Following in the footsteps of the New Icelanders

On the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, an unlikely settlement can be found. In the late 19th century, Icelanders fleeing famine and natural disasters headed for the central Canadian prairies in search of a new life. Their settlement, which they called Nýja-Ísland (“New Iceland”), was home to tens of thousands of Icelanders who bought into the Canadian dream. The Vestur-Íslendingar, or West Icelanders, held onto their language and traditions for an unusually long time thanks to their settlement’s relative isolation, and they even maintained their own government and laws until their territory was incorporated into Manitoba in 1880.

As we were stopping in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, we thought it was only fitting to take the hour-and-a-half drive up to Gimli (named for the Norse “heaven”, home to the survivors of ragnarök), the capital of Nýja-Ísland, and have a look around. The town is home to the New Iceland Heritage Museum (1st Avenue; admission $7, concessions $6), which tells the story of the Vestur-Íslendingar. The settlers originally set up camp in canvas tents, but soon built basic log cabins which they moved into with their twenty or so stoves they had brought with them. The museum is also home to a small gift shop selling Vestur-Íslendingur-themed memorabilia. The ten-minute video is also worth a watch if you’re after a dramatised account of the Icelanders’ arrival in Manitoba.

My failed attempt at a víkingaklapp next to the Gimli sign

The other must-see in town is H.P. Tergesen & Sons (1st Avenue) general store. The store has been in operation since 1899 and is one of the oldest buildings in Gimli. As well as clothes and trendy homewares, the shop has a literature section with books about the history of Gimli and New Iceland. It also has a selection of Icelandic fiction in English translation, although not much in Icelandic.

H.P. Tergesen & Son’s had quite an impressive range of books about Iceland, both Old and New

We spoke to a few of the town’s residents of Icelandic descent, and sadly we couldn’t find anyone who still spoke Icelandic. The Icelandic laissez-faire attitude still seems alive and well in the town, though (I got a student discount at the museum even though my student card had just expired).

We’d heard talk of an Icelandic bakery, but we were advised by the director of Íslendingadagurinn (the Icelandic Festival in Gimli, held on 17th June, Iceland’s national day) that it had closed down many years ago. We’d been hungering after some flatkökur and were hoping to have a taste of the famous vínarterta, an Icelandic cake that is extremely popular amongst Vestur-Íslendingar but more or less unheard of in Iceland. We were told that an entrepreneurial Icelander had moved to Gimli a couple of years ago to open an Icelandic bakery, which he ran for a year or two before packing up and moving to Toronto (the cheek). We looked up the Toronto bakery only to find it too had closed down. Looks like we’ll be needing another trip to Iceland soon.

Finally before leaving Gimli, we stopped at the Viking statue in the newly-renovated Viking park to take a picture.

The Viking statue, with (questionably) authentic horned helmet

A couple of days later, we ventured up to Hecla Island provincial park (parking permit $5). The park is on a flat, sandy and grassy island in Lake Winnipeg just over an hour’s drive north of Gimli. The village of Hecla (sic) on the east side of the island is home to some original log cabins built by the Icelandic settlers, as well as the original church and school (no longer in use). It was funny to see headstones in Icelandic in the village graveyard, although most of the newer epitaphs were in English.

One of the extant log cabins in Hecla

The island is quite beautiful along the shores, although the interior is flat grassland like much of the rest of Manitoba.

The view over Lake Winnipeg from the shores of Hecla

On the way up to the park, we’d stopped at the general store in the village of Hnausa (means something like “clod of earth”), which sold all manner of Vestur-Íslendingur propaganda:


All in all, it was a bit of a surreal experience seeing so many Icelandic flags flying outside of Iceland and Icelandic place names and surnames popping up on street signs as we drove up the mind-numbingly straight road from Winnipeg. Although most Vestur-Íslendingar have lost their traditional language, they are still fiercely proud of their Icelandic heritage, which made Gimli an interesting diversion on our trip across Canada.

