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The bar stools are occupied, the scent of barbecue wafts in the air, and drinks pass from hand to hand. With the sun shining and the sand hot underfoot, you might mistake this lively scene for an afternoon in the Caribbean. But it’s a friendly neighbourhood tiki bar on the North Shore of Nova Scotia.

In true East Coast style, when the weather is good, everyone heads to the beach. And that goes for BJ and Cathie Ross and their neighbouring cottagers.

Inspired by the tiki huts the couple saw on vacation in the Caribbean, the group of friends built their first bar 10 years ago.

“When I came across the tiki huts down south, I thought that’s exactly what our beach needs,” says BJ, who works in the landscape construction industry. “It became a gathering spot right from the beginning. It was like a magnet. Everyone encircled it.”

The couple’s cottage, which has been in Cathie’s family for more than a century, is on a cliff overlooking the Northumberland Strait. Five families share the same set of stairs down to the beach. At the bottom, you’ll find the tiki and, if the sun is shining, a crowd.

Their first structure was simple: a countertop, a plywood board, and a few painted signs. But last summer, BJ took his tiki game to the next level.

“The 2022 bar was the bar to beat all others,” he laughs. 

The 10-by-12-foot structure had a nautical theme, with buoys, fishing rope, and driftwood. It also had solar lights, flags, a tabletop barbecue, and a big sign advertising the “happy hour specials” — all contributions from friends and family.

“I didn’t want it to look too formal or too perfect. There are a lot of flaws in it,” BJ says. “We wanted it to look simple, yet inviting. A place where someone could come up to the bar and sit down and chat with everyone. We work hard through the week and treasure what few nice weekends we have. It’s just a nice way to relax.”

BJ also notes that he didn’t build it alone. “It’s not BJ’s tiki bar. It’s the beach’s tiki bar. Everyone has had a hand in it. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Another reason for last summer’s upgrade was that one of their neighbours was getting ready for a family wedding, which they planned to have on the beach.

“We were able to get some really nice photos of the wedding party in front of the tiki hut,” says BJ. “We worked the bar for about three hours, serving margaritas. Everyone enjoyed it.”

 

A new year, a new bar

BJ doesn’t start building the bar until June, and he wasn’t ready to share this year’s design at press time.

“I can’t wait to do something bigger and better this year,” he says. “I don’t start out with a plan. I just go down and start nailing things together.”

He is thinking about adding some umbrellas — for those who like the shade — and perhaps a more elaborate barbecue setup.

He has all the pieces from last year’s bar and has been gathering more wood from around the property. He has an abundance of excess wood.

Hurricane aftermath

Every fall, BJ dismantles the bar and brings it up to higher ground for the winter. In 2022, it came down a bit earlier in anticipation of hurricane Fiona in late September.

Not knowing what to expect leading up to the storm, he and Cathie decided not to stay at the cottage the night of the hurricane and rented a hotel room in town. They were glad they did.

“Coming back the next day, it took us over an hour to get down the road because there were so many trees down blocking our way. We just couldn’t believe it.”

Their area of the North Shore was hit particularly hard, with waves coming up over the five-metre bank onto their yard. The storm downed most of their trees and swept away almost two metres of their lawn. They had no power for almost a month.

Some neighbouring cottages lost windows and had severe structural damage. But it isn’t just hurricanes impacting the local landscape. Each winter the storms and ice buildup cause more beach erosion.

“It’s always a struggle to find a place for the bar. We keep having to move it further and further back.”

The bank in front of the cottage is also slowly eroding away, bringing the cottage closer to the sea.

“Given the location of the cottage, it will eventually be a problem,” says BJ. “Not in my lifetime, hopefully. But our kids and grandkids will likely see it.”

Cathie has an old black and white photo of the cottage from 100 years ago that shows open farmland. Newer cottages now dot the landscape. There is what looks like an old Model T Ford in the background and their cottage is almost unrecognizable, after years of upgrades and renovations. The few neighbouring cottages are different too.

BJ points to one. “Where that cottage was back then, is where the beach is now.”

 

Beyond the tiki

When COVID hit in 2020, and health officials encouraged people to spend more time outside, BJ and Cathie began planning new outdoor spaces in their yard. They planted new gardens and built a new deck, outdoor kitchen and fire pit patio. BJ also built himself a synthetic putting green and outdoor basketball court, which all the cottagers and their friends are more than welcome to use.

“People say to me, ‘Why don’t you relax?’ But I’m not the type to spend the weekend reading a novel,” he says. “I want to go outside and build stuff.”   


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