Connected to the rest of Canada by the 24km-wide Isthmus of Chignecto, Nova Scotia juts into the North Atlantic like an upside-down anvil, its weathered coastline a whopping 7500km long and littered with gorgeous villages, beaches, rocky inlets and windblown headlands. Originally the home of the Mi’kmaq people, the French established the first permanent European settlement at Port Royal in 1605, laying the foundations for what would become French-speaking Acadia. The British established control over the region in the eighteenth century, and today the province displays mixed English, Scottish and French heritage.
Visits usually begin at the lively capital, Halifax, which sits beside a splendid harbour on the south coast. From here, the most beguiling parts of the province fall into three regions: the South Shore, with Lunenburg the most alluring target; the Annapolis Valley, stretching 110km northeast from Annapolis Royal to Wolfville, noted for whale-watching, fruit growing and wine-making; and rugged Cape Breton Island, best appreciated by driving the jaw-dropping Cabot Trail.
Acadia – Acadie in French – has at different times included all or part of Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The bulk of today’s Acadians are the descendants of just forty French peasant families who arrived at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1636; slowly spreading along the Annapolis Valley, they lived a semi-autonomous existence in which trading with their English-speaking neighbours was more important than grand notions of loyalty to the French Empire. Consequently, when the British secured control of Port Royal under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the Acadians made no protest.
In 1755, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, British government officials attempted to make the Acadians swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. They refused, so Governor Charles Lawrence decided – without consulting London – to deport them en masse to other colonies (the “Grand Dérangement” in French). The process of uprooting and removing a community of around thirteen thousand was achieved with remarkable ruthlessness.
By the end of the year over half the Acadians had arrived on the American East Coast, where they faced a cold reception – the Virginians even rerouted their allocation to England. Most of the rest spread out along the North Atlantic seaboard, establishing communities along New Brunswick’s Miramichi Valley, on Prince Edward Island and in St-Pierre et Miquelon. Some went to Louisiana – these were the ancestors of the Cajuns, whose name is a corruption of “Acadian”. Starting in 1763, Acadians were allowed to return to the Bay of Fundy region (provided they took the oath), but many farms had been given to British and New England colonists and they were forced to settle the less hospitable lands of the Acadian Shore, further west. Between 1860 and 1920, what’s known as the Acadian Renaissance helped revive Acadian traditions and culture, encouraged, in part, by the global success of Longfellow’s poem Evangeline.
Today, the Acadian communities of the Maritime Provinces have largely resisted the pressures of assimilation and have consolidated their cultural independence, most notably in New Brunswick, where the Université de Moncton has become their academic and cultural centre.
At the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, former black slaves that had fought for the British – on the condition they be freed – were shipped to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, ostensibly to be settled as free men and women. The largest group (some 3000) came to Shelburne, where they were promptly shunted off to the rocky, worthless land nearby Birchtown. Most were soon signed up as indentured servants to the Loyalists in Shelburne – essentially another form of slavery. Having suffered the largest race riot in Canadian history in 1784 and years of abuse, most of the settlers sailed back to Africa in 1792, founding Freetown in Sierra Leone. Some were forced to stay, however, establishing a community that exists to this day. Learn about their story at the Black Loyalist Heritage Society (May–Sept 11am–5pm; t 902 875 1293, w blackloyalist.com; $3) off Rte-3 in Birchtown, 7km west of Shelburne; a new interpretation centre should be open by July 2013 (the old one was torched in 2006). The shop sells copies of Lawrence Hill’s excellent Book of Negroes, named after the register all those “freed” slaves had to sign in New York before travelling to Canada.
The nutrient-rich waters of the Bay of Fundy attract dozens of whales, and several companies in Digby Neck, a narrow finger of land that nudges out into the Bay of Fundy, organize daily whale-watching excursions from late May to mid-October. Trips usually last between two and three hours, though those from Westport (Brier Island) tend to last longer – between three and five hours. No one can guarantee you’ll spy a whale, but there’s every chance, beginning with finback and minke in late spring, and humpback from mid- to late June. By the middle of July all three species are sighted and usually hang around the Bay of Fundy till late summer and autumn, which is when the rare North Atlantic right whale is seen.
Brier Island Whale & Seabird Cruises 223 Water St, Westport, Brier Island 902 839 2995, brierislandwhalewatch.com. Variety of trips by boat ($49; 3–5hr) or Zodiac ($58; 2–3hr).
Mariner Cruises Westport, Brier Island 902 839 2346,novascotiawhalewatching.ca. Friendly competition is supplied by this local outfit, with trips also $49 (2hr 30min–4hr 30min).
Ocean Explorations Whale Cruises Tiverton, Long Island 902 839 2417, oceanexplorations.ca. On Long Island, this outfit only uses Zodiac boats, with tours from $59 (2hr 30min–3hr 30min).
