Nova Scotia: A land rich in history, wildlife and beauty

Nova Scotians are mad about shucking scallops and eating ice cream. But there's far more to this Canadian province
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The Independent Travel

Fresh out of the water, Digby scallops have such a sweet smell that the temptation is to eat them raw – something you can easily do during the Nova Scotian port town's "Digby Scallop Days". Last year, a shucking contest was held on the back of a flatbed truck, parked on the busy town wharf: seasoned fishermen ousting the muscle of the mollusc from its pretty flat shell with a flick of the knife. Stalls offered the scallops gratis, cooked or not at all, nearby.

This competition for old-timers, as well as shuckers newer to the prosperous local fishery, was a highlight of the four days of festivities that take place in a comely but unsung corner of Atlantic Canada each August. A warehouse on the wharf turns into an information centre celebrating the area's lobster and scallop fishing industry. Events last year included a fun run for families, art fairs and – true to Digby's slightly atavistic nature – a "Haunted History Ghost Walk", as well as the anointing of a high-school student as the summer's "Scallop Queen".

Digby is a working, not a flashy town. A few grand houses with turrets and gables and wraparound verandas stand on the hill. Others line the road to the sailing club, hinting at wealthier times. Today, most people who know Digby at all regard it as little more than a ferry port: as tourists arrive across the Bay of Fundy from the mainland province of New Brunswick, trucks laden with the region's prized seafood head in the other direction to reach the rest of mainland Canada and the US.

This is the epicentre of the eponymous – and remunerative – scallop industry. The town's lobster trade is also booming; a lot of "Maine" lobster actually comes from here. There are still some haddock left, but most of the rest of the fishing industry has collapsed, with negligible halibut and no cod. Consequently, many people have left this part of Nova Scotia for the booming oil fields of Western Canada.

But there is some incoming traffic. Several years ago, I accepted an invitation to visit a log cabin belonging to a friend (now my wife), situated in Sandy Cove, on the Digby Neck. It was a part of Canada I did not know at all, and have since come singularly to appreciate.

During later summer holidays in Sandy Cove, I have listened to the children explain to their friends on the telephone, at length, that "there is nothing to do". Not a criticism at all, but a warning to those who cannot cope without a mall, a movie theatre, copious shops or satellite television. On the Neck, "nothing" means everything: swimming, beaches, hikes, the very Atlantic Canadian habit of impromptu kitchen parties or cookouts by the water – and delicious food, of course. Those scallops and lobster are the best in the world.

To the visitor, Digby can seem staid at times, as the place is Presbyterian by nature and has only fitfully come to terms with the idea that the region merits tourist attention. Such easily gained soft money can appear suspicious to those who dream of travel more than they manage to do it. In the local liquor store, proferring my Air Miles card, the cashier broke out into laughter. "Jeez, if they gave Air Miles for liquor round here, there wouldn't be anybody left on the ground," she said.

Locals know that most visitors to Nova Scotia are drawn by other attractions. One is Cape Breton, with its spectacular Cabot Trail. And nearer the capital of Halifax, the Unesco-anointed harbour of Lunenburg, and neighbouring Chester, lure tourists to the province's wealthy, iridescent South Shore – to this part of Canada as the Hamptons are to New York.

The less glamorous port of Digby, on the backside of the southern part of Nova Scotia, is easily bypassed. Yet the town and the surrounding territory offers not only striking landscapes but an equally storied heritage.

The first time I arrived was by car from Halifax. The scenery revealed itself first of all in the extraordinary promontory of Cape Blomidon, extending out into the Minas Basin, from which exiled Acadians departed this land two-and-a-half centuries ago. Its red sandstone glowed in the warm light of the setting sun, contrasting with the blue of the water and the misty green of the fields around Grand Pré.

Nova Scotia is Canada's Mississippi. VC This analogy is not due to some ignominious history of slavery (though it existed here too). Rather, it is because the province – and in particular, this fertile stretch of the Annapolis Valley – is imbued with the similar sense of a place inveterately settled, where peoples and history have washed over like the territory's layers of silt.

In Mississippi, the river brought the silt, and Native Americans and then black slaves came and went. In Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy's dramatic tides – the highest in the world – bring in the mud, and the Miqmac, the Acadians and then the United Empire Loyalists came and went. Here, beneath the North Mountain, through the valley and then along Fundy's shore, is evidence of Canada's old soul.

About 80 miles further on, the road rises out of a nondescript stretch of the highway, turns a bend and reveals a second, comparably dramatic and historic stretch of water. Digby sits at the bottom end of the Annapolis Basin, 15 miles south of Port Royal, where Samuel de Champlain established the first European settlement in North America just over 400 years ago.

Digby's safe harbour is protected on its north-western side by the ridge of the North Mountain. The fishing grounds of the Bay of Fundy are accessible via a break in the ridge known, charmingly, as the "Digby Gut". On its southern flank, the town presides over St Mary's Bay, which extends south toward the Atlantic. Along the eastern, mainland side of St Mary's Bay is the Acadian French Shore. On its other side, running south-west, stretches the Digby Neck and then Long and Brier Islands – the long, peninsular reach of the North Mountain that gradually sinks, over the course of some 25 miles, into the Atlantic, and divides St Mary's Bay from the Bay of Fundy.

