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I just got back from one of the best trips of my life — and I don’t say that lightly. I just spent 10 days traveling through remote parts of Atlantic Canada on an expedition ship with OneOcean expeditions — specifically their East Coast Fins and Fiddles trip.
I found out about this trip earlier this year, at the IMM conference in New York, where media and travel brands meet face to face. At the time I had been looking for trips to the Arctic and came across OneOcean’s table, looking at their Arctic expeditions to Nunavut, Greenland, and Svalbard.
But then another trip caught my eye.
It was an expedition to the Canadian Maritime provinces — but really cool, really random parts of the Maritimes. The Îles-de-la-Madeleine? Gros Morne National Park? St. Pierre and Miquelon? Sable Island?! These were all places I had dreamed of visiting, but none of them were easy to reach, much less all of them on a single trip.
Right then at that moment, staring at the itinerary, I fell in love. I had to do this trip. I started showing the itinerary to all my travel industry friends, exclaiming, “Look at this trip! How cool is this itinerary?!”
I began talks with representatives from OneOcean that day. A few weeks later, they invited me to cover the trip as hosted media.
Off the Beaten Path in Canada
I’ve written often about how I’ve been yearning to cover more offbeat and unusual destinations in travel. One reason is that I’ve been frustrated with the overtourism epidemic and want to showcase parts of the world that will benefit from more tourism, not less. With the exceptions of Sable Island, which strictly limits its visitors, and arguably Prince Edward Island, which is a popular travel destination already, all of these destinations are remote, beautiful, and could use more tourism.
This trip was the epitome of off the beaten path travel. I felt like an explorer.
I’ll be writing much more about this trip over the next few months — but for now, I think I’ll share my favorite moments of the trip with you.
Defying All Odds and Landing on Sable Island
Sable Island is famously difficult to reach — it’s a tiny sand island 300 kilometers (190 miles) off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s famous for its wild horses and its treacherous surroundings, where 300 shipwrecks have taken place. While Sable Island is a national park today, access is strictly limited and only around 420 people visit every year. OneOcean is the only cruise ship that visits Sable Island, and the ship consists of roughly one third of the island’s annual visitors.
Cailin was so excited, she barely slept. We got the first round of bad news that morning: while all expeditions land on the calmer, north side of the island, today the weather was unfavorable and it was far too rough to land. The captain had decided to attempt a landing on the south shore of the island. However, getting there would take four hours.
That’s when the anxiety set in. We were already giving up several hours on the island. Would we even get any time there at all?
Later, we got the call — Sable Island was happening. We threw on layers of waterproof gear and headed down to the gangway, vibrating with excitement, before climbing into the zodiac. It may have been less rough here, but the sea was rolling violently. Six crew members, five of them women, stood in the crashing waves, ready to catch the boat.
Our driver anxiously looked at the shore. She had been trained for rough landings — but nothing like this. She beckoned one zodiac to go ahead of us as she fixed her gaze on the shore. Then another.
Cailin and I looked at each other in panic. After working so hard to get on this trip, not being able to land on the north shore, giving up the extra hours, and attempting a rough landing, were we not going to make it to Sable Island? It could NOT end here, bobbing in the zodiac just meters from shore. We were so close!
The crew radioed our driver and suggested a more experienced driver swap with her to bring us in. The woman drove in and got on board, watched the waves carefully, and guided us into the shore as six crew members caught the zodiac and pulled it in.
Cailin and I jumped into the ocean and landed on the shore. The dark skies were clearing and sun was beginning to poke through. Shifting sand dunes were sprinkled with tufts of grass. We could see our first horse in the distance.
We had made it. Against all odds, we had made it.
Later that day, we found out we were the first cruise ship in history to successfully land on the south shore of Sable Island.
Speaking French with a Little Girl on Bonaventure Island
I had never heard of the Gaspésie region before this trip — it’s a peninsula in eastern Quebec, far north of Montreal and Quebec City. I wouldn’t have thought somewhere this far north would make for a good summer holiday destination, but the town of Percé and nearby Bonaventure Island were full of Quebecois tourists!
