Nova Scotia really has everything a traveler could want – beautiful beaches, incredible landscapes, quaint coastal towns, great provincial parks, numerous historical sites and some really fantastic cities. This province is so much larger than PEI which meant we weren’t afforded the same luxury of spontaneity or doubling-back if we missed a site or attraction. With about two and half weeks and a lot of ground to cover, we set out on a route that took us around the periphery of the province, spending a day or two in each region, with a few extra set aside for the Cape Breton Highlands (as per every travel guide and previous visitor’s recommendations). Even though we saw a lot and spent a significant amount of time here, we could have easily stayed longer, but instead we now have a list of places we’d definitely return to on our next visit.
Northumberland Shore – Amhearst, Pugwash, Tatamagouche, River John, Seafoam, Pictou
Bay of Fundy & Annapolis Valley – Cape Chignecto (Elliotville), Parrsboro, Truro, Annapolis Royal, Digby
Yarmouth & Acadian Shores – Clare, Yarmouth
South Shore – Lockeport, Kejimkujik Seaside National Park, Lunenburg, Mahone Bay, Peggy’s Cove
Part 2 (Next Post):
Cape Breton Island – Baddeck, Cape Breton Highlands, Meat Cove, Sydney
Travelling with pets comes with its own set of complications and unpredictability. When we crossed into Amhearst in the early evening on our first day in Nova Scotia, our plan was to restock and settle in for a quiet night of Wally-docking (the much more adorable name for spending the night in a Walmart parking lot). Our dog, PJ (aka. Peanut Butter and Jelly) had other plans. We had just stopped at a bulk food store to grab some pantry items and dropped our bags off to make one more quick stop. In the five minutes we were gone, he (we still have no idea how) got into the bag of bulk food and ate almost 2 cups of raisins. If you don’t know, raisins in large quantities are toxic to dogs. So as quick as Google would find it, we tracked down the closest vet hospital and rushed him there – thankfully only 5 minutes down the road. They gave him a shot of something terrible and he spent the next 10 minutes throwing up. The vets at the Amherst Veterinary Hospital were lovely and while poor PJ was suffering the effects of the medication, they gave us a ton of advice on what to see and places we had to visit. Not the best way to start our time in Nova Scotia, but it could have been far worse. And as for PJ, within two hours he was back to his happy, tail-wagging, bottomless-pit self, seemingly unaffected by his unexpected vet encounter.
The next day was a Saturday and whenever possible we’ve been trying to track down local farmer’s markets along our travel route and plan our menus from what we find. We were pleasantly surprised when the tiny town of Pugwash had a fantastic little farmer’s market with close to 20 vendors and some of the nicest local produce we’ve come across so far. After scoring some great organic veggies and some beautiful chanterelle mushrooms, we headed for Tatamagouche, hoping that we might get the chance to hit one more market before the morning was out.
Tatamagouche is a really cute little town. The farmer’s market is part of a market complex that had one area for local vendors, another for artisanal goods (soap, crafts, flea market wares) and then another building that was a small art gallery that also had more artist vendors in the back. The art gallery had a modern feel (which we absolutely love!) and was showcasing Rosie Browning and Bob Morouney’s exhibit, ‘The Hidden House Catalogue of Artisanal Brassieres.’ The rest of the town has little shops and restaurants including the Tatamagouche Brewery (which, let’s be honest, was the main reason we stopped in Tatamagouche). Right next door to a butcher shop called Dexter’s (which is just clever and funny to any HBO fan), the Tatamagouche Brewery is right on the main street of town and has a great little tasting bar and patio which was already busy by 11:30 am on a sunny Saturday. After enjoying a tasting flight (we especially loved the Guava Heist and the Sunrise Trail IPA!) and grabbing a few other cans of what they lovingly call ‘Pure Tatamagoodness’, we headed off to River John to track down a little bit of Graeme’s family history.
