This wasn’t our first trip to Nova Scotia, but we’d never stayed more than a week previously and this time we really wanted to experience life in this eastern maritime province. I had found an airbnb apartment that was located in Dartmouth, just across the harbor from Halifax and this turned out to be a perfect location. It was a quick drive into Halifax or to other parts of the province and there was even a ferry that was within walking distance and took us across to Halifax in just 10 minutes for the grand sum of $1.75 Canadian.
The apartment itself was perfect as well. The owners were a young couple who are currently living in the DC area and so their mother met us and showed us around. I had to laugh when she told us it was really small:
two bedrooms, two baths a large living room and kitchen with an island and a separate laundry room. Obviously, it’s all relative. To us the place was huge! All the rooms had views of the harbor. We watched sailboats, cruise ships, container ships, military ships, every kind of water vehicle we could imagine all while never leaving the comfort of our living room. And while the weather tended to be cool while we were there, there was even a balcony to enjoy a glass of wine on those days when it was warm enough. It truly exceeded all our expectations.
Our first jaunt took us to Grand Pre which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. It’s located on the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Basin in the Annapolis Valley. This is the area the French Acadians settled (by reclaiming the land from the sea) in the 1680’s. It retains its rich farming soil today. But in the second half of the 18th century the Acadians were forced to leave. When the English defeated the French, there was fear that the Acadians would continue to pledge allegiance to the French. And as a result a decree was issued that all Acadians would be deported and shipped to English colonies, or France or the Caribbean. Many were attracted to Louisiana because of the familiar language. Between 1755 and 1763 nearly 10,000 Acadians were forced to leave and thousands of those died. When Longfellow published his poem Evangeline, the story of a young woman searching for her love, the English speaking world became aware of the forceable removal. The deportation cross, erected in 1924, marks the actual spot of the Acadians’ departure. Today a lovely park in Grand Pre traces the history for visitors. There is a statue of Longfellow’s Evangeline, as well as a bust of Longfellow. The park has a bittersweet feel to it.
On our way back to Dartmouth, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe in Wolfville, a small quaint village close to Grand Pre. Here was our first of many reminders of the importance of hockey in Canada. I ordered a beer, and since this was Stanley Cup time, it was served in a glass hockey skate mug! Later in our travels around the province, we encountered: a collection of hockey jerseys on the wall of a restaurant, hockey icons on Canadian food brands in the grocery, Cole Harbor city sign advertising they’re the home of Sidney Crosby. We saw additional posters of Crosby and other NHL players’ pictures from Nova Scotia on the walls of buildings throughout the province. Given our love of hockey we found this really fun! We were surprised to find a liquor store just outside Halifax advertising, “Cold Beer Drive Through.” Wow! Beer and hockey. The Canadians get it!
We decided to take three days and explore Cape Breton which is connected to the rest of Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway. The Cabot Trail is a spectacular road that circles the island. The views at every turn are more beautiful than the last.
We started up the sunset side, also known as the musical coast. We were aiming for Cheticamp for our first night. This again is the land of the Acadians. And Cheticamp remained a fishing village until the 1930’s when tourism in the area began with the creation of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
It’s still a blend of tourism and fishing today. We stopped in at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center where we enjoyed a local ceilidh (pronounced ‘ka lee) while we lunched on seafood chowder and a local beer!
Signs and literature are in both French and English. And we noticed more French spoken in the little villages. Acadian flags along with Nova Scotian flags and Canadian Maple Leaves fly everywhere. When we left Cheticamp in the morning we stopped at a local donut shop for coffee and donuts. It was a cozy place with four or five tables. As we sat down we realized that the table to our left was speaking English while the table to our right was speaking French. We get the impression, however, that they both understood the conversation of the other.
We headed next toward Sydney, the second largest city in Nova Scotia, with a population of about 31,000. Sydney is on the tip of Nova Scotia. (This is where in 2004 we caught the ferry for Newfoundland.) Previously we were in Nova Scotia in August, but this time we decided to visit in June. We were a bit taken aback when we first arrived that snow, significant snow, was predicted for parts of Cape Breton and Newfoundland. And many of the summer festivities don’t begin until July. But we enjoy not having to contend with huge crowds. And luckily the snow never materialized where we were!
Sydney has a lovely boardwalk with a huge fiddle and monuments to those who made their livlihoods from the sea.
And we spotted various interesting signs throughout the province.