Thunder Bay, an unexpected hub of Finnishness

After Nova Scotia, we returned to Toronto to pick up our next rental car for the long drive out to Vancouver and California. Our next destination stop after Toronto was Winnipeg, although the driving distance would have been impossible to cover in just one day. We decided we needed to make two stops: the first in the unremarkable town of Sault Ste. Marie on eastern edge of Lake Superior, and a second in Thunder Bay, on the other end of the lake.

Sault Ste. Marie (a.k.a. “the Soo”) was a service stop in every sense of the word. Our hotel room overlooked the city’s “beautiful waterfront” as the marketing literature had it, which in actuality was a huge concrete car park outside a closing-down Sears department store. Oh well, we’d just been to Nova Scotia.

From the shores of Lake Superior

Thunder Bay was a pleasant surprise. The drive up from the Soo was absolutely breathtaking. The road hugs the shores of Lake Superior and offers some extraordinary Canadian views. They are especially enjoyable this time of year as the leaves start to turn a bright red. The city itself seems to have a bit of a buzz about it. It boasts design shops and trendy restaurants, but the most interesting thing about it is that 10% of its population is of Finnish descent.

Thunder Bay’s own Finnish soppi

As a result, the town is home to its own “Little Finland”. Clustered around the intersection of Bay St and Algoma St is a cluster of Finnish shops, such as a Finnish deli and butcher’s, as well as a couple of design shops. The jewel in the crown is Kangas Sauna (Oliver Rd), a sauna-cum-café in a Finnish-inspired mid-century building that’s all exposed breeze blocks and birchwood. We filled up on a wholesome breakfast there before hitting the road for Winnipeg.

Kangas Sauna did not disappoint

The Finnish theme continued in our accommodation. We stayed in a beautiful Airbnb furnished with all sorts of Finnish design and objects, we wish we could have stayed longer to soak up some more of those Nordic vibes!

Our flat was replete with Moomin memorabilia

Maritime solitude in Nova Scotia

Before we set off on our great trip west, we decided it was worth checking out some of Atlantic Canada. This region, also known as the Maritimes, comprises Canada’s four easternmost provinces: bilingual New Brunswick, isolated Newfoundland (pronounced more like “Newfinland”) & Labrador, tiny Prince Edward Island and breathtaking Nova Scotia.

We decided to make Nova Scotia our main maritime destination. We would have loved to have made it all the way out to Newfoundland, but our budget didn’t quite stretch that far. We drove down to our first stop, a coastal cottage in the small village of Harbourville on the north coast of the province, from Québec City. The drive totalled some 890km, which necessitated a one-night stopover in New Brunswick. We overnighted at a studio owned by a lovely Acadian lady by the name of Marie. She was extremely welcoming and insisted on taking a selfie with us and her grandkids!

We stopped for Breton-style crêpes in the nearby village of Paquetville before making our way down New Brunswick’s east coast towards Nova Scotia. We arrived at our little cottage just as the sun was dipping below the horizon and filling the sky with amazing colours. Our cottage was just steps from the shore and we had an uninterrupted view over the Bay of Fundy. At night we could hear the waves breaking gently on the pebble beach as the tide drew higher.

The view over the Bay of Fundy just a few steps from the cottage

The cottage’s remoteness added to its charm and appeal. It was on an extremely quiet road in an area devoid of phone signal and wifi, which forced us to talk to each other and play Scrabble or watch one of the random DVDs left behind in the cottage by the owner (series 2 of House, more specifically).

Nova Scotia had no shortage of fascinating landscapes to explore. First we checked out Cape Split which sits on the end of a thin peninsula stretching out into the Bay of Fundy. We hadn’t anticipated that the walking path was supposed to take around five hours so we just took some scenic photos from the car park.

The silty waters of Cape Split

A couple of days later came my personal highlight of the trip so far. In the extreme northwest of Nova Scotia is another narrow strip of land jutting out into the North Atlantic known as Digby Neck. Two small islands sit at the end of the Neck: Long Island and Brier Island.

