The Best of Nova Scotia: Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, Halifax, Peggy's Cove, Lunenburg and Digby

Published: August 27th 2012
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July 6

Martha did not tell us about the train. Or the very squeaky, creaky door that opened and closed by itself in the night. After getting up to close the windows and lock the door I managed to get to sleep in the charming and comfortable bed. In the morning, Sandra, our hostess, prepared a lovely breakfast of fresh strawberries, yogurt and scrambled eggs and when her back was turned we watched one of her cats climb up to lick the yogurt container. Sandra made our stay special with her eclectic art collection, antiques and animals.

We left early for Prince Edward Island and were pleased to see sunshine greet us over the 8 mile Confederation Bridge to the island. Looking at the map and reading the materials I thought it would be good to start west on Lady Slipper Drive in the Acadian section of PEI (La Region Evangeline) and see the Bottle Houses on Cap Egmont. Three main buildings were created by Eduard Arsenault, local fisherman and former resident lighthouse keeper. This man had a great sense of humor creating these buildings using concrete and 25,000 recycled bottles. The gardens were quite lovely but the drive to this point and the nearby lighthouse (where Eduard formerly worked) was time away from the North (Green Gables) Shore that might have been better spent. We did get a little lost and found some friendly Acadian women coming up from the shore carrying buckets of fresh strawberries. If I had not been so worried about being lost I could have had a fabulous photograph.

We managed to find our way to the Blue Heron Drive on to Green Gables Shore passing by many potato, wheat and a few cattle farms in this bucolic countryside by the sea. We took so long to get to the north shore and got lost finding our B&B that Dave was too tired to go to the Ceilidh music that night but I did get my sweet and delicious lobster at the Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant overlooking North Rustico Harbor.

Not far from this cute little harbor we found the Anchor Inn By the Sea perched high above the bay on the edge of a red cliff. We were delighted with our beautiful B&B with views from every room overlooking North Rustico Harbor. We had the whole top floor to ourselves. Our spacious room had a large window facing the bay, a jacuzzi and a private sitting room outside our room. We also had access to a large deck facing the water. A great place to kick back and relax from a lot of driving.

Week 5: July 7

Donalda and Reggie made us feel right at home at their Anchor Inn by the Sea. Donalda provided an excellent breakfast as well as travel tips for the remainder of our stay. Most importantly, in her sweet little accent and classic PEI intake of breath, she told us about how to get in free at the National Park (it's free if you get to the gate before 10am.) We left our little home away from home with the beautiful bay views and headed for more beautiful views on the North Shore in Prince Edward Island National Park, Brackley to Dalvay. What a gorgeous island this is. The dunes with sparkling green grasses rise like waves over red sandstone cliffs with little winding red clay paths that take you to the deep blue sea. Pure heaven, and hardly a sole there. After driving the full length of the park we climbed on the boardwalks over the protected dunes down to the sea below and sat reading and beach combing for the remainder of the morning. Dave had to pull me away from this little piece of heaven to begin our tour of Green Gables several miles up the road.

I was worried that Green Gables would turn out to be a Disney-like tourist trap but the charm of the house and landscape, plus the history of L.M. Montgomery made the trip more than worthwhile (although I could do without the straw hats with attached red braids, especially when worn by fat older men). But what really made this trip special was the walk in “Lover's Lane” and the “Haunted Wood”. Straight from the pages of Anne of Green Gables, this sweet throw-back to a time when life was simpler (yes people worked harder but the values were not muddied by our present day technologies). Let me romanticize this era with my own imaginations.

Dave had hoped to see a golf course here (I had wanted him to play) but Destination Dave begged off and we headed to Charlottetown to the next B&B. We had dinner and walked the historic old town and explored the wharf before attending an evening performance at a cabaret in town. The Mack, a Charlottetown musical hot spot, had a very talented five member musical group called Come-All-Ye (pronounced Cohmall Yeh). This five member group provided wonderful traditional Celtic music from PEI. Their music and songs were punctuated by a talented comedian with very amusing and tender stories about living on the island. It was a nice way to end our all-too short visit here.