For the morning excursion, I decided to join the hikers on a 90-minute return hike to a gannet colony. The hike was easy and fun, and on the way back, I elected to walk back on my own, taking photos of the paths. Along the way the hikers I passed greeted me with a Canadian bon-jour while I responded with my Parisian bo-jouuuur.
Two women with a little girl smiled and greeted me, then the little girl asked me something.
“She wants to know what you’re taking pictures of,” one of the women said in English.
“Oh!” I bent down next to the little girl. “Les arbres! Et le ciel, et les oiseaux…tu vas voir beaucoup de oiseaux!” I took out my camera and showed her the photos of the gannet colony. I showed her how to hold the camera and take a picture. I chatted with her and the women until we went our separate ways.
A random child takes an interest in me, I get to teach her about travel photography, and I get to do it all in French?! That was amazing.
Enjoying Bonne Bay from the Observation Lounge
The night before we arrived in Newfoundland, we had been encouraged to get up early and be on the deck at 7:00 AM to witness our arrival into the fjord leading to Gros Morne National Park. You didn’t have to tell me twice — I was out on deck with my camera as soon as we approached land.
It was beautiful. It was dramatic. And it was freezing and windy. Honestly, after 20 minutes of taking photos, I was cold and exhausted. Did I really have to be out there every moment for the next hour, just in case we saw something REALLY good?
That’s one of the worst parts of being a travel photographer — the constant nagging anxiety that if you relax for just one moment, you’ll miss the shot of a lifetime.
I wasn’t going to torture myself any longer. I went inside to the Observation Lounge, with giant windows in every direction. I made myself a nice cup of tea. And THAT was the best way to watch our arrival: sitting in a comfy chair, sipping a delicious beverage, and watching the fjord surround us in comfort and warmth. That was what I had been waiting for.
Having a Lobster Roll and Poutine in the Back of a Convenience Store on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine
If there was any destination that bewitched me more than the others on this trip, it was the Îles-de-la-Madeleine. This archipelago north of Prince Edward Island is very challenging or expensive to get to, which means most travelers come here with intention. And the geography of the islands, thin and wispy and prone to severe erosion, means that they may not always be here to visit.
Cailin and I spent the morning on a gastro-tour — we visited a herring smokehouse, a fromagerie, and a brewery. We arrived back in the picture-perfect village of La Grave and planned to get a real meal. We had also been warned by our guide that La Grave would be crowded and there were few restaurants.
Cailin and I jumped off the bus and raced up the street, determined to beat everyone else to the restaurant. Then we came across a place recommended by our guide that didn’t even LOOK like a restaurant!
It looked just like a convenience store, but supposedly there was somewhere to eat. After some confusion and going back and forth, we placed our order for lobster rolls and poutine inside the convenience store, then went into a room in the back to be served.
Those lobster rolls were fabulous. And the poutine was lovely — we were in Quebec, after all. But what I most enjoyed was sitting in this restaurant that nobody else seemed to know about, dining on delicious and fresh local food.
Dominating Trivia on the RCGS Resolute
We had three very special guests on the boat: three winners of a national Canadian geography tournament! They were 12 and 13 years old and this trip was one of their prizes. Together, the three of them put together a geography trivia competition on the boat one night.
Was I excited for this? HELL YEAH. I love trivia and especially geography trivia, and back in the 90s I even competed in the US equivalent of the competition the boys had won!
Cailin and I chose the name “Two Goats in a Boat” for our team — based on the viral Jimmy Fallon/Lin-Manuel Miranda video — then one of the crew members, Brophy, joined us and we became “Three Goats in a Boat.”
The competition began — and it was HARD. Those kids put together some great questions.
And the Three Goats in a Boat were unstoppable. What year was Halifax founded? 1749, and Cailin knew that. Which island does the Minoan civilization come from? Crete, and Brophy knew that. What is the most populated island in the world? Java, and I knew that. How many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in the Maritime provinces? We ran through the ones we knew, guessed eight on a whim, and were right!
We ended up winning by a large margin — and we received a bottle of wine and subscriptions to Canadian Geographic!
