Jutting out into the North Atlantic with only the thin Isthmus of Chignecto connecting it to the North American continent, Nova Scotia is a place where you are never very far from the ocean, as the winds on any given day will carry that distinctive salty smell aloft in the air, along with numerous seagulls looking for an easy snack inland. Apart from the coast, which is well worth a lengthy exploration, this densely populated but primarily rural province features several sites essential to Canadian history, as the first permanent settlement in North America (founded in 1604 in present day Annapolis Royal), and one of the most formidable defensive powerhouses in France’s New World empire (the Fortress of Louisbourg) can be found here.
Some of the most salient examples of simple beauty in Canada can be found on Cape Breton, a large island that comprises Nova Scotia’s most eastern sections, as the Cape Breton Highlands, the shores of Bras D’ Or Lake, and its rugged stretches of coast will have you under its spell by the end of your first day there. Between its deep history (for North America, at least) and its undeniably beautiful landscape, the core element that makes Nova Scotia a worthy travel destination is its culture, as people of French, English, Scottish, Irish, German, African Canadian and Mi’kmaq (the First Nations group that predominates in this region) descent provides the vibrant colour that brings the mosaic that is Nova Scotia to life.
You may have only heard of this place before as an obscure reference in a Carly Simon song (You’re So Vain, if case you were wondering), but once you leave, you’ll be confused as to how more people don’t know about this gem on the east coast of Canada.
What To Do – Culture & History
Whether you fly in from Toronto or Montreal, or have driven into the province via New Brunswick, the provincial capital of Halifax, the city in Atlantic Canada that comes closest to comparing to the large metropolises that can be found further west in this nation, is where you’ll likely begin your explorations.
Citadel Hill is the dominant historical site in the city, looming high above the downtown core. This fortress, built by the British in 1749 to cement their claim to their portion of Acadia (as it was known at the time), provided the cover and defense for one of the best natural harbours on the eastern seaboard of North America, allowing Canada’s largest Atlantic city to be born. Everyday at 12 noon during the summer, a cannon is fired, so try not to walk the walls during this time (or any time), as the very loud sound has surprised many a tourist in its day!
Helming a rental car that is sure to get plenty of kilometres over the next week or two, make Peggy’s Cove your next destination, where one of Canada’s most iconic lighthouses awaits your anxious camera trigger finger. On a more sombre note, the memorial for Swiss Air Flight 111 is also located in the area, which remembers that fateful day when a catastrophic fire brought down a MD-11 with 215 people on board into the depths of St. Margaret’s Bay. Sadly, there were no survivors.
Next, be sure to continue on to Lunenburg, a colourful town that has garnered UNESCO recognition for its status as one of the oldest surviving examples of British colonial town planning. Walk around its brightly painted structures downtown and if the Bluenose II is in town, climb aboard and explore one of Canada’s most famous classic tall ships.
Continuing on to the toasty warm Annapolis Valley, home to much of Nova Scotia’s agricultural production, the first permanent European settlement in Canada can be found in the small town of Annapolis Royal. Known as Port Royal at its founding, Samuel de Champlain established this colony after his former attempt at Ile De Saint Croix, which saw a considerable number of settlers perishing during a tough winter, was a miserable failure. Port Royal turned out to be a much more successful endeavour, with multiple buildings and a real genuine community popping up … until the English came by almost ten years later and sacked the entire settlement … c’est la vie!
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in this province is Grand Pre, which commemorates the engineering of the dyke system that allowed Acadians to farm this land without the incursion of the Bay of Fundy (which boast the highest tides in the world) spoiling things, and the sadness of the expulsion of the Acadians, as the location of Grand Pre served as a rounding up point before the British sent these French settlers packing for locations far and wide.
The tranquil and bucolic surroundings also served as inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Evangeline, which details the heartbreak of the expulsion through two lovers separated forever by the injustice of this period in history.
When your trip takes you to Cape Breton Island, make sure that you make the 30 minute trip south of Sydney to the Fortress of Louisbourg. This militaristic Leviathan was the scourge of British naval interests in the New World for many years, being located at a prime location that overlooked the shipping lanes of the day, and possessing defensive positions that were armed to the teeth and difficult to breach as a result.
It took a genius campaign of misdirection to take this fortress during the Seven Year War, resulting in the destruction and quarrying of much of the stone that comprised the ramparts. Today, the present reconstruction of this fortified town appears to be rather large, yet it only covers a fraction of the area that this place once occupied, a fact that should send the imagination of a history buff into overdrive!
What To Do – Natural Attractions
If you’ve ever read an article on the best drives in the world, or have ever seen a tourism brochure for Nova Scotia, chances are you have seen the visage of the Cape Breton Highlands, which is the biggest natural attraction in the province by a mile.
Consisting of low mountains with rock as old as a billion years into the past, they slope down dramatically at their western edge to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and shockingly beautiful and wild beaches with the aggressive surf that you might expect considering that the eastern coast of the Highlands faces the open Atlantic, this place is not to be missed. Protected mostly as a national park, there is an abundant population of moose here as well, so get those cameras ready!
If you’re looking for a place that defines the marine experience in this province, then hitting up the Eastern Shore via Marine Drive is a great way to accomplish this goal. The Eastern Shore is a series of fishing villages situated on remote rocky inlets, along with some of the best surfing beaches in the country (Lawrencetown Beach on its best days dwarfs the waves seen in Tofino, despite the fact that the latter place has more consistent surf).
Rock lovers will love strolling beneath the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, which contains the world’s largest trove of fossils from the Carboniferous Era. During low tide (this area is situated along the Bay of Fundy, so be mindful of the tide times), rock bound records of insects, plants, and dinosaur ancestors can be found readily by archeological enthusiasts, making this place worthwhile for people of this persuasion.