t improve our midnight moods. The traditional greeting by a friendly Newfoundlander - “Ow’s she cutting me cocky?” raised a laugh as he bussed us at breakneck speed to board our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, before she navigated the 200m “Narrows” between silhouettes of windswept cliffs and the battery guns guarding this pretty harbour.
Surfacing to the soothing aromas of sausages and pancakes, the sultry smooth voice of our cruise director, announcing we had arrived at the island of St Pierre and Miquelon (named after a Spanish French explorer) and a surreal view of a deserted fishing village, basking like a small colony of seals in the early morning sunlight, our spirits lifted faster than mist.
I was champing at the bit for a long uphill walk to discover whatever wildlife lurked among the stunted conifers and undulating inland lakes: I was less optimistic about spotting any French “life”, given that St Pierre, France’s oldest remaining overseas territory, has since 1715, been sacked by the English nine times, burned to the ground twice, evacuated, suffered a famine and more recently a cod fishing moratorium - hence all the beached boats along the shoreline.
The first locals loomed in the form of customs officials, casually quaffing coffee and croissants in the galley, quick to inform me that my Canadian visa was not going to cut the gammon in this politically prickly neck of the woods. My Schengen one had expired.
Fortunately, the French are susceptible to charm and taking a leaf out of Anne of Green Gables - a wink, coupled with my best school French, released me - je ne sais quoi - into the zodiac boat with a feisty handful of fellow hikers to be ferried by our guides to the old whaling station. This first foray onto dry land on foot, while less productive on the fauna and flora tick list - scrubby yews, junipers, seabirds, a passing Minke whale and the odd wild horse - was nevertheless exhilarating.
One of the tremendous advantages of being on the high seas with National Geographic (as on this cruise) is that one is surrounded by experts - biologists, botanists, historians, who accompany passengers on their every land expedition. Thus we were not only immersed in local culture, but achieving a thorough understanding of it.
On day two we came ashore to explore Cape Breton and the reconstructed fort of Louisbourg. Founded by the French in 1713, it was for decades a thriving fishing and trading centre well protected against the constant threat of invasion during turbulent empire-building days. Today this is no mere fort, it is a fortified town alive with citizens - or rather hundreds of hired animators re-enacting the colonial life from wealthy merchants to poor soldiers within.
It is an attempt to kick-start the maritime economy in the wake of the dwindling coal, cod and conifer industry.
Former tennis No 1 and keen amateur photographer, Rod Laver, who was in our party, jumped high as a soldier took aim with his musket and fired randomly while Laver was in turn mid “shot”.
Fortified with rum, hot cocoa and tales of bravery from the governor’s lodgings, we headed north by bouncing bus to the beautiful nearby town of Baddeck.
This is the home of legendary 19th-century Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who invented infinitely more than the telephone while summering at “Beinn Bhreagh”, suitably perched on a cliff above the lake where American bald eagles soar.
No doubt watching them inspired his prodigious aeronautical inventions from kites to planes. A short sojourn across the rippling Bras D’or in an old sailing schooner afforded dramatic shots of Bell’s Victorian mansion and the accompanying eagles swooping to grab cod proffered by Captain Morgan - who judging by our crooked course - clearly partook of a wee dram himself.
Baddeck is an historic national site and the beginning of the world famous Cabot Trail, popular during the exploding Canadian Fall. The quaint high street, a wee bit shorter than Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and much less expensive, offers a plethora of cosy, tartan-decked restaurants to wet and weary hikers. Clam chowder and fish and chips are a speciality, but it has to be said that food Chez Cape Breton might have been a whole lot tastier when the Tri Coleur flew on these islands. Certainly onboard Australis the Indonesian chefs produced more titillating Celtic cuisine.
The next day we roamed, like the Knights Templar, looking to bury treasure on Iles De Madeleine - a cluster of wispy islands in the gulf of St Lawrence, home to kilometres of dunes, grassy hills, red sandstone cliffs and squall. In better weather, one can explore the caves and sea arches from zodiacs, or canoe from one isle to the next.
Having set sail at sunset, and the first throes of sea sickness, thanks to the thrashing waves of the St Lawrence waterways, arrival on the more sheltered west coast of Newfoundland proved a gentler maritime experience.
Gros Morne National Park, the second largest in Canada - shaped by colliding Ice Age continents and grinding glaciers - unleashes an eye-popping, panoramic landscape. It is a Unesco World Heritage site, not to mention a photographer and geologist’s paradise. We set off across a labyrinth of manicured boardwalks, through a myriad marshes, tall grasses and pristine forest, in search of the spectacular, turquoise Brook Falls.
The warm sunshine and absence of wind triggered more clicking and much clucking when meandering caribou and moose regularly crossed our path - all the way to the foot of the Western Brook Fjord. One can embark on scenic boat trips to examine the sheer walls of the skyscraper gorge close up, but we had our own big boat to escape to.
Our short voyage - again cut short by gale-force winds - culminated near the northern-most tip of Newfoundland with a visit to a unique milestone in the history of human migration, l’Anse aux Meadows, the excavated remains of an 11th-century Viking settlement.
True to their Nordic forefathers and the tourism trend, hardy “animators” braved the biting onslaught in Norse gear to illustrate the daily life - or strife - of Viking immigrants, who built within metres of this dramatic, yet daunting shoreline.
Desperately seeking shelter ourselves we huddled in the cookhouse, sampling chunks of bread fried in seal oil and dunked in juniper berry jam. While the taste was suitably “foreign”, I was impressed more by the incredible protection from the relentless elements these more than 1-metre thick peat houses offered. No modern mansion could compete in affordable and effective insulation.
Not only had they beaten Columbus to North America, but they picked the most glorious spot and demonstrated how to adapt - or die on it, an activity unlikely to preoccupy most South Africans, as we sunbathe on our tamer beaches.