Visiting Canada's Maritime Provinces

Alan Letow

Summary

            Lila and I recently completed a trip to Canada’s Maritime Provinces; Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.  We decided not to drive from Maryland, but rather to fly into the area and begin touring from a point well within the Atlantic Provinces.  In addition, ... we wanted some expert assistance in deciding where to go and more specifically what to see in the provinces that we would be visiting, so for this trip, and for the first time for us, we worked with a travel agency to help plan a sensible travel schedule and then to make all the arrangements.   

Using our guidelines for the type of accommodations, the agency identified potential candidates and using internet sites we then choose and approved generally small inns and B&B’s, but there were some resorts and full service hotels when that was a more appropriate choice.  The travel agent then made bookings for our Accommodations, rental vehicle and flights, including some of the ferry arrangements.  We were extremely pleased with the selections...they were exactly as expected and certainly pleasant.   The distances between each of the places we were staying was usually only about a two or three hour drive, so we planned short stays in each location...one or two nights...such that we would be fully able to see the sights at each of these locations.   

            Since we were moving every one or two days, I did not carry all my clothes into our B&B each night.  For me, that turned into a relatively simple and easy process, as I left my luggage in the car for the entire journey, only removing the very few items that I required each evening.   For Lila, on the other hand, her piece of luggage had to be brought into the room wherever we were staying each time... a process with which I was most directly involved. 

            Our trip Itinerary was through the southern part of Nova Scotia (NS) and then up through Cape Breton, the eastern portion of New Brunswick (NB) that borders on the Bay of Fundy, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and the western part of Newfoundland (NL) including Gros Morne National Park and up to the northern peninsular at St. Anthony and then back into Nova Scotia.  We had allocated three weeks for the trip, which provided ample time at each location to leisurely enjoy the local sights and to take part in requisite tourist activities.   All told we drove 4,100 kilometers (had to throw that in) or just under 2,500 miles. 

            There are not large numbers of major or super highways in the provinces and much of our driving was through picturesque two lane roads.  It would have been a huge driving nightmare when you think about driving in and around major U. S. cities on rather these small roads, but there were not a lot or other cars on the road and not very much traffic, so we traveled around very easily.  Being as patient as I am normally, I found the driving effortless and enjoyable.   One caution is the poor road signage in the Maritime Provinces, that made it difficult to know where certain roads would be intersecting or how far it was to a particular destination along that route or even what road you were on as the signs were not suitably located. 

            During the trip, we traveled on four ferries; the first from Digby, NS to St. John, NB, the second from Wood Islands, PEI to Pictou, NS, and the third was an overnight ferry from North Sydney, NS to Channel-Port-aux-Basques, NL and the last being the return overnight ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.  I was impressed with the ferry system...they operated on schedule and had a rather large capacity to transport cars, buses and commercial vehicles.  The ferries to Newfoundland were the largest...about 16,000 tons displacement ...had a limited number of cabin accommodations and dormitory facilities for sleeping and could accept over 1200 passengers and their vehicles, as well as walk-on passengers. 

            In each of these provinces there appears to be an unlimited number of waterfront or shore property, what with lakes, rivers, ponds, bays, ocean, channels, basins and various other waterways.  Each area prettier than the last and with the small numbers of people in these provinces there were no crowds or even much activity on the waterways.  It leads one to believe that the waterfront property should be very inexpensive and in some context it is very reasonable.   

            Compared to prices in the United States, they would be extremely discounted, but as in most places, when word gets out that such excellent opportunity exists to obtain waterfront and water view property, people from afar enter the venue and price up these parcels.  In these locations, e.g. Lunenburg, prices become so aggravated that the locals can no longer afford to live there and then they sell, further inflating the prices.  It is a vicious cycle with prices then reaching levels that are extreme.   

            The trip was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history of Canada, our great neighbor, and to gain an appreciation of the natural beauty that the region offers.  And, we did just that...learning about the battles between the French and English in the eighteenth century over various land segments of the provinces, the origin of the Acadian French people in Canada, the settlement used by the Norseman around 1000AD, when they were sailing to the West Indies to trade for rum and other items, and, finally to learn how Canada came to be.   

            I wish I could tell you all about what I learned, but I forgot most of it...so I may be able to relate only some information and you will have to visit these provinces for the whole story.  So how did our trip begin and from where...here is the short story.

