Just under 200 kilometers off Nova Scotia’s eastern coastline is a 40-kilometer-long sliver of sand that was known to generations of seafarers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Protected today as a national park, Sable Island is inhabited by a herd of horses that have taken on almost mythical proportions.
[pullquote align=right]Protected today as a national park, Sable Island is inhabited by a herd of horses that have taken on almost mythical proportions.[/pullquote]The island is made up entirely of sand. The sand is part of a terminal moraine left behind by the receding ice cap at the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago. Hardy marram grass stabilizes the central part of the island, while seals and birds are also native. The island’s most famous residents are horses; they were introduced in the late 1700s. Some say it was to feed shipwreck victims, while others claim they were aboard ships that came to grief. Today, Sable Island is home to about 400 horses. They are of special interest since they are one of the world’s few truly wild horse populations, without feral intruders (such as domestic horses gone wild), and they are free to roam, feed, and reproduce without human interference.
Since Sable Island was first mapped in the late 1500s, more than 350 vessels have been wrecked along its fog-shrouded shore (the last was a small yacht, the Merrimac, in 1999). In 1801 a station manned with a lifesaving crew was established on the island. This government-operated service soon expanded to five stations and continued until 1958. Today, the island has a year-round population of fewer than 20 people—mostly scientists who study the weather and monitor the island’s environment.
Visiting Sable Island
Only about 200 intrepid travelers visit Sable Island each year, most arriving by air charter or private vessel and staying for just the day. The season runs June-October, but June and July are often foggy. If you’d like to visit, the first step is to register with Parks Canada (902/426-5080). You will then need to arrange fixed-wing air charters from Halifax through Sable Aviation (902/499-7941), which charges $6,200 for the round-trip, inclusive of taxes; Parks Canada also charges a $500 per flight landing fee (collected by the airline). These flights take up to seven passengers, so the best way to reduce costs is to check the company website for a link to a Facebook page dedicated to sharing costs of reaching the island. The best source of island information is the website of the Friends of Sable Island Society.
If you don’t have a lot of time to explore Halifax or just want an introduction to the city, consider one of the many tours available—they’ll maximize your time and get you to the highlights with minimum stress.
The harbor front’s premier attraction, the magnificent schooner Bluenose II divides her summer between Halifax, her home port of Lunenburg, and goodwill tours to other Canadian ports.
The vessel is an exact replica of the famous Bluenose. The schooner is operated by the Lunenburg Marine Museum Society on behalf of the Province of Nova Scotia. When in Halifax, two-hour harbor tours (902/634-4794 or 800/763-1963, daily 9:30am and 1pm, adult $55, child $32) are available from the Maritime Museum’s wharf. Each sailing has 75 spots—40 spots can be reserved by calling, with the remaining 35 going on sale 90 minutes before departure. Without a reservation, expect to line up for a spot.
Harbour Hopper Tours
Harbour Hopper Tours (902/490-8687, adult $35, senior $32, child $20) picks up passengers from the north side of the maritime museum for a quick trip around the historic streets of Halifax. Then the fun really starts, as the company’s distinctive green and yellow amphibious vehicles plunge into the water for a cruise around the harbor. The trip lasts around one hour, with up to 20 departures daily May-October (9am-9:30pm). The ticket kiosk is on the waterfront just north of the maritime museum.
Other Halifax Harbor Cruises
Many other sightseeing craft also offer harbor tours. Murphy’s on the Water (Cable Wharf, 1751 Lower Water St., 902/420-1015) operates several vessels through a sailing season that runs mid-May-late October. The 23-meter wooden sailing ketch Mar departs up to six times daily (adult $35, senior $32, child $19). The Harbour Queen I is a 200-passenger paddle wheeler offering a narrated harbor cruise (adult $35, senior $32, child $19) and a variety of lunch and dinner cruises ($72 for dinner).
Halifax Bus Tours
Ambassatours (902/423-6242 or 800/565-9662) has the local Grayline franchise. The three-hour Deluxe Historic Halifax City Tour includes stops at the Public Gardens, Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, and Fairview Cemetery. The tour also passes all major downtown attractions, working precincts of the harbor, and various university campuses. This tour departs June-mid-October daily at 9am and 1pm (adult $52, senior $49, child $30).