July 8

In the morning at Chantelle's HouseB&B, Ann, after having done our laundry the night before, prepared an amazing organic fruit and french toast breakfast for Dave and quinoa and eggs for me while her husband Parnell Kelly delighted us with his Irish humor and storytelling. He also provided a little history of the island and said the small farms are struggling to stay alive and he felt it would be a travesty if they are bought up for it would change the entire character of the island. As it is now, PEI is much like Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard was in the 40s or 50s. I have never been to a place where everysingle person I met was polite, kind and sweet. Every single one, everywhere. This is truly “a gentle place”, a place I could come back to again and again.

I couldn't convince Dave to stay another day (he had to get a move on) so we left Charlottetown to get the 11am ferry to Pictou, speeding past peaceful farmlands and occasionally stopping for a few last looks at this lovely island. We were stuffy and sneezy from the grasses and ragweed which made our departure a tiny bit easier. The hour and a half ferry ride from PEI to the mainland was on fairly calm seas but the slow rolling boat with its engine exhaust made me a bit queasy bringing back similar memories of a ferry ride to Yarmouth almost 40 years ago.

Back on terra firma in Pictou, New Brunswick (birthplace of New Scotland), we proceeded to Antigonish for lunch. This little seaside town was hosting the Highland Games over the weekend and tartan flags and people were hanging around the town. Since most of the festivities were tomorrow we pressed on to Baddeck (pronounced Be DECK) on Cape Breton and as we drove the weather continued to deteriorate although the rain would be saved for the next day.

Once in Baddeck we quickly checked into the cheap seats at the Inverary Resort on salty inland Bras d'Or Lake and headed into town for a quick bite and an evening of ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) at the St Michael's Parrish Hall. A ceilidh is a musical gathering usually small and often held in people's homes featuring fiddles, guitars, piano and sometimes bagpipes. The Celtic language is alive and well on Cape Breton and represents the influence of mainly the Irish, Scotch and Welsh country music but the Breton musicians have their own special beat, so we're told. Children are taught English, French and Gaelic in school and they are very proud of their combined heritage. We listened to a trio of fiddle, guitar and piano and watched a little step dancing in typical Cape Breton style. After we returned to the inn Dave “came unglued” and once again had to re-glue his temporary cap on a tooth. Poor Dave.

July 9

Heavy clouds and rain were predicted today so this tour guide had to quickly change plans...again. No problem, we spent a good portion of the day at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck. I had been unaware that Mr. Bell had a passion for the outdoors which lead him to co-found the National Geographic Society We knew that Mr Bell was quite an inventor but learned here of the great depth of humanity of this man. In his early years he taught deaf children to speak though vocalization techniques that he painstakingly documented in books for others. His passion for helping the deaf lead him to marry one of his students who became an ardent supporter of his life work. Bell also made a tremendous impact on Helen Keller, who said that Bell “dedicated his life to the penetration of that 'inhuman silence that separates and estranges.'” He invented such things as a Photophone that transmitted sound over sunlight, created man-carrying kites, airplanes and set a marine speed record for a hydrofoil boat. And yet he was a very timid man who never flew or road on his own creations.

After lunch we drove up to Chetticamp where we had reservations at the Nestle In B&B. When its rainy on a Saturday afternoon in Chetticamp, where do you go but the Doryman's Pub for aceilidh! The hardships and bravado of the dorymen of Cape Breton were legendary and they played their music with the same kind of zeal displayed in the cold and challenging waters of the Grand Banks The music of Chetticamp is a unique blend of French and Scottish fiddle music and is played here on Saturday afternoons. I think everyone in the surrounding countryside was inside this pub, the noise level was so high, and so were the patrons. We had a great time foot stomping to the sensational fiddle music (accompanied by a woman on keyboard.) It was not long before the locals began step dancing and then dancing reels. I had all I could do to not jump up and join them! The owner (a well seasoned old man) grabbed many of the young attractive women in the pub to dance or have them join him in a reel and at closing he grabbed the spoons and joined the musicians on stage in a rousing finish to this wonderful ceilidh.

