- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

ANNAPOLIS ROYAL, Nova Scotia — If only I had met Durline Melanson before reading Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie,” in the eighth grade. Even better, how much stronger the poem’s emotional impact would have been for me if I had gone to Nova Scotia and seen the homeland from which the poet’s long-separated French Canadian lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, were evicted in the Great Deportation of 1755.

Instead, I caught up with the drama many decades later, during the second half of a travel writers’ introduction to the Bay of Fundy set up by the tourism offices of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The bay, known for the highest tides in the world, divides the two Maritime Provinces, shaping their shoreline and much of their culture as well.

An Acadian by marriage and empathy rather than ancestry, Mrs. Melanson first came to the little town of Annapolis Royal, where we meet her, while on vacation from her home in Dallas. Her guide that day was a young man who would become “my handsome husband,” Alan Melanson, whom she affectionately calls “a little encyclopedia in tennis shoes.” Together, they are tireless evangelists for preservation and appreciation of Acadian history and culture.

My group meets Mrs. Melanson at an 1890 wooden lighthouse that she bought for $1 for the Historical Association of Annapolis Royal because she was “so afraid someone would turn it into an ice cream shop or a T-shirt shop or some other commercial use.”

She is dressed simply in a white cap, ankle-length skirt, a blouse with a gathered neckline, and wooden shoes called sabots, worn in the fields by both men and women.

Annapolis Royal, “the cradle of Acadie,” as the French called their part of Canada, was settled in 1636 and developed a strong farming culture based on reclaiming the salt marshes by using dikes — laboriously made soil embankments — to control the floodwaters.

After generations in the New World, as several guides point out, the Acadians had developed their own lifestyle, with little remaining attachment to France. Nevertheless, when England finally secured its hold on the area after alternately winning and losing control in battles with France, it demanded that the Acadians swear allegiance to the British crown, and when they refused, deportations began. They lasted until 1762. The Acadians were allowed to return in 1764, but to scattered locations, not concentrated communities.

Annapolis Royal was second only to Grand Pre in the number of people deported: 1,664 and 2,200 respectively, from a total of 6,000 persons in the first year, Mrs. Melanson says. More than 10,000 were deported from throughout Acadie in seven years.

“Ours were probably the most painful” deportations, Mrs. Melanson says, because many of the British soldiers stationed at Fort Anne, a short distance from where we are standing along the Annapolis River, had married Acadian women and “had to deport many members of their own families.”

Her husband’s ancestors were forced onto a ship named the Pembroke but escaped to Quebec.

Most people who know that the Acadians are the ancestors of New Orleans’ Cajun people think they went directly from Acadia to Louisiana, Mrs. Melanson says, but in fact, they landed all along the East Coast as far south as Georgia, and many wandered westward from there. They found their way to bayou country “in four major migrations.”

After saying goodbye to Mrs. Melanson, some of us hasten to the beautifully maintained Fort Anne, Canada’s oldest National Historic Site, for a tour before the 5:30 p.m. closing, but I walk a few blocks farther along Upper St. George Street to the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, where I get an even stronger image of what the deportees left behind.

A small Acadian house made of wooden posts with pinkish clay filling the spaces between them overlooks the wetlands, where dikes have been reconstructed along with the sluices that drained the marshes. Vegetables and medicinal herbs grow in four symmetrical gardens, and early varieties of apples and pears grow in a small orchard.

The roof is thatched with Norfolk reed, better known as elephant grass, that sways gently in the breeze in the lower area, beside a raised boardwalk.

The homey scene is only one part of the gardens’ extensive network of ponds, sculpture, a fountain, plant collections and themed gardens, including a Governor’s Garden evocative of when Annapolis Royal was the provincial capital, from 1710 to 1749.

With just 550 residents, the incorporated town is small by anyone’s standards, but it was “actually a boomtown,” known for building and repairing boats during the Victorian era and home to about 1,500 persons. The sound of hammering resounds from the town wharf, where wooden boats are still repaired.

One can be forgiven — and may not be far off the mark — for thinking every resident must be a preservationist. With three National Historic Sites and several Provincial Heritage Sites within a few blocks of each other, the town is a National Historic District where 125 buildings boast municipal heritage plaques. The 1869 O’Dell House Museum is also a genealogical center.

We finally meet the love of Mrs. Melanson’s life after dinner, when Alan Melanson arrives at Fort Anne in mourning attire for a lantern tour of the adjoining graveyard, which holds the remains of 2,000 of the earliest residents, mostly in unmarked graves, plus the oldest English epitaph in Canada, from 1720. Mr. Melanson is a font of interesting stories and anecdotes, but unfortunately, first the wind kicks up and then the skies open, sending us scattering for shelter.