Another option with Ambassatours is a downtown loop tour aboard an old British double-decker bus (mid-June-mid-Oct.; adult $54, child $26). You can get on and off as you please at any of the 12 stops on the loop, and tickets are valid for two days (a good plan is to ride the entire loop once, and then plan your stops for the second go-round).
This same company also has a three-hour trip to Peggy’s Cove (departs June-mid-Oct. Tues., Thurs., and Sun. at 1pm; adult $50, senior $45, child $35) and a full-day trip that combines a stop in Mahone Bay with time in Lunenburg (departs June-Oct. Tues., Thurs., Sat., and Sun. at 10am; adult $88, senior $79, child $62).
More than any other region of Canada, the Atlantic provinces are defined by water, which divides as well as unifies them. The planet’s mightiest tides surge through the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Cabot Strait separates Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton and the island of Newfoundland’s southern coastline. The unexpectedly warm Northumberland Strait, heated by the Gulf Stream, is a broad blue parenthesis dividing Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. On the island’s north side spreads the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Baie des Chaleurs, its warmth owing to its shallow depth, lies between northeastern New Brunswick and Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula.
[pullquote align=right]More than any other region of Canada, the Atlantic provinces are defined by water, which divides as well as unifies them.[/pullquote]Along Labrador’s coast, currents from the chilly Labrador Sea move southward and fork into a channel known as the Strait of Belle Isle, which separates the island of Newfoundland from the mainland, while the rest of the current washes along Newfoundland’s eastern coast.
If it were possible to walk the profoundly reticulated coastlines of the four provinces, following every cove, bay, point, and peninsula, the footsore traveler would log some 40,000 kilometers before eventually returning to the starting point.
The sea’s pervasive presence is felt throughout the region, but the ties to the ocean are perhaps strongest in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, whose outer coasts confront the open Atlantic. The waters off Newfoundland in particular—the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks along the continental shelf—are among the most productive fisheries in the world, for five centuries an unbelievably rich resource for tuna, mackerel, herring, lobster, and cod.
On Prince Edward Island, surrounded by water, fishing is a major industry. But agriculture is an equally important component of the economy, the benevolent result of the last ice age, which blessed the land with a deep fertile loam. New Brunswick faces the sea on two sides and joins the mainland with a massive sweep of land rich in forests and ores, and hence has an economy comprised of fishing, forestry, and mining.
Colossal Fundy Tides
The world’s highest tides rise in the upper Bay of Fundy, with up to a 17-meter vertical gain at the head of the bay. The tides work on roughly a six-hour cycle, and each peak or low arrives 50 minutes later each day. Twice daily, six hours after high tide, the bay is empty, but then the Fundy surges onward and water funnels into the bay and up numerous rivers. The upper Fundy is split into two arms by Cape Chignecto, the wedge-shaped point that angles into the bay. On its west side, Chignecto Bay with its raw lonesome coastline penetrates inland and finishes at Cumberland Basin near Amherst. On the cape’s other side, the bay compresses itself first into the Minas Channel. It is here in the upper reaches of the bay that the tides are highest. By the time rising water funnels into the head of the bay, it is in the form of a tidal bore (lead wave) that rides inland up the area’s rivers. The arriving wave can be a dainty, ankle-high ripple or an upright wall of knee-high water, depending on the tide.
Due to the convoluted coastline, viewing the phenomena is possible at dozens of points around the Bay of Fundy, including Truro (Nova Scotia) and Moncton (New Brunswick), where riverside parks have been set aside for watching the bore. At Hopewell Rocks (New Brunswick), you can “walk on the ocean floor” at low tide. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can even take a rafting trip down the Shubenacadie River (Nova Scotia) as the bore moves upstream. Tide tables are posted in shops and storefronts throughout the region. Tides are highest around the full or new moon.