Comely LUNENBURG, 10km south of Mahone Bay, perches on a narrow, bumpy peninsula, its central gridiron of streets clambering up from the main harbourfront flanked by elegant churches and multicoloured wooden houses. Dating from the late nineteenth century, the most flamboyant of these mansions display an arresting variety of architectural features from Gothic towers and classical pillars to elegant verandas and the so-called “Lunenburg Bump”, where triple-bell cast roofs surmount overhanging window dormers, giving the town a vaguely European appearance – which is appropriate considering it was founded in 1753 by German and Swiss settlers, dubbed the “Foreign Protestants”, on invitation of the British in Halifax. Starting out as farmers, they eventually created a prosperous community of fishermen with its own fleet of trawlers and scallop-draggers, though today the only fishing done here is for lobster; and since being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 the town earns far more from the tourist industry.
To buy bottles of locally produced spirits (and the only rum made in Nova Scotia), visit Ironworks Distillery, thick with the aroma of distilled molasses. It also makes Annapolis apple vodka, and a rich apple brandy, aged in Hungarian oak barrels (local fruit supplies the liqueurs). Follow your nose to the Blacksmith’s Shop, 2 Kempt St (Wed–Mon noon–5pm; t 902 640 2424, w ironworksdistillery.com).
The Annapolis Valley is Canada’s up-and-coming wine destination – it’s not the Rhône Valley of course, but these vineyards knock out some surprisingly decent vintages (tours May–Oct; see w winesofnovascotia.ca).
Annapolis Highlands Vineyards 2635 Clementsport Rd, Bear River East t 902 467 0363, w novascotiawines.com. Call in advance.
Blomidon Estate Winery 10318 Hwy-221, Habitant t 902 582 7565, w blomidonwine.ca. Daily 10am–6pm (tours daily 1pm & 3pm).
Domaine de Grand Pré 11611 Rte-1 t 902 542 7177, w grandprewines.ns.ca.
Gaspereau Vineyards 2239 White Rock Rd, Gaspereau t 902 542 1455, w gaspereauwine.com. Daily: April–May & Oct–Dec 10am–5pm; June–Sept 9am–6pm.
Jost Vineyards 48 Vintage Lane, Malagash t 902 257 2636, w jostwine.com. Daily: mid-June to mid-Sept 9am–6pm; mid-Sept to mid-June 9am–5pm.
In 1795, three boys discovered the top of an underground shaft on tiny Oak Island, a low-lying, offshore islet a few kilometres west of Chester (it’s signposted on Rte-3, but the causeway is closed to the public). The shaft, or “Money Pit”, soon attracted the attentions of treasure-hunters, who were convinced this was where a vast horde of booty had been interred. At first the betting was on Drake, Kidd or Morgan, but present favourites include the Templars and even Elizabethan scientist Francis Bacon. No treasure has ever been found, but the diggings became so dangerous (four men died here in 1965) the island’s owners (treasure-hunter Dan Blankenship and the US-based Michigan Group), have closed it to the public (though they restarted the search themselves in 2009).
You can view a small but comprehensive exhibit on the island – the Explore Oak Island Display (free) – at the Chester Tourist Information Office. The Friends of Oak Island Society (w friendsofoakisland.com) organizes 2hr walking tours of the island, usually on select weekends May–Oct at 2pm ($10).
The Bay of Fundy is noted for its high tides, but while it can be intriguing to watch harbours around the bay fill up in a matter of minutes, don’t confuse this with the hypnotic spectacle of the Fundy tidal bore. This only occurs higher up rivers towards the end of the bay: an advancing wave, ranging anything from 2m (very rare) to a few centimetres (the size depends on various factors, including the lunar cycle) powers upstream, smothering the river bank. One of the best places to see it is Truro in central Nova Scotia; aim for the former Palliser Motel (closed, and up for sale at the time of writing) on the edge of town (Hwy-102, exit 14), which overlooks the Salmon River. Check w centralnovascotia.com/tides.php before you go.
To get a closer look, you can take an exhilarating boat ride across the bore and crash through the 1–6m rapids temporarily formed as the tide rushes over rocks and boulders. Three main operators run Zodiac boats on the Shubenacadie River, south of Truro, all offering a similar experience (May–Oct only; reservations are crucial; arrive 1hr in advance).
Shubenacadie River Adventure Tours 10061 Rte-215, South Maitland t 1 888 878 8687, w shubie.com. Three-hour tours from $80, ending with all-you-can-eat hamburgers and hot dogs.
Shubenacadie River Runners 8681 Rte-215, Maitland t 1 800 856 5061, w tidalborerafting.com. Runs full-day trips (with a steak BBQ) for $80–90 (half-day $60–70, no BBQ).
Tidal Bore Rafting Park 12215 Rte-215, Maitland Rd, Urbania (9km off Hwy-102 exit 10) t 1 800 565 7238, w raftingcanada.ca. Offers 4hr (18km) for $85–90, 2hr $60–70.