12th November 2019
Nova Scotia (New Scotland) had always seemed like an interesting place to visit, especially for someone like myself who is interested in Scottish history and culture. However it also seemed like an awkward place to get to with no direct routes. A few years ago my newspaper flagged up that direct flights were starting so I put it onto my list and eventually the time came around....
My friend Graham and I share a love of history and music and additionally have a shared Canadian work/travel experience going back to 2014. (See my previous blogs for September 2014) Given that North America is not really kind to the solo traveller in terms of accommodation and public transport looked poor we both signed up for a fly/drive fortnight.
It took quite a lot of planning to organise this trip so possibly someone else could use this as a template for taking a two week fly/drive around Nova Scotia and Cape Breton? Otherwise the blog is mainly a guide to the photos of the trip I have already published. Many thanks to friends Catherine and Jamie, who had visited Nova Scotia previously, and who pointed us in the right direction for a number of places to visit.
Day One 11th September
The Westjet flight from Glasgow to Halifax was short and just over six hours in a 737. A small plane for transatlantic but it wasn't even full. On landing we picked up our hired car, a Nissan Rogue, at the airport and made our way into Halifax. Whilst picking up the car we got our first taste of the legendary Canadian hospitality. We asked at the counter if we needed coins for the toll bridges into town and the man behind us in the queue immediately pressed a couple of coins into our hands. Nice. Our accommodation at the Chebucto Inn was a half hour bus ride out of town. It was basic but adequate and we managed a fantastic pork chop special in the attached diner so well worth the visit. The suburban area for me was reminiscent of Madison, Wisconsin with lots of small wooden houses in tree lined streets. The centre seems small and the suburbs predominate.
Day Two 12th September
At the tourist centre in Halifax visited the previous day we took the advice that it would take too long to travel up to Baddeck in Cape Breton going along the south east coast of Nova Scotia so we headed north out of Halifax over the MacKay Bridge and turned east at Truro. Mention of the name MacKay was just the start of the Scottish connections. We passed New Glasgow and saw signs for Loch Broom, Dingwall, Iona, and St Andrews by the sea. The trip to Baddeck took about five hours. The traffic is light and politeness rules on the road, which was good for a man who hadn't driven on the right hand side for 15 years and was doing all the driving!
The first people we met in a Baddeck coffee shop were a couple with ancestors from South and North Uist respectively so more Scottish chat. Our motel was the Ceilidh Lodge and we were in the Skye Rooms so you get the idea! The receptionists were Courtney and Britney which at least sounded a little less Scottish. A must see if you visit Baddeck is the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, an excellent resource outlining his life and inventions. A remarkable insight into a man I associate with the telephone but there is more, much more to him than that. In the evening we visited the Lakeside Restaurant, recommended for its seafood. A man called Tracey was playing guitar and did some Acadian songs as well as Scottish ones when he heard our accents. The restaurant was in a lovely setting and the fish n chips were great as well.
Day Three 13th September
We spent the day doing a loop drive heading east from Baddeck to Louisburg National Historic Site. This is a faithful recreation of a French fortress as it was in 1744. Built to protect French interests at that time it was taken by the British in 1745 and was rebuilt in the early nineteen sixties as a federal government project to alleviate unemployment caused by the closing down of many of Cape Breton's coal mines. A vast site, it is pretty unique so was well worth seeing. Check out the photos. We took another route back via Iona and got a small ferry over Little Narrows. The ferry was very reminiscent of the Ballachullish ferry and others which were much travelled on during childhood.
Day Four 14th September
Today we headed up the Cabot trail around the north coast of Cape Breton. We stopped at the Gaelic College for a brief visit. It is built near the home and church of Rev. Norman Macleod who was from Assynt and eventually ended up with his congregation in New Zealand, stopping for a while in Australia en route. That is another story. I had visited his church in New Zealand in 1981. There was little to be seen but a nearby part of the coastline is named MacLeod Point. We stopped at Ingonish beach which is very rocky before alighting on Neil's Harbour a quaint and picturesque fishing village with a small working lighthouse which doubles as an ice-cream shop!
