Canso, the Causeway and the Cape.

Good day everyone and welcome yet again to the latest in my series of posts about my 2014 trip to the Maritime Provinces of Canada with my dear friend Lynne in an ancient RV which we had re-fitted. She seemed to be holding up reasonably well apart from one minor electrical problem and occasional strange noises emanating from the engine. If you wish to read the whole story of this particular adventure, you can do so here.

In the previous post I had left you with us parked up at the SeaBreeze Campground three miles West of Canso, Nova Scotia where we had arrived fairly late in the evening and had enjoyed a wonderful sunset and a rather more average supper cooked by yours truly. If you want to know what happened next then please read on.

12th July, 2014.

Due to the fact that the previous post had become rather long and I hadn’t had a chance to look round I promised I would tell you about the campground in this post and so, after I had a morning walk around it, I shall do so now.

Another excellent campground.

“This was yet another place we had pulled out of a guidebook and it turned out to be an excellent choice.

It is predominantly a campsite but has cabins and a 33 foot RV for rent. The location is simply delightful with most pitches overlooking the North Atlantic and the sunsets can be stunning.

The site offers various excursions and local attractions and is in an unarguably beautiful spot. SeaBreeze seems to have a very laid back feel to it and I went to sleep listening to the strains of some guy nearby on an acoustic guitar knocking out a bit of Neil Young and whatever else. For an old hippy like me, happy days. I was tempted to go and join him but I was a bit tired!

As we had driven all the way out to Canso which is not even on the main coastal route round Nova Scotia we thought we should have a look round it and it was worth it. Here is what I wrote about Canso at the time.

Small place, big history.

“Canso is a pretty small place on what is known as the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia but there is an absolute treasure trove of history here if you look for it. Certainly, I am not suggesting that the traveller would particularly want to spend a month here, pleasant as that would be if you just wanted to chill out by the sea, but it is certainly worth a visit and I am glad that we did.

Apart from anything else, it effectively spans European settlement in Canada with the first British fort being built in 1720 which is fairly early by Canadian standards and predates the current capital of Halifax by almost three decades but the history goes back long before that.

There were Europeans here (mostly fishermen) as far back as 1502 with the earliest serious attempt at settling as early as 1518 which, in terms of a relatively modern nation is fairly early. The first permanent settlement was in 1604 which makes it, along with Port Royal where we have been, the oldest European settlement in the Americas North of the Gulf of Mexico. It is known colloquially as the oldest fishing town in Canada.

After various periods of instability, Canso had the dubious “honour” in 1776 of being visited by John-Paul Jones, the man credited with founding the American Navy, who effectively did no more than trash and pillage it.

Like many other places in the Province of Nova Scotia, Canso has a connection with the Ttianic disaster of 1912 as it was a cable station here that received the first distress call from the stricken vessel.

It also has a connection with Marconi and trans-Atlantic undersea communications cables as it was a relay station for communications between Europe and New York in the 19th and 20th centures. The advantages of having merely one relay were huge and it was very successful.

Today, Canso is probably most famous for the Stan Rogers Folk Festival which unfortunately had to be cancelled in 2014 just prior to our arrival due to an unseasonal hurricane (which I survived), and which would undoubtedly have greviously hurt the economy of this small but delightful place. I do hope they can recover.”

We were packed up and on the road unusually early for us and were in Canso and exploring before midday. I don’t actually recall the bed having caught fire but it must have!

As we were out for a walk we decided that when we saw the sign for the Harbour Walkway it would be a good idea to go that way and we did not have far to go until we found our first point of interest.

Yet another sad reminder.

“The sea is rightly regarded as being a “cruel mistress” and perhaps nowhere moreso than the often treacherous waters of the North Atlantic, specifically off the coast of the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Tides, rocks, shoals, winds and the notorious fogs all seem to conspire against the poor mariner and I saw so many memorials to lost seamen (military, merchantmen and fishermen) that I genuinely lost count.

As I have mentioned in numerous other posts, Canadians seem very diligent about honouring the dead and this is yet another example on this.

If you are wandering along the Harbour Walkway, perhaps to visit the Grassy Island Museum (both of which I recommend you to do) then you may just wish to pause for a moment and have a look at this small and fairly understated monument at the side of the path.