Heading down the other side of Cape Breton we stopped at The Fortress of Louisbourg. It was a cold blustery day, especially for our expectations of June. We tried to quickly grasp the general history of the fort and move on. We learned that there is a difference between a fort and a fortress. A fortress encloses a town while a fort doesn’t. The Louisbourg Fortress was the home of the first lighthouse constructed in Canada. The fortress was founded by the French in 1713 and then fell to the British twice. It was finally demolished in the 1760’s. After it was destroyed, some of the stone was used for building in Sydney, Halifax and suprisingly Boston.
I had read in several places about Rita’s Tea Room in Big Pond. Given my very best friend is Rita; I knew we had to stop! It turns out that this tea room started as a one-room school house back in the 1930’s. Canadian singer and song writer, Rita MacNeil, lived closeby with her family. And in the 1980’s she was able to purchase it and later converted it into a tea room.
Wherever she performed, Rita would invite her audience, if ever in Big Pond, to stop by for a cup of tea. Rita needed tea cups so she went out and started buying them but she was particularly touched when people would come by and donate all sorts of them. The cups are displayed throughout the tea room. Rita died in 2013 but her tea room is lovely! Definitely worth the stop if you’re in the area!
The Bay of Fundy is known for its incredibly high tides. After consulting a guide of tide times we drove to Truro to see the bore. A tidal bore is the reversing of a river’s current by the force of the tide. It is amazing. You have to be there at the right time and then you can actually see the bore coming up the river. We knew that the Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world and while we had seen them on a previous visit this was definitely something we wanted to do again. We consulted our guide again so we could see both high tides and low tides during daylight on the same day. And then we headed out early in the morning for Burntcoat Head Park. We got there just at high tide. While the views were breathtaking we were also careful not to get too close to the slippery edges. We visited the interpretive center and then toured the area. Everywhere we drove we saw fields and fields of gorgeous lupine and huge stacks of wood as folks readied themselves for the cold long winter ahead.
We returned to the park a few hours later at low tide! Wow! Even though we knew it was going to be different. It’s hard to comprehend. People were walking on the ocean’s bottom where just a few hours before were under more than 30 feet of water!
Whenever you see pictures of Nova Scotia, the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove seems to be the ubiquitous icon. We thought that perhaps Father’s Day would be a good day to visit thinking that most families would be celebrating with their relatives at home. WRONG! I think that perhaps half of all the residents of the maritimes had decided to visit Peggy’s Cove. Parking lots were overflowing; tourist busses and cars were everywhere. Mobs of people were walking down the streets. We were glad that we had visited years ago at a much quieter time; we took a couple of quick shots and then high-tailed it out of there.
Following the slower road along St Margaret’s Bay we enjoyed the scenery and then came to The Finer Diner where we decided to stop for lunch. http://www.finerdiner.ca/ What a great choice. All of the crowds left behind, we sat on the front porch looking out at a quiet cove. The menu gave us lots of seafood choices. I finally opted for the lobster roll and Bob got the seafood platter. Prices in most Nova Scotian restaurants tend to be reasonable but the exchange rate allows us as Americans to discount the price by 25 per cent. Boy, it’s going to be tough going back to the States!
The south shore of Nova Scotia is very different from Cape Breton but equally lovely. We drove down to Shelburne on the highway and then worked our way slowly back along the coast. In 1783 loyalists from the American colonies settled in Shelburne Harbour lured by promises of free land. The city grew larger than Halifax or Montreal. And not far from Shelburne we found the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre. This is the place where Black Loyalists came seeking freedom at the end of the 1700s. At that time this was the largest Black settlement outside of Africa. We came to the Old Schoolhouse and were surprised to find the door open but no one inside. We spent about an hour in the one room reading the stories of this settlement that we had never before heard of. As we left the schoolhouse we found the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre next door and here there were guides who invited us to see a short film and then view additional exhibits. There was even a book entitled, Book of Negroes that listed the names of many who had made the journey.
We then drove into Shelbourne itself where we toured the Ross-Thomson House; it’s the only original store building remaining. We also toured the dory factory; dories are small fishing boats with flat bottoms and sharp sides that have been used for centuries for fishing off the southern coast of Nova Scotia. We were shocked to learn from our guide that most fishermen didn’t know how to swim because the water was so cold that if you didn’t swim, drowning would shorten the amount of time you were in the water. And fishing was so dangerous that brothers or fathers and sons were never allowed to go out in the same boat!
After spending the night in Shelburne (in a motel that made us feel like we were back in the 1950’s) we headed along the shore traveling from fishing village to fishing village. The landscape was beautiful. Old Town Lunenburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was recognized for having the best surviving example of a British Colonial grid-pattern street layout as well as for its authenticity as a working city. It is also the home of the Bluenose II, a gaff rig schooner, which is featured on the Canadian Dime. And from Lunenburg we headed to Mahone Bay, which is well known for the beautiful churches that border the water.
