Expect the unexpected
on Canada's Atlantic coast
Tens of thousands of Britons cross Nova Scotia every year. The pity of it is that they only ever get within 6 miles of the place. The passenger taking a casual glance from 30,000 ft will barely give it a thought as they fly west for another uncomfortable hour or more. Despite being the shortest direct flight to North America, this land of ocean and lakes is a largely undiscovered gem.
Every season has its attractions, but none more so than spring in Nova Scotia, which comes a few weeks later than in the UK. It gives the visitor an opportunity to experience the friendliness of the people and the relaxed pace of life before most visitors arrive.
Nowhere is the contrast to the UK more striking than in your first experience. Approaching over the last traces of winter snow and ice, my Airbus touched down at Halifax after just six hours flying. After the maelstrom of Heathrow, Stanfield International Airport is a haven of peace and quiet. One other jet was at the terminal, ready to depart. The understandably short queue at immigration was dealt with efficiently and without the brusque interrogation that sometimes characterises its US counterparts. To feel welcomed to a country is a great start, and others could learn a lot from that.
The immigration officer’s mother hailed from Brentwood and in the next few weeks I found that was a common theme; every other person had parents or grandparents from the UK, unless they were born here themselves. This process has gone on for centuries as waves of mainly British immigrants have settled. Familiar place names abound and because they are so familiar, their proximity to one another can be confusing. Bridgewater is a short drive from Liverpool (where of course the Mersey enters the Atlantic), Cambridge and Berwick are neighbours, and commuting between Bedford and Halifax is commonplace.
Once one of the great cities of the Empire, Halifax has lost that cache but has everything else that you might expect. The big hotel chains are all there, mainly clustered round the waterfront, the old heart of the city and its reason for being. Like the whole province, Halifax looks towards to the ocean, which has shaped its fortunes and its history. And there’s plenty of history to see.
Pier 21 is both a family history centre and a re-creation of the old immigrant gateway to Canada. Particularly well done is the audio-visual presentation (‘film’ does not do it justice) describing the new immigrants’ experience.
The old fortress of The Citadel occupies the high ground at the centre of the city and gives views across Halifax harbour to the Dartmouth shore and north to Bedford Basin. This huge expanse of water was used as safe anchorage to assemble wartime convoys. That history held particular interest for me and I had a great reception when I visited HMCS Sackville, a WWII convoy escort vessel, still serviceable and restored to its wartime condition.
There’s history of another sort at Doull’s, an amazing second hand bookshop on Barrington Street. Doesn’t sound like a tourist attraction? You won’t find it on the hotel ‘what to do in Halifax’ list, but if books are your thing (and they are mine) then a visit is highly recommended, if for nothing else but to wonder at the thousands crammed ceiling-high on every shelf. Wait a few days until you have adjusted to the local pace and you won’t notice time slipping by as you leaf through books you never thought you’d even pick up. A faintly musty aroma comes free with every volume purchased.
For anything in the way of local writers or knowledge, you can’t do better than the Atlantic Emporium on Upper Water Street. Looks like a gift shop, feels like a gift shop - stocked like a specialist bookseller. If you’re spoilt for choice then anything on Oak Island will do – pirates, treasure and unsolved mysteries.
When it comes to eating out there is a predictably large and reasonably priced choice, not just in the downtown area but all over Halifax. Seafood and beef may dominate menus, but you’ll also find a good selection of pasta, chicken and lamb dishes. Portions are usually generous, but it’s quite usual to share a course or simply take home what you don’t eat. Not something we Brits take to easily.
My one foray to something special was at The Press Gang, centrally placed in Prince Street. Excellent food and reasonable wine selection, all presented with the customary informal and friendly service, another hallmark of Nova Scotia.
If you are in town on a Saturday morning, then head for the Farmers Market, located in an old brewery on Lower Water Street. Open at 7am, it has all the foodstuffs you can imagine plus clothes, artwork, jewellery, live music and more. All straight from the producer, so you can get personal recommendations from the people who grew/bottled/made whatever it is that catches your eye.
Getting around the province is extremely easy - if you have a car. Outside Halifax, public transport is mainly limited to a few long distance coach services. There is the railway which will take you all the way to Vancouver, but that is another story altogether. Beyond the metro area there is no getting away from the fact that you need a car (or a bike or stout walking boots – I had neither). At least there is pleasure to be had in the driving. Mile after mile (kilometres actually) of near empty roads, whether it be on the main highways that radiate from Halifax or the less travelled ‘old’ routes. Whichever you choose, be sure to fill the tank, gas stations can be few and far between in rural areas. Petrol is not as cheap as in the US, but at 60p a litre (yes, litres) it’s a lot less than back home.
