Travels With My Friend
I was supposed to be travelling back from Nova Scotia today.
But I’m not. Instead, I went in early August. And instead of going to say good-bye to a close friend in person, I went to celebrate her life after she was gone, along with her family and friends.
These are hard words to write. You always think you’ll have more time. My friend thought she had more time — it was her suggestion I come see her in September, when all the tourists would be gone but the weather still like summer. She herself had a busy summer planned — travel, time with family, time with other visitors — and so I took the early-September slot.
I knew it wouldn’t be a normal visit. I knew she was much weaker than I’d ever seen her. I knew it would likely be the last time I could see and talk to her in person.
You always think you’ll have more time.
This is my travel blog. So why am I writing about the loss of my friend?
Because she was the best travel companion I’ve ever had.
I suppose that’s not a surprise. When you travel with your best friend, a person with whom you share so many of the interests that make travel so memorable — art, architecture, music, literature, good food — it makes travelling together so easy. Maybe it worked so well for us because we lived on opposite ends of the country, and so our periods of travel became our time to reconnect and to nurture our friendship.
After she was gone, I counted up how much of my travelling involved her.
Seventeen. Seventeen trips. Some of them as long as two weeks, others as short as a weekend.
It all started with a road trip. At that point, we were casual acquaintances, part of a crowd of thirtysomethings who hung out together in Toronto. One of my roommates was dating one of her roommates. We went to the same parties, had brunch together on Sunday mornings after church.
She told me about her upcoming trip to New Orleans. A mutual friend was driving her down for a job interview she had lined up with the New Orleans school board (she was a newly accredited teacher at the time, eager for a full-time teaching position when those were hard to come by). The two of them were also planning to go to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
“I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans,” I said.
“Why don’t you come with us?” she replied. It wasn’t an idle invitation — I could see she meant it. I had lots of flexibility with my time that year as I was finishing off a master’s degree while launching my freelance editing career. I was making slow progress on both at the time, so it wasn’t much of a decision for me.
“OK,” I said. “I’m in.”
I learned a lot about her on that trip. We enjoyed a memorable evening of live blues on Beale Street, saw Graceland, and had a bizarre three-hour tour of a Mississippi plantation where our tour guide looked old enough to have fought in the Civil War himself and we were the only tourists in sight.
What impressed me most about that trip was watching how my friend faced her fears. She was terrified of snakes, yet insisted we go for a long walk along creaky boardwalks through a Louisiana swamp. As we tramped along, she jumped at least a foot in the air at every little noise, convinced she would step on a snake before the walk was over. But she refused to turn back.
That road trip was the beginning of a friendship that lasted a quarter century. She introduced me to New York, a city she loved, and we went back several more times. The winter I spent in Paris, she joined me for Christmas and New Year’s. She couldn’t believe I had never tasted coq au vin, and so she insisted on teaching me how to make it. Chicken stewed in wine? Yes, please.
Another year she invited me to join her family in Florida for New Year’s. There were weeks in London and San Francisco, and a ski weekend in Whistler. We kayaked the Broken Group Islands (twice!) and Desolation Sound.
The summer she spent in Siena studying Italian art, I was in Prague on a writing course. We decided to meet up afterwards — or rather, I invited myself to stay in her dorm room for a few days before I had to travel on to Amsterdam to meet up with my father.
I tagged along when their entire class went to Padua to look at frescoes. We booked ourselves into a hotel room for two nights, along with some of the friends she had made on the course, intending to spend the next day in Venice. Being summer in Italy, it was hot, so we got an early start. By late afternoon, we were all knackered. There were five of us in total, and we decided to take a gondola ride. That led to beer and pasta with our gondolier. And that led to some of us sneaking out to smoke a joint along the canal with said gondolier. (You all know where this is going, right?)
To keep it short: we missed the last train to Padua. Five Canadian women looking for hotel rooms in Venice, at midnight in the height of tourist season. It wasn’t pretty.
But that mishap led to a lovely bonus day in Venice, and three of us decided to go to Murano, one of the islands adjacent to Venice, for lunch. My friend urged me to order the Caprese salad as I had never had it before. I was converted.
In addition to all of our, ahem, travel adventures, there were the numerous times she opened up her home to me whenever I was in Toronto. I would do my rounds of networking, as I called it, with clients, but I always had lots of catching up to do with my friends from when I lived there. She told me I was the perfect guest because I was never home, but, in truth, she was the perfect host.
Because of that hospitality, I always gave her first dibs whenever I lined up a home exchange, and she never said no. She joined me for 10 days the summer I was in Amsterdam — scheduling her time with me in between the chemo treatments for the disease that would eventually claim her life. I marvelled at how well she was doing. I could not keep up with her as we walked through the city’s streets. One day we cycled 20 kilometres to Haarlem and back. It was her idea to bike and that was the only day I could see she wasn’t 100 percent. She was close to collapsing when we pulled up to a café alongside a canal.