That day the sky was overcast and the roads leading out onto the peninsula were covered in a thick, dense fog. The air grew noticeably chillier as we got further from the mainland and the winds started to pick up. This set of conditions served perfectly to soothe my longing for Iceland which had been to rear its head again in the days prior. The fog and barren landscape coalesced to create something quite familiar and welcoming.

The foggy drive on Digby Neck

The islands at the end of Digby Neck are accessed by means of two fairly-priced car ferries. The return trip to each island is only $7 and the ferries sail hourly. It’s a drive-up affair: you just wait on the road for the ferry and drive on when it arrives. We passed through Long Island as the real treat awaited us on Brier Island: a scenic fishing village and a remote old-fashioned lighthouse that lay at the end of an Icelandic-style gravel road.

The lighthouse stood on a rocky cliff face sounding a satisfying fog horn at regular intervals. We parked and ate our packed lunches whilst watching the mists roll over the bay through the windscreen. I felt a sense of calm I hadn’t experienced since I left Iceland. We took an invigorating walk in the bracing winds next to the lighthouse before heading back to catch the return ferry.

The most stereotypical chocolate-box lighthouse I’ve ever seen

Soon it was time to move on to our next cottage near the village of Blockhouse, which is on Nova Scotia’s south shore. We made a brief stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia’s largest city, which had a bit of an odd vibe. Skyscrapers and multi-lane motorways clashed with Victorian red-brick buildings. After hanging out in a café serving the world’s largest cinnamon bun we drove down to our cottage and checked in.

Our cottage was on a working goat and pig farm, which was also home to chickens, turkeys, a couple of guard dogs and few German volunteer workers. Although there was no running water in the cottage it was quirky and comfortable. The fire pit outside also made for some nighttime fun. The sky was completely clear and pitch-black, which gave us a fantastic view of the constellations and the Milky Way.

Our farmyard retreat

The cottage was perfectly located for exploration of the south shore. We were only a few minutes’ drive from the harbour town of Lunenburg, a UNESCO world heritage site well worth the visit. It is one of the oldest British settlements in Nova Scotia and the town’s historic buildings have been preserved in a way that is quite rare in North America.

Pretty old Lunenburg at dusk

The town is home to some great shops and restaurants. We went to Lexicon Books (Montague St) where I picked up a copy of Sanaaq (Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, University of Manitoba Press), the first Inuit novel ever to be written down and translated into English (after first having been translated into French). The story is a fictional chronicle of the colonisation of northern Québec, which is originally, and still largely today, home to the Inuit people. It reminds me of an Icelandic saga in that its chapters (or episodes) are concise and matter-of-fact with an emphasis on dialogue. Dots & Loops (Lincoln St) is a design shop also worth a visit if you want to pick up some aesthetically-pleasing Canadian souvenirs.

I had heard glowing testimonials about the quality and freshness of Nova Scotia’s seafood and there seemed no better place to try the maritime classic that is the lobster roll than The Savvy Sailor (Montague St). We sat on the sun-drenched balcony overlooking the harbour as I stuffed all that delicious lobster in my gob.

Delicious meaty lobster roll with coleslaw

Later that day we drove further along the south shore towards the must-see village of Peggy’s Cove, an excellently-preserved fishing village more or less in the same state it was when it was settled in the late 18th century. The village is perched upon a set of rocky cliffs that provide its enclosed harbour with natural shelter. Although it was a bit of a tourist trap, it was still worth the trip just to see the unique setting and original buildings that give you an idea of what life used to be like in the fishing communities that dot the shores of this maritime province.

Lighthouse shot #2: this time from Peggy’s Cove

On our last full day in Nova Scotia, we visited Kejimkuji’jk national park on the eastern end of the province’s interior. The park is also a national historic site and home to some famous Mi’kmaq petroglyphs (rock carvings) that were unfortunately closed to the public for unspecified reasons, although we imagined this was for their preservation. The park makes for a decent day out and is full of beautiful lakes and hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty.

