My mother is a hooker, by which I mean she hooks rugs. At the high point of her career, some of Mom's rugs were included in a slide show at New York City's American Folk Art Museum; her pre-show excitement came out in her statement, "Hookers are busing in from all over New England!" So last year, when she turned 77, my birthday present to her was a weeklong trip to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, where people take rug hooking and other crafts as seriously as she does.
I brought along my sister Kendy (like Mom, a hooker and knitter) and my boyfriend, Greg (like me, a do-nothing), and our first stop was Lunenburg, just over an hour's drive south of the Halifax airport. A tiny 18th-century fishing village whose downtown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lunenburg slopes down to a bay lined on the far side by rolling swaths of green lawn. The town itself feels sleepy but arty—on our first day we encountered two separate gentlemen dreamily strumming acoustic guitars on their porches. At one point Mom cast a glance at a group of houses near our hotel—the comfortable and unassuming Boscawen Inn—and said, "I think they had a purple-paint sale here."
We'd chosen Lunenburg because it is the site of the annual Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival. And so, having parked our car in front of the Lunenburg Curling Club building one morning, we entered the de-iced hockey rink in which some 40 craftspeople were selling their wares. We beheld a dizzying welter of hand-carved mallards and yarn-based trivets and balsa dachshunds; two senior citizens, one in a keyboard vest, serenaded us all with electric piano and fiddle. I saw Mom marveling at a sculpture of a woman and a rabbit that bore the inscription 50 YEARS OLD AND ONLY ONE GRAY HARE; Mom wrote down the saying in a notebook and announced plans to hook a rug version of it, with the age changed to her own. Had I just beheld an act of folk-art theft?My brain flashed on an image of Grandma Moses reaching under her cloak to produce a Glock .357.
I scoured the tables for treasures. Fifty Canadian dollars later, I was the proud owner of a wooden figurine of a linebacker-shaped woman with a dress that read GOD BLESS YOUR LITTLE HEAD. The artist, Barry Colpitts, shows his work at the Black Sheep Gallery, a former fish plant in West Jeddore that now sells folk and outsider art. Mom asked why I was drawn to the piece I'd bought; I explained that I need all the help I can get.
That night we gorged on bouillabaisse and panko-crusted frogs' legs at Lunenburg's charming, minimalist Fleur de Sel. So attentive and loving was the service that I suggested we play a game—my family's defining trait is our ability to turn almost any situation into a game—called Touch the Waiter. In it, you try to touch the waiter as many times as possible during the meal without him figuring out you're doing it. Kendy and I sallied forth, each placing an appreciative pat on our server's arm upon the food's arrival.
Then, when her dessert arrived, Kendy pulled ahead with a combination of wrist tap and "Ooh, how fabulous!" Not to be outdone, I announced, "I love mine, too" and gently brushed my elbow against the waiter's side. I would have been happy to leave it a tie, but Kendy was all closure. As we were exiting the restaurant, she directed the laser beam of her personality at the waiter's right shoulder, lavishing it with a "We loved everything" and a hearty hand clap. Game over.
On each of my first two nights in Nova Scotia, I slept for more than 10 hours (cool, piney air + tomblike silence = nature's chloroform). Seldom has sleep been so renewing, so buoyant-making: I felt like aerosol room freshener.
However, I managed to sully this ethereal mood during the six-hour drive to our hotel on Prince Edward Island by helping my traveling companions polish off a pound of fudge. During the drive, Mom knit copiously and made dire pronouncements about our body weight: the Madame Defarge of the waistline. We also discussed Kendy's current knitting project—a pair of size-23 socks she hopes to give to Shaquille O'Neal.
On P.E.I., we stayed at the Inn at Bay Fortune, a handsome, shingled compound that formerly belonged to Colleen Dewhurst, who played the foster mother in Anne of Green Gables, which is set on the island. Having read that the 30 greens that go into the inn's garden salad are grown on the premises, along with vegetables mostly raised from heirloom seeds, we four travelers took a tour of the kitchen garden and tried to identify as many veggies and herbs as possible. Mom was able to pinpoint lady's mantle, artemisia, burnet, and lovage, and thus was our hands-down winner at Touch the Obscure Herb.
If the garden was smaller than we'd hoped it would be, we didn't care, happy as we were with our ample rooms and the inn's lovely setting. Before dinner we walked through nearby potato fields—they seemed to stretch for miles down to the sea—where we met an aged local farmer. This gentleman wore a pajama top with his jeans and managed to get at least four syllables out of aboot, the Canadian version of about; we fell deeply in love with him.