There are a number of viewpoints to stop along the Cabot Trail. The scenery is stunning as you'll see from the photos. All in all it is a fantastic coastal drive which you'd find hard to beat anywhere. Along the route we noticed that we were being addressed with 'bonjour' which indicated we were in Acadian territory. On the west coast we stopped at a viewpoint and saw a huge amount of movement under the water and suspected that there were whales in the vicinity but we didn't see any.
We checked into the Margaree Harbour View Inn. Check out the photos. This was a quaint, old fashioned establishment with 1950-1970s decor and was packed with antiques and musical instruments which a family member collects. Our hosts had Macleod, MacDonald and Ross connections and were keen to discuss all matters and world events in a very idiosyncratic manner. Ask me about it when we meet. Altogether it was very entertaining. We visited the Dory Inn in Cheticamp for supper and tried the Acadian Pie which is pork and chicken with lovely moist pastry. All the people round about us were speaking French and two musicians were playing Acadian music plus other covers. Very friendly like everywhere else we have been.
Day Five 15th September
I was glad to have a day of rest after all the travelling and driving. A busy week ahead.
Day Six 16th September
A wet day for a change. We drove off the Cabot Trail onto the Ceilidh Trail passing the road end for Dunvegan, skirted New Glasgow and crossed back over the Censo Causeway out of Cape Breton and back into Nova Scotia heading for Pictou on the Northumberland Shore.
In Pictou we visited a museum which has alongside it a replica of the Hector, a ship which brought the first two hundred highland Scots to Nova Scotia. It is one of the best museums I have seen for detailed information on the subject being highlighted. I noted that there were two MacLeans amongst the first ten on the passenger list. Well they did leave from Ullapool so there would have been a lot of us in the vicinity! Other highlights in Pictou were the spicy fish tacos in a place called Harbour House and Sharon's Place is a local diner packed with locals. The place seemed to shut down by 2100 with one restaurant closing at 1900 and the other at 2000. There also seemed to be a complete absence of young folk apart from restaurant or shop staff. A Mrs McGregor's Shortbread shop is covered in tartan and makes splendid shortbread and oatcakes.
Day Seven 17th September
Our accommodation in Pictou, The Willow House Inn B&B (built c.1840)was highly recommended and lived up to its reputation. Breakfasts were imaginative. We started today with coffee and blueberry muffins followed by bacon and eggs in a muffin shell with baked beans then fresh fruit and yoghurt. Each day we stayed was completely different and they were totally on board with the lacto free food. Hurrah! It was dreich but we headed along the inaptly named Sunrise Trail bordering the coastline of Northumberland. We stopped in Tatamagouche where the old railway station is converted into a coffee shop and gift shop and I think they also had rooms. There is a collection of old trains outside including one for a previous Governor General. A loop drive took us back to Pictou via Amhurst. We saw a lot of arable land today for the first time following out mainly coastal drives in the highlands but nothing that seemed very exciting given the weather.
Day Eight 18th September
Today we drove to Wolfville, booking a slot for me on the Tidal Bore Rafting in Maitland for my birthday in two days en route. Whoop! The main tourist attraction in Wolfville is the Grand Pre National Historic Site. This explains the context for the deportation of the French -Acadian people from Nova Scotia and their return. It is quite moving. The situation it seemed to me was very complicated with race, religion and imperialism all involved. Well worth a visit if you go to Wolfville.
Near to the Grand Pre was the Covenanter Church, the oldest Presbyterian Church in Canada, set up originally by RPs from Ireland. The interior was very familiar. Then it was back into town for a quick visit to the supermarket. The girl on the checkout was from Alloa!
Day Nine 19th September
Our accommodation in Wolfville was the highly recommended In Wolfville Luxury B&B. They seemed to be competing with our last stop in Pictou for variety of breakfast. Poached pear in coconut yoghurt French toast covered in berry jam with maple syrup and two sausages on the side. Different!
We headed down the North West coast aiming to reach Digby. We passed through Middleton on a glorious day with no clouds in the sky. Stopped in Annapolis Royal and saw the remains of Fort Anne with great views over to New Brunswick. One of the attractions in Digby was their famous clams. After a walk along the sea front we headed for Ed's Place, noted for its seafood. This was a minor disaster as there were no clams in so we settled for scallop burgers which were delicious. We drove on to Point Prim Lighthouse and then turned back. Best way is to go out via the small roads from Wolfville to Digby and then back along the main highway. The autumn colours were beginning to turn.
