Travel on a Budget: Transport & Accommodations

Half of the adventure is getting to the destination, right? Unless, of course, you’re driving across the country in a car with small children when it can feel more like a nightmare (or not).

Regardless of your feelings on the matter, the journey is a major part of the final bill. Typically the biggest expenditures for a trip, transport and accommodations are great ways to save and tend to offer the biggest bang for your buck when attempting to travel frugally. I, for one, like to save as much money as I can for memory-making experiences once I’m on terra firma.

An important first step is to identify your priorities – yes even for the more mundane logistics of transport and accommodations. Maybe you want to spend extra points to get that upgrade to first class or maybe you can’t swing a 3 am departure; maybe access to a heated pool and sauna at your hotel is part of what will make a trip most enjoyable. Maybe you want (or need) to be right next to the amusement park or beach, regardless of price.

In no particular order, here are some of the things we’ve done through the years to reduce the overall cost of transport and accommodations.

Maximize loyalty/points programs

For over a decade now we’ve been collecting Aeroplan points (we each have Aeroplan loyalty cards + credit cards linked to Aeroplan). These have helped fund the majority of our trips. My father-in-law is set to visit soon: 9,400 points + $95. Our couples trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago: 200,000 points + $1,000 for a whole week (this was for flights and accommodation). Our (COVID-cancelled) trip to South Carolina for our family of 4: 60,000 points + $320 – we may never manage to recreate that deal.

$1000 for a week of this – everything in.

We don’t muddy the waters with a lot of different credit cards, but there is lots of material out there to help people navigate the options if this sort of thing is up your alley. We have a friend who is constantly joining new programs/signing up for new credit cards and has figured out a way to maximize the system to fund first-class airfare and more luxurious hotels.

  • For us, going with a single points program and doubling up when possible (some stores are Aeroplan partners + we pay with our Aeropoint-linked Visa so we get double points) really works. Beyond that feels like too much effort. You do you.
  • Airlines also offer rewards to regular customers; if you travel frequently for work, try booking through a single airline to accrue status miles (sometimes different airlines will belong to a central alliance, so booking through a “sister” airline will also go toward points/status). Thanks to pre-COVID travel for work John qualifies for Air Canada Super-Elite status which gives him – and the rest of the family – a host of upgrades, extra checked baggage, and cheaper options for many flights (i.e. he needs to redeem fewer points to purchase tickets).

find ways to combine work + leisure

This is likely our biggest hack and not something everyone can leverage. But, when it works, it’s a great cost-savings.

  • When possible, combine work travel with leisure. Stay an extra day or two on your own dime after a conference is over. Or, tag along with your spouse and explore the town while he/she attends to relevant work responsibilities, reconvening when convenient.

Our very first trip of this sort happened back in 2011. We were poor. Both pursuing Master’s degrees and newly married, I was invited to speak at an entomology conference in Orlando. My flights, meals, and hotel were only covered for the duration of the conference and we had a tight budget beyond that. John flew down on points (of course).

One of my labmates happened to mention her grandfather owned a condo in Sarasota and he was willing to let us use it for free. Yes please! We flew down a week early, rented a very inexpensive car, and spent several days in Sarasota. We bought $70 of groceries at Publix and ate one supper at an Olive Garden and another at a very, very sketchy buffet. The rest we fit into my per diem budget.

We walked on beaches (a priority and free) and went to the Ringling Museum on Monday – the day my research supervisor informed me it was free.

I had a per diem for food and accommodations in Orlando, so we found a hotel for $40/night slightly off the beaten track. It was only 5 minutes from the resort where the conference was taking place. Since we already had a rental car, we could easily look for a cheaper hotel (the conference was directly across the street from Disney, so room prices were much higher onsite, but that’s where most attendees stayed).

When the dust settled, a week in Florida for 2 people – including flights, meals, excursions, and accommodations – cost us less than $500.

On our trip to Kennedy Space Centre (the entrance ticket was good for 2 days, so we went twice on a single ticket). We saw a shuttle on the launch pad and met an astronaut.

Look at different flight options

This may sound intuitive, but sometimes small changes (later/earlier arrival times, flying on a different day) can make a huge difference to the bottom line.

If you’re at all flexible on the dates/times, it’s worth hunting around for a few minutes to see if Tuesday at 5 am is $300 cheaper than Monday at 11 am.

Take less stuff

Okay, some habits die hard.

My husband went to Australia for a month with only a single carry-on and laptop bag. This was for work, admittedly, and he was staying in a rental with laundry facilities, but this minimalist packing is doable for more leisurely vacations too.