 

Lunenburg Blue Rocks

Newfoundland Shore

Nova Scotia

            We arrived in Halifax, the largest city in Nova Scotia and a major seaport in the Maritimes, and while not too large it certainly has all the features that one would want such as great restaurants, hotels, sights to visit ...i.e. Citadel ... a fort dating back to 1749 which served as the home for the British forces.  There is also a wonderful riverside walk in Halifax with many tourist facilities.  Halifax, which served as a convoy replenishment port during World War I, is most known today for the explosion that took place in 1917, when a French munitions ship collided with a Belgian ship.  Until the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima, the resultant explosion in Halifax harbor was the largest in the world. 

             Having visited Halifax many times before this visit, Lila and I chose not to remain very long and decided to start our touring by driving south along the east coast of Nova Scotia to the town of Lunenburg.  Along the way, we stopped at Peggy’s Cove, a lovely picturesque little fishing village with a famous lighthouse.   Peggy’s Cove is a regular for tourists for it brings together the special features that visitors seek out in the area.  In fact, there are so many lighthouses in these Atlantic Provinces that people just tour the Maritimes searching for each lighthouse to visit and photograph.    

            Not far from Peggy’s Cove is the Swissair Flight 111 memorial where that aircraft crashed on September 2, 1998 and 229 people onboard perished.   The memorial is also dedicated to all of those who participated in the salvage and recovery operations.  From there we continued on to Lunenburg.   Not too long ago, Lunenburg was known for its wonderful harbor and expert shipbuilding facilities.  But that was before the town was written up as a wonderful place to live and that the prices were extremely reasonable for such a picturesque place. 

            And, so the people came from afar and started buying the properties until the locals could no longer afford to live there.  In the early days, many people originally settled there, but among them were Germans, who had named the town Lunenburg after their hometown.  Again today, many Germans have come from their homeland to buy retirement property.  Prices have skyrocketed and are now almost prohibitive, but the tourists continue to visit this great fishing town.   

            While in Lunenburg we scheduled a whale watching boat trip and during that cruise we had the opportunity to see Finback whales and Humpback whales frolicking in the ocean.  It was a magnificent spectacle to be able to get that close to such immense, but friendly creatures as their spouts and fins identified their graceful movements.  Lunenburg is also the home of the well known Bluenose II sailing schooner, replica of the original Bluenose that had won the international schooner races during the period 1921 to 1938. 

            After two days in Lunenburg, we departed for the other western shore of Nova Scotia and the ever famous Bay of Fundy.   Driving across the island...oops, Nova Scotia is not really an island as it has a land juncture with New Brunswick at its northwest corner.   But, nonetheless, as we headed west to the town of Annapolis Royal we drove to the town of LeHave so that we could ride the cable ferry across the LaHave River...an interesting experience ....and we also enjoyed a visit to the historic LaHave Bakery.   

            Annapolis Royal is a quaint town along the shores of the Bay of Fundy and the site of a local fort that we visited.   Guiding us through town was Sam, the ten year old son of the inn keeper of the B&B, where we were staying,...and a most charming and engaging young man.  Annapolis Royal is one of the oldest settlements in Canada and the site first occupied by the French, but it was lost to the British forces on two different occasions.   It was the capital of Nova Scotia until 1749, when the capital was then moved to Halifax.   

            From Annapolis Royal we drove to Digby, Nova Scotia home of the famous Digby scallops.   Digby scallops are exceptional and are even expensive in this area since most of the scallops are harvested and shipped elsewhere.  In Digby, we boarded the ferry for our trip to Saint John, New Brunswick.  We do come back to Nova Scotia from Prince Edward Island, when we return to tour Cape Breton and yet again we return to Nova Scotia after our trip to Newfoundland. 

 

Lunenburg Harbor

Peggy's Cove

New Brunswick

            Our trip only took us to the east coast of New Brunswick as we drove north along the Bay of Fundy.  The Bay of Fundy experiences some very large tidal activity and where the shore boundaries are restricted, the tidal bores can result in major variations in water height ...measuring as much as 54 feet in some locations.  We saw the result of that in Annapolis Royal and at also at many places that we visited along the shores of the Bay of Fundy.   

            After we arrived in Saint John, we walked around downtown and just relaxed as we formerly had visited the city.   We left St. John the next morning but not before a visit to the well known Reversing Falls...a tidal occurrence, where the river flow reverses twice daily as the Bay of Fundy tidal bore rises above the river’s flow.  It was terribly cloudy and hazy as we were leaving the hotel, how cloudy and hazy you ask, well Lila had to walk in front of the car to ensure our safe passage...just kidding, but driving was definitely a challenge.  When we reached the overlook for the Reversing Falls, we could not see the river, but we were told it was in fact down there.   The visitor center movie described the tidal action with great detail so we now believe that we actually saw the reversing falls and that is what we tell everybody. 

