Nova Scotia: A small province that's big on adventure, culture and indulgence
With river rapids, fine wines, fresh seafood and a fascinating history to explore, you can pack a lot in to a trip, says Sarah Barrell
This had better be good. It's 30C and I'm wearing a boiler suit, a life jacket and a pair of battered trainers that, if they have seen better days, those days were a long time ago. As I slide down the muddy banks of Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie River, a tidemark of thick red clay is oozing steadily up my legs. Along with sounding somewhat scatological, brown-water rafting so far lacks the cool factor of its white-water counterpart. But I'm willing to give it a go. The "Shubie" opens on to the Bay of Fundy, home to the world's highest recorded tides which, in about 15 minutes, will funnel a bore wave down the river's narrow channel at about 18 miles an hour.
Shubenacadie in the local First Nation's Mi'kmaq language translates as "place where wild potatoes grow", and as the Zodiac chugs out of the Tidal Bore Rafting Park past brown banks, brown sand bars and brown clay cliffs, high-octane thrills seem a distant promise. Less prosaic is local Mi'kmaq legend, which tells how the river illustrates just how deeply the earth inhales and exhales, twice a day. Our skipper, Amber, is reverent about this tidal respiration. "I love brown water! It's so much more unpredictable than white rapids." Amber hears the rumbling of the wave long before we see it and guns the boat towards the head of the bore, which we bump over like a sleeping policeman. I begin to wonder what all the fuss is about.
Seconds later we plough into the oncoming swell and it's abundantly clear what the fuss is. I'm making much of it, although only after swallowing a face-full of salty water do I realise I'm screaming. Ten feet high chocolate pudding waves are pounding down on the boat's seven passengers, leaving us waist-high in water that threatens to float us overboard. We're drenched, disorientated and grinning like demons. For the next hour, Amber expertly rolls us into the oncoming waves and, having released our inner child, ends the ride at the steep banks of a muddy creek where we belly-slide into the water and chuck handfuls of sludge at one another. The buzz, and the muddy residue, lasts all day but once back on land, amid the serenity of the Annapolis Valley's farms and orchards, I begin to see just how varied Canada's second-smallest province is.
From whale-rich waters and Celtic villages in the northern highlands of Nova Scotia to the vibrant, even edgy, culture of its capital, Halifax, down to the blond sand beaches of the south, this Atlantic province is culturally hard to pin down. Around Fundy Bay, marshland and mudflats recall the Suffolk coast, albeit on a giant New World scale. Inland among the Annapolis Valley's clapboard houses, apple orchards and corn silos, I could be in New England. Indeed, Boston is just a day's drive away and the province often doubles for America's East Coast in movie shoots. Yet in many ways it could not be more Canadian. In the Annapolis town of Windsor, ice hockey was born on a frozen pond behind the country's oldest private school. Quirky sports abound here. Billboard posters flanking the town's maple-shaded pavements advertise a Thanksgiving river boat race, a root vegetable regatta with craft carved out of giant pumpkins.
Pumpkins aren't the only things to thrive in Nova Scotia. On the same latitude as Bordeaux, the province also produces award-winning wines. Most of its vineyards are concentrated in the Annapolis Valley. At Domaine de Grand Pré, a vineyard fêted for wines made from the local acadie grape, I stop for a tasting. "Historically, Nova Scotians are rum drinkers," says vintner Hanspeter Stutz. "It comes from a maritime tradition – all that trade with the Caribbean. When I came here in the 1990s, Canada was known for ice wine, but things are changing fast." I try everything from big reds and a refined sparkling, to award-winning whites such as Tidal Bay and l'Acadie Blanc, the latter perfect with local scallops, according to Hans.
Seafood is something Nova Scotia truly excels at. Just north of wine country, at Hall's Harbour, rolling agricultural landscape gives way to an expanse of blue; sea and sky spiked with fishing boat spinnakers. At the Lobster Pound, I select a wriggling crustacean from a rudimentary tank, which is promptly cooked to order and served on the dockside deck. Before I tuck into the modest half-pounder – the Bay of Fundy lobsters often reach 6lb – Lowell, my waiter, demonstrates how to stroke a lobster to sleep. He wakes the creature to have it crack muscle shells like an overzealous castanet player: dinner and a show. From the terrace of this sunny restaurant life appears pretty laid back. But the job of a fisherman, while potentially lucrative, is still tough.
"Licences for lobster traps don't come cheap: 100 traps cost C$10,000 [£6,666]," says Lowell. "Add fuel and labour ... you have to be out there every minute the weather allows."
In season, a fisherman's family sees very little of them for months on end. Or, as many of the local history books in the Pound's shop attest, they're never seen again. Along with big tides come big storms and treacherous conditions. It was off the coast of Nova Scotia that Titanic went down. The province played a big part in the recovery of the ship's victims, the moving details of which can be uncovered in the museums and graveyards of Halifax. But Nova Scotia's maritime heritage dates back to long before this fated ocean liner set sail. As early as the 17th century, its ports were gateways to the New World.