Perks: no checked baggage fees and no concerns about lost luggage (and the potential cost of replacing items if luggage doesn’t get found quickly enough). Also, having less stuff just feels great on vacation.

Our carry-on still had room for Chicky – a little foam chick our daughter decorated and sent with us on our travels. Here’s Chicky posing in front of the iconic Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. This little friend traveled to many places before she retired in 2019.


We often research accommodations (and if they’re being covered as part of a work trip, even better) more than anything else. With some extra digging, we usually find very affordable options.

  • I don’t need a fancy bathroom or spacious room. Clean and safe are my only two requirements. This is a HUGE place to save. To me, a hotel room exists for sleep and as a safe place to store belongings.

Not surprisingly, proximity to the downtown core can be a huge determinant of nightly rates. Both times we visited New York City we actually stayed in New Jersey. It was $88/night at the Super8 in North Bergen, a price hard to beat. We took a shuttle that dropped us off near Times Square. There was nothing special about the hotel, but it was clean and felt (relatively) safe. It was walking distance to a grocery store (a great way to save money on food) and had an edible Continental Breakfast (another great way to save money on food). Would I have preferred to roll out of bed and be in the heart of Manhatten? Absolutely. Was it worth $100’s extra over the course of our stay? To us, the answer was a definite no.

Our biggest coup came with our hotel in Paris. It was in the 9th arrondissement – a solid location – for $110 CAD/night (including all the hospitality fees and levies)!! It cost us almost double to get a night in a sketchy motel room along the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia that including a morning flood (story coming soon).

Hotel Touraine Opéra was one of my favourite hotel stays ever – and housed what seemed to be the world’s most comfortable bed. Large by Parisian standards, our room was simple but checked every box. There was a grocery store across the street, a shuttle to and from the airport, and it was very, very clean! Check, check, check.

A stone’s throw from the Opera House it was, admittedly, a fair trek to some of the most notable landmarks. But for $110 CAD/night, it was hard to beat the economy of it all.
  • A bad hotel can be truly terrible and could ruin a vacation. In terms of accommodation reviews – look for themes. Noise issues, cleanliness and safety violations – when things of that ilk come up repeatedly it’s a giant a red flag. But if someone says the heated pool was too cold for their liking, I’m not much bothered by that sort of information (unless, of course, my priority is having a nice, warm hotel pool).
  • The best arrangement, though, is free. I have a brother that has lived in Europe for over a decade now; he’s had a steady stream of North American company in that time. Having free accommodations is a great way to shrink expenditures on vacation.
My brother’s old apartment was located above this set of shops in Copenhagen. There was a bakery directly across the street. The smell of fresh pumpernickel bread and Danish pastries coming out of there was the real deal. The whole scene felt like something out of a picture book.

Take public transit + WAlk

Okay, okay, can you tell we love walking? We might be a bit biased on this one, but it’s hard to argue that public transit and walking are the cheapest way to navigate an urban destination. When the kids were younger and in tow we’d find ways to borrow strollers, and the Ergo helped with many nap on-the-go moments.

Abby, asleep in the Ergo, at The National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst). We went on a day with free admission – and we walked. No doubt we packed a picnic to enjoy later in the day.

You can get creative – we took a public bus to Bondi Beach and water taxis to Watson’s Bay; John has done hop-on/hop-off busses in France and NYC; we did trains, buses and bikes almost daily in Copenhagen. Lots of places now rent electric scooters which look very fun (and very economical).

why we’re a big fan of walking tours

Yet another plug for walking, but we’ve had great success with walking tours. Look for ones that have local hosts; these are often a pay-what-you-can donation style. It’s a great way to explore the city at minimal cost and the tour guides are usually happy to share lots of nuggets of wisdom, including ones that can translate into real cost-savings (you should try this diner, it has the best $3 burger in town; this museum is free on Friday’s after 8 pm).

Logistics aren’t always much fun when planning a trip, but they’re undeniably necessary and can consume a huge portion of a vacation budget. Once you’ve identified your priorities, see where that puts you in terms of budgeting. Maybe some priorities need to get shifted (can you make do without a hotel pool, or can you get a 1-week subway pass instead of relying on cabs) to free up monies for something fun when you’re on the ground?

Getting there can be half the fun; even if it isn’t, it doesn’t have to break the bank.

Travel on a Budget: Identifying Priorities

I’ve already admitted to being a pseudo-minimalist and I’m ready to put forward a similar disclaimer now. For the next few days I’ll don my travel-on-a-budget hat, after first admitting I don’t have an overly impressive globetrotting resume. I didn’t set foot on an airplane until I was nineteen and have only touched down in 6 countries – but I happen to have married an expert.