Kayaking on Anticosti Island
Anticosti Island was one of the places I hadn’t heard of — while it’s a large island at 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers), it has a population of only 240, making it extremely sparse. We didn’t even land on a settlement, just a tiny beach in between cliffs.
I had signed up to kayak at this stop, and that was one of my best decisions of the trip. We had superb weather on Anticosti — bright blue skies, gentle breezes, warm temperatures. And these cliffs had several waterfalls that you could kayak right up to!
Every angle was beautiful in Anticosti, and I was out in the kayak for nearly three hours.
Eating 24 Oysters in 24 Minutes on Prince Edward Island
I traveled to PEI with my family as a kid a few times, when I was 1, 3, and 7 — and I was shocked at how much this visit jogged my memory. As we drove down the street passing deep-set farmhouses with long red-dirt driveways, I remembered visiting some of those farmhouses when I was three. We bought potatoes. There was someone named Dolphy. I named a stuffed animal after her.
We didn’t have a ton of time on PEI, sadly — it had been a very windy morning and our disembarkation in Georgetown had been postponed until the afternoon. Cailin and I had signed up for the bus excursion to Charlottetown, a city she knows well, and we planned to eat everything in sight.
Oh, and did we ever. We ate outstanding lobster rolls at Dave’s (they even make hot lobster rolls with butter, my favorite!) and caramel-streaked ice cream at Cow’s. We sampled some local sodas and craft beers. But one thing PEI does especially well is oysters — and while we both love oysters, we also prefer not to pay more than a dollar per oyster.
We found a pub with a $1 oyster happy hour starting at 4:00 PM, and arrived by 3:30 to make sure we got seats. (Sure enough, several of our fellow OneOcean travelers had the same idea!) We had to meet our bus around the corner at 4:45.
While we placed our order at 4:00 on the dot, it took awhile and seemed like everyone else was getting served before us. The oysters finally made it to our table at 4:21. We had 24 minutes to eat 24 oysters.
Could we do it? HELL YEAH.
Those oysters were delicious and fresh and only needed the tiniest bit of lemon. And at just $1 CAD per oyster — more like 75 cents in USD — it was a hell of a deal!
Watching Whales in Bonne Bay, Newfoundland
Since traveling to Antarctica in 2018, I joke that I don’t need to go on a whale watch again — I’ve already seen the best whales in the world. Well, Newfoundland changed my mind about that!
After a morning hike through the Tablelands, I elected to do a zodiac cruise in Bonne Bay in the afternoon. And boy, did we luck out — several minke whales were circling the bay! They kept slipping in and out of the water and one even showed us his belly! We were spellbound.
This was just as good as Antarctica. I don’t know what I was thinking. We stayed and watched them for an hour.
Surprising Our Guide on Her Birthday
Cailin and I quickly befriended several members of the crew — especially the four badass women leading the kayakers. Not least because at just-turned-35 (Cailin) and about-to-turn-35 (me), we were the youngest adults on board and had much more in common with the crew. When we found out that one of our new friends, Haley, would be celebrating her birthday the next day, we set out to buy her a gift.
At a grocery store in Percé, Quebec, Cailin saw mystery bags — bags filled with mystery toys for $3. One was marked for girls age three and up. At first I wasn’t sold, but Cailin insisted it would be awesome — and I agreed and grabbed a bag of gummy worms as well.
Haley was shocked and thrilled that we got her a gift — and the mystery bag was a hit. It contained Moana tattoos, Frozen kids’ scissors (“Wow, we really needed a pair of scissors!” crew members kept saying) and Angry Birds water wings! How perfect is that?!
Hitching a Ride in St. Pierre and Miquelon
Going into this trip, I had content goals for my site, and one was to write a guide post to St. Pierre and Miquelon, the tiny self-governing overseas French territorial collectivity just 25 kilometers (19 miles) off the coast of Newfoundland. St. Pierre and Miquelon is the last vestige of France in North America.