Warning: The Bay of Fundy at low tide can be perilously alluring, when the coastal sea floor looks tranquilly bare and mudflats glisten like glass. High tide’s arrival is subtle and hardly noticeable. The distant tidal stirrings alert sea birds, and they cry out and wheel and turn across the sky. But then the sea moves in relentlessly, swelling and pushing forward into the bay at 6 knots per hour—and up to 13 knots in tidal rips. The incoming sea can wash across the empty bay faster than a person can swiftly walk. Only a foolhardy sightseer walks the mudflats; the high tide stops for nothing.
Thankfully, the Nova Scotian cuisine promoted today is very different from what locals traditionally dined on. In what was a difficult environment, generations past were happy eating salt pork, salt cod, hardtack (a type of vegetable), and vegetables that were boiled longer than necessary. Locals have traditionally shunned hot spices and go lightly on other condiments. While country-style cooking embodies the essence of provincial style in the smaller towns and seaports, dining in Halifax offers more sophisticated global fare.
If you travel on your stomach, look for the Taste of Nova Scotia emblem affixed to restaurants’ front windows or doors. The emblem is awarded to dining places judged noteworthy by the province.
Highlights of Nova Scotia Food
[pullquote align=right]Local delicacies include wild chanterelle mushrooms, smoked mackerel pâté, and seafood from lobster to locally caught Digby scallops and Solomon Gundy (pickled herring).[/pullquote]Regardless of cooking styles, seafood, red meat, and produce abound. Local lamb originates in Pictou County. Fruits and vegetables are fresh and are often picked from backyard inn and restaurant gardens. Local delicacies include wild chanterelle mushrooms, smoked mackerel pâté, and seafood from lobster to locally caught Digby scallops and Solomon Gundy (pickled herring). Preserves are generally homemade. Soups vary from lobster chowder thickened with whipped cream to pea soup brimming with corned-beef chunks.
Salmon is often cooked on a cedar board plank before an open fire, as the Mi’kmaq historically prepared it. Desserts know no limit and vary from trifles rich with raspberry jam and sherry, to cheesecakes concocted of local cheese and cream, to molded flans embellished with fruit toppings.
While Anglo cuisine features red meats, Acadian fare is based on seafood. Common Acadian-style dishes include seafood chowder, shellfish (shrimp and crab), and fish (especially mackerel, herring, and cod). For variety, Acadian menus might offer chicken fricot (chicken stew), poutine râpé (boiled or deep-fried pork and grated raw potatoes, rolled into a ball and dipped in corn or maple syrup or molasses), and rappie pie (filled with a mixture of clams or chicken with grated potatoes as translucent as pearls). Desserts include sugar pie, apple dumplings, and cinnamon buns. Acadian cooking may be terribly hard on the waistline, but it’s delicious. The best places to sample Acadian cuisine are along La Côte Acadienne (Fundy Coast) and in Chéticamp (Cape Breton Island).
All the popular Canadian and American beers are available at bars and liquor stores, but you should be drinking the Halifax-brewed Keith’s if you want to look like a local. Halifax also has a number of microbreweries.
Nova Scotia has 70 grape growers and 550 acres of commercially harvested grapes. Local wines are prominently displayed on wine lists throughout the province, especially those from Jost Vineyards, along the Northumberland Strait. Most grapes are French hybrids, but the local specialty is ice wine, made by a process in which the grapes aren’t harvested until after the first frost; the frost splits the skins and the fermentation process begins with the grapes still on the vine. These concentrated juices create a super sweet wine. Ice wine is generally marketed in a distinctively narrow 375-milliliter bottle and promoted as a dessert wine. The website Wines of Nova Scotia is a good source of information.
The legal drinking age in Nova Scotia is 19, the same as all other Canadian provinces except Québec, Manitoba, and Alberta (where it is 18).
During the 1850s, about 900 of St. Ann’s residents, dissatisfied with Cape Breton, sailed away to Australia and eventually settled in New Zealand, where their descendants today make up a good part of the Scottish population. Despite this loss of nearly half its population, St. Ann’s, 80 kilometers south of Ingonish and 30 kilometers north of Baddeck, is today the center of Cape Breton’s Gaelic culture.