Right before reaching Nova Scotia, we learned that Graeme’s great Aunt and great, great grandparents were buried in a cemetery in River John, so knowing we’d be near the area we decided to make the trek. Using information we found on novastory.ca we were able to track down where in the cemetery we could find the plots, which was really accurate, had it not been for the aggressively growing shrubberies. We still managed to find both stones, along with a few other Sutherlands we’ll end up asking Graeme’s Aunt (aka. the family historian) about.
We finished our day with a drive through Seafoam – a town known for a wonderfully smelling U-Pick lavender farm – and Pictou, a touristy harbor village with some beautiful boats, loads of inns and B & B’s and a great selection of restaurants and pubs.
Bay of Fundy & Annapolis Valley:
After a day of tracking down some family history, we headed to Parrsboro for a little natural history. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs are a UNESCO Heritage site and has become known for its great collection of reptile and plant fossils that have provided the most complete record of life in the ‘Coal Age.’ Admission fees include access to the interpretive center which was fascinating and informative, and an interactive tour across the beach where the guide (in our case a paleontology graduate student) explains the history of the area and points out the many fossils embedded in the coastal cliffs, along with the remaining coal seams from when the area was populated with mines.
After a morning of tracking fossils on the beach, we headed out to Cape Chignecto, to the Eatonville Day-Use Park. Known for a set of sea stacks called ‘the Sisters’, the trail itself is well maintained with a number of interpretive lookouts. The views are beautiful and totally worth the hike, but be warned, the road to get there is an adventure all its own. We specifically asked a staff member at the park office if taking a campervan up to the trail head would be okay and he mentioned he sent a tour bus up there a couple weeks before, so we thought we were safe. As we started in on the very narrow, very winding, very pot-hole filled 11 kilometers of dirt road with bridges that we were nervous crossing, we thought there was no way a tour bus could have made this trek. We were just grateful we had upgraded our tires before we started this trip!
After a night in the Truro Walmart, we made our way to its main city green space, Victoria Park. Truro is a lovely city that seems to be really focused on becoming Nova Scotia’s next major city center. It’s full of trendy shops and restaurant and has really made Victoria Park into an amazing destination. It has paved walking paths, hiking trails, Jacob’s Ladder (a huge 175-step wooden staircase that ascends the escarpment), a waterfall and stream running through the park, a pool, splash pad, playground and multiple picnic areas. It was a beautiful spot for a morning stroll with the pups before making our way westward.
Driving along the Fundy Coast, you follow the Evangeline Trail Scenic Drive, named after a Longfellow poem set in Acadia. Many regions are rich in French history and are home to two of Nova Scotia’s Heritage Sites – Fort Anne and the Port Royal Habitation, both located in the quaint little tourist town of Annapolis Royal. Fort Anne is a restored military fortification that played a role in French and British conflicts reaching back as far as the 1600s. After it fell into disuse after 1854, ownership of the fort was given to the Canadian government for the purpose of turning it into a public park. In 1917, Fort Anne became Canada’s very first ‘Dominion Park’ becoming the first site in what is now Parks Canada.
The Port Royal Habitation was a reconstruction of an Acadian compound modeled from descriptions and sketches dating back to the 17th century. Built in 1939 using supplies and tools that would have matched specifications of the period, the grounds include everything from dormitories, a chapel, a kitchen and bake shop, storage, a forge and cannon platforms. Besides the updated electric lighting (which we could only assume was installed for safety or insurance reasons) the habitation paints a vivid picture of Acadian life in the 1600’s and how people needed to live as a community in order to survive and thrive.
After a morning full of Canadian history, we continued down the coast to the town of Digby. In search of whales, we headed out to Whale Cove, hoping it lived up to its name. Unfortunately, we saw no whales, but got to enjoy a really scenic drive and a beautiful view of the cove itself. Still early afternoon and with three dogs in desperate need of expending some energy, we headed off to hike Gulliver’s Head, a lesser known trail that boasts some beautiful coastal cliffs. This was one of those trails that doesn’t have great signage and specific directions were a little sketchy. After a couple of back roads that led us to a dead end opening up onto a beach, our only confirmation we were in the right place, was two other cars, both with Ontario license plates. Thankful for other likeminded travelers seeking out spots off the beaten path, we headed out along the unmarked trail that was simply a mowed line through the brush. After a short hike through wildflower-lined meadows and along the shoreline, the path opened up onto Gulliver’s Head, an amazing set of craggy cliffs with a rocky beach at their base. It’s views like that one that make the dodgy roads and uncertainty totally worthwhile and are some of the prettiest views we’ll remember of Nova Scotia.
