Farwell to Nova Scotia

I went to Nova Scotia last weekend, for three days.  Kind of a quick tour, yes – I really wish I had had a bit more time, maybe two days. 

We spent the first down on the coast.  We drove down to Peggy’s Cove in drizzly, overcast weather.  It’s still a pretty spot, even in the rain.  We wandered around the rocks and lighthouse, popped into the small tourist shops, and had a snack at the Sou’Wester Restaurant.  In better weather, I think we would have spent a bit more time.  As it is, we only spent a few hours there, before hitting the road again to see the Swissair 111 Memorial.

Swissair flight 111 went down in September of 1998 off the coast of Nova Scotia.  There are two memorials – one located just outside Peggy’s Cove, and the other located near Bayswater.

After taking a somber moment at the memorial, we headed on down the 103 to Lununberg.

 However, before we visited the town proper, we stopped off at the Lunenburg County Winery, located just north of Lunenburg. They make mostly fruit wines – blueberry, cranberry, elderberry, rhubarb, but offer a few grape wines as well.  The staff is friendly and chatty, and offer tastings of their many wines.  This is definitely an off-the-beaten track site, and when we went there were no tours offered, but perhaps they do in high season.
After the winery, we headed on down to Lunenburg to visit the city, and grab some dinner.  After parking, we took a slow stroll around the city, hitting the waterfront first, where there are horse-drawn carriages waiting to take you on a ride through the picturesque city.  We continued on down Montague street, and found ourselves in front of Ironworks Distillery.
What’s one to do after visiting a winergy?  Of course we had to go in, and sample their products (made from Nova Scotia ingrediants.)  We tried an apple vodka, a kiwi liqueur, rum, and an apple brandy.  

After the tasting at the distillery, we thought it would be a good idea to have some food.  We wandered back down to the waterfront, and into “The Grand Banker”.  An excellent restaurant, if a little chilly.  A/C not withstanding, the food was fantastic – we ended up sharing brushetta as a starter, then a salad with chicken, dried cranberries, almonds and a raspberry vinagrette, and a steak sandwhich. 

After that it was back to Halifax, to relax in a pub before calling it a night at our hotel, The Four Points by Sheraton.

In Halifax we hit several differnt pubs over the weekend.  I think our favourite was the Economy Shoe Shop, a funky little pub with an excellent patio (great for people watching.)  Inside seems to sprawl, with rooms in many directtions.  Good food, good beer, good atmosphere.  We also went to Maxwell’s Plum.  They have a wide selection of beer, but service was a little slow when we went.  Of course, it was also packed – it seems to be a local favourite.  The patio is small, but provides a good place to people watch.  The interior is spaceish, but it feels intimate.  We also went to a small micro-brewery, The Rogues Roost.  It felt a bit more clinical – it didn’t have a typical pub, dark interior.  The staff was more than welcoming, however, which made the atmosphere a bit better.

In Halfiax we also played tourists.  We visited the Citadel overlooking downtown Halifax, just in time to see them fire the noon-time gun.  It’s not as loud as one would think, but it does reverberate through you.  There isn’t as much to do at the Citadel as I would have liked.  There are two museums, which your admission fee at the gate covers, and a small tourist shop.

 After wandering around the Citadel, and listening to the piper and drummer, we headed back down into the city to visit the Alexander Keith’s brewery.
The brewery tour is…interesting.  I think they really should warn people before they buy their tickets.  Having done the tour before, we both knew what we were getting into.  It’s an historical tour – actors wear period costumes, and talk about the founding and first years of the brewery.  There is no modern component, it’s a tour through the history of the brewery, rather than the brewery itself.  At the end of the tour, the actors pour drinks, then sing a few songs, before ushering us back into the 21st century.

After that it was dinner at small Thai restaurant, Gingergrass, at Morris and Berrington streets.  Excellent food – we had a “group dinner for two” that gave us a chicken satay skewer and spring roll as a starter, followed by hot and sour soup.  Our main meal was chicken in a red curry sauce, and a spicy beef satay.  After that, dessert was served – our choice of ice cream (coconut and chocolate) and fried bananas.  The restaurant is really small, and food is slow to arrive, but well worth it.  Little did we know that they closed at 9 pm, at 10 we were just getting to dessert!  But not once did the staff rush us, or make us feel unwelcome.  It’s definitely worth a visit!

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Hills, Hikes, and Hot Springs

I thought my trek to Machu Picchu deserved it’s own post.  It was such an incredible journey, and there’s so many things about it that are worth sharing, not just what I did, but what I wish I had brought, and what I wish I had left behind – things that a lot of trekkers and/or hikers might find useful for their own trip.

I arrived in Cusco from Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Acclimatization is incredibly important, and if you’re flying from Lima (or for that matter, taking the bus), I would highly suggest a few days acclimatization in Cusco prior to doing a trek to Machu Picchu.  Your body will thank you for it.