Digby sits not just at the top of a topographical fork but also at the junction of two of Canada's most venerable settler cultures. In the majority here are the descendants of the United Empire Loyalists, the losing British side of the American War of Independence. But they co-exist with a French-speaking community: the Acadians, the progeny of North America's original Francophones, located along the eastern side of St Mary's Bay.

They occupy a stretch of some 60 miles from Digby to Yarmouth, where another ferry travels to and from Portland in the US state of Maine. The first Acadian settlers set off for Nova Scotia from France's Atlantic coast with dreams of growing rich on the fur trade and establishing their own republic in the new land. But in 1755, during the run-up to the colonists' Seven Years' War, they were expelled by the British military, who were unconvinced by the Acadians' declaration of neutrality.

Acadian historians speak of the British response as a first instance of "ethnic cleansing". The Grand Dérangement saw the Acadians despatched to the American colonies now known as North and South Carolina, Lousiana and Texas. Slowly, they migrated back. The saline marshlands that they had made rich and fertile by draining them with an ingenious system of dykes called aboiteaux had been purloined by the British.

So the returning Acadians settled along what has since become known as the French Shore, and started fishing instead. Anyone who has feasted in New Orleans' French Quarter or watched Cajuns dance to a Zydeco band will recognise a kindred people in the part of Canada that is effectively French-America's source.

Along the French Shore, the houses tend to be painted the jolly colours of fishing boats. To add to the child-like ambience, shacks selling ice cream pop up at regular intervals. All Nova Scotians are crazy about the ice cream that a couple of firms supply in a multitudinous and ludicrously named variety of flavours ("Turtle Tracks," "Brownies on the Moon," "Udderly Devine", etc). The enormous wooden cathedral at Church Point, midway down the Shore, is the largest in North America – and there is an ice-cream vendor opposite.

The restaurants on the French Shore offer the ubiquitous lobster, haddock and scallops. But it is also worth seeking out rapûre (or "rappy") pie, a dish of slightly fermented potatoes that is baked, and often shredded, with chicken or clams. Chez Christophe is a modest but congenial restaurant with perhaps a dozen tables. The fare is pan-fried, but could not be more fresh or delicious. Music is played on Thursday nights by a trio (featuring an accordion of course) crowded around the old wood-fired kitchen stove.

Another 10 miles down the Shore is Mavillette beach, one of the most spectacular in eastern Canada. A mile wide, with breathtaking grass dunes at the back of it, the sandy beach is vast when the tide is out. Yet local sunbathers declare the place crowded if more than a dozen families are spread across its flats.

Centuries of maritime traffic have led to intermarriage as well as commerce across the water. The communities of the French Shore, the Digby Neck and Islands, and even those on the coast of Maine are related. The family name "Amirault" on the French side becomes "Amero" in the Anglophone communities along the Digby Neck.

The landscape on this side is more varied and physically dramatic, but the Neck's United Empire Loyalist inheritance means that the Anglophone settlements can look austere compared with the French Shore. In the town of Digby, and at picturesque villages such as Sandy Cove and Little River, the congregations are Anglican, or Baptist, and the houses are painted in regimented white.

The "Seawall" at Rossway is a stunning landmark: a high bluff that pushes out into St Mary's Bay and is coloured the red of the clay that is found from here all the way to Prince Edward Island. Sandy Cove, about halfway down the promontory and a few miles south of it, is the prettiest of the communities along the Neck. The village is dotted with churches and built around the natural harbour on its St Mary's side.

Where the woods and occasional tilled fields of the French Shore slope gently to the water, the Neck is narrow – as little as half-a-mile wide in parts. Much of the Neck's distinct character is derived from the tides. But there is also the striking contrast offered by the sheltered inlets along its St Mary's Bay side and, a short walk over the low mountain, the rockier and more savage coast along the Bay of Fundy.

History, here, is written on the land. At Sandy Cove, take the short walk over the hill, past the rock face of Mount Shubel to the Bay of Fundy. Here you will see one of the last functioning herring weirs to be found in all of Nova Scotia. The weir is an arrangement of upright wooden timbers, pile-driven into the seabed and netting strung between. The structure curls like a bass clef as it extends out from the rocky promontory to one side of the beach, toward the battered wharf and fishers' sheds on the other.

The extreme tides on the Bay of Fundy bring the fish in at high water; low tide leaves them stranded and waiting to be fished out. When the tide is out, the Fundy water is shallow and gets a degree or two warmer; the intrepid go for a swim. (The Fundy water is, nevertheless, very cold – one reason that the lobster and scallops are so good.)

At high water, those who remain tend to gather by the large boulder known as Jerome's Rock. This stone is named after a sailor who was reputed to have been found at Sandy Cove – in the 19th century a bustling fishing community – without arms or legs or a tongue. (He was looked after by villagers and survived, but no more was learned about his identity).