Yarmouth & Acadian Shores :
This region is probably one of the smallest in Nova Scotia and as we were sticking to the coast, it was more of a region we were just planning to pass through, stopping if we found anything interesting or when we wanted a break from driving. As provincial parks were still free for day use, we decided to stop at Mavillette Beach to walk the dogs and let them play in the waves. Three provinces in, Mavillette might be our most favourite beach so far. Following the boardwalk over the dunes on a foggy morning, we were led out to a sprawling white sand beach and crystal clear warm water, shallow from the low tides. With the place practically to ourselves, we let the dogs run and splash in the water, and enjoyed the morning as the fog lifted and the sun came out.
Yarmouth is another city that has focused on developing a great urban green space. Leif Erikson Park, located just on the outskirts of town and just below the Cape Forchu Lighthouse has a short paved interpretive walking trail that details the history of the town and the lighthouse, highlights the plants native to the region, points out the volcanic rock formations and describes the importance of the seaweed that gets harvested out of the bay. An easy stroll and not too long, it was a great spot to walk the dogs and learn a little bit more about the area without the need for museum admission.
The South Shore:
The South Shore scenic drive might be one of the nicest regions in Nova Scotia (probably only second to the Cape Breton Highlands). It runs right along the coast and is full of beautiful ocean views, more white sand beaches, lighthouses and fantastic villages and towns that were bustling with their summer season rush. We headed for Lockeport after discovering there was a free campground available right near the beach. The Peace Arch Campground is a work in progress and the dream of KC, great guy from British Columbia, who is hoping to have the place running full time in about 3-4 years. Until then, he takes his 6 weeks of holidays and drives across Canada to work on the property and opens it up to anyone who wants to stay while he’s there. It just happened to fall during the time we’d be in the area so we decided to check it out for a night. The soon-to-be campground is located just a short walk from the stunning Lockeport beach which was actually featured on the back of the Canadian fifty dollar bills for over 20 years. KC’s worked hard to start clearing it for future sites and is focused on recycling and repurposing as much as he can to minimize the camp’s environmental impact. There were two other couples staying as well and we had a fantastic couple of days getting to know each other over campfires, Mescal and some amazing Lebanese food.
Continuing across the South Shore we were off to Kejimkujik Seaside National Park. A day-use adjunct to the main Keji National Park, this section offers great coastal hiking and more spectacular views. We took the dogs and headed along the Harbor Rocks trail, a 5.2 km moderate hike that follows the rocky shoreline. Near the end of the trail, just past the beach, was a great spot to see seals. There were dozens lounging on a rock just offshore and even on a really foggy morning, it provided a great view.
After a few days of off-grid camping, beaches and hiking, it was time to get back to a little civilization. Of all the small harbor villages we’ve seen along our time in the Maritimes, the towns of Lunenburg and Mahone Bay stand out as the most lovely and picturesque. Lunenburg, the larger of the two, is full of cute shops, restaurants and pubs that overlook the harbor front. We grabbed coffee from the Laughing Whale Coffee roasters and walked the pier to look at the boats and check out a couple of stores (we’d recommend Dots & Loops – super cute gifts, stationary and home décor). Mahone Bay was also full of cafes and shops (we loved Haskapa – a store specializing in the now locally grown Japanese Haskap berry), but what we really noticed was the beauty of the older homes. Many had been fully restored and painted in the vivid maritime-esque colors and looking like something right out of a postcard. If it hadn’t been so warm, we could easily have spent the day just wandering and window-shopping along the streets, or enjoying a drink on a pier-side patio watching the boats.