            We then continued to drive north toward Fundy National Park...the fog slowly lifting a little bit as the sun began to clear the clouds.   Driving through the town of Alma, we arrived at Cape Enrage...where the “enraged” currents pass over the reefs at both low and high tides.  Cape Enrage is evident by its steep cliffs that rock climbers propel down and there is yet another example of the exquisite lighthouses found throughout this entire part of the country.    

            We continued on to Hopewell Cape to see the red sandstone rock formations that take on different shapes and appearances through the thirty-five foot tidal changes which occur in the region.  As we walked along the beach a low tide among these formations, (some as high as fifty feet), we could only imagine that they are almost completely submerged at high tide and appear as flower pots floating in the water.    

            We then continued on to the city of Moncton and attempted to see yet another example of the tidal bore in a small river in town.   People gathered at the appointed time, but alas, I waited and waited with so many of the others until the now miniscule tidal bore appeared as a mere shadow of itself.  Since a causeway had been built up river to ease the traffic problems the effect of the tidal bore has been sorely diminished.   

             Moncton, New Brunswick, with its sister city of Dieppe represent a bilingual town, where German and Dutch settlers came from Pennsylvania, but were then joined by Acadians, when the latter were allowed to return to the British territory.  Today, one-third of the population speaks French and the city even boasts a French-language university.  Acadia is a wide-ranging area covering much of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Maine, where descendants of French colonists originally came to La Have and then spread through the area of Annapolis Royal and the whole Annapolis Valley.  Over the years the British – French wars had had a major impact on the numerous settlements in that region, but the Acadians have retained their cultural and linguistic history. 

 

Hopewell Rocks

Prince Edward Island

            From Moncton, we drove across Confederation Bridge, an impressive eight mile long bridge that connects New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island.   The two lane bridge, which was finished in 1997, takes at least ten minutes to cross by automobile.  Once in Prince Edward Island, we drove to Charlottetown, the capital of the province of Prince Edward Island via the scenic Blue Heron Drive stopping for a visit to Victoria Provincial Park.    

            Charlottetown is an old and picturesque city...that was founded in 1768, but prior to that time had been a French fortified post.  There is a Confederation Center for the Arts in Charlottetown, where we attended a performance of the musical, Anne of Green Gables.  The show, which has been running for many years, was an excellent and entertaining professional production.  The series of books, on which the musical is based was written in Prince Edward Island and has been a favorite of children for many years.  Just adjacent to the Confederation Center is Victoria Row, where many restaurants are located with street side cafes and local musicians playing their music.  

            We drove out into the countryside to Cavendish, where Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book the “Anne of Green Gables” actually is set.  Along country roads, through rolling hillsides, there is the ever present shore lines that are almost always visible in the Maritimes.   Along the way, we did partake in a lobster dinner ...a standard tourist routine, but there were even some locals there as well.   

We visited Woodleigh, which contains large scale replicas of castles, cathedrals and other notable buildings and monuments of Great Britain, all set amid extensive English style country gardens.   Some were large enough to walk into and were furnished for the period.  There was a medieval maze consisting of hundreds of shrubs well over six feet tall serving as a perfect blind labyrinth.  We were able to reach the center some what without too much difficulty, but getting out was not as easy.   

            While in Charlottetown, we went to see the Governor’s House...the official residence of the Queen’s representative to Prince Edward Island and also Victoria Park, which is situated along the harbor area.  In addition, we visited Founder’s Hall where we had an opportunity to learn more about Canada’s history as we “walked” through the period from the first Fathers of Confederation meeting in 1864 to the present time ....all as part of a multi media presentation.    The displays and exhibits were exceptionally well done and educational ....certainly worth the visit.   

            Leaving Prince Edward Island, this time via the ferry, we had to drive to Wood Island at the eastern end of the island.   Expecting to find a restaurant for lunch along the way, we passed only little villages that served the very basic needs of the local residents, but certainly not the needs of the tourists.  Such is the case in this area, since in most of Prince Edward Island; one is drawn to the local beauty that is unspoiled by hordes of population and that simple, tranquil lifestyle.   The ferry crossing to Nova Scotia was a short one hour and fifteen minute ride to Pictou.

