I’m a semi-regular on the US and Europe boards but lurked extensively here while planning our NS trip and decided to post a report.
Don’t go to Nova Scotia in late August if you want lobster. Lobster season ends in late July, and once the restaurants have cooked the lobsters they’ve kept in their own tanks (called "pounds"), they’re GONE. I did get a bit of lobster salad, but if you want lobster, the months to go are June and July.
HOWEVER, the weather is glorious in August and September. So you’ll have to weigh the options – lobster and rain, versus no lobster and sun.
Our best trip planning resources were this forum and a free guide we ordered on the Internet, called the "Doers’ and Dreamers’ Guide" (novascotia.com). This single book will get you through a Nova Scotia vacation. It’s full of descriptions of the province’s scenic drives, restaurants, accommodations, shopping, and activities. The guide also includes a detailed road map of Nova Scotia.
We divided our trip up into two sections: Cape Breton Island (based in Baddeck) and mainland Nova Scotia (based in Halifax). We had four nights in each hotel.
Saturday, August 20th through Tuesday, August 23rd
We flew out of Reagan National Airport on Air Canada. There are no direct flights to Halifax from the Washington area, so we had to connect in Montreal. We rented a car at the Halifax airport.
This trip is not possible without a car! We arrived at Halifax around 4:30 Atlantic Daylight Time (one hour ahead of EDT), and got out with the car about 5:15. The rental agent recommended that we find a place to eat soon, because restaurants close early. She wasn’t kidding! Almost every restaurant we went to or even saw outside of the Halifax downtown area closes at 7:00 pm.
We had read about a strip mall restaurant in Truro, about an hour north of Halifax, called "Murphy’s", that is "rated #1 in Canada for English-style fish & chips". So we had to give it a try, of course. Not bad – the fish is especially good, very light and tasty batter, fried crisp, no oil inside. The fish used in fish & chips is haddock, which is everywhere. I must have eaten haddock at least once a day.
The town of Truro is full of tree trunk carvings. Dutch Elm disease killed many of the old trees in the town, and someone got the idea to make heritage sculptures of the trunks that portray historical characters and scenes.
It was a long drive from Truro east to Baddeck, almost another 3 hours. We had to cross the Canso Causeway at Port Hawksbury, that connects the mainland of Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island. It got dark around 8:15-8:30, so there wasn’t much by way of scenery to admire. We got in to the Inverary Resort at Baddeck around 9:30, unpacked, and fell into bed.
Baddeck is a popular, central place to stay on Cape Breton Island. It’s a cute little lakeside town, with a couple of churches, five or six restaurants, lots of shops, the Alexander Graham Bell Historical Site and Museum (Bell summered in Baddeck), and lake tours by boat. However, after a morning drive through town and a big breakfast at "The Family Kitchen", we decided Baddeck was too small to devote a whole day to.
So we drove east toward Sydney, with the idea of visiting Louisbourg, a fully restored 18th Century French fortress and town. Our drive east took us along the Bras d’Or Lakes scenic drive, which was picturesque, with lakes and rivers on either side of the road. The drive to Sydney was only an hour or a little more. However, the town was dead – it was a Sunday morning, just a bit after 10:00 am, and nothing was open to see or do. Sydney is the second-largest city in Nova Scotia, but we didn’t get to see very much of it. We swung by the visitor’s center and toured the oldest church in Sydney, St. Patrick’s (1828).
Sydney was founded by English loyalists in 1785, and was the capital of the Cape Breton Colony. In the early 19th Century, an influx of Scottish settlers entered the colony. The primary industry is mining and steel.
Louisbourg is only about a half-hour from Sydney. The seaport town was established by France in 1713 and was a military stronghold for the French in Cape Breton throughout the 19th Century. The British defeated the French at Louisbourg twice, in 1745 and 1758 (though well protected on the seaward side, the back of the fort was more vulnerable to attacks by land). A modern town was never established on the grounds of the fortress, making for a particularly rich archeological site, and in 1961, the Government of Canada decided to reconstruct the fortress and much of the surrounding town.