Born in Portugal, John has worked in and explored far-flung corners of the globe: from snowy landscapes in Canada’s High Arctic and Norway to warmer shores in Fiji and the Canary Islands; he’s been to Tanzania and Rwanda, Brazil and Chile; he’s spent months working in Australia; he’s crisscrossed the US and visited Thailand, Japan, and too many countries in Europe to count.

Not only does he have a lot of experience, but he also happens to be a really, really great traveler. He’s efficient and smart and unflappable when on the road and, since our priorities are so well-aligned, he’s the best travel partner I could ever hope for (he’s also just really fun to be with and an all-round awesome spouse).

As time and money allow I can’t wait to fill up my passport with all kinds of stamps, but until then I lean heavily on his travel expertise. That said, we’ve definitely developed our own special method of budget travel since getting married.

A quick Google search reveals entire movements devoted to traveling on a budget – from working farm hostels to extreme credit-card reward gymnastics, some of the proposed methods feel a tad intense for my taste.

I’ve never stayed in a hostel or plowed a field to pay room and board. I just thought it would be fun to discuss some of the ways our family has traveled, economically, through the years. This includes periods where we were, on paper at least, living below the poverty line. Those years of financial constraints helped us be creative in our travel plans and many of these tendencies stuck, even as we’ve moved into a new chapter of life that has afforded more financial flexibility.

I grew up exposed to fiscal conservatism (as did my husband), and it comes naturally. Believe me, this can present some drawbacks, including exacerbating my preexisting (and unrealistic) maximizer tendencies. But it also drove us to look for creative ways to solve a problem which was, at first, how to fund international travel on a small bankroll. Today it means we continue to pursue the least expensive way to maximize an experience or opportunity.

For us, the whole process of traveling on a budget can be satisfying. A mindset of frugality is what led to us having more financial independence in the first place, so why not continue the momentum?

I’ll talk about specifics in later posts, but today wanted to hone in on priorities. Just like identifying what truly motivates you can help you figure out where you want to get to in life, I think it’s helpful to identify priorities before traveling and then allocate money accordingly.

how to identify Travel priorities

  • One of our top priorities (individually and as a couple/family) is finding ways to get immersed in the local culture. We want to eat and explore like locals – do things we can’t do anywhere else. I remember talking to someone who mentioned he would always seek out a cheeseburger and fries wherever he traveled – he had absolutely no interest in sampling local cuisine. He prioritized consistency; we opt for experimentation.
One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed. This tiny cafe was tucked away on a side street, hidden from the main tourist thoroughfares. Inexpensive and absolutely delicious.
  • Exploring a new location on foot is a huge draw for us. It’s how we like to familiarize ourselves with a new space, and it happens to be a great way to save money.

When we went to our first (and only) all-inclusive resort, we had narrowed it down to two destinations. The selling feature of our eventual choice? Kilometers of accessible white sandy beaches. Every single day we headed out the door and walked and walked and walked. Because we identified walking as a priority before we even started the booking process, it helped us make an informed decision. We aren’t that fussy about a big hotel room or fancy entertainment options. We were never going to be the type to race to the beach at 7 am to reserve a cabana for the day. We weren’t going to use the pool or the hot tub or participate in morning yoga on the beach.

No, more than anything we wanted a long sandy beach – and that’s exactly what we got.

  • We also love art. Top highlights from almost every trip involve art/architecture and we always seek out art galleries – both the famous and lesser-known. If necessary, we know it’s better to forgo the nice lunch with a hefty tip to fund opportunties to explore local art culture.

Years ago when my parents were visiting Paris (without me, I might add), my brother-turned-tour-guide took my mom to the Louvre. My father opted out without second thought and visited a nearby war museum. He is always, always, always going to seek out history. Why pay an entrance fee to an art museum he’d rather not visit?

  • There is no right and wrong in terms of priorities. That’s the beauty of it all. You’re under no obligation to visit the Louvre if you go to Paris (though it’s amazing). You do you.

If I went to Las Vegas tomorrow I’d probably wander through a casino or two (more for the architecture and design aesthetics), but what I’d really want to do is take in a live show and wander through an art gallery. I wouldn’t want to hang by the pool and order an umbrellaed drink. I wouldn’t want to spend my time at a slot machine or playing blackjack. One would assume both drinking and gambling would be front-running priorities for many choosing to visit such a city.