Today, Jerome's Rock is a popular place for a barbecue, and is also the place to watch for the seals and whales that follow the herring and the plankton into Fundy. Time your visit right and you will see these greatest of the mammals blow their spume against the fiery and dramatic colours of the sun as it sets over New Brunswick.

Restaurants are scarce on the Neck. But at East Ferry, overlooking the Petite Passage – the narrow channel between the Neck and Long Island – is a small café that serves an excellent Nova Scotian chowder. At Freeport, the village at the other end of the Neck, is Lavina's Catch. This waterside restaurant overlooks the channel and the ferry to Brier Island, where the Nova Scotian-born sailor Joshua Slocum began the world's first single-handed circumnavigation. Whale-watching tours depart from here, and from East Ferry, as they do from Digby.

The boats departing from farther down the Neck have a much shorter trip to make into the Bay of Fundy, and have a whale-sighting rate of almost 100 per cent, but Digby is the handiest place to station yourself for a proper exploration.

The Digby Pines Resort, a short distance out of town, is a wonderfully old-fashioned place, a grand and sprawling former railway hotel built on salubrious grounds. The hotel has Digby's most formal dining room, as well as a small outdoor swimming pool and a spa.

In town, Water Street is the old main thoroughfare that runs along the waterfront and above the Digby wharf. A couple of bed-and-breakfasts are located here, and brave shopkeepers do their bit to stem the advance of out-of-town stores.

The Blue Fin Pottery Shop sells the wares made by its owner, Sarah Haliburton, and by the local textile and ceramic artists she exhibits. The Boardwalk Café offers Digby's best lunch menu. It has a wonderful view of the wharf and its attendant lobster and scallop fishing boats.

And those scallops must be bought, of course. The O'Neil family's Royal Fundy, which is the dominant fishing operation in Digby, keeps a small fish store and kitchen open during the summer as an adjunct to its prosperous wholesale business. Excellent scallop or lobster rolls can be purchased from the store; to be excellent, note, the roll into which mayonnaise and a dozen pan-fried scallops are inserted must be a top-cut white hot-dog bun.

Get the scallops while you can. A massive quarry proposed by an American company threatens the appearance and the delicate ecosystem of the Digby Neck. Last summer, for the first time, Digby's scallops became hard to find because so many were shipped to Japan or directly to the kitchens of exclusive restaurants. But let me tell you, no matter how good these eateries are, no matter how exorbitant the price you pay, there is no way the scallops will smell and taste as fine as they do in Digby, at Lavina's or at Chez Christophe. Some foods must be travelled for.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The best way to reach Digby is either to fly to Halifax, and drive (about two and a half hours); or fly to Saint John, New Brunswick (not "St John's" which is in Newfoundland) and take the three-hour ferry to Digby.

Halifax is served by Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) from Gatwick, Belfast and Glasgow; Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com) from Heathrow; and Fly Thomas Cook (08707 520918; www.flythomascook.com) from Gatwick. Saint John is served by Air Canada Jazz (www.flyjazz.ca) from a range of Canadian airports.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING, EATING & DRINKING THERE

Digby Pines Golf Resort & Spa, Digby (001 902 245 4511; www.signatureresorts.com). B&B from CA$160 (£76).

The Boardwalk Café & Suites, Digby (001 902 245 5497; www.boardwalkcafe.netfirms.com). Suites from CA$110 (£52), room only. The Olde Village Inn, Sandy Cove (001 902 834 2202; www.oldevillageinn.com). Doubles from CA$80 (£38), room only. Chez Christophe Guest House and Restaurant, Grosses Coques, French Shore (001 902 837 5817; www.chezchristophe.ca). B&B from CA$70 (£33). The Cape View Motel & Cottages, Mavillette Beach (001 902 645 2258; www.capeviewmotel.ca). Doubles from CA$102 (£48) room only.

The Bluefin Motel, Meteghan (001 902 645 2251; www.bluefinmotel.ns.ca). Doubles start at CA$69 (£33), room only.

VISITING THERE

The Digby Scallop Days Festival takes place from 9-12 August 2007 (www.digbyscallopdays.com). O'Neil's Royal Fundy Seafood Market, Digby Wharf (001 902 245 6528; www.oneilfisheries.com).

The price of scallops and lobster varies with the market and the season. Typically, they will cost about CA$8 (£3.80) to CA$12 (£5.70) per pound. You want the lobster to be hard-shelled, and you can tell how fresh it is by the liveliness of the creature and the length of its antennae (they shrink in captivity). Petite Passage Whale Watch & Café, 3450 East Ferry (on the hill leading to the ferry to Tiverton; 001 902 834 2226; www.ppww.ca).

MORE INFORMATION

Nova Scotia Tourism: 001 902 425 5781; www.novascotia.com. Visit Canada: 0870 380 0070; www.canada.travel.

Noah Richler is the author of 'This is My Country, What's Yours: A Literary Atlas of Canada', the winner of this year's B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

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