A rainy road trip from the mainland (New Brunswick) to the island (P.E.I) on Christmas Eve.
Raindrops gently tap the roof and old-timey Christmas carols waft from the speakers as we load up the car. It’s around 12:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and we’re packing up to head from our house in Moncton, New Brunswick to my parents’ place in Stratford, P.E.I. The forecast calls for freezing rain and we plan on hitting a couple notable points along the way, so I anticipate the usual two hour and 25 minute, 180-kilometre drive will take right around three hours.
It’s one of the great aspects of living in the Hub City: most of the more populated Maritime cities are within a few hours’ drive. We travel to neighbouring communities including Halifax, Saint John and Charlottetown fairly regularly, and though they’re all pretty close-by, we still feel like we’re scratching that travel itch.
My 2009 Subaru Forester is packed with our bags, a big box of presents, a few growlers of my husband Matt’s homebrew, and all our 15-month-old’s necessary gear. There’s still room to spare, which is one reason we usually pick the Subaru for road trips over our 2012 Ram 1500. It’s also got great visibility, a giant sunroof and with all-wheel drive, we’re always confident it’ll get us through any road conditions.
After scooping Pieter from daycare, we stop for a top-up. Regular is 97.9 per litre at the pumps on this particular day. We always make a point of stopping on our way out of town, because gas is always a little pricier on the Island (sure enough, the first Shell station we see when we get to P.E.I. is at 99.9 cents per litre). Matt pours in a quart of 5W30 for good measure. The Forester seems to burn a bit of oil, but not so much that our mechanic thinks its any cause for concern.
If I time this trip right, Pieter will usually nap most of the way there. He’s reasonably worn out today, but I keep his three favourite albums in my playlist just in case: Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials, Build Me This by Joshua James, and The Head and the Heart’s self-titled record. We’re getting pretty tired of the same music in the car, but these particular albums are like some magic baby-silencing voodoo, for some reason. Worth it. We make a quick stop at the Second Cup drive-thru for two mandatory triple Americanos, and we’re off.
We head north out of Moncton on Route 134, which used to serve as the main highway out to Shediac, a neighbouring beachside community. We make a quick stop at the in-laws’ to drop off some gifts and grab a seafood casserole prepared by Matt’s mom. It’s an Acadian tradition to eat the creamy lobster, mussel and crab concoction on Christmas Eve, but because we’re all Anglos, we’re making it tonight just because it’s amazing.
This year marks the Dekkers’ first P.E.I. Christmas. And while yes, my family is all over on the Island, it’s inaccurate to say I’m heading home for the holidays – I was raised in Alberta and moved to New Brunswick in 2010. My sister and her husband (a native Islander) moved to P.E.I. in the summer of 2013 and my parents –eager to spend their retirement near their grandchildren – soon followed. It’s fairly common for families to move from the Maritimes to the Prairies, so we’re usually met with some surprise when people hear we’ve done the opposite. Atlantic Canada might not be a hotbed of economic activity, but it’s a lovely place to live and raise a family. People are warm, the quality of life and richness of community are unbeatable and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.
That being said, this particular afternoon happens to be particularly dismal. Mud and water pepper the windshield as we hit the Highway 15 and dirty grey clouds cover the sky. At about two degrees, the rain, thankfully, isn’t freezing, but it melts the thin layer of snow that fell earlier in the week. I don’t hold any nostalgia for snow at Christmas and am pretty pleased that it’s unseasonably warm, although it’s a trade-off for a wilted and lacklustre landscape.
This cross-provincial trip is completely different in the summer when tourism is at its peak. Most of the diners, charming antique shops, fresh farmers’ markets and odd tourist attractions are closed for the season, making the trip from the mainland to the island a pretty point-A-to-B affair. Today, we’ll hit a few historical spots that highlight the journey’s pivot point: the Confederation Bridge.
The curved, 12.9-kilometre bridge is the longest of its kind in the world over ice-covered waters. It juts off the Acadian Coast at Cape Jourimain, crossing the Northumberland Strait and connecting to the island province at Borden-Carlton Gateway Village.