A simple slab with only a few specific names inscribed, it commemorates all those lost at sea hereabouts and I found it rather touching in it’s simplicity.

Certainly, I do not suggest that the traveller is going to come here merely to look at this but if you happen to be walking along that delightful walkway it is worth pausing for a moment to remember those whose lives were claimed by a cruel sea.”

I mentioned the Grassy Island Museum above and that is where we went next.

Regrettably underused.

“Whilst on a fairly aimless but pleasant walk through the small town of Canso one day, Lynne and I had decided to see whatever was to be seen and so when we saw a sign for the Canso Islands and Grassy Island Park we determined ourselves to visit.

It is a very short, flat and pleasant walk along the Harbour Walkway to get there and I had thought it was just going to be a park area but there was the building you can see in the image which proved to be a Museum. Well, that was it and straight in we went.

We were greeted very enthusiastically and warmly by a young man and a young lady who had been sitting reading books when we arrived and this gives rise to the title of this piece. We spent a decent amount of time there and did not see another soul in the place which, bearing in mind this was the height of the tourist season (mid July), I found remarkable.

A further conversation with them before I left elicited the information that they really didn’t get many visitors which I think is a shame as it is really rather a decent facility if not overly large. I think these poor young people (presumably students making a bit of summer money), who were more than willing to help, were just bored silly.

The first thing they did was to apologise that the boat to Grassy Island, which lies a short distance offshore, was not available as it was in for repair. OK, unfortunate but not the end of the world and so we set about looking round the Museum itself.

As I say, it is not huge and housed in what is a very typical Nova Scotian wooden structure although I am not sure if it was custom-built or a renovation of some sort of warehouse or whatever.

So, even if you are not able to visit Grassy Island itself, what can you learn about here? I mentioned above that it predates the current capital Halifax by about 30 years.

There is a huge history in this now relatively small and quiet settlement but it was not always so and the history of the town is chock-full of battles, wars, raids and every other concievable form of military and paramilitary activity. You would scarcely believe it walking around here today and I do not intend to go into the full details here but it is easily found online. Believe me, it is fascinating and worthy of a look.

The Museum itself is a mix of tableaux, video presentations and some very interesting artefacts. Certainly it will not take you too long to look round but it is well worth doing.

The Visitor Centre is wheelchair accessible and the video presentation is captioned so full marks for that. The interpretive trail on Grassy Island is wheelchair accessible under most conditions, but assistance is necessary.

This is an excellent resource and I do suggest the visitor to this glorious part of Nova Scotia takes the time to visit.”

It is a shame we couldn’t visit the islands but not to worry, there was still plenty more to see.

We drove back into the centre of town, which is small with less than 1,000 inhabitants by 2011 figures, and parked up again when we saw our next point of interest.

Small, slightly odd and brilliant.

“During our all too brief exploration of Canso, we happened upon the Whitman House Museum and obviously decided to have a look.

From the outside it looks like a fairly well-to-do family home built in typically Nova Scotian style i.e. wooden clinker built timber. I have often wondered if this was a bit of a by-product of the maritime occupations for which the region is known with the clinker built walls closely resembling the hulls of similarly constructed sea-going vessels. Perhaps I am reading too much into this but I am not so sure.

Being a former private residence, it is a little difficult to find the “reception desk” but go in the door, turn sharp right, walk straight ahead and it is the door facing you. We were greeted warmly by a delightful lady who asked us if we would like a guided tour (no extra charge) so that was an absolute certainty.

The lady then proceeded to take us on a tour of the house which was nothing short of a joy, despite or perhaps because of being somewhat eclectic. There really were all sorts of things in there, including an exhibition by a local artist, some prosaic in nature and some more artistic but all fascinating.

The lady then asked would we like to see the Widows Walk which is effectively a walkway round the tower on top of the building. Whilst I am not at all good with exposed heights I did it and was glad I did as it offers superb views not only over Canso itself but also out to sea.

It is so named because apparently when the late Mr. Whitman died, his widow spent much time here and it is a wonderful place to spend time. Feeling slightly better with being back on “terra firma” the lady then continued the tour and again it was a complete mix of domestic living (children’s cots etc.) and more esoteric offerings but none of it felt incongruent, it all felt as if it belonged here.

