A Tale of Two Tour Buses (Nova Scotia, Canada)

Written by Mark McElroy

We’re on a Holland America “shore excursion” — a bus tour, headed for Lunenburg, Canada.

If you know me at all, you’ll know I loathe most Holland America bus tours. The worst of them have certain features in common:

Commentary by clueless guides. More than once, we’ve been yoked to a dull, uninspired guide who, despite being able to recite many facts, had no sense of story.

Rushed, badly-conceived itineraries. One shore excursion death-marched us through the magical cities of Cinqueterra, giving us just three five-minute stops for photos.

Long rides, short stays. Once, we were given just forty-five minutes to explore a place we traveled three hours (round trip) to see.

Hordes of passengers. Nothing ruins the atmosphere of a place like seventy other passengers fighting their way off the bus and hollering at the top of their lungs at sacred sites.

Bad food. Almost universally, any restaurant that can accommodate a crowded tour bus is using that business to keep the doors open.

So, today, heading for Lunenburg, my expectations are low. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find myself on a HAL bus tour with a leisurely itinerary (just ninety minutes of seven and a half hours are “on the road”), a small group (just twenty folks), and a guide like Robert Ripley.

Robert Ripley is the Burl Ives of Halifax, a retired history teacher with flyaway hair, bright eyes, and a voice that washes over the listener like hot buttered rum. He knows all the dates and facts, but, more importantly, he knows that good stories matter most of all.

As we settle in for the trip from Halifax to Lunenburg, Robert amuses us with the sorts of little tales that amuse non-locals. We’re a week too early, for example, to sample a seasonal delicacy at McDonald’s, where the $6.95 McLobster sandwich goes on sale June 1.

We’re right on time for kilt-wearing season, though — and Robert has his on, consisting of the “whole nine yards” of fabric required to create one. (Turns out that’s the origin of that old phrase. Who knew?)

Our brief stop in Mahone Bay (to see the three churches lined up in a row, visit Tim Horton’s, shop for pewter, and stroll the town is pleasant enough — and it’s a nice surprise to see copies of The Tarot of the Elves — a book and deck I created — on sale at Bluestone Magick, a friendly little New Age shop on the main drag.

Lunenburg itself is a treasure, especially when enhanced with Robert’s commentary. It has a reputation as “the most beautiful city in Canada,” and, indeed, when Robert stops any of the locals and asks, “What’s the most beautiful city in Canada?” they reply — without hesitation — “Lunenburg!”

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with many colorful examples of “carpenter gothic” architecture:


We visit St. John’s Anglican church, where an altar decorated with golden stars depicts the sky in Lunenburg on the night Christ was born:


We also hear about the rare “vinegar Bible” in the church’s collection. (The vinegar Bible, one of four surviving copies of a bad English translation from 1717, is famous for changing St. Luke’s “Parable of the Vineyard” to the “Parable of the Vinegar.”)


Robert’s recommendations for lunch are spot-on, to boot, and we have one of the best meals of the trip — a lobster pizza and lobster roll – at the Old Fish Factory.

We come home feeling as though we’ve received a great value for our money and a renewed appreciation for bus tours. That appreciation lasts about three days — until we take our next bus tour, in fact.

Full of optimism, we’re on a bus tour that promises to show us “The Best of Quebec.” The guide is friendly and competent and personable, but this cannot compensate for the fact we’ve been packed on a huge bus with forty-four other passengers from the Veendam. Complicating things further: this tour apparently appeals to the ship’s most geriatric passengers, most of whom have brought their canes and walkers along.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I respect my elders, and I’m sympathetic to the special needs of older travelers. We love traveling with Joe, Clyde’s father, who is well into his eight decade on the planet, and I would take my Mom anywhere on Earth, if she would go.

That said: when you’re on a bus tour that makes twenty-minute stops at key attractions, sharing the ride with forty-two people who need ten- to fifteen-minutes to get off the bus is a problem. And because we’re seated at the back of the bus, about the time we pop out to see the Best of Quebec, we’re being herded back to our seats.

At one stop — a little waterfall — we actually run down the path to snap a photo:


We make the best of things, enjoying a visit to a “sweet hut” (where a little old man makes us maple taffy by pouring syrup on a snow-covered board) and a self-guided tour through the cathedral of St. Anne du Beaupre:


But, generally, we find ourselves once again facing all the worst aspects of a bus tour: too much time on the road, too little time at key sights, and too much close contact with a tour group that’s twice as big as a group ought to be. When the time comes for a guided walk through Old Quebec, we excuse ourselves and strike out on our own.

We’re happier than ever to have stumbled on Robert’s tour — which is, apparently, the exception to a rule — but more resolved than ever to arrange smaller, more personal outings than HAL can provide.

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Mark McElroy

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