Prior to its construction in 1997, the only way on or off the Island was by boat or plane. A ferry linking P.E.I. to Nova Scotia still runs from Wood Islands on the southeastern end in the warmer months, though the ferry that used to launch from New Brunswick’s Cape Tormentine was permanently docked with the opening of the bridge.
We take a quick right off Highway 15 on to Immigrant Road to check out what’s left of the former ferry town. Land-parked fishing boats, abandoned buildings and a few rundown houses lead the way into the small seaside community that’s clearly seen better days. The population of Cape Tormentine and the adjacent community of Bayfield has been on a steady decline since ferry service ceased and effectively wiped out much of the local job market and property values. A few dozen residents remain year round.
Matt, who grew up in Shediac through the 80s and 90s, recalls many trips racing up the highway to catch one of the ferry’s hourly departures, the sweet relief of making it just in time, and the defeat of missing it by a few minutes (or worse, by a speeding ticket). The cape’s diner and snack bar were easy places to wait, and the ferry’s on-board arcade was the best spot for a kid to hole up for the 45-minute voyage. My mother-in-law recalls Bayfield as a bustling, quaint community through the 50s and 60s, where children would sell sandwiches car-to-car to motorists waiting in line for passage to P.E.I.
We pull on to the cracked concrete of the port’s former entry zone, the fading boarding lanes now criss-crossed with a handful of fifth-wheel trailers. We scoot around the makeshift RV park and creep onto the docks to check out the blustery surf pounding into the shore. Even though it’s still used by fishermen in the warmer season, the port feels especially eerie and deserted today on account of the dreary weather. The waves are rolling steady and we can just spot the bridge’s frame through the gloomy mist on the horizon.
Side note: On Dec. 27, RCMP issued a news release on the discovery of a body at Cape Tormentine. The 48-year-old Moncton woman was reported missing on Christmas Eve, and her body was discovered along the shore on Boxing Day. Foul play was not suspected in the woman’s death, police said.
We pass back a bottle to Pieter, who’s awake now and barely tolerating all the stops, starts and occasional gusts of wind from my open window. When we’ve all had enough, we spin around and head through Bayfield toward the highway and the foot of the bridge at Cape Jourimain.
Even on a bleak day, the bridge is an impressive sight. Heralded as one of Canada’s architectural marvels, it took four years to construct at a cost of $1-billion. It’s curved at points to keep drivers attentive and it's piers end at about 40 metres above sea level, save the Navigation Span, which reaches 60 metres to allow for passage of large cargo vessels and cruise ships. We park between two massive piers at the point where the land meets water and the bridge begins its stretch over the strait. Waves crash into the columns and the structure stretches off and disappears into the chilly haze over the water.
The highway turns to paved deck as we make our ascent over the Northumberland. Those first few metres over water are exciting, though always a smidge dissatisfying as the view is all but obstructed by concrete barriers more than a metre high on either side. It’s a buzzkill, but was designed to keep drivers from careening off into the big ol’ briny blue. It’s a good thing Matt’s driving, because I have a hard time paying attention to the road even with the barriers.
And while a little nerve-racking to pass on a windy day, the bridge feels as solid as any stretch of road over dry land. The surface is made of a long-lasting bituminous mixture that minimizes spray on vehicles and over 7,000 ports allow runoff from rain and melted snow to drain. Access to high-sided vehicles and motorcycles is restricted in inclement weather, and conditions are regularly updated on the PEI Bridge Smartphone app. A live video feed of Confederation Bridge
can be viewed 24 hours a day. There’s no stopping room and cell phone use is strictly prohibited for drivers. Pedestrians and cyclists can only cross via shuttle, at a cost of $4.25 and $8.50, respectively. And while it’s free to drive to the Island it costs $45 for two-axel vehicles to drive back to the mainland. It’s easy for tourists to visit and for Islanders to come home, but everyone has to pay if they want to leave.
It takes us about ten minutes before the ruddy shores break the fog. With the rain at full tilt, we pick up the pace to make it to the parents’ in time for before-dinner drinks.
Again, the trip across beautiful rural P.E.I. and through the equally charming Charlottetown is a much different animal in warmer weather, worth writing about in detail on a nicer day.
We pull into the curved driveway right around 3:30 p.m. The fog breaks just enough to catch a glimpse of the water, a welcome sight as we unbuckle our belts and shut the engine down.
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