On our morning tour, we visited the uninhabited Île des Marins, or Sailors’ Island, with a local guide. He told us that in St. Pierre, the restaurants are only open from 12:00 PM until 1:30 PM for lunch, and during that time, the rest of the island shuts down as people go home to eat with their families.
In other words, if we wanted to have enough time to explore St. Pierre while it was open, we would have to leave before the 1:00 PM lunch on the ship. Which meant that if we wanted to eat at all that day, we would need to get to a restaurant by 12:10 PM at the very latest, which put us on a massive time crunch.
Our ship was docked a 25-minute walk from town. And we were docked in the middle of nowhere.
Shortly after disembarking, Cailin screamed. I looked up and there was a woman turning around in a car. I ran toward the car and yelled while waving my arms. The driver, a woman around our age, rolled down the window and I begged her in French for a ride to town.
She agreed, laughing — and off we zoomed, passing the rest of our fellow passengers. Her car was completely falling apart — there weren’t even handles on the doors! We had to roll the windows down and pull the window to close the doors.
Cailin offered our driver 5 euros and she kept refusing. But she did drop us off at a restaurant — and we just barely got a table before the restaurant filled up! That wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for that woman. I was able to get all the photos and material I needed because that woman was willing to give two crazy strangers a ride to town!
Celtic Music and Funky Chicken
We were lucky to have some fantastic musicians traveling with us on our trip — the Barra MacNeills, a Celtic band from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. They’re a band of siblings and they’re famous in the Maritimes. They played most nights of the trip — even at the beach party on Anticosti Island! They added so much fun to our trip.
One night toward the end, we had a “kitchen party” where the Barra MacNeills started playing, but anyone could get up and join in and play with them. Guests brought up sheet music, crew members jumped in with guitars, and people sang songs both popular and original.
Travel writer Robin Esrock was on this trip with his mother and six-year-old daughter, here to cover the trip from a multi-generational perspective. His sweet, spirited daughter quickly became the ship’s mascot, bringing smiles to everyone’s faces when she skipped down the hall, and when Robin took a seat with the band and his guitar, his daughter sat next to him with a huge smile on her face.
“I hate this song,” he said. “I wrote it years ago. But my daughter started listening to my old music, and it turns out this is her favorite song. It’s called ‘Funky Chicken.'” And he began to play.
Greatest song of all time? Maybe not. But it was catchy. And best of all was watching Robin’s daughter beaming with joy as she watched her dad the rock star play his song with the Barra MacNeills.
For the rest of the trip, Cailin and I keep saying to each other, “You know what we could use right now? Some ‘Funky Chicken.'”
The Zodiac Ride Off Sable Island
Sable Island was magical — and Cailin and I were ecstatic. We had hiked the sand dunes, poles in each hand. We marveled at the shaggy horses and squealed at their playful antics. We took as many photos as we could on our abbreviated 90-minute visit. We pointed out the equine vertebrae scattered on shore and grimaced at the smell of rotting dead seal.
But there was one more adventure to be had: our departure. By this point the clouds had dissipated and the sky and ocean were bright blue, giving it almost a tropical feel, but the seas were no less wild. Crew members were standing in the water again, helping launch the zodiacs, and we piled into one.
After evaluating the waves and calculating our best launch time, our guide Brophy gunned the motor as the crew launched the boat into the waves — then a giant wave hit us in the face, poured into the boat, and knocked us sideways. We screamed with shock (and perhaps a bit of joy?) as we continued to get hit by waves and the zodiac spun around.
Eventually the crew caught our boat and helped us launch again — this time with nothing more than a slight jump. But we giggled and grinned at each other the whole way back to the boat, soaked to the bone if not for our protective rain gear.
That wild moment was emblematic of an expedition — even when the skies are clear, you never know what’s going to happen.
Essential Info: I traveled on OneOcean Expeditions’s East Coast Fins and Fiddles tour in July 2019. 2020 rates for the expedition start at $4,995 USD per person.
Travel insurance is required for most expedition cruises. I use and recommend World Nomads for travel insurance for expedition cruises.
This post is brought to you by OneOcean Expeditions, who hosted me on this expedition. All opinions, as always, are my own.