If you are wondering who Mr. Whitman was, well, he was the first mayor of Canso when the place became incorporated as a town in 1901. He lived in this house until 1932.

Regrettably I have to suggest that, by the very nature of the building, it is probably not suitable for mobility impaired travellers.

It was a wonderful experience and I thoroughly recommend it.”

Just cross the road from the Whitman Museum was this rather grand building, the Old Post Office which was at that time owned by the local authority but for sale. At time of writing in 2021 it’s future is still uncertain. It was built in 1906 to the design of David Ewart, a prolific architect of public buildings including the Canadian Mint.

For the Fallen.

“I make no apology for the number of pieces I create on the subject of war memorials and will continue to do so. Whilst driving out of Canso on Marine Drive (Trunk 16) we came upon this well-tended and aesthetically pleasing memorial and so we stopped to have a look.

The statue is of a First World War soldier and the memorial is indicated as being a Soldiers Memorial rather that a War Memorial which I found a touch unusual. We subsequently found a Sailors Memorial a little further along the road but that does not specifically commemorate mariners lost in war, perhaps there were thankfully no local mariners lost in service then and an Air Force was only in it’s infancy.

It was unveiled in 1925 by a Mrs. Emma Swaine who had the great misfortune to lose not one but three sons in that awful conflict. You can see them commemorated in one of the images here.

Tragically the First World War was not the “war to end wars” as was claimed at the time and the memorial now has additonal inscribed stones commemorating the local fallen of the Second World War and the Korean War. Whilst I invariably find these places moving and thought-provoking, I am at least heartened somewhat by the very respectful way in which memorials like this are cared for.”

It is hard to avoid them.

The history of Nova Scotia is inextricably bound up with the Atlantic Ocean and that particular body of water can be extremely treacherous hereabouts. I have mentioned above the memorial to lost sailors that we had seen on the Harbour Walkway in town and I had thought that would have sufficed for a relatively small place like Canso but that was not to be the case.

Driving out of town on Trunk 16 (Marine Drive) we spied the rather striking monument you can see above and so decided to stop and have a look.

The main memorial, as you can see, is a stone dedicated to the “brave men” who lost their lives at sea and also celebrating the sea-going traditions of the Canso area.

I was rather struck by the design of the monument, unveiled in 1976 and funded by the local Lions Club, as it appear that it is over-arched (literally) by what appears to be the “skeleton” of a boat keel. I really did think it was rather clever.

As always in Canada the place had been kept immaculately and it was, whilst inherently tragic, a delight to see.”

That then was our brief visit to Canso so let’s get dear old Betsy back on the road and we didn’t go far before I snapped the rather decrepit old building you can (almost) see in the image but it was taken from a moving vehicle with an overhanging cab. Apologies.

We didn’t stop as there seemed little point but this is the building I mentioned before which was the relay station for the undersea telegraph system linking North America with Europe. It was built in 1888 (the cable was in use from 1885) and it was functioning until 1962 when it was left to decay.

Apart from broadcasting the first news of the sinking of the Titanic, not far offshore here, and the Stock Market crash of 1929 I discovered a lovely story whilst researching this piece. It concerns the Derby horse-race held annually at Epsom, Surrey in the UK.

For the 1890 race a special cable was laid to an operator sitting near the finishing post and when the horses crossed the line he transmitted via Ireland, this building and then on to New York with all other traffic suspended and the message re-transmitted directly and not written out as was normal practice.

The result of all this was that the result of the race was known in New York 15 seconds after the winner crossed the line and before the horses had even pulled up in front of the judges. I have been to countries where the internet is slower than that!

Unknown to us in 2014 the building had been in possession of a local preservation society who had raised funds but it was not restored for various reasons and I am sad to say that in 2017 the Municipal vandals had it torn down. More history gone.

After that we drove the 25 miles or so to Guysborough, for which the surrounding County and Municipality (which includes Canso) are named and here is what I wrote.

Pleasant but apparently permanently closed!

“Guysborough sits on the Marine Drive (Trunk 16) on the coast towards the East end of Nova Scotia proper before you come to Cape Breton Island. It is a pleasant small town typical of the area but it just appears to be closed down, hence the title of the piece.