But not for me!

I’ve seen Michelin restaurants, but don’t have any burning urge to visit one. But, if you do, make this a priority and find other places to save…

why travel?

I think most of us have a natural instinct to explore; an innate desire to get to know our world more intimately, to meet new people, and experience new cultures. Leisure tourism can get a bad rap, sometimes justifiably so, but I think it can also make us more informed citizens when we return home. Couldn’t it make us better doctors and lawyers and teachers and parents? In addition to tans and keychains and duty-free alcohol, we might just manage to bring back new perspectives that colour our world for the better.

One night in Paris my husband and I relaxed on the Trocadéro lawn at dusk. This was pre-COVID and people were everywhere. The fading sunlight, and the wine, cast a perfect glow over the setting. I think about that moment often and those few hours spent watching the Eiffel Tower reflect the colours of the changing skyline were some of the happiest of my life.

We travel to experience these moments; to trigger emotions and raise questions and escape routine. We also travel to get an idea of just how big the world really is and our place in it.

Maybe you travel for the scenery or the family hugs at the end of a long plane ride. Maybe you travel for work and pride yourself on relentless productivity, considering tourist traps something to be avoided at all costs. But, I suspect, if we stay open enough, travel could change us all, perhaps in surprising ways.

Destination Nova Scotia: White Point

Living in Nova Scotia for over a decade, I feel like we’ve covered most of the highlights. We’ve visited Peggy’s Cove (a dozen times), seen the Bluenose II in port, and even tested our sea legs for an authentic Maritime island experience. We’ve driven the world-famous Cabot Trail, spotted whales in the wild, and climbed atop rock formations that look like something straight out of Tatooine.

Then we spent two magical days at White Point Beach Resort and grabbed our bright yellow highlighter.

While this post isn’t sponsored, we did win the trip. My husband (photographer extraordinaire) won the grand prize in the 2021 Saltscapes Amateur Photography contest. His prize? A 2-night Seascape Getaway Package at White Point.

It did not disappoint.

First, let’s state the obvious: going anywhere without the kids for two days was going to feel glorious. It had been over 18 months since we’d been away together overnight, so a leaky shanty would have felt akin to paradise.

White Point delivered. With no leaks.

The resort

Built in 1928, White Point has been a staple on Nova Scotia’s South Shore for almost a century. Our next-door neighbours have been visiting for 50+ years, hosting an annual 5-day reunion onsite with people crisscrossing the country to reach this sandy oasis.

When you arrive a sign reads: Welcome…now relax and enjoy. And it really does feel like, somehow, the salt air and crashing surf just pushes the stress right out of you.

The redesigned main lodge (destroyed by fire in 2011 and rebuilt in 2012) has loads of character. I think it’s best described as upscale rustic. Mis-matched, brightly painted wooden chairs surround the tables; a moose antler light fixture hangs above a giant stone fireplace, and cutlery comes wrapped in gingham napkins. Things are colourful and inviting, but not so busy you feel claustrophobic. There are modern elements – stone fireplaces, exposed metal girders; then you look up and see the requisite pairs of crossed snowshoes (open year-round, they can get away with it). It feels like life at the beach – nothing pretentious and no fine china – but elevated in the best of ways.

And then there are the bunnies.

When we checked in we each received a little brown bag of bunny food. It was so fun to walk around the property and glance up to see bunnies hopping contentedly on the lawn beside you. It’s not overrun, just enough bunnies that you can almost always spot one. They’re friendly and content and likely help cut down on lawnmowing costs each summer.

And, to commemorate our stay, I may have succumbed to the siren call of the gift shop and come home with a bunny mug. It had to be done. And may I say my tea tastes especially delicious this morning.

The beach

The beach was lovely; smaller than I imagined and might feel more crowded in the summer when all the facilities are maxed out.

On our only full day on-site it rained much of the day. We managed to squeeze in an early morning stroll on the beach which was wonderful, but for much of the day – between rain and fog – we couldn’t even see the waves (sure could hear them though)!

The lawn is covered in bright Adirondack chairs, and the rocky shoreline is dotted with wooden benches that provide a great place to contemplate the ocean.

The accommodations

Our package included an ocean-front cottage. I woke up both nights thinking there were hurricane-force winds blowing outside. It was just the constant roar of the ocean. Nature’s white noise. It was lovely and so relaxing, but definitely takes some getting used to!

The cottage was great. Wood floors with one tiny braided rug, perfectly designed for sandy feet. There was a propane fireplace which was lovely after coming in from the rain (Day #2). The bed was comfortable.