Back at the inn, we took our seats on the screened-in porch, overlooking a huge lawn and the bay, for a dinner that relied on lots of local seafood. Indeed, local seafood was also our culinary theme the following evening when we went to a church lobster supper in St. Margarets, a 15-minute drive away. Here, in a small building next to the church, we chowed down on lobster, corn, and cole slaw. The only fitting follow-up to such a meal was an evening of bingo, so we drove about an hour into P.E.I.'s capital, Charlottetown, where we joined the game at the "rec centre," which looked like a high school gymnasium full of people wearing trucker hats. Mom won 100 Canadian dollars, which, she informed us, was worth "aboot eighty-five U.S."
During the next day's six-hour drive to Cape Breton, we spent only a handful of Mom's Canadian dollars on fudge. Restraint took a backseat to desire, though, once we started driving the Cabot Trail—the spectacular 180-mile road along the tip of the island, decked out with sweeping turns, jagged cliffs, moose, and bear—and visiting antiques and junk shops. We loved poring over the heaps of handmade rugs and socks at the Co-op Artisanale in Cheticamp; we swooned over the handsome leather buckets and bags at Leather Works in Indian Brook. But our favorite shop was Myles from Nowhere, a funky, two-floored shack on the side of the road in Margaree Forks, where, caught up in the campy glamour of it all, I shelled out 28 Canadian bucks for an old wooden rolling pin. (Yes, I am so subversive and wild as to buy kitchen implements while vacationing with my mother. My friends call me Danger.)
On our last day—after an evening spent playing speed Scrabble in our hotel lobby in Baddeck—Kendy and Mom bought a lot of yarn at a jumbled, items-spilling-off-of-shelves knitting store called Baadeck Yarns, while Greg and I stumbled around the store as if trapped in a woolly spiderweb. Then we headed 90 minutes north to the small museum dedicated to one of the world's foremost hookers, Elizabeth LeFort. LeFort's hooked portraits of Jackie Kennedy and various Canadian prime ministers are astonishing in their obsessiveness, as is her 80-square-foot depiction of the Resurrection, which required eight miles of yarn and two million stitches, and was shown in a gallery with piped-in Gregorian chants. "Well, you've been to the Elizabeth LeFort museum," Mom said to us two non-hookers as we walked back to the car. "You can die now."
En route to the Halifax airport, Kendy, in the backseat, said to Greg and me, "I'm about to get very personal with you." Greg speculated, "Boxers or briefs?" No. Rather, she reached over the seat and took a tape measure to both of our heads. The meaning of this act did not dawn on us for a month, until Greg and I were mailed scarves (knit by Mom) and hats (knit by Kendy), the latter cleverly accessorized with Scrabble tiles sewn into them.
They'd turned the situation into a game, and then reproduced it in wool.
Henry Alford is a T+L contributing editor. He also writes for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
WHEN TO GO
May through October is the ideal time for a trip to the area. Temperatures in July average in the eighties.
Air Canada serves Halifax International Airport with direct flights from New York, Toronto, and Montreal. A car ferry (888/249-7245; www.catferry.com; one-way tickets $89) takes six hours from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth.
HOW TO DO IT
Expect to spend about a week. Tiny Lunenburg can be consumed in a day, but you'll need three or four days for P.E.I. and two for Cape Breton. Consider breaking up the drive back to Halifax with an overnight in a town like Antigonish.
WHERE TO STAY
150 Cumberland St., Lunenburg; 800/354-5009; www.boscawen.ca; doubles from $105, including breakfast.
Inn at Bay Fortune
Rte. 310, Bay Fortune; 888/687-3745; www.innatbayfortune.com; doubles from $135, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
Fleur de Sel
53 Montague St., Lunenburg; 902/640-2121; dinner for two $80.
23197 Cabot Trail Rd., Pleasant Bay; 902/224-1313; lunch for two $25.
WHAT TO DO
15067 Cabot Trail Rd., Cheticamp; 902/224-2170; www.co-opartisanale.com.
Museum of Hooked Rugs & Home Life and the Elizabeth LeFort Gallery
15584 Cabot Trail Rd., Cheticamp; 902/224-2612; www.lestroispignons.com.
Myles from Nowhere
7889 Cabot Trail Rd., Margaree Forks; 902/248-2336.