Having seen a lot of the rural areas of the province there was a lot we wanted to see within the metropolitan area. We were pleased our Airbnb location gave us such easy access into Halifax. The city has a lot of great shopping and eating areas right along the harbor. And we particularly wanted to visit the library downtown. In 2008 a joint venture between a Halifax architecture firm and a Danish firm won the international competition for the library. The resulting design resembles a stack of books. And since its opening in 2014 it has become a major gathering place for folks downtown.
It’s a very modern typically Danish design with open bridges connecting various departments on every floor and beautiful views overlooking the city. There are cafes as well as meeting areas, and the upper floors are designed as quieter areas. It is filled with water saving devices and designed to be energy efficient as well. Wired Magazine named it to their list of the 10 most beautiful libraries in the world.
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is located in an old ocean liner terminal where the majority of immigrants entered Canada between 1928 and 1971. Our guide was an immigrant from Scotland. There were exhibits of the ship’s cabins as well as recorded interviews of immigrants, even a display of the items a person had packed in their trunk. Moving on to the other part of the museum, which we toured independently, were explanations of the trends of immigration and how they’ve changed over the decades. There were places for comments by those touring the museum and we were saddened to read the feelings of at least one person:
We also found the Halifax Public Gardens to be a relaxing place to spend an afternoon. They are the oldest Victorian gardens in North America and date back to the middle 1800’s. Once again we were surprised to learn that there was no charge to access them.
On a rainy day we decided to head to the bookstore, Chapters. It’s a large Canadian chain. I had just finished reading Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, an historical fiction work by Jennifer Chiaverini. So when I saw The Spymistress, a story she wrote about Elizabeth Van Lew who was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, I knew I wanted to read it. And it was discounted! I asked a clerk where I’d find it and she told me that while they didn’t have it, it was at a nearby store. So I put the address in my phone and off we went. When we arrived at the store the clerk there apologized but said it was in their warehouse and they’d go get it and she could call me when they had it. Okay, that was fine. We hadn’t been home for more than 10 minutes when I got a call saying that they had the book at the store and we could pick it up the next day. Great! We were going to go right past that store on our way up to watch the tidal bore. But she added it wasn’t $5.00 but $2.00. When we got to the store the next day, the clerk told me it wasn’t $2.00 but $1.08 with tax. We figured with the exchange rate the book cost me about 80 cents American. What a find! And the book was great!
In Holland in the 1600’s a military signal would indicate to pubs near military garrisons to stop serving beer, to turn off the taps. That Dutch phrase over the centuries has turned into “Tattoo.” If you’ve read my previous blogs you’ll know that two years ago when we were in Scotland we attended the Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle. That is the greatest of all the tattoos. But when we realized that the Tattoo would be performed during our stay in Nova Scotia we knew we had to see it. Unlike Edinburgh this Tattoo was performed inside so we didn’t have to worry about whether we’d get rained on or not. And among the participants in this tattoo were a police band from Singapore, a Jordanian drill unit, circus performers from Brazil and an American Military band. I don’t know how anyone can listen to a military band and not feel patriotic!
It had been raining most of the morning so we decided to take a taxi to the performance. (Ubers don’t exist in Nova Scotia.) But the skies had cleared when it was over so we walked down to the water, ate at an outdoor cafe and then walked to the ferry terminal and took the short ferry ride back to Dartmouth, just a couple blocks from our apartment. What a fun day!
On Canada Day, July 1, we went downstairs and in front of our apartment building we could watch sky divers with parachutes displaying the maple leaf! We went to a nearby park in the afternoon and enjoyed a band that played music from the 1960’s. The woman who managed our apartment building had suggested that we had to try “John’s Lunch” while we were in Halifax. https://johnslunch.com/ She said it was a real dive but had the best fried clams and is a favorite with the locals. Sounded like our kind of place. It turned out the diner had a single row of seats at the counter and about 6 booths and I got the idea that people were always waiting no matter the day or hour.
Everyone was very friendly and when the waitress found out we were Americans I got a big hug and then she pointed out that Nova Scotians LOVE Americans it’s just our president they can’t stand! At the end of the day we headed back to our apartment and right outside our front door we had a marvelous view of the fireworks! What a perfect end to a perfect stay in what turned out to be both Bob’s and my favorite province! In the morning it’d be a stop at Tim Horton’s for a cup of coffee and then we were headed back west.