I have relatively low demands in terms of accommodations other than cleanliness and safety/quiet and this spot checked all the boxes. It felt like a cottage by the ocean, which is exactly what it was.

They have a range of newer cottages and even houses to rent with more modern amenities, but I liked how I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about sandy feet and wet towels, which is the perfect environment for relaxing at the beach.

The people

We couldn’t believe how many young families were on-site. Everywhere you looked parents were trailing behind curious toddlers. Pets are also welcome, and from our elevated perch in the lounge at lunchtime we enjoyed a birds-eye view of a couple interacting with their very young, very adorable German shepherd puppy.

We know lots of families from the local area that go to White Point; there were also lots of retirees and the resort caters to corporate groups with meeting facilities and large rental spaces (entire homes on-site). It really has something for just about everyone.

You can curl up with a book in the lounge, play games on the beach, rent a paddleboard for the lake, hike local trails, paint rocks with an instructor, or roast s’mores over a firepit.

The food

Lemon tart-in-a-jar; delicious, but not as good as the lobster poutine!

Again – upscale rustic. The food was good; hearty portions, well cooked. No Michelin stars, but I’m not fussy like that. The waitresses were friendly and the ambiance was relaxed.

As mentioned above, the bar was set shockingly low: there is something inherently lovely about eating a meal without children bickering, throwing food at each other, or getting up and down a dozen times to use the washroom, perform cartwheels, and then go to the bathroom again. During our final breakfast, I watched a very competent, patient mother tackle breakfast with two small children (both of whom were incredibly well behaved). I kept watching the happy little scene until one of them, no more than three years old, dissolved into tears complaining there was too much milk in her cereal and then she started gagging and crying while her younger brother happily batted away at his apple slice in the highchair. I looked at the mother with both sympathy and admiration. Then I returned to my very hot, very tasty breakfast which I enjoyed without a single complaint from my own offspring.

Highlights: the lobster poutine. I am a French-fry naturalist. I like French fries. With ketchup (obviously). Full stop. The thought of adding cheese curd and gravy just feels like blasphemy. But take French fries (delicious) add cheese (also delicious) a cream sauce (tasty) and huge chunks of lobster (very, very delicious) and I have to admit you’ve found yourself a really great meal. It was the first thing I had eaten since 10 am and we had just hiked + run for about 13 km in the sun. Delicious is an understatement. It was so good we re-ordered it a second time during the trip.

Honourable mentions: the Country Breakfast, Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Chorizo sausage in their gnocchi dish, and the Chocolate Mocha cake.

Sticky toffee pudding.
Chocolate cake with creamy coffee ganache; you can catch a glimpse of the casual, but cozy, beachfront dining room.

local attractions

The South Shore of Nova Scotia is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s my completely biased opinion, but it’s an unavoidable truth. Gorgeous, long sandy beaches, historic buildings, and lighthouses around every corner.

Carter’s Beach, ranked one of the most beautiful beaches in Canada, is less than 20 minutes from White Point. We happened to visit in the middle of a downpour this time, but have great memories from drier visits in the past.

Summerville Beach – 10 minutes away from White Point – played host to our giant leap of faith from last summer.

The Keji Seaside Adjunct provides a nice hiking trail and the opportunity to spot moose and bear (we didn’t, much to my relief).

We took a quick spin through Liverpool and on a whim visited Astor Theatre; we picked up a lovely watercolour postcard from a local artist in the giftshop for the kiddos, wandered through various art exhibits (somehow we always find art along the way), and ended up touring the theatre.

Built in the early 1900’s and originially known as the Liverpool Opera House, it’s a lovely theatre that played war newsreels in the 40’s and now brings classics like Arsenic and Old Lace and The Mousetrap to life. I definitely want to go back and take in a live show.

While we love traveling with our family, it was nice to escape the rat race of juggling work and extracurriculars for a few days.

But as always happens when we’re away from the kids, we talk about them constantly. We must have said a dozen times “Wouldn’t the kids love it here.”

They would, we did and sometime in the not-so-distant future I’m sure we’ll find ourselves winding along those back-country roads on the South Shore again. And when we pull up and see the order to “…relax and enjoy…” we’ll plan on doing just that.

Destination Nova Scotia: Castle Rock

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon; church was finished for the day and the sunshine beckoned.

My ever-spontaneous husband suggested we hop in the car and meander toward the gorgeous South Shore. A beach seemed like the safe option. En route, we dithered about where to go before finally settling on one of our favourites, but I could tell no one was committed to the idea. A quick Google search string later (“Trails near Bayswater Beach”) and it didn’t take much convincing to turn the car around and check out the nearby Castle Rock hiking trail.

