Robert Richardson has the place to himself in Nova Scotia
Talking to people in the weeks before we left, I began to feel we were about to take a holiday in Terra Incognita. Everyone knew Canada, but Nova Scotia appeared as familiar as downtown Whitehaven. And the figures prove it; out of more than a million recorded tourists to the province in 1994, a mere 7,500 flew in from the UK.

Clipped like a giant number seven on the edge of New Brunswick, with Cape Breton island sprawling to the north-east, Nova Scotia is well worth discovering. It is spacious - some 900,000 people in a land mass half the size of England - jewelled by silver and cobalt lakes, drenched with trees and edged by a wondrous coastline. Halifax, its clean, compact capital (now boasting a casino) has the world's second largest natural harbour. No river flows into it, but the Atlantic surges in between two peninsulas that pinch it to the width of a short ferry crossing. It is fascinating by day, magnificent by night.

We took a two-hour harbour trip, good value at $16 each, but dodge the tourist trap shop by the landing stage; you can get things more cheaply within a short walk. The boat first takes you near the scene of The Disaster, on which you can buy a whole book but an outline will suffice.

In December 1917, the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, collided with a Norwegian vessel in The Narrows and 2,500 tons of high explosives erupted into death and statistics in the biggest man-made explosion before Los Alamos. The Mont Blanc's five-ton anchor landed two and a half miles away, a square mile of Halifax was obliterated, more than 2,000 people died, 1,600 buildings were destroyed and 12,000 damaged, and church bells all over the province were set clanging by a blast that hurled a 12,000ft column of water and smoke into the air. Hours later, the captain of a ship 60 miles out in the Atlantic thought he'd struck a mine when the tidal wave reached them.

History and prosperity now line the waterfront. The city that was rebuilt immediately after the explosion is preserved in what are called the Historic Properties, handsome older buildings visible between well-proportioned modern office blocks.

We regarded one of the two graceful suspension bridges spanning the harbour with caution. It was cursed by the local Micmac Indian chief when his daughter used it to meet her English soldier lover on the other side. It would fall three times, he threatened, once in storm, once in silence and once in death. A storm duly wrecked the first bridge and its replacement silently and inexplicably collapsed in the night; when they opened the third version, they prudently asked the chief's descendant to lift the curse.

Travelling out of Halifax you are almost overwhelmed by trees. There are more trees in Nova Scotia than you can shake a stick at, but, unlike Old Scotland, you are not endlessly confronted byconifers. Red and sugar maple, birch, aspen, ash and hornbeam are among the hardwoods mixed with spruce, pine, hemlock, balsam fir and cedar, that cloak the hills and mountains. What appears to be the occasional brick house is only a decoration over the standard clapboard or shingle wooden structure, painted in soft greens, blues and whites, all impeccably clean. With so few people and so much land, everyone has large gardens, although frequently vicious winters and a comparatively short growing season restrict the choice of shrubs and perennials.

The spot everyone has to see is Peggy's Cove, 25 miles west of Halifax. It was shrouded in sea mist the day we went, romantic and faintly eerie, but there was not much of a view.

On the map, there appears to be an endless chain of villages running alongside the sea; in fact they don't even class as hamlets, just handfuls of houses that have been given a name. Bayswater, where we enjoyed a splendid barbecue, bears no resemblance whatever to its noisome London counterpart.

You collect more mental snapshots than can be photographed. South of Peggy's Cove, The Ovens are well worth a visit. These dramatic caves are carved deep into dark shale rocks which you can view from the sea in what appears from the safety of land to be a very small boat. Stop on the way at Lunenburg, with its bright houses and glittering air. Wolfville, near the west coast, is an elegant university town, a good base from which to explore the coastline around the Bay of Fundy. Here the world's highest tides rise and fall more than 40 feet as 3,000 miles of Atlantic muscle force water into the narrowing Minas Basin.

Best of all, we thought, was a place the brochures don't mention. Fisherman's Reserve is near Halifax, a few miles along the coast road west of Dartmouth. It's not marked on the maps, but watch for the sign down to a lonely group of silent, decaying wooden huts and an atmosphere Hitchcock would have killed for. The only life we saw was feral cats; chilling or what?

Grand Pre, near Wolfville, is a must for visitors. Here there is a national history park and memorial to the Acadian French who were ruthlessly driven out by the English during the colonial struggle for Canada. Their expulsion led to the legend of Evangeline, whose husband Gabriel was among the menfolk ordered out on the day they married. She spent the rest of her life wandering in search of him until (this is legend, after all) she finally found him years later on his deathbed and promptly died herself.

For the moment you'll find you have the place more or less to yourself. But the trick may be to get to Nova Scotia before everyone else does, book now for a late spring or summer visit as the province is poised to sell itself to the Brits.

When to go

Nova Scotia is at its best between May and September. Book now for spring and summer holidays

How to get there

The only airline with regular services between the UK and Nova Scotia is Air Canada (0990 247226), which operates five flights each week between Heathrow and Halifax. The fares are relatively high given the short distance, and are currently around pounds 350 including tax.

How to get around

Public transport is poor, with only one train or a couple of buses linking the main towns and cities. Most visitors end up hiring a car, which can be done in advance with the leading multinational car rental companies.

Who to ask

Visit Canada Centre, 62-65 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DY (0181-875 1523).