Common symptoms that people experience are headaches, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping.  I didn’t have headaches, but I did have trouble sleeping at higher altitudes, and during the trek, I didn’t have much of an appetite.  Pay attention to what your body is telling you – if the symptoms get worse, talk to your guide, or someone at your hotel prior to leaving.  High altitude sickness can seriously ruin your vacation if you don’t take the necessary precautions.

Having said all that – I had an amazing time.  There are several different treks into Machu Picchu, with the most famous being the Inca Trail.  If you have your heart set on doing the traditional trek into Machu Picchu, my biggest piece of advice is this:  book early.  And by book early I mean by months.  I waited until three months before, and all the permits were sold.  July and August and by far the most popular months, so book especially early for those months.

There are other trails available, and at alternate lengths.  There’s the Salkantay Trek, which can be done in 5 or 7 days variants, and the Lares Trek which is what I did.  I went with Llama Path – a local company in Cusco founded by a former porter on the Inca Trail.  It’s a sustainable tourism company that strives to pay it’s workers reasonable wages, and to provide them with housing and health care.  Most of the porters, chefs and guides come from Cusco or from the surrounding countryside, giving them inside knowledge of the terrain.  They provided sleeping bags, tents, blankets and food, as well as a mess tent, chairs, table and all utensils and plates.

The food was incredible – hearty and tasty.  They try to serve food that grows at each different altitude level, so it includes things like yarrow root (tastes like potato), lima bean porridge, and quinua.  We also had spaghetti, eggs, cake, fish, and popcorn.  They not only provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but snacks along the trek route, and a snack at the final campsite of the day.

One thing they offered us as a rental was a hiking pole.  I stupidly said I didn’t need one.  For the sake of your knees – use a hiking pole.  While I managed ok without it, at the higher altitudes (we reached 4758 metres above sea-level) I deeply wished I had one to lean on.

Another thing that they recommend is a roll of toilet paper.  They provide “toilets” (a hole in the ground, with a toilet seat chair, and tent surrounding it) but no toilet paper.  Definitely bring some.

I brought a small pillow, but found I didn’t really need it.  I used my bag as a pillow at night, and I was usually either so exhausted, or I had trouble sleeping, that I never noticed what my head was placed on.

I did notice what was on my head.  High altitudes are cold.  If you’re from a colder climate, like I am, it’s easy to dismiss people who say “Oh, it’s cold up there.”  Don’t.  It’s cold, and you feel it more when you’re tired and not getting enough oxygen.  Bring a good toque, and a pair of thin gloves at the very least.

I ended up wearing every layer I brought, at least on the day that we hit Pachacutec Pass.  The lower altitudes are a lot warmer, and a thin pair of pants or shorts, and a t-shirt and more than enough.  For shoes, I wore a pair of running shoes (actual running shoes, and not sneakers).  There was no technical climbing, and the path was well marked.  As I went in their winter, and so their dry season, there was no mud.  We did see snow on several occasions, but it was either off the path, or we could walk around it. 

We started at a small village Pumahuanca, outside of Cusco.  Our first day took us up through the forest, and along the Cancha Cancha river, past a small typical Andean village.  We camped the first night “in the wild” – at 3800 metres above sea level.  It was cold that night, so our guide, Roger, built us a fire for us

The yellow tent was our mess tent.

I was on the trek with three other people – Sonia, Eli and Eduardo from Spain, and Connor from Ireland.

We started incredibly early the next day, and hit Pachacutec Pass at 4758 metres above sea-level.  We spent a few minutes up there, admiring the view, and making a traditional Andean offering to Pacha Mama, the mother spirit.  We headed down, and ended our day in another small village – Quisuarani.  In Quisuarani we slept in the yard of the local school.

The next morning, we toured the school, gave small gifts (stickers, pencils) to the principal.  Afterwards, we hiked the last 8 km to Lares, where we got to enjoy the hot springs.

After the hot springs, and lunch, we caught our bus to Ollantaytambo.  We spent some time in Ollantaytambo before catching a train to Aguas Calientes.  We spent the night at a hotel there (Bliss!  A shower.) before waking up at 4:30 to catch the first bus up the switchback road into Machu Picchu.

You really do want to be on the first bus.  You get to Machu Picchu just as the sun is rising, and you get to watch it burn off the mist from the surrounding mountains.  It’s an incredible sight.  Not to mention the fact that there are fewer tourists at that hour than there are later on.  And it doesn’t take long for the tourist to show up and clog the site.

My camera broke that final morning, as we waited in line.  I have no photos of Machu Picchu, other than the one above that I took on my cellphone.  My lesson on this, as I plan for my trip to Africa, is to bring two cameras.  I don’t ever again want to be caught somewhere as unbelievable, with no way to document it.

I’d like to go back and do the Salkantay Trek.  I enjoyed the Lares Trek, and if you’re short on time it’s a great idea, at 4 days.  It’s also very remote feeling – we met no other tourist until we hit Machu Picchu.  We also got to interact with a few locals, which was fantastic.