A visit to Nova Scotia, on the eastern seacoast of Canada, is a step into a gentler time where residents aren’t in a hurry. It is calm and beautiful. And a wonderful, affordable, family vacation.
They say ‘dear’ a lot in Nova Scotia.
“Good morning, dear.”
“What can I get for you, dear?”
“Do you like your dinner, dear?”
The province of Nova Scotia, which means New Scotland, has a population of less than 1 million residents. It has 4,652 miles of coastline, dotted with picturesque villages, charming restaurants, fascinating historical sites and friendly people. We flew to Halifax early this fall and it was a spectacular adventure.
Halifax, the capital, is on the Atlantic Ocean – the deepest natural harbor in the world and second only to the one in Sydney, Australia. Nearly a third of the province’s population, or 380,000 people, lives in the city founded in 1749 by the British as a military base. History indicates that rich fishing was enjoyed as early as the late 1400’s. The British and French governments vied for control of the land and the poet Longfellow, in the poem Evangeline, captured the best-known incident when the British deported 10,000 Acadians for refusing to swear allegiance to England.
Our five days in this relaxed country included several days enjoying the capital and a drive across the country to the northern city of Digby. Nova Scotia offers outdoor lovers a paradise of things to do – hiking, boating, sailing, fishing, golf, horseback riding, bird watching, kayaking, beachcombing, rafting, diving, paddling, cycling, and whale watching – in winter, there is skiing, skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and sleigh rides.
A trip to Nova Scotia is a great trip – the weather is accommodating – cool days and brisk evenings. The city is tourist friendly with many attractions lined up along the harbor waterway. There is shopping, a casino, and great dining.
This is a great city to visit! There are many great, and affordable, hotels but we chose two: the Prince George Hotel at the beginning of the trip and one night at the Lord Nelson before we left. Rates are well under $100 for clean rooms well within walking distance of the major attractions.
Halifax is the Ellis Island of Canada – more than one million immigrants passed through Pier 21 from 1928 to 1971 and one in five Canadians trace their heritage to someone who arrived at Pier 21. – The Canadians offered shelter and a new home to many Europeans and British citizens fleeing poor political or living conditions. Today Pier 21 is a lively, well-organized museum. A glass wall runs along the water – there are displays of artifacts and stories of human passages from one life to another. There is a fantastic gift shop where all sorts of Canadian mementos can be purchased.
The city’s history as a great military presence is obvious – the Citadel, a national historic site, rises high above the harbor and offers history, a reenactment of the changing of the guard and a great view.
Be sure to enjoy the Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour (www.keiths.ca) – Most tours of a beer factory may not sound family oriented – but this one is truly special. Young locals acting as the original owners and family members, who founded the brewery more than 150 years ago, lead groups through an interactive 30-minute visit. The site is home to the oldest working brewery in North America and offers singing, tasting and a brief encounter with life in 1863.
Teenagers will love the college feel here – sort of an Austin of the north! There are more than 10 colleges and universities in town – and the population swells by more than 100,000 when school is in session. Downtown pubs like the Split Crow, O’Carrolls’, the Lower Deck and the Old Triangle offer a look at Nova Scotia’s youth enjoying life – without any of the seamy or rowdy goings on of bigger cities. There are coffee shops and hip boutiques along the waterfront. I also particularly enjoyed the city’s newspaper, the Chronicle Herald, – surprisingly fresh and a fun read.
Begin your stay with a city tour offered by Ambassatours Gray Line Tours. This will give you a great overall feel for the town’s ambiance. Along the way, you will get off the bus and be met by a bagpiper, who leads visitors on a short walk through Halifax Public Gardens. The flowers, ponds and gazebo are gorgeous. Catch the bus in front of the Maritime Museum, enjoy the town, then, at the tour’s end, go in and visit the fascinating museum which is home to a great collection of boats and seafaring artifacts.
One of the best things about Halifax is the boardwalk, Privateers Wharf, which runs more than a mile along the waterfront, from the Historic Properties (www.historicproperties.ca) shopping and event center to Pier 21, the immigration museum. We saw wedding parties on the dock, having portraits taken with the harbor as a backdrop. There are lots of outdoor cafes, benches to rest upon and we were entertained by several street performers as gulls flew overhead and the sun warmed us all. Enjoy the ferry ride for about a few dollars, which will to take you to the far shore and then take back again for a panoramic view of the city.
Lobster is on every menu. We loved dining at Tug’s Pub and lapped up the lobster in a bowl. Dinner at the Five Fishermen was grand – from the street, the restaurant doesn’t look too impressive but go inside and up the stairs for a feast. They offer a mussel bar and Jeremy, our waiter, told us they serve more than 5,000 pounds of mussels each week. Other Nova Scotia treats include “Solomon Grundy,” pickled herring, oatcakes, seafood chowder, and poached salmon. And fish, a tremendous variety of fresh fish, cooked in every possible way.
Halifax, which also has a casino on the waterfront, is host to dozens of festivals each year, including the famed Tattoo – an international military spectacular (www.nstattoo.ca).
One hundred fifty victims of the sinking of the great ocean liner Titanic are buried in three cemeteries in Halifax. The ship, which struck an iceberg in April of 1911, sank three hours later. Several vessels rushed from the docks to assist the doomed ship but sadly, only the dead were brought to Halifax while the survivors went to New York City. After the movie came out in *, a surge in tourism caused the city to restore the graves at Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Today, it is a quiet, shady and non-touristy place to see. The rows of victims, many with eloquent inscriptions, make the infamous tragedy real to visitors.
Boats of all sizes are docked at the Halifax piers – we took a late afternoon’s ride on the tall ship, the Mar II. The bay water is an inky, dark blue that is somewhat transparent, and, proud residents will tell you, surprisingly clean. The Mar II crew served up drinks and snacks and the captain allowed a few children the chance to steer the gracious, wooden ship.
After three days in the city, we rented a car and set off along the winding seacoast. The drive was a pleasure. Town after town offered things to do and see – waterfront restaurants, great architecture – we enjoyed driving through several towns just to admire the homes.
We headed across the countryside, taking Route 101. Peggy’s Cove is a major attraction for tourists, the “most photographed fishing cove in North America,” but even on a busy day, you will find plenty of space to enjoy the scenic tiny harbor where fishing boats of every color are tied up behind quaint homes. The Lighthouse Post Office is as beautiful as it gets. We also loved Chester, Lunenburg, settled by German immigrants, and Annapolis Royal on our way north to Digby, the scallop capital of the world.
It was here that we jumped on board a whale watching tour courtesy of Dockside Whale Watching – Kim, our guide, and Dean, the captain, headed from the dock along the coast. We spent three hours on the water and did spot the tales of two whales. Digby’s Bay of Fundy is renowned for its dramatic tides, leaving giant expanses of land during the low tide. Sail boaters from all over the world come to Digby where the water is 50 degrees year round.
“The best seafood in the world comes from Digby,” Dean told us as he hoisted a lobster trap into the boat. Passengers clapped in glee at the site of the giant lobsters in the basket, which Dean, after securely fastening their claws with rubber bands, passed around. We stayed at the Pines of Digby – a gracious hotel and golf resort just minutes from the water. The hotel restaurant offers classic fare such as beef tenderloin and lobster.
So, thank you, dears, for the great vacation.
United Airlines flies to Halifax. Frequently, special rates are offered. For complete visitor information, visit www.novascotia.com