We visited on a midweek day in what should have been the height of the tourist season (mid-July) and just about nothing was open. The lovely looking little cafe we saw was closed, a good proportion of the shops were closed (we were told we would have to retrace our steps a few miles to buy even basic groceries) and I really am at a loss to understand why.

It has delightful views over the water and, frankly, the only reason we stopped was that I had spotted a pub / microbrewery (open thankfully) which will form the basis of my writing here.

Gorgeous as it is, if this is the centre for the local area I do not know how anyone lives here although everyone we spoke to seemed happy enough. Horses for courses I suppose. A couple of pints and we were on the road again.

Guysborough is definitely worth a brief stop if you are doing the coastal route up to Cape Breton but don’t expect to find too much to do.”

Here is the one thing I did find to do.

A rare bird indeed.

“I have mentioned above that really the only reason we stopped here was because I had spotted a pub / microbrewery when just about everything else in town seemed to be shut. Fortunately the Rare Bird was open and so in we went to a completely empty bar, not a sinner despite it being the height of tourist season. I should say that a few other patrons did appear later.

We were served by a wonderfully friendly lady who we struck up a conversation with and it was only then that the strangeness of this place started to become apparent. Firstly though I should describe the Rare Bird.

It is a large and spotlessly clean bar (as are the toilets) and if you opt to sit at the front bar as opposed to the lovely decking area then you can actually see the micro-brewery through fairly large windows. I was slightly intrigued by the canoes and kayaks lying on the floor at what I would have taken to be the musicians area but I didn’t ask.

We were introduced to the chef, a delightful and typically Nova Scotian friendly soul and on enquiring about the menu, it consists in it’s entirety of either fish and chips (fries) or the house signature burger. That’s it and so vegetarians beware. Actually, I do them a disservice, you can get a side order of gravy if you like that on your chips!

As you would expect the beer is excellent, well-kept and served (I tried several just to be sure!) but it really is one strange bar which (at that time) kept the oddest opening hours.

Well worth a visit if you can find it open.”

Update 2021.

A quick check to ensure the information here was still correct and it is confusing. As best I can understand it, the bar is now permanently closed although they appear to be still brewing. If they are then it is worth finding their product as it is good beer but just don’t go there looking to drink it at source.

Leaving Guysborough we branched off onto the #344 road so we could keep following the coast. The scenery was as lovely as it always is on the Nova Scotian coast but, despite our best efforts and pssing through many small communities, we didn’t find a single thing to interest us until we got to Havre Boucher, our destination for the night. Regular readers will know how odd this is as we always seem to find something but it was not to be.

Here is what I wrote about Havre Boucher.

I’m not quite sure what it is.

“Havre Boucher is on the map and yet, having stayed overnight there on not one but two occasions, I am still not sure I ever found out where it actually was. It is not a town by any means and if there was even a village centre we didn’t seem to see it.

It is another one of these quite typical Nova Scotian settlements that seems to consist of dwellings and the odd commercial premises (garage / autoshop, hairdresser or whatever interspersed with, and often attached to, the dwellings stretched out along the not one but two highways (4 and 104) that form a major route up to Cape Breton.

None of this should be construed as criticism however as what Havre Boucher has is some gorgeous scenery and ocean views and boasts not one but two excellent campsites as alluded to above. One of them will form the basis for my meagre piece here (I’ll tell you about the other one on the way back).

I know that saying anywhere in Nova Scotia is gorgeous is a trifle superfluous as the entire Province is a delight but this part is especially pretty.

Geographically it is an excelllent jumping off point if you want to get to Cape Breton and get going early in the morning as it is only a few minutes drive to the Causeway and similarly offers a good stop-off point if returning especially if you have been driving a bit that day.

Should you wish to visit, the local community website is here.

As the name suggests (it means Boucher’s Harbour) this was originally settled by the French and the Boucher Family are still here as well as the Fougeres who also seem to have a long association with the area.

Traditionally Havre Boucher was very much dependent on the fishing industry although now a degree of tourism exists and it is well-known now as being a popular retirement destination.

We had chosen to stay at the Linwood campsite.

Spoilt for choice.