In the evening we ate at a fairly standard joint called Joe's. The attraction was that it is owned by a Lebanese man so there was a Lebanese section on the menu. The Chicken Schawarma was tasty. As usual our evening would not be complete without bumping into interesting people. Had a great chat with Derek C Gillespie who has Scottish connections (of course) and he regaled us with tales of working on one of these mega trawlers which Derek tells me can lift $1.7 million Canadian worth for product on a single trip.
Day Ten 20th September
Today was my 61st birthday. As a treat I had promised myself a shot at the Tidal Bore Rafting in Maitland as recommended by Jamie. En route we stepped for a snack at Frieze and Roy's, Canada's oldest General store.
The rafting was a never to be forgotten experience. The outflow of the Shubenacadie River meets the incoming Bay of Fundy Tides. This creates waves of several metres high and you sit on a small dinghy with a outboard motor holding on for dear life as you ride up and down the waves. Difficult to describe unless you've been there but to give you an idea out driver said 'once we get going all you will see are your heads and mine. The boat will be under water but that's normal! Don't worry it empties out!' And that is exactly what happens. There were five of us in the boat and only one person got flipped out but on two occasions I was nearly out of the boat but managed to slip onto the floor instead. It was a real white knuckle, adrenalin bursting experience. For some reason you just keep laughing the whole time, as the situation you find yourself in seems completely ludicrous. I don't remember ever laughing so much in a short period of time. At the end you can go down a mudslide which I did once but by that time I was exhausted and ready for a hot shower. I think I binned all the clothes I wore. Thanks for the tip Jamie. I wouldn't have wanted to miss that. Great fun on your birthday: some things don't change.
After an hours' drive we were back in Halifax where we spent the rest of our stay. We booked in to the Commons Inn which in a great location and very functional. Not at the luxury end but we liked it. The woman Stella on reception (age about 60) was a riot. 'You will have questions and I have answers,' she announced as we checked in. We got into the room and couldn't get the toilet door open. I phoned Stella at reception. 'Will you come down to get a paper clip to open it or will I come up?' I'll come down, 'I said. So I now know how to open some doors using a paper clip!
On the way out to dinner we saw a huge owl sitting on the top of a parked car? Unusual to say the least. We stopped to observe it and spoke to a guy passing who was originally from Govan! Stella had recommended Bluenose II, a Greek owned steakhouse where we had strip loin steak with lemon flavoured tatties Greek style. I had a Chilean Malbec and that was the only wine I tried in Nova Scotia so can't make any comment on the home grown stuff. Halifax is the only really busy place we visited and has a real city feel compared to the small town in the rest of the country.
Day Eleven 21st September
We made our way south west out of Halifax along the coast to Peggy's Cove, reputedly the most photographed lighthouse in the world. The whole area around the lighthouse is very photogenic. A kilted piper was playing but did not accede to my requests for The Bloody Fields of Flanders or The Battles O'er, as he 'hadn't practiced sufficiently.' We were then subjected to Flower of Scotland (yawn) played quite poorly.
Next stop was Lunenburg, the only Unesco World Heritage Site in the area. A large fishing village which is full of picturesque brightly painted old wooden buildings. The fishing has declined but tourism has taken over. It was a great day for the camera so take a look at the photos on this website.
Next door to our hotel was The Brown Hound which does excellent food. I had the lamb madras twice during my stay.
Day Twelve 22nd September
It had been an exhausting week with constant travelling so it was good to get a day of rest. I sat out on Halifax Common which was nearby the hotel for a few hours. In the evening the basement of our hotel turns into Young Pocha Korean Restaurant with cheap food of a high standard. Recommended.
Day Thirteen 23rd September
This was our last full day with some serious sightseeing in Halifax still to be done. We drove to the Fairview Lawn Cemetery where there is a section of graves from the Titanic. All the graves have of course the same date and many have no name. Very sobering. We then drove onto Fort Needham Park, where there is a memorial to the Halifax Explosion. This disaster took place in 1917 when a munitions ship in the harbour collided with another vessel causing what is reckoned to be the largest man made explosion prior to the atomic era. 1,900 were killed and 9,000 more were injured. Whole areas of the town were destroyed. The monument overlooks the harbour where the explosion took place.