In my mind there is not much that can top a ceilidh experience but fresh lobster in a local haunt on the water is a close bet. We had dinner at the All Aboard Restaurant and I had the second best lobster of the season. After the first salty, dried out old lobster was sent back the replacement lobster was fine. (Still, the sweetest and best lobster was in PEI.) Fresh vegetables continue to be a rarity here as well. It really began to rain hard after we ate so we retired to our B&B that was cold and damp inside. I thought I was getting used to the cold weather. Not.

July 10

With only a thin sheet and thinner blanket on a damp cold night I did not nestle in at the Nestle In. I think it was in the low 50s both inside and out! We waited not too patiently for the sun to come out for the drive up the most scenic part of the Cabot Trail. By 10am it was still quite overcast despite the weather prediction for clearing skies and our day was fast disappearing so we left this little French Acadian Village and its famous hookers (of rugs) to begin the drive into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Our cloudy day turned to a rainy day when we entered the park. We stalled a bit to watch a video but still the weather did not change. As we drove up Cap Rouge (reportedly one of the most spectacular pieces of scenery on the trail) I knew we were in trouble. It got worse on French and MacKenzie Mountains where we were totally socked in with heavy fog. By the time we reached Pleasant Bay for a nice lunch at the Rusty Anchor.The fog and rain abated enough to see the gulf but that was about it. So on we went with high hopes that in time we would see a great view. The rain stopped long enough for us to take a short walk at Lone Shieling where one of the few Maritime old growth forests remain. 350 year old maples canopy a mixed fern forest floor that was edged by a rushing river, but the canyons and deep gorges remained elusive to us in the fog.

We continued driving on the Cabot Trail in complete fog up the sharp curved switch backs on North Mountain. It was very taxing on both of us. We were relieved to see a break in the clouds and the sun finally peek out at beautiful Cabot Landing in North Harbor. Like most of the places we visited, there were few people around, and this was no exception. There was only one other family on the gorgeous rocky beach with the red rock cliffs skirting the shore. We got out of the car and took a long walk to relieve some stress and enjoy the crashing waves on this remote part of the world. As the day wore on we began to look for a place to spend the night so we headed up past the tiny fishing village in the Bay of St Lawrence to Meat Cove, the furthest north you can go on Cape Breton, to look for a place to spend the night.

Tucked away at the bottom of Meat Mountain we found Meat Cove Lodge. I am not sure how to describe this place but Molly and Arthur Weasley's ramshackle home in the Burrow comes to mind. If you've not read Harry Potter then let me describe it for you. This little wooden cottage along a babbling brook is gray inside and out with very little light inside. Kerosine lamps that don't work are everywhere inside the crooked little house. Shelves lean, collections of bottles perch precariously and small and large wooden animal carvings, cups and saucers and an odd assortment of memorabilia sit throughout the little house in amazement that they have not fallen down and crashed to the floor. Paintings hang in odd places and a long, narrow trestle table with eight ladder-back chairs stands in front of a wood stove that doesn't work only begins to describe one of the rooms.

It was late, there were no other places to stay and we were as far away from civilization as you could be on Cape Breton so we stayed. To our great relief, so did a wonderful family of four from Toronto. We all took a hike to the end of Meat Cove and thankfully, from the cliff above, in the clear evening light we were able to see the beautiful bay below. We spent the rest of the evening with Patty and Phil MacDonald and their two kids in the dark, dank, cold cottage that smelled unhappily of mothballs. But the wonderful conversations almost made the lumpy cold bed in the crooked little bedroom seem quite fine.

July 11

It wasn't quite fine. Dave and I sank to the middle of the mothball scented no-spring bed and woke up crooked like the little house. At least we had kitchen privileges so I gathered my store of food and prepared a nice pot of steel cut oats while Phil MacDonald made wonderful espresso coffee. We all had our breakfast outdoors to get away from the moldy smell but tiny gnats persisted in bugging us in the still morning air. When I first woke up the sun had shown brightly through our tiny bedroom window but by the time I had gotten to the kitchen the sun was once again behind the clouds. So too was it gone when we left Meat Cove Lodge and our new friends.