[pullquote align=right]The popular Celtic Colours International Festival takes place the second full week of October.[/pullquote]A good place to eat in this area is the Lobster Galley (51943 Cabot Trail, 902/295-3100; daily 7:30am-10pm; $12-28), at the head of St. Ann’s Harbour. Fish cakes and Caesar salad are just $12, a filled lobster roll $18; or try the full lobster dinner for $28.
Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts
The only institution of its kind in North America, the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts (51779 Cabot Trail, 902/295-3411) was established in 1938. Programs include Highland dancing, fiddling, piping, Gaelic language, weaving, and other subjects. The summer session attracts Gaelophiles from around the world. The Great Hall of the Clans (July-Aug. daily 9am-5pm, free), on the campus, examines the course of Scottish culture and history, including the migrations that brought Highlanders to Cape Breton. Activities include weaving and instrument-making demonstrations, as well as music and dance performances (July-Aug. Mon.-Fri.). The campus gift shop sells a predictable collection of kilts and tartans.
Celtic Colours International Festival
The popular Celtic Colours International Festival (902/567-3000 or 888/355-7744) takes place the second full week of October. It celebrates Cape Breton’s Gaelic heritage through concerts held at venues around the island, but the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts is a focal point, especially for its nightly Festival Club, where musicians get together for an unofficial jam after performing elsewhere. The festival proper features six or seven concerts nightly, usually in small town halls, with visitors enjoying the brilliant colors of fall as they travel from venue to venue.
St. Ann’s is 80 kilometers (over an hour) south of Ingonish and 30 kilometers (25 minutes) north of Baddeck. To get to St. Ann’s from Halifax, it’s 400 kilometers (five hours) northeast.
Atlantic Canada’s most photographed site is a 40-minute drive southwest from Halifax, and the place is everything its fans say it is. With the houses of the tiny fishing village clinging like mussels to weathered granite boulders at the edge of St. Margaret’s Bay, the Atlantic lathering against the boulder-bound coast, the fishing boats moored in the small cove, and the white octagonal lighthouse overlooking it all, the scene is the quintessence of the Nova Scotia coast.
[pullquote align=right]The only accommodation has just five guest rooms, so book well ahead if you’d like to stay overnight in this delightful village.[/pullquote]Sightseers clog the village during the daytime (to miss the worst of the crowds, get there before 9am or after 5pm), wandering along the wharves and around the weathered granite boulders surrounding the photogenic lighthouse. Peggy’s Cove has a population of just 60 souls, so don’t come expecting the services of a tourist town. The village has just one B&B, a restaurant, and the deGarthe Gallery (109 Peggy’s Point Rd., 902/823-2256; May-Oct. daily 9am-5pm, free). The latter, along the main road through town, displays the work of Finnish-born artist William deGarthe, whose stunning nautically themed oil paintings grace galleries the world over. Behind the gallery, deGarthe sculpted a 30-meter-long frieze on a granite outcropping. It depicts 32 of the seaside village’s fishermen and families.
The town received worldwide attention in September 1998, when a Swissair MD-11 jetliner bound from New York City to Geneva crashed in shallow waters off the coast here, killing all 229 people aboard. A small memorial overlooks the ocean along Highway 333, two kilometers west of the village.
Food in Peggy’s Cove
The road through the village ends at the Sou’wester Restaurant (178 Peggy’s Point Rd., 902/823-2561; June-Aug. daily 8am-8:30pm, Sept.-May daily 9am-8pm; $12-28), a cavernous room with a menu designed to appeal to the tourist crowd. And as the only place in town to eat, attract them it does—try to plan your meal before 10am or after 5pm. The menu does have a distinct maritime flavor, with dishes such as fish cakes, pickled beets, and eggs offered in the morning. The rest of the day, seafood continues to dominate, with haddock and chips for $15 and a full lobster supper under $30.