We parked the car up and visited Citadel Hill National Historic Site which was just along from our hotel. This is a huge star shaped fort on a hill overlooking Halifax. Built first in 1749 the current version was constructed in the early 18th Century. It is reminiscent of Fort George near Inverness in that it was never actually used in a war situation other than to assemble troops in the world wars. There is a great museum inside and we saw a replica cannon being fired.
We visited St Paul's Church (established 1749) which is the oldest surviving building in Halifax and the oldest Protestant place of worship in Canada. There is a spike in the wall which blew in from the aforementioned Halifax Explosion and is still embedded in the wall. We were told that during the explosion a severed head had also flown in and broken a window.
By this time we were all museum-ed out and the day kind of tailed off. The Museum of Immigration was highly recommended but we didn't make it. Next time?
Day Fourteen 24th September
We returned the car which had covered 2434km or 1512 miles over the two weeks covering an average 108 miles per day. We walked along the harbour front and saw huge cruise liners emptying. The replica of the famous Bluenose II Tall Ship was also in the harbour. This schooner was built in 1963 and replicates the original Bluenose built in 1921. Our evening flight of around five hours took us back into Glasgow.
My overall view of Nova Scotia/Cape Breton is that it is a fabulous place to visit. Beautiful scenery, both coastal and inland. Pretty, quaint towns, especially in Cape Breton. Friendly Folk. Fantastic hospitality. There is a good standard of accommodation with some quaint moments. (Check out the photos!)
Driving is a dawdle. Are there any more law abiding people on the planet. And of course pedestrians have the right of way. You drive on a dual carriageway ay 110k (the speed limit) and they form and orderly queue behind you. I hardly ever got overtaken. No petrol heads! Overall the traffic is very light.
Cape Breton: Beautiful and full of Scottish names too many to mention. Everyone chats to you and Mr Crombie and I were well able to fill folk in as to what their ancestors had been up to, or the history of what had been happening in the area of Scotland they were descended from. Cape Breton has no real cities and mainly middle sized towns, many of them pretty. Most of them seemed to be populated by 60+ folk and a lot of tourists of that age were from Ontario. Every hick town has a fire station and Legion Club. I had forgotten that Canadians say 'oot' instead of 'out', but the oot is not said in a Scottish accent. The towns seem to close at 2100 and somehow this seems appropriate. Anyone wanting nightlife would be struggling although I think Mabou and Cheticamp are lively on the weekend.
Right now with the British pound we found it generally expensive by comparison with back home apart from petrol which was cheap. The food is of a high standard; especially the sea food. They do like their chips and make them very well. As I said previously I didn't try the local wine. Craft ale does predominate and if you get a blueberry one it will have real blueberries in the bottom of the glass
The history is fascinating and complex. I have not gone into it in detail on this blog as there is too much to go into. Basically it is a melting pot. There are the indigenous peoples and then the French-Acadians who were expelled and some of whom came back. Some Scots came over after the 1745 rebellion but not all came for that reason. Then there were the British who came north after the American War of Independence. I think it is fair to say that the museums in Nova Scotia give a very balanced approach to all sides of the history so you can make your own mind up.
We did hear some Scottish and Acadian music being played but if you wanted to focus in on this aspect you would need to plan a specific trip based on particular events. Driving around a route for two weeks means you get a 'hit and miss' experience compared to how it can be described in guides.
On reflection I don't think you could pack in much more than we did over the two week period. I did fancy going to Prince Edward Island but that would have meant cutting out other locations. We also didn't manage to get down to the far south west for the Acadian shores villages or the rest of the south coast in general apart from Lunenburg and Peggy's Cove. There would be plenty scope for a further trip which includes walking in the national parks.
A highlight would be the Tidal Bore Rafting. This is a 'one off.' If you are in reasonable physical shape don't miss out if you are visiting.
Thanks for staying with me until then end of this lengthier than usual blog. I hope it may help any of you who fancy making the trip. I hope you enjoy the photos.