We spent the rest of the day pushing south towards Ingonish with only a few unhappy dirt road side trips that Dave was pretty patient about (except for the long dirt trail to the sea full of stinging and biting bugs). We stopped for lunch at a little cliff side restaurant with a view to the ocean opposite a classic red and white lighthouse in Neil's Harbor. The sun had come out to make the lighthouse sparkle but just as quickly the sun retreated providing a dull photography day. Mary Ann Falls was the last straw for poor Dave although he was a very good sport about it. He drove over 6km on a winding dirt road and then hiked down to the falls with me but I knew this would have to be the last stop before the golf course.

The sun was shining brightly by the time we reached Highland Links Golf Course where I wanted Dave to play. We walked a bit around the course, Dave dragged out some clubs and hit a few balls but insisted that he not play so we toured the Keltic Lodge and then left for Baddeck. On the way, crossing the road in front of us was a beautiful red fox, the only wildlife we saw in all of Cape Breton! On our return to Baddeck, in place of the gloomy little village, we found a charming little fishing village that seemed magically transformed by the sunlight. When we were here three nights ago this little place looked rather sad and dreary in the rain, of course the lousy inn didn't help our poor opinion, but this time we found a wonderful B&B overlooking the harbor and convenient to all the restaurants and our opinion of Baddeck was radically changed. The Green Highlander Lodge couldn't be more unlike Meat Cove Lodge and with its charming tartan-decorated living room with forest green walls and a cozy fireplace and our very spacious, well appointed bedroom with a view to the cove we couldn't have been happier. What a difference a day makes!

We walked around the harbor to see the sailboats come in in the warm early evening light before having a nice dinner at the Bell and Buoy overlooking the harbor and the Alexander Graham Bell estate far out on Beinn Breagh (Gaelic for beautiful mountain). Back in our B&B Dave was happy and finally relaxed reading in the living room while I worked on my blog. All was well until a temporary cap on one of his teeth broke.

July 12

Dave was up and walking about town early (likely thinking of what he will do to the dentist when he gets home) while I languished in our lovely room. Breakfast was served at the Yellow Cello Cafe downstairs where everything was wonderful except the waitress. It had started to rain again but in the cozy glassed-in porch of the restaurant we met a very nice couple from Halifax who, over countless cups of coffee, shared all kinds of insight for the next leg of our trip.

Since the weather was bad we took our time leaving for the 3 ½ hour drive to Halifax. We drove through a mix of rain and fog that washed the PEI and Cape Breton dirt off our car. After stopping for lunch on the way it occurred to me that Nova Scotia must be in a time warp because nearly every restaurant or public place played music from the late 60s or early 70s. The music coupled with the small towns and lack of people kept bringing me back to my childhood in NH. The only throwback I didn't like was the lack of cell phone coverage for US phone services.

We decided to stay at the Slater House B&B in Dartmouth and take the ferry to Halifax for the evening avoiding city traffic and parking issues. The rain had turned to occasional mist but the fog obscured most of the view from the ferry. Still, the fog lent a certain charm and mystery to the old city. After exploring the waterfront we walked uphill to find a restaurant and stumbled upon Ela Greek Taverna, a fantastic Greek restaurant that we later discovered was rated as one of three hundred places to eat in all of Canada! Their fresh organic food was as good as it was in Corfu.

July 13

Ann and Peter, our hosts at Slater House, prepared a thoughtful breakfast for us, including a big bowl of quinoa for me, accompanied by fresh red and black raspberries plus some amazing rooibos-mint tea. Yum! We spent way too long chatting at the breakfast table and so got off to a late start but the sun was shining at last and the thermometer was finally going to break 70F so all was well.

It took us a little over half an hour to reach Peggy's Cove from Dartmouth but thankfully the crowds had not yet descended from the tour buses. I immediately found the site from which my father painted our lovely painting of Peggy's Cove (that hangs on our living room wall) and the scene had not changed much in over fifty years. We took a walking tour of the old fishing cove which is so tiny and non commercial that instead of the pressure you feel in similar, albeit larger, places like Rockport, MA, you feel like you could just sit and share gossip with the locals. We listened to a young woman play bagpipes at the base of the iconic lighthouse that is perched high on the massive granite ledges at the edge of the sea. The music was part of the ongoing celebration of the 200th anniversary of this famous fishing village. The lighthouse dates back to 1868 and is reportedly the most photographed lighthouse in Canada but for me, the fishing cove itself is the jewel in this crown. Dave reminded me that I had a very ambitious agenda so we reluctantly left for the seaside town of Chester where we had a picnic lunch watching young sailors race as we overlooked the bay near the yacht club.