“You go sit,” I said, pointing to an empty table outside the café. “I’ll lock up the bikes.”
We spent another day in Delft, one of my favourite Dutch cities. It also happens to be where my friend’s father was born. She told me stories of childhood visits and we went looking for the house where he had lived. I’d met her father only once or twice, which is maybe why I could easily picture him as a small school boy running at top speed alongside the canals.
In 2018, we spent a week together in San Francisco. We cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito — that time it was my turn to almost collapse at the end of our ride. And she joined me for a weekend in Montreal where I had another home exchange arranged. That was 2019. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time I would see her. How could I? The pandemic kept us apart after that.
My friend was a high school photography teacher and she showed me the best places to catch that unique photo. Like the Eiffel Tower from a side street I would have never found on my own. We both loved taking photographs in old cemeteries, and so, on one of my visits to Toronto, she showed me the Necropolis, which has some of the city’s oldest graves. It was a warm summer evening, and we soon lost track of the time. Or maybe we didn’t know that the gates would be locked at 8 p.m.
Ever struggle to climb over a wrought iron fence in a short skirt? She had a good laugh that time — at my expense.
She never said a word about my photography skills until I asked her for feedback. “Well,” she said slowly. “Your horizons aren’t always level. And check your corners. You want to edit out any distractions.”
Needless to say, every time I edit my photos, I’m checking my corners. And thinking of her.
She was a far better friend to me than I was to her. There was one travel dream I had, a trip I haven’t yet taken and likely won’t, and years ago, when I first brought up the idea, she had mixed feelings about whether she wanted to join me. But later she told me about a conversation she had had with her mother. “You know,” she told her mom, “I really have no burning desire to make that trip. But it’s important to Elizabeth, so that’s enough of a reason to go.”
Who does that? Not me — that’s for sure.
I’m shattered I didn’t get one last visit with my friend and a chance to say good-bye in person. But I am so incredibly grateful she was able to spend her last years in Nova Scotia, surrounded by her family and by so much love. And I’m so grateful they shared her with me for so many years.
I will miss her more than I can say.
Through My Lens: Mystic Beach
I always find it so overwhelming — and so very humbling — to stand on the edge of the continent, like I did earlier this week. This is at Mystic Beach, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
I’m so thankful there are people in this world who can see something in a whole lot of nothing.
Jennie Butchart was one of those people. She looked out over a dug-up limestone quarry and saw a garden.
Painstakingly planted and nurtured by Jennie and her descendants, the Butchart Gardens are the crown jewel of Victoria’s gardens — a city whose nickname is, appropriately, Garden City.
There are four gardens at Butchart, each one unique and each one remarkable. The Sunken Garden was the first to be developed, on the site of the old quarry. As the limestone was exhausted, Jennie began planning her garden. She had top soil brought in by horse and cart and the five-acre garden took nine years to build.
Next to be built were the Japanese Gardens. In the springtime, it is bursting with colour when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom. In the fall, the Japanese maples glow orange and red.
The Butchart family’s former tennis court was eventually transformed into the Italian Gardens.
Last to be planted was the Rose Garden. Today, it has 30 rose arches and 280 varieties of roses.
New to me was the Mediterranean Garden — a fifth garden that has been added since my last visit.
My friends and I spent most of a Sunday marvelling at and photographing the flowers at Butchart Gardens. We wondered aloud whether the colour palette of the Sunken Garden changes from year to year. We enjoyed gelato in the Italian Gardens. And we all agreed that the one-year pass is an incredible deal (paid for in as few as two visits) because the gardens need to be seen in all four seasons.
I was a teenager the first time I went to Butchart Gardens, but regardless of whether you see it only once in your lifetime, or you return dozens of times, know this: each visit is as mind-blowing as your first visit.
Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria!
Are you tired of all the royal baby talk? There’s been an awful lot of it this month. Bear with me though, because we should all take a moment to mark a significant anniversary of yet another royal birth.
Two hundred years ago today, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was born in Kensington Palace. With her birth, she became fifth in the line of succession to the British throne.
Fifth seems a long ways away from the throne these days. (Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is seventh at present.) But due to a series of monarchs and heirs to the throne dying without legitimate heirs, Princess Alexandrina Victoria ended up becoming Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837. She had just turned 18.
This statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. Many places in the Commonwealth are named after Queen Victoria; Canada is the only country to honour her birthday with a statutory holiday. It falls on the Monday before May 24. I grew up referring to Victoria Day as the “May long weekend.” It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that I first heard it called the “May two-four weekend.” For a long time, I thought that was because Queen Victoria’s birthday is actually on May 24.
But, no. It’s because beer is sold in cases of 24. I had never heard a case of beer called a “two-four” — that’s not a common term in Western Canada — and was completely oblivious to its link with beer.