Twenty minutes east, at Grand Pré I explore the undulating coastline landscaped by French settlers in the 1600s. Then, Nova Scotia was part of Acadia or "Acadie", a region of New France that stretched from modern-day Québec through the Atlantic provinces to Maine. Nova Scotia's Acadians were ingenious agriculturalists, building a vast network of mud-bank dykes to reclaim the saltwater marshes and transform the land from bog to breadbasket. During the Seven Years War, the final battle in a century-long fight between the English and the French for dominance in North America, Acadians were forcibly removed from their promised land by the English. This summer, Grand Pré Historic National Historic site won Unesco World Heritage designation for its significance to Acadian culture.
The lively onsite museum tells the story behind the expulsion of some 10,000 Acadians in the late 1700s, harrowing tales of families separated for a lifetime over something as arbitrary as how many people the English forces could cram on to their ships. In the grounds, visitors gather around a statue of Evangeline, the heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem. This emigration epic tells the tale of young Evangeline going in search of her lost lover, Gabriel. It encouraged a rare sense of identity across disparate Acadian cultures; many had migrated as far south as Louisiana, giving birth to America's Cajun culture (the term "Cajun" a derivation of Acadian).
At Trout Point Lodge, a luxury wilderness retreat in the forests of southern Nova Scotia, I meet a group that made the reverse journey. Daniel Abel, Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret have come from Louisiana to "Acadia" driven by a desire to bridge the two cultures and their cuisines. An organic farmer, cookbook writer and restaurateur, this trio represent three of only a handful of Americans who are members of the French Cheesemakers' Guild. Their commitment to culinary cultural exchange is putting Trout Point Lodge on the map for gourmet tourists. I take a tour of the property's smokehouses where local fish is cured in fragrant spruce. In the vegetable gardens native staples such as blue potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes thrive before being transformed with Cajun spices in the kitchens.
After an indulgent five-course supper we grab torches and head to the river's landing deck to stargaze under the guidance of Michael Holland, Trout Point's resident astronomist and a local astrophysics student. The surrounding Kejimkujik National Park became a Dark Sky Preserve in 2010 and we are treated to a black canopy, pebble-dashed with dense sprays of stars, momentarily lit by the faintest glow of the Aurora Borealis on the horizon. The following morning brings more natural wonders. Set on the confluence of two boulder-strewn rivers, the lodge offers misty dawn swims in an expanse of silky, peat-tinted water. I watch the sun rise over old-growth Atlantic forest before warming up in the outdoor hot tub and barrel sauna.
Later that morning, I make my way deeper into the heart of "Keji", along the narrow, forest-fringed channels of the Mersey River. In a couple of weeks' time, this red maple flood plain will be ablaze with autumn colours. For now I'm content with the forest's greens perfectly reflected in the "Mersey Tea", the same deep tannin-stained waters found at Trout Point. A great blue heron sails up out of the tall grass, hanging above us like a child's kite. "Nova Scotia is a flyway for the great bird migration," says our park guide, Paul Lalonde. The park is home to exotic species such as snowy owls, as well as local ones including black bear, white-tailed deer, beavers and muskrat.
I'm hoping for a sighting of Canada's most elusive mammal, and once we cross the Canso Causeway into Nova Scotia's northern highlands I'm granted just that. The Atlantic almost entirely surrounds this province, but for the narrow isthmus where it joins New Brunswick. It feels nowhere more castaway than Cape Breton. Here place names are Celtic (Scottish immigration dates back to 1622), and vast pods of migrating whales skirt the shore. On the Skyline Trail, one of 26 hiking routes through the boreal forest of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I'm treated to a sighting of moose: mother and calf calling through the trees with a distinctive sound that's part "moo", part old man's cough.
After nearly two decades of travels to Canada, this is my first wild moose sighting. The fact that it's in the scrubland near the car park only adds to my glee; at the end of a three-hour hike, I'd given up hope. But surprise is something I'm coming to expect of Nova Scotia. This is a place where a visit to McDonald's is something of a gourmet experience (the McLobster sandwich is packed with fresh crustacean), and though it's just a five-hour flight from the UK, its landscape could not be more New World-exotic.
I spend my final night in Halifax, head filled with Titanic history brought to life in the superb Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, home to one of the world's largest and finest permanent collections of artefacts from the ship. In the hype surrounding 2012's Titanic centenary, Nova Scotia has become synonymous with the sinking – but for travellers that get beyond the capital, the province offers so much more.
Sarah Barrell travelled with Bridge & Wickers (020-7386 4610; bridgeandwickers.co.uk) which can arrange one-week fly-drive packages to Nova Scotia from £1,695 per person, including return Air Canada flights from Heathrow to Halifax, seven nights’ accommodation and car hire. A two-week fly-drive itinerary costs from £2,580 per person.
Staying and visiting there
Trout Point Lodge (001 902 761 2142; troutpoint.com) has doubles from C$185 (£120), room only. Tidal bore rafting (001 800 5657 238; raftingcanada.ca) costs from C$69 (£45) per person for a two hour trip.
Canada Tourism Commission: uk.canada.travel
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