The place in eastern Canada I really wanted to go on this trip was always Nova Scotia. I have no real idea why this was the case, but I’ve heard it’s beautiful and have never been as far as I know, and in my mind it’s a rugged, forested, rocky place dotted with fishing villages. I was half right. Apologies in advance for a very long post, but so much to share!
By lucky coincidence, some family friends were on vacation in Cape Breton, NS, is an island the northern tip of the province and partially comprised of the Cape Breton Highlands national park. They were incredibly gracious and invited me to stay with them for a few days, fed me, let me impose on multiple dinner parties, and do laundry. Amazing travel break with very interesting people. I got to stay in the recently completed tiny house of a neighbor who had already left for winter, so that was also just a super bonus. I love seeing how other people make use of small spaces so getting to check out one in this setting was pretty special. Having the chance to spend time with local people, thanks to Carole’s network, was fantastic, as well. My glimpse into national and local Canadian elections, the Canadian and ex-pat views on the US political mess, and welcoming attitudes of these folks was welcome.
It was rather rainy and dreary my first day in the area, which was not ideal for a place I wanted to explore every inch of park, but just a bump in the road really. I took off to a trail not far from Carole’s within the park which my hosts had recommended as having some interesting plants and views. I was not disappointed. The Jack Pine trail where I started offered nice tree cover which helped with the steady rainfall, and offered ferns, pines, and brooks at every turn. The path had helpful informational signage along the way which explained that these Jack Pines can only grow in certain conditions- their cones only open with intense heat, most often from a fire. This patch of pines are the result of a forest fire some time back.
I keep waiting for the day when you’ll be able to record smells because this would be a prime candidate. My senses were on overload here… the smells of the tannin-infused streams, decomposing leaves and logs, and wonderful pine needles gave way to the salty sea air when I approached the coastline. The sounds of calling birds, a lone toad, chattering squirrels, and dripping rain, and later the crashing waves on the rocky shore. The cold wind and wet branches and puddles making me snuggle into my gloves. At one point I found myself narrating aloud, partially as a warning on this misty morning to any bears, coyotes, or moose which call the park home (of which I saw none, but a few traces), and partially just to feel like I was processing this rich experience fully.
Eventually the Jack Pine trail met up with the coastal trail, which was partially closed but I may have taken a peek anyway. Even on the non-closed portion parts of the path were pure puddle, but luckily the rain had slowed to a drizzle and I could enjoy the views without my hood narrowing my vision. Hooray! Upon one outcropping next to a waterfall back toward the trailhead someone had places a lone Adirondack chair, which I imagine is well used in this lovely spot on drier days.
Now that the rain had stopped, I headed to a second trail on a small peninsula, which offered beautiful views but was full of people due to its location close to the Keltic Lodge compound. I’ll take the seclusion any day.
The next day was beautiful and sunny, and I joined Holly and Osamu on a drive around the Cabot Trail. This loop road around Cape Breton weaves in and out of the park land and has numerous beautiful overlooks, hits any small towns, and passes many great trails. We drove almost the entire loop aside from one small section which, due to my map reading, we skipped in favor of taking this bizarre little ferry- it takes you maybe 100 feet (don’t trust me on this, I have a terrible measurement estimation sense) over a small river. I guess they don’t have a bridge because cruise ships come through. It seems crazy, but here we are.
A drive with horticulturists is a whole different and fascinating experience. We stopped on roadsides to look at and identify plants, taste apples on trees here and there, and ponder why one variety of tree was prevalent on one side of the island while nowhere to be found on the other. I wish I knew enough to glean such insights from a scenic drive or a walk in the woods. #plantgoals. The foliage across the island, according to the locals, seems to have been affected by the hurricane that came through not long ago, and unseasonably cold weather has lingered in the aftermath, too. Thanks a lot, weather.
The visual impact from one side of the island to the other was dramatic. The eastern side where we were staying was full of pines, jagged rocky coast, and white cabins peeking out from the trees. The western side was far more open, with farmland, fishing towns, and colorful houses with absolutely zero landscaping (as Osamu aptly put it, “shitscape”) due to the high winds on this side. This open side retained more of the French heritage, while the other more Scottish.
After imposing for too long on these generous souls I made my way southwest. I stopped off at the Burntcoat Head lighthouse on this side of the Bay of Fundy in the Minas Basin, which experiences some of the largest tidal change (the largest on Earth in certain times of year and conditions), and it was illustrated here for sure. At low tide you can walk to the island across the way and signage warns to be back at the stairs by a certain time each day as the tide comes in. Hard to imagine potentially stepping on clams out there. These formations are known as ‘flowerpots’ since at low tide they resemble a clay pot with trees growing. Love it.
I was going to spend the night nearby at a beach, but the intense winds were too much and were rocking my little van too much for sleep so I journeyed on into the night across to Peggy’s Cove. I didn’t really get a sense of this unique place until morning, but the whole small fishing village is basically built atop granite boulders carved from glaciers and tides. Pretty amazing in daylight, but spectacular at sunrise.
I would have loved to stick around Peggy’s Cove, but desire to find an open bathroom led me away and to the town of Lunenburg, a UNESCO heritage site considered a prime example of a planned British settlement. Or so says my guidebook. This town was full of colorful buildings and interesting architecture. There’s some old ship they were pushing hard for tourism, but that’s not so much my deal. It was a peaceful spot, at least before 10am.
Not far out of town I came across another gem, the town of Mahone Bay, or as I shall refer to it forever in my mind, the Stars Hollow of Nova Scotia. I was just driving through but was stopped in my tracks by the scarecrow festival, and had to park and explore this place. Each shop and most homes along the main streets had displayed scarecrows with hilarious themes. I had some wonderful coffee at this shop next to a creek with ridiculous signage inside, got some provisions at a shop with baked good smells luring me in, and immediately wanted to buy a place here and be part of this community. I’m sure this is the tourist industry at its best and to visit in winter would be a different story, but seriously, if anyone wants to go in on a cottage here call me asap.
Onward to Halifax, which is the capital city of the province. Like most cities, there were some interesting sights but less charm than the smaller communities. I stopped off at a lovely public garden, wandered the waterfront, trekked up the citadel hill (but did not pay to go in), and hit the road again. I had a ridiculous side trip in my sights.
Did I drive an hour out of my way over a terrible bumpy dirt road just to visit a town with a hilarious name? Yes, obviously I did. The town of Pugwash seemed to consist of little more than a few boat launches, a laundromat, homes with tacky christmas lights, and an assortment of shops and community buildings all closed and darkened at 6pm. I spent my drive around imaging a pug getting a bath, and laughing uncontrollably at the memory of this sign in a hostel bathroom in Australia that Laura and I saw and I may have brought up every 20 minutes in a fit of giggles much to her displeasure. I also got the bonus on this side trip of going through the town of Oxford, which proudly exclaimed that it is the wild blueberry capital of Canada. Congratulations, Oxford. Well done!
Back south I went towards the US border, and after a fail at trying to see the reversing falls (tide table fail) did another nice picnic to eat stuff I can’t bring back across the border. Until next time, Canada!