Accommodations in Peggy’s Cove
The only accommodation has just five guest rooms, so book well ahead if you’d like to stay overnight in this delightful village. At the head of the actual cove, Peggy’s Cove Bed and Breakfast (17 Church Rd., 902/823-2265 or 877/725-8732, Apr.-Oct., $155 s or d including breakfast) has well-furnished guest rooms with wireless Internet, a living area, a dining room, and a deck promising magnificent views across the cove.
Peggy’s Cove is about 45 kilometers southwest of Halifax, on Highway 333. The drive takes about 40 minutes.
If you’re an avid birder, Atlantic Canada’s bird life may leave you breathless. In addition to hundreds of year-round resident species, the Atlantic migratory route stretches across part of the region, bringing in millions of seasonal visitors for spectacular and sometimes raucous displays.
[pullquote align=right]The black-and-white murre is an expert diver that uses its wings as flippers to swim through the water chasing fish.[/pullquote]Among the richest areas is the Bay of Fundy. In July, waterfowl, such as the American black duck and green-winged teal, and shorebirds, including the greater yellowlegs, descend on the Mary’s Point mudflats at Shepody National Wildlife Area. Across Shepody Bay, 100,000 sandpipers stop at the Dorchester Peninsula to grow fat on their favorite food—tiny mud shrimp—before continuing on to South America. With over 300 species, Grand Manan Island is a prime bird-watching site. The show is thickest during September, when migrants arrive in force. Ornithologist and artist John James Audubon visited the island in 1833 and painted the arctic tern, gannet, black guillemot, and razorbill—annual visitors that can still be seen here.
Even greater numbers of seabirds, the region’s densest concentrations, gather on the coastlines of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, most notably at Cape St. Mary Sea Bird Sanctuary. Species found there include common and arctic terns, kittiwakes, great and double-crested cormorants, Leach’s storm-petrels, razorbills, guillemots, murres, gannets, and 95 percent of North America’s breeding Atlantic puffins.
Each species has found its niche, and each is remarkable in its own way. The black-and-white murre, for example, is an expert diver that uses its wings as flippers to swim through the water chasing fish. This behavior can sometimes get the birds caught up with the fish in nets. The murre’s cousin, the comical-looking Atlantic puffin, borrows the penguin’s tuxedo markings but is nicknamed the “sea parrot” for its distinctive triangular red-and-yellow bill. Puffins make Swiss cheese of the land, as they nest in burrows they’ve either dug out themselves or inherited from predecessors.
In Labrador, ruffled and spruce grouse, woodpeckers, ravens, jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and ptarmigans are a few of the inland birds you may spot.
In New Brunswick’s interior, crossbills, varied woodpecker species, boreal chickadees, and gray jays nest in the spruce and fir forests. Ibises, herons, and snowy egrets wade among lagoons and marshes. Among Nova Scotia’s 300 or so bird species, the best known is the bald eagle. About 250 pairs nest in the province, concentrated on Cape Breton—the second-largest population on North America’s east coast, after Florida. The season for eagle watching is July and August. Other birds of prey include red-tailed, broad-winged, and other hawks; owls; and the gyrfalcon in Newfoundland and Labrador. Peregrine falcons were reintroduced to Fundy National Park in 1982. They nest in seaside cliffs and attack their prey in “stoops,” kamikaze dives in which the falcon can reach speeds of over 300 kilometers per hour.
The noisy blue jay, Prince Edward Island’s official provincial bird, is at home throughout the province, but the island’s showiest species is the enormous, stately great blue heron, which summers there from May to early August. The rare piping plover may be seen (but not disturbed) on the island’s national park beaches, and arctic terns nest along the coast near Murray Harbour.
This 12-day Atlantic Canada itinerary is suited for outdoor enthusiasts with a love of nature. It is impossible to discuss adventures in the region without including Newfoundland, and so three days are spent on that island. If you have less time, plan on dedicating your next trip to Atlantic Canada to exploring the region’s largest province. In keeping with the theme, I’ve added accommodation recommendations that keep you close to nature, but if cabins and cottages aren’t your thing, you will find plenty of alternatives along the way.
Pick up your rental car in Halifax and head for the Eastern Shore. Try surfing at Lawrencetown Beach or sea kayaking at Tangier. Enjoy a beachside picnic at Taylor Head Provincial Park. Stay at Paddlers Retreat Bed and Breakfast and rent a kayak for an evening jaunt around the bay.
