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Western Brook Pond Gorge, Newfoundland

David Orkin's guide to Atlantic Canada

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27 April 2018 by David Ward

Atlantic Canada is made up of New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Four distinct provinces, but each with its own character and charm. Here, travel writer David Orkin shares his highlights.

Compared with Europe, most roads are traffic-free and driving is a pleasure. Travelling here feels like going back to a time when life’s pleasures were simpler: shopping at a farmers’ market or a roadside fruit stall, buying lobster fresh off the boat at the wharf, or coming across a moose on a hiking trail. Whale-watching, working fishing villages, stunning beaches, and lighthouses enhance the rugged coastline. You’ll find no shortage of history, Celtic, Acadian and First Nations culture, or challenging golf courses. Dine on delicious freshly-cooked seafood and other local treats. Then catch some live music, or just relax at your character-packed but oh! so comfortable heritage accommodation.

Even better is that most of this fascinating and rewarding region is still off the beaten track: here the words “well-kept secret” still have meaning.

New Brunswick

Whale Watching in Grand Manan of New Brunswick in Atlantic Canada

Whale watching in New Brunswick

This is a visitor-friendly province of forest and mountains, powerful rivers, magnificent coastline, and welcoming towns with delightful B&B’s, inns and restaurants.

Surrounded by nature and bisected by the Saint John River, New Brunswick’s capital, Fredericton, has a wealth of world-renowned art galleries, cultural experiences – and craft breweries.

New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy coastline offers a string of delights both on and offshore. Hopewell Rocks is a wonderful place to experience the world’s highest tides: walk on the ocean floor between the huge sandstone formations, then perhaps return later in the day to “retrace your steps” by kayak with 15 metres of water below you.

One of the musts for hikers, bikers and lovers of the outdoors is the Fundy National Park’s Acadian forest, beach walks, waterfalls and saltwater wetlands.

Along the coast to the west, Saint Andrews (aka St Andrews-by-the-sea) is a picturesque resort town (with a fine golf course) overlooking the Fundy Isles – hop between Grand Manan, Campobello and Deer Islands. This whole area offers a number of excellent whale-watching opportunities.

Newfoundland & Labrador

Icebergs drifting on the Labrador Current in Atlantic Canada

Icebergs on the Labrador Current

Home to vast collections of humpback whales, birds, moose and more, Newfoundland & Labrador is Atlantic Canada’s is largest province, and also its wildest. Precede watching the sun rise at the North American continent’s easternmost point, Cape Spear National Historic Site, with an evening savouring the atmosphere, music and nightlife of colourful St. John’s. Dine on wild game - moose carpaccio, anyone? or local favourites such as “toutons” and “fish ‘n brewis”.

St John’s is home to the province’s main airport, and the island of Newfoundland is connected to Labrador (part of mainland Canada) by air and car ferry.

In easy reach of the capital, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve is said to be home to over a quarter of a million pairs of Atlantic puffins. The fjords of Gros Morne National Park (one of 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites) are truly magnificent, and little compares with whalewatching amongst the huge icebergs that drift down the east coast on the Labrador Current – except perhaps watching them from the comfort of a restored light keeper’s residence! Water from ‘bergs is used locally to make beer and vodka. 

Nova Scotia

Peggy's Cove lighthouse in Nova Scotia in Atlantic Canada

Peggy's Cove lighthouse

Virtually surrounded by the sea, Nova Scotia has a wealth of marine-related folklore.

Pick your own berries at a roadside farm, or try your hand at rug hooking. Learn about Acadian, Gaelic or First Nations culture. Kayak the lakes or coastal waters, cycle the quiet lanes, or walk along the clifftops or through the forests. Go whale-watching, take the perfect lighthouse photo, have a round of golf, and visit a few wineries or one of the many new craft microbreweries. The Bay of Fundy’s world’s highest tides are best experienced on guided ‘tidal bore’ rafting trips: expect to get wet ! Tour the stunning Cabot Trail, one of the world’s great scenic drives. Wander the steep streets of Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, quaint Annapolis Royal (the province’s first capital), or around the fascinating reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg.

The seafood - particularly lobster and scallops - is sumptuous, and after dark head for capital Halifax’s buzzing bars and lively music scene or one of Cape Breton Island’s Celtic ‘kitchen parties’ – if you can resist the combination of a campfire and amazing stargazing. 

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island landscape in Atlantic Canada

The Prince Edward Island coast

Connected to New Brunswick by the magnificent 13km Confederation Bridge, Prince Edward Island (PEI) is Canada’s smallest province. Though long known as the setting of – and inspiration for - Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories, the island’s coastline, rolling green hills, red soil, sand dunes and beaches are all celebrated. But these days, what really steals the show for visitors is the food. With so many incredible local ingredients – think lobster, mussels, oysters and much more - it’s no wonder that PEI is known as “Canada’s Food Island”. A month long culinary celebration takes place in September: The Fall Flavours Festival is one not to miss.

In addition to the food, create an unforgettable vacation touring the lighthouses, hearing the live music, attending festivals, visiting wineries and breweries, and relaxing on the sand. Visit Charlottetown, the friendly, vibrant, province capital. Have an authentic PEI experience and own a Standardbred racehorse for an evening, dig for clams and experience an authentic beach clambake, or make moonshine (legally!). Oh, and don’t forget Green Gables!

Tips for travelling to Atlantic Canada:

  1. There are direct 5-6 hour flights between both London and Dublin and St John’s, Newfoundland. Reach Halifax, Nova Scotia, direct from Heathrow, Dublin or Glasgow. 
  2. Don’t confuse St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador with Saint John, New Brunswick.
  3. Rather than rushing from A to B, get more from this fascinating region by giving yourself time to stop and explore.
  4. With both road and short car ferry connections, why not fly to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and also explore New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island?

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