By mid afternoon the clouds were coming in pretty thickly and had taken with them all the lovely light I had been enjoying so we left for the charming seaside town of Mahone Bay where sadly we were still in dull light. We had a longer travel day than I realized and traffic was moving incredibly slow on these scenic back roads so we moved right on (at a snail's pace) to the old town of Lunenburg, a Unesco World Heritage Sight about another hour away.

A note to Nova Scotia's road crew: prune the shrubs around road signs! We found that a good number of road signs are obscured by overgrown trees and shrubs and when you round a bend looking for directions you have to pull over or go back and read the sign from a different vantage point!

In spite of the slow traffic and disguised signage we did make it to Lunenburg in time to tour the restoration of the famous Bluenose II, a replica of the original fishing schooner launched in 1921. Dave and I donned hard hats and safety glasses to get an up-close view of the work at hand. We stood below the great hull of the ship and watched workers pound rope into the seams of the wooden planks to make the boat air tight and seaworthy. We had just enough time left over to see most of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic where we reinforced the knowledge we had learned about cod from the book of the same name. We explored the fish tanks and walked aboard a trawler and the retired Theresa E. Connor, Lunenburg's last fishing schooner. Schoon was the 18th century New England word meaning to “skim lightly along the water.” These schooners have been called “one of the most elegant sights in the history of sailing.” But Clipper Schooners did not stand up well in gale winds. In the late 1800s hundreds of these boats and their crew were lost in many a gale.

The retirement of the Theresa E. Connor, this last working schooner, ended the age of sail fishing for cod, the fish that could be said was the economic foundation of much of New England and Eastern Canada. These elegant schooners were later replaced with bottom draggers or trawlers that were powered by steam engines allowing fish to be pursued rather than baiting and waiting for the catch. This new method increased yields up to six times more than prior methods. By 1890 fishing stocks were already showing signs of depletion. From longlines to gillnets fishermen have been hauling up cod for centuries but now with the use of monofilament instead of hemp twine, the nets are nearly indestructible. This began a newer environmental drama for leftover scraps of indestructible netting or 'ghost nets' may continue to fish on their own for as long as five years. The legendary buckets of cod are mere fish tales now that we have nearly depleted the fish stock in the waters off of Canada and New England, affecting not only the viability of an ecosystem, but livelihoods of former fishermen. We learned a bit more about scallop dragging and cod fishing, sail-making and blacksmithing and what it must have been like to be working in the fishing industry, either on land or on the sea in the 18th and 19th centuries. We also began to understand the risks and sacrifices that fishermen have taken every day throughout the centuries in to eek out a living and put food on our table.

Lunenburg, with its famous red colored wood shingled houses, sits neatly along the shore with hundreds of fishing tales tucked inside their homes. Years ago these practical fishermen mixed red clay with codliver oil to protect the wood from the salt water spray. Today this red brick color has become iconic for this famous fishing village. I am sure this town must sparkle in the sun but yet again, the sun was under clouds or haze much of the day so the dull light did little to enhance this well restored site.

It was now nearly 5pm and we had reservations at the Summer's Inn B&B in Digby on the Bay of Fundy, about two hours north east of Lunenburg so we left without really doing this town justice. The back roads across Nova Scotia are not well populated (40%!o(MISSING)f the entire province lives in Halifax) but it only takes a few slow sight-seers to make Dave crazy when he is tired and hungry. By the time we arrived in Digby it was close to 7:30pm so we quickly checked into our quiet room with antiques and a four poster bed that looked just perfect after a long day on the road. We were both pretty hungry so we walked into town along the boardwalks and had fresh fish on the deck of the Shore Line Restaurant. The sun was setting and an outdoor concert was just finishing as we ordered our dinner but soon after the sun went down the mosquitoes came out and I got pretty cold so we finished our dinner and made haste to the lovely inn by the sea where we retired early to be ready for the 7am lineup for the ferry to St John.


30th August 2012
View from the Highlands, Cape Breton

absolutely amazing!!

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