Drive across Cape Breton Island, stopping for an outdoor lunch of steaming chowder at the Chowder House, and then spend the afternoon swimming and sunbathing at Ingonish Beach. Even if you don’t pay for a room with water views at Glenghorm Beach Resort, the ocean is just a short walk from your front door.
Day 3 is spent in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In the process of reaching the best hikes, you’ll drive the spectacular Cabot Trail. Leave the pavement behind on the Skyline Loop Trail, a moderate hike that leads to a stunning headland with sweeping water views. For a less energetic option, plan on walking to Benjie’s Lake and spend the extra time exploring Black Brook Cove. Either way, allow three hours to reach North Sydney for the overnight ferry to Port-aux-Basques.
The ferry arrives in Newfoundland as the sun rises, which makes the early morning drive north to Gros Morne National Park even more enjoyable. In the afternoon, choose between exploring the Tablelands on foot and driving out to Trout River for rugged coastal scenery. Fresh seafood cooked on your barbecue at Mountain Range Cottages winds up this long day.
The boat tour on Western Brook Pond is an absolute must, but allow time to reach the dock, which is only accessible on foot through a low-slung forest. Stop in at the Discovery Centre to learn about the park’s geology and then hike to Green Gardens. Spend another night at Mountain Range Cottages.
Even the adventurous need a day off, and this is it. Personally, I’d spend the time driving up the Northern Peninsula (Port au Choix National Historic Site makes a solid day trip while still allowing plenty of time for scenic stops), but you could also stay within the park and tackle the summit of Gros Morne Mountain. Drive back south to Port-aux-Basques and catch the evening ferry back to Nova Scotia.
Hopefully you’ve not spent all night being entertained by the Celtic musicians in the onboard lounge, because the ferry docks just before dawn and the morning is spent driving to Caribou, where you board the ferry to Prince Edward Island. The fossil cliffs of Arisaig make a worthwhile detour en route. Once on the island, stop at Rossignol Estate Winery for a bottle of wine and continue to Murray Harbour’s Ocean Acres, where you can relax with a glass of chardonnay on your screened porch.
Yes, you’ve seen the tourist brochures espousing the touristy wonders of the island, but on this visit you’re chasing a more nature-oriented experience. In this regard, spend the morning on a seal-watching trip, stroll along the singing sands of the beach below Basin Head, and walk through the disappearing coastal forests of Prince Edward Island National Park. The Trailside Café and Inn, at Mount Stewart, is your overnight stop.
Reserve an early tee time at Crowbush Cove Golf Course. After lunch, strike out for the Confederation Bridge to New Brunswick and head to Sackville Waterfowl Park for its bird-watching opportunities. Walking through the flowerpots at Hopewell Rocks is tide-dependent, but you can always kayak as a high-tide alternative. Spend the night in Fundy National Park.
Continue down the coast to Saint John, where Irving Nature Park is a good example of what the entire coastline would have looked like before European settlement. You’re staying in a city, so you may as well take advantage of the delightful harbor-front Hilton Saint John (which isn’t as much of a splurge as you might imagine).
Catch the ferry across the Bay of Fundy and drive out to Brier Island, taking the time to hike to Balance Rock en route. An afternoon whale-watching trip can be combined with an evening of bird-watching. Stay at Brier Island Lodge, and dine in-house.
The outdoor-oriented vacation is nearly over, but there’s one more activity to try, and Atlantic Canada is the only place in the world you can do so—riding the tidal bore down the Shubenacadie River.
It may be possible to touch down in all four of Atlantic Canada’s provinces in one week, but such a rushed schedule is neither practical nor enjoyable. Therefore, in this itinerary, we’ll stick to the three Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island). This itinerary assumes you have your own vehicle or a rental.
Arrive in Halifax and spend the afternoon exploring the downtown precinct; include a visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and a tour of Alexander Keith’s Brewery. Enjoy your first evening in the city by tucking into seafood at an outdoor waterfront restaurant such as Salty’s. For lodging, choose The Halliburton for historic charm or the Prince George Hotel for modern conveniences.