It is the best "living history" site I have ever visited. I even prefer it to Williamsburg, Virginia, because it is historically accurate at all times and in all ways.
Even the meals are prepared according to 18th Century recipes and served in historically correct serving dishes. (We only had a large spoon to eat our lunch – though if we carried a pocketknife, we were free to use that as well.)
We spent a happy and productive three and a half hours here, and might have stayed longer, but the weather was turning.
As soon as we began to drive back to Baddeck, it started raining. Sunday afternoon and Thursday morning were the only two times it rained the whole week – we were very fortunate with our weather! When we got back to the Inverary, we didn’t feel up to going out (it was still raining cats and dogs), so we went to the Lakeside Café at the resort and had a perfectly adequate, if not delicious, meal.
The Inverary is a nice place to stay, though not luxurious. The beds were very comfortable, and the building we stayed in housed the swimming pool and hot tub (convenient and much appreciated after our big hiking days!).
Monday and Tuesday were our Cape Breton Highlands National Park exploration days. The park is huge, and it isn’t advisable to try to see it all in only days. The park itself is a giant, very wide, upside-down "U", with a western and eastern leg and long, sort of boring stretch joining the two sides.
The western entrance to the park is in Cheticamp, which is itself a couple of hours from Baddeck. Driving there on Monday morning took us through rolling river country, the Margaree Valley.
The drive up to and through the Cape Breton Highlands park is called the Cabot Trail, perhaps the most beautiful of Nova Scotia’s seven scenic trails. Before getting to Cheticamp proper, we drove out onto Ile de Cheticamp, which lies off a narrow harbor across from the scenic fishing village. We drove all the way out to Pointe Enragee on an unpaved road, where there was a lovely lighthouse and a lot of cows. Along with the cows, there were a lot of flies, so we reversed our trail and drove into town.
We stopped at the popular Acadien Restaurant and cooperative gift shop. We also had an early light lunch of traditional Acadian foods: delicious chowder, which unlike most other chowders in Nova Scotia, was broth-based instead of cream-based. We also had meat pie, which was just OK.
We paid our $15 to for a family pass into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park (exchange rate was about .79 cents US to one Canadian dollar). We stopped at one of the first hiking trails, "Le Buttereau", a 1.5 mile loop trail featuring Acadian history and beautiful ocean views.
We then drove on to Pleasant Bay, another hour to the north, stopping at every scenic look-off along the way. We had a quick lunch of stone crabs (not nearly as good a Maryland blue crabs), then went down to the dock for our reserved whale watching tour with "Fiddlin’ Whales".
The boat tour was two hours, and was terrific, though it would have been even nicer if the little 2-year old girl across the boat from us had stopped crying (even for a minute. Really.). We saw dozens of pilot whales, some of them families with little ones. It was tremendously exciting the first few times, but after awhile, we got a bit blase. ("Oh look. Another whale.").
We had considered staying overnight in Pleasant Bay so that we could see the rest of the trail on Tuesday without making the drive all the way back to Baddeck, but decided it was worth driving back after all.
We made a short stop at the "Bog Trail", a half-mile, handicap accessible loop trail that winds through an upland bog on a boardwalk. The variety of plants, geology, and geography in Nova Scotia is amazing!
We had dinner back in Cheticamp at "Le Gabriel Restaurant", which seemed fancy, but wasn’t good at all. Once back in Baddeck, we swam and soaked in the hot tub before turning in.
Our park pass was still good on Tuesday (through noon), so we got an early start drove up the eastern leg of the Cabot Trail.
Breakfast en route was at The Clucking Hen in North Shore – this was the best place! It is a bakery, has a small scenic screened patio. The cooking was top notch. Amazing quality – you MUST stop in if you pass through North Shore close to breakfast, lunch, or dinner time. The baked goods at the Clucking Hen rivaled those in Paris and the cooking was simple but wonderful and extremely inexpensive.