And why is beer on the mind of patriotic Canadians during this particular weekend in May, you ask? It’s because the May long weekend is the unofficial start of Cottage Season in Ontario. (Don’t get me started on the whole cottage vs. cabin debate.)
Regional differences. Long may they reign. Just like British queens.
Today is International Literacy Day so I am going to make a plug for reading while also posting about the last island I hopped to this summer.
That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.
Maybe all of Canada.
One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.
Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.
The store has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.
Canada 150: Broken Group Islands
Happy New Year, everyone! I think we’re all glad to see the backside of 2016, but the big question for today is: what will 2017 bring us?
For Canadians, 2017 is going to be one long party. Yup, it’s our sesquicentennial (enriching your word power, I am). All that fancy word means is this: we Canadians are celebrating our nation’s 150th birthday in 2017. Canada 150 is what we are calling this little party.
Canada came into existence, formally, on July 1, 1867, when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act of 1867 (commonly referred to as Confederation). But although our official birthday isn’t until July 1, the party is already well underway. Even Lonely Planet has taken note. It has Canada as the # 1 choice in its list of places to visit in 2017. It’s even posted a free PDF chapter of how to plan your trip. You can download it here.
The Canadian government is encouraging that spirit of travel and adventure by giving anyone and everyone (that’s you, me, and the entire world — everyone is invited!) free admission to any of its Parks Canada locations. Which are quite a few: 47 national parks, 171 national historic sites, and four marine conservation areas. You can order your 2017 Discovery Pass here.
As for my part in celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial, I’ve decided to take you all on a cross-Canada photographic tour. I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to live in three different provinces of this great nation, and I have travelled from coast to coast to coast through much of the rest of the country. And so, at least once a month throughout 2017 (maybe more often if I get really excited about this), I will post a photo from a different province or territory of Canada.
To begin: the Broken Group Islands. Accessible only by boat, these islands are located on the west coast of Vancouver Island in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Your 2017 Discovery Pass will get you there!) I’ve camped and kayaked in the Broken Group Islands twice already and hope to go back many more times as they are, quite simply, one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been to. Anywhere.
The Broken Group Islands are also the westernmost point of Canada that I’ve been to. I took this photo in August 2008 from the beach on Gibraltar Island where my friends and I were camped.
Through My Lens: Departure Bay
Here’s one last photo before we leave Vancouver Island. This is what you see from the ferry as it leaves Departure Bay on the Island for Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver.
I never get tired of this view.
On the way to Tofino is a unique little park known as Cathedral Grove. It straddles Highway 4 ― the road that meanders from the east coast of Vancouver Island to its west coast ― and is the perfect place to stretch your legs on the long drive cross Island.
They say it first came to be called Cathedral Grove back in the 1920s, but it wasn’t made a provincial park until the 1940s after H.R. MacMillan, one of British Columbia’s lumber barons, donated the parcel of land to the province.
Short walking trails form loops on both sides of the highway. The north side of the highway is populated with Western red cedar. On the south side, you get up close and personal with the Douglas fir trees: some of them have a circumference of nine metres and are as old as 800 years.
As for the wow factor, this is as good as it gets in BC. I’ve been visiting this park since forever, and it never fails to impress.
While my family and I were checking out the surf conditions at Long Beach the other weekend, we came across dozens of these.
They’re velella velella ― a small animal about the length of my index finger. Related to the jelly fish, they are normally found hundreds of miles off shore. For some reason, they are sometimes washed ashore, which is what happened the other weekend on the beaches near Tofino. According to Tofino’s mayor, a marine biologist, it is a rare, but completely natural, event.
How cool that it happened the weekend we went to Tofino. (And how cool is it that Tofino’s mayor is a marine biologist?)
I unexpectedly found myself in Tofino for a few hours on the long weekend ― and was so very pleased to be there.
The first Monday of August ― celebrated as BC Day in British Columbia ― is a statutory holiday in most of Canada, making the first weekend of August a blessed three days long just when you want it most: at the height of summer.
I say I “unexpectedly” found myself in Tofino because I was fully expecting to spend the entire weekend in and around the provincial park in mid-Vancouver Island where I was camping with almost half of my family. But when someone in your group rolls out of his tent and says, “Hey, let’s go to Tofino!” before you’ve even had a chance to finish that all-important first cup of coffee, you say, “OK?!”
I mean, what’s a few hours’ drive when you’re this close to the surfing capital of Canada?
Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island (about a six-hour trip from Vancouver, including a 90-minute ferry ride), Tofino is one of the most spectacular places in Canada. The ocean temperature can vary from a low of 7°C in the winter to a high of 17°C in the summer, making it a popular year-round surfing destination.
If those temperatures are a bit too brisk for you (they are for me!), there’s always beachcombing, kayaking, whale watching, and, in the winter, storm watching to keep you occupied.
Whatever your interests, the drive to Tofino is worth the effort for the scenery alone. (And if you are short on time, you can always take the plane!)