Rise early to beat the crowd to Peggy’s Cove, then follow the scenic coastal route through Chester to Mahone Bay. After lunch, spend time admiring the local arts and crafts scene and walk along the waterfront to view the trio of waterfront churches. At nearby Lunenburg, you’ll find enough time for a sunset harbor cruise before turning in for the night at the Spinnaker Inn.
Drive across southwestern Nova Scotia to Annapolis Royal and spend the afternoon exploring North America’s oldest downtown street as well as attractions like Port-Royal National Historic Site. Guest rooms at the Garrison Inn reflect the town’s gracious past.
Catch the ferry from Digby to Saint John and drive down the coast to St. Andrews, where you can do what visitors have done for over a century—browse through the boutiques, enjoy Kingsbrae Garden, and dine on seafood. Have a room reserved at Seaside Beach Resort, unless it’s a special occasion, in which case you’ll want to spend the night at the Kingsbrae Arms.
Drive along the Fundy Coast to Fundy National Park. Plan on at least one hike (Dickson Falls is an easy walk) and time your early afternoon departure for low tide at Hopewell Rocks, where you can “walk on the ocean floor.” Continue north across the Confederation Bridge to the Shipwright Inn in Charlottetown.
Spend some time in the island capital, where Province House is a highlight, but also head north to Cavendish to soak up the story of Anne of Green Gables at Green Gables Heritage Place and explore the beachfront national park. Either way, the last ferry of the day departs Wood Islands at 7:30 pm, and you’ll need to be on it to reach Pictou and your room at the waterfront Consulate Inn.
Protecting a swath of wilderness at the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, this national park is one of the finest in Canada. While outdoor enthusiasts are attracted by opportunities to hike and bike, anyone can enjoy the most spectacular scenery simply by driving the Cabot Trail, which spans the length of the park from Chéticamp in the west to Ingonish in the east.
Heath bogs, a dry rocky plateau, and a high taiga 400 meters above sea level mark the interior of the 950-square-kilometer park. Rugged cliffs characterize the seacoast on the west side, where the mountains kneel into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and gentler but still wildly beautiful shores define the eastern side. Nova Scotia’s highest point, 532-meter White Hill, is simply a windswept hump, far from the nearest road and with no formal access trail reaching it.
Typical Acadian forest, a combination of hardwoods and conifers, carpets much of the region. Wild orchids bloom under the shade of thick spruce, balsam fir, and paper birch. The Grand Anse River gorge near MacKenzie Mountain is the Acadian forest’s showpiece. Its terrain—with sugar maples, yellow birches, and rare alpine-arctic plants—has been designated an international biological preserve. The park is also a wildlife sanctuary for white-tailed deer, black bears, beavers, lynx, mink, red foxes, snowshoe hare, and more than 200 bird species, including eagles and red-tailed hawks.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is open year-round, though campgrounds and the two information centers operate only mid-May-October. A National Parks Day Pass (adult $7.80, senior $6.80, child $3.90, maximum of $19.60 per vehicle) is is valid until 4pm the day after its purchase. Passes can be bought at both park information centers, Chéticamp and Ingonish campgrounds, or at the two park gates.
Driving the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
The Cabot Trail extends well beyond park boundaries along its 311-kilometer length, but the most spectacular stretch is undoubtedly the 110 kilometers through the park between Chéticamp and Ingonish. By allowing a full day for the drive, you will have time to walk a trail or two, stop at the best lookouts, and even head out on a whale-watching trip. This section describes the drive itself, with recreational opportunities discussed next. You can of course follow the Cabot Trail in either direction, but I’ve laid out the drive from Chéticamp to Ingonish (clockwise), meaning you pass the main park information center at the beginning of the drive and that you’re driving on the safer inland side of the road the entire way.
Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts tackle the Cabot Trail under pedal power each summer. The trip is not particularly long, but it is very strenuous in sections, and lack of a wide shoulder can make for some hair-raising moments.
