Famed for its unspoiled scenery, world-class seafood and Celtic heritage, Nova Scotia was settled by the Scots, Irish and French. This summer, go for a fascinating pot-pourri of tradition
The video starts and up comes an instructor, who tells me how and where to place my feet. I am taking a virtual step-dancing class at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique. Here, on Cape Breton Island, in northeastern Nova Scotia, the Scottish connection is not just a romantic notion. It is part of everyday life. The Gaelic language lives on; students at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts learn all about the culture; and the Ceilidh Trail connects all things Celtic. But I am trying to make my feet understand cross-spring, open-steps and turning-steps. Just when I seem to get it, the beat quickens … leaving me flummoxed and miles behind.
Like most visitors, my husband and I flew into Halifax, the lively capital of this Atlantic province. Dominating the harbour-side city is the Citadel, a fortress where soldiers fire a canon at midday, a noonday ritual dating back 250 years. Dressed in kilts and patterned socks, they also change the guard, with the same pride as soldiers outside Buckingham Palace. More emotional is Pier 21, subtitled Canada’s Immigration Museum. On the waterfront, this building saw 1.5 million passengers – men, women and children – walk through its doors between 1928 and 1971. Some were departing; most were arriving. Canadian soldiers went off to fight in Europe; Europeans came to start a new life. We watch videos of real people recounting their stories. And we talk to folks who have traced long-lost relatives through the archives of ships’ logs in the research centre.
Thanks to six universities and colleges, Halifax gets a buzz from 30,000 lively students. There are boutique breweries, affordable ethnic restaurants and bags of live music. But we are keen to explore this province that is about two-thirds the size of Scotland. Driving northeast along the coast, our first stop is Sherbrooke Village. Living history museums abound in North America and this is one of the best: working blacksmiths, weavers in 19th-century dress, wood turners and bakers. But what’s this? A couple in jeans and sweaters come out of a house, turn and lock the door. “Some of the 80 old homes are still privately-owned,” we are told. “Only 25 are used to demonstrate traditional skills.” We like this partnership of then and now; it prevents the village from feeling like an historical theme park.
With its uncrowded roads, Nova Scotia is a real pleasure for a fly-drive holiday. And 11 official ‘scenic travelways’ help visitors get the best out of the province. Five of these are on Cape Breton, an island joined to the mainland by a mile-long bridge across the Strait of Canso.
Three times the size of Somerset, Cape Breton has history galore. We follow the Fleur-de-lis Trail, where French is still the language of choice and the days of New France are recalled at Louisbourg. This fortified port was built some 250 years ago and, as we walk around the restored village and massive ramparts, we are transported back to the 18th century. Costumed interpreters range from innkeepers and musicians to farmers and soldiers. But it is the enormity of the fortress that impresses us. No wonder the English were so keen to take it in 1758.
Arcing round the northern tip of Cape Breton is the Cabot Trail, regularly voted one of the world’s most scenic drives. On this dramatic headland, cliffs plunge into the Atlantic Ocean and small communities huddle along the coast. Next up is the Ceilidh Trail, where the traditions are Celtic, handed down by the 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots who settled here after the Highland Clearances in the early 18th century.
But there is so much more than history in Nova Scotia. In the south-west of the province is the Annapolis Valley, with its orchards and, in Digby, delicious scallops. On our way back to Halifax, we stop at the Domaine de Grand Pré vineyard, near Wolfville. This is a pretty spot to have lunch, as well as to taste grape varieties such as Marechal Foch (red) and Seyval Blanc (white). As we gargle and spit, we are told that the earliest vines were planted here in 1611.
We save the most famous tourism sights for the end of our trip. From Halifax, the Lighthouse Route wriggles south along the coast. Like a million other visitors, we take photographs of the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, named for the survivor of a shipwreck. As for the artists who painted the smooth boulders and waves, none worked with more passion than William deGarthe. In the middle of the last century, he recorded fisherfolk and seascapes, but died before finishing his Great Monument. We peer at the living rock, where figures that he carved range from Peggy, who lent her name to the cove, to fishermen carrying lobster traps.
As we drive round another bay, up comes another photo op: the three churches that overlook the water in Mahone Bay. Finally, there is Lunenburg, with its bold red-painted wooden homes. Settled by German-speakers 250 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage site celebrates its ship-building, trading and fishing past. At the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, we learn all about fishing; at the museum’s Old Fish Factory restaurant, we order up the catch – Newfie fishcakes and a Nova Scotia favourite, good old fish and chips.
Where to stay
Lord Nelson Hotel: the city’s best-known hotel; across from the public gardens. (1515 South Park Street, Halifax)
Halliburton House Inn: two historic townhouses, converted into a small, personal and centrally located hotel. (5184 Morris Street, Halifax)
Gowrie House Country Inn: 19th-century inn and restaurant, up the hill from town. (840 Shore Road, Sydney Mines)
Pictou Lodge: a family resort, by the sea, handy for the Prince Edward Island ferry. (72 Lodge Road, Braeshore, Pictou)
Queen Anne Inn: Victorian style B&B, inside and out. (494 Upper St George Street, Annapolis Royal)
Keltic Lodge: above Ingonish Beach, way out on the Cabot Trail, this resort and spa has breathtaking views and a fine location on one of the world's great drives. Live Celtic music (Middle Head Peninsula, Ingonish Beach).