My base was Chester, about 45 minutes from Halifax on the South Shore. It’s a sizeable community that lives for the summer and the yachting. For decades, large numbers of visitors from the US have vacationed there, so much so that the area is sometimes known as the American Coast. In spring it is just waking from hibernation. That is another advantage for the early tourist – renting somewhere to stay can be inexpensive, especially for a group. A quick trawl of the web will reveal dozens of holiday lets. What that doesn’t show is the price that you can end up paying. The ‘season’ is generally deemed to start mid-May or June through to September. Owners are often happy to let out their properties before the advertised start dates, and the rates can be very flexible, sometimes less than 20% of the season rates. But you have to be prepared to haggle; again, that can feel unnatural for Brits when booking holidays.
Head further south along the Lighthouse Route (so named for obvious reasons) via Mahone Bay, Lunenburg, Bridgewater and Liverpool and you travel along a coast of white sand, rocky inlets and tiny harbours, reminiscent of New England. That reminder is underlined by the universal clapboard houses with their decks and jetties and piles of logs for winter fuel.
When I visited Lunenburg on a brilliant sunny evening at the end of April, there was still a chill in the air. Night time temperatures can drop to sub-zero at that time of the year, just as easily as they can climb to the high twenties during the day.
The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to Bluenose II, one of the tall ships and a sail training vessel. As ever in Nova Scotia, the community is centred around the quay and many of the buildings had just received their pre-season paint job. With a low sun out of the deepest of blue skies it was difficult to imagine a more appealing townscape. Not all the restaurants had woken from winter slumber, but I was lucky to chance on The Tin Fish. A good menu, friendly staff and excellent food washed down with a glass of very pleasant Nova Scotian wine. All for around $30 (£18).
Head north-west from Chester across the hump back of the province and you journey for an hour or so on quiet roads through a land of rolling pastures, deep forest and glittering lakes before reaching the Annapolis Valley. This is rich farming country, separated from The Bay of Fundy by the steep escarpment of North Mountain. From the wide valley floor, twisting roads climb up and over the hills, then gently descend to sleepy fishing villages like Harbourville.
The Bay is world renowned for its huge tidal range and for the fossils regularly recovered from its sandy cliffs. Surrounded by stunning beauty, it was sad to find the high-water line marked by a veritable ridge of plastic waste, accumulated by the tides from every corner of the globe.
Longer excursions brought their own rewards. Picking up the Trans Canada Highway near Truro, I headed towards Antigonish on the north coast. This bustling university town sits at the head of Antigonish Harbour, a wide inlet off The Northumberland Strait, with a handful of settlements along its shores. Canada being a bi-lingual country it came as no surprise to find that street names were shown in two languages. The surprise was that the second language was not French but Gaelic, underlining the strong Scottish influence in this area.
It was tempting to stay on the ‘Sunrise Trail’ and go right on to Cape Breton Island, which forms the northern quarter of the province, but the attractions of the Bras d’Or Lake will have to keep for another visit. Instead, I turned off the main route and cut east on minor roads through mist and forest towards Guysborough, before meeting the Atlantic once again at Tor Bay. There I had the pleasure of two nights in the tiny settlement of Charlos Cove, no more than a couple of dozen houses scattered round a picture postcard bay. Here, as elsewhere, the French heritage vies with the Scottish. Painted on a rock by the shore was the Acadian flag, the tricolore overlaid with a single gold star; a few houses back from the beach Nova Scotia’s blue saltire fluttered in the breeze.
What the little cottage lacked in mod cons was more than made up by the welcome and the warmth of the wood stove. And it was only 10 yards from the sea. Across the bay at the old jetty, the last of generations of fishermen landed their lobster catches from just two boats. Sitting with me (and a bottle of beer) on the tiny front porch, Donald, born and bred in the hamlet, recalled days when there were forty or more working from the cove.
Out for a meal in the evening, I was expecting a long drive, but this is a land of pleasant surprises. Just a walk round the bay, hidden by trees, was The Seawind Landing, a cosy hotel and restaurant, and certainly not what you would expect to find in the back of beyond. More good food, lobster from one of the boats, and good value (2 course meal with wine about $30), courtesy of the new-ish owners David and Ann-Marie.
Heading south from Tor Bay back towards Halifax, the main road regularly dips down to the spectacular coast with its countless sea lochs and scatterings of towns and smaller communities. On the horizon, Atlantic islands slip in and out of the mists, even on the sunniest of days. It takes no great leap of the imagination to be reminded of the beauty of the west of Scotland.
At Ship Harbour I took one of many detours to follow the western shore of the loch down past Mussel Island to Clam Harbour. It added another dawdling hour to my journey, time well spent in this land that just refuses to be hurried and constantly delights.
1st published June 2009. Links added later. If any have stopped working then please get in touch. DJW