We went in blind. With nothing but a trailhead location, we grabbed our water bottle, a few granola bars, and headed out.

And guess what – Castle Rock delivered.

This was a fair trek, about 10 km out-and-back, but most of the trail was flat and well-groomed. We saw lots of families biking to the base of Castle Rock before the ~2 km hike up the “mountain,” which would dramatically expedite the adventure timeline.

The reward for our physical efforts: a panoramic view of the Chester Basin.

A great family hike and another hidden gem in Nova Scotia’s glistening crown. Not bad for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon in July.

How Do You Get Your Kids to Walk So Much? Q&A

Right after people ask how we get the kids to sign on for long car trips, a follow-up question about our walking habits gets thrown in the mix.

How far do your kids actually walk?

This varies. Last year, during the first wave of COVID lockdowns, we had a 7 km route we walked almost daily. This year we’re a bit rusty and it’s more likely to be a casual 5 km.

We’ve done some long trails with the kids (10+ km); our daughter first walked Cape Split when she was 8 years old. Last summer we did a 7 km morning walk around town and then headed out for an afternoon hike. By day’s end, my then-5-year-old had clocked in at 18 km, with no complaints and relatively little time spent up on parental shoulders. This is a pretty uncommon distance though. During the school year, the kids basically just walk to school (<2 km) and call it a day.

It takes a walk straight up a cliff to get this view, but it’s worth the energy output. Oh Blomidon, how we love you.


The 7- and 5-km routes we walk as a family are for exercise. It’s a great time for us (as parents) to be completely removed from our devices and the lure of work (we both work from home).

One of the biggest factors in our decision to buy a home in our current town was the fact we could walk to school. And we do. Last year we drove to school LESS THAN 10 TIMES. I love that this is the way our very energetic kiddos get to start their day. We walk quickly but tend to pair up parent-child, so each child gets some nice one-on-one time with an adult. There is fresh air, exercise, and all the good stuff walking provides, along with opportunities to bond and discuss things/play games.


We prefer to walk first thing in the morning. During summer vacation this happens before breakfast. The kids will take a granola bar, some dried fruit, or a muffin along. It’s cooler, the kids are rested, no need for sunscreen where we live, and it’s a great launch point for the rest of the day.


This ebbs and flows. Like road trips, the key is practice. Most of the complaining happens before we leave: Do we have to go on a walk today? I’m so tired. But once we get started, they’re generally caught up in the fun of whatever game we’re playing. My husband is really great at this: he’ll come up with little obstacles for them (climb over this rock, walk backwards 4 paces), play word games, and talk through future adventures. For example, we might discuss plans for a birthday party – months and months before the big event. Before COVID brought things to a halt, we were scheduled for travel to the US to visit one of my siblings. For weeks the entire walk to school involved discussions of the airport experience, what to pack, what pranks we’d play (fill a diaper with melted chocolate; set up and decorate a Christmas tree overnight in my sister’s living room – in May). Sometimes the kids just count cars, guess who we’ll see along the walk, or play the quiet game where we see who can stay quietest the longest. It rarely lasts long, but it is certifiably glorious.

Why walking?

Years and years ago, when our daughter was an infant and I was anxious to lose some stubborn postpartum weight, we just started walking.

It’s cheap and a great way to experience nature. We also find it’s a wonderful way to foster conversation (meaningful discussions are harder to have when biking or downhill skiing!).

The iconic, gorgeous, and very “walkable” Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Cape Breton

Any equipment recommendations?

Walking is pretty low maintenance. Good footwear is important. Good-fitting sneakers, a warm pair of winter boots and a waterproof pair of year-round boots, all-terrain hiking shoes, and lots of socks that adequately cover the heel and ankles (I don’t think either kid has experienced the torture of a blister yet, thankfully) are about all you need to get started!

The biggest “equipment” purchase we made was a BabyJogger stroller. We’ve had two of these through the years, both purchased second-hand. They were worth every penny. Such a smooth ride, good safety features, easy to collapse and store and take in the car. Some of the major jogging stroller brands have standing boards for kids that are too big for the stroller, but too little to walk a long distance. For both kids we left them in the stroller far later than most of their peers simply due to the length of the walks we went on.

A good daypack is handy; we have one from MEC that we’ve used for years. It’s small and light, but can hold a surprising amount of stuff (a towel, water, snacks, sunscreen, keys and cellphones, toilet paper).