The park entrance on this side is in the beach community of Ingonish (there’s actually an Ingonish Ferry, South Ingonish Harbour, Ingonish Beach, Ingonish Centre, and Ingonish, as well as an Ingonish Island!). We drove out to the Keltic Lodge, a gorgeous resort property where a beautiful park trail begins, the "Middle Head". This return trail is almost 3 miles, and leads up through dense forest along an old carriage road to 18th Century fishing camps on a spit of land dividing North Ingonish Bay and South Ingonish Bay.
This was definitely my favorite trail.
We were too sweaty to even think about stopping for food yet, so we pushed northward to Neils Harbour, where stopped at the highly recommended "Chowder House", which sits in the shadow of the lighthouse and serves incredibly great seafood in the plainest surroundings imaginable.
We pushed onward another hour into the north part of the park, but honestly, you can skip the middle. It’s not near the water, and not nearly as scenic as the rest of the park. So we doubled back and drove to Black Brook Cove, where we hiked the "Jack Pine" trail, a 2-mile loop that was amazingly varied, going from lichen-covered volcanic granite and basalt to stunning ocean views. After our second hike of the day, we were ready for a swim, and went to the Black Brook Beach right next to the trail, where the water was warmer than you might expect. (OK, it was still pretty cold, but very refreshing!)
We drove back to Baddeck for dinner at the "Yellow Cello", a terrific pizza oriented family restaurant with live music.
Wednesday, August 24th through Sunday, August 28th
Looking back, this is honestly the one day I would have done differently. We decided to drive from Baddeck to Halifax along the scenic Marine Drive, but it wasn’t – very scenic, that is. But is was a drive – a LONG one. We broke it up with a visit to Sherbrooke, another historically restored village, circa 1980-1910. It was very sweet, but not really worth the drive, if you get my drift. What would have taken four hours took us almost eight.
We were very happy to get to Halifax, which is a charming city on a beautiful deepwater harbor, rising steeply to the Citadel.
Our hotel, the Cambridge Suites Hotel, was wonderful. It was two very large rooms looking out over the harbor, separated by a cunning sliding panel. There was kitchenette, with microwave, sink and refrigerator, two double beds, and a fold-out couch. All this, and 60 channels of cable TV!
We had dinner at the Economy Shoe Store (actually a terrific, artsy bar and restaurant). Halifax is full of good restaurants and has quite a bit of nightlife, including two major live theaters, downtown shopping centers and movie houses.
Thursday morning was overcast and raining lightly. We decided to stay in town and tour the Citadel National Historic Site. This was another highlight, starting with the best introductory film I’ve ever seen at an historic park. (In two languages, English and French. In fact, everything in Nova Scotia, from food packaging to road signs, is in both English and French.)
The Citadel is immense and completely impregnable. It has played an important role in every war from the French-English wars for control of Nova Scotia in the 18th Century through World War II. (Halifax was an English stronghold, and the Citadel was built specifically to counter the French presence at Louisbourg.) We particularly enjoyed sitting with the schoolmaster in the school room, where both enlisted men and the children of soldiers’ families learned together. We watched a magic lantern show and talked about what the lives of the soldiers were like. The Highlanders regiments still drill on the fortress’s parade grounds, and kilted bagpipers play. After the Citadel, we walked down the hill toward the harbor and did a walking tour of the town.
The high point was the ferry ride to Dartmouth, directly across the harbor, where we had a delicious Italian meal at "La Perla". After returning to Halifax, I went to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where I particularly enjoyed the exhibits on the Titanic and the Great Explosion of Halifax, which was the largest manmade explosion in history before the atomic bomb was dropped. Two ships collided in the Halifax harbor in 1917, and as people gathered to watch the ships burn, the ship carrying explosives went up in an enormous fireball, killing 2,000 people and injuring thousands more.
