Nova Scotia. New Scotland. The Maritimes. Atlantic Canada. Sea air and people who truly are the salt of the earth. Home to Alexander Keiths, donairs, deep-fried pickles and deep-fried anything for that matter. The breathtaking Cape Breton National Park. The provincial capital, Halifax, steeped in history and one of the oldest cities in North America. In years past the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of immigrants and also the birthplace of Canada’s hockey-playing, USA-beating, Tim Horton’s-advertising favourite son, Sidney Crosby. Windsor, N.S. – the birthplace of the sport itself! What more could you want from a weekend getaway?
We went in the spring. Flying from Toronto, you cross Quebec, Maine, the Bay of Fundy and then across the province before landing in Halifax on the southern side of what feels a lot like it should be an island…but isn’t. The innumerable lakes and rugged wilderness of the interior of the province are breathtaking from the air. Nova Scotia is Canada’s second-smallest, but second most densely populated, province and yet large parts of it still remain uninhabited. As this map shows, the majority of its towns lie along the coastline; where European settlers first landed having crossed the Atlantic. Before colonialisation the area now known as Nova Scotia was inhabited by the indigenous Mi’kmaq (pronounced mik-mak) First Nations people. They fought alongside the French against the British for dominance of the territory for over 75 years. These hostilities finally ended in 1761 with the Burying of the Hatchet Ceremony – from which we have the expression for the termination of a conflict or argument.
Half a century later, Nova Scotia was vital to the British Navy during the War of 1812 with the United States. Its location, ports and harbours integral to naval victories and to how the territories were divided and exist today. A multitude of books have been written on the subject but a good place to start for an insight into the importance of Nova Scotia’s naval history is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, aptly situated on the waterfront of Halifax harbour.
Here you will find exhibits on the devastating Halifax explosion of 1917 which decimated a significant part of the harbour and claimed an estimated 2000 lives; the CSS Acadia – the only ship to survive the explosion and both World Wars; a look into piracy, smuggling and why there are 10, 000 or more shipwrecks lying off the coast of Nova Scotia and how they are preserved today. Of particular interest to many will be the Titanic exhibition, which details the role the city played in rescuing, recovering, identifying and burying those who perished in the disaster. Also worth visiting is the Fairview Cemetery, where over 100 victims of the Titanic were laid to rest.
I mentioned above that Halifax was where many Canadian immigrants took their first steps on what would become their new home soil. Between 1928 and 1971 Pier 21 served as an ocean liner terminal and became known as the ‘Gateway to Canada’, welcoming 1.5 million to the country during that time. On Canada Day (1st July) 1999 it opened as a museum to commemorate the history of the building and those that passed through its doors. Detailed information and personal testimonials make for an interesting, and very moving, insight into a significant piece of the history of this city.
By this point in the day you may need to take the weight off and refresh yourself with a beverage. Across the road from the museum is the Garrison Brewery – an independent micro-brewery that makes delicious craft beer with all-natural ingredients. Beer the way it should be. Drop in for a pint or a selection of tasters. The Alexander Keith’s brewery, perhaps Nova Scotia’s most famous export, is only a short walk away so you might as well make an afternoon of it!
Occupying the large green space on the left-hand side of the panoramic view of the city above is Halifax’s Citadel Hill and Fort George – named after King George II of Great Britain. From the waterfront it is quite a hike up to the top of this hill, especially after two brewery tours, but well worth the effort as the views from the top are quite something.
British forces built the fortifications in 1749 to defend the city from French, Acadian and Mi’kmaq aggression and they continue to stand watch over the city and harbour today. The site is now operated by Parks Canada – guards in full uniform and bearskin hats, others in period costume, men in kilts playing bagpipes and guided tours by the knowledgeable staff make this a must for any visit.
By the time evening rolls around you’re going to be hungry and there’s no better place for a reasonably priced meal, a few more beers, some live music and a great atmosphere than the Lower Deck Pub. Loved by locals and visitors alike, you won’t regret it. Cheers!
There’s a lot more to Nova Scotia than its one (relatively) big city and you’d be missing out if you didn’t get in the car and explore. Views like the one above come thick and fast. Driving the winding coastal road and admiring the beautiful scenery along the way is worth taking your time over. Another option is to take to the water for some sea kayaking. Strenuous, yes, but extremely rewarding. Either way, make sure you have plenty of room on your camera. The flora, fauna and wildlife are abundant.
Less than an hours drive from Halifax is Peggy’s Cove. Beginning life as a quiet fishing community, it now draws many tourists due to its famous lighthouse. Built in 1915, it is one of 160 historic lighthouses in the province that over hundreds of years have helped protect its rocky, treacherous coastline.
Colourful houses perched over the water, fishing vessels and nets, salty sea air and the roar of Atlantic waves crashing against the rocks make this a uniquely East Coast experience.
A short distance from here is the memorial site for Swissair Flight 111. On 2nd September 1998, a flight carrying 229 passengers from JFK to Geneva crashed into the sea just a few kilometres off the coast. There were no survivors, making it the second-worst air disaster to occur in Canada. The memorial is a fitting, and humbling, tribute to those who lost their lives.
Continuing south east down the shore you will come to Mahone Bay and then Lunenburg. The former was a centre for wooden boat building in years past but is most well known for the three churches that sit on the waterfront, as well as boutique shops and cafés. The image below (I cannot take any credit for this beautiful photo – I found it here) adorns postcards, paintings and has come to be one of the most iconic images of Nova Scotia.
Like so much of the province, Lunenberg was the site of tensions between the colonial British forces and the Acadian and native Mi’kmaq people. In 1753 Protestantism was forced upon the indigenous Catholic population, leading to raids and retribution against the foreign invaders which ultimately were futile. The town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and remains the best example of a British colonial settlement in Canada.
Whilst some shipbuilding remains in the town, and the Bluenose II is moored there, its economy relies primarily on tourism. Were it not for the torrential rain that was pouring down when we arrived, we would have explored the historic streets on foot as many do. Instead, we took shelter at the Ironworks Distillery for a look around, and for a taster or two of course. Vodka made with Annapolis valley apples, a raspberry liqueur and many more will put some fire in your belly if its a damp, rainy day.
I have of course only just scratched the surface when it comes to all you can see and do in Nova Scotia but I hope this has given you food for thought.
I will leave you with a few pictures of the Cabot Trail in the beautiful Cape Breton National Park – whoever said you had to go to the Rockies for breathtaking scenery? Nova Scotia has all you need.
And one of me… to prove that I was actually there!