A total luxury and certainly not an “essential,” but I love using my Apple Watch to measure the distance and pacing of our walks. A much cheaper alternative – my daughter has a $25 amazon-purchased smartwatch that is waterproof and measures most of the same metrics.

Destination Nova Scotia: Cape Split

There are a handful of hikes in Nova Scotia that attract special attention and Cape Split tops the list. I always get a little thrill when I’m driving out-of-province and spot an “I Hiked Cape Split” bumper sticker ahead of me in traffic.

Cape Split brings together hikers of all shapes, sizes, and skill levels. The distance and elevation change is enough to make reaching the end a satisfying accomplishment, while remaining doable for a wide range of fitness capabilities (I know people well into their 70’s that have made the trek). The views from the summit are iconic and make it worth braving mosquitos and a few muddy puddles along the way.

A lesser-known fact: Cape Split provided the backdrop for a battle in the American Revolution. What now?! Though many tides have come and gone since privateers faced off in the Minas Basin, it has an undeniable air of intrigue.

About 13 km roundtrip, the hike requires sturdy footwear (every time I hike this trail I see people heading out in bright white sneakers – they won’t be white on the return trip – or, worse yet, flip-flops) and a good attitude. Originally an out-and-back trail, 2021 has seen the addition of a new loop that allows hikers to follow the coastline for a portion of the walk.

These cliffs and famous “split” have played host to weddings, overnight camping adventures, and many, many picnics. We’ve hiked this with kids in a backpack*, and played hooky on the final day of school with our then 8-year old so she could hike it for the first time. People snowshoe and ski the trail in winter conditions, so it’s accessible year-round, adjusting gear according to temperature and precipitation.

*While friends of ours have taken a stroller out the whole way, I would not consider this trail to be stroller friendly. Also, there are actively eroding cliffs and no railings of any sort. Basically, I would never want to take any child still requiring a stroller into this sort of environment – or certain 6-year old boys who will not be named.

Don’t forget to bring lots of water, some sunscreen, and bug spray (depending on the season) – and always look before you set out on your return trip. We’ve heard horror stories of people leaving their car keys at their picnic site, remembering their oversight after arriving back at the parking lot. I love hiking Cape Split…but not twice in a day.

Expect to sleep well. Bonus points if you swing by Pirate’s Cove on your way home. Double bonus points if you seek out some local ice cream as a refreshing exclamation point to cap off the day.

Casual Friday + Life Update

  • July was tough. I’m processing and adjusting and using the challenges as an impetus to rethink my priorities. It’s all a work in progress and that has to be okay.
  • We’re back at the lake. I felt tense and tired and irritable the first few days – a ball of emotions all tangled up in one giant, exhausted, jumbled mess – it took time to unwind, with a few relapses along the way. A long, late-afternoon nap one afternoon helped. I made and ate my annual s’more; I roasted hotdogs and marshmallows and toasted thick slices of cinnamon raisin bread over a morning bonfire. I went fishing, made sand castles, and helped the kids build several “forts” in the woods. I watched hours and hours of Olympics coverage. I also ate sugar, much more of it than usual, as I let myself enjoy Mom’s homemade chocolate cookies and apple crisp with wild abandon, snacking on handfuls of her famous Nuts-and-Bolts. I drank coffee – lots of it – carting thermoses to the beach, in the boat, and on fishing expeditions to the marina.
  • Two of my favourite bloggers, Sarah Hart-Unger and Laura Vanderkam, have been talking about comparison lately. It’s a topic that warrants attention; we’re innudated with near-constant opportunity to compare these days – from mansions on Instagram to the perfectly manicured mom standing beside us at Tuesday evening soccer practice. My summer weeks spent at the lake all sound idyllic – and so many elements are – but I still felt the heavy weight of exhaustion no amount of coffee was ever going to completely counteract. We all want to put our best foot forward and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. When we name the good in our lives it can buoy us and inspire others, but amidst the daily consumption of this material it can be nearly impossible to remember there is always, always more to everyone’s journey than their highlight reel – look no further than Simone Biles.
  • I continue with my exercise strike. One morning I woke up and said to John: “I cannot believe this time last year I would be up before 6:30, heading out for a run.” I’ve never had my body revolt in this way; not only do I not have the energy for exercise, I’m lacking all drive/compulsion to do so. Typically a daily exerciser, usually I start to crave it after a few days off. Current status = preservation mode? I know I’ll get back in to the routine, but it does feel strange and definitely is a wakeup call to just how tired and rundown I’ve become. That said, my recent combo of sugar + no exercise will have to be reckoned with eventually. Also, I can’t deny the irony of it all given my recent obsession with the Olympics which showcases the epitome of physical activity.
  • The kids fell in love with the Olympics for the first time this year. When Abby mentioned wanting to compete at the Olympics one day, I asked her what sport she’d participate in – “All of them,” was her confident and immediate reply. As I write this Levi is running laps around the house over and over and over, dripping with sweat, all in an effort to beat his “personal best.” I fell in love with the Olympics for the umpteenth time, as I do every time they roll around. I streamed live events well past my bedtime and checked headlines first thing each morning – not necessarily the best way to recupeate from burnout, but totally worth it. And watching Andre de Grasse take gold in the 200 m while my 10-year old was screaming at the screen willing him to carry his lead down the homestretch, well that was pretty awesome.