One of the lush riverside trails in Kejimkuji’jk

Nova Scotia offered us many of the experiences we were hoping for on our trip to Canada. Its unique landscape and culture made it the highlight of our trip so far and we were both left thinking “when can we come back?!”.


Montréal: for a moment, you forget you’re not in Europe

A couple of days before we left Toronto, we picked up the car that was to take us all the way to Nova Scotia on Canada’s Atlantic coast. By then I was already getting itchy feet and was really feeling the urge to hit the road. The drive up to Montréal takes around five to six hours, one of the shorter legs on our journey, and so we stuffed everything into the back of the Ford Focus and went on our way.

Driving into Montréal, we noticed an immediate contrast with what we’d seen of Canada so far. First of all, Montréal is a very green city, with its tree-lined boulevards and plentiful parks and smaller green spaces. The verdant Mont Royal (Montréal’s namesake) dominates the city’s skyline as it stands proud like a lush green wave waiting to crash onto the concrete blocks below. Secondly, the city has a very European feel compared to Toronto. The façades are more orderly, the architecture more familiar and the old core of the city seems plucked straight out of northern France.

Montréal also has a different character from Toronto. Despite being home to nearly four million residents, Montréal is much quieter and feels more laid-back than Canada’s largest city. Our Airbnb apartment was well-located and super cosy, so we felt at home right away.

We spent the first couple of days exploring the oldest part of Montréal. There were a few pedestrianised cobbled streets, which we had not seen elsewhere so far, and even a few zebra crossings! It was refreshing to be in a slightly more pedestrian-friendly city. We stopped and had breakfast and sat on an outside enclosed terrace, like the ones they have in continental Europe with the umbrellas and wooden chairs, which was the best I’d had so far.

After breakfast, we continued our stroll and took an obligatory stop at the Notre-Dame Basilica. Although not the oldest church in Québec, Notre-Dame was constructed in 1672, it is certainly the most famous and iconic. Although I’m generally not one for churches, I coughed up the $6 entry fee and was amazed by the detail of the interior decoration:

The altar in the Notre-Dame Basilica

The next day, we were lucky with the weather and decided to spend the day up on Mont Royal. It’s basically a forest on top of a large hill in the centre of the city, and offers spectacular panoramic views over all of Montréal. It’s also a popular spot with runners and exercise freaks (the kind of person who stops in front of you in the street and starts doing squats).

The view over Montréal from the top of Mont Royal

The next day, we took a drive over the Cité du Havre area, which is the old port of Montréal. It is famous for a brutalist housing complex known as Habitat 67, which is a truly stunning piece of architecture reminiscent of London’s Barbican, although arguably better maintained.

A view of Habitat 67

Behind Habitat 67 is a secret path, which cannot be accessed without walking across a strip of grass with lots of signs warning you not to trespass. The path offers great views of Habitat 67, but unbeknownst to us, is also the access point to a little surf spot in the Saint Lawrence River.

A hidden surf spot in the Saint Lawrence River

On our third day, we headed to the botanical gardens. We saw tropical and desert plants in the greenhouses, bonsai trees and all manner of insects. The gardens are also home to a vegetable patch, where multiple cannabis sativa plants have grown metres-tall with gay abandon. This is Canada after all!

Montréal had some of the best eats we’ve had so far in Canada. Corneli’s Pizza (St Laurent Blvd) in Petite Italie is highly recommended for authentic Italian food and there is a gelato place next door too! Continuing the Italian theme is Café Olimpico (Rue Saint Viateur Ouest) in Mile End, a Montréal institution still going strong. I had a vanilla doughnut that was one of the best I’ve ever had.