Friday was a busy day, and dawned clear and sunny. We had reservations in Urbania, about half-hour south of Truro, where we were going to ride the tidal bore on the Shubanacadie River off the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, which rise and fall twice daily.
We drove up to Truro and then followed the scenic Glooscap Trail to Five Islands Provincial Park, where soft red sandstone cliffs rise above the bay, which – since the tide was out – was a sea of mud.
After hiking along the ridge for a short while, we couldn’t resist all that mud, and ventured out onto the seabed. There were families around us digging for clams, but we just enjoyed the squishy, slippery feeling of walking for hundreds of yards out, without getting anywhere near the water. We had a picnic lunch at the park, then started driving the back roads down toward the Shubanacadie Tidal Bore Rafting Park.
We arrived at 3:30, and relaxed awhile on their lovely grounds until our 4:30 river ride was scheduled to depart. We were told to take all jewelry off, everything out of our pockets, and to wear something that we could get wet and dirty. Our raft had eight people (another family of four, us, and our guide). Going down river was fun, as the other boats cut close to us to splash us and we saw bald eagles roosting in the trees above. We stopped at a sandbar about two miles down and waited. Then the tidal bore started rushing toward us. We scrambled back in the rafts, and started playing on the water, cutting downstream against the cross tide, then going up and down over 12-foot waves in a big, wet roller coaster. I was in the front, and I was SOAKED! You really had to hang on, to avoid going overboard. Of course, that was sort of moot, since at the end of the ride, our guide encouraged us to jump out and let the river carry us along (which we did). After we clambered back up the hill, we showered and changed into dry clothes and were fed some dreadful food (steaks, burgers and hot dogs and I use all three terms lightly).
Saturday was another gorgeous day, and our last vacation day.
We decided to drive the Lighthouse Trail, going west along the southern coast from Halifax. This trail, along with the Cabot Trail, is the best-known and most scenic in Nova Scotia. We stopped at Peggy’s Cove, the most-photographed lighthouse in the world. It really was almost unbearably scenic, a picture-perfect village perched on huge, smooth boulders against the sea.
We drove on for another hour and a half to Mahone Bay, a perfectly precious village strung in a half circle against the water where the famous "three churches" are reflected in the quiet bay. We had a delicious lunch on the back deck of the Salt Spray Café, which has the best seafood chowder and lemonade in the world. Mahone Bay is shoppers’ heaven – but we couldn’t stop, we had to press on to Lunenburg, only 20 minutes further.
Lunenberg is a shipbuilding town that was established in the mid-1700s and is the home of the Bluenose II schooner, featured on the back of the Canadian dime. We didn’t see the Bluenose; she was out with a tour. But we did explore the town in a horse-drawn carriage with a friendly and funny tour guide who told us the history of the houses we passed, as well a throwing in some local color. We were a bit pressed for time so we took the highway back to the city. Funny, the three-hour drive only took an hour by highway!
I took one more walk, this time to the Halifax Public Gardens, a beautiful formal garden much like Boston Commons. There were at least two different weddings going on; you had to watched where you walked, or you might accidentally wander into someone’s wedding photos.
Our trip back on Sunday was uneventful, although the security at the Montreal Airport seemed unnecessarily thorough. We figured out that it was because Reagan National doesn’t have customs or other international security measures in place, so they really have to get you in Montreal. Our bags went through x-ray and hand searches, and we were searched THREE separate times. Good Lord!
This was a very different sort of vacation for us; much more driving than we are used to. But Nova Scotia is truly beautiful, and the people are almost impossibly nice and friendly. We had a wonderful, relaxing time!
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Nova Scotia August 2005 Trip - WITH paragraph breaks!
I’m a semi-regular on the US and Europe boards but lurked extensively here while planning our NS trip and decided to post a report.