“As I mentioned above, Havre Boucher it is blessed with two excellent campsites which is good for such a small place and we sampled both of them (purely in the interests of research and fair reporting you understand)!

We stayed at the Linwood campground on the way over to Cape Breton as it was recommended in the CAA and one other campsite guide we were using. It certainly did not disappoint.

Driving into a nicely wooded site it appeared to be busy and so we were glad we had booked ahead by ‘phone. There are only 36 overnight sites here.

We went to the office which seems to double as shop, general hangout area and just about everything else and we were quickly and cheerily allocated our pitch which was clean, tidy and fully serviced. I know I go on about this a lot but the concept of service in any of the tertiary industries here really makes my home country of the UK look pretty lacking too often.

In six weeks, barring one unfortunate experience in Halifax, I was treated to the most extreme courtesy and friendliness which was frequently well above that required professionally by the person involved. It really added so much to my trip so well done you Maritimers!

All the usual facilities were available including laundromat, fire pits, kiddie playground, hiking trail and even a couple of little extras like a book exchange and DVD rental to while away the evenings although I was engrossed in rather a good book of my own at the time.

As night drew on I did hear a guy over in one of the tent sites playing an acoustic guitar and as I had one of my own in the van I was tempted to join him but I thought the dinner would never get made that way. I should stress though that there was never a problem with raucous or rowdy behaviour and my brother musician packed up at a very respectable hour.

When it came time to use the “facilities” I found them to be spotless and they are apparently wheelchair accessible which is a great bonus.

I said above that there were two great campsites in Havre Boucher and I refuse to pick one over the other albeit that I guess they must be in direct competition. Just find out who has a pitch for the night, toss a coin, do whatever you want but this is certainly a great site in a stunning location, no complaints at all.

I said that if I had gone to jam with the musician the dinner would never have been made but it was and I even managed to serve it just before midnight but there is only one slight problem. If you were to put a gun to my head (please don’t) I could not tell you what it is despite a fairly forensic examination of the image.

I can see onions, cheese, baked beans and bacon (I think) and it obviously seemed like a good idea at that hour with few drinks onboard but what it might be is anyone’s guess, I think it will have to go down as “Chef’s Special” or more properly “Plat du Jour” in this Acadian location.

As that was a fairly short day by the standards of my usual sagas, I think we shall pass straight on to

13th July, 2014.

The Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny and we were unhooked and back on the road about midday which had become fairly standard practice for us. A ten minute drive brought us to the impressive Canso Causeway which has linked to the mainland what was a genuine island until 1955 when it was opened.

At a little over 4,500 feet long it took over 10 million tons of rock, quarried at Cape Porcupine on the “mainland” side, to construct. Prior to the Causeway being opened ferries had crossed the gap carrying both vehicles and railway rolling stock but this was obviously a time-consuming operation. As early as 1903 there was a proposal to build a bridge, similar to the Forth Road Bridge in Scotland, but it was never realised.

Part of the reason for the bridge not going ahead was that it would prevent large vessels circumnavigating the island. In the case of the causeway this problem is dealt with by way of the Canso Canal and a swing bridge at the Cape Breton end of the causeway.

The Causeway was opened on August 13th, 1955 and there was a minor controversy. A parade of 100 pipers, true to the region’s Scottish heritage, was due to pipe “The Road to the Isles” at a gala parade. However, it didn’t happen. the wonderfully named Roderick Cameron Colin MacPherson, aka “Big Rod the Piper” refused to play so there was a parade of 99 pipers. Big Rod’s protest reflected a wider concern in the area that the causeway would irrevocably change the character of the island and make it too easy for islanders to leave.

Apart from the possible effects on the human population the Causeway had huge environmental effects both positive and negative. It meant that the Eastern part of the sound became ice-free in winter which led to some investment in the area but it also prevented the migration of fish. It took the poor creatures decades for some of them to find their way all the way around the island to get to the bay in the West.

As well as allowing humans land access it also allowed land animals the same freedom and permitted several non-native species to move to the island. Notable amongst these was the bobcat which has all but ended the native lynx population in the Highlands. I suppose any project of this scale brings it’s problems.