Montréal is the indisputable capital of poutine. We had ours at La Banquise (Rue Rachel Est), another legendary Montréal eatery. It’s open 24 hours a day and is loud and busy which just adds to the atmosphere. They have almost infinite varieties of poutine, and burgers and hot dogs too. I had pulled pork and coleslaw on mine. The regular size is definitely more than enough for one.

Poutine that’ll knock ya’ socks off

On our last day, we wanted to try some “fine dining” so we had lunch at the aptly-named Manitoba (Rue Saint Zotique Ouest). The place is clearly inspired by the new Nordic food trend sweeping the world right now. I had chicken with courgettes and cream. The food is pared-back and minimal but very tasty. We also had two desserts, one an almond cake and the other some sort of apple Swiss roll, both excellent. The lunch menu is definitely the way to go if you’re on a budget like us, it worked out about $30 per person (with two desserts and a hot drink).

New Canadian cuisine at Manitoba

So far, Montréal has been our favourite city. It has a great vibe, not as lively as Toronto, but that’s how we like it. We had great food and great weather, and wouldn’t hesitate to return in a heartbeat.

Toronto: lots of Mexican food and hip boutiques

After the wedding celebrations were over, we drove to Toronto and checked into our charming Airbnb in a tree-lined street in the Annex, a neighbourhood of the city north of College St. By the time we arrived in Toronto, we were ready to experience big city life again with all its perks.

Our Airbnb street in Toronto

In terms of location, we couldn’t really have asked for a better place. We were a five-minute walk from the awesome Kensington Market area with its hip bars and cool restaurants, and only a few streets from the subway station. A half an hour walk had us at Dundas St in Little Portugal, which is home to some awesome cafés, and ten to fifteen more minutes took us to Queen St with its great selection of design and fashion shops.

We happened to be in town when the CNE (Canada National Exhibition, apparently a Toronto must) and solar eclipse were taking place. We checked out the CNE, which was a slightly surreal fun-fair-come-boot-sale type affair, but it turned out to be a great spot to view the eclipse through a free pair of solar glasses. This was my attempt to capture the eclipse on my shitty smartphone camera:

This is what an eclipse looks like

It didn’t turn out too well. After the eclipse, we wandered around a bit more and stumbled upon Toronto’s oldest extant European-built house. The Scadding Cabin was first built in 1794 and was moved to its current location near the Toronto lakeshore in 1879, the year of the inaugural CNE. This is the house:

Scadding Cabin, the oldest European house in Toronto

We also ate at some amazing restaurants in Toronto. We had a great brunch at The Federal with its cool vibe (Dundas St West), fantastic currywurst with duck-fat fries at Wvrst, where they have an enormous selection of beers and a good selection of veggie and vegan options (King St West),  and a chilled-out breakfast on our last day at Aunties & Uncles (Lippincott St). We had tacos in multiple places, but the best were at La Carnita (multiple locations), where we imbibed a huge pitcher of sangria and munched some lip-smackingly good spicy corn-on-the-cob.

Also worth a mention is Otto’s döner in Kensington Market (Augusta Ave) and Caplansky’s Delicatessen (College St) which does great Jewish food like salt beef sandwiches and chicken soup, although it’s a little on the pricy side. In a moment of weakness and homesickness, we did also end up eating at Nando’s (multiple locations) and it was, thankfully, exactly the same as back in the UK, although they don’t charge you extra for piri-piri fries.

I’d also recommend strolling down Queen St and browsing in the plethora of independent boutiques there. All the way at the west end of the street is North Standard Trading Post, a great local clothes brand with a cute logo. They do all sorts of outdoor clothing and gear and have some great little patches and badges too. Further east is Drake General Store, a design/gift shop with a lot of Canadian merchandise and awesome souvenirs that you will actually want to keep. They also have a barber’s, although we didn’t try it out this time.

All in all we thought Toronto was awesome and had a great time! Once we figured out the TTC getting around was no problem and there was no shortage of things to do. We still have a whole bunch of restaurants on our list to try for when we’re next in town. Next, Montréal!