I’m relieved when media guide Randy Brooks finds me and drives me the few blocks to the 4-1/2-star 1770 Bailey House Bed & Breakfast. The next morning, hosts Rich Cianflone and Greg Scharfen fix me and another guest a delicious vegetable frittata with scones and preserves, and while we eat, they dry our still-sopping clothes in their dryer.

Soon we’re off to the reconstructed Habitation at Port Royal, site of Canada’s first permanent European settlement, where 45 men spent a frigid, miserable winter in 1605 (two years before the landing at Jamestown). Twelve of the men died of scurvy, according to costumed guide Joel Doucet, and all suffered from bitter winds that whipped through the wooden settlement because the trees that might have provided a windbreak had been cut for shelter. Vegetables from gardens provided better food and a defense against scurvy the following winter, and a social club, the Order of Good Cheer, was organized, with the men taking turns planning feasts and activities to fight off boredom and maintain morale.

The settlers never would have survived without the local Micmac Indians, led by Chief Membertou, who helped them adapt and gave them shelter when a party of Englishmen from Virginia looted and burned down the Habitation just eight years after it was built. Despite the hardship and the loss of their settlement, many of the men chose to remain in the New World, and in 1635, families started arriving.

For those who want to enjoy a variety of activities while keeping Annapolis Royal as their base, two options are the Upper Clements family amusement, water and wildlife park about three miles from Annapolis Royal and the 147-square-mile Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, about 30 miles south of Annapolis Royal, which has rivers, lakes, swamps and forest trails for recreation, plus petroglyphs attributed to the Micmacs that can be viewed. The Bear River First Nation Heritage and Cultural Centre offers exhibits, demonstrations, workshops, plays and concerts to familiarize visitors with Micmac culture.

We, however, are following the Evangeline Trail, one of several themed sightseeing routes mapped out by Nova Scotia’s tourism officials, to Grand Pre National Historic Park, where a memorial church built in 1922 recalls the deportation, most dramatically in a magnificent three-panel semicircular stained-glass window designed by Terry Smith-Lamothe, of Louisiana Cadien ancestry, and completed in 1985.

The window, with deep blues and greens predominating, plus splashes of maroon, shows families split apart at the moment of deportation. Those stranded high on the cliffs of Cape Blomidon to the left stretch their arms toward loved ones piled into a dangerously overloaded longboat on the right. Much of the window’s center simply depicts the widening distance between boat and shore.

The window visually recounts what Longfellow described:

There disorder prevailed, and the tumult and stir of embarking.

Busily plied the freighted boats; and in the confusion

Wives were torn from their husbands, and mothers, too late, saw their children

Left on the land, extending their arms, with wildest entreaties.

Two jagged red lines running top to bottom through the glass mosaic represent the splitting of the Acadian culture, the artist says in an online discussion of the window, while red glass at the top and bottom of the window symbolize both bloodshed and the redcoats who carried out the deportation order, according to a costumed interpreter. To me, they also represent the red flames that Longfellow says “illumined the landscape/ Reddened the sky overhead, and gleamed on the faces around [Evangeline]” after the British set fire to the village of Grand Pre.

Many Acadians fled to New Brunswick, Cape Breton Island and Quebec to try to escape deportation. Those who were scattered along the East Coast were not welcomed in the Colonies, the interpreter tells us. The French and Indian War was still raging, after all, and the newcomers were “poor, French and Catholic.” Virginia refused to take any of them; some were sent to England, where they were imprisoned and then sent to France after the war.

Far asunder on separate coasts, the Acadians landed;

Scattered were they, like flakes of snow [blown by wind in a ferocious storm] …

Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered from city to city ….

After Spain secured Louisiana in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, it negotiated with France in 1785 to have Acadians shipped there if they would agree to stay. Twelve hundred Acadians in France were put on boats for the first major migration to Louisiana, the interpreter says, and others began to trickle down, attracted by the marshes so familiar to them.

History is fascinating to me, but Nova Scotia offers much more, as we experience in our final days in the province.

A visit to a pumpkin farm may sound like something anyone can do near home, but Howard Dill’s pumpkin patch in Windsor is unlike any other. His Dill’s Atlantic Giant has been grown to more than 1,450 pounds — enough for more than 400 pies. His pumpkin seeds sell for at least $500 each, and no wonder: Since 1979, he confirms, all champion pumpkins have been grown from his seeds.

A statue of him, a perfect likeness carved from a Dutch elm, is in the center of town, and the tall, lean, farmer with a genial smile who greets us is easy to recognize, especially when he squats next to one of his giant beauties for photos. He is looking forward to the annual pumpkin weigh-in on the first weekend in October and the regatta the following Saturday, when contestants paddle decorated pumpkin shells across Lake Pesaquid in downtown Windsor, a charming town of old homes, shops and trails along the lake.

Vineyard and winery tours are a more familiar form of agricultural tourism, and we get to sample some specialties of the region at Domaine de Grand Pre near Wolfville.

French hybrid grapes do especially well in the warm days and cool nights of Nova Scotia’s long fall ripening season. One, L’Acadie blanc, is unique to Nova Scotia, having failed in Ontario and other wine-growing regions but thrived in the Annapolis Valley, which gave it its name. Marechal Foche is small red hybrid that grows in other Northeastern wine regions, too, but still has a limited range. We taste the grapes and are told that often fresh juice is made available in the tasting room.

Maple wine is something not made everywhere, so it’s worth a sample. I find it cloying, but I’m not a big maple fan anyway. I’m told it’s delicious over ice cream, and I’m sure that’s true. Something I like better is a refreshing apple dessert wine. Grand Pre winery has begun making peach, blueberry and maple sparkling wines by infusing the flavors into wine made from vidal blanc grapes, and in 2002 it began pressing a delicious, zippy hard cider.

“Our industry is very small, but what we lack in quantity, we’re making up for in quality,” Martha Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Winery Association of Nova Scotia, tells me via e-mail after I chance to meet her in the brick-walled wine cellar of the old farmers market in Halifax.

The province has just eight wineries, but “at least four to six more are slated to open over the next three to four years,” she says.

Those who want to experience the famous Bay of Fundy tides will want to spend time along the shores of the Minas Basin, where they rise the highest, up to 52 feet between low and high tide. Blomidon Provincial Park, open May through early September, sits atop a massive 600-foot sandstone cliff that dominates the skyline, but numerous small towns on the basin, including Blomidon, Wolfville and Grand Pre, are good places to stop as well.

Halifax is not on the Bay of Fundy, but rather on the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s a short drive from the basin towns and well worth a visit of several days. It can take that long to explore the shops, restaurants, gardens and museums and enjoy the amenities of city life in a waterfront setting. Two National Historic Sites of particular interest are the Halifax Citadel, a star-shaped fort built in 1856 on a hill overlooking the harbor, and Pier 21, where more than a million immigrants, refugees, orphans and war brides entered the country from 1928 to 1971. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, with ships docked outside, is just one of many enjoyable stops on the scenic Harborwalk between the piers and Casino Nova Scotia.

The Saturday Brewery Market, a sprawling maze of rooms offering everything from produce and flowers to crafts, surrounds the indoor courtyard in front of Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery, where role-playing guides present a lively tour and tasting.

Navigating a Nova Scotia vacation

Air Canada and United Airlines offer nonstop flights to Nova Scotia’s Halifax International Airport from Washington

Dulles International; only connecting flights are available from the other Washington-area airports.

Bay Ferries operates car ferries from Bar Harbor and Portsmouth, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Digby, Nova Scotia; www.bayferries.com; 888/0249-7245.

Accommodations in Annapolis Royal are in B&Bs. Our group stayed in three, the Bailey House (www.baileyhouse.ca; 877/532-1285), the Queen Anne Inn (www.queenanneinn.ns.ca; 877/536-0403), and Hillsdale House (www.hillsdalehouse.ns.ca; 877/839-2821) and had a delightful meal in a fourth, the Garrison House Inn (www.garrisonhouse.ca; 902/532-5750).

For resort-style accommodations in the Annapolis Basin, Digby Pines has 84 rooms and suites plus 30 cottages, a golf course, hiking trails and a fine restaurant: www.signatureresorts.com.

The antiques-filled Blomidon Inn, a restored 19th-century sea-captain’s mansion in Wolfville, has been cited by Wine Spectator for its extensive wine list and by Canada’s Wine Access magazine as among the nation’s most “wine savvy” dining options. Wolfville is a good base for exploring the Minas Basin and Grand Pre: www.theblomidon.net.

The elegant Lord Nelson, with 260 rooms and suites, is perfectly located in downtown Halifax, near the waterfront and across from the Public Gardens: www.lordnelsonhotel.com; 800/565-2020.

The Web site for Parks Canada has information on National Historic Sites, including the Port Royal Habitation and the Citadel in Halifax, and cultural centers as well as parks: www.pc.gc.ca.

Domaine de Grand Pre: www.grandprewines.ns.ca. Valley Wine Tours offers sommelier-led wine tours that include lunch and an afternoon cheese tasting: www.valleywinetours.ca; 866/504-9463.

Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound & Restaurant, located waterside in the fishing village of Hall’s Harbour, invites guests to pick their own lobster for steaming and also ships lobsters via FedEx: www.hallsharbourlobster.ns.ca; 902/679-5299.

Information on the monthlong Annapolis Valley Pumpkin Fest, including the pumpkin regatta in Windsor: www.valleypumpkinfest.ca.

Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens: www.historicgardens.com.

City tourism sites: www.annapolisroyal.com; www.town.wolfville.ns.ca; www.town.windsor.ns.ca; www.halifaxinfo.com. Some are not specifically tourism sites but have visitor information links.

Nova Scotia tourism: www.novascotia.com.

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