At Last, a Drinking and Dining Guide to the North Sydney Waterfront

Travel essay by Richard LeBlond:

Every summer I drive from my home in North Carolina to the port of North Sydney on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. That is where I catch the six-hour ferry to the remote island of Newfoundland, and from there to Labrador.

North Sydney is my Portsmouth, my Marseilles, the departure point to exotic lands. I have spent some nights in that small town waiting for the ferry, and have come to know its understated, even retrogressive, charms. The old waterfront is drab and frequently in tune with its weather, befitting a town described as “nondescript” by the guidebook Canada, which perhaps allowed the author to take the day off.

North Sydney’s business district is pretty much confined to Commercial Street along the shore near the ferry terminal. The fronts of clothing and hardware stores, of restaurants and lounges, are as plain and undemonstrative as the warehouses that share the street. This is a commerce that depends on no outside callers. The buildings were designed for function alone, and the customers are born to them.

Like waterfront roads in other towns, Commercial Street is not straight, but waddles to the left and right. This is a relict of the street having been built along the contours of the shore before the waterside was filled with the stores, warehouses, wharves, and docks of today. The street has become the old shoreline’s fossil.

In late August 2009, the Commercial Street entrance to the now-defunct Main Street Lounge had all of the glamour and none of the pretensions of an unlit back alley. A claustrophobic, plywood-framed dark hallway led to a staircase of similar temperament. The steps ascended into a space that, if not cheery, at least was softly lit and woody. It was about five in the afternoon, and two male patrons leaned against a bar tendered by Irene. My two drinking companions worked for Marine Atlantic ferry, North Sydney’s biggest employer, and my transport to Newfoundland and Labrador. The ferry terminal was within easy walking distance of the lounge, at least for a sober person.

The primary topic in the lounge was Marine Atlantic’s newest ferry, the Atlantic Vision, put into service in April 2009. Opinion of the vessel was low that afternoon, and as I would soon learn, had been in descent even before its arrival in the Western Hemisphere in late 2008.

“It’s from Russia and it’s caught fire twice and been disabled once at sea already,” said Irene. “Nobody is surprised. If something works, it’s not in Cape Breton.”

During Atlantic Vision’s December 2008 crossing from its previous home port in Finland, the front loading ramp broke off. Shortly after it arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a fire broke out in one of two heating units. In July, a fire broke out in the other heating unit. It was briefly taken out of service in August after striking the landing dock in Port aux Basques, destination of the North Sydney ferry. And in October, it was disabled by a bomb threat, again in Port aux Basques. These human contributions to the downward spiral of its reputation were superfluous.

* * *

I abandoned my drinking companions for supper at Robena’s, just down the street from the lounge. Like the adjacent businesses, Robena’s exterior was so modest that I actually walked right past it even though I was looking for it and had been there a few years before. The interior was simple with a high ceiling and old-fashioned booths. It was also a bakery, which filled the air with ovenly odors.

The seafood chowder I had at Robena’s that evening remains the best I have ever eaten, and I’ve eaten enough to put an end to some anadromous run. It was a substantial chowder, the solids far outbulking the broth – so much so that it arrived mounded in the center. Remarkably, the center remained elevated above the suburbs and border regions due to the density of matter throughout. And fishness outweighed everything else combined, an ecumenical school of haddock, herring, salmon, shrimp, crab, and scallops, plus chunks of potatoes and onions. The broth was thick, rich, and creamy, no doubt from too much butter, if there can be such a thing.

The waitress offered me a choice of tea biscuit, dinner roll, or soda crackers to go with the chowder. I took my chance with the tea biscuit, not knowing what it was. It turned out to be like an American country biscuit, only a little lighter and sweeter, and baked on the premises. Buttered and then soaked one bite at a time in the broth, the tea biscuit nearly doubled the pleasure.

When I left the restaurant, I can’t say the old waterfront’s drabness had been dispelled, but an inner glow rendered it of no account.

* * *

I returned to the Main Street Lounge after dinner at Robena’s. The earlier patrons had been replaced by two more male ferry employees, one retired. The Atlantic Vision topic had weighed anchor, and conversation was now about sports. The two men were seated at a table near the bar. The younger man, about 40, was leaning back in his wooden chair against the wall. He was the more serious of the two, thoughtful and measured, his opinions schooled. The subject turned to the unrequited love of hopeless teams.

“For years my albatross was the Red Sox,” I offered. As soon as I said “Red Sox,” the right arm of the thoughtful man shot straight up – not willfully, but as though it had been hoisted by a crane, the limp arm wrenched up and held erect against the wall. It was a spontaneous body language admission that he had spent years as a fan of the Boston baseball team, and had paid a deep price for it. The look on his face was that of a man exhausted by pain.

Although the Red Sox had won two World Series within the five years preceding this barroom commiseration, there had been only dashed hopes for 86 years before that. No– not dashed – hopes that had been toyed with, then shot in the gut, stepped on, and squished. Those wounds may have been healed by the recent victories, but the scars would never go away.

Robena's

BIO: Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Redux, Compose, New Theory, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best of the Net.”