“Wet landing or dry landing?”
In the company of golfers, this question typically means one thing and one thing only: did your tee shot carry the water hazard?
But not here, not today. I’m one of about 60 passengers in the dining room aboard the One Ocean Navigator, a six-deck, 6,230-tonne One Ocean Expeditions vessel, gently rocking at anchor off St. Peters Harbour on the northeast coast of Prince Edward Island.
After a 5:30 a.m. wake-up and 6 a.m. breakfast call, we’re in the Q&A portion of the briefing on the day’s itinerary with expedition leader Kaylan Worsnop. It’s our fourth morning at sea — July 1, Canada Day — and the midpoint in One Ocean’s inaugural eight-day, seven-night Fiddles and Sticks East Coast “expedition” golf voyage. We’ve already played rounds on consecutive days across the Northumberland Strait in Inverness, N.S., at Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links — Canada’s number one and number four ranked courses, respectively. So, by this time we’ve learned that the day’s most important footwear choice isn’t golf shoes, but what to don for the Zodiac trip from ship to shore.
“Today will be a beach landing,” Worsnop replies. “It’s also a little splashy out there, so boots and waterproof suits are recommended.”
For much of One Ocean’s cruise calendar, the company’s vessels can be found plying icy ocean waters in the vicinity of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. But a few years ago, the operation added a pair of East Coast options — a one-way northerly route up the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador to Iqaluit on Baffin Island and a Maritimes loop with landings throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On one of the recent latter trips they were anchored within view of a seaside golf course, brainstorming new ideas, and somebody said, “Why not that?” — and Fiddles and Sticks was born.
I’ll say it right here: the course itinerary might be top-notch (Cabot Cliffs, which only opened in 2015, is spectacularly worthy of its number-one ranking), but as golf trips go, this isn’t for everyone. But the same can probably be said for One Ocean’s other cruises, too. If you like it soft, over-the-top posh and never too real, move along. Adventurous spirit? Get in line.
The distinctions are apparent the moment we gather in the mid-afternoon sun on the wharf in Louisbourg, on the southeastern tip of Cape Breton Island, for the start of the cruise. The Navigator is anchored in the harbour, with our luggage and golf clubs already on board. Now it’s the passengers’ turn.
When our moment comes, each of us gets a stern lesson from the expedition staff on the right way — the only way — to step into a Zodiac. Two hours later there’s another mandatory Zodiac safety briefing. Not only are the inflatable craft the workhorses of the trip, but our time in them on the water presents the greatest risk.
It isn’t until the morning off Prince Edward Island, however, with a round of golf awaiting at The Links at Crowbush Cove, the island’s top-rated course, that the value of the boarding lesson hits home. We’re embarking into one- to two-metre swells under low clouds. At the base of the gangway, I lock onto the forearm of the Zodiac pilot and time my move from the platform to the side of the boat to catch a rising wave. When we pull away for shore, I turn to look at the beach and a blast of seawater catches me in the face.
The first two days playing in Inverness, we had “dry” dock landings (the fourth course on the trip, Highlands Links, at Ingonish, just inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park, is also a dock landing). That means our beach landing at Crowbush — 50 or so golfers and a few non-golfing passengers coming to kayak or hike at Greenwich National Park, arriving like cruise-ship commandos in a wave of Zodiacs — is not only a first for Prince Edward Island but possibly for any golf course in Canada.
Crowbush staff meet us with electric carts and drive us right to the clubhouse. By the time we tee off, the sun is breaking through the mist. Appropriately enough for Canada Day, one of the course’s resident beavers also makes an appearance, as do swarms of black flies. But on the trip back to the ship, the waves get rougher still — part roller coaster, part log flume. Later that day, after the staff and crew pull off a barbecue on an open deck in a freshening gale, we learn that the worsening conditions nearly required we be brought back early. That news reminds me that at one of the trip’s early briefings, program coordinator Ian Peck noted that while the itinerary starts at Plan A, sometimes the ocean has other ideas. “This is expedition golf,” said Peck, “so the schedule may change.”
Because it is expedition golf, it’s also difficult choosing what to emphasize about the experience. Make no mistake, the courses belong on every Canadian golfer’s bucket list, and the game is the primary focus: the days we play, the itinerary and the staff’s logistics are organized around it; it dictates the cruise’s overall route; people’s conversations in the bar at happy hour and in the dining room at night are mainly about the courses, conditions and their scores; and there are daily contests for longest drive and nearest to the pin as well as a handicapped four-day scoring competition.
But to write about individual holes, critique the layouts or report on anyone’s play feels misplaced. Compared to a land-based golf trip, Fiddles and Sticks is multi-dimensional. Being on a ship in the ocean, waking up in a different setting each day, the up-close-and-personal dynamic with an energetic expedition staff, and having the option of other off-ship activities such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and cycling — it’s more than just golf. And perhaps that’s the whole idea.
In my case, the two non-golf days are both highlights. While visiting the Magdalen Islands, the small Quebec archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on day three, I join a dozen or so others for a cycling road trip. The south island’s hilly, two-lane roads take us along the shore, then inland through fields and forests and into the tiny tourist town of La Grave. By the time we get back to the beach for a group lunch, we’ve ridden about 35 kilometres. Many passengers opt for other activities in the afternoon, but I go back to the Navigator early. Leg-weary from the ride and keen to soak up some sun, I find my way to the hot tub on the open top deck. A sublime afternoon, sipping a gin and tonic under an all-blue sky and gazing out at the water, gets a lot more sublime when I spot the dorsal fin of one and then ultimately several minke whales cruising by.
Wildlife also takes centre stage on the trip’s penultimate day, when we reach remote Sable Island, which lies in the North Atlantic Ocean nearly 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax. Designated a national park reserve in 2013, this 42-kilometre-long sandbar is most famous for its feral horses, animals originally released there in the 1700s that now live entirely as an unmanaged wild population. Protected since the 1960s, they number about 500.
Historically, Sable Island is also famous for its shipwrecks. Even in this era, fog and fickle seas make any beach landing a same-day decision. Fortunately, the morning of our arrival is fair. We get the all-clear for our last round-trip Zodiac excursion of the cruise and one by one the boats peel off for shore. At the beach, we’re met by a greeting party of large grey seals — at last count, the island was home to 240,000 of them, the largest breeding colony anywhere.
We spend four hours ashore, escorted over the vast, sweeping dunes by Dan Kehler, Parks Canada’s Sable Island ecologist, and it doesn’t take long before we see horses. Park rules require every animal be given a wide berth. Some never let you get close; others are less skittish, plodding slowly over the sand, their long manes blowing wildly in the breeze.
For impact, though, nothing beats contemplating the isolation, expanse and rarity of being part of only a handful of groups that visit the island every year — and to know that you’re one of fewer than 10,000 people to have ever set foot here. A passenger from the United Kingdom describes it as the closest he’ll ever come to an “Adam and Eve” experience.
The night before, expedition leader Worsnop framed it in a way that only now, in the moment, truly resonates. “Why Sable Island?” she asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t seem like a place that has much relevance to a golf-specific trip. But we felt it was important to include on this itinerary because it has a palpable effect on people. It’s a place that teaches perspective, it’s humbling and it awakens wonder.”
Expedition golf, indeed.