 

Charlottetown Harbor Lighthouse

The Governor's House in Charlottetown

Nova Scotia, Again

            Pictou is a small picturesque (they all are) town, obviously ...with a harbor walk, a resident tall ship, the Hector and our B&B which is an old, converted United States consular building, that dates back hundreds of years.   Pictou, which is the birthplace of New Scotland (Nova Scotia), was settled in 1773 by immigrants that arrived on the good ship, Hector.  The next day, we traveled to Cape Breton Island, the northern portion of Nova Scotia via the Canso Causeway...the only access from the southern part of the province.   We headed to Baddeck which is the starting point for the famous Cabot Trail, that encircles the spectacular northern peninsular of Cape Breton Island.           

            The following day we set out to drive the Cabot Trail, an almost too hundred mile long trip with many stops necessary to see the spectacular scenery and the unique culture that is a part of the Cape Breton heritage.  One evening at the resort facility in which we were staying at in Baddeck, we had the pleasure and good fortune to attend the performance of a musical show entitled “Spirit of the Island”..... a Cellidh (Kay-lee) performance by singers and dancers that was reminiscent of New Orleans’s Cajun music.  Chatting with the performers after the show they told me that the French people from the Cape Breton region had been persecuted many years earlier and that some had immigrated south along the Mississippi River to settle in the vicinity of New Orleans.   

            During our stay in Baddeck we also visited the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, which provided me with a greater insight into the genius of this man.  Bell had first visited this area in 1885 and eventually made his home here and even conducted much of his research in the Cape Breton peninsular.   He started his career, carrying on with his father’s work, as a teacher of the deaf and even later married one of his students.  The invention of the telephone was only a part of his efforts on behalf of the deaf and it provided him the fame and fortune to continue his research in so many other areas. 

            He formed the Aerial Experimenters Association and sponsored the first manned flight (the Silver Dart flew across Baddeck Bay) in 1909.   Beyond his extensive work in aeronautics, Alexander Graham Bell did research in the vacuum jacket (a forerunner to the iron lung), a surgical probe (a predecessor to the X-ray) and also with kites...kites designed employing his favorite geometric shape, the tetrahedron.  Bell was also interested in agriculture, genetics, marine engineering, hydrofoils, and continued his research in helping the deaf.  Alexander Graham Bell was an unusual and talented person, whose original family home in the hills of Baddeck is to this day occupied by his granddaughter.  This extraordinary museum deserves a visit by all who visit Cape Breton.   

            There are many places that we had not been able to visit on Cape Breton during this trip, but it was time to leave and move onto our next adventure...a night ferry from North Sydney to Newfoundland.  I have to admit that I had some anxiety about this segment...getting to the ferry landing at night, then onto the ferry and to find our cabin and then venture into an area that I thought to be very remote.   

The trip to the ferry was easy and when we arrived at the landing there were hundreds of trucks and cars and buses all waiting to board the same ferry.  There were children’s groups performing Cellidh (Kay-lee) music, there were restaurants and rest areas....and I thought to myself...Why are all these people going to Newfoundland?  We watched the ferry arrive and then the waiting vehicles and people started the orderly process of driving onto the many vehicle decks.   Everyone then left their vehicles and we, having made arrangements for a private cabin (there were only forty-nine such cabins) ...well, we had to sleep in a hurry as the crossing was only six hours.  Just before the ferry arrives at the landing in Newfoundland, we were abruptly awoken and advised to return directly to our vehicles and prepare to depart the ferry. 

 

A Cape Breton Bog

Cape Breton Coastline

Newfoundland

            The ferry being a little late leaving North Sydney and our crossing was in heavy seas; our arrival was delayed until about seven o’clock in the morning...an ungodly hour to drive off the ship into this remote and unfamiliar place.   We started driving north and since we had not eaten, we soon begin looking for a restaurant.  My expectations proved true....we drove and there was nothing...just road and more road.  Not a traffic light, not any sign of a town or village, but every so often (every forty or so miles) we did pass a service station.  Eventually, we found a nominal meal in a small restaurant at one of the service stations, before we continued our trip to the north once again.   

            During our visit to Newfoundland, we drove almost one thousand miles and never once encountered a traffic light, but then we never ever saw any traffic.  Newfoundland was almost like I had imagined, truly remote and rugged and strikingly beautiful.  While we did not have traffic to contend with, we did have to watch for moose and caribou...they could leave a real dent in your vehicle and your travel plans.   So it made sense when we were told that a Newfoundland speed bump was a moose lying in the road.  

Our time in Newfoundland was essentially all on the west coast of the island...they say it is the most beautiful part and we drove from the south up to northern most village of St. Anthony, which is also known as Iceberg Alley.  There were some roads that seemed like we were coming to the end of the world and in some sense we did reach the end of that road and with the ocean waters all around us. 