Our last stop before heading towards Cape Breton Island was the must-see attraction in the province – Peggy’s Cove. Everyone associates Peggy’s Cove with the lighthouse, but the town itself is just as pretty. Small elevated houses overlooking the water, fishing boats anchored along the rocky, seaweed lined shore, ocean views and the simple white lighthouse perched on the rocks – it’s easy to understand why this spot is what people always mention when you tell them you’re going to visit Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, this notoriety also makes it quite the tourist draw. Even on a really rainy Tuesday morning, the place was packed and tour buses just kept rolling in. There are multiple souvenir shops, a handful of artisans and vendors in the town and a bright pink double-decker shuttle bus that takes people up and down the hill. But even with all that going on, Peggy’s Cove still has a timeless tranquility and subtle beauty that solidifies why it remains at the top of the list for Nova Scotia attractions and is still most definitely worth the trip.
The Joy Rides:
Bedford, Nova Scotia – We spent a night in the Bedford Walmart and wanted to explore the city a little because it was close to Halifax, but not nearly as large. Looking for coffee in the morning, we found Cortado – a gorgeous specialty coffee shop that focuses on the different methods for brewing and how each method brews differently. Their menu gives the option for you to not only choose your coffee drink, but how you’d like it made. Options included the traditional espresso machine, French press, balancing siphon, pour-over and even the Aeropress (which is our go-to for coffee brewing on the road). The manager we dealt was amazing to chat with, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. He even offered to grind the beans we bought to the proper grind size for our Aeropress and gave us the specific coffee to water weight ratio we needed to ensure we’d get the best flavor. Cortado wasn’t just some of the best coffee we’ve had in Nova Scotia, it may very well be some of the best coffee we’ve had ever.
The Speed Bumps:
We knew it was only a matter of time before we ran into some kind of conflict while living in our van. We always figured it would be getting woken up in the middle of the night while trying to free camp and being told we had to move. Throughout PEI and Nova Scotia, we’ve spent A LOT of time in provincial day-use parks when we’ve wanted a day to relax and a break from driving or sightseeing. We weren’t really spending much time in Halifax since big cities can be a bit tough in the campervan, but we found Laurie Provincial Park just on the outskirts of town and decided to spend the day there and hang out by the lake. Shortly after we got settled, a woman picking up garbage around the park wandered by and seemed to be checking out what we were up to. After a couple of passes, she finally came up to us pretty much told us we couldn’t park there with our van and that we had to move it. We hadn’t seen any signs saying we couldn’t park there and by this point there were other large vehicles parked at the other picnic spots around us, so we called the park office to double check. They said we were fine, so we just went about our day. Thirty minutes later we see her again a few sites from where we are and then watch as park staff shows up and she starts angrily talking to them and pointing at us. After they leave (waving at us as they pass by), she comes back around again and starts yelling at us that we can’t be there, pretty much saying we’re setting a bad example for other people with campervans (read: dirty hippies) and that we were deterring people from coming to the beach. We politely told her we had permission to stay and wouldn’t be moving and she finally huffed off angrily mumbling at us as she left. We were completely shocked that we had just been yelled at for no reason, so we called the park management again, just to be sure and to let them know what happened. About 20 minutes later, the provincial park manager pulled up to our site and actually apologized for the incident, saying this isn’t the first time this lady has caused a problem. She lives near the park and has apparently harassed people before she doesn’t want in ‘her park’. He filed a complaint report, apologized again and then after hearing we were headed to Newfoundland next, gave us a ton of recommendations on what to see. A weird experience, but in the end still turned out okay…we’re just hoping these are few and far between.
Things We’re Enjoying (or that are keeping us sane in less than 100 sq feet):
Cally’s Reading: American Gods – by Neil Gaiman
Graeme’s Reading: The Elements of Pizza – by Ken Forkish
What we’re listening to:
The Tim Ferriss Podcast – #242 Phil Keoghan – The Magic of Bucket Lists and Amazing Races
Revisionist History – The Foot Soldier of Birmingham