Destination Nova Scotia: Lighthouses Part 2

With over 170 lighthouses in Nova Scotia, you don’t have to look far to find a next stop for the agenda…

Sure, there are the big hitters like Peggy’s Cove, Cape Sable, and Cape Forchu, but there are lots of other great lighthouses to be visited that often, sadly, fly below the radar. In an effort to give credit where credit is due, here are some more to whet your appetite for lighthouse exploration.

Chebucto Head + Duncan’s Cove

If you happen to visit Chebucto Head Lighthouse and have a few extra minutes (or hours), I’d highly recommend you skip on over to the Duncan’s Cove Nature Reserve. Correction: carve out the time to visit Chebucto Head and make sure you have a few extra hours to check out Duncan’s Cove. One of the most breathtakingly gorgeous hikes I’ve ever discovered (it reminded me a lot of the Bondi to Coogee walk; maybe not quite as epic, but a closer-to-home alternative), Duncan’s Cove is ranked as one of the top hiking trails in Nova Scotia for good reason (and I think the views are even nicer than Cape Split).

The strategic location of Chebucto Head was put to use during WWII and a series of anti-submarine bunkers – built to ward off attack from German U-boats – can be found (and explored) along the hike. The rocky terrain requires agility and sturdy footwear, but persistent hikers will eventually reach the end of the trail and be treated to a view of Sambro Island Lighthouse, the oldest surviving lighthouse in North America. Like Cape Sable, Sambro Island is only accessible via boat (or helicopter) and is definitely on our bucket list.

The tiny speck off-shore in the distance is Sambro Island Lighthouse and you can see the smattering of anti-submarine bunkers en route.

Sandy Cove

Sandy Cove Lighthouse sits at the end of a sand bar at the entrance of Shelburne Harbour. We arrived at low tide so we were able to walk along the beach to the base of the lighthouse (which is inaccessible at high tide).

An unexpected perk: that walk included being surrounded by hundreds of live sand dollars. Anywhere your eyes looked = sand dollars. There were also oodles of hermit crabs and tiny jellyfish – basically an aquarium at our fingertips.

Terence Bay

I present yet another hidden gem. In all my years living in Nova Scotia, I’d never heard of Terence Bay or its lighthouse, but it’s really very picturesque.

The first time we visited it was cold (we seem to have a penchant for visiting lighthouses in our winter duds) and we drove right to the lighthouse. There is a small parking lot … and a few No Trespassing signs which grace the short trail to the lighthouse. We talked to a local couple who told us the access trail is indeed open to the public, but if you’d rather not risk the ire of landowners, you can easily walk on the beach to reach the lighthouse.

On our second visit, we hiked most of the High Head Trail which can be followed all the way to Terence Bay. Whatever way you get there, it feels like Terence Bay just might be the little sister to Peggy’s Cove. Smooth, long rocks for climbing and a great little sandy cove that just begs for little toes to go wading.

Brier Island Lighthouse

Named after the roses that grow wild there, Brier Island is perhaps best known for its whale-watching tours. The westernmost tip of Nova Scotia, Brier Island is accessible only by ferry (once you’ve already accessed – via ferry – and driven across Long Island, home to the iconic Balancing Rock formation).

The Brier Island Lighthouse (also known as the Western Light) demarks the start of the Bay of Fundy – waters south of this location are the Gulf of Maine. A great example of a candy-stripe lighthouse, the Western light is one of the best spots to catch a gorgeous Maritime sunset.

The Northern Light is a functional Coast Guard station. We picked wild strawberries on the lawn and spent a happy hour collecting pottery shards in tidal pools that scattered the rocky shoreline. Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot one, apparently this is the best spot to catch glimpses of whales from shore. Maybe next time…

Pottery shards were everywhere!