            We spent most of our time in Newfoundland in the little town of Rocky Harbor and also visiting Gros Morne National Park, where we hiked and took a boat trip to a glacier.  We also visited L'Anse Aux Meadows, an authenticated Norse settlement site in North America in Gunner’s Cove, near the village of St. Anthony.  As a point of interest, Gunner’s Cove was the setting for the book, “The Shipping News” and the author, Annie Pruix had been an extended guest in the same B&B where we were staying, when she was researching the story.  Both Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the latter being designated a Canadian national historic site as well. 

            Gros Morne is an exceptional park serving a broad spectrum of international geological research as it contains rock formations dating back over one billion years.   It is a vast, pristine park that includes some of the most spectacular scenery in eastern Canada.  If there was ever a place that I truly want to visit again it is Newfoundland and more specifically Gros Morne National Park, for its striking beauty that I rate right up there with Antarctica, my favorite place to visit.   

            After five days of hiking and touring...certainly not enough time to see what we had wanted to see, we had to once again head back across the Cabot Strait to Nova Scotia.   The routine was the same...arrive at the ferry landing at least one hour ahead of the sailing time, board the ferry as early as possible, locate our cabin...sleep fast and be sure to be ready for an early exodus...we were certainly not on a cruise ship.  We did just what we had planned and the passage was definitely less distressing than the one coming over as the waters were definitely calmer.  However, we arrived in North Sydney very early in the morning in a dense fog and with the sun just coming over the horizon which made life quite a bit interesting.  This combination was a chilling blend especially for a couple of seniors driving into unknown territory.   I felt so sorry for them!!!

 

Gros Morne National Park

Bay at Gunner's Cove

Nova Scotia, Once Again

            The sun soon burned the fog off and we settled in for only a reasonably short drive to Louisbourg (pronounced “Louiebourg”) site of the Fortress of Louisbourg.  The fortress, also a National Historic Site and named after Louis XIV, includes a partial reconstruction of the massive fortress that had been erected and used by the French during the period 1720 to 1745 to protect their colonies.   Under the Treaty of Utrecht with the British (1713), France was permitted to keep certain lands in North America including a section of Cape Breton Island.   

            It had served as headquarters for the French fleet and was an important fishing and trading center.  The British were uneasy with this French garrison located in Louisbourg and in 1745 the British captured this “impregnable fortress” without too much difficulty, but then returned it to the French again in 1748.  Ten years later the fortress was under siege once again, with the British taking it in 1759 and finally, destroying it in 1760. 

            It is the second largest reconstruction of a period site that is operated with costumed guides depicting the inhabitants of the time just as it had been back in the 18th century ...the largest site is in Williamsburg, Virginia.   To date, one-quarter of the fortress has been rebuilt with furnishings being originals and/or reproductions.  Within the fortress are period restaurants, a bakery, buildings that were used as officers’ quarters, barracks, chapel, the governor’s apartment, a magazine and other buildings supporting the needs of the soldiers, the fleet and the civilians that were living within the fortress. 

            A visit to the fortress requires at least four or five hours to tour the buildings, to see the grounds, the exhibits and the furnishings, to listen to the lectures and even eat a meal as one would have been able to do more than two hundred years ago.   The town of Louisbourg across the harbor area...yes, there is a harbor area....now that is different, right....and there is even a quaint lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor.  In the town of Louisbourg the local restaurants were ordinary, but our B&B provided a most charming and friendly accommodation.   

            Heading back to Halifax, as our trip neared its end, we drove along the delightful Bras d’Or Lake, a scenic drive to Liscombe Mills, where we stayed at the Liscombe Lodge a resort facility with a full complement of facilities and beautiful accommodations.   It is one of three such resort hotels owned by the government, another example being the Keltic lodge, which is located on Cape Breton Island.  The Liscombe Lodge is well known for its “planked salmon”, which is cooked on a wooden plank facing an open fire.   

            Our last night of the trip was back in Halifax, where we had to pack our dirty clothes and enjoy one last night in this excellent city.  Visiting the Maritime Provinces was an excellent trip...we saw many different places, enjoyed the hospitality of the Canadian people, but I believe the people who live in the Maritime Provinces are the friendliest and warmest that I have come to know.  Most of our meals included fish or seafood, fresh from the nearby waters and throughout the area there seemed to be little or no concern about crime....life was always easy.   By far, my favorite place was Newfoundland because of the natural beauty and the uncomplicated lifestyle.   

 

The Louisbourg Fortress

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