10 November 2016 by Simon Langley
The bustling waterfront of Halifax will be an uncanny memory of urban living as you strike out into the natural beauty of Nova Scotia’s dramatic coastlines and pristine national parks. One of the world’s great ocean drives awaits on Cape Breton Island’s Cabot Trail, where you can also expect encounters with whales and other sea life, while all around you are reminders of how the natural world has been conquered but never tamed by First Nations Mi’kmaq, Scottish settlers or today’s 900,000 inhabitants. Here’s a selection of unmissable highlights of this wild and wonderful region.
The historic provincial capital is the starting point for most Nova Scotia tours. Head for the waterfront to get a feel for the city. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 tells the story of the million immigrants who were processed there between 1928 and 1971, as well as a broader sweep of over 400 years of European settlers’ journeys. Explore the British fortress at Halifax Citadel, a National Historic Site overlooking the deep natural harbour it was built to defend, and take a boat ride to look back onto the city. Then, take a stroll through the tranquil Victorian-era Public Gardens before sampling the lively bars and eateries.
Less than an hour’s drive south of Halifax, Peggy’s Cove’s famous lighthouse is one of the most visited and photographed in Canada. The picturesque fishing village has simply constructed wooden homes dotted among wave-washed boulders while fishing boats ply their trade from a wharf strewn with nets and lobster pots. Take a hike in the thousand-acre Preservation Area to see how ancient glaciers shaped the land, and visit the deGarthe Gallery and Museum to view a collection of paintings depicting historic fishing practices.
Following the lighthouse route down the coast, you’ll reach the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lunenburg, where British colonial settlement buildings dating back to the 1750s trace the town’s evolution through fishing and shipbuilding. Other attractions include the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, and summer sailings on the replica schooner Bluenose II.
A seaport since the Viking era, Yarmouth prospered greatly in the 19th century shipbuilding boom, aided by the plentiful availability of local lumber and skilled labourers. The sprawling former residences of merchants, ship owners and sea captains testify to the wealth accrued through trade with the Caribbean, South America, Europe and the Far East. Fine churches and sturdy Victorian warehouses also went up at this time and offer further glimpses into the past.
Bay of Fundy
The Bay of Fundy is known for the world’s highest tides, and the power of the sea can be best felt on a tidal bore rafting trip, riding the crest of the white-tipped rapids as they reverse the flow of the rivers that feed the bay. At low tide, the waters retreat by up to 3 miles, exposing vast tracts of the ocean floor. At Joggins Fossil Cliffs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tidal erosion constantly reveals new evidence of life among ancestors of the dinosaurs dating back 300 million years. Some of the best whale watching tours can be enjoyed at Digby Neck and Brier Island from June to October. As well as the main attraction, you’re likely to encounter dolphins, seals, leatherback turtles and marine birds, including gannets, bald eagles and puffins.
Annapolis Royal & Annapolis Valley
French Acadia’s administrative and military centre, established as Port Royal in 1605, was the first permanent European settlement in Canada. Today this quaint seaside town is a melting pot of Mi’kmaq, French and British (notably Scottish) heritage. At Fort Anne, Canada’s oldest National Historic Site, you can view the 17th century Royal Charter that gave rise to Nova Scotia’s name and flag. There’s a vibrant waterfront shopping, arts and culture scene and lots of outdoor activities in the surrounding valley, which is also home to several up-and-coming vineyards.
Long, sandy stretches and warm waters attract a beach crowd, and there are excellent golf courses in Pugwash, New Glasgow, Antigonish and Fraser’s Mountain in Pictou County. The town of Pictou is known as ‘the birthplace of New Scotland’ and Antigonish has its own Highland Games each July. The Wallace Bay National Wildlife Area on the Northumberland Strait is an important habitat for migrant and nesting waterfowl, encompassing marine and freshwater wetlands.
Cabot Trail/Cape Breton Island
The Cabot Trail is one of the finest coastal drives in North America. It winds for 185 miles, darting through old-growth forests, glacier-scarred rock, isolated fishing villages, the rugged Cape Breton Highlands and alongside the fast-flowing Margaree River. Cape Breton Island is another good spot for whale watching, and tours operate daily through summer and autumn from many points along the Cabot Trail.