Hiking is a major attraction for visitors of all fitness levels. The park offers 26 established hiking trails, varying from simple strolls shorter than half a kilometer to challenging treks leading to campgrounds more than 20 kilometers away. Many of the trails are level; a few climb to awesome viewpoints. Some hug the rocky shoreline; others explore river valleys. No matter what your abilities may be, you’ll be able to enjoy the park at your own speed. For details on hiking in the park, browse the many books sold at Les Amis du Plein Air, the bookstore within the Cheticamp Visitor Centre.
Chéticamp to Pleasant Bay
Make your first stop inside the park at the Cheticamp Visitor Centre (902/224-2306; mid-May-June and Sept.-Oct. daily 9am-5pm, July-Aug. daily 8:30am-7pm). Pick up a map, ask about hiking opportunities, browse the natural history displays, and hit the highway. You can pay for park entry here or at the tollgate a little farther up the road.
This is the most impressive stretch of one of the world’s most spectacular drives, with the highway clinging to the shoreline and then climbing steeply along oceanfront cliffs to a viewpoint 18 kilometers north of the information center.
On the light side, the self-guiding Le Buttereau Trail leads 1.9 kilometers to wildflowers and good bird-watching opportunities. The trailhead is just north of the park gate north of Chéticamp.
Serious backpackers gravitate to the Fishing Cove Trail (16 km round-trip), a rugged journey to a campground and beach. You can reach the end of the trail in two hours, but allow at least three for the strenuous return trip back up to the highway.
From Pleasant Bay, one of two whale-watching spots in Nova Scotia (the other is the Bay of Fundy), a number of operators depart daily through summer. The region boasts a high success rate when it comes to spotting pilot, humpback, and minke whales, simply because of the high numbers close to the coastline. Captain Mark’s (902/224-1316 or 888/754-5112) is easily recognized down at the harbor by his booth shaped like a lighthouse. This company offers the option of stable ex-fishing boats (adult $45, senior $40, child $20) and rigid-hulled Zodiacs (adult $55, senior $50, child $30). The advantage with the latter is that the whales are reached much more quickly. You should book by phone in advance for July and August sailings.
Continuing Around the Cape
From Pleasant Bay, the park’s northwestern corner, the highway turns inland and wraps upward to 455-meter-high French Mountain. From this point, a level stretch barrels across a narrow ridge overlooking deeply scooped valleys. The road climbs again, this time to MacKenzie Mountain, at 372 meters, and then switchbacks down a 10-12 percent grade. Another ascent, to North Mountain, formed more than a billion years ago, peaks at 445 meters on a three-kilometer summit. The lookout opens up views of a deep gorge and the North Aspy River.
For fit and energetic visitors, the seven-kilometer (two hours one-way) Skyline Loop climbs a headland, from which the lucky can spot pilot whales; along the way, look for bald eagles, deer, and bears. The trail begins where the Cabot Trail heads inland at French Mountain.
On overcast or wet days, the much easier Benjie’s Lake Trail provides an ideal break from driving. From a trailhead six kilometers east of the start of the Skyline Loop Trail, this easy walk takes about 30 minutes each way.
Cape North and Vicinity
The northernmost point on the Cabot Trail is Cape North, the name of a small service town (as well as a geographical feature to the north). Here a spur road leads 22 kilometers north to Meat Cove. Although outside the park, this road traverses complete wilderness before reaching the open ocean at St. Lawrence Bay. En route, Cabot’s Landing Provincial Park, the supposed landing site of English explorer John Cabot, offers a sandy beach on Aspy Bay (good for clam digging) and a picnic area, and marks the starting point for hikes up 442-meter-high Sugar Loaf Mountain.
The East Coast to Ingonish
From Cape North, it’s 45 kilometers east and then south to the resort town of Ingonish. Aside from tucking into a seafood feast at Neil’s Harbour, you should make time for a stop at Black Brook Cove. Backed by a short stretch of beach, the cove is an extremely popular spot for picnicking and swimming. To escape the summertime crowd, walk to the north end of the beach and follow the Jack Pine Loop through open coastal forest.