When we arrived at the Cape Breton end we had a choice. We could either go right and continue on Highway 104 or go left onto the #19 aka the Ceilidh Trail. It didn’t really matter as we intended to drive right round the island anyway (Betsy permitting!). We decided to go right, probably on the basis that for the whole trip thus far we had kept the sea on our right-hand side so why change now?

As soon as you get off the Causeway you are in Port Hastings where there isn’t really much to see but we did stop at the Visitor Information Centre, just at the end of the Causeway, and it was excellent as they all were on this trip. We armed ourselves with another armful of tourist literature and by now we had enough to start a library, then we headed on.

Port Hastings fairly quickly becomes Port Hawkesbury although you cannot really tell where the boundary is and by now we were in our fairly default position. Lynne was hungry and I was thirsty so it was time for a pit-stop and right by the side of the road we happened upon Papa’s Pub and Eatery. Not Papa John or Papa Joe, just Papa and who he is or was I have no idea.

Unusually for me, I did not take any notes so I am composing this from memory, using my images as an aide-memoire. I remember Papa’s being quite large and set up much more as a restaurant than a pub although they were obviously licenced. It was certainly clean and tidy.

We went for a “snack” which turned out to be a right feed. We had Nachos Grande which were indeed grande and I also tried for the first time something I had never heard of nor could I have dreamed of it even with my slightly off-beat culinary head on. I was introduced to the joys of the Donair Roll.

I would describe this as a large strip of doner kebab meat which the Canadians call donair for some reason. This is then encased in a pastry such as you would have on an Asian spring roll and the whole lot is deep-fried. It sounded absolutely barmy and there was no way I could see it working but it did and worked beautifully.

The rolls were complemented perfectly by the donair sauce as they call it, which I believe was home-made as just about everything is in Papa’s. I enjoyed them so much that I began seeking them out on menus and did find them once or twice later on. The Canadians really do have some crazy food ideas.

With the batteries re-charged we were back on the road and it was soon decision time again. We had decided to try and make Louisbourg that night which was a bit of a drive and we could either follow the 104 straight to Sydney or we could go off it if we wanted to follow the coast. Before we had to make that decision we passed a place I have mentioned before many posts ago.

I do not know if you recall me discussing “Lucky” Lief, the Viking who discovered North America about half a Millennium before Columbus ever set sail, but if you do you will recall that I mentioned Grand Anse which is where he over-wintered. There was originally some scepticism about this theory but the experts seem agreed now that the archeological evidence is overwhelming.

I don’t know if there was anything to be seen there in 2014 but we didn’t stop and soon came to the junction just past St. Peter’s where we had to choose our route and we almost inevitably chose the longer coastal route on the 247.

The place names on this minor road indicate the strong Acadian influence as we passed through Grande Greve (Big Strike), L’Ardoise and Lower L’Ardoise (Slate and Lower Slate of all things) and Gracieville before we came to Point Michaud and it is here that things went a bit awry as the image shows.

All of a sudden the paved road wasn’t, it was an unpaved road although it was pretty driveable. I was just worried about poor old Betsy. If you want an idea, I took a short video which you can see here.

We did regain the paved road and went through yet more Acadian country. L’Archeveque (Archbishop), Saint Esprit and Framboise Intervale and Framboise (Raspberry Gap and Raspberry) and I knew what that meant as I love framboise fruit beer! Forchu (Fork) and the very appropriately named French Road (in English!) were next before we got to Sydney and then took the 22 down to Louisbourg and the Louisbourg RV and Camping site where we were spending the night.

I’ll tell you all about the campground in the next post when I go for a wander round it. After that we shall explore Louisbourg which is one of the most historic towns in the Maritimes. If you want to join us then stay tuned and spread the word.

Author: Fergy.

Hello there. I am a child of the 50's, now retired and had been enjoying travelling pre-virus. Now I am effectively under house arrest. Apart from travelling, I love playing music (guitar, vocals and a bit of percussion) as the profile pic suggests and watching sport, my playing days are long over. I read voraciously, both fiction and nonfiction I'll read just about anything although I do have a particular interest in military history of all periods. I live alone in fairly central London where I have been for over 30 years since leaving Northern Ireland which was the place of my birth. I adore cooking and I can and do read recipe books